Capitalism is a topic of global controversy. North America has an insatiable greed for wealth and commodities, a greed that reinforces capitalism and capital flow daily. As ritualistic consumers, we import and trade in excess—but who profits from these exchanges?
Equally challenging as the role of capitalism is the problem of representing it aesthetically. How do we convey the intricacy and convolution of this economic structure? The artists of Blackwood Gallery’s new exhibition, I stood before the source, address this dilemma.
I stood before the source features prints, photographs, video clips, sculptures, performances, and other forms of conceptual art that seek to address and define capitalism as an aesthetic entity. The exhibition is currently on display in Blackwood Gallery, UTM’s e|gallery, and the Bernie Miller Lightbox, a billboard display outside the Davis Building on campus.
Beyond addressing the aesthetic function of capitalism, I stood before the source focuses on the concept of accumulation—namely, various scenes of accumulation that occur in a capitalist society, such as airports, data centres, factories, and trading hubs. Moreover, the exhibition wishes to bring forward the invisible “behind-the-scenes” aspects of capitalism into the direct vision of society.
Rather than offering an explicit critique of capitalism, the artists simply attempt to organize and categorize various forms of capitalistic effects and production. The exhibition behaves as a repository of different capitalist means.
Blackwood Gallery hosts I stood before the source with a stark arrangement. Scaffolding lines three of the four gallery walls. Art pieces hang on the walls and rest on desks in the space below the scaffolding. Pieces also line the walls alongside the scaffolding. Stairs on both ends invite guests to climb onto this makeshift second level and examine the prints and photographs that hang there, while also viewing the lower level from a different perspective.
As I entered the gallery, I walked towards the first print on the left: “The Plague” by Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge. This piece is an archival pigment print that depicts the setting of an airport. The scene features cut-and-paste images of political figures throughout time, including Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Rachel Carson. At the forefront of the image are corporate individuals. Their placement in the frame represents the dominant position of contemporary capital. Moving towards the back, the individuals shrink in proportion to the scene. Here you’ll find the Medici Bank of the 15th century, among other historical figures. A floating stream of frogs cuts through the centre of the image, ending in the bottom right corner. The stream alludes to the Biblical plague of frogs.
This piece is busy. Your eyes flit from one person to the next, never resting in one spot for long. The image has no identifiable focal point, as the figures and objects move sporadically across the scene. The longer you look, the more details you pick up. When I stepped towards this painting to examine it closer, a voice spoke from behind.
“Watch your step,” she warned.
I looked down at a puddle of chalky, black dust. The splatter of dust hugs the wall below the Condé and Beveridge image, reaching out towards the room. I learn that the black dust is an installation piece by Darlene Montgomery and Public Studio entitled “The One and the Many”. The black dust in question is toner ink, a material composed of polymer (a carbon-based substance). Carbon is a key element to this piece. It’s described as the epitome of mimesis, as carbon replicates nature and manipulates its basest meanings. Carbon causes both creation and destruction towards its surroundings. Montgomery explores this idea of life and death through the lens of capitalism, using toner ink to represent carbon, its most commodified form.
Last Wednesday was the night of Blackwood Gallery’s opening reception for I stood before the source. On this evening, Keith Hennessy offered a performative lecture as an extension of the exhibit. His lecture was a theatrical representation of his political, economic, and social judgments. He began with a discussion of the richest dancers and artists in Canada. He spoke casually to the audience, encouraging us to participate in a discussion. He also invited audience members to communicate with each other on our perceptions of neoliberalism.
Hennessy’s lecture was more than a political discussion, however. It was a performance—a chance to explore dramatic and physical representations of the economy through stage demonstrations and dance. Several times, Hennessy paused in his speech, pulled a white balaclava over his head, and retreated into a doorway, where he would face away from the audience and shout accusations about the deplorable state of modern economy and politics. He then returned to his lecturing position, removed the mask and continued with his discussion as if nothing had happened. I interpreted this as a critique of society’s need for anonymity. Individuals feel more comfortable arguing an opinion behind a metaphorical mask.
Hennessy shared three clips from “Turbulence”, a contemporary dance that he scripted, choreographed, and performed. He defines it as “a dance about the economy”. The dance behaves as a physical response to the modern economic crisis. It features dozens of dancers who move in indescribable patterns throughout each segment. The stage is littered with props, the most iconic being a gold blanket and a large, dangling trapeze that hangs from the ceiling by thick ribbons and rope. In each segment, the dancers writhe, twist, rotate, or simply remain motionless. Their movements are unsynchronized and unsystematic. There is no pattern nor organization to this performance. Interestingly, the performers move without a soundtrack. The only instance of sound occurs during a segment in which a blaring noise, similar to feedback from a speaker, underlies the dancers’ movements. Their hyperactivity in this scene offers an appropriate parallel to the sound.
This piece is subjective. It’s a performance that undoubtedly relies on individual interpretation. The chaotic nature of the movements, setting, and soundtrack were unsettling, paralleling the disruptive behaviour of the economy. One notable scene of consumerist greed occurs when two performers fight over a wooden chair, each with their hands locked on the legs, pulling it back and forth. The camera then pans out to reveal the pair standing on a hill of similar wooden chairs.
Hennessy is an engaging performer, to say the least. His demonstration was a unique characterization of the economy. This performative component of I stood before the source adds another layer to the many perspectives on capitalist culture.
UTM’s e|gallery also includes a piece belonging to this exhibition. Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen’s “75 Watt” fills the small gallery in the CCIT Building. “75 Watt” projects a video of factory labourers on the back wall. In the video, workers move systematically on the assembly line, creating a white object that resembles the skull of a cow. A raised platform juts out perpendicularly from the projection, holding a line of these objects.
The video on display is a choreographed performance that depicts labour. The object of the workers’ creation serves no purpose, existing solely for demonstrating its own production. This video represents themes of mass-manufacturing and the robotic movements that labourers adopt while working on an assembly line. The video offers an accurate vision of human mechanization for consumerist purposes.
The exhibition is a grand undertaking. Its staggering amount of art pieces, multiple locations, and underlying political, economic, and social motivations exist as part of a vast project, one that takes time to absorb.
I stood before the source is on display at Blackwood Gallery, UTM’s e|gallery, and the Bernie Miller Lightbox until December 3.