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Venice Architecture Biennale exhibit explores extraction

By Dana Yates

Ryerson biennale team

Ryerson biennale team, clockwise from left: architecture professor Colin Ripley, urban planning professor Nina-Marie Lister, Kelsey Blackwell, Zannah Matson and Christopher Alton.

Where do cities come from? That's one of the questions raised by EXTRACTION, a multimedia installation that explores Canada's culture and territories of resource extraction (mineral deposits and extractive industries). A number of Ryerson community members are part of the EXTRACTION team, which won the national competition to represent Canada at the Venice Architecture Biennale, opening May 27.

For more than 120 years, the Venice Biennale has been one of the world's most prestigious cultural institutions. Originally an art exhibition, the biennale has expanded over time to include festivals devoted to architecture, music, theatre, dance and cinema. Today, the Venice Architecture Biennale is the pre-eminent showcase for new design projects by emerging talent, attracting more than 350,000 visitors every two years.

EXTRACTION, which is commissioned by the Art Gallery of Alberta and funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, has been produced by an interdisciplinary team of Canadian researchers, landscape architects, urban planners, multimedia designers, graduate student and activists. The group is led by Pierre Bélanger, a Canadian landscape urbanist who teaches at Harvard University. Notably, he is the first non-architect to spearhead an installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

The impact of extraction

"Every single Canadian – whether they are indigenous, non-indigenous, or immigrants –is touched and implicated by the economies and infrastructures of extraction," says Bélanger. “For those who live in cities far away from the natural environments where resources come from or the territories in which they are located, those realities are becoming more and more important since over two-thirds of the country’s resources are in treaty lands populated by First Nations and Métis who have been persistently oppressed by regimes of extraction and metropolitan consumption,” says Bélanger.

“Canadian operations, technologies and services can be found in nearly every country on the surface of the earth, yet almost nobody knows the full extent of it even though the country’s foreign policy is largely an extractive one."

EXTRACTION examines Canada’s culture of resource extraction, bringing together perspectives from business, history, art and activism. The exhibition is actually an intervention, featuring an installation of gold ore and a gold survey stake. In that sense, EXTRACTION has been designed to serve as a counter-monument, prompting visitors to see Canada as a "global resource empire 800 years in the making." Indeed, as the world's biggest resource-extracting nation, Canada is home to 75 per cent of the planet’s prospecting and mining companies, thanks to the low taxation levels and reduced royalties.

“Canada’s economy is still largely reliant on what we extract from the land beneath our feet; these mineral and forest resources are the building blocks for Canada’s architecture and our cities. But [resource extraction] takes place primarily on Crown land – and this opens important questions about our colonial history, the role of the Crown, and ultimately, about sovereignty," says Nina-Marie Lister, an urban and regional planning professor and director of Ryerson's Ecological Design Lab.

Biennale team

Lister is one of several members on the EXTRACTION team. The others include: Ryerson architectural science professor Colin Ripley (his architectural firm RVTR and its co-directors Geoffrey Thün and Kathy Velikov are involved in the project); design fabricator and adjunct Ryerson architectural science professor Steven Beites; Zannah Matson, a Harvard landscape architecture graduate who will begin her PhD studies at the University of Toronto (U of T) this fall and who is the exhibition’s project manager and lead design researcher; Christopher Alton, Urban and Regional Planning '11, a planning PhD student at U of T who serves as EXTRACTION’S project manager, lead researcher and assistant editor; renowned Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky, Image Arts '82, whose industrial landscape images are included in a short film that will screen within the exhibit; and Kelsey Blackwell of Studio Blackwell.

After EXTRACTION completes its run in Venice this November, the exhibition will embark on a cross-Canada tour throughout 2017. The tour will be complemented by a book of in-depth essays that is being co-edited by Bélanger and Lister, and that “digs deeper” into the theme of the installation. Both the tour and book are timed to coincide with the 150th commemoration of Canada’s Confederation.

Proceeds of the project will be shared with the reclamation of a contaminated and abandoned gold mine in Sardinia. The site was formerly operated by a Canadian mining company and a selection of land-based territorial organizations in Canada.


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