[Originally published in Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibition publication Sit(e)ings: Trajectories for a Future]
“Incredible…one can actually order ‘a cup of coffee’ here without having to specify in greater detail the particular brewing method, the type of coffee bean, the darkness of the roast, or even the flavour. It’s even served in a ceramic cup!” (2)
Winnipeg is the ‘ordinary Canadian’ of cities. Not many other Canadian cities can lay claim to being situated right in the middle of the Trans Canada Highway; nor are many situated on land as flat and undramatic as the Red River floodplain. How many other Canadian cities are as averagely-sized — let alone bilingual? Or able to consistently produce the most reliable test-market data on the viability of new consumer products before they are launched in the rest of the country, a theory that rests on the underlying principle that if Winnipeggers will buy it, then anyone will? (3) Hard-working and frugal, socially progressive and fiscally conservative, Winnipeg is the urban equivalent of the mythical ‘ordinary Canadian’ who is married, has two-point-three children and a house in the suburbs. (4)
This is not a bad thing, though. Compared with the rest of the western world, in which the run-of-the-mill is increasingly displaced by specialized premium brands, designer labels and authentic reproductions, being squarely in the middle-of-the-road is precisely what makes Winnipeg unique and interesting, if not exotic. It is also, of course, what makes this city quintessentially Canadian. Like a big Value Village thrift store, Winnipeg is the sort of place where the generic and the naturalized that was never even known to have been forgotten can be suddenly and happily rediscovered, and all for a bargain.
But ordinariness is not just the stuff of savvy antique collectors. It is an increasingly current preoccupation in the discourse of contemporary art as well. As the grand narratives that not-so-long-ago purported to tell everyone’s story whither, the idea of art as compensation for the reality that surrounds us becomes displaced by an art that addresses this reality instead. The trivial and the ordinary are therefore becoming increasingly the central subject of art, displacing the emphasis on the unique, the heroic, the individual, and the autobiographical. With its high standards of mediocrity and its location in the middle of the North American continent, (5) Winnipeg is optimally positioned to exploit this growing area of interest, a situation that, if seized, could propel it into the next global art centre, the logical next-step in the westward progression after Paris and New York.
Winnipeg’s artists are already fully aware of this situation, exploring the mundane to its fullest, including its crass and shitty aspects. (6) The city offers artists and other researchers of the ‘aesthetics of the commonplace’ excellent field conditions in which to observe normality. (7) The city’s physical mediocrity is consistent in its quality, and its citizens appear to be very relaxed and unself-conscious about it, even during media occasions such as the Pan Am Games. Indeed, contemporary Winnipeg places greater value on the quality of its daily life than on that of its rare public spectacles: even the architecture of the new food court at St. Vital Mall, for example, is far more impressive than the Investor’s Group Athletics Facility completed recently for the Pan Am Games at the University of Manitoba, a campus whose collection of fine historical and modernist buildings would be complemented far more attentively if it were located elsewhere. Only in contemporary Winnipeg would shopping and other daily activities be accorded greater architectural monumentality than education and sport, the twin pillars that have traditionally stood for the pursuit of excellence. (8)
The disdain for elitism, excellence and international prestige in favour of a somewhat higher quality of daily life for all is of course not unique to Winnipeg, but is by-and-large a Canadian characteristic that, like this country’s extreme weather, happens to be more pronounced in this region. The result is that artists, who in many other cities must struggle to eat, are themselves able to enjoy a better quality of life. It is not uncommon for a Winnipeg artist to actually live in a house and work downtown, a significant step up from having to live in a studio.
Indeed, it is precisely its housing affordability that has helped to spare Winnipeg, to date, from the latest development craze, that of the so-called ‘artist’s live-work studio’. The city has been spared from many other planning and development trends as well, most notably the urban renewal craze of the 1960s as well as its subsequent backlash, the movement to turn historical buildings into ‘ye olde’ heritage. For a city with so much exquisite historical architecture, it is very remarkable how little of it has been commercially redeveloped into artist’s live-work studios or boutiques. What this means, of course, is that Winnipeg’s warehouse buildings are actually used by artists, the very people who would ironically be driven out if such development were to take place. (9)
Winnipeg can be seen, then, as a city that is genuinely ‘artist friendly’. This should, theoretically, fare well for the city in the new post-industrial economy of ideas, images and visual culture. After having occupied the sidelines for so long, Winnipeg’s day could still come thanks, in the end, to its persistence in striving to be ordinary. If the city does become the next global art centre, it will, of course, have to be careful not to spoil the very quality that made it great. But who would ever have thought that mediocrity could possibly become a virtue in the new world order?
- The word ‘situation’ refers, interestingly, to both a geographical location (site) as well as to a “condition as modified or determined by surroundings or attendant circumstances” (OED). “Sit(E)ings: Trajectories for a Future,” as an exhibition situated in Winnipeg, provides itself a site for this city’s art. I will therefore speculate on the city as a present and future urban situation that the works in the exhibition may or may not have in common. In any case, specific references to works in the exhibition are made in these notes.
- An initial personal observation upon arriving for the first time in Winnipeg from LatteLand Vancouver in 1997.
- Jean Klimack’s installation, in which different kinds of chewing gum were mailed out to different people, chewed, returned and finally displayed in a typological matrix is itself the result of a form of ‘market-research’ into the nuances and subtle variations between different brands of the same generic product.
- Harry Symon’s on-going work on the Constitution and Paul Butler’s collages using advertisement both comment on the social construction of the ‘ordinary Canadian’: the former engages in the slippery arena of mass-opinion, while the latter reminds us that mass-opinion is fluid and extensively shaped by corporate interests through advertising.
- Lori Rogers’s complex and poetic video-installation piece and Jake Moore’s rooftop installation are both representations of a diminishing nature. Rogers’s work is abstract and employs a technological medium, while Moore’s is more figurative and craft-based.
- This strategy is most clearly deployed in the collage work of Jacek Kosciuk, which combines detritus such as recycled KFC cartons with his own imagery, as well as the self-portraits by Christine Kirouac, which reference the glossy PhotoShop™-improved photographs of sports and entertainment celebrities in the weekly media.
- As Marcel Dzama’s work points out, however, normalcy is never what it seems. His quirky, disturbing world could be a comic-book variation of a David Lynch movie. Yet like all comics and science fiction, they give insight into human nature in general.
- Blair Marten’s détournements of sports accessories and hand tools, as well as Kevin Waugh’s sofa-legs-cum-tongue can be seen as humorous institutional critiques with a tactile, haptic touch. Their disdain for the overly verbose discourse of art institutions is especially present in their own artist’s statements.
- Joel Garreau, in his book Edge Cities, notes that suburban enclaves with names like “Cedar Grove” are often named after species of animals or plants that have been eradicated by the very construction of those enclaves. The commercial development of ‘artist live/work studios,’ which often forces artists to move to other areas, proves that this theory applies equally to humans.