March 26 – June 4, 2022
By Sarah Sarofim
Among the many exhibitions that took place in the spring of Toronto as part of the 2022 Toronto Biennale was a powerful exhibition on the violence of borders at Mercer Union. Through a film with a brilliant monologue played by Mahdi Fleifel and two large paintings, Lawrence Abu Hamdan questions the nature and frailness of—what we know to be—borders. Drawing on incidents that have taken place on the Canadian-American border, the Mexican-American border and across the Atlantic in the Middle East, 45th Parallel unravels how surveillance and visibility toy with movement across nations.
A big component of the exhibition is a film directed by Abu Hamdan (on Zoom) that is shot inside the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a unique space that sits on the Canadian-American border. The monologue is performed in both spaces. While Fleifel stands on the stage that’s in the US, the empty room he’s talking to, full of wide wooden seats, is in Canada. A black line, probably 7 centimetres wide, is drawn throughout the space, marking a separation between Quebec and Vermont.
The film feels like it has four acts. It starts in the library with Fleifel recounting how the space was used to smuggle guns across the borders. Two Americans bought guns in Florida and drove up to the library to get them through to Canada. Since the washrooms are accessible to both countries, one person walked through the washroom, left the arms in the third bathroom stall and Canadian Alex Vlachos took them and went back to Canada. Shots of shelves in the library and the bathroom are coupled with Fleifel’s narration. At times when we do see him, he’s sitting on a chair on one side of the black line with a table in front of him directly placed over it. The line, apparent and present, is irrelevant. Through this site and film, Abu Hamdan allows the viewer to visualize lines noting separations, before moving to two other cross-border cases, farther away from the Haskell Free Library and Opera House–where borders aren’t a black line on the ground.
A woman on the stage of the Opera House playing the pedal steel on stage appears. Behind her is a backdrop of dapperly dressed people by canals in Venice that slowly begins to lift up, revealing another. If one paid close attention to the space when walking in, not eagerly passing through to get to the film, they’d realise that the backdrop is the same as one of the ones that they just passed.
The music from the pedal steel carries on, slightly unsettling yet compelling, and the viewer can make out a large painting that says “la frontera donde debe vivir.” The slow reveal and interlude music come to an end as if announcing the start of Act II. Fleifel starts recounting the case of Sergio Adrian Hernandez, a fifteen-year-old who was shot by a US border patrol on the Juárez-El Paso border. Jesus Mesa Jr, the US border portal was standing in the states while Hernandez, and the friends he was with, were in Mexico. The bullet crossed the border and led to the murder of the unarmed boy.
“Though Agent Mesa’s firearm was stretched out into Mexican territory, his feet were three inches behind the American border,” Fleifel tells the camera. He re-enacts the scene while standing over the black tape in the library, marking the border between Canada and the US, as to reinforce the absurdity of a line, lethal yet invisible, at the Juárez-El Paso border.
The Supreme Court in the US, 5-4, ruled in favour of the border portal, claiming that since he was on US soil and Hernandez died in Mexico, he could not be prosecuted in the US. The judges were concerned that ruling in favour of Hernandez would implicate complications with the US foreign policy, namely, drone strikes launched from the US in the Middle East.
The steel pedal starts again, and another backdrop is revealed. Unlike the first two acts, Fleifel stands first on the stage listing, in great detail, the drone strikes that took place in Kabul (2018), Yemen (2013), and Makeen (2009). The camera stands behind Fleifel’s back and the audience isn’t granted the chance to look at his face. No backdrops are seen–the performance coming to an end. Fleifel’s tone is firm and demanding; “If the judges were to find Mesa guilty of this one killing, then what about the 48,308 murdered by hellfire?”
The last act of the film brings the viewer back to the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. Fleifel talks about how during Trump’s Muslim Ban the library was “one of the last little cracks in the border.” Families and friends who couldn’t leave the US in fear of not being able to get back in met their loved ones who could get a Canadian visa in the library. Instead of a no-talking sign, the library had “no burgers and extra-large cokes” signs–signs of a place of gathering. The film ends with Fleifel recounting how one of the librarians said, “we are a library, but I don’t want to shush you when you haven’t seen your grandmother in forever.”
When the film ends, the viewer gets up and walks back as they entered. They are met–again–with the painted backdrop of an aerial view of Damascus followed by the backdrop of the Juárez-El Paso border, with the writing “the border where he should have lived.” The two massive paintings of landscapes where murder and injustice have taken place, stand tall demanding one’s attention. Abu Hamdan took inspiration from the Haskell Free Opera House, where the absurdity of sitting in Canada and watching someone on stage in the US was heightened by the painted backdrop of Venice, to create the two works.
After having watched the film, the viewer is able to take in small details and break down the scene as a whole. Backdrops don’t become the suggestion of a place, a need for a suspension of disbelief, but rather a violent space, powerful in their placement and size. I remember being in awe walking out and stopping to look at them. The painting is a political ground where neutrality is eliminated. Abu Hamdan engages with the history of landscape painting and rejects its tradition of choosing aesthetics over honouring the site and its layers.
The ceiling where the paintings are hung made me feel like I was in a theatre, and in fact, the space is the ghost of one. 1286 Bloor Street West, now Mercer Union, used to be the home of one of Toronto’s earliest movie theatres, called the Academy Theatre. It was built in 1913 in an Edwardian style and closed around the 1960s. Mercer Union has been around since 1979 and moved a bunch before settling on Bloor Street West in 2008. The space that now hosts the exhibition has witnessed many backdrops, suspensions of belief, and theatricals. 45th Parallel, borrowing elements of theatre and film, reads as a counter-narrative to the scripts that were performed in this space–exposing the consequences of American imperialism and border enforcement violence.
This arbitrariness of borders is especially relevant to Canada, where lines drawn by the British have led to genocide. 45th Parallel was part of the 2022 Toronto Biennial of Art titled What Water Knows, The Land Remembers, a continuation of the 2019 Biennale The Shoreline Dilemma. The locations chosen were an ode to the water and ravines that have mapped the city’s geography and inhabitants, that once bordered places we walked by.
One of the central questions to the biennale is “what does it mean to be in relation?” and “45th Parallel” immerses itself in it. The exhibition does not just look at relations and their meanings but the hierarchies that exist when being in relation–a bullet, a body, a law in relation to a border, a country, a field. It looks at the dismissal and negligence of relations as well as the selectivity and decisiveness of being in relation.
The title of the exhibition, 45th Parallel, also points to other ways of being in relation. In this case, the invisible line that treads a surface to mark it isn’t institutionalised or militant. The 45th Parallel denotes “the middle of the earth,” where every place that this abstract passes through is equidistant from the North and South pole. The Haskell Free Library and Opera House sit on this line. While latitudes are often used as tools for movements and navigation, borders are usually restrictive. They implicate race and class, and self-serve the state, never the vulnerable or the migrant. The title of the exhibition acts as a cue to question the notion of borders and their relation to land and soil. The incredibly well-written dialogue treads that line as well. The Haskell Free Library and Opera and House were referred to as the “granite and brick loophole in the longest border in the world” and the “400 metre anomaly.” This huge play on words grounded the site in its materials and reinforced the absurdity and lethal power of borders.
Today, the welcome page of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House website reads: “The library is opened [sic] for guided tours again! No family/friends reunions (cross-border visits) allowed.” What once embraced the frailness of borders, now complies with its authority.
Abu Hamdan’s work continues to explore and reveal the neglected violence that happens across borders. One of his most recent projects is AirPressure.info, an extensive research project showing the physiological effects of aircraft noise and the extent of the Israeli air force surveillance in Lebanon post-war. Although the film in 45th Parallel speaks of a specific site, the installation grounds the work in the layered history of Toronto and is still able to highlight global injustices. The exhibition is documentative, critical, and–theoretically and linguistically–so accessible. It is an incredible example of the kind of exhibitions that are a reminder of the importance of producing and sharing work—in relation to the spaces we can or cannot navigate, the lives that we live, and the lives that could have been lived.