In the Grey Zone of Public Space: Chloe Lum and Yannick Desranleau's Residency at Open Space

In the Grey Zone of Public Space
Alexis Hogan
 
The summer of 2014 at Open Space Arts Society began with Chloe Lum and Yannick Desranleau’s (a.k.a. Seripop) two week residency We’re never gonna get close because it’s hanging, since we took off the horse but kept the rider. The artists descended upon Open Space bringing with them reams of silkscreened paper printed in bold flats, subdued dégradés, and striking patterns reminiscent of textiles. During their residency the artists’ combination of Tyvek and pre-screened paper was to be glued, folded, and stitched into a series of hats that recalled the 19th century bicorns often satirized in political cartoons (Desranleau and Lum, 2014).  The hats would be deployed around the Capital Regional District (CRD) as site-specific, visually disruptive, yet playful, interventions
 
 The Montreal-based duo has been creating art and noise (AIDS Wolf) together for over fifteen years, and they’ve focused some of their conceptual and material exploration probing the entropic devolution of their materials-in-practice, demonstrated in works such as Avancez En Arrière (2012) and J'm'en Suis Déjà Souvenu (2012). Both works highlight the nature of urban expansion evidenced through continuous mutations of land, cityscapes, and civic spaces in the name of capitalist development and progress (Desranleau and Lum, 2014). Wielding their neon hydra of sculpture, serigraphy, and colour theory, Lum and Desranleau provoke sensorial stimulation, and through their critical manipulations of modernist techniques, they incite latent ephemeral cultures.
 
I wasn’t familiar with their work—noise or art—and was entirely unprepared for how Lum and Desranleau’s intellectual and material explorations would inform my understanding of contemporary print practices.  
 
Lum and Desranleau’s time in residence at Open Space followed a trajectory divergent from large-scale sculptural installations and instead focused their sights upon civically endorsed sculpture and its characteristic banality. The pair picked a prime location to instigate this particular vein of Western cultural critique: Victoria is the capital of British Columbia; a bastion of colonial iconography; a port city for cruise ships; and a major tourist destination on the West Coast of North America. Its cityscape is adorned with well-groomed pockets of vivid ornament choreographed to create seamless backdrops for the composition of Canadian nationalistic identity, evidenced in both postcards and selfies. The capital is rife with objects championed as art for all audiences, from bronze monuments to dull abstractions, most passed over time and again as the pieces are conceived only to recede into a semi-metropolitan backdrop as “urban furniture” (Desranleau and Lum, 2014). Lum and Desranleau chose city-sanctioned projects from the CRD inventory of public art, which offered the artists ample opportunities to scrutinize the relationships between civic sculpture and an implied homogenous and ambivalent public audience. Concurrently, the length of the place-based context of their residency encouraged the artists to emphasize the invisibilized governance of public space, communal objects, and private property. 
True to their practice, Lum and Desranleau’s time in residence at Open Space maintained an affective tension between elements of humour, material vulnerability, and sharp sociocultural critique. To sustain this balance, Lum and Desranleau have a system of rules. Their rules don’t read as hierarchical—unless we acknowledge the privileging of sight—but strategic, and they begin with the accumulation of silkscreened paper; each piece compounds a sensation of visual overload. Then, the artists utilize their self-imposed structure of never-ending tasks until they loop and fold and grow and time simply runs out—only then the work is finished. Lum and Desranleau’s residency at Open Space was no exception to these rules: it began with a list of approximately twenty works that they chose to festoon their psychedelic cartoonish hats upon. Quickly the project escalated into a challenge to bequeath remarkable ephemera upon every piece of public art possible—minus war memorials and First Nations’ art works. I’m not conflating the two, but the artists recognized the distinction that each occupies particular, culturally sensitive spaces in private and public realms.
 
The first piece deployed in Lum and Desranleau’s residency was printed in swathes of subdued peach and sky blue and sewn into the shape of a dunce cap the size of a child. I rode with Lum, Desranleau, Open Space guest curator Doug Jarvis, and then assistant curator, Sara Fruchtman, in broad daylight (the lot of us poorly camouflaged against the suburban backdrop in neon vis-a-vests and hard hats) to the first site, the Terry Fox Memorial (Scott, 2005) at one of Victoria’s many tour bus destinations, Mile Zero.
The artists had no more than a minute to reflect upon the installation of the first hat, the end of which rested well beneath the figure’s chest totally engulfing Fox’s body and face in its conical hollow, when a neighbourhood vigilante confronted the team with an illuminating, rapid-fire critique. The man instantaneously perceived the installation and the team’s actions as stepping outside unspoken moral boundaries and took it upon himself to police our behaviour.I think the first sentences out of his mouth were “You’re not fooling anyone with your vests and hard hats. This is not art! That’s a dunce cap! This is worse than graffiti. What have you ever done in your lives that can compare to what Terry Fox did?!”  
 
His succinct vitriol left us all momentarily dumb struck, until the next spear-like question erupted snidely out of him—“What does this thing even do?” Lum, looking directly at him, said simply: “It protects him from the elements.”  Without reductively explaining the project, Lum volleyed a subtle, yet significant, response to the gentleman’s tirade. The neighbourhood watch-cum-art critic had not taken one moment to ask what the group was doing or why they were doing it. But he knew he was dealing with artists and, to top it off, imposters. And the man knew what art was.  He responded with all-too-familiar paternal modernist fervour; through his attitude, he defined art to his audience of miscreants and insisted that we had committed sacrilege upon “Art” and memory, and personal sacrifice. One could easily read from his reaction that the anarchic gesture of the artists’ intervention and the collaborative efforts of their accomplices were far more threatening than the actuality of a flimsy hat perched upon a statue, vulnerable to the Pacific’s wind.  
           
Lum and Desranleau’s public gesture struck a nerve. As soon as there was a moment to reflect upon this notion in a post-installation dialogue, the trespass against the community at large became crystalline.  What the artists and their team had failed to recognize with the Terry Fox Memorial was that, like war memorials or First Nation’s public art pieces, Terry Fox’s legacy moves the statue out of the realm of “Art”. In this instance, as Open Space director Helen Marzolf so aptly put it: “For a secular community, the statue of Terry Fox inhabits the space of a shrine.”
 
Although the artists’ first intervention may have been read as vulgar or disrespectful, the act of playful irreverence toward a piece of public sculpture in combination with the response it elicited from the artists’ audience, precisely exemplified the subject of the artists’ interrogations. The artists had irrevocably called forth the verbalization of their audiences’ expectations of communal spaces and objects, and contemporary art. Dunce-capping Terry Fox was like blowing cigar smoke into a room full of invisible lasers; after the initial provocation, the artists had a clear indication of the psychic terrain they had chosen to traverse. Consequently, the anticipation for Lum and Desranleau’s projects and audience shifted. Though the artists prepared for a potential onslaught of negative reception during the remainder of their time in residence, the artists persisted, and used We’re never gonna get close to encourage the temporal metamorphosis of dormant municipal art.
 
What is most salient about We’re never gonna get close, is that as an audience, the series of interventions invokes our positionality as subjects constantly engaging in seemingly neutral public spaces. Whether or not the community appreciated Lum and Desranleau’s work, they were, in moments, spurred into active embodiments of individual autonomy. For instance, the individual at Mile Zero satisfied his outrage by removing the hat from the Terry Fox Memorial and was clearly triumphant in self-recognition of his agency in that moment. As an artist and curator with an invested interest in contemporary print-media, sculpture and critical cultural theory, my experience of the work was quite different from the gentleman’s at Mile Zero, which I will detail in later paragraphs.   
 
To construe Lum and Desranleau’s residency at Open Space as a series of artistic interventions that were negatively received would be entirely misleading. The artists installed upward of twenty pieces of public sculpture with the kaleidoscopic patterns of their iconic (or is it iconoclastic?) markers, many of them in high-profile places such as Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Throughout the majority of these actions, the artists and their assistants were photographed, cheered for by onlookers, or even physically supported if the action demanded it. 
The encouragement from the melange of tourists and locals was not necessarily born out of an immediate recognition and investment in lampooning the stagnancy of public sculpture or debasing the aura held within colonial monuments. Rather, individuals became engaged with the artists’ collaborations out of an instantaneous detection of the surreality and charisma of Lum and Desranleau’s activities, which were forceful enough to momentarily [re]activate spaces and objects through the recognition of the uncanny. The sheer scale and ambition of We’re never gonna get close was enough to jolt throngs of individuals out of their unconscious participation in the spectacle of tourism and daily urban life and into conscious participation in the artists’ interventions or, at least, conscientious voyeurism.
 
For me, the most affecting intervention occurred when the artists placed an enormous, vivid, bicorn upon the looming figure of Captain James Cook (Freeborn, 1976). The statue signals a crucial nexus in Victoria’s downtown core; it is a central monument in the Inner Harbour that stands across the street from the Empress Hotel, and concurrently, is situated across from the capital city’s Parliament Building. I photo-documented the stream of activity as Cook’s imposing bronze persona, (upwards of fifteen feet tall if you include his pedestal), was dwarfed and belittled by the juvenile absurdity of an immense multi-coloured paper boat. In effect, the artists created a parody of one of the many monuments to Canada’s colonial project: past, present and future. As a settler with indigenous heritage (Chippewa, Algonquin), an uninvited visitor on Lekwungen homelands, and someone who continues to struggle with the convergence of these realities, the fleeting transformation of Cook’s omnipresence against Victoria’s neosettler-colonial backdrop was immensely cathartic[1]. Dozens of tourists photographed the renovated figure of the colonial project and brought that image home with them, indexing the transformation of Cook in the archive of their memories.
 
Cook is one symbol of colonialism amongst a bounty that was sullied by an impudent act of subterfuge.  And I know that the artists’ intervention doesn’t do much, that the impact of their actions cannot be quantified, nor the extension of the ripple outwards be seen beyond this locus: it’s a coded gesture towards an uninitiated public.  But for me, this was an open, public act of irreverence towards a corrupt mentality that has poisoned these territories and its Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities for over 200 years.  As Lum and Desranleau slung the cap low over the face of that bronze figure, with throngs of tourists posing for photos beneath Cook, their intervention rendered, for an instant, an icon of colonialism ludicrous and powerless. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Works Cited
Desranleau, Yannick.  Personal interview.  11 July 2014.
Desranleau, Yannick and Chloe Lum.  Avencez en Arriere.  2012 – 2014. Screen printed paper, building, weather.  Action Art Actuel.  Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec, Canada.
Desranleau, Yannick and Chloe Lum.  J'm'en Suis Déjà Souvenu. 2012. Screen printed paper.  Art Souterrain 2012, Complexe Guy-Favreau, Montréal, Canada.
Desranleau, Yannick and Chloe Lum.  “We’re never gonna get close because it’s hanging, since we took off the horse but kept the rider Artist’s Talk.”  Open Space Arts Society.  Victoria, BC  13 June 2014.  Artist’s Talk.
Freeborn, Derek and Patricia.  Captain James Cook.  07 December 1976.  Bronze and granite.  Capital Regional District, Victoria, British Columbia.
Marzolf, Helen.  Personal interview.  June 2014.
Seripop “Seripop culture,” Seripop, 1 August 2014.
Scott, Nathan.  Terry Fox Memorial.  10 August 2005.  Bronze and granite. Capital Regional District, Victoria, British Columbia.
Wolf Shenk, Joshua.  “The End of Genius.” Sunday Review. The New York Times.  19 July 2014.  Web.  22 July 2014. 
                                                                                                  

[1] It’s significant to note that Cook’s ship navigated through the Nuu-chah-nulth territories into what is colonially named “Nootka Sound”, and landed in the Tahsis Inlet. According to hegemonic Canadian historical narrative, Cook’s “discovery” of the inlet “created” the birthplace of British Columbia.