By Bart Gazzola
I’m interested in the “secret” or “buried” histories of places. This is just my latest trope within sites of contested narratives. A recent British murder mystery I watched was built around the “lost rivers of London” and how a place can exist for so long and change so radically that something is not so much “hidden” as genuinely forgotten. But even if the formally mighty River Fleet became fouled as Smithfield abbatoirs dumped meaty effluvia into it, until it became part of the London sewer system, it still shaped the city. The Fleet defined Farrington Road, and like the River Effra or River Wallbrook or many others, the ‘borders between much of the capital owes much to its buried waterways’, to quote the BBC.
These are ideas that Elizabeth Chitty asks us to consider in her Confluence Field Trips. Its interdependant combinations of production and presentation from Dick’s Creek to the VISA Art Gallery in The Mariyn I. Walker School of Performing and Fine Arts (barely 15 minutes apart by foot, much more distant metaphorically) straddle spaces both public and private.
This gallery manifestation of Confluence “is part of the artist’s project which includes a website (confluencefieldtrip.ca), walking project, and performance. From September–November, the public was invited to CLAIM SPACE | SEE AND BE SEEN | HEAR AND BE HEARD in three Confluence Field Trips in Canal Valley, St. Catharines.
The “confluence” of the title is that of Dick’s Creek and Twelve Mile Creek […] viewed during Confluence Field Trip #1 from Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts to Rodman Hall Art Centre. Dick’s Creek is presumed named for Richard Pierpoint, escaped slave, soldier and settler griot, but is generally known by the name of Old Welland Canal – commerce trumping both nature and black history.[Confluence] was predicated by the opening in autumn 2015 of two major arts buildings in St. Catharines: the MIW School and the City of St. Catharines’ FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. These buildings overlook Canal Valley, and mark a new phase in a site rich with cycles of wilderness, industry, abandonment, and reclamation”.
What you experience in the gallery is indivisably dependant on what “walkers” experienced. Chitty’s insightful words: “About a hundred people [participated] in seventeen walks conducted mostly in silence except for speaking into an audio recorder, while the artist walked with them wearing a chest-mounted camera. Governance and policy impacts on natural and built space, embodied experience, and marginalized narratives emerge from this work.”
It’s fitting that Confluence is within one of the sites that instigated it. This increases its historical and contemporary relevance, and perhaps troubles the more dominant narrative of economic inclusion and prosperity. Or, if you follow some of the links at Chitty’s site, and the larger history of St. Catharines’ founding, “what has been is what will be, and there is nothing new under the sun”. The economic driver of the confluence of waterways gives way to the economic engine that was auto manufacturing (a confluence of borders and trade) and that we hope is now succeeded by the “cultural city” as economic revitalization.
In light of that, my description of what you see in the VISA space is but a taste, (a map, if you remember the quote that begin this meandering tangent of a review).
On the wall furthest from the gallery entrance is the largest of the videos in the exhibition. It incorporates aspects of all the walks, so its size is merited. Approximately half an hour in length, it’s bracketed on the three other gallery walls by three other “walks” that are represented by two video monitors apiece (six total). Each small monitor has a set of headphones.
There is audio in the space for the main video on the wall, while another is a ‘mix’ of various audio that also appears in the ‘headphoned’ videos.
There’s a number of voices and sites along the various Confluence walks, but the stories that are most dominant in Chitty’s installation connects back to ‘embodied experience’ and ‘marginalized narratives.’ An example of this is from what Chitty calls Walk #16, from the path described as Confluence Field Trip #2. In the audio of this walk, you hear the voice of a participant, who’s from Senegal; Richard Pierpoint was, too (once know, less politely but accurately, as Africa’s “slave coast”). So this aural excerpt starts with this gentleman’s voice (in French), wondering what Pierpoint’s ‘original [Senegalese] name’ was, which blends into Elizabeth’s voice talking about Pierpoint and the important role he played in the history of “here.” (Chitty suggests the book A Stolen Life: Looking for Richard Pierpoint).
Another story of place that infuses VISA is found in the audio program centred around the totem pole erected as part of the Canadian Centenniary. This was made by Douglas Cramner of Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, and seems incongruous here, grafted onto this space in a manner that ignores the different Indigenous nations that comprise this country (it could also exemplify taking a symbol and emptying out its meaning to force hegemonic imperial narratives). This city, this territory, has alternately been claimed by the Haudenosaunee (of the Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations) or the Anishinaabe. There’s a greater consideration of the specifics of history these days: Chitty illustrates this at her page about territory, and in highlighting what we know — or what we don’t — about the treaties that (like Pierpoint) formed this place (Nanfan or Treaty of Niagara or Wampum Belts Associated With the War of 1812, to name several). And now Isaac Brock University has a Chancellor who told me that she intends her legacy to be that Indigenous history is accorded the respect deserved in a Nation to Nation educational discourse.
But perhaps this all simply comes back to awareness and openess. In late October, when confronted with the impossibility of my usual path to Rodman Hall, I found myself along the lower mud and leaves of Dick’s Creek, the sun shining on the river, the site beautiful and somehow new to me, despite having lived here for nearly two decades, nearly twenty years ago. This was a gift, so that my return to this place was not just a redux, but something new, something undiscovered. The bridge and the water, that this space was mere minutes from St. Paul and had always been here and that I’d never know this seemed impossible.
In light of that, when you visit Chitty’s work at the VISA, it isn’t the end of a project anymore than how history “ends”, but is a place we inhabit and name, and rename, remake and see through new eyes.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.