The Cana­dian land­scape, de­mys­ti­fied

Art, maps, and me­dia sub­vert per­cep­tions of Canada’s land­scape

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Sevrenne Sheppard Cul­ture Writer The ex­hibit runs un­til April 9, with free ad­mis­sion for stu­dents. Visit the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Ar­chi­tec­ture’s web­site for more in­for­ma­tion:­en­dar?event=39571.

When we think about the Cana­dian land­scape, we might picture a post­card im­age of sparkling, clear blue lakes, or the moss- cloaked wild­ness of a tem­per­ate rain­for­est. The re­al­ity, how­ever, is some­thing all too dif­fer­ent. “It’s All Hap­pen­ing So Fast: A Counter-his­tory of the Mod­ern Cana­dian En­vi­ron­ment,” at the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Ar­chi­tec­ture, seeks to com­pli­cate these ro­man­ti­cized images.

The ex­hibit fea­tures a di­verse col­lec­tion of visual work, in­stal­la­tions, and ma­te­ri­als from nu­mer­ous artists, ar­chives, mu­se­ums, and gal­leries. In an at­tempt to up­root com­mon as­sump­tions about the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, this ex­hibit ex­plores the ef­fects of wide­spread pol­lu­tion, nu­clear con­tam­i­na­tion, over­stressed fish­eries and forests, and the ex­ploita­tion of In­dige­nous lands, over the past five decades. “It’s All Hap­pen­ing So Fast” ques­tions the gap be­tween the ‘real’ and ‘imag­ined’ ver­sions of Canada’s en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory, and demon­strates that a more bal­anced view lies in the space be­tween.

The ex­hibit opens with Van­cou­ver-based artist Dou­glas Cou­p­land’s Slo­gans for the 21st Cen­tury, a wall of over a dozen vividly colour­ful but dis­qui­et­ing mes­sages: “Lonely Iso­lated Peo­ple Con­sume More,” one picture de­clares. “The In­ter­net Makes En­vi­ron­men­tal Degra­da­tion Tol­er­a­ble,” states an­other. Un­like the rest of the ex­hibit, Cou­p­land’s state­ments are not part of a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion – they feel cur­rent, or at least from a not-so­far- off fu­ture. Slo­gans is un­set­tling be­cause it fore­shad­ows the near and un­avoid­able con­se­quences of en­vi­ron­men­tal reck­less­ness, and con­tex­tu­al­izes the ex­hibit’s ex­plo­ration of the rift be­tween eco­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in a bold and vis­ceral way.

Work­ing through the ex­hibit, the viewer gets the per­sis­tent sense that, over the past five decades, both ev­ery­thing and noth­ing has changed. One area in­vites visi­tors to sit in a room sur­rounded by photographs and ephemera from Deep River, a planned com­mu­nity near the nu­clear in­dus­try of Chalk River in South­ern On­tario. A friend and I flipped through a sixty-year-old is­sue of Ma­clean’s, mar­vel­ling over ads ac­claim­ing the use of in­dus­trial prod­ucts like nickel and syn­thetic petro­chem­i­cals. The ads and ar­ti­cles high­lighted the stark con­trast be­tween daily life then and now. At the same time, we were sur­rounded by dozens of CBC me­dia clips that could just as well have been broad­cast to­day. These were images of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists op­pos­ing pol­lu­tion, In­dige­nous peo­ples re­sist­ing the degra­da­tion of their sov­er­eign lands, and ex­perts warn­ing about the ef­fects of the in­dus­try on the health and well-be­ing of hu­man and an­i­mal com­mu­ni­ties.

The on­go­ing his­tory of Canada’s en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion in the name of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment has al­ways been at odds with na­tion­al­ist images of pris­tine wilder­ness: from the glo­ri­ous Rocky Moun­tains to the windswept At­lantic coast. The ex­hi­bi­tion il­lu­mi­nates the dis­crep­ancy be­tween this imag­i­nary of Canada and the re­al­ity of our en­vi­ron­men­tal record. The story of such a po­lar re­la­tion­ship, told here through di­verse and over­lap­ping mul­ti­ple, in­ter­sect­ing voices and me­dia medi­ums, evokes ques­tions of com­pet­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests, le­gal frame­works, cul­tural ideals, the resur­gence of In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, and en­vi­ron­men­talisms. Nev­er­the­less, the ex­hi­bi­tion could have fur­ther em­pha­sized the story of how this land and its re­sources were vi­o­lently ap­pro­pri­ated from In­dige­nous peo­ples in or­der to form Canada in the first place.

De­spite this lack of ac­knowl­edge­ment, the ex­hibit suc­cess­fully ac­com­plishes the am­bi­tious goal of en­gag­ing visi­tors in a broad con­sid­er­a­tion of our com­mon as­sump­tions and the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives. It fur­ther high­lights the fact that these as­sump­tions are wo­ven into the ways we col­lec­tively live on this land, and in­vites us to imag­ine a sus­tain­able and eth­i­cal way for­ward. As a call to ac­tion, “It All Hap­pened So Fast” catches visi­tors be­tween the wry­ness of Cou­p­land’s tech­no­log­i­cal tru­isms and the somber fa­mil­iar­ity of fifty years’ worth of en­vi­ron­men­tal calamity. Ex­pos­ing the gap be­tween an imag­i­nary pris­tine nature and a de­pleted en­vi­ron­ment, the ex­hibit calls for im­me­di­ate col­lec­tive ac­tion. It sug­gests that cli­mate cri­sis re­quires so­lu­tions cat­alyzed by cul­tural shifts and na­tion-wide self-re­flec­tion.

“It’s All Hap­pen­ing So Fast” asks us the weighty ques­tions. Whom is the en­vi­ron­ment for? Are we a part of our en­vi­ron­ment, or do land and re­sources ex­ist specif­i­cally for our con­sump­tion? The ex­hibit pro­vides the counter-hege­monic con­text we need to an­swer these ques­tions as in­formed, en­gaged cit­i­zens. The way for­ward might not be as short and quick as the way here, but this ex­hibit demon­strates that we are start­ing to move in the right di­rec­tion. Through mul­ti­ple me­dia, per­spec­tives, and sto­ries, visi­tors are in­spired to chal­lenge as­sump­tions and see our di­verse land­scapes in a way that is sel­dom por­trayed, and ul­ti­mately, to take part in trans­form­ing the cur­rent nar­ra­tive.

Cour­tesy of Cana­dian Cen­tre for Ar­chi­tec­ture

Com­pli­cat­ing our un­der­stand­ing of Cana­dian maps.

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