Casa d’Italia, an Italian community center in Montreal, was built in 1936 with funds from the local Italian immigrant community, the Canadian government, and the Mussolini administration. The building features Italian fascist aesthetic elements, such as a large, austere rotunda and the black star of Mussolini in the flooring. In an article about Montreal’s Little Italy neighbourhood in the Canadian Encyclopedia, Diane Sabourin and Maude-Emmanuelle Lambert refer to the building’s style as Art Deco, which is both incorrect and intellectually irresponsible. Generations later, how recognizable is the fascist context of these symbols to younger Canadians? Scratching the surface of the building’s symbolism and funding history reveals a piece of Canadian history that otherwise remains covered over. These ties to European fascism—which otherwise feels distant to many Canadians—are uncomfortable, just as recognizing the historical significance of public space and the monuments we encounter there can be.
This particular example brings into sharp relief how certain histories and ideological symbols fade into the background of public space over time. There is a general understanding that the relationship between a statue or a building and the historical moment it embodies is indexical—that is, that it directly captures a moment in time. As time passes, however, our perception of how a moment should be memorialized changes. We begin to feel detached from built environments, seeing them as simply utilitarian spaces. But since going into lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19 in March of last year—and all the changes to our collective existence that this entailed—public space and its uses have taken on a renewed discursive energy. When protests for racial justice broke out in May of 2020, a great deal of attention was paid once again to the monuments that occupy public spaces. More importantly, the often-backgrounded histories that monuments represent are being reckoned with in new ways. In a series of talks given last year, artist Ken Lum called this a “monuments moment,” and a “public space moment.” Protesters all over the world defaced, decapitated, and pulled down statues to slave traders and perpetrators of all forms of violence throughout history. But what comes after the statues come down? What will transform the systems that these monuments represent?
The monuments, memorials, statues, and plaques found all over Canada reflect the influence of immigrant and settler communities alongside our officially sanctioned narratives of colonial heroism, creating a fraught visual landscape. For example, there are monuments to Ukrainian Marxist poet Lesya Ukrainka at the University of Saskatchewan and in Toronto’s High Park, gifted by local Ukrainian diaspora groups (though they don’t officially acknowledge she was a Marxist); Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax have memorials to the South African War—Canada’s first foreign war, where the military supported the British Empire’s colonial aggression in the independent Boer states for control of the Witwatersrand gold-mining complex. Viewing Canada as a blank-slate, colonial state is unduly romantic: this revisionism obscures centuries of violence, particularly against Indigenous and racialized groups. Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s controversial Memorial to the Victims of Communism, still under construction in Ottawa, posits the narrative of Canada as “a land of refuge,” while the very founding of the nation proves otherwise (as does the facts of Jewish refugees being turned away in 1939, the internment of Japanese-Canadians in 1942, and the current points-based immigration system, to cite just a few examples). On all fronts—financial, aesthetic, ideological—this memorial project is incredibly flawed, as it deceptively classifies communism and authoritarianism as synonymous, and was approved without public input while using public funds.
Statue removal on its own is a symbolic reordering, but replacing their modes of representation—the ideas, symbols, and values bestowed on society by centuries of capitalism—is a much deeper process.
Public space is brimming with these competing histories and obscured and unacknowledged narratives, such as the ones above. However, not everyone has the tools to decipher or adequately discuss these histories. Art history, as undervalued as any humanities discipline, can elucidate aesthetic tendencies and teach a critical eye. But art historical texts on monuments, such as those by Rosalind Krauss, Erwin Panofsky, and Alois Reigl, tend to focus on their formal and theoretical values. There is a certain amount of extra political education necessary in order to equip the general public with the tools to determine the semiotics, ideological functions, and provenance of monuments.
In his recent talks, Lum has suggested that artists who are engaged in public art practices should shift their focus from aesthetics to social reality, something he cites as a goal of his Monument Lab project, founded in Philadelphia. Although this is a useful suggestion, artists and public art projects only make up a portion of the equation in terms of what begets change and who should be responsible for it. Alongside some of Monument Lab’s commissioned projects—such as Karyn Olivier’s The Battle is Joined (2017) in Philadelphia’s Vernon Park, which concealed an existing monument, The Battle of Germantown, with mirrors—volunteers would ask residents their opinions on what an appropriate monument in their community might look like. Community members responded with ideas ranging from traditional statues to more ethereal forms, while some said they would rather have better schools than any new monuments.1 Clearly, this method of engaging members of a community shows that people know what they want. An educated and empowered public organized around progressive principles of transformation would have profound implications for rethinking public space and its material impacts in a wider context.
Monuments are part of an ecology that includes architecture, public art, and urban planning, all of which should be considered in tandem. These forms operate between the realms of public space and the institutions that govern it. As such, built environments are embedded with the same forms of discrimination that order contemporary racial-capitalist life, and thus contain messages about distributions of power and inequity through barriers to access such as race, income, citizenship, or ability. The moral urgency and imperative behind the energy that drives people to tear old statues down in protest needs the container of a well-organized social movement in order to make lasting changes to the structure of society. This movement would be premised on the knowledge that infrastructure is ideological and political, and so would redefine iconoclasm not just in terms of symbols and aesthetic choices, but also on a structural level: by advocating for a material reordering that improves people’s everyday lives permanently. This reordering would take place at every level of the aforementioned ecosystem, focusing on reallocating decision-making power away from institutions and instead to regular people.
Tensions between who uses public space and who gets to structure and adorn it are borne out of a stark division between public and private interests, as well as the limits of political will to actually work in service of the former. Liberal—as opposed to left-wing—thought is not progressive, in that it favours a passive centrism. Liberals identify problematic or dysfunctional systems and insist that they should change, but rebuke structural analysis and any real attempt to change these systems. By making bad-faith gestures towards what they believe is right, liberals benefit from appearing virtuous (and maintaining a status quo that upholds bourgeois values) while not actually working to change anything. This is the mechanism at work when Montreal mayor Valérie Plante refused to remove a statue of John A. Macdonald, who oversaw the establishment of residential schools, from Place du Canada, suggesting instead that adding a plaque for context was an adequate compromise. Protesters took it down anyway. Defacing or destroying revered symbols that do not and have never represented marginalized peoples—ones that, in fact, assert their disenfranchisement—are powerful gestures that occur out of frustration with the inaction baked into liberalism.
While this reckoning with monuments and their semiotic universes has resurfaced a few times in recent years, political solutions have been forestalled, and the energy vaporizes again. At the end of the day, the powerful are isolated from the public. City planners, developers, and politicians conceive of how space is organized in abstract terms, while the civilians who live, work, and move through these environments are the ones who shape and are shaped by them. Equipped with the knowledge of how the built environment is constructed in opposition to the interests of the working classes, we are better able to envision the structures that would serve us. Examples like Casa d’Italia, the monuments to a preposterous colonial war in South Africa, and the Memorial to the Victims of Communism bring to light the ways in which Canadian history and symbolism upholds a singular narrative of Western righteousness .
Canada’s relationship to its own history and the symbols used to memorialize it is also reactionary. The insistence that monuments should be left untouched as they teach us about history, for example, betrays a concern with nationalism rather than education: this naturalizes dominant histories which serve those in power. As theorist Paul B. Preciado recently wrote, following German author W.G. Sebald, “monuments that represent the power some wield over others paradoxically contain in their violent and grandiloquent style the root of their own destruction.” That is, the preordained authority of a monument in a time and place—as an index of an event, or an icon of a powerful figure—is bound to outlive its purported permanence once an educated public decides it is not served by the way this history has been told. This is why prevailing discourses on whether certain monuments should be taken down, or what should be done with them once they are, miss the point of what kind of transformation people really want and need. These are liberal questions that sidestep the material issues reinforced by this ecology of monuments and public space. Statue removal on its own is a symbolic reordering, but replacing their modes of representation—the ideas, symbols, and values bestowed on society by centuries of capitalism—is a much deeper process. The transformation of these modes is a process of iconoclasm that starts with a rejection of inherited and uncritical ideas of the status-quo as the only way to live. In its stead we must critically examine how histories and lived experiences are embodied in and structured by the ecology of public space.
What should we build in the place of a crumbling order? We don’t need new statues. Amidst white supremacists’ recent descent on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., a friend wrote: “Western modes of representation weren’t made to destroy settler colonial states.” That is, institutions and their dominating structures are not reformed from the inside, or on their own terms according to their own logic. Even expanding our understanding of what constitutes a monument can catalyze change: underfunded schools as a monument to political neglect and austerity; CCTV as a monument to surveillance and over-policing; luxury condo highrises as a monument to the rich displacing the poor. These monuments can (and have) become historically and culturally obsolete, but they do not disappear until we get rid of them ourselves. By connecting the inculcated politics of monuments to the inherent politics of public space, infrastructure, and their attendant institutions, we can expand our understanding of memorialization and symbols to include discrepancies in material power that affect people’s real lives. This has the potential to be a form of iconoclasm too.