Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes by Allan Sekula

. . . as if a brick had been frozen halfway into a block of ice.

For citizens of the United States, Canada is typically neither here nor there. “Canada” occupies a zone of conceptual indifference: unthought, insignificant, simultaneously the same and different, but in ways that do not seem to matter much in an “American” scheme of things.

For Canadians, the United States is both here and there: insistent, present, pressing and beckoning from below. As the novelist Margaret Atwood put it recently, playing on a reassuring geopolitical cliché, Canadians peer through “the longest undefended one‐way mirror in the world.” This persistent sense of difference, of being positioned always in relation to a permeable border, to a vast dominating Other, is repeated and doubled within Canada in the experience of various minorities, primarily, but not exclusively, among the large minority of French speakers. The ambiguities of these positionings, the insistence of voices that are “American”—or “English”—may well result in a “Canada” that is neither here nor there for Canadians.

These ambiguities are more than linguistic or cultural in character. A recent survey of the Canadian economy in the British business magazine The Economist suggested rather slyly that Canada has been in the vanguard of advanced industrial nations: “Canada’s close links with the American economy have long since deprived it of the freedom to set its own fiscal and monetary policies, a liberty which other industrial countries—except the United States—have finally lost only in recent years. . . . lt was a Canadian, after all, who coined the term ‘global village.’”*

My photographs and writing here began with a recognition of an occasional act of forgetting: forgetting that I was in a foreign country. I began also with a fascination with the most trivial signs of national difference, with the mild unfamiliarities of foreign currency. If money is peculiar, simultaneously abstract and concrete, what is especially peculiar about Canadian money? What mysteries lurk in these innocent and optimistic engravings depicting a productive, industrialized Nature? How is this imagery repeated in an official architecture of Canadian finance, and within the productive (and not so productive) “landscape” itself? These photographs were made in late August and early November 1985, and in late February 1986. Almost all were made in two cities: in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, which overlooks Quebec from the edge of English Canada, and in the economically hard‐pressed northern Ontario industrial city of Sudbury. Sudbury is the centre of the largest nickel mining and smelting complex in the world. The region’s economy is dominated by the Canadian multinational firm Inco, formerly the International Nickel Company of Canada. Inco subsidiaries also operate in Indonesia, Guatemala, and in the United States.

In Ottawa, I photographed the headquarters of the Bank of Canada, the federal agency charged with regulating the Canadian economy. The original building, an abstracted, modernized neoclassical monument to Keynesian economics, was completed in 1938. The Canadian architect Arthur Erickson’s addition to the original structure was completed in 1979. What are we to make of the imaginary geography sustained within this structure? What does this architecture have to do with life in Sudbury, in Canada, and by implication, with life in the larger world of late capitalism? I will begin with this crude observation: Erickson embedded the original building in a glass box, rather as if a brick had been frozen halfway into a block of ice.

* Sekula here is referring to Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan who first wrote that the “new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village” in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962).—Ed.

Excerpt from "Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes" by Allan Sekula, from Allan Sekula, Art Isn't Fair: Further Essays on the Traffic in Photographs and Related Media by Sally Stein, Ina Steiner (eds.), published December 2020.

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