Various venues
May 31 – June 29, 2014

Now in its fourteenth manifestation, CAFK+A (Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener + Area) produces a multidisciplinary, loosely thematic, month-long public art biennal that spans across the Kitchener-Waterloo region. This year’s exhibition, It Should Always Be This Way, consisted of 26 commissioned and re-imagined site specific projects exhibited across the region that vary in medium, content and process.

Travelling through the exhibition (which is not walkable), I was preoccupied by several questions on what it means to produce a project of this scale. If CAFK+A’s aim is to develop a programming model that extends outside of the traditional white cube gallery into the supposedly more accessible realm of ‘open’ city space, then what does it mean to be a public?

In direct reference to the hierarchical resistances and disjunctions often faced between art publics, patrons and producers, CAFK+A affirms things are not, in fact, “this way”, and nor is “this way”, properly speaking, achievable at all – at least in the way we might hope or imagine. It Should Always Be This Way stands as a kind of microcosm of biennial culture, of the shifting nature of relational curatorial mapping and, further, of the asymmetrical power dynamics of arts funding that mediate the creative climates of established and burgeoning art centres alike. The material impermanence of the exhibition allows for this self-reflexivity.

As expected, It Should Always Be This Way includes several large-scale sculptures and installations that interact with and around the citys’ existing physical structures. Montreal-based collective Seripop created an installation titled Exegi monumentum aere perennius, comprised of an industrial skeletal cubic structure that holds within it various forms that misbehave according to the perceived spatial logic of form. Nearby, viewers will find Samuel Roy-Bois’ The Brittle Edges of Coherence, an installation of a fixed car crash constructed into a stark, archetypal model of a white high-rise tower.

Other larger scale sculptural interventions include Max Streicher and Garnet Willis’ Tree Organ, an impressive inflatable sculpture with interactive audio ‘branches’ that shift and redistribute sounds as the viewer moves around it, and Anne Marie Hadcock’s Dream of an Oasis, an artificial tree encased in white chenille yarn. These works highlight several critical underlying factors that reach across all the works in the exhibition: an attempt to situate creative dialogue from between the anthropocentric and ecocentric divide, a desire to locate the interstice of natural space and human intervention, and to interrupt the idealization of a supposed consistency or neutrality of external ‘otherness’ in both form and tendency.

But, the exhibition also showcases several works that move beyond the conventional formula. A particularly sophisticated project was Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli’s In Search of the Abandoned, a multimedia work in which documentation and memories of place are tested along a total, immersive stereoscopic digital environment. This project comes out of an extensive, near-four-year research process based on the artists’ physical, symbolic and aesthetic explorations of an obscure non-site in the Arctic, which mysteriously bears the name “Abandoned” in Google Earth. Appropriately, outside of the building that houses this work, is Laura Moore’s One Man’s Trash, a seemingly informal installation of several to-scale computer systems in limestone. The work traces a kind of reification of tech processes and capacities through a consideration of the banality of the formal structural enclosures of ‘data’. This juxtaposition demonstrates the goal of the curators to set up networks of exchange that may not first appear as one naturally develops a disjointed rhythm in travelling site-to-site throughout the region.

With Robert Hengeveld’s Sspun, perhaps the exhibition’s most sober, yet most satisfying, conceptually rich work, we find a continuously rotating tree situated in a moderately forested area of the Waterloo Park. Sspun does not simply happen upon us. Rather, it blends in along a flattened consistency of green. One must intend to see it amongst the scenic, constructed landscape. This subtle shift towards ambiguous public space offers valuable commentary on the predisposition of our aesthetic judgments –of seeing what we expect or do not expect to see – when encountering works outside of a conventional gallery space.

Another work that escapes the noise and bigness of the conventional biennial format is Don Miller’s Saturn and Cronus. Here, the artist (alongside a group of community volunteers) reimaged two boarded up, abandoned crack houses before their scheduled demolition. The houses were fully repainted (including windows, steps and various fragmented remains outside), one in black and the other in white. Both are targeted and marked by oversized, exaggerated orange darts that crash through second story windows. Miller’s intervention can be figured as a way to defer finitude, not simply in offering the romantic conception of memory within material, but in opening up an imaginative, almost mythological displacement of ‘the real’ with which to ground the houses’ complex histories before their destruction.

Works like these subvert conventional expectations of public art to interrupt daily life – to perform theatrically in public space and also to proclaim or report to us this performance. But herein lies a particular, overarching challenge with the CAFK+A biennial: how are the curators to nurture visibility and market such a project to a relatively disjointed, if not ambivalent, regional ‘community’? Can they remain critically transparent of the project’s own systems of deliverance and challenge the rhetoric of ‘cultural richness’, all the while pushing the creative limits of the work involved? The degree to which this self-reflexivity can connect or be made explicit to the casual viewer remains unclear.

Because of such tensions, I arrived at the conclusion that we cannot simply assign the burden of transforming or transcending daily life onto public art. Rather, from this view, we can figure these efforts as opportunities to read the ‘distances’ involved in spectatorship, along both physical and virtual space, with new criticality. And, it is through this sense fragmentation, non-linearity and, perhaps, displacement that we might challenge the notion of a marked, delimited ‘cultural sphere’, and thus a seamless intervention into it, whether spatial, symbolic or otherwise. This is particularly true of Kitchener-Waterloo, a region that has worked for many years to cultivate a sense of identity and cohesion among its artistic community.