The Leona Drive Project: Beyond the Big Box

December 16, 2009 § 3 Comments

Rebecca Noone

Many young Jane Jacob enthusiasts will tell you that suburban life has resulted in the decay of culture and community.  For The Leona Drive Project, curated by Janine Marchessault and Michael Prokopow, the suburb is muse.  The exhibition takes six post-war bungalows slated for demolition in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale, one of city’s oldest inner suburbs, and transforms these houses into public art installations. Artists working in a variety of media, including audio, projection, locative media, architectural intervention, landscape, photography, and sculpture have created new works in these old modernist homes: the one-time beacons of the “prosperous and decidedly homogenous” decades of post war Canada (Marchessault and Prokopow).  The result is an exhibition designed to engage with the architecture and spatial design of the houses and the yards as well as connect the artistic community to the community of the suburbs.

The exhibition explores issues embedded in the culture of suburbia and its transformations from the 1950s and into the 21st century.  The show exposes and questions the suburban manifestations of the domestic, confronting issues of race, gender, and class. Accordingly, the project investigates recent suburban developments and the emerging patterns of community and identity that operate in these places, transforming understandings of place, citizenship, tradition, lifestyle and home, and the ever-changing demographics and cultural diversity that represent Toronto (Marchessault and Prokopow).

Christine Davis addresses the issue of gender with her piece Victory Red by transforming the bathroom at 9 Leona Drive

The growing cultural diversity of the area is addressed with works such as David Han’s project, who overdubs an episode of a 1950s television episode about learning to drive in the several languages used by new residents of the community. Christine Davis addresses the issue of gender with her piece Victory Red by transforming the bathroom at 9 Leona Drive into an entirely red room shaded “Victory Red”, the hue of the Elizabeth Arden lipstick promoted after World War II.  Ambitions, enterprise, and popular culture are tackled in Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak’s Hollywood Hills inspired sign that reads Junction. An Te Liu’s architectural intervention transforms 19 Leona Drive into an oversized green Monopoly house.  The Arbour Lake Sghool Collective (sic) addresses issues of property, ownership, public art and public space in its collaboration.  The arts collective, based out of Calgary, demolish a wall of 17 Leona, exposing the decaying house on the inside.  The collective have constructed a bungalow style shack from the wreckage on the outside, where they performed as squatters for the duration of the project.

An Te Liu’s architectural intervention transforms 19 Leona Drive into an oversized green Monopoly house.

By extensively taking over these houses for their final days the artists have injected these dormant spaces with life and recharged the spaces with use. Many of the artists use found objects from the houses, be it books, or photographs, or material from the structure. Angela Joosse and Shana MacDonald take over one kitchen with projection screens that depict images from the home’s former occupant, along with her found collection of books. The space is inherently linked to the thesis of the exhibition and could only exist outside of the museum, in dialogue with its environment and with the community.  In Claire Ironside’s, Angela Iarocci’s, and Jeremy Cox’s installation, the back yard is the artists’ object to create paths, field guides and plant life tags that uncover the experiences and stories that lie buried in the backyard. The result is an exhibition designed to engage with the architecture and spatial design of the houses and the yards

The Leona Drive Project developed from the work by Public Access Collective and LOT: Experiments in Urban Research.  In 1988, the Public Access Collective, a Toronto based group of artists, writer, curators, and graduate students, began to curate exhibitions that used “urban screens as a means to consider the potential of public art for both engendering insightful, collective experiences and for inciting debates and raising awareness in a city that was quickly privatizing every inch of shared space” (Public Access). The Collective’s works have married their theoretical and critical work with artistic practice and collaborations. Similarly, LOT formed in the summer of 2007 as an arts collective that explores similar issues.  Their most recent project Willowdale critically explores the changing demographic and spatial issues of the area through an artistic lens (LOT).

Arbour Lake Sghool Collective, based out of Calgary, demolish a wall of 17 Leona, exposing the decaying house on the inside.

In a broader sense, the exhibition presents people with the opportunity to question how they engage with they space they live in and how art and culture need not be limited to downtown. Many representations of urban life “harbour a nineteenth century cliché of the centralized metropolis, obfuscating the fact that suburbs are an intrinsic part of North American cities” (LOT).  Suburban spaces, its makeup and experiences, are generally absent in any discussion of urban artistic culture even though these complex spaces are home to over 40% of Canadians (LOT). The exhibition challenges urban and place-based cultural researchers to acknowledge suburbs as a valid and inevitable part of Canadian life.  These are no longer the stale white, middle class, cookie cutter establishments of yore but potentially diverse and transformative spaces.  For example, the old suburb of Willowdale is home to an immigrant population of 59% (LOT).  The Leona Drive Project reminds us that art and culture is about engaging with people and stories that extend beyond the downtown core and into one’s own backyard.

The Leona Drive Exhibition uses a particular location to engage the community with its history, new art forms, and new paradigms for the suburbanite. The organizers created events and daily tours of the exhibition that involved the residents of Willowdale.  I discovered that local residents who came to the exhibition would readily offer to share stories of the neighbourhood to provide a historical context to the exhibit.  The involvement and support of the community demonstrates not only that the suburb is a viable place for public art but also a viable place for communities, counter to my own opinions of the suburb.  The exhibition takes once private spaces and makes them into public forums for discourse and exchange: an important insight at a time when old postwar suburban bungalows are being torn down and replaced with Tuscan-villa-meet-Parthenon monsters, a phenomenon I witness every time I visit my parents in Etobicoke. Instead of building fortified private spaces, suburban communities should energize existing spaces with public art that attracts citizens to new artistic spaces outside of the traditional museum or downtown art gallery.

Learn more at  www.leonadrive.ca

Works Referenced:

“LOT: Willowdale Project”. LOT: Experiments in Urban Research. October 25, 2009http://www.l-o-t.ca/willowdale.html.

Marchessault, Janine and Michael Prokopow. “The Leona Drive Project: Curator Statement”. The Leona Drive Project. October 25, 2009  http://www.leonadrive.ca/statement.html.

Public Access Collective. “Public Access: The Leona Drive Project”. The Leona Drive Project. October 25, 2009 http://www.leonadrive.ca/public.html.

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