For three weeks in the fall of 2013, a 25-acre heritage village in Ontario was transformed by over 30 artists into a small city of installations questioning lines between rural and urban, past and future. Since much of the world likely didn’t make it up to the Markham Museum for Landslide: Possible Futures during its brief life, a new catalogue published last month with Public Books revisits this intriguing intervention in one of North America’s fastest-growing cities.
Markham only upgraded from town to city status in 2012, establishing itself as more than just a suburb of Toronto. The change followed a 2010 vote to open development on 1,000 hectares of land rather than keep them agricultural. For Landslide, curator Janine Marchessault concentrated on local and international artists who have an ecological bent to their work, with each of them creating their own experience in the Markham Museum heritage village. Marchessault writes in the catalogue that the exhibition asked “how we can address some of the most pressing tensions facing us today: the balance between ecology and economy, agriculture and development, and diversity and history.”
The old houses in the heritage village date to between 1850 and 1930, covering 25 acres with the remains of Markham’s previous self. Julie Nagam’s “singing our bones home,” installed in a wagon shed, was a tribute to the forgotten indigenous remains beneath the city, with a small white tent for contemplation erected among the old wooden wagon parts. Glynis Logue’s “The River” featured a winding, planted tributary of sunflowers, revitalizing some of the place’s agricultural spirit while considering its sustainable future. In one of the more elaborate installations, Frank Havermans connected the pulley system of a historic barn to a kinetic metal sculpture that creeped over the worn wood, the contemporary work merging with the retro tech.
Unlike those places that can boast being authentic sites of history, the heritage village exists in an in-between space, a referent to history but also characterized by its modern design. It is where history is curated into heritage, a manipulation of the past into something that can be shared and made common. Rarely however do these family-friendly sites showcase anything more than a caricaturization of the past, often with employees dressed in period costumes recreating the predictable scenes we have come to associate with pioneer living.
Urban environments often have these heritage village remains; for example, New York has the 17th-century Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island and Weeksville in Brooklyn, an African-American freedmen village dating to the 19th century. Too often the sites are static places separate from contemporary life, visited on childhood field trips and then forgotten. As Landslides argues, they can be valuable grounds for conversation about how we incorporate that past into a city’s future.