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Letticia Cosbert
Diagrams of Power at Onsite Gallery
July 25, 2018

Design has to be one of the most nebulous fields of study. If you don’t believe me, take a look at its Wikipedia entry and the nearly forty disciplines included – not to mention the many related philosophical principles, approaches, and methods. Onsite Gallery’s latest exhibition, Diagrams of Power, presents a number of these categories in various forms of data, diagrams, maps, and digital media. The exhibition features fascinating and thought provoking research projects revealing imbalanced power structures throughout the world, but fumbles an opportunity to explore the ways in which design can be engaged with, for, and by marginalized people.

Margaret Pearce, Coming Home to Indigenous Place Names in Canada, 2018, map

The list of artists, designers, and researchers in Diagrams of Power is overwhelming, as is the presentation of data, diagrams, maps, and digital visualizations dispersed throughout the space. On nearly every wall there is either a floor-length vinyl map, a moving or static projection, or a mounted screen belonging to a television, tablet, or smartphone. Everything is intriguing and impressive, though you will not be able to absorb very much of it before your attention is drawn to another wall decal teeming with data, a blinking screen, or a voiceover heard from the other end of the gallery.

Everywhere I turned, I saw data that quantified oppression, beginning with cartographer Margaret Pearce’s commissioned map of Indigenous place names across Canada. It effectively communicates the scale at which this land was plundered by colonization. Another display of oppression, this time predominantly economic, is in the form of an interactive map of Detroit revealing the amount of land owned and controlled by speculators, and the cause of the city’s inordinate rate of property vacancy and abandonment. I was only able to touch a few things on the screen before it quickly went out of service, but I walked away from that HTTP 404 error thinking about our obsession with Detroit’s so-called urban decay, and whether this exhibition itself indulges the same.

Forensic Architecture, The Ayotzinapa Case: A Cartography of Violence, 2017, video

On a wall behind Pearce’s map is a pruned reproduction of W.E.B. Du BoisAmerican Negro, an exhibition first mounted in Paris in 1900 comprised of images and research data about the cultural, economic, and social conditions for the Black American in the state of Georgia. While I enjoyed spending time reading the data and looking at the graphs coloured in with marker, I couldn’t help but recall Theaster Gates’ use of these very images in his 2016 AGO exhibition How to Build A House Museum. In Gates’ exhibition, Du Bois’ research becomes the praxis of a larger political, social, and economic project for Black Chicagoans and, by extension, Black Americans. Here, Du Bois’ images are simply part of an ethnographic study on marginalized people.

What could have been an exhibition about design and how it interfaces with marginalized people, turned out to be only a presentation of design about marginalized people. Police brutality in America is reduced to an innumerable amount of dots on an iPhone 5 in Josh Begley’s ongoing Archives + Absences. And you can experience the shift in political ideology of oppressive regimes through AR technology if you have a credit card to offer up at the front desk for the Department of Unusual CertaintiesA Type of Political Map. As for the exhibition itself, Diagrams of Power answers the question “Are marginalized people oppressed?” with the obvious response: “Yes. Quite a bit.”

Diagrams of Power continues until September 30.
Onsite Gallery:
The gallery is accessible.

Letticia Cosbert is a Toronto based writer and editor, and is currently the Digital Content Coordinator at the Koffler Centre of the Arts. Letticia studied Classics, earning a B.A. from the University of Toronto, and an M.A. from Western University, where she specialized in erotic Latin poetry. Her writing and editorial work has been featured in Ephemera Magazine, Sophomore Magazine, The Ethnic Aisle, and publications by Katzman Contemporary, Younger Than Beyonce Gallery, Xpace, and Trinity Square Video. She can be followed on Instagram @prettiletti.



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