Remnants of a History

When Marian and I spent our day at the York shooting photos, one thing became apparent to both of us: there were objects in that place that spoke volumes about the history of the hotel and the human lives it held for so many years.

We also knew that all of these things would be destroyed when the building was demolished; it was going to be torn down as-is.

So, as part of the process of recording what we found at the York, we brought a few things out of the hotel at the end of the shoot. Small things to be sure – but nonetheless, they seemed to embody the complicated and contradictory world we found there in that state of odd semi-suspended-animation.

We also felt that it wasn’t at all appropriate to present these items in their found state for public viewing as part of this project; that felt voyeuristic and gratuitous.  The people who once used and touched these objects deserve far more respect than that.

In the end, we decided to cast some of these things, and see how the objects could be ‘read’ – the notion of them being represented but simultaneously absent (the cast is obviously not the thing itself, but a marker for that thing) held appeal for both of us. This tension between presence and absence seemed to sum up our experience of the place, and the fleeting glimpse of the remnants of so many other lives that we saw that day.

Studio worktable, with moulds being built for casting

Studio worktable, with moulds being built for casting

It turns out  – not surprisingly – that there’s more history in (and on) some of these objects than we first bargained for. I was checking the state of a mould I was making of an ornament we found … and discovered this:

... layer of tar and nicotine that peeled away form the surface of the object when I peeled back the latex mould!

… layer of tar and nicotine that peeled away form the surface of the object when I peeled back the latex mould!

So – there’s the original colour underneath – revealed after who-knows-how-many-years of being coated with cigarette smoke.  That layer of yellow-brown scum peeled away from the inside of the mould, thankfully!

Struck me as a very apt visual metaphor for the whole project: we seem to be discovering little moments of beauty in all of this. It’s there, but you have to look carefully, peel back the layers, and dig a bit.

– sydney

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The Logistics of Making Things

Sometimes, the process of making work revolves around logistics and timing. Well, logically this is always the case to one degree or another, of course – but with YORK, especially so.

This has most certainly been the case for the very start of this project – so I’m not really surprised that these factors continue to be a big part of making YORK a reality.

It seems like a long time ago that I had made contact with the City, and got immersed in the process of getting permission to shoot the hotel interior, and all that involved: working out all the details with the City offices responsible, getting the insurance in place, signing waivers, notifying the police, renting the equipment I wanted to use, coordinating details with Marian … .

Months and months on from that very eventful day, and it’s still the case.  Happily, things are falling into place really, really well – and I do feel a bit like a kid in a candy store when materials finally arrive and the work can progress beyond my ‘impatience, plotting & planning’  mode to the making!

To wit: the rolls of silk organza arrived from California just this past week!

organza

We’ve been waiting for the fabric to come back into stock (in California!) for a while – they got cleaned out at the end of last year, so we were waiting for new stock to arrive from overseas. But it’s here now, and we can get a major component of the project put together and finished!

And what are we doing with this??

The short answer is: Creating some human-scale installations that explore experiences of impermanence and security, and that allow the viewer the opportunity to experience some of the spaces we documented more directly … leastwise, that’s the goal.

In the mean time … there’s more things to get and put together, and more making to be done. Marian’s hard at work in the darkroom, and I’m doing (yet more) work on images for digital printing processes (including the organza), sourcing materials, and working on some moulds and casting …

Privacy

I’ve been thinking a great deal about privacy lately: what privacy means to people, how it is defined, and by whom.

I know that privacy is very important to me personally; I need some place to be alone from time to time, and I need to know I can count on the peace that this private space provides me. I also know that private space is a luxury; most people on the planet are not so fortunate. That understanding has informed both my initial perception of the spaces we wound up photographing at the York, and my approach to making work with these images.

I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to live at the York – or more correctly, I can (to a certain degree at least). These were small rooms, and there were shared bathrooms centrally located on each floor for most of them (only a few had facilites ensuite). Every door opened onto the main hallway on each floor, in plain sight of one’s neighbours. Bit of a fishbowl, to say the least. That level of exposure would be compounded tremendously by the complicated nature of many of the tenants’ personal lives – various combinations of drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues would have made establishing and maintaining boundaries (and hence having the ability to assert a need and right to privacy) extremely difficult for many of them. Looking at those spaces made me wonder how anyone could live there for any length of time and not be inclined to the anesthetic of drink or drugs to get some distance from other people, let alone anything else going on… .

So in turning my attention to the images we shot in the York, I was keenly aware that I wanted to treat the fragments of peoples’ stories we discovered there with as much respect as possible. On one level, however, I felt like a hypocrite: there really was no way to avoid what amounted to taking a voyeuristic position behind that lens, at least to some degree. We entered that space as outsiders and documented what we found there. We didn’t know the people who had lived there before we came, and we photographed rooms and objects they once knew intimately without their permission.

But photographing that place was also a (small) way to create space of a different sort – one that I think offers another way of seeing those spaces and what they contained.

What I saw in the rooms at the York were the objects that once surrounded individuals; these things became signs that pointed to the specificity of real living people, to the multiplicity of stories that can be silenced by assumptions, prejudice, marginalization, fear.I want this work to point to that: point out absences na blind spots in understanding, make it uncomfortable to stay wrapped in comfortable conclusions about who and what and why.

ornament-WEB gift-bags-WEB

Someone was a collector of religious icons and votive candles;

Someone liked cartoons;

Someone had saved gift bags, given or to be given;

Someone had a small child.

I don’t know any of them – to my knowledge we’ve never met – but each of them undoubtably has a unique voice and story.

So in photographing these rooms and their contents we became part of that fishbowl, part of the forces in play that made privacy such an untenable thing for the people who used to live there. But we also became a vehicle for their voices to start to be heard. 

At least, that is my hope.