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Features / November 5, 2012

Young & Giroux Prove Ambivalent About Canada’s Modernization in Latest Work

A feature from the Fall 2012 issue of Canadian Art

Late last year, I made the first of a few trips out to the southern Ontario town of Guelph to interview Christian Giroux, who teaches art at the university there. I took the quickest motor route across the 100 kilometres that separate downtown Toronto and Guelph: the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, which everyone calls the 401.

The westbound lanes of the expressway were heavily crowded that day (as usual) by monstrous transport trucks and high-speed car traffic, and they swarmed with motorists who had apparently learned to drive by playing Grand Theft Auto. The 401 was what it had been for just about as long as I could remember: hectic, dangerous-feeling, numbingly slow or distressingly rushed—normal, in other words, for an Ontario superhighway running through a metropolitan area in the 21st century. (I’ll explain why I’m mentioning this in a moment.)

I eventually veered off the 401 and found the downtown Guelph restaurant where Giroux was waiting for me. We fell into a lunchtime conversation about the ideas and energies galvanizing the work that he and the Toronto artist Daniel Young have been making in the decade since their creative partnership began—work, incidentally, that, only a few days earlier, had netted Young and Giroux the $50,000 Sobey Art Award, Canada’s richest and most famous prize for new and emerging talent in visual art. (Young wasn’t sharing lunch with us. He had recently moved to Berlin, where I would later visit him.)

Anyone familiar with the sculptural and cinematic output of this duo could guess what Giroux and I talked about that day in Guelph, and during several subsequent chats: the culture of modernity, modernisms past and present, technological and political and social modernization—and the paths along which Young and Giroux have been steadily, imaginatively exploring these territories.

The subject of this talk about the “modern” wasn’t, of course, the connoisseur fine-art modernism of Pablo Picasso, or James Joyce, or Mies van der Rohe, or their heirs in recent decades. The modernity that has long interested Young and Giroux, rather, is popular and mass cultural, a phenomenon in which the most prized characteristic is mechanical functionality, not (as in the fine arts) clever or beautiful appearances. It’s the rational, Fordist, high-efficiency force visibly embodied in the non-art gadgets, appliances, and pieces of equipment, furniture and infrastructure that have been increasingly defining the way we live since the onset of the Industrial Revolution—things such as expressways, railways, air-conditioning ductwork, IKEA tables, communications satellites, hydro poles and everyday, unimaginative apartment and office buildings that are not trying to make architectural statements. Whether they are old (like the railroads), or really novel (like satellites), or prewar in origin but omnipresent after 1945 (like domestic electrification, air-traffic control networks, superhighways and skyscrapers), such modern artifacts and systems still shape, of course, the ordinary experiences and mental worlds of everyone alive in the urban agglomerations of advanced capitalist societies.

What’s largely absent nowadays, however, is the wonder, the unembarrassed amazement, that millions of people felt and expressed about this new technical environment up until around 1970. (While most people today enjoy their technological conveniences, few, I imagine, regard recent inventions such as cell phones or fibre-optic cables as sacraments of salvation.) Some of us who were teenagers in America and Canada during the 1950s and 1960s remember this enthrallment, which flourished brightly in the first couple of decades after the Second World War, and the thrill we felt when, for example, driving on an expressway for the first time. There was an exhilarating sense of speed, expansion and freedom about it—the sense of liberation and infinite possibility that Jack Chambers invoked in his well-known painting of the high-speed landscape, 401 Towards London No. 1 (1968–69).

Nobody, I suspect, thinks that way about the 401, or any expressway, now. Long before I made that harrowing drive out to Guelph to see Giroux, my teenage excitement about freeways and other marvels of postwar technological modernity had subsided. I grew up, in other words. Almost everyone in my postwar generation did. At some point, not long after 1970, we found ourselves inhumanly jostled by nerve-wracking traffic on the 401, or hustled along by the crowd in an enormous suburban shopping mall, or treated to some other disconcerting experience with a modern “miracle.” It was then that we underwent, or began to undergo, the dull, dispiriting impact of the popular modernity that, as recently as the late 1960s, had still seemed to a great many people the very embodiment of the utopian goodness Chambers celebrated in his picture.

Young and Giroux came to manhood after this massive disillusionment—years, in fact, after the 401 had become the vast traffic sewer I encountered, and after the charm of postwar modernity had otherwise ceased to enchant the millions. To be sure, neither artist shares the enthusiasm for the New that characterized the long postwar epoch of American-driven prosperity, social optimism and technical innovation. And if both Young and Giroux are admirers of hard-hat techniques, processes and materials, their very detached, calculated, formally cool work is uncoloured by nostalgia.

That said, the most conspicuous subjects of Young and Giroux’s art are items and systems that no longer fascinate the public and the mass media, but once did. In work after work—each one an artwork, viz., something with no purpose apart from giving pleasure, sensuous and intellectual—they have invoked the aesthetics of the practical, industrial, non-art things that so vividly symbolized “newness.” Among the artists’ sources in that not-so-distant past are the control panels of IBM mega-computers, early satellites, the tall wireless telecommunication masts that bristled against rural and urban skies across North America, and the glass-and-steel curtain-wall systems that revolutionized the construction and the look of new skyscrapers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sensuously beautiful and sleekly streamlined—though notorious among green-minded critics nowadays for its poor energy efficiency—the curtain wall, in fact, has inspired Young and Giroux’s newest sculpture, which goes on view this September at Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien. And, in their most recent cinematic project—also premiering in September, at Oakville Galleries (which commissioned it)—the artists have once again mined the cultural terrain shaped by modernity, and produced from their findings an artwork that is as smart and allusive as anything they have done so far.

The piece is called Infrastructure Canada (2010–12), and that is exactly what it serially portrays: a dam, a long-distance road, a concrete bridge, grain elevators, railways, the ground stations of the national civil-aircraft control apparatus, a lighthouse, a tunnel, an array of hydroelectric transmission towers marching across the land and upward of 100 other elements in the engineered substructure of Canadian civilization. In the course of a three-month journey that took him by air and land to every Canadian province and territory (he logged 45,000 kilometres in his car), Young captured images of these modern devices and emplacements on Super 35–mm motion-picture film. The short sequences that resulted were translated into digital video files, then stitched together to make the silent three-channel installation that gallery-goers will see in Oakville.

During one of the evenings Young and I spent watching the raw digitalized footage of Infrastructure Canada in his Berlin studio, the artist described the production as “anti-cinematic,” and he called it “a study of anti-architecture.” It is both. Instead of characters, plot and other typical components of ordinary filmmaking, Infrastructure Canada presents, very simply, one after the other, short and untitled shots of utilitarian objects in their physical surroundings someplace in Canada. (We are not told where.) The only visible movement in the shots is an occasional disturbance of these surroundings: bugs buzzing in the air, wind-riffled water or grass, a car that passes into the frame when Young is making the road’s very steady portrait. (The camera never pans or zooms.)

But while almost nothing happens in each brief scene, the accumulation of scenes, the sheer build-up of concentrated depictions of the ordinary, is intense, even vertiginous. It will also be instantly recognizable by anyone who appreciates non-expressionist artworks from the 1960s, including the Brillo boxes of Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha’s wonderful photographic compendium Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and minimalism’s serial sculptures and paintings.

Infrastructure Canada shares DNA, a common organizing principle, with such art from 50 years ago. It is the list, as incarnate in inventories, ledgers, catalogues and other modern systems devised for keeping track of the products, people and signs (such as dollars) that are generated, circulated and consumed in mass society. (I was prompted to think about lists in connection with Young and Giroux by an article on the team’s cinematic work by Peggy Gale.) Unlike the sonnet, the classical sonata and the realist novel, the list has no preordained order (apart from its inherent seriality) and no beginning, middle or end. The contents of this basically arbitrary, inexpressive narrative format are fragments that could be piled up forever, and arranged and stored according to any system of classification, or none at all. Along with the rectilinear grid, the list was an especially apt expression of the completely secular, homogenous and universal time and space that technical modernity substituted for the complicated patchwork of sacred and non-sacred times and places characteristic of premodern Western culture.

It is little wonder that countless avant-garde writers, artists, composers, architects and filmmakers before 1980 found in listing an especially powerful, flexible strategy for declaring their independence from the genres of the ancien régime and for staking their claims to be genuinely modern, anti-traditional creators. Like the objects Young and Giroux portray in Infrastructure Canada and, indeed, like the deluxe, typically modern (and nearly obsolete) 35-mm film medium with which these objects were originally photographed, the architecture of the work recalls the art of North American and European generations that could still be deeply exercised by “newness.”

But does Infrastructure Canada have any significance for contemporary viewers beyond its taut, artistically tailored recollection, in both subject and form, of an interesting passage in the recent history of sensibility? It does, though grasping that importance involves taking seriously what is added up to by all the large outdoor gadgets and emplacements on display.

As I found during conversations with both artists—and the work itself bears out their contention—Young and Giroux mean us to identify this sum total as the material basis of the very idea of Canada, the “physical structures,” in Young’s words, “that are the foundations of the society and economy of Canada.” That the railways, roads, wireless-transmission nodes and such featured in Infrastructure Canada are crucial to the existence of Canada is, of course, a venerable idea, rooted in the thought of the important interwar University of Toronto political economist and communications theorist Harold Innis. The new film-to-video work Young and Giroux have fashioned directs our attention, effectively and with insistent clarity, to material evidence that makes Innis’s proposition about technology and nationhood as credible today as it ever was.

But the artists are aiming higher. Along with Innis’s formulation of what makes Canada possible, Young and Giroux appear to have absorbed some of the scholar’s dim view of the new world created by modern technologies—not yet a popular opinion in the 1940s, when Innis enjoyed his last flourishing as a public intellectual—and they want us to consider this view. The first trans-Canadian railway, for example, destroyed Aboriginal communities that stood in its way—a bad thing, according to Innis. For Young and Giroux, the homogenizing, hegemonizing postwar surge of technical systems designed to promote social unity—a national airline, a national broadcasting service and so on—brought fresh disintegration and disorientation in its wake, and especially to Native people. My conversations with the artists convinced me that they are, as Innis was, deeply ambivalent at best about the modernization that facilitated the establishment of Canada.

Had I merely seen the footage, and not talked with the artists on several occasions, however, I would never have guessed that they feel as they do. The facts that they have dug up and presented could be used, without prejudice, by either the prosecution or the defense. Infrastructure Canada critiques nothing. The work is not humanistic or futuristic or ecological. The artists have brought forward the evidence, and their job is finished. What, if anything, should or can be done with this evidence is left entirely up to the viewer. Nor does the piece set out a case for or against the ugliness or beauty of what it presents. “We are not celebrating the bleak, centralized, corporate aesthetic of modernization,” Young said in Berlin—just depicting it, showing “how the landscape becomes modern” and “adding to a conversation” about the steep costs and undeniable benefits of political and cultural modernization.

In the ongoing public trial of modernity—if, indeed, minds are still open about the matter in these intellectually polarized times—this is, or should be, good enough. Of course, the artists’ strictly disinterested creative strategy, like the satellites and curtain walls and other physical objects that concern them, had its final popular vogue in the 1950s and 1960s, and has been far less stylish since the onset of the postmodern culture wars in the 1970s.

But somewhere on the spectrum of what it’s possible for contemporary artists to be, there should be a place for those who, like Young and Giroux, have chosen to play (in their art, at any rate) the old-fashioned roles of neutral, politically independent, “objective” witnesses to the phenomenon of modernization. They have played these roles effectively throughout the ten years of their collaboration, bringing forth a body of sculpture and cinema that sits oddly, but always distinctively and provocatively, among the works of other Canadian artists similarly moving toward mid-career. With any luck at all, Infrastructure Canada will find its way into the world beyond Oakville, and will figure in the endlessly arresting discussion of modernity’s origin, trajectory and future—a discussion that must continue, if we are ever to understand what being and acting human means in the modern West’s present hour.

Young and Giroux’s Infrastructure Canada will be exhibited at Oakville Galleries until November 25. 

To see more works by these artists, go to