Exhibition Introduction Virtual Museum of Canada
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Examining the Institutional View


This discussion will make regular use of the concept of "the institution." This word, problematic at the best of times, in this case requires some special attention so it can be properly defined in the contexts of this project. In its most general sense, "the institution" is considered by our authors to refer to those bodies that determine the "official story" of a place or situation. These bodies are often governmental, as in the case of a national tourism board or ministry of transportation, but they can also be commercial or corporate. They can even refer to an institutional body that has grown up organically-"popular wisdom" or "common knowledge" can sometimes exert just as strong and monolithic an influence over people's perception as a carefully constructed government brochure. The two sections of this project focus on different manifestations of institutional influence: Subversive Souvenirs: Questioning the Institutional View in the Imagery of Tourism and Surveillance addresses the institutional visions that colour the tourism industry, and Subversive Cartography: Challenging the Accuracy of the Official Map addresses the institutional influence on mapmaking. Both sections have in common their discussions of the institution-and its discontents-in terms of their effects on our understanding of place.

In Subversive Souvenirs, which focuses on the tourism industry and on artists who examine the ways in which it can represent place, "the institution" refers in general to those bodies that present a monolithic vision of spaces and sites as tourist destinations. Specifically, the institutions in question here are the tourism boards that write the brochures, the corporate interests that often present a one-sided view of places to the world, and even the imaginary impressions we collectively have of places we've never been.

Tourism boards serve rhetorically as "the institution" in this discussion because they often present a one-sided or very subjective view of a place. For example, it is the zeal of the provincial tourism boards that are responsible, to a great degree, for the general portrayal of Canada's Prince Edward Island as a green-gabled island wilderness untouched by progress or time, and of Alberta as a land of rodeos, nonstop barbecues, and wholesome ranch-style living. Surely, there are ocean vistas and pigtails to be found in the Maritimes, and certainly the Canadian west has its share of beef and ten-gallon hats. But these are reductive stereotypes that do two things: they lure visitors and they misrepresent places. While tourists might be charmed by the palatable two-dimensionality of these brochure ideals, the intricate realities of Charlottetown and Red Deer are overlooked or, worse, Photoshopped away. Tourist boards, doing their best to improve the economy and help the world fall in love with the places they stand for, sometimes commit the incidental folly of oversimplifying and misrepresenting these places as well. They are "the institution" in this argument, then, because they present a singular view of place, and because they have the money, resources, and global profile to obscure alternative views.

Similarly, corporate interests can work as "the institution" in this discussion. Disneyland, for example, works hard to turn southern Florida into a land of cartoons and peppy grandeur; its footprint on the cultural landscape is so huge and indelible that these Mickey Mouse images obliterate any others that might try to emerge. The skiing industry, as another example, turns any place with a big hill into an alpine resort, leaving very little room for any other cultural or social identities that might try to assert themselves there. Likewise, huge corporate entities like Club Med or Sandals exert such an influence over the representation of the places they inhabit-Barbados becomes a land of hot tubs and swim-up bars; Jamaica becomes an island of harmless dreadlocked children and en-suite Jacuzzis; Mexico has singles nights and room service-that there is little chance for other types of culture or representation to thrive or even survive. These corporate interests act as "the institution" because they can, essentially, purchase an identity for the land they sit on and eliminate the possibility of alternative identities and representations.

In a very similar way, the industries that produce souvenirs determine the look and impression of a place. Canada's ambassadors to the world are, quite often, the tacky polyethylene Moose figurines that litter souvenir shops along the border, and it's hard to imagine getting out of Arizona without a Grand Canyon ashtray or leaving the airport in Scotland without a piece of something tartan. The very manufacture of these goods determines how such places will be represented and remembered. Even more ubiquitous are the postcard stands we see scattered like weeds anywhere with a hotel or a main drag. These little portraits-staged, airbrushed, and prettier than the real thing-wink back at us, repeating images of the place around us in miniature, over and over, offering thousands of tiny, perfect simulations of the real place we're in. Postcards, the backbone of the souvenir industry, are glossy substitutes for reality, almost eliminating the need to look around. With the reams and stacks of tiny, perfect Eiffel Towers, CN Towers, and Statues of Liberty, postcards describe an unlikely uniformity of representation, reducing places to their sets of predictable images. Postcards, snow globes, and the trinketry of travel-multi-billion dollar industries, all-work as "the institution" because they control the representation of place this way.

One of the more ubiquitous incarnations of the institution discussed in Subversive Souvenirs is that of the almost incidental monolith of stereotype. Built up over decades, with subtle or heavy-handed contributors like movies, rumours, propaganda, home slide shows, and wishful thinking, these stereotypes can become as enormous and impenetrable as any government or corporate institution. When we trust in them, and when there is a paucity of alternatives, stereotypes can become the incontestable documents of fact in our minds, and we can believe in them so much that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect to see cowboys when we travel to the American west, we will see them, even if it means they must be hallucinated or manufactured.

These definitions of "the institution" are all alluded to in Subversive Souvenirs, because the artists discussed all examine these phenomena and attempt either to draw attention to the subjectivity of the institutional view or to contradict it altogether and offer other views in its place. In Subversive Cartography, the institution takes on a slightly more consistent meaning-in this case, it refers to the organizations involved in the making of maps. Road maps, political maps, city maps showing landmarks and points of interest, landscape maps showing environmental features, or even transit maps: all of these tend to be authored by subjective parties with views that are necessarily skewed one way or another.

For example, road maps drawn up by car companies will take into account only those details relevant to their interests: major arteries, common routes, larger cities. Some will even include subjective details like where to stop for gas (if one of their shareholders is a petrol company) or who to call for a tow (if a shareholder has tow trucks). This is to be expected: car companies make maps for people with cars and cater to particular car-oriented proclivities. A CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) map of North America, for example, will help you get from Goose Bay, Labrador to Chihuahua, Mexico as efficiently as possible, and might tell you how to find every Denny's along the way. But it won't offer any information at all, none whatsoever, about the cultural life in Dayton or the street art in Berkeley or the inclement political vibes in Little Rock. Why should it? If you're driving across a continent, you probably don't have time to fuss with details like that. But the fact of their absence-and of the absence of everything not directly related to your A-to-B trajectory-illustrates one important fact about maps: they are, by definition, subjective and exclusionary. No map can claim to be telling the whole truth, yet quite often maps are given the kind of implicit authority that lets them stand in for reality. When this happens, they can be considered to represent the "institutional" view.

Even maps drawn up by seemingly trustworthy and incontrovertible bodies-like, say, the ministry of agriculture or the City of Toronto-are vulnerable to the same margins of error, omission, and myopia. All of the information on the City map may be accurate, but it still doesn't provide a true or complete picture of what the place it's representing is like. It does, however, operate as an "institutional" document-it is the City's official statement on what the City is, and the very credibility of its source strengthens the hold it has on people's imaginations. The City map is the official version, and so The City is the "institution" which offers its singular-and often incomplete-representation.

It's impossible to be complete, of course: even with state-of-the-art cartographic technology, no single map can fully represent the entirety of a place in all its nuanced complexity. The artists discussed in Subversive Cartography acknowledge this, and address the fact that quite often, maps are imbued with far more authority than they deserve. They show that only by offering myriad alternatives, and acknowledging that no one answer is the correct one, can an approximation of accuracy even be approached.

Both sections of this project address the role of the "institution" in terms of its effect on the understanding of place. One examines it in terms of its relationship to the tourism industry, and another examines it in the context of mapmaking and geography. In both cases, the artists involved look at and play with creating alternatives to the institutional view, and attempt to challenge its singularity, its authority, and its monolithic profile.


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