Ex­hibit of­fers grounded take on im­pact of Cana­dian min­ing

Spon­sor­ing en­try in pres­ti­gious show boosts Alberta’s in­ter­na­tional pro­file

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - PAULA SI­MONS Com­men­tary psi­[email protected]­media.com twit­ter.com/Pau­lat­ics www.face­book.com/PaulaSi­mons

“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.”

Canada’s en­try in the 2016 Venice Bi­en­nale of Ar­chi­tec­ture, the world’s most pres­ti­gious in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tec­ture ex­hi­bi­tion, is EX­TRAC­TION, an in­ter­ac­tive, mul­ti­me­dia ex­hibit on in­dus­trial re­source ex­trac­tion. The Art Gallery of Alberta is the...

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