Next to nothing

Grocery Store: Live in the Exchange!: The Co-Op Collective (dempsey / millan / zab / moore)
August 9 – August 31, 2002

a response to the exhibition by Christopher Olson

When I was a child, I would accompany my father selling his prints and paintings in Old Market Square. Our table was set up next to folks selling everything from produce to used books, and to pass the time I made crayon and water-colour pictures that I would sell for a dollar. I guess you could say my art career began early.

As did my love affair with the Exchange. During my teen years I spent Saturdays Zen-navigating the streets, digging for treasure in used bookstores, taking pictures of graffiti in the alleys (“Wpg HELL” was a favourite) and spending my evenings at Emma G’s when I wasn’t going to punk shows at the Cauldron and the Albert.

Twenty years after my first day in the Exchange, I found myself selling my chapbook as part of the Prototype Art & Zine Fair, in the same spot as my Dad. I currently work on Albert Street, have had studio space, hung out, hung work, slept, partied, and spent enough time in the ‘hood to call it home. I still go for rainy-day wanders through the alleys, camera in tow, backpack full of Chinatown treasures, and this corner of downtown has grown up with me. Or I have grown up with it. Whichever.

Recently, I read in the paper that the city had given the green light to re-zone and renovate vacant warehouse space to be sold as loft-style condominiums. Meanwhile, the Big-4 building has been restored and is used as office and rehearsal space, and Red River Community College’s downtown campus is ready to open its doors. Over time, galleries and garment factories were matched with cafes and vintage boutiques, which are now being met with upscale dance clubs and wine bars. While rent for affordable studio space begins to rise, Market Square has its first fast-food chain store (hint: NOT Sal’s), the Ro/Yal Bank Building is set to become apartments and the buzz continues to build about this unique space that has been carved out of the otherwise bleak netherworld that is downtown. The Exchange BIZ must be happy: now that we have established ourselves as a neighbourhood, it can be utilized as a brand.

Meanwhile, the stalwart “black-clad and spiky-haired Albert Street crowd” (to paraphrase Morley Walker – we’ve got marketable boho street cred!) start to wonder how necessary or beneficial all of this new development is to the health of the neighbourhood. Granted, the cheerleaders say the ‘hood is enjoying its renaissance, but there are still questions, depending on what you have invested in the Exchange. Do more cafes and nightclubs make the neighbourhood more inclusive or exclusive, and to whom? What does revitalization mean for the area, its inhabitants and, most importantly, the poor and marginalized who are part of the fabric of the Downtown Core? How does pricey loft space deal with the larger issues such as child poverty and addiction? Has anyone noticed how the Exchange has grown according to its own improvised rules, but it looks like a new (hyper)culture is being imposed on the pre-existing one? Winnipeg may not have the numbers or money to turn the Exchange into another Wicker Park, SoHo or Yaletown, but it still smells like gentrification. And for a rapidly growing borough that seems to have everything that a healthy, vibrant community might need, we seem to be lacking one important detail. We don’t have a grocery store.

Late July, 2002. Word starts to spread about a grocery opening up somewhere in the Exchange. Something about it not being in a traditional storefront, but for a limited time only. Curious. The flyers recall old Tom Boy and IGA circulars from the 50’s and 60’s, promising affordable, fresh (and even organic) produce along with traditional staples and sundries.

A couple days after the grand opening, I discover the generically titled Grocery Store in the gallery at aceartinc.

It’s like stepping into a time machine, but one that takes you into an idiomatic space, the same way that life in 2002 was envisioned to be Jetsons-tastic fifty years ago. The red-and-white colour scheme is fabulously kitsch, right down to the tiles. There’s shopping baskets, a functioning cash register and, as promised, coolers with tofu, veggies and dairy. Shelves are stocked with necessities like toothpaste, tampons and cat food.

But there’s this strange ambient-noise-loop muzak, and that eerily-sinister-yet-congenial lilting voice over the P.A.:
“Attention shoppers…grrreat deals, grrreat savings…just for you…”

It’s a little disorienting. But it all begins to make sense after a while ­the packages’ corporate logos are obscured with “Grocery Store” stickers, and working the checkout in matching polyester uniforms are local multimedia/performance artists (not to mention hilariously provocative shit-disturbers) Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan.

Sooo…it’s art. But it’s a grocery store. But it’s art.

Perfect.

Perfect for 2002, where culture jamming, reality hacking and cognitive dissonance are no longer just part of hip-counterculture-zeitgeisty-lingo, but actual practices with effects. It’s worth wrapping your head around the concept of a grocery store in an art gallery, and the issues it playfully addresses, even if only to take advantage of good deals (organic kale- a steal at two bucks a head!). Never mind the convenience of picking up a few things on the way home from work. One might realize that one hasn’t really been able to do that in the Exchange.

Food for thought, to coin an old cliché, but it’s true. Isn’t it funny how downtown is filled with entertainment and consumption multiplexes, night clubs and chain stores paving a trail towards the Exchange for Starbucks and Mickey D’s, but you can’t get the basics in your own neighbourhood? One might realize that downtown needs this:

more community-based business, more emphasis on the locally-owned-and-operated, and perhaps some real and tangible benefit to the community, not just for some three-times-removed CEO or boss capitalising on the Exchange brand. Our “important historical neighbourhood and part of our heritage” has become less of an entity to be celebrated and more of a sales pitch.

Grocery Store addresses these issues and a number of others from various sides. Part installation, part functional retail outlet, definitely art-as-activism (or vice-versa?), Dempsey/Millan/Moore/Zab’s collaboration poses a throwdown not only to city politicians, but more importantly to its inhabitants, to act or at least ask a few questions about what its citizens can do. What is possible? How much control do we, as a community, actually have over what goes on in our backyard?

As an art piece unto itself, Grocery Store is fascinating, where its formal elements read like a shopping list. You may not be able to see it on the shelves, but it¹s all there for your hard-earned dollar. The line between art and politics, protest and performance, dissolves into that wonderfully fertile grey area, a Zen koan- where by the mere shift of context, one thing becomes another and everything is possible. And the viewer becomes the art, not only in the work, but in their simultaneous roles as consumer, protester or cultural creative. The same way that by virtue of walking down the street you contribute to the culture of a neighbourhood or a city, you participate in the piece and something larger.

Jane Jacobs, urban theorist and author of the timeless The Death and Life of Great American Cities, seems to be the spiritual co-pilot of this work, (she is quoted in Zab’s flyer and her portrait appears on the cash register). If she visited the exhibit, she would be proud.

As would Joseph Beuys, Carolee Schneeman, Valie Export and many other figures from the canon of inherently political action-based art. Plus, it’s interesting how R. Mutt’s overturned urinal visits the present in the form of Kraft Dinner boxes stickered with the artist’s own imprint. The readymade of 1917 meets the No-Logo culture jammer of 2002 and they go for tea and a few rounds of chess.

Upon further inspection, there’s more and more to choose from for reference or investigation ­ a send-up of Space Age consumer bliss and a love for kitsch, some Situatuionist tweaking of the consumer spectacle in an already deriviste-friendly neighbourhood, a dash of corporate copyright plunder as cultural self-defence (see Negativland and @rTMark’s sonic play), Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone and Immediatist theories, and the under-the-radar spirit of D.I.Y. organizations like Food Not Bombs and Critical Mass, many of whom share a common method of seizing the means of production and hacking at the larger accepted reality. Heck, there’s some Baudrillard in there too, for all you theory buffs.

All things considered, what the Co-Op Collective has accomplished is not only one of the most important pieces of local art to come along in a while, but they have also defined a benchmark, and one that will be (or should be) among all of those listed above, used for future reference.

So…what does the future have in store for our quaint little neighbourhood? The cultural mecca that the Exchange is being marketed as is set to change quite radically over the next few years. But one must take into consideration that neighbourhoods, like cities, are living organisms. And, like every other living thing, there are measures that can be taken to ensure its survival. With a little (or a lot of) pushing, citizens themselves can further create and nurture a space that doesn’t just serve capitalism’s agenda, but those of the community-at-large, and the city and its broader culture.
If you took advantage of the coupons available at Grocery Store, remember – mail them to City Hall before election day. That’s another way you can make your grocery dollar count.

Christopher Olson is a perpetually-emerging multidisciplinary artist, writer, bonvivant and malcontent based in Winnipeg, who includes the People’s Republic of East Van as his other spiritual home. He’s probably served you coffee at least twice.

For reference and suggested good readin’
The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs
The Society of the Spectacle – Guy Debord
Bomb the Suburbs – William Upski Wimsatt
T.A.Z and Immediatism – Hakim Bey
The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem