By Atif M. Khan & Ryan Persadie
Edited by Melina Mehr
Burning (2012) is a multi-channel video installation piece by Riaz Mehmood and Mike Marcon documenting the process of building and burning wooden store installations of common big box stores in the North Atlantic, such as Canadian Tire and Home Depot. The installation provides us with multi-dimensional optics to peer into the “slow burn” of capitalist destruction. Video documentation of a re-construction of a parking lot, complete with parked cars, street lights, a “1 hour photo” sign, and the familiar logos of Walmart and Canadian Tire, create a familiar environment for those of us living in the Global North. In the context of Canada, it’s one we all know too well.
As the video starts, faint signs of fire are seen in the background, which slowly consume the entire space as it spreads. The fire is caught within the interiority of the miniature store as it destroys it from inside-out, providing us with haunting reminders of the visceral impacts of power that can only circulate from core to periphery. The video performance is further enhanced by the growing sounds of burning embers as the model stores’ colourful exterior is turned to black and soot, and eventually rubble.
Despite being showcased in 2012, Mehmood and Marcon’s piece extends contemporary anxieties surrounding the current state of the world, particularly evoking common statements that our “world is on fire” as we are caught within an ongoing and simultaneous apocalypse, due to capitalism, white supremacy, COVID-19 and climate change, among other social and ecological crises.
Yet beyond the overt title and imagery of Burning, perhaps one of the most hard-hitting and challenging aspects of this piece is the visual absence of human presence. Instead of being recorded in a studio or gallery space, the recorded video that documents the burning process is shot in a field. The audience cannot be heard or seen, as most of us only watch from laptops and phones. What critical insights does this offer us in relation to aesthetic commentary on contemporary social crises when the liveness of its presentation and human audience as witness is absent?
Perhaps the audience’s voice doesn’t matter, because as many structural inequalities operate, power moves without the consideration of individual human feeling.
As a spectator of Mehmood and Marcon’s work, the embodied practice of watching the store burn provides the audience with parallel affective experiences to these causes. Caught, and perhaps trapped within the hands of state powers and other managerial forces often unwilling to incite structural change, we watch in fear, paranoia, and distrust as power moves through its cannibalizing force, consuming all of that around us, oftentimes with uncontrollable and seemingly unstoppable mobilization. As onlookers, we witness the store burning but can do nothing to stop it. What does it mean to look at capitalist consumption and destruction and contend with this absence of humanitarian agency? How does the act of watching and looking at video documentation of “Burning,” while not being physically present, inform our reading practice of decolonial art?
We read Burning as a multi-layered installation piece that moves across different registers of translating social and political context to a broader public. What is the significance of producing a multi-channel installation to view this piece in a gallery exhibition space? While both Riaz and Mike assert the political within their installation work, Burning moves through another round of translation in a gallery space; here, museums and exhibitions reflect the deep ties of capital (money) operating within these spaces that directly contribute to the burning required to move beyond our increasing political deadlock in the colonial present. While the original project may have begun from videotaping a McDonalds located close to the University of Windsor, the installation piece translates a broader message in scope to the public, and is increasingly relevant beyond its 2012 creation date, moving into 2021 from where we write these lines. I wonder what the effects of viewing and hearing fire simultaneously in an exhibition space might compel a viewer to do? On the one hand, we in the North Atlantic are fed a narrative of consistent crises (either present or incoming). Yet, not every crisis is everyone’s equal burden. Burning, then, is not simply towards an act of pure destruction, but always in search of what is left after. Hence, the viewer in an exhibition space might be compelled to search not for destruction, but thereafter. Running away from fire does not need to be a first response.
In times when the wall is ever collapsing around us, the exhibition space offers a brief respite where a makeshift wall separates Burning from other exhibiting artistic pieces. As an immersive experience through sound and with visual intensity, Burning is a durational waiting period that anticipates what will be left after the burn.
We need not be trapped forever in crisis. Burning then is not the final act. Instead, burning is the first.