[The 23rd Room, an artists' collective I was a member of — along with Anna Lefsrud, Gretchen Sankey, and Barb Webb — hosted this 1996 exhibition of site-specific installations in the second floor rooms of Queen Street West tavern Duke of Connaught, known, like Mussolini and John Wayne, as The Duke.]




When I'm at the Duke of Connaught, I feel like I could be in a bar in Eganville, Golden Lake, Guelph, or Montreal. Similar establishments can be found throughout Canada in towns of every size. A case should be made that the Duke is an exemplary Canadian social site.

Are there repressed histories that need to be salvaged by clever and insightful artists? Or is it merely the same story played over and over: countless hours of beer drinking where the deterioration of the body is the only appreciable event.

I've spent too much time drinking in places like this. Must learn to drink faster.

Art is usually exhibited in shadowless white cubes. The baldness of museum/gallery presentations is embarrassing, crass. As if the voyeur, after crawling through yards of gravel and dewy grass, hoists herself up to the crack in the blinds only to find the scene within flattened by spotlights.

The idea "community" infects much current art discourse. The Duke could be seen as a site where two communities intersect: the art community (us, dominant) and the locals who frequent the bar (them, marginal). There is a type of socially conscious installation practice in which artists research a site and its constituent community and talk about it/them. This vaguely ethnographic or anthropological approach often tends toward condescension.

This isn't to say that the Duke isn't a site of the repressed histories of marginalized voices. (What place isn't?) But perhaps less direct methods are necessary to engage with a largely unknown history, with voices that are certain to remain obscure. What is left at this site is a residue that suggests certain (though unlimited) narratives.

There is a pathos in rooms that haven't been inhabited for many years. Signs of previous inhabitants remain and we are compelled to wonder who lived here (or who just passed through) and what they did. This archeological impulse, this sense of a site's possible histories, the specifics of its previous inhabitants, is unavoidable.

Instead of an anthropological approach, which seeks an objective truth about a community/tribe, one can use an historically-charged space as a context, a spring-board from which specific stories can be presented or suggested, a selective re-directing of some of the narratives already embedded in/at the site.