Exhibit offers grounded take on impact of Canadian mining
Sponsoring entry in prestigious show boosts Alberta’s international profile
“When you build a building, you have to dig a hole somewhere,” says Christopher Alton.
The 34-year-old urban planner, who grew up in St. Albert and attended Paul Kane High School before taking a master’s degree in design studies at Harvard, is the lead researcher and project manager for EXTRACTION. The multimedia project won a Canada Council competition this December to become Canada’s entry to the world’s most prestigious architecture and design event, the 2016 Venice Biennale in Architecture. The last such event, in 2014, drew almost 230,000 visitors.
But when people arrive at Venice’s famous garden, Giardini della Biennale, for the opening this Saturday, they won’t find the Canadian exhibit inside the Canadian pavilion. And they may not find anything they recognize as architecture.
Outside, in the middle of the park, they’ll find a pile of 50 tonnes of gold ore, extracted from a failed, Canadian-owned gold mine in Sardinia. They’ll also find a very special hole in the ground. It’s a peephole that lets visitors view a 13-minute film featuring 800 still images, which trace the environmental and cultural impact of Canada’s mining industry on the country’s landscape, and on the landscapes of the world. To see the exhibit, guests must crouch or kneel on a white plate on the ground, and peer through a gold surveyor’s stake. It’s a golden oculus that will give them unique perspective on industrial resource extraction and the way it shapes and recasts our geography.
It’s not exactly conventional landscape architecture. But the images in the video are both beautiful and disturbing, as they document the dramatic way we remake the earth itself in our pursuit of its riches.
And every visitor will leave with 100 grams of raw gold ore.
“For me, what’s interesting is that the venue is in the ground, and it is also an invitation,” says Alton. “It is not a passive exhibit.”
Instead, viewers quite literally get in touch with the earth from which our consumer goods come. Physically, they become a working part of the exhibit. In a cheeky way, EXTRACTION knocks them off their feet, and sends them hurtling down a rabbit-hole.
“We are adjacent to Britain, France and Germany, so to be outside is to literally face off with some major culture players,” says Alton. “But ours is a confrontational project with reference to our own settler colonial condition, so it is fitting to be able to draw France and Britain, in particular, into our project in this way.”
EXTRACTION doesn’t just explore Canada’s history as a country that was colonized. It also critiques Canada’s modern role as an economic colonial power, the role Canadian mining firms play around the world.
The confrontational, subversive, yet playful project is the brainchild of Alton’s boss and academic mentor, Pierre Bélanger, one of Canada’s most acclaimed landscape architects, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and founder of his own architecture and urban planning research lab, OPSYS.
Bélanger and his team of two dozen artists, photographers, designers, architects and writers have spent two years pulling EXTRACTION together.
The Art Gallery of Alberta is the official commissioner of the show. The AGA stepped in after the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada had to withdraw at the last minute. That’s left the AGA with the job of administering the Canada Council grant, raising other funds for the project from private sponsors and generally organizing the presentation.
“It is a big deal,” says Catherine Crowston, the AGA’s executive director. “It gives the AGA a huge amount of international profile, which we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s really a chance to put Edmonton and Alberta on the world stage.”
Because of the AGA’s recent renewed emphasis on architecture and design, Crowston says, serving as EXTRACTION’s commissioner was a natural fit. But the AGA’s relationship with the show also fits Edmonton and Alberta’s complicated roles in the resource economy.
“We all of us, in Alberta, know that these are not black-andwhite issues. These conversations are difficult and nuanced, and we want the gallery to be a centre for those conversations, for discussion and dialogue.”
“We can’t talk about Canadian extractive industries without acknowledging the rise of tar sands as a major economic and geographic entity,” says Alton.
“So there are images of Alberta, yes. But the sort of classic clichéd bird’s-eye view of lunar industrial wasteland isn’t the whole picture for us. In fact, we are trying to argue that there is often a sort of fetishization of landscape that serves to displace a deeper conversation about land and the ongoing colonial project that is the Canadian state.”
After the Biennale wraps up in November, EXTRACTION will tour Canada as part of our 150th birthday celebrations — starting, fittingly, in Edmonton.
“This is a public project and Venice is simply a launching pad,” says Alton. “But beyond Venice, this is a conversation that we want to have with all Canadians.”