Review: Mackenzie Place by Jesse Colin Jackson, Pari Nadimi Gallery, Toronto
A review of Jesse Colin Jackson’s solo exhibition by Marcin Kedzior.
Jesse Colin Jackson’s exhibition at Toronto’s Pari Nadimi Gallery, Mackenzie Place (open through July 22, 2023), is a rich and inventive study of ‘The Highrise’ in Hay River (Xátł’odehchee), Northwest Territories. Four cameras are mounted on top of the only highrise in Hay River, named Mackenzie Place, and are pointed in the four cardinal directions of the city. Four projectors transpose nearly 1 million images into the gallery space, a time-lapse that allows us to take in a day in a couple of breaths, or five years in an hour. The exhibit also features large-scale, time-collapsing, photographs and a sort of biography of the building: an album showing The Highrise from many vantage points and dispositions. A soundtrack, derived from an ethnographic text by Lindsay Bell, a former resident of Hay River, features interviews with inhabitants, offering a window into the life of the building. Jackson also features her process-oriented field notebooks as a wall piece. These anthropological dimensions are important reminders to architects that alongside what we see there are stories, and many lives.
An Ecology of Stories
Trained as an architect, Jackson uses the field of art as a vehicle for working alongside urbanists, designers, humanists, poets, ecologists, anthropologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists to produce new ways of thinking about geographical and built situations. His previous project, Radiant City (2014), took on the legacy of Toronto’s highrises—refusing to reproduce either the utopian vision of Le Corbusier’s tower-in-a-park, or the highrise as a failed utopia. Jackson suspends these readings to unravel what else these buildings could be. In Mackenzie Place, stereotypical understandings of ‘The North’ as vacant, pristine nature, ‘wilderness,’ perpetually silenced by snow, or simply as a site of resource extraction, are sidestepped. Instead, a complex ecology, an entire culture, rushes forth. We witness several ecologies: social, material, environmental, and even an ecology of stories, with many interacting myths and representations.
The brilliance of the project is to use a generic typology, the highrise, to proliferate new understandings. Despite its central position in Hay River—sharing a block with City Hall—locals refuse The Highrise as a symbol or monument, insisting it is “not the real Hay River.” Similarly, Hay River itself is described by others as “not the real North.” Many of the inhabitants are migrants working in resource extraction industries and consider their dwelling there temporary, until they move on to the next thing. This perpetual warding off of identities is important for the entire exhibit where, instead of being a protagonist, The Highrise acts as a ‘found-object,’ or a massive tripod. This shifts the focus from what The Highrise looks like or what it means to what it does—its relations to sociality, identity, the movements and aspirations of its inhabitants, infrastructure, landscape, weather, and larger ecologies of resource extraction. The building is not the point but is instead an aperture or a mode of seeing these multiplicities. The building is used to deny a simple understanding of the building.
The film proliferates readings, putting forward the:
building-as-shadow (only appearing in the film as a shadow),
building-as-reflective-object (sunrise bounces off the building and lands on an adjacent library),
building-as-pupil (the dark centre of the eye that sees but itself cannot be seen),
building-as-sun (allowing us to see but it cannot be directly looked at),
building-as-axis mundi (with four cardinal directions),
building-as-orientation-device (built by the same company that built the CN tower in Toronto),
building-as-speculation (anticipating a new pipeline that never arrived),
building-as-gossip (with inhabitants piecing together fragments of stories overheard in the elevator),
building-as- “human filing cabinet” (housing human resources for the extraction of natural resources),
building-as-communication (because the tower is covered in satellite dishes that “grow like fungi,” a radio tower on top, and now, via this exhibit, as another mode of communication and storytelling).
The atmosphere itself becomes part of the medium, at times growing thicker with fog and forming frost on the camera. As such, the distinction between lens and weather blurs, the plot thickens along with the atmosphere, with water droplets forming hundreds of lenses or ‘bubbles,’ a reminder that our vision is also governed by the bubble we are in. Incredible abstract patterns produced through the refraction of light invite us to ask what other ways of seeing are possible?
Structure for Life
The exhibit is almost too full, and at the same time it is neutral, allowing us to witness the improvised dance of the city for ourselves. The simplicity and control of the camera position allows viewers to apprehend the life of the city with its flux and unpredictability. The experimental composer John Cage said “structure without life is dead. But life without structure is unseen.” Incidentally, when Jackson first arrived to teach at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, he was allotted an office recently vacated by Yvonne Rainer, a long-time collaborator of Cage and Merce Cunningham. Rainer’s own manifesto, with statements like “NO HERO/NO ANTI-HERO,” resonates with Jackson’s film that does not “valorize or vilify” these buildings. Instead, just as Cage would like sounds to be sounds, and Rainer would like movements to be movements, Jackson allows space to be as unmediated as possible. It is not a question of an ‘objective’ portrayal but rather developing a highly situated structure that unleashes the indeterminacy of life. This allows viewers-participants to gather insights outside of habitual modes of thinking. This is why an artist’s expressivity is not the point and would lead away from the unfolding of the city. The aerial view from The Highrise oscillates between a ‘total’ plan view from above and the perspectival, fluctuating, lived experience of the street, going beyond an image of Hay River.
To the west we witness morning meetings by the library. Trucks, train tracks and warehouses beyond. The City Hall parking lot is busy but only during the week. We accustom ourselves to the habits of inhabitation and the choreography of mail trucks. To the north a church active on weekends. Wreaths adorn streetlights in the winter. A school with a basketball court framing moving bodies—co-ordinated activity within bounds—and a prominent running track on which grass is mowed in satisfying concentric ripples. The track’s circumambulation is fitting under the unceasing North Star. To the south are bars with cars in front alternating like random molecules, chance encounters, or speed-dating. An adjacent construction site produces many mini-Heizer interventions. The concerns of the community become our concerns as we see improvised movements around the construction. Beyond, to the east we see fields of trees with leaves wiggling in the wind. This landscape includes an Indigenous reserve, Pine Point mine, the drama and dance of the Northern Lights and birds touching down on Hay River, where the city gets its name from. We see the sunrise each day, reflecting off the river; the city is reborn every day, gray, then indigo, then pink, then gold, then vivid green, coming alive with activity every morning. The “buttery-yellow,” or champagne, or blushing orange, or gray-ochre highrise sees all of this. The city is stretched along the river. Sometimes the river is calm and reflects the sky. Sometimes there are ripples that never repeat. The river is different every season.