Exhibition Essay: Goodbye forever: False Absence
Mark Clintberg’s Cecil Hotel is a sculptural artwork and anti-monument for the defunct Calgary hotel of the same name. Until December 2015, the Cecil Hotel was one of only six pre-First World War hotels still standing in the city.1 It was in a neighbourhood now called the East Village inhabited over centuries by First peoples, settlers, campers, cruisers, labourers, bikers, sex workers, and homeless communities. The Cecil became a gathering place for people needing short term accommodations, people needing company for a night, people looking for a fight. It has a long and storied history.
The work takes the form of a modified replica of the hotel signage, which was visible on the roof of the hotel for decades. As precisely as possible, Clintberg has created a scaled down replica with the same framing, font, colour, and mounting structure, with one exception: the letters are backwards, a mirror image of the original.
Viewers encounter it first by catching a glimpse through a large industrial door giving way to the gallery space. In addition to mirroring the text, Clintberg plays with its installation. The work is installed “backwards” and on entry, beckons us to view it from the other side. When approached in this way—the only way that the choice of installation here allows—the text is reversed and the tracery of the mounting structure and letters are in silhouette. Could there be another way to approach it? There is only one entrance to the gallery but there are many ways to read this sign. The text is an advertisement that advocates for critical thought. What is perceived as illegible is in fact comprehensible. We can figure this out.
The mirror image is reflected yet again as the floor’s slight gloss bounces a pinkish/red glow. What’s the right way around? Where should one’s attention and body go? The mirroring and reflection heighten the ambiguity about what the right way is to look at this work—and the right way to look at the Cecil Hotel. What is to be done about places with conflicting stories? What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right way to read not just the text but the ethics of the demolition of this hotel? And what’s an appropriate artistic response to the symbol of a systemic problem?
The societies we have built for ourselves are uneven, busted systems with which we have to contend. The Cecil was once known as a “gathering place for Calgary’s lesbian community in the 60s, when local softball teams chose the Cecil’s backroom as their watering hole”, an underground haven for a community to convene and celebrate.2 Around the time of its demolition however, the stories told in the mainstream media presented the Cecil as an ugly blight that Calgarians had long wished removed. Some referred to the heritage report that deemed it salvageable while others said the opposite.3 These conflicting viewpoints seem to indicate that while the old hotel had value, it was inconvenient to recognize it and care for its history. Most of all, the stories that are told are of violence and desperation. At least three different major news outlets cited the same statistics: in its final year of operation, police were called 1,700 times and weeks after its bar license was revoked, calls to the area dropped by 91%.4 Why share this repeatedly? Yes, it’s newsworthy, but it also implies that a perceived threat can dissipate like dust settling after a demolition. The repetition of this narrative creates a false absence and erases the stories of community, convening, and celebration. The conflicting viewpoints, opposing details, and drilling of these narratives shows that this place was not as simple as an “'epicentre' of evil, death and darkness.”5
The demolished building stands in for a body being denied. People who used it are perceived as useless, worthless, a blight to be covered up and hidden. The hope to disappear the body of the hotel is a hope to disappear the bodies of the past and recent frequenters of the hotel itself. This characterization of the hotel as a useless body denies the many individuals who were once there, especially those who recently stayed there, because to acknowledge that they are also no longer found at this address would require asking where they went. It wishes them away. As one commenter on the National Post article wrote: “No one likes you Cecil. Goodbye forever.”6
Clintberg could have drawn upon his connections in Calgary to meet with various community groups to discuss the future of the hotel and the now vacant site but he chose not to. In this moment of social practice, city-based research, collaboration, community awareness, and new funding for engagement, many arts organizations, municipalities, and individual creators have conducted community consultations or impact assessments and included community members in the creative process. Artworks that respond to community issues by depending on the community itself for aspects of the material production have mixed results. Sometimes the art enhances the community with a visual expression or the community enhances the art with personal content. Often enough, work made in this way turns out to be a simplistic representation of the community involved because it relies on whoever is available and willing. On rare occasions, both the work and the community are authentically strengthened by the engagement. When city planners or artists use art as a tool or set of instructions to work on lived social issues, this process legitimizes art as having the ability to save a neighbourhood, a city, or a society. Culture can create change and is the backbone of a strong society. But more often than not, this hopeful way of thinking loses its nuances and complexities by focusing on individual artworks, rather than larger cultural movements less limited by time and space.
Clintberg invites the community into the process after this material production phase. He explains: “…rather than a conversation focused on how to best represent the communities of The Cecil Hotel through the fabrication of an object (or even the planning of events, interventions, or other core strategies of social practice), I hope the conversation can focus on how to spark discussion about gaining representative ground for The Cecil Hotel's communities—with no expected artistic outcome. Cecil Hotel, I hope, will become an initial gesture to return to the present-tense of the Cecil Hotel, which while architecturally absent is still demographically present.”7
This brings us to an important point of public and community contact for this project. There is a set of beverage glasses that have been created with the Cecil Hotel logo. To insist “Goodbye forever” is to let go forcefully. The glasses, which are circulating in bars and establishments around town, ask people to hold onto the memories of the Cecil with a bit more care. Spreading a multiple directly into neighbourhoods in this way points to endings and renewal. The glasses, unless archived, will break eventually through use. The systems we have will also eventually need to be replaced because they too break through use. But the story of the Cecil tells us that it’s not people who need replacing but the systems that define us.
Clintberg has chosen to be political without being didactic, to be engaging without requiring participation. Art doesn’t need to be instructional to be meaningful.8 This work focuses attention back on form rather than initiating prescriptive learning processes. It does not purport to solve the systemic issues of the city. He does not deal with the quickly shifting landscape of the East Village as though gentrification is an artistic thematic or contemporary issue to be chosen among many. He reveals that focusing on thematics and issues is a problematic and outdated way of making art, of communicating. Instead he shares his work as if to say, “Let’s talk.” To speak to a community this way is to first deeply consider the ethical implications of such a practice. There is nothing for people to do but consider their own choices in the presence of what art reflects.
Essay by: Alissa Firth-Eagland
1 Steve Mertl. “Notorious Calgary flophouse and crime magnet Cecil Hotel could soon meet the wrecking ball.” Daily Brew, October 28, 2012. Accessed August 8, 2016 https://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-brew/notorious-calgary-flophouse-crime-magnet-cecil-hotel-could-183756622.html
3 The National Post reported the building as salvageable while most other major news outlets claimed it was not. See Jen Gerson. “Calgary’s 'epicentre' of evil, death and darkness may soon become a frightening piece of the past” The National Post, October 26, 2012. Accessed August 9, 2016 http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/calgarys-cecil-hotel-a-reminder-of-a-time-of-evil-death-and-darkness
4 These statistics were quoted in the National Post, CTV News, the Calgary Sun, Yahoo! News, the East Village Free Press, and avenuecalgary.com.
5 Jen Gerson. “Calgary’s 'epicentre' of evil, death and darkness may soon become a frightening piece of the past” The National Post, October 26, 2012. Accessed August 9, 2016
7 Email dialogue with the artist. August 16, 2016.
8 Nato Thompson has recently written about the role of art today as instructional, which places experiential limits on moments with art. In his essay “Living as Form” from the Creative Time hardcover (2012) of the same name, he says: “In a world of vast cultural production, the arts have become an instructive space to gain valuable skill sets in the techniques of performativity, representation, aesthetics, and the creation of affect. These skills sets are not secondary to the landscape of political production but, in fact, necessary for its manifestation.” Thompson’s point that citizens of all walks of life can become political actors if they come into contact with the right art and walk away changed is simplistic and prescriptive of art’s potential. Art can be meaningful without being instructional. People can form their own opinions, learnings, and rebuttals to art (or not) without needing to acquire a set of art viewing skills with the goal of manifesting a political expression. One can simply experience art.
An independent cultural producer, curator, and writer based in Guelph, Alissa Firth-Eagland explores flexible, creative, nurturing, place-based projects. She volunteers in her community, acts as a program consultant to Canadian not-for-profits, and writes about relationships between people, culture, and place. She believes our experiences with art tell us important stories about our selves, our sense of belonging, and our communities. These are stories to be shared.