An abstract watercolour painting in blue, green, red, and black

not all that glitters / மின்னுவதெல்லாம் பொன்னல்ல

not all that glitters by Vasuki Shanmuganathan traverses across digital landscapes to consider how visual narratives using consumerist and colonial aesthetics often bypass our political awareness about histories of violence.

Short Description

not all that glitters are two digital works which reflect on encounters with histories of mass violence, where colonial renderings of geographical and temporal boundaries collapse, mycelial networks and moths emerge as witnesses, and highways become monuments to the silence which enshrines these events in memory. In considering how visual narratives using consumerist and colonial aesthetics set to the backdrop of pristine tropical landscapes often bypass our political awareness about state violence, the series is an invitation for reflection. A site-specific augmented reality (AR) installation under the Gardiner Expressway calls attention back to the historical events of 2009 when Tamil protesters ran onto the highway in protest and pain. The exhibit site and works create a makeshift space to contemplate on the silences in our lives and what losses we carry the weight of when we are suspended from memoralization.

Long Description

content warning: genocide, colonial violence

How do you capture silence and what can one learn from being near it?

Using the underbelly of the deteriorating Gardiner Expressway as site of this exhibit, part of the AR Knot Residency, the artworks invite viewers to consider who is a witness, what is unseen, and where it is forbidden to speak about what you just saw.

The mycelial network and its surrounding flora and fauna have been witness to the same colonial violence, which ties racialized people’s histories and displacement together in oppression and resistance. What if the rhizome’s attempts at growth against barriers or destruction or the lessons learned through decay inform the choreographies of people acting against injustice? What if you see fungi as interconnected bodies and embedded communities with memory unsettling the land to move with them?

Tamil island culture carries a long tradition of celebrating its deep connection to nature for nourishment as evidenced in current daily rituals and practices. In times of drought, mushrooms found in tropical forests saved people in nearby villages from starvation, a knowledge passed down through generations which is still in use. The Indigenous people on the island named Veddas or “forest dwellers” remain engaged in longstanding nomadic practices of foraging, hunting, and moving with the land. Though current mainstream island approaches disregard these perspectives in favour of a narrative of managing nature as means to signal modernization and development to the rest of the world. To conceptualize the digital artworks, Indigenous, Black and Tamil ways of knowing informed my process. To think beyond what is concrete, human directed, and tangible is to go against colonial logic.

In contrast, the Gardiner Expressway located in Tkaronto, called a “monster” by its designer Bill Malone and seemingly devoid of nature, has been literally falling apart in front of us since 1958. A triumph of water, salt, and other elements that have been breaking down its structure to reclaim space over time. In 2009, this highway was a stage to more than 2000 Tamil people who ran up the Spadina Avenue ramp and blocked the major artery connecting the city. They cried, held each other, mourned what was to come, and chanted in protest against a genocide about to transpire well into the night. A highly televised event, which failed to consider what the people were about to lose, was far greater than the disruption caused to weekenders.

The first island-wide pogrom against Tamils took place coincidentally the year the Gardiner Expressway came into existence, something kept out of the news then. What makes these historical events significant is the enforced silence. To beautify the island, the state has long deployed violence alongside alterations to the landscape. There has been an attempt to hide genocidal histories using a consumerist and colonial mode of aesthetic while banning any public memorialization or mourning. Can a decaying highway faraway serve as a monument to hold silence and grief or does it falter, unable to hold its weight?

Important Notes

1/ The Gardiner Expressway and surrounding area and peoples in Tkaronto are located on the lands and homes of the Mississaugas of the Credit and the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and many other Indigenous nations. These lands also contain the memories of previous and ongoing genocides against Indigenous people by settlers

2/ The “Tamil island culture” in this text is specifically referencing Sri Lanka.

3/ In doing this site based work, accessibility considerations were centered to serve the local community. So often art exhibits are restricted by physical, socio-economic, and temporal limitations and with AR use there is an opportunity to rethink the parameters of what is possible. The historical site is at Column 113/5 on Spadina Avenue but it is difficult to use a mobility device such as a wheelchair or walk on the terrain without hiking shoes. The height of the cracks may prove a further obstacle. Paved in stones, the ground treatment prevents people from utilizing the empty space for shelter, respite, or play. The heightened police surveillance of the underpass requires further consideration of who is allowed to explore the space.

4/ While the exhibit focuses on the colonial, ecological, and historical at this intersection of the highway, the conversation would be amiss if it didn’t continue asking what silences does this installation create?

To give flora and fauna agency and their stories changing ours is an ancient Tamil oral tradition meant to pass down lessons for contemplation. This practice is found in other cultures too even when we end up anthromorphizing animals or centering humans in many of these stories. My questions are for the mycelial network and moths, rather than supposing these are their stories, even as I undertook research on their behaviours and appearances with humans to piece together what I could find out.

Site A/ Gold | Taṅkam | தங்கம்

Column 113 - Spadina Ramp

least accessible, unsteady terrain

(artivive, sound)

Orb when viewed at its largest has details inside which are sharp, uncomfortable edges and force you to bend out of shape trying to see details.

Gold has long been the most stable currency on the island plagued by political and economic instability. Many wear gold jewellery as adornment, to signify class and caste, and show marital status. In times of drought and poverty, people often utilize their familial networks to trade their collections for food. The Tamil word for gold (thangam) doubles as a term of endearment that parents call their children regardless of age. A term which has been breathed into the air since antiquity.

In this piece, a lenticular effect is created through a deformed, reflective gold orb appearing/disappearing in an otherwise pristine and sun filled image of a swamp with pink flowers and surrounded by lush tropical palm trees on the island. A monument to silence. In 2009, when 300,000 Tamils were trying to flee the warzone, the state soldiers asked for their gold jewellery as price for passage. The golden orb represents the 150kg of missing gold which was never recovered. The inability to piece together what happened to those that died or were disappeared remains uncertain due to the government’s silence on the matter. In stark contrast to the factual certainty with which they offered both the above numbers to international media.

Zoomed in damaged concrete pillar with the number 113 below the damage. A bridge pillar with four sections. The second and third section are damaged. A bridge pillar that's damaged with the rebar exposed in a tic-tac-toe like shape. Zoomed out damaged concrete pillar with the number 113 below the damaged. A bridge pillar with four sections. The three top sections are damaged exposing the rebar. A bridge pillar with five sections. The third section contains the number 115. A slightly damaged, fenced in bridge pillar with traffic of cars on the right-hand side. Underneath a bridge, there are three cars driving on a road.
Site B

Site B/ Luna | Lūṉā | லூனா

Column 93 - 44 Dan Leckie Way Underpass

concrete bench seating, most accessible

(aero; stock images used depicting misty forest in Sri Lanka along with three floating billboards and flying moths)
Dimensions is Link I - three billboards with images of a white vans, travel passes, and police on the gardiner as well as moths)

Aero is Link II - moving objects are moths, and curtain)

A pillar with damage. Digital butterfly effects have been added on top of the pillar with damage QR Code for Ar Adobe

The luna moth calls the forests on the island (and parts of Turtle Island) home despite its short lifespan of one week. One of the largest and visually stunning moths, its sightings are still so rare that people believe them to be almost magical. Delicate tails serve as acoustic camouflage to avoid being heard and for long flights through the warm night air. In the insect world, the luna moth is renowned for how much it can hear or rather listen, while possessing no mouth. In one of the news reports on the island, there was a remark about how the moths appeared near vans in the capital city of Colombo.

Since the 1980s the use of “white van disappearances” has been an effective strategy to abduct people seen as critical of the state. The vans operate during the night and disappear into the forests and at times have been spotted on city streets. Their ability to move freely for decades has given them powers of mystical magnitude. The people near the vans however remain voiceless. Their lives are defined by identity cards and travel passes which restrict movement south of the island as can be seen in the middle billboard. The cavalcade of white police cars descending down the Gardiner against protesting people on foot seemed as if the scene old, played anew.

This work ponders how the luna moths saw these events. Was their presence near the vans coincidental because of the headlights? Perhaps much like the moon and mushrooms on the forest grounds draw them out at night with their glow. Or what if their presence can be imagined as an act of collective defiance against the state? The ecological war against their forests, which are located next to the homes of the disappeared. What did the moths witness on those nights?

Urban location underneath a bridge with a road. A slightly damaged bridge pillar near buildings and seven small circular structures. Underneath a bridge in an urban location with a street and buildings. Buildings behind a slightly damaged bridge pillar and nine small circular structures. Behind a slightly damaged bridge pillar, there is a small road with three vehicles and people walking. A large beige sculpture with a blue-grey center. Underneath a bridge in an urban location with a street and buildings.

Site C/ Next of Kin | Aṭutta uṟaviṉar | அடுத்த உறவினர்

1 York Street, Second Floor View of Gardiner Expressway Column

elevator, indoors, most accessible

(artivive, video, sound, photography, collage)

In considering flora and fauna as engaged in embedded forms of movement and communal growth, the fate of the mycelial networks which once were seen as part of the forest feeding people, are now found in mushroom form grown in rooms attached to homes. Rows of saw dust pillows in cold rooms prevent them from connecting to entire ecosystems, let alone touching each other or the ground.

The mycelial network left in the forests, clinging onto decaying matter, tilling the earth as they move, the memories they held of the past seem too distant from the fungi growing afar. Much like the people who have been displaced. Next of kin refers to the practice of calling on kin in times of emergency for support.

In placing multiple strands of narratives across time such as found footage of an airline commercial from the early 1950s showing us the “tropical beauty” familiar in our imaginations juxtaposed to the row of young woman on the frontlines of the Gardiner Expressway protests, facing the police in riot gear, and answering a call on her phone, along with wild mushroom varieties from the island growing into the crack of the Gardiner, the disorienting collage supposes memories are not meant for placemaking. Rather they form a nest of knowings on how to hold each other’s histories.

In placing the spectator on the second floor of a glass building, separated from the highway, the installation brings into awareness the distance and scale of the highway and the use of technology as a tool of temporal mediation.

Protest Footage Source: TWR Promo Film “Flight to Ceylon” (1950s)

Visit Luna site A with Adobe Aero Visit Luna Site B with Adobe Aero

Note: user must be on mobile, they can only activate the work by being physically on site.

Zoomed in, moderate damage to the top section of a bridge pillar with many people in the distance. Zoomed out, moderate damage to the top section of a bridge pillar with many people in the distance. Moderate damage to the top section of a bridge pillar exposing a checkered-like pattern.
Vasuki Shanmuganathan