Niagara Artists Centre
September 26 – December 6, 2015
The slogan coming out of Hamilton, another former industrial stronghold of Southern Ontario dreaming of past glory, is “Art is the new steel.” Anna Szaflarski’s series of interventions here in St. Catharines are less hopeful. That’s appropriate given how, in A Man’s Job (2011), she likens the city’s devoted and tumultuous relationship with General Motors to a failed love affair. There’s bitterness, anger, and exhaustion, and language familiar to the jilted. The timing is prescient: as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal perhaps smothers the last vestiges of manufacturing here (an act of mercy or murder, depending where you stand), the new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts opened downtown just this September. New urban renewal love displaces the old.
Szaflarski comes from St. Catharines, but has lived elsewhere for a decade, most recently in Berlin. We share a history: I’ve returned “home” after an absence nearly twice as long. The myths and mentality that formed this city are familiar to us both, and are multi-generational (though recounted differently by each of us). There’s the heartfelt nostalgia of the Auto Pact and a strong working class, and the lament (like Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown) cursing NAFTA: those jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.
In Szaflarski’s text artwork A Man’s Job, and her accompanying pamphlet Black and Incongruous Headlines (2015?), this is living—or dying—history. Her historical interventions are both literary and literal. A Man’s Job is a poster work, available at three locations (Niagara Artists Centre, a local flea market space, and The Golden Pheasant tavern) in matching “news boxes” painted the traditional GM blue with a strong white logo emblazoned upon it. One of the voices in Incongruous Headlines, written by NAC director Stephen Remus, bitterly spits that there are no logos or plaques or detritus of GM’s tenure here…though indexical signs, of a sort, proliferate. Some, broken and bitter, can be found near Szaflarski’s newsbox in The Golden Pheasant tavern, surely (perhaps soddenly) speaking the stories Remus channels in his text “You Got a Good Job Right Out of High School, Or, How St. Catharines Had Dumb Luck.”
Szaflarski’s words are less explosive and taunting, but just as despairing. When I say they’re literal, its because A Man’s Job is a collaged assemblage from the local paper comprised “of newspaper headlines, tracking the relationship between the employee and the auto industry in the Niagara region in Canada and span a time period of over 60 years.” Some of the choice headlines drip with drama: The line of despair lengthens or Slumping sales idles GM workers (poor humour, as in puns, often masks rage), or Reality saps auto giants invincibility.
There’s a cluster on the left like a staccato series of gut punches: GM workers on “way to extinction”; “GM deal a ‘great victory’”; “GM closing foundry line”; “GM workers on strike”; “GM retirees fight for a better pension”. And then smaller text, like reluctant post scripts: “Big earners keep cutting” and “Local strikes end grudgingly.” The lower right hand corner capitulates that all’s quiet on the local GM front. It’s all over, except for the demolition of the factory, and that started last month.
The text and formal aspects of the poster are banal: no bright splashes of colour, no relief from the grey dishwater newsprint and hard blacks of the text. The work is ubiquitous, just like the sad narrative of decline that could be transplanted to many sites (Windsor, or our Detroit cousins). This oppressive monotone is apt. There’s a post-mortem quality to how it elucidates the fraught history of labour relations.
Is it inappropriate to state how the brutal truth of A Man’s Job inspires contempt for the pollyanna fables of labour activism proffered by Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge? Or perhaps—as several people, both my immediate family and strangers, have commented—Szaflarski’s sentiment is “mean.” Perhaps an era gets the art it merits, whether it desires it or not.
The parallels in Szaflarski’s Incongruous Headlines liken GM and St. Catharines to a failed marriage, a relationship that stuttered to an end through miscommunication, unmatched expectations and incompatible desires. Szaflarski’s language here samples self help books and other such spaces of “self-actualization.”
Full disclosure: I lacked any familial favour for a GM job “right out of high school.” In some ways, this makes me the “wrong” audience, as I lack empathy. Alternately, as Szaflarski related to me in conversation, being outside allows a clarity of understanding. (She’s produced several works about this area during her return visits here. Many of these, she said, begin with the library downtown, implying a more factual, and less emotional, approach.)
I recently walked by the ruins of the GM plant on Ontario Street. With the levelling of that historical marker, Anna’s poster will soon be more real than that site. Both will rely on that dangerous thing, memory. This is a history told in fragmentary, diverting narratives. We can drink at The Golden Pheasant, on the edge of the industrial wastelands of shuttered manufacturing, eavesdropping on stories of better times, or else angry rants about the history Szaflarski inserts into this site of contested narratives.
Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for three years), Magenta, PrairieSeen, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters and was art critic at Planet S for over a decade. Also host & producer of The A Word, he currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, after nearly two decades on the Prairies.