Site Unseen: A Critical Review of the Used/Goods Exhibition at the Salvation Army Recycling Centre in Montreal, from November 5 to 25, 2004.

Marcus Greatheart is in his fourth year of an Honours B.A. (Art History) at the University of Victoria. As a Visiting Student at Concordia University in 2004, he worked with Professor Tom Waugh, researching the production of gay male pornography. Now located in Vancouver, Mr. Greatheart works as a Communications Consultant to local arts and community health groups while completing his degree part time. He looks forward to his next visit to Montreal to visit the friends he made there, and extends special thanks to Natasha Pashak and Dr. Johanne Sloan.

Artists can play a role in effecting change in our communities. To do so, they must do their research to define and learn about a targeted community, and invest themselves with endurance, for there are no quick fixes. My perspective here is guided by personal experience as for over ten years I have been an activist for impoverished and marginalized communities with grassroots and not-for-profit organisations.

Used/Goods, organized by Cut Rate Collective (CRC) [1] at the Salvation Army Recycling Store in Montreal, is defined as a site-specific exhibition intended to create social change. The collection of works and performances certainly appears impressive on the surface, but much of the promised substance is missing. From my own experience as a community development worker and art historian, I argue that site-specific art specifically intending to effect change among members of a target community must be both overt in its purpose and enduring in its commitment. To illustrate this, I evaluate the Used/Goods exhibition based on the criteria set forth by the CRC in the accompanying program. I illuminate and assess the successes (and there are many) of this project through a discussion of individual works. I then delve into the greater aspirations of the exhibition through its attempts to bridge alternate and diverse communities, particularly through its Talk Show performances and workshops, and by situating the exhibition within the discourse of site-specificity. Ultimately I demonstrate the achievements of Used/Goods as a first step towards a broader, community-involved, social art.

Cut Rate Collective is a small group of artists dedicated to the development of alternate forms of exhibitions and events that stress opportunities for artists outside of traditional venues, the demystification of the art object, and the participation of the public in the creative art of art making. – EXHIBITION PROGRAM

The CRC establishes three objectives for their work, as indicated in the excerpt above. It is prudent to evaluate the Used/Goods exhibition based on its stated criteria. Certainly the CRC has found a unique and interesting location outside the ‘white cube’ gallery while managing to maintain some traditional gallery elements. The Salvation Army space comes loaded with multiple and layered histories. The ‘thrift store’, as a concept, highlights ideas of environmentalism, economic disparity and capitalism. The Salvation Army is a Christian social services regiment serving impoverished communities, i.e., the homeless, alcohol and drug users. As an alternative to a commercial gallery, there exists a friction between the idea of a second-hand store and the traditional idea of a gallery as a high-end retail space.

To guide visitors through the exhibition, the organizers have used traditional gallery methods such as an exhibition program, seemingly with the intention of offering some familiarity in an unfamiliar landscape. One side of the program includes a map identifying the locations of the art works, descriptions of each work and the name of the artist. On the reverse is a schedule and descriptions of the Talk Showperformances. Throughout the store, various labels are used to delineate which items are ‘art’ and which are ‘merchandise’.

As such, the labels serve two functions. In a gallery, they identify the title of the work and artist but, here, they also stake a claim on the objects that are a part of the exhibition’s set-up. According to Kim Sawchuk, one of the participating artists, this second function has a more pragmatic purpose: Salvation Army management insisted on labels to avoid confusing the store’s staff after some items selected to complement the exhibition were inadvertently returned to general merchandise [2]. This is a perfect illustration of the label’s power to confer meaning and infer importance. As a sign of authority, it can assess the ‘art-ness’ of an object or collection.

Wandering the aisles of the store, I thought about exploiting this power further and considered creating a label with an obscure title and attaching it to a random object – a stove, a rack of underpants, or the cash register. I then came across the work of Daniel Olsen. Olsen’s None Genuine Without My Signature (2004) (Fig. 1) investigates the power of the artist’s pen as he ‘signs’ various items such as books, records and clothes with a signature stamp. Who would touch one of these items, bestowed with the weight of art, for fear of reprisals, or of damaging or otherwise impacting ‘art’ one does not understand?

Addressing this fear of art is, hopefully, the intention of the CRC’s second objective – “the demystification of the art object” [3]. During the exhibition’s opening speeches, a Salvation Army staff member welcomed the artists and guests to the exhibition. She also confessed to not really understanding what the art was about. The CRC seems hopeful that the artists’ production can play an important didactic role in circumventing the trepidation that many have about art, one based perhaps in fear or lack of knowledge. I think the artists at Used/Goods are prudent to focus on the art object in general, and especially at this specific site, where they are able to convey the ‘greying’ of the differentiation between merchandise and art.

Gisele Amantea’s The Discounted Sublime (2004) (Figs. 2 & 3) provides an excellent illustration of this point. Displayed on the wall beside a stairwell are thirty-one landscape paintings by Western Canadian artist Levine Flexhaugh (1918-1974). “Flexie” was a regular at tourist resorts and national parks and is teased for having “supported his family by creating essentially the same landscape painting”4 over and over again; this tease is in the text of the exhibition program and also in the display of the works. By assembling the paintings salon-style, behind a velvet rope, and juxtaposing them with a lounge chair, Amantea makes an important comment on the definition of the art market. When art historians consider the art market, it is with an understanding of the “high arts” and the important works with appropriate provenance that form the canon. Amantea reminds us that the market extends as far as thrift stores where works by Flexhaugh are found. With the addition of the lounge chair to the mise en scène, Amantea invites the viewer to recline and contemplate the works. However, with the security rope in place, any attempt is thwarted and we are forced to consider the chair as itself “on display.” Much like adding a label or signature, the placement of an object behind a stanchioned rope succeeds in elevating the merchandise into a canon of its own.

In a conversation at the opening night’s festivities, Amantea explained that there is a definitive market for these unique landscapes, but one must first recognise the works as Flexhaugh’s, a task now much more easily accomplished with the opportunity to study so many pieces of his creative output. The possible results are manifold. With the salon-style hanging, Amantea first points to a ‘canon’ of (Western) Canadian (landscape) art in which “Flexie” is not included and then ‘elevates’ his work into it. She encourages a discourse about his work (to which my own words contribute). She highlights the market for Flexhaugh’s paintings. She may even increase the perceived monetary value of the works, thereby shifting their marketability out of thrift stores and into the more exclusive space of the commercial gallery. Ultimately, Amantea’s work highlights the complexity of the art market and brings the thrift store to a rightful place as an alternative art gallery, with its collections of velvet art, paint-by-numbers masterworks, and other treasures.

Such far-reaching ramifications are not limited to just one artist. As I encountered others, I wondered how items that have been integrated into artworks might convert back into merchandise after the exhibition ends. Consider Christophe Flower’s Labyrinth (2004) (Figs. 4 & 5), “a multi-channel, interactive video installation” [5], wherein the artist created miniature game sites inside travel trunks. In one part, the viewer watches the movement of a ball across three side-by-side televisions; a joystick manipulates the scene, shifting the ball from left to right and back again, thereby engaging the viewer in a non-scored, seemingly un-winnable game. The impetus for the audience’s participation is playing for the sake of playing and creating one’s own rules.

Yet what happens when, and if, these items are returned to the store’s inventory? Does Labyrinth maintain its site-specificity when shifted to another location? Transplanted to an art gallery, it becomes a symbol or exemplar of theUsed/Good exhibition. Even resituated into another thrift store, it becomes a novelty because it lacks the context of this exhibition. Here, we see how intrinsic the overt intentions of the artists become in defining and inferring the essence of site-specificity on the objects that are selected and assembled there. What Used/Goodssucceeds in doing, even on a superficial level, is engaging the audience in what is a challenging art historical discourse on the art object. As Lilian Tone, Assistant Curator at MOMA New York, explains of Toronto artists’ collective, General Idea:

In a tongue-in-cheek dialogue with the traditions of institutional critique and site specificity, [the artists] promote what could be called a situational displacement, heightening awareness of the shifting frame that defines the spaces where art is shown: spaces marked by unstated formal and ethical codes, in which accepted rules of engagement forbid ordinary reflexes of attraction: touching, taking away, tasting, sleeping […][6].

Tone’s sentiment transcends the strategies of the collective in question. Miwon Kwon, Associate Professor of Art History at UCLA further explains the ramifications of the shift of art objects from their initial site to galleries and museums:

The consequences of this conversion, effected by object-orienteddecontextualizations in the guise of historical recontextualizations, are a series of normalizing reversals in which the specificity of the site is rendered irrelevant, making it all the easier for autonomy to be smuggled back into the artwork, with the artist allowed to regain his or her authority as the primary source of the work’s meaning [7].

This is also the challenge of the artist, who upon becoming famous, receives offers from curators for retrospective exhibitions. In some cases, due to expense, availability, or ephemerality of certain art, curators have recreated works so as to offer audiences “site-specific copies” [8].

Cut Rate Collective invites the public to attend performance events, workshops and presentations that will take place throughoutUsed/GoodsTalk Show is modeled after daytime TV where activities such as home decorating, cooking, and household repairs are demonstrated. A small television studio environment will be set up on the second floor of the Salvation Army Store for these events.Please come and share your experiences with us.– Exhibition Program

As thrift store shoppers, we all dream about finding hidden treasures. The appeal of television programs like The Antiques Roadshow is built on our desire to find something special, under-priced, and suitable to our sense of style or dress size. We can then purchase and, perhaps, eventually resell the same item for profit. This is at least an option for the shopper if the utility of thrift stores is more practical fun than necessity. However, there is another group that has gone as yet unnamed in the exhibition program or in the work presented—the poor. The CRC states its intent to “address timely and pertinent social issues from a local perspective” [9] but it does not specify what these issues are. By looking at the program for the Talk Showperformances and workshops, we can speculate on what theses might be.

With Talk Show, the CRC offers an interesting array of events in which the general public can participate; indeed, participation is encouraged. In this way, the programming meets the CRC’s third objective—the participation of the public in the creative art of art making. The familiarity of the daytime talk show format gives attendees a good idea of what they can expect within a new environment under the auspices of a group of artists. The events range in content from the purely creative and artistic Still Life Drawing Class and a choir performance to the creative yet more utilitarian Sewing BeesSoft Material Reformatting, Mending Circle, and Garment Renovation [10]. There are also ultra-utilitarian events such as instructional seminars on cooking and home repairs as well as “How-to” courses like Stretch Your Buck. All these reflect, in some way, an artistic interpretation relating to the site. In particular, the last event gives a clue as to the CRC’s possible social objectives of reaching the “lower-classes,” i.e., the under-employed and those living below the poverty line.

How Can the Salvation Army Help You? What Can I Do to Help? provides a history of the religiously-based organisation, but also an opportunity for participants to learn more about available resources and opportunities to volunteer and participate. The program invites two seemingly distinct groups together – potential service users and providers. A unique and interesting strategy, I am curious how successful it will be. From my own experience as an activist and community development worker, I have come to learn that one-time intercessions rarely succeed. The intention to help link those in need with available services is nevertheless admirable.

After reviewing the artworks and the program, we are left wondering what social issues the CRC is seeking to address and why they chose not to make these intentions more overt. During a presentation at Concordia University, Lorraine Oades spoke about wanting Talk Show to make an impact. When asked to clarify how the collective hoped to achieve this, Oades’ response was more vague. She explained that people surviving on a limited income see themselves as having limited opportunities. The CRC hoped to affect this line of thinking and demonstrate that art can be an “everyday act” [11]. Furthermore, the CRC wanted to create opportunities for constituents (exhibition attendees and store patrons) to “do things [such as crafts, sewing, drawing, etcetera] that they might usually do but in a public sphere” [12].  Without saying so, Oades seems to suggest that the CRC also wishes to create community. What becomes obvious is that the collective is unclear about what issues it seeks to address and who its target audience is.

Used/Goods, a major, innovative exhibition featuring works by 13 Montreal artists created specifically for the Salvation Army Recycling Store on rue Notre-Dame West. – EXHIBITION PROGRAM

So what of the ‘site-specific’ nature of this exhibition? In Installation Art, Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and Michael Perry describe the genre:

Site-specificity implies neither simply that a work is to be found in a particular place, nor, quite, that it is that place. It means, rather, that what the work looks like and what it means is dependent in large part on the configuration of the space in which it is realized. In other words, if the same object were arranged in the same way in another location, they would constitute a different work [13].

The space of the work provides context to the work, just as the artists inUsed/Goods have done by creating artworks that prompt one to reflect on the environment of the exhibition and its multiple modes and meanings. Consider Jo-Anne Balcaen’s Pot of Gold (2004) (Fig. 6), an arch of helium-filled balloons descending into a display of vinyl records acting as a point-of-sale marker or a ‘blue-light special’ promising nuggets of treasure. In a more complex effort, Kim Sawchuk’sSalvation Works: Sorting It Out (2004) (Fig. 7) installation includes a diagram that outlines the Salvation Army’s recycling process, from phone call to store shelves, displayed in an organizational development corporate schematic. This is one level of engagement with the site, and yet there exists the possibility to take it a step further to include and reflect on the people who use the space and the events of the past.

Just as each artist varies in her or his interpretation of site-specific works, artists and theorists differ in their definition and expectations of site-specificity. Curator Kevin Melchionne, explores the more general problematics of the term, suggesting that even easel paintings can be considered site-specific when they are created for intentional placement on, say, a church altar, or in a certain room of a patron’s home [14]. Ultimately he suggests it is the duty of the critic to determine the success of the work as ‘site-specific’ and for this purpose he offers a set of criteria to consider in this determination. In The Lure of the Local, the art critic Lucy Lippard suggests that a degree of activism is implicit to “site art, land art, and place art” [15].  Place art, which seems closest to the definition of “site-specific” we are working with here, “can add a social dimension that refers to human history and memory, land use, and political agendas relevant to the specific place” [16]. In reference to Lippard, the artists in Used/Goods had some success in activating both the current usage of the store as well as the lingering past that marks the building’s walls with dents, scratches, and empty nail holes.

However this is still not enough for Hafthor Yngvason, Director of Public Art in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who states:

While “site-specificity” – privileged in public-art circles as the public form of art – has provided a means to introduce art into neighborhoods without the glaring irrelevance of what has been called “plop art,” it has rarely gone beyond the idea of responding to established ideas or “facts” about communities to participating in a public sphere where such facts can be examined and contested [17].

My expectation of the exhibition (not from the individual works themselves, but of the entire event) was to acknowledge that a concerted effort was made to know the constituencies that use the Salvation Army, to attempt to understand their situation, and to offer some form of intervention.   In the end, it would have been necessary to evaluate the project to learn what worked, what made an impact, and what programs are worth continuing [18]. I recognise now that what I had hoped for when I read that the CRC suggested addressing social issues was what artist, Suzanne Lacy, calls:

[…] new genre public art – visual art that uses both traditional and non-traditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives – is based on engagement [19].

To be fair, Used/Goods never promised this, and thus, the exhibition cannot be measured against the criteria of new genre public art. In the end, I am left wondering whether the CRC’s criteria are enough and, and had they ensured a more meaningful participation by the public, whether that public would be more willing to engage with an art that is relevant to their lives.

Ultimately my goal is to critique the methodology that forms the basis of their exhibition. While the intentions of the participating artists are well-meaning, the CRC’s failure to adequately verbalise their social objectives or target audiences gives a false appearance. That is to say, a group of artists have entered the environment of the poor, appropriated their everyday objects, transformed them into “art,” and then resituated them back in the environment with the expectation that the work should now be somehow privileged. I believe this may explain why the artists are finding store shoppers reluctant to participate. They may be offended that perfectly good merchandise has been irreparably transformed into unaesthetic, incomprehensible, elitist junk. The difference may be a perception of “want vs. need,” where the store patrons see their ‘need’ as greater than the ‘want’ of the artists who are as privileged as the art objects they hoped to create.   With regards to the patrons of Used/Goods, most of the show’s spectators were as cultured and educated as the artists whose artworks were being presented. Perhaps the CRC was just hoping to tread softly.

Subtlety may be effective in some artistic endeavours, but not when creating a site-specific work intended to connect with disparate communities. Furthermore, if the goal is to engender change or improve the lives of those communities, I believe that effective initiatives will resist applying short-term band-aids to social problems and, instead, commit to long-term remedies. Parachute interventions rarely have lasting impact. In the future, I hope to see all or some of the CRC artists involved in some further development, continuing the work for which Used/Goods was a hopeful, if tentative, first step.

List of Illustrations

Endnotes

1. The Cut Rate Collective is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies a large group of people. While theUsed/Goods exhibition includes thirteen artists, the collective itself consists of Lorraine Oades and Gisele Amantea.

2. Conversation at Used/Goods opening night reception.

3.Used/Goods exhibition program.

4.Used/Goods exhibition program.

5.Used/Goods exhibition program.

6. Lilian Tone, “Affording the Ultimate Creative Shopping Experience: The Boutique of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion,” The Edge of Everything: Reflections on Global Curatorial Practice, edited by Catherine Thomas (Banff, AB: Banff Centre Press, 2002), 66.

7. Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Note on Site Specificity,” Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, edited by E. Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 49.

8. Kwon, 48.

9.Used/Goods exhibition program.

10. By italicizing the names of these ‘events’, I bring attention to their artistic interpretation as manifest by their inclusion in an art exhibition program, as compared to a community centre or continuing education catalogue.

11. Lorraine Oades, artist/curator presentation at Concordia University, November 16, 2004.

12. Lorraine Oades, artist/curator presentation at Concordia University, November 16, 2004.

13. Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and Michael Perry, Installation Art (London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 35.

14. Kevin Melchionne, “Rethinking Site-Specificity: Some Critical and Philosophical Problems,” Art Criticism 12.2 (1997): 37.

15. Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: New York Press, 1997), 274.

16. Lippard, 274.

17. Hafthor Yngvason, “The New Public Art” as quoted by Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 115.

18. Far from instituting any kind of outcome-based measurement tools during the run of the exhibition, Oades reported that the CRC would consider the impact only after it was over. Likely, videotapes and photos would be used to create a document of Used/Goods.

19. Suzanne Lacy, “Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys” as quoted by Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambrige: MIT Press, 2002), 105.