Archive for the ‘travels’ Category

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My favourite Nuit Blanche Toronto installation of 2014 was Portal Potties, in Old Fort York.

While appearing to be a simple row of facilities for humans to rid themselves of material for which (most of them) have no further use, the façade is an illusion. It is an interactive metaphor disguising the many fundamental conflicts between the private and public faces Torontonians must wear, and demands each participant choose how they will compromise themselves to conform to the community.

What are these seeming booths about? The participant will assume each is a dark, close, malodourous space; a parallel social universe where each is utterly alone with the consequences of their own consumption – that very conspicuous consumption which is so valued in the context of Western capitalism. No matter how many times before they have performed this ritual, this time is different, as the piece does not allow the automatic repression of dissonance, but forces awareness by the nature of the choice.

It is an art installation – what is beyond the doors cannot be known in advance. Perhaps the doors do not lead to the expected – the installation name gives a hint. Perhaps they are portals to a separate universe in each: one with flowers, one a desert landscape, one a swirling kaleidoscope of bright light. Perhaps there are just two kinds – one acceptable, one not. There are grey portals, and blue portals – perhaps the grey and blue are but a trick, unrelated to the interior.

But each door has a little red or green indicator, showing whether or not another participant has chosen that door, and is experiencing what is behind.

Here the beauty and complexity of the piece is revealed. Each participant must choose to use, or not to use, the reactions of those exiting the portals before them. Would you choose a booth where someone exits smiling? Are they smiling because the universe inside was a good one, because they are just relieved the ordeal is over, or are they just putting on a brave face? If they appear haunted, is it because that portal’s universe was frightening, their ritual was just personally difficult, or they want to project a suffering face, either because they always do, or because they want to protect the secret of a wonderful place they might return unmolested? Do participants want to assist the greater good by sharing the truth of themselves, or maintain their own illusions at the expense of the next one in? How can their community spirit be gauged?

The participant cannot ignore their own prejudices and anxieties in trying to ascertain what is really going on from other members of the community. They must assess their own trust levels, and what behavioural clues they use to judge the actions of others. Or become so frustrated with recursive self-analysis they choose a door with a green dot, and hurl themselves into the unknown. But then – grey or blue? There is no choice with no choice.

And it is no less profound for the passive voyeur, who, standing watching the choices made by the braver participants, is faced with their own reticent nature, and what this public failure will mean to their place in the community. No one approaches this installation without being consumed by its Gestalt.

The setting in Fort York also speaks volumes. This is a place where Ojibway, American and British fighters lost their lives in 1813 in an engagement that was by any measure futile. Whatever different choices these young men made, all ultimately led to the waste of their own lives. To evoke this historical echo in the piece is nothing less than brilliant.

Which would you choose?

Well done!