Brett Gundlock

Toronto

Brett Gundlock: from the series Prisoners (2010): Courtesy the artist.Brett Gundlock: from the series Prisoners (2010): Courtesy the artist.

By Brandy Ryan

Brett Gundlock: Prisoners
Communication Gallery
March 11 – 31, 2011

Brett Gundlock’s Prisoners portraits were not taken during Toronto’s G20 Summit weekend protest, although the photographer and his subjects were taken to the temporary detention centre at 629 Eastern Avenue. Following his own arrest and detainment while working on assignment for the National Post newspaper during the G20 weekend, Gundlock brought his equipment and a white screen to the courthouse during the first court appearance for those (1,100-odd) people charged amidst the G20 protests. Gundlock invited his fellow inmates to pose for portraits and to fill out forms asking for their names, ages, city of residence, place/date/time of arrest, charges, and a statement detailing the most compelling part of their experiences.

The results strikingly mimic the mug shots taken by police photographers that weekend. Prisoners, as a body of work that demarcates and defends the agency of those whose civil rights were suspended that weekend, blends this style with the stark simplicity of portraiture to highlight the incongruity of the G20 arrests: Ontario citizens held in small cages, for hours, without food or water.

The insistently democratic nature of Gundlock’s artistic exercise is immediate and tangible. Located fifteen minutes from Queen’s Park – the designated “free speech zone” that marked the beginning of the mass arrests of protestors and pedestrians alike—the gallery allowed passersby to gaze in, and to be arrested by, the images on display. This spectacle is inherently empowering, however, rather than voyeuristic. The welcomingly windowed wall of the gallery framed the large-scale black-and-white aesthetic of the portraits, the subjects of which meet our gaze, defiant, timid, questioning, stoic; these faces are clear and frank. I sense an almost-raised eyebrow, a warm half-smile, vulnerability in the eyes. This humanizing is integral to Gundlock’s project, fighting as it must the perception perpetuated by the media: protestors as vandals, pedestrians as opportunists.

Below each portrait is the handwriting of its subject, with all the vagaries of clarity and grammar that handwriting allows. When I spoke with Gundlock during the first week of the exhibit – he sat the gallery one Sunday afternoon to speak directly with those who came by – he responded to my question about the forms with a smile. They were intended as notes for the project, not to be viewed by the public. (Each bears a series of numbers in its top-right corner, indicating the negatives to which it corresponds.) As he developed the images, however, he realized their documentary power: the faces we look at, and that look back at us, may literally be silent, but their collective presence creates a voice of and for the people involved, however tangentially, in the events of that Toronto weekend. The information on these forms inscribes tension: between the subjects and their charges; between their cities of residence and the place/date/time of their arrest; between their ages and their statements of experience. The unframed images lining the walls are open to the air, a presentation that emphasizes the nature of protest: the presence of citizens coming together in a communal space.

These prisoners, however, are unremarkably average: from Toronto, Newmarket, Montreal, Richmond Hill, Peterborough. They are people you encounter every day. The understated aesthetic of this exhibit thus invites discussion: those who sought the show out—rather than stumbled upon it—were there as much for conversation as for spectatorship. I overheard at least three conversations between viewers and those who sit the gallery. The urgency of these conversations, the stories that are shared in this space of forms and faces, demonstrate the civil trauma that occurred for many this weekend in 2010. These portraits evoke, rather than demand, discourse: about civil liberty, about the nature of democracy, about the viability of protest. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the G20 weekend, Gundlock’s images remind us that these are conversations in which we must participate with renewed urgency.

Brandy RyanBrandy Ryan has studied and taught poetry, both contemporary and Victorian; she received her PhD in English Literature from the University of Toronto in 2008. Some of her poems can be found in Misunderstandings Magazine, Media TropesBecoming Feminist, and White Wall Review, while others refuse to leave home. Her unpublished manuscript, Elegy (Carry Until Fall), was recently awarded an Ontario Arts Council Works in Progress Grant; her next project involves hockey, note-taking and your local pub.