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Three Takes on the Dissolution of Empire: Stories from Places and Times Distantly Close

Glen Lowry | FUSE Magazine | Volume 33, Number 2, 2010

The desire to resituate artistic production in relation to unfolding narratives of global urban development is the crux of Stories from Places and Times Distantly Close, curated by Liz Park. This awkwardly titled exhibition comprises three distinct but thematically connected works: two from Toronto-based Will Kwan and one from international media collective Cinema Suitcase (Mieke Bal, Zen Marie, Thomas Sykora, Gary Ward and Michelle Williams). Each of these works speaks of the volatility of market forces and shifting geographies of global capitalism. In her curatorial statement, Park suggests that these works reflect on the current era of economic instability by providing "a closer look at the seemingly distant places and times where consequences of free global trade can be felt in tangible and direct ways."

Cinema Suitcase's 2006 documentary Colony focuses on Batanagar, a company town built by the Bata Shoe Company in India's West Bengal province. Batanagar exists as the ruins of an empire built by Czech industrialists Tomáš and Jan Bat'a, a dilapidated testament to their modernist vision. Dubbed the Henry Ford of Eastern Europe, Tomáš Bat'a is said to have wanted to create a world in which no one need go without shoes. To this end, Bata established an international network of industrial “colonies” that provided employees with social amenities: hospitals, schools and recreational facilities. These Bata-villes were modeled on the Czech town of Zlin, a master-planned community designed by architect František Lydie Gahura (a student of Le Corbusier) in the wake Bata’s success in the outset of the twentieth century. As such, Batanagar, at least as an idea, provides a poignant alternative to globalization’s brutal anti-social drive, a corollary to what we might think of as neoliberalism’s violently atomizing forces.

Cinema Suitcase is known for an approach to “experimental social documentary” that strives to create intimacy by allowing people to self-narrate their stories. True to form, Colony is driven by conversations with various stakeholders, including descendents of the factory owners and workers left at Batanagar. Their personal reflections describe the demise of a colonial model from different points of view and in so doing infuse the situation with a level of melancholy that works against the development of a critical position. Colony invites viewers to consider globalization’s complicated relationship to earlier colonial and post colonial spatial practices. Viewed through images of the verdant ruins of Batanagar’s crumbling campus and the memories of the abandoned labourers, the utopian ideals of Bata’s company town seem less toxic and less brutal than the new labour camps and Free Trade Zone/Export Processing Zones that have replaced them.

Will Kwan’s Canaries (the bank and the treasury) provides a distinct counter point to the themes of post colonial urban life outlined in Colony. Centred on the figure of the HSBC building in Hong Kong, Kwan’s three-channel video layers a complex intersection of historical events and personal desires. Founded as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation by the British in the aftermath of the Opium Wars to facilitate trade between China and Europe, HSBC played a key role in the development of international trade routes, which connected economies and communities across and intricate geography of dispersed industrialization. Mixing historical footage, images of colonial paintings, contemporary streetscapes and interiors of an architectural modeling studio, with documentation of the artist fabricating a scale model of the HSBC tower, Canaries provides a poignant representation of city building and the underlying fragility of the monumental structures that tend to locate and organize global mobilities. Metaphorically, Kwan’s work juxtaposes the apparent solidity of the bank, a synecdoche for imperial trade and finance, with the fluidity of geographic migrations.

An important symbolic element of Kwan’s video involves his construction of a maquette of HSBC’s Hong Kong headquarters. Kwan’s narrative introduces the figure of a test facility, a wind tunnel and series of maquettes used to test or model airflow patterns, some of which are labeled with the names of cities or other urban sites. The flows engineered in this laboratory, as much as the architectural models over and through which they blow, are reminiscent of intricate patterns of history and powerful winds of political change that shaped Hong Kong during the 20th century. In the context of the decade following the 1997 repatriation of Hong Kong to China, the fragile canaries – not only “the bank and the treasury” but also the city’s diasporic subjects – stand in start relief to the powers of the global market – capitalism’s coal mine.

This environmental trope is echoed in Kwan’s Clocks that Do Not Tell the Time, the third discrete artwork in the exhibition. Inasmuch as his clocks do not tell the time, they do gesture toward fragmentary, disparate temporalities (or chronotopes) that exist on the margins of the so called “world market.” According to Kwan, the clocks point to “the peripheral, shadowy, and heterotopic sites of the global economy: mines, toxic dumpsites, camps, industrial parks, factory towns, corporate and military operational headquarters” (http://www.studiowillkwan.com/work.clocks.php). Pondering Kwan’s multifaceted realization of Foucault’s heterotopia, viewers are challenged to locate themselves within this relational paradigm – to synchronize our watches to centre or margin.

The narrative focus of these artworks is a crucial aspect of Park’s exhibition, as explicit reference to “stories” in the title suggests. So too is the problematic of location or critical positioning. From where or how do we enter colonialism’s unfolding denouement? These are the questions that are posed by these works. The extent to which Cinema Suitcase’s singled-channel video responds to these questions from within the conventions of the documentary form raises difficult issues around the politics of representation, particularly in relation to Kwan’s more self-reflexive approach. While Kwan’s works provide a nuanced layering of colonial histories that activates and implicates the gallery space, Colony’s use of English sub-titles for English dialogue is not only annoyingly redundant, but also raises concerns around normative assumptions about the audience and function of the work within a gallery setting where viewers might expect to engage with textual ambivalence and a diversity of representational strategies. Nevertheless the histories and geographies engaged by the three works provide important perspectives on the uneven developments of global capitalism, or more to the point, its apparent demise.

Glen Lowry is a writer, editor and educator. With Henry Tsang and M. Simon Levin, he is working on Maraya, a public artwork linking Vancouver and Dubai. He edits West Coast Line and is Chair of Online Learning & External Collaborations at Emily Carr University.

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