March 9, 2017
by Sara Spike
Douglas Coupland’s Slogans for the Twenty-First Century is displayed as part of the exhibition. Photo: CCA Montreal
TEXT Sara Spike
PHOTOS CCA Montreal, unless otherwise noted
Walking along the main corridor of Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), visitors currently encounter what appears to be a downed hydro tower. Contorted and mangled with its head bowed to the floor, this is Douglas Coupland’s The Ice Storm, a stark reminder of the climate change-influenced weather that left many in Central Canada without electricity for weeks on end in the winter of 1998. Towers like these continue to harness and transport power from the James Bay hydroelectric project, a massive environmental intervention with wide-ranging social and ecological repercussions.
This complex relationship between Canadians and the natural world is at the heart of the CCA’s current exhibition, It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment. From the Group of Seven and the maple leaf, to Hinterland Who’s Who and the wildlife on our currency, the Canadian cultural imaginary romanticizes a national affinity with nature. However, as this exhibition re-minds visitors, Canada is also a world leader in the development and exploitation of natural resources, and its record of conservation and environmental protection lags behind many other countries. Planned to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary, the exhibition foregrounds this contradiction, asking if our super-natural image of Canada needs to be updated.
The Ice Storm, an installation by Douglas Coupland, is a poignant reminder of the effects of severe weather on infrastructural systems. Photo: CCA Montreal
The political orientation of the show is unambiguous. Seven thematic galleries explore the legacy of what curator Mirko Zardini terms environmental disasters. Visitors are confronted with the consequences of human overconfidence, indifference, and ignorance with regard to the environment from the middle of the 20th century to the present. Galleries explore the despoliation of the North, the politics of pipelines, the 1952 Chalk River nuclear meltdown, industrial pollution of lakes and rivers, the depletion of the Atlantic cod stocks, air pollution and acid rain, and the over-harvesting of Canadian forests.
These topics, and the related paradoxes in Canadian national identity they elicit, have long been of interest to historians and others in the environmental humanities. The stories told here are not new, but the CCA brings its unique perspective—and its extraordinary archives—to the presentation of an accessible and compelling interpretation of modern Canadian environmental history. The exhibition pushes the boundaries well beyond even the CCA’s usually capacious definition of architecture.
The politics of oil pipelines are highlighted in one of the galleries. Photo: CCA Montreal
Designed by Kuehn Malvezzi of Berlin, It’s All Happening So Fast is visually minimalist, dominated by lightboxes and video screens in white rooms, framed documents, and full-wall murals of black-and-white photographs and crisp graphics. The sound design includes ambient broadcasts of Glenn Gould’s Idea of North, testimony by Dene men and women at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, and news footage of environmental activists, in addition to individual listening stations for numerous video clips. Moving through the galleries, the overall mood is sober and thoughtful.
In less capable hands, the show could easily have become a celebration of the aesthetics of industrial modernity or of the heroics of large-scale engineering, but not so here. The opening gallery is representative. It focuses on southern interventions in the North and is primarily concerned with the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line of Cold War radar stations. The narrative does not discuss their innovative design or the engineering challenges of their installation, but rather the ongoing environmental contamination they caused. Likewise, a study of the Sudbury Superstack—the tallest chimney in the Western Hemisphere and the second tallest structure in Canada—explores its contribution to air pollution and acid rain, rather than how the building came to be designed or built. Shifting the focus away from traditional narratives of architecture is welcome and extremely productive. But there also seems to be a mis-sed opportunity for critical reflection on the specific role architects, designers and engineers have played in the environmental crisis described by the exhibition.
Ralph Erskine’s 1958 sketch for a prototype arctic walled city, later developed for Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut). ARKITEKTUR- OCH DESIGNCENTRUM (STOCKHOLM) ARKM.1986-17-0362, Photo: Arkdes
Where architecture—and architects—emerge as an active force is in proposals for sustainable alternatives, including innovative land-scape design and autonomous buildings. Documentation of the Maison Bernard Laurin, a passive solar house by De Paoli & Pellissier in Mirabel, Quebec, is a welcome local accent in a story that roves the breadth of the country. Photographs of the PEI Ark, designed in 1976 by Solsearch Architects, recuperate a forgotten moment of government-funded experimental utopianism, promoting small-scale farming and renewable energy.
A take-away tabloid newspaper, The Reminder, doubles as both a gallery guide and a souvenir multiple, mirroring the prominence of news media in the exhibition. The show incorporates newspaper and magazine clippings, televised documentaries, and videos of nightly news broadcasts, illustrating how historical moments of environmental crisis were publicly narrated, and how Canadians reacted to them at the time. This prominent use of journalism is a refreshing presence at the CCA, which tends to turn to experts and professional critics for analysis and context. Journalists, along with scholars and activists, are also among the authors of the impressive collection of essays in an accompanying book-length publication, which extends and refines the arguments made by the exhibition.
Towing an iceberg away from a collision course with the Hibernia oil platform in Grand Banks, Newfoundland in 2005. Photo: Randy Olson / National Geographic Creative
Above all, the use of vintage news media underscores the dominant impression left by the exhibition: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Canadians have been concerned about the destruction of the environment for decades, and although numerous protections and improvements have been put in place, in many cases we are still having the same conversations.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the tireless work of Indigenous activists. A 1976 CBC documentary about mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows First Nation—a crisis which continues to make itself felt—and the voices raised in opposition to the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in 1974 are clearly echoed in the Water Is Life movement today. Although the contemporary perspectives of those fighting the Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador, Northern Gateway in B.C., or the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, N.D., are not included in the exhibition, the continuities are impossible to ignore.
Postcard showing the Superstack in Sudbury, Ontario. Photo: University of Waterloo Library, Special Collections & Archives, Canadian coalition on acid rain fonds. Canadian Photoscene Products Inc.
Contrary to the title of this exhibition, it is evident that change comes very slowly in Canadian environmental history. Activist curatorial work such as this may act as a catalyst, showing a way forward by reconsidering the past.
Sara Spike, PhD is a historian of the Canadian environment, rural places and visual culture.
Lifeline is an artwork by Peter Von Tiesenhausen that is extended each year to symbolically block pipeline proposals. Photo: Peter von Tiesenhausen.
An improvised oil-spill cleanup at Stanley Park, Vancouver in 1973. Photo: John Denniston.
Installation view illustrating the depletion of Atlantic cod stocks. Photo: CCA Montreal
An array of contaminated soil bags at Lower Base, Cape Dyer, Nunavut in 2013. Photo: Margo Pfeiff.
It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment is on view at the CCA until April 9, 2017.