A distinct aggregation / A dynamic equivalent / A generous ethic of invention at the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, AB

By Maeve Hanna

I’m sitting on the swing in my front yard with my fifteen year old tortoiseshell cat on my lap, listening to the online audio exhibition A distinct aggregation / A dynamic equivalent / A generous ethic of invention: Six writers respond to six sculptures. This collaborative project by Kitchener-based artist (and occasional contributor to Akimbo’s The Cripsters) Aislinn Thomas explores how one may experience visual art and art exhibitions through language, sound, and poetics by intervening in how audio description is used. After an invitation from Walter Phillips Gallery curator Jacqueline Bell, Thomas invited six writers from across the country to each respond to a sculpture in the gallery’s permanent collection.

I have visited Banff many times, even more since moving to Calgary in 2018. Sitting on the swing, softly swaying back and forth, I am transported to familiar sites/sights: Peter von Tiesenhausen’s Vessel/Enclosure, which Anna Bowen responds to, and Brian Jungen’s The ghosts on top of my head, with a response from Angela Marie Schenstead. I perceive them glimmering like veiled shadows as if they are before me now. The others I cannot picture: Dolmen Structure #5 by Barry Cogswell, Papillon by Hugh LeRoy, Stelco’s Cabin by John McEwen, I don’t want a massage, I want a miracle (1989 – 2017) by Sharon Moodie.

Though I tried, I couldn’t pull any images forward. I felt frustrated, realizing I had no visual cue to use as a departure point for framing these works. This reflex is guided by our natural inclination as viewers with sight to privilege this one sense when we experience art. I decided to follow the path that Thomas set out and instead listen to the alternative audio descriptions turned poetic interventions that make up A distinct aggregation.

Aislinn Thomas and Shannon Finnegan, Of all possibilities, this one here, now, 2019. Drawing from the collaborative series, A seat at the table, a slice of the pie for A distinct aggregation / A dynamic equivalent / A generous ethic of invention: Six writers respond to six sculptures, 2019 (Commissioned by Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity)
Visual Description of Image: A text drawing that reads “Of all possibilities, this one here, now.” It’s white on a muted blue-green background. The hand-lettered all caps text fills most of the image. The spacing and size of the letters vary at times. The letter shapes are graphic with confident lines, made even smoother through the digitization process, but overall the text feels wobbly and was made without the goal of perfection, symmetry, or sameness.

As I listen, I continue to fall back on my natural inclination towards sight, attempting to envision the pieces. However, without the visual aid I had implanted in my imagination for von Tiesenhausen and Jungen’s works, my mind, as if with magical intention, conjures another world entirely rooted in Banff but living amongst the divine.

Bowen opens her piece with a memory of Tiesenhausen’s sculpture’s twin in Demmit, AB. She continues by investigating experiences of the work through interiority and exteriority – looking to the interior and exterior of the work as well as the inward/outward experience of the viewer. Schenstead comes to Jungen’s work – benches in the shape of moose, elk, and caribou antlers – through memory and poetry. Her intervention stems from language, place, and ancestral knowledge while speaking to the fragility of these sacred creatures native to Banff.

Crystal Mowry notes the colouration of Cogswell’s piece as being similar to the lichen that blooms on the rocks in Banff: lichen that is ageless, with softened edges, a memory to time never passing. My mind conjures a hexagonal green sphere resting among rock faces and conifers. Laura Burke splices her lines as she describes LeRoy’s Papillon, mimicking the construction of a huge stark stone obelisk, contrasting the soft and hard in our world. I imagine how different Banff must have been before settlers arrived; I imagine the space without the highway and the wildlife overpasses; I can imagine Papillion as a stone monolith, holding a memory of time.

I listen to the soft lull of Catherine Frazee’s voice as she explores the work Stelco’s Cabin and explains how her friend would enter a space and click her tongue. The way the sound bounced around was what she used to understand the shape of her surroundings. What resonates deeply in Frazee’s piece is how she opens our understanding of accessing space, describing the work as “a welcome that beckons you to find another way in, another way to touch, to feel, to listen, to know….”

Nicole Kelly Westman also addresses an absence. Moodie’s I don’t want a massage, I want a miracle is no longer in the gallery’s possession or even present at the Banff Centre. In fact, it was never acquired and thus never accessioned into the collection. In 2017 the work was removed from its home on campus due to its disintegration, but also vandalism. Kelly Westman uses this moment and language to highlight the space that was once inhabited. Her words crystallize a hope for what could become of this void.

When the recording is finished, I realize how the texts act as descriptions, a form of navigation for the visual, but also as stories, tracing unfolding pathways for the viewer/listener to follow and linger on.

* * *

A distinct aggregation launched before our current situation set in. Last August seems like another lifetime ago. There was no social distancing, no masks or gloves or hand sanitizer, no closures of art institutions, no massive economic collapse, and, of course, no global health pandemic. As I write this, Banff National Park is closed to visitors, the town of Banff is in a state of emergency, and the Banff Centre is also closed. Three months into living with COVID-19, we all know the “rules.” The federal government and Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer, have advised Canadians to stay home as much as possible and avoid all non-essential travel. Coming to this project in our new reality has offered a shift in the experience.

For most exhibitions, the shuttering of galleries across the country has meant that accessing the work is no longer possible. A distinct aggregation, however, has existed in multiple forms since its launch in 2019. Pre-COVID, visitors to the gallery could borrow the sound work. Thomas and Bell also had a broadsheet created featuring audio transcriptions of each text as well as text-based drawings by Brooklyn artist Shannon Finnegan. Presciently, and more pertinently now, both the sound work and the broadsheet have always been accessible online.

Thomas’s project stems from her research on audio and image description. In a talk at the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery on March 12, she noted that through this research she came to realize audio and image descriptions are a form of translation between senses. There are general guidelines that are used in the recording or writing of audio and image descriptions; however, they are not hard and fast rules. A distinct aggregation provides an opportunity to experience the work chosen by the writers otherwise. Some of the descriptions are clear, some opaque, some unravel as stories. In all cases, they act as descriptors for the sculptures, yet also allow for stretching of the translation between the sculptures we know by sight and what we come to know by sound.

The audible experience of this exhibition offers a deeply poignant place from which to reflect on accessibility: what that means across a wide spectrum of needs, visible and not, familiar and not, as well as how we can question our own understanding of accessibility. The viewer is invited to be a listener, a conjurer, a valiant and willing traveler. Thomas humbly, yet clearly brings us close to our own levels of accessibility and understanding of what that means. She provides an experience that is hard to replicate: of being without sight. A distinct aggregation is not only an online audio exhibition or an investigation into audio description. Thomas may not have set out in this direction, but the work now also provides a platform for considering how we engage with the sound, language, and poetics of visual art when a global lockdown keeps us all away.

A distinct aggregation / A dynamic equivalent / A generous ethic of invention continues until September 27
Walter Phillips Gallery: https://www.banffcentre.ca/walter-phillips-gallery
The gallery is temporarily closed.

Maeve Hanna is an art writer and dog walker based in Calgary. She is Akimblog’s Calgary correspondent and can be followed on Instagram @maeve_hanna.