Art installation raises questions about multiculturalism

Like many Calgarians of a certain generation artist Michael Jones was brought up with ideals of multiculturalism and a tolerant inclusive society. But he says spending several years in London England gave him perspective on his experiences growing up in Canada and he began to notice “some significant cultural differences pertaining to identity and racism and multiculturalism.”

According to Jones the type of work he was making was symptomatic of being a North American in Europe. “I suppose I felt compelled to start thinking about how Canadian society affected me and how I related to it” he says.

Jones returned to Canadian soil specifically to Vancouver where he is now based. Knowing that he wanted to make a work about multiculturalism Jones scoped out organizations and agencies with mandates focused on cultural diversity. He then found the Vancouver Multicultural Society which is housed in Hodson Manor a handsome Victorian-era building. While still functioning the place seemed quiet and abandoned when he first encountered it. “It just struck me as being a really interesting ephemera of multicultural activity that was almost museological” he says.

The setting was so captivating that in 2009 he shot Tolerance Time an eight-minute 16 mm film in Hodson Manor using all of its multicultural material as he found it. In the film a rock is thrown through one of the building’s windows and a police officer played by Jones himself investigates the shadowy building with a flashlight. We follow him as he discovers a tri-fold display promoting multiculturalism a large mosaic on the wall and a grab-bag of outdated marketing materials clustered in the attic.

Jones says that his decision to represent himself as a police officer was partially logistical as it was a simple way of using a flashlight to document the objects in the centre. “On other levels there’s a sense of authority in having a police officer figure in the film” he explains. “Also it’s a substitute for the artist in that it’s a lone investigator coming upon cultural circumstance and… investigating it.”

The film will be part of an art installation that showcases some of the actual objects from the building such as the multilingual “Welcome” sign and publicity materials dating to the 1980s and ’90s.

“I think 9/11 kind of antiquated multiculturalism in that these activities and these posters… they feel really utopian and naive” says Jones. “I don’t know if they would be described as propaganda — maybe propaganda has a negative connotation — but they promote an ideology in that same kind of language.”

The exhibit itself offers at best an ambivalent take on multiculturalism. “I think contemporary art practice allows you to tackle difficult subjects without necessarily taking a stand on either side of an argument” says Jones. “I can see potentially people reading the work in different ways: whether it’s meant to champion multiculturalism or whether it’s meant to be criticizing it.”

After all examining our attitudes towards multiculturalism from several decades ago still resonates today. “I would like people to reflect on our current society and where’s it’s going — because there is so much going on there is so much relevance for contemporary society” says Jones citing the Quebec Charter of Values as a recent example.

The final shot of Tolerance Time shows the police officer leaving the building still guided by his flashlight as he walks down a street at night. Like the character in the film — like the artist himself perhaps — the viewer may have more searching to do after watching the film and exploring the ephemera on display.

This exhibition also marks Stride Gallery’s return to the Bell Block where it now occupies a larger space (1006 Macleod Trail S.E.). Stride was forced to move out following June’s flood and until now has been located in a temporary space provided by Truck Gallery.