The average viewer of Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery’s new exhibition would be forgiven for taking a bit of a double take.
Instead of the expected gallery exhibition, with paintings, drawings or sculptures artfully displayed throughout the space, the first impression of Grand Theft Terra Firma by British Columbia artists David Campion and Sandra Shields, is that of an historical museum display.
You know the type: panels with photographs of re-enactments of historic events and lots of descriptive text. There are even panels with pictures of historic artefacts, again accompanied by lots of text. Has the gallery been given over to a worthy historical endeavour for the summer? The history of the neighbourhood on which Saint Mary’s University stands, perhaps? Well, no. Even a cursory reading is enough to make one realize that they are in the presence of an installation that is by turns funny, sad, tragic and, ultimately, humbling.
This exhibition does mimic the display techniques of the history museum, with multiple panels and very few actual objects. But as one begins to read the panels, which depict people in 19th century costume and objects from the same period, one realizes that there is quite another game going on.
The British had a name for the geo-politics of their Empire in the 19th century: the Great Game. Grand Theft Terra Firma is an element of that game, one that had, and is still having, profound existential effects on Canada and all who live here.
You see, this exhibition is also based on a popular computer game: Grand Theft Auto. And as with that violent, amoral, and ubiquitous universe, Grand Theft Terra Firma promises rewards if one plays the game with the proper attitude. The prize? Canada. It is colonization as entertainment, replayed over and over as a strategy game.
The rules are simple: play your part in the “big heist” to get your piece of the pie. The victims are the first nations people who already inhabit the “virgin” territory you covet—in this case S’ólh Téméxw, which we know as British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.
As with a role-playing game, the players are invited to become a character: the settler, the land surveyor, the priest, the whiskey trader, and more. “Power objects” are collected, which help the player in their assigned roles in the heist: a gin bottle, a shotgun (the whiskey trader is encouraged to collect at least five of these before they can feel safe), a Hudson’s Bay Blanket, a gold pan, a cannon, and so on. The objects depicted are actual historical artefacts, the people in costume are either actors or members of the Stó:lō nation.
In addition to the player cards and power objects, the artists have created numerous game scenarios, which lay out many of the possible outcomes along the way to recreating the great heist. One warning? Avoid compassion or becoming too close to the Stó:lō people – recognizing them as fellow human beings deserving of respect and dignity will see you ejected from the game.
There are also set pieces, the backdrop against which the player photographs were taken, and a room designed as an office. The artists strategy of keeping a cutting edge hidden in their humour is well evident in another object in the exhibition: a full-scale outhouse. The wooden structure seems benign, even nostalgic until one looks at the newspaper article pinned over the walls, each with a red circled story highlighting the racist attitudes and judicial blindness vis a vis the treatment of first nations peoples that were rife in 19th century Canada. Reading the walls, one is forced to admit that perhaps less has changed then we would hope.
Grand Theft Terra Firma retells Canadian history, putting one of our cherished national myths, the building of Canada, into a light that many of us will be discomfited by. Discomfiture, of course, is one of the things art does best, moving us out of our comfort zones and into areas where there are fewer certainties and more compromises and accommodations. Thought provoking and memorable, Grand Theft Terra Firma is a show you shouldn’t miss. It continues through August 5.