Situated throughout the interior halls of the Eau Claire Market, Annie Martin’s (im) permeable exhibition calls on the specter of Walter Benjamin. At first glance, The New Gallery could be mistaken for another shop in the quiet, semi-deserted mall in the midst of redeveloped Calgary-- selling a handful of original and newly relined ladies’ trench coats. Following Benjamin’s ambivalent and curious criticisms of the Haussmannization of Paris to the urban phenomenon of shopping arcades, Martin follows the rite of the modern wanderer, the flâneur that finds inspiration within the crowd, yet always feels alienated from it.
The flâneur’s motivation can be traced in Charles Baudelaire’s prose poem, “Crowds," that begins, “It is not given to everyone to take a bath in the multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art; and only that man can gorge himself with vitality, at the expense of the human race . . . The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege that he can, at will, be either himself or another. Like those wandering spirits that seek a body, he enters, when he likes, into the person of any man. For him alone all is vacant; and if certain places seem to be closed to him, it is that, to his eyes, they are not worth the trouble of being visited.”
To inhabit public space freely and openly has been dominated mostly by men, as there is no traditional feminine equivalent to the idea of the flâneur. The flânuese remains atypical, and in a twist of cultural and economic saturation in the form of the modern day shopping mall, there is now a sense of safety and familiarity to the conflation of commerce and walking. Most inhabitants of the modern mall are women, children, and seniors, and it is here where Martin begins her investigation.
Focusing in on the presence of the wandering body, specifically the female body, Martin’s construction of an aural-based phenomenology situates itself within the shopping mall--a centre for the fleeting commodity. Anonymous and transient, the bodiless trench coats not only signify the listless roamer of urban arcades, but now amplify that route of the m(a)llified flâneur. Hanging spaciously on opposing walls of TNG, each coat is wired to a live audio feed coming from elsewhere in the mall. Tangible and textile, the dislocated presence becomes re-embodied. The experience requires you to physically lean into each coat, to open up the retailored and feminized upholstery, and re-navigate your spatial surrounding through an imperceptible auditory sensation. The audience body fills in for the perceiving and receiving body of the flâneur, at once within the crowd, but alone.
As a muffled aleatory of estranged noises, each coat inhabits a fragment of the modern ephemeral, a portal into hearing the heartbeat of a crowd. There is a disjunction between the stillness of the coats and of the seemingly kinetic sound coming from within them. The perception experienced is different from physically absorbing a crowd in the moment; the experience is more of a reception, akin to eavesdropping into a wholly other place and time. The ontological prowess of aurality is tested against the white noise of a non linear, non referential soundscape, prompting more questions than ideas. Dependent on the time of day, and the actual fluctuation of pedestrians passing through Eau Claire Market, (im)permeable is at best a live reflection of our everyday--channeling the nuances and broadcasting their essence in an unfiltered form. Although the coats can arguably be read as filters (literally) embroidered in historical and gender significations, the audio is raw, untempered and most importantly, transient.
The result of listening in to your immediate spatial environment is ultimately left up to the audience to do what they may, but its existence continues as a gesture as to how we engage with the world around us.
*Commissioned by and first published on Shotgun-Review.ca on May 20, 2008