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Living with Concepts installation breathes life into UTM’s campus

Exhibition presented by the Blackwood Gallery will run until 2024
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Tania Willard, Liberation of the Chinook Wind. Commissioned by the Blackwood for The Work of Wind: Air, Land, Sea. Presented at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus, 2021–2024. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Tania Willard, Liberation of the Chinook Wind. Commissioned by the Blackwood for The Work of Wind: Air, Land, Sea. Presented at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus, 2021–2024. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

It was mid-May, on a Saturday, that time of spring when the air moves as a light breeze and the sunshine doesn’t sear our skin. My friends and I had just gotten lunch from the Davis Food Court at UTM. We thought it would be a good idea to eat outdoors.

We found a platform made out of wooden planks tucked in a lightly forested area on campus. We sat there, cross-legged, and ate from paper take-out boxes as thick flies buzzed around us and ants crawled through the cracks of the platform. Soon, we got lost listening to each other’s stories that moved between the theoretical and the personal. We sat there for at least two hours. 

There was just something about sitting at ground level, resting underneath a speckled canopy, and hearing your voice vanish into a field that made talking to people feel like the most natural thing in the world.

That wooden platform was, in fact, partly designed for people to gather and reflect, as we had. It’s one of seven platforms made by Wiisaakodewinini (Métis) scholar and artist Dylan A.T. Miner for the Blackwood Gallery’s exhibition Living with Concepts, which was curated by Assistant Professor and the Blackwood’s Director Christine Shaw. 

These platforms, all currently located across the UTM campus, make up Miner’s artwork “Agamiing – Niwaabaandaan miinawaa Nimikwendaan // At the Lake – I see and I remember.”

Presented alongside Tania Willard’s “Liberation of the Chinook Wind” and Jana Winderen’s “Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone: From the Barents Sea to Lake Ontario,” “Agamiing” aims to animate the UTM campus and engage community members in the campus’s ecological world.

Three artworks, three elements, ten sites

To me, each artwork from Living with Concepts embodies an element of nature.

“Agamiing” embodies land. Made of old-growth lumber and copper, Miner’s platforms are subject to wear and oxidation, and thus demonstrates the rematriation of materials harvested from Lake Ontario back to the land. 

The platforms’ copper components allude to the historic mineral extraction in the Great Lakes region. Copper is also sacred for many Indigenous communities. “We hold [copper] as very sacred to, I would say, cleanse the water,” Miner said. He added that Indigenous peoples typically put water into copper vessels during ceremonies.

These seven platforms are positioned in a circle on campus. “This is a really important symbol… to our culture as Anishinaabe,” Miner said. In many Indigenous communities, the circle shape symbolizes cycles of the natural world, celestial bodies, and equality.

“Liberation of the Chinook Wind” embodies air. Made up of four windsocks, a flatscreen television, weather data from UTM’s Department of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, and poetry software developed by artist Stephen Surlin, “Liberation of the Chinook Wind” is ultimately about the agency and spirit of non-human entities. 

Willard — an artist of Secwépemc and settler ancestry — said that her work acquired its name from a Secwépemc story that illustrates the wind as an animate being. She sought to visualize the wind through windsocks, which are emblazoned with words.

In her research, Willard found that settlers introduced Chinook salmon to the Great Lakes for sport fishing because of the way these salmon “fight” and “thrash” on lines. However, Chinook salmon have now become an invasive species in the lakes. 

“So the two windsocks that say ‘fight’ and ‘thrash’ are about that reckless kind of introduction of species that used to happen, and likely still happens in different forms,” Willard said in an interview with The Varsity.

To contrast these settler perspectives, Willard emblazoned “water” and “claim” to the remaining windsocks in order to bring attention to ongoing land and water claims by the Mississaugas of the Credit, as well as to affirm continuing Indigenous stewardship in the area. 

“Liberation of the Chinook Wind” also sees the wind writing poetry. To accomplish this, Willard first created a word bank from various government environmental management documents as well as from land and water claims by the Mississaugas of the Credit. Then, her team used coding to correlate these words with wind speed and direction data, which would in turn compose a poem every four days.

These poems can be found online and on a screen at the Davis Meeting Place. “What better way to have agency than to be engaged in a creative act?” Willard said.

The last piece, “Spring Bloom” embodies water. A four-channel audio installation located in the woods at UTM, “Spring Bloom” features Norway-based artist Winderen’s composition of her field recordings in the Barents Sea along the marginal ice zone, near the North Pole — a zone that’s critical to the production of oxygen. Winderen took these recordings during the spring bloom, when the number of phytoplankton tremendously increases in the area.

Aside from the underwater sounds made by bearded seals, humpback whales, orcas, crustaceans, and cod, Winderen’s composition also features blooming plankton and the shifting and crackling of sea ice in the Barents Sea.

“I did recordings in and underneath the ice,” Winderen said. “We were devastated to see how little ice there was in areas that normally would be covered with ice at this time.” She added that the spring bloom — and the wildlife that depends on it — will drastically change because of the rapid melting of ice. 

I myself stood in the middle of the four towering speakers that make up “Spring Bloom.” I closed my eyes, and immediately felt like I had been transported to a boat rushing through the sea. The rustle of the leaves suddenly sounded like small waves crashing over each other, and the dew of the trees suddenly smelled like saltwater. 

Suddenly, placing the sounds of the seas deep inside a forest made all the sense in the world. 

Animating the UTM campus

In an interview with The Varsity, Fraser McCallum — the Blackwood’s project coordinator — said that Living with Concepts aims to reframe how people move through and look at the UTM campus environment. As he pointed out, beyond its use as a space for learning and research, the UTM campus also has long histories, non-human ecosystems, and connections to other places. 

“Contemporary art is a way to shift the lens in how we look at our environment… [to] all these different worlds that are inhabiting the campus all at once,” McCallum said. For example, Willard’s windsocks allow onlookers to understand how the wind moves through the campus. McCallum hopes that people will pause and reflect about these different worlds when they engage with Living with Concepts. 

Artworks in the installation are on display outdoors, which means that they respond to environmental changes and ecological cycles. The Blackwood team has to respond to these changes accordingly. 

“It’s a new set of challenges than when we’re working primarily indoors,” McCallum said. “We learn about the environment through the way we have to maintain the artworks, the way that they’re being affected by the seasons.” 

For instance, they need to take down Willard’s windsocks in the presence of high winds and continuously maintain Miner’s wooden platforms. They also need to change the hours during which Winderen’s audio installation plays based on seasonal changes, in order to reduce noise pollution for the creatures residing in the forest.

With this much care involved, it comes as no surprise that the exhibition is a collaborative effort among artists, curators, biologists, geographers, and facility managers. 

Ultimately, McCallum said that the UTM campus is often seen as a transitory place; the Blackwood wanted to challenge that. “We really wanted to think about the campus environment as a space for living,” he said. “Living with seasons, living with animals, and the different kinds of cycles that the artworks touch on.”

The Blackwood has published interpretive videos about Living with Concepts on their website, and will publish a broadsheet in September that will contain interpretive responses and additional context to the exhibition’s artworks. Living with Concepts is at the UTM campus for three years, from June 1, 2021 until May 31, 2024.