May 18, 2020

Where is Clarington?

After the pandemic, it may be that visual art exhibitions no longer principally take place in urban centers.

To get to the Visual Art Center of Clarington, for example, take the 401 past Ajax, Whitby and Oshawa. Continue all the way to Bowmanville. Make a left.

At present, the Visual Art Center of Clarington is closed, until further notice. All planned activities and exhibitions are canceled or postponed, except for the digital incarnation of an art piece by Cole Swanson titled The Hissing Folly.

Documentation from the phragmites harvest at Thickson’s Woods Land Trust, 2019. Photo by Jamie McMillan

An online video beautifully documents the construction of the mysterious “Hissing Folly.” (A “folly,” in architecture, by the way, is defined as “a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.”) Cole Swanson’s folly, built within the gallery space, is made of phragmites thatched over a wooden frame.

Phragmites are an invasive species. They came to Ontario from somewhere in Europe in the 1920s. They are huge plants, over five meters tall, which form dense thickets of vegetation, crowding out native species such as wild rice, cattails, and native wetland orchids. Cole Swanson partnered with Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority to collect and remove the phragmites from the Thickson’s Woods Land Trust of Durham Region in an operation involving chain saws.

The video, which shows the harvesting of the towering reeds, features a lovely sighing, rustling sound which emanates from the phragmites as the breeze whistles through them. That same hissing sound is reproduced on speakers within the installation.

The completed folly, pictured below, has a serene simplicity and attests to the long history of thatched structures. They go back 5000 years.

The Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Interior of the Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Phragmites are a disaster for Ontario’s wetlands and Cole Swanson seems to find this a fitting metaphor for the whole shit show of colonialism as he gamely wades into a “dense thicket” of ideologies. I really like this artist’s confidence! He does not pretend to have a solution to problems caused by invasive species in Ontario’s wetlands or by “the colonial, consumer, and cultural systems” which conveyed them here. He spends his energy collaborating with various stakeholders in the region and stirring things up to create this thought provoking art piece.

Covering the crops… In 1880’s Sussex, England. Photo from Thatching

Devil’s Colony

I happened to see another art piece by Cole Swanson, at Hamilton Artists Inc., last year. The Devil’s Colony is described by the artist as a “cross-disciplinary exhibition that examines the sociocultural, material, and scientific relationships between humans and an often-reviled colonial species, double-crested cormorants.”

Prior to being enlightened by Cole Swanson’s art piece I was totally down for reviling these appalling birds. For example, on a sultry summer afternoon last August we rented a kayak and paddled down the Humber river. At one point, we entered gang territory, and by this I mean we were surrounded by thousands of cormorants, perched on dead trees — trees they killed! — on either side of the river. They literally growled, in menacing unity, as we rushed by.

Photo courtesy of

What is with these birds?

In his show in Hamilton, Cole Swanson replicated a bird blind. He also showed films of the huge numbers of double-crested cormorants nesting in Tommy Thompson park, on Leslie spit. For this exhibition he worked with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and under the mentorship of an environmental biologist from York University. I really like the way this artist works with scientists to explore the way various plant and animal species, including humans, continually alter the natural world. Cole Swanson seems to be able to do this without judgement or didactic scolding.

The cormorants make bulky nests full of sticks and other materials, like rope, deflated balloons, fishnets, plastic debris, parts of dead birds (yes). Cormorants love the colour blue (like me) and Cole Swanson documented the blue festooned nests of the Devil birds, as part of his exhibition in Hamilton.

Nest Samples is a photographic archive of nests containing human-made waste products selected by the cormorants at Leslie Spit. They evince the material and colour preferences of the birds while providing a glimpse into the after-life of commonplace materials. – Cole Swanson
The Blind is an installation artwork that recreates the scientific observation blind within which environmental researchers are able to observe the world’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants at Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park. – by Cole Swanson

Cormorant populations suffered greatly from exposure to DDT in the 20th century and their numbers were decimated. Over the last few decades the birds have made a comeback. So much so that they are now viewed as destructive to sport fishing stocks. Some scientists, however, insist the birds actually protect native fish stocks, since they feed on invasive fish species whose presence is harmful to human interest. People loath these creatures, so much so, that they are now threatened by massive culling efforts.

Photo by Peter Wallack, from Great Lakes Echo

The show in Hamilton included photos, video and a life-size sculptural representation of a bizarre creature formed from non-biodegradable materials gathered by the cormorants.

Spit Spectre (sculpture), human and cormorant-foraged materials, textiles, PVC, and earth by Cole Swanson

What is it about this sculpture that makes me uneasy? Oh yeah…

May 6, 2020

Is the global pandemic a good time to restart this blog?

Random wandering through art galleries and museums in real-life is only a memory now, since Covid-19 brought down the hammer. Previously– before the global pandemic –I had not bothered with the digital realm as a primary source for looking at art. I saw it as a secondary, less interesting, impoverished facsimile of the real thing, and, as a vast back-up archive for research, speculation, discussion and documentation. And now? Digital art is ascendant, the only game in town, so I’m looking at it.

Artists, galleries and art institutions are all trying to come up with ways to maintain their audience, offer up a virtual version of themselves for consumption, and survive. What seems to work, in the digital sphere, not surprisingly, is work that is originally made using the right tools: digital tools.


Conversely, trying to contort a real-life exhibition into a digital show, is often disappointing. For example, the various stake-holders in the highly anticipated (all Judd, all the time) show of Donald Judd’s work, which opened on March 11 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and is scheduled to run through this summer in New York, are trying to come up with some way of realizing their labor. The Judd exhibition involved 12 years of planning and negotiations and was to occur not just at MOMA, but also at the Judd Foundation, the DIA Foundation and several of the biggest galleries in the city. There was a lot of excitement about seeing so many extraordinary objects by Donald Judd together, for once!

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1991. Enameled
aluminum. 59” x 24’ 7 14” x 65” (150 x 750
x 165 cm). The Museum of Modern Art,
New York.

Now, with the galleries closed, the MOMA website invites visitors to view photos of the work, listen to talks about the work, see a video of the curator of the show as she walks us through it, hear interviews with Judd’s children, and, so on and so forth. But none of that is particularly interesting, compared to what it would have been like to see the show.

Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing

Joshua Tree and All of Everything by Brad Necyk. Created with Gary James Joynes

I stumbled across the ARTsPLACE Gallery Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing through the Akimbo listing service.

ARTsPLACE is a gallery and arts center, operated by the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council. It is located in Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia, a town with a current population of 491. The town was originally founded (as Port Royal) in 1605, by Samuel de Champlain, and it has had a turbulent history, fraught with assaults, sieges and expulsions.

The artist, Brad Necyk, is from Alberta. He looks just like any guy you might see loading up his SUV with groceries in the Costco parking lot; kids in the back seat, wife scrolling through her phone. A few minutes into a conversation with Brad Necyk, however, would probably dispel those first impression notions of suburban normalcy. This is a man with very dark preoccupations, a precarious grip on his own mental health, and a past of endured pain, illness and trauma that is truly shocking.

Alberta #3, video by Brad Necyk

The first video I watched was Alberta #3.

Details about his multiple surgeries, recollections of a madness experience “coarse and twisted,” references to the genetic matter nested within him and to his awareness of genetic strands stretching across a geologic time scale, reflections on illness as a “very ancient space we all inhabit”, yearnings for a connection to grandparents and great grandparents as a way to understand himself and his children, fears around his bi-polar diagnosis and the statistical probability that he will suicide, painful scenes from his marriage, and many other intense topics, are recounted with a flat, perfunctory Alberta delivery.

I found this work quite riveting, fearless and very original, and I spent some time watching this video and others in the exhibition.

The early work of Brad Necyk — like Alberta #3 — is so raw and autobiographical that it was a relief to watch something very recent and completely different. I had the feeling that Brad Necyk could not take working with all that intensity. He needed a respite and so he moved into meditation. I really like looking at his waterfall pieces. They are just as powerful and mesmerizing as the earlier work but in a different way.

Jewels by Brad Necyk

There are so many fascinating ideas in this show. The idea of genetic lineage, for example, really got to me and seemed to dovetail into an event that occurred a few months ago. I happened to chat with someone at an event whose favourite pastime is ancestry tracing. I gave her a few facts about my Manitoba family and the next day she sent me the photo below. The little girl in the center is apparently my grandmother, Flora Taylor. She stands beside her father, John “Johnny Boy” Taylor and the rest of the family is arrayed around her. Is it just me or does “Johnny Boy” look more than a little bit like Freddy Mercury…?

Cluster XI Digital Edition

The 11th Cluster New Music and Arts Festival, usually held in Winnipeg in late February/early March, was cancelled shortly after the pandemic struck. But then, the organizers saw the writing on the wall, pulled themselves together and decided to push on. This year’s Cluster was resurrected and opened on May 1st as the Cluster XI Digital Edition.

(Full disclosure: I participated in Cluster X and my nephew, Eliot Britton, is one of the curators. Also, I love the vibe of being in Winnipeg in February; it is extreme in so many ways.)

Although I do miss the reality of Winnipeg and actually being there, I think this Cluster digital edition is definitely a success. Cluster excels at getting the mix of art works exactly right, in real-life and digitally. It is never too slick , there is a feeling of newness, experimentation and “becoming”and there are always at least a few stunning events.

The piece called Quigital, for example, put together by a collective of artists known as Made by Mandate, is so weird that it took me a while to realize it was not an advertisement for an unlikely Cluster sponsor.

Quigital Intro Video with Susan Solomon

The Quigital call tree, just one component of this sprawling art work, is really masterful. That familiar feeling that we are endlessly mined for our thoughts and opinions by corporate interests with an earnest offer of “points”, goes off-the-rails absurdist in the call tree. (Somehow, hearing the news today about the cancellation of the Sidewalk Labs project, which involved creating a futuristic data-gathering city on the Toronto Waterfront, relates to the Quigital call tree. Data mining hits a wall! )

I spent nearly an hour listening to “The Joy Channel”, a collaboration between sound artists Emmanuel Madan and Anna Friz. The whole Mad Max-y type narrative is a little bit cliched at this point, as per below:

In the year 2146, after nearly 150 years of business as usual (government corruption and privatization, toxic resource extraction and industrial practices, bad weather, civil uprising, earthquakes and pandemic), approximately 40 million people remain in New North America.

Anna Friz describing the “Joy Channel”

But the sound is great. Particularly when it becomes entirely abstract, the dialogue fades out and the listener is left with sheets of ambient, shimmery sound, switching and clicks and soft hisses to get lost in.

There are some straight-up musical groups like Slow Spirit in the Cluster mix. “Sound baths”, “High-rising melodic arcs”, “frolicking” and “defiant” are some of the words and phrases on the Cluster site used to describe the gorgeous Slow Spirit sound. On their Facebook page the band members list their influences: Joni Mitchell, Land Of Talk, Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, Feist, Parquet Courts, Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Wilco, Patrick Watson, Deerhunter, Lhasa, Big Thief, Neko Case, Aidan Knight, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Plants and Animals, Elliott Smith, Stevie Wonder.

Photo of Slow Spirit band members

The manipulated wildlife sounds by Brendon Ehinger are based on a banged-up cassette tape found in Riding Mountain park, South Asian hip hop by Shamik is a joyful escape from the dreary pandemic world; Bad Wave achieves emotional depth in a cross-country duet of piano and voice, and there is much more to peruse in the Cluster XI Digital Edition, during its run until the 31st of May, including images by Luke Nickel, which through Machine Learning software, compress ten years of pictures from Cluster Festivals past.

3ladies-blur by Luke Nickel