The Garden City Food Co Op: An ending, or a stepping stone?

There’s no one factor definitively at fault for the demise of the four years’ dream that was the Garden City Food Co Op, attempting to remedy the “food desert” in downtown St. Catharines . As with most community endeavours, there were factors that were more pervasive (and part of the larger ongoing “landscape” of Niagara) and others that may have been preventable, and were unique to this situation.

I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him; the ill he did lives after him, the good is interred with his bones. This is not flippant facetiousness but to indicate that some of the “ills” demonstrated here – volunteer burnout, for example – are evident in other organizations, other Niagara groups both social and cultural. Many groups run on the blood of the same overlapping pool of volunteers. That was clear in the makeup of the Garden City Food Co Op [GCFC] from the beginning (in 2013), with its board bearing connections and histories with various groups past and present in the region. It’s also clear in how the AGMs ebbed from several hundred in attendance, at early meetings, to barely making quorum in the final one on May 28, 2017, when dissolving the group.

I’ve been encountering a cynicism from many individuals whom purchased memberships and feel that they received nothing for their contribution. In conversation with several board members, it was explained that the $120 membership fee was spent on staff and other clearly demonstrable expenses (such as research that is currently being used by City Hall in hopes of luring a bigger box grocery store to the downtown). There were also “sponsored memberships” to ensure groups and individuals that were essential to the GCFC’s mandate were included, and represented. One board member cited that there is a misunderstanding about what collectives might hope to accomplish, in terms of long term goals, and that immediate gratification wasn’t the goal, but to effectively and deeply alter the “food desert” of the downtown. There was a plethora of enthusiasm from the board, but not necessarily a match of experience. And the history of the collective – and the divisions and tensions that happened in choosing the downtown site – also demonstrated that there wasn’t a unanimity of vision and focus that may have worked against the eventual success of the GCFC.

Several determinants need to be cited, as cumulative speed bumps that eventually derailed GCFC’s momentum; the less than ideal timeline of the capital campaign, due to delays in approval from the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (a six month period to raise $500,000 proved impossible); the developer, Nick Atalick, seemingly forgetting – or not being reminded – of his commitment to the GCFC, amid his desire to ‘revitalize’ the downtown with a condo project in the designated GCFC site, which surely euthanized an already crippled fundraising initiative; issues around communication / miscommunication with invested (or hoped to be so) groups; and aforementioned volunteer burnout.

Several of these raise further questions: was the Commission’s decision expected or avoidable – a roundabout way of asking if this was an error on the part of the GCFC or simply an unpleasant hoop (that any of us who’ve worked with nonprofits, collectives, etc., are familiar with) that had to be “jumped through?” Atalick’s proposal to city hall in April of 2016 was the first time that the GCFC was made aware of his condo “dreams” for the downtown; was this a lack of communication, a lack of oversight, or, to paraphrase another GCFC board member, was Atalick just flush with his own ideas of how to “revitalize” the downtown? Whether this constitutes a breach of trust is another matter to consider (or whether this is a variation on how renters are victims of the whims of owners).  The emergency meetings that followed Atalick’s bombshell saw the members just barely vote to rethink and reform what they’d planned, but by a nearly even split. One board member commented that, in retrospect, it might have been a cleaner, or more direct, end of the GCFC than allowing it to languish to a slow death, with no interest or activity from volunteers to rebuild….

This is as good a place in this difficult story to point out that the downtown has been in flux, often flailing about for simple solutions to a complex problem (whether in the push for a grocery store downtown, condos – though with Toronto and Port Dalhousie as lessons, that one’s specious – or the MIWSFPA) since before most of us were born, and shows no signs of resolving.

Poverty suffuses this debate, returning to the previously quoted community gardener.  Its pervasive (if unacknowledged) in STC, whether the working poor or those hanging by fingernails on the ledge of tenacious employment. That the space for the GCFC was to be displaced for condos also beggars where the civic politicians and leaders were in this debate, and whether the lip service from that quarter is also a contributing factor in the GCFC’s end….That the landscape of downtown St. Catharines has changed dramatically from the inception of the GCFC can’t be denied, either, whether we term it gentrification or revitalization, whether an opportunity or a displacement.

Some have said the GCFC should have modelled itself more on the Rutabagga Collective, a 1970s collective  that had smaller goals: but that group also was volunteer dependant, and had a fluidity that eventually contributed to its dissolution, in trying to accomplish less (or “more realistically”, edit as you will).

But this is also that great arrogant beast, hindsight. When the “rethink” process was taking place over the last few months, volunteer engagement and involvement was much less than needed or hoped: as available funds had already been spent, there was no staff or website to further this process…the rethink process failed as many GCFC members were too spent, and too deflated, to begin again.

In Buffalo, or Welland, there are successful groups of this ilk, serving members and the communities. So why not here?  Applying these questions to another site: my future updates on Rodman Hall will be exploring whether the community is willing – and thus able – to support the space, or if it will fall to the inertia and lethargy that many complain is Niagara. Or, quoting another board member, they “just learned what you need to know for next time.” A “common purpose” foundation has been laid.

It’s worth noting that the same day that I began to seriously sink my teeth into this article, I had to make a run down to the Market in downtown STC; seeking peas and strawberries for my father, a supplement to his weekly shopping. The quantity and quality of what was there, on a Tuesday afternoon, was significant. I could have purchased the same thing from several vendors, all of excellent – and local – quality.

One of the board members I spoke with indicate that their heart is broken at its failure, but would try it again, in a moment….to return to the Shakespearean quote at the beginning, will the good accomplished be forgotten, or built upon?

Of all the issues here, the most important is the most obvious: what next? Is this an ending, or a stepping stone?

This was an enterprise that was (is) positive – and necessary – in many ways. Is this dead, now? Who’s stepping in or stepping up to revitalize this? Or will people complain without commitment or offer nothing but critique without solutions? That’s not a question I can answer for you, Niagara. That one is up to you, you might say….

 

#concretecloud [glass and concrete and stone]

I walk the city late at night / does everyone here do the same / the people fill the city because / the city fills the people (Everything But The Girl)

“The public has a right to art. The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a “self-proclaimed” artist to realise the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses. I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.” (Keith Haring)

There is a line in Cloud Atlas that “truth is singular. Its “versions” are mistruths”, a disarming equivocation of meaninglessness. I don’t entirely disagree with that, with my own doubts about postmodernism and its fervent rabid cannibalistic children currently running amok in the Canadian art world, but I like – I insist upon – the idea of “publics” that overlap or perhaps challenge each other while literally occupying the same space. Perhaps this is because publics are less active, less exclusive, than the idea of histories in the plural (Slavoj Žižek once pointed out, like a Cassandra, that a personal history – criticising bell hooks specifically – is essentially conservative, dismissing empathy or any universality and privileging personal bias or experience). Histories in plural defy and deny universality. Publics, however, suggest we could have our feet in several, as they require less commitment, less official, academic accreditation, and that we act in each space with the influence of the others, or perhaps simultaneously.

In light of that tangent, Cher Krause Knight asserts that “art’s publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchange with audiences … at its most public, art extends opportunities for community engagement but cannot demand particular conclusion.” That is another way of saying that vagueness of publics, of communities, is inherent when you bring art outside of the gallery and into the public sphere.

This was in my mind as I watched and interacted with Donna Akrey’s students as they pulled or pushed, carried or otherwise moved their works through the downtown of St. Catharines, a place that even without the incendiary accelerant  of “art” is a site of contested narratives. This mobile exhibition aspect of Concrete Cloud happened on the 5th of July.

Some of them played upon the notion of interactivity as with Jess McClelland’s A Rather Peculiar Metaphor for Multi Tasking; transforming the wooden flat with wheels that many used as a base of their pieces, McClelland instead cut his into a wide hoop worn around his waist, with various plaster casts of (his own) hands. These either helpfully proffered the pamphlet produced by the students, with a map and brief descriptors, or offered a pen for making notes, or offered direction by pointing, or affirmation in a gesture waiting for a “high five.” Amber Lee Williams’ Chewing Gum and Walking is a monstrous perversion of its title; as she pulled it around downtown and the group paused at various prominent sites (the downtown library, City Hall), the pinkish glob blended disconcertingly well with the trashcan detritus of the urban scenes. Later, when the works were “parked” (Akrey’s excellent description, with nuances I’ll touch on later) in Niagara Artist Centre, Williams’ work became an organic Donald Judd. McClelland’s, conversely, was still interesting as it hung on the wall, but seemed less effective than when he was “wearing” it, like a tour guide awaiting questions from random pedestrians….

 

 

 

 

 

This conflation / contradiction between art and activity, the gallery space where the works now “rest” – and where they can be visited, still – is another aspect of public art / art in the public sphere. Several works are gelded there, but were beautiful when resting among the meticulously maintained green lawn of City Hall, or among the cool leafy and tree lined shade of the library. Others, when positioned among the flowers and overgrown stones of the old city hall, across from the Market, seemed either extensions of the floral markers of “the garden city” or more critical examinations of the gap between that name and the concrete heat haze of the downtown.

Syerra Jasmin’s Newfangled, assembled from discarded and dead wood, painted a stark white – even down to the base – was blindingly artificial as it sat in the sun (like the white sterile gallery walls reaching out to nature). Michaela Laurie’s Untitled was a beautiful work (hot glue formed into organic hollows and bowls, “growing” out of black gravel) that she periodically “watered” as we walked; it was one of many smaller “gardens” that blended synthetic and natural elements.

Jill Newman’s my fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them is funny, but caustic on more rigourous examination. On the day of the Concrete Cloud “walk” I was finishing an article on the demise of the Garden City Food Co Op, in downtown STC, and one of the issues was the silence (perhaps hypocritical, perhaps a “fake” posture of support) of civic officials. In light of this wider political discourse, Newman’s work became a more cynical commentary on “place.”

Madison McFayden’s Melting Lemons, made of wax and oil pastel, are just lovely and odd: and they did show some “sweat” in the midday sun (which only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in, I’m told). But the idea of gardens, of nature, manifested in other works: Thomas Denton’s Dead Space employs soil, water and grass, along with plastic and plaster; Chardon Trimble-Kirk’s Liminal is found wood, but with metal and paint, and inspiration for this piece is from the Merritt Trail. Many of the works – flat wooden squares were the aforementioned “bases” of the pieces, a universal starting point for the group – had small “fences” constructed around them. These evoked the idea of tiny, secret gardens, but also echoing the ordered, rectangular oases of flowers or plants that the group encountered as they walked from the MIWSFPA to Service Ontario to the Bus Terminal, in a meandering loop around the urban core of STC.

There was something both eerie and enticing in seeing, at the monolithic, pseudo modernist bus terminal in the downtown, all grey concrete and fumes, several young people pulling their own tiny “gardens”, these little islands of real / false green. Amid the brick and wire mesh, the downtown’s reality – both positive and negative, was highlighted by this: “I believe in the city as a natural human environment, but we must humanize it. It’s art that will redefine public space in the 21st century.” (Antony Gormley)

That’s a wider, broader umbrella: in conversation, Donna Akrey talked about how her ongoing works defined her role as educator with this class. One of the most charming aspect of her recent exhibition Also Also at Rodman were the multicoloured light boxes that shimmered out from the houses along the street leading up to Rodman: not solely for aesthetic joy, but also that the residents welcomed art into their sphere, outside the gallery. My own involvement in ephemeral and temporary interventions like Street Meet Festival: a festival for street, public and graffiti art in Saskatoon or the loose collective Finding City has made the argument (I say in a positive sense) about publics and spaces a recurring concern.

These pieces are “parked” now, at NAC: Ahmed Bader’s Synthetic Seas seems almost sad, in that space, as the “boat” he built had a shiny black garbage bag sail, ballooning up with wind, suggesting both movement and the breeze. His detritus materials meshed well with the “glass and concrete and stone” of STC’s downtown. The cardboard and vinyl bags echoed the recycle bins and garbage Bader passed, suggesting lost possibilities of the materials….

In that respect, the works of Concrete Cloud are – were – more real when outside, at the James Street Entrance of the Library, near other public artworks, among the shade, or when arranged around the “garbage and the flowers” of Market Square or the Courthouse / City Hall.

Again and again, when speaking about art in the public sphere, I return to an idea of how it is, at best, a moment of unexpected joy: this is appropriately – necessarily, with the diversity and discrepancy of dissenting “publics” – vague. Concrete Cloud, the “mobile class exhibition” that wandered the downtown of STC for several hours on the 5th of July, 2017, was that: a bit odd, a bit clunky, a bit off and at times engaging, other times not. Perhaps the best way to see the more successful works are as conversations, perhaps with the public encountered, the people who saw them as they went about their day, and those of us who saw them as punctuations of a larger conversation about place and space, and the city as it is, and as it is not. The concrete happened already, and the cloud is what we remember – or don’t – after the works are “parked” and done at NAC.

All images were shot by the writer: more images can be seen at the FB page for this exhibition, along with some videos of the walk and works. 

Afterimage: Uneven Echoes

I wanted a dialectic between one’s perception of the place in totality and one’s own relation to the field as walked…a way of measuring oneself against the indeterminacy of the land. I am not interested in looking at sculpture which is solely defined by its internal relationships. (Richard Serra)

Simplicity of form is not necessarily simplicity of experience. (Robert Morris)

Afterimage fills all the galleries at Rodman and is on display all summer. The two “side rooms” that have been in play for the last few exhibitions have been amalgamated into one larger space (in the rear of Rodman), and this serves Afterimage well. Gayle Young’s audio (Cedar Cliff- “oo”) wafts out over the space, and the denseness and richness of John Noestheden’s paintings (or sculptures – we’ll explore that momentarily – titled, respectively Spaceline 20a, 20b, 20c and 20d) are balanced by the emptiness between and around them. Reinhard Reitzenstein’s 6000 laser cut trees, one of which would easily fit in your hand, made of recycled paper that creep like ivy upwards and outwards (in Ghost Willow) also employs a denseness balanced by gaps that allows for a conversation between the artists. It’s not that the artworks in the side gallery, closer to the front, aren’t worthy. But the rear gallery functions so well in terms of its curated installation (unsurprisingly, if you remember Gunilla Josephson’s exhibition Houses and Whispers, as that show was also curated by Marcie Bronson) that it’s where I find myself, with every visit.

Noestheden’s works in this back space are acrylic on aluminum, with “stardust” mixed in. Their execution and texture are earthy, like furrows of mud. The forms – too solid, to be painting – resemble earth works or dirt mounds, in colours that alternately suggest “black earth” or others in powerful primaries (the yellow Spaceline 6 shimmers reflection “in” the floor, so it’s like the floor work Spaceline 13 that stretches out is a diptych to the mirrored work, or like all “three” function from floor to wall to floor again, to remaining in our eyes after we look elsewhere….). Others are in pale blue (higher up, in a corner, almost to be missed) and another is lower, on the same wall but opposite end, in a reddish chartreuse. These softer tones seems too delicate for the whorls and chunks and bumps that form these acrylics and mixed media on aluminum blocks of paint and minerals.

The trio of artists here don’t interact in a prescribed manner, nor a fully equal manner: despite my praise of his works in the back gallery space, Noestheden’s work in the front two rooms is the weakest, and his repeated citation of “stardust” and other ideas during the tripart artists talk served to make his work less interesting and more affected or pretentious. Perhaps the weight he attached to this lecture about his pieces was inversely proportionate to how uninteresting they are visually.

 Its unsurprising that he spent so much time on the Prairies: there’s more than a little of the self involved Karaoke Modernist in his work, mistaking aspects that are perhaps important to him as being universally so, or that by the citation of the term “stardust” that it might have wider or deeper meaning. His works in the front rooms (Artefact Echoes or 1389 Breaths) are failures visually, and any larger pedantic prose doesn’t remedy that, though some of the pieces improve by association with the works by Reinhard, leeching some meaning and depth from Seed Tree or Forest Emerging. Perhaps this is also why the front rooms are less impressive than the back one: Noestheden has some quality in the front rooms by implication, whereas in the back gallery all three artists function as one larger installation.

This high ceilinged and predominantly empty room, wide and high, is the dominant and dominating gallery: an engaging and visually exciting environment that seems sparse, but isn’t.

Gayle Young (whose history is impressive) spoke eloquently and simply about her audio works, offering some nuance and depth, and options to how we might experience it. Rodman itself is intrinsic to the melded experiential audio (“the resonance of the building is important”), and there’s a spot where you can hear all three “streams” flow together. Young declared the sound as much “ours” as hers, and “you create your own mix by moving through the space” through her “swathe of noise” sampled / assembled from the Bruce Trail in Grimsby (from river and highway to raindrops and fauna and other walked ambience…). While standing in the back space, Reinhard offered the following, encompassing Afterimage in its entirety: “All these works are derivative of memory, of larger ideas, of past experiences, of pasts both universal and personal.”

Reitzenstein’s Willow is meant to evoke how a gigantic willow was removed to facilitate the back expansion of Rodman Hall, and he spoke of how its roots are surely still under the floor of the gallery in back of the building. His works in public space, from the Lutz Teutloff Collection at Brock University, or around the Niagara region all “observe and chronicle trees under siege. Displaced by architecture and manufacturing, they adapt to changing and extreme environmental conditions, supported by mutual relationships within their ecological communities.” Ghost Willows is a memento mori: just as Young’s work is an echo, a recording, of a temporal and remembered, now past, experience. The chunkiness of Noestheden (Spaceplot F) to the recycled, disposable components of Reitzenstein (needing to be repaired, sometimes replaced, daily) to the ephemera of Young’s audio (Cedar Cliff- “ah” or Cedar Cliff- “ee”) that fills the space – and none of it – is an enjoyable dialogue of remembrance: what has been, what was, what is all meet and highlight their similarities, and contrast their differences.

An afterimage, by definition, is an ephemeral thing: sometimes it exists only in memory, or as a degraded version of the original, like the spots we see after staring at the sun. It’s almost an act of negation more than affirmation: what it references is, by definition, gone, no longer existing, solely in memory. Its past: and the past is fleeting. The formal definition is “a visual image or other sense impression that persists after the stimulus that caused it is no longer operative.”

This Afterimage will be visible until the 20th of August, 2017, at Rodman Hall; it will be followed by Material Girls, a show touring from the Dunlop in Regina.