Fillip 3 — Summer 2006

Tower Ghosts and Swing Shifts
Jessie Caryl

Three sequential viewing spaces in Corin Sworn’s exhibition, Atmosphere and Architecture (2006), frame several photographs and a projection installation that consider the gaps and erasures in escalating technologies of perception and the phenomenologies of experience that these sprawling representational systems cannot describe.

Entitled The Toronto Dominion Towers 1969–2005 (2006), the first work in the show merges two photographs of the Toronto Dominion tower complex designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose International Style architecture aimed to accentuate functional and technological coherence through the use of exposed structural frameworks and mass-produced building materials (iron, steel, reinforced concrete, and glass). Complicating our view of these structures, Sworn superimposes two exterior shots of the TD complex through a cross-dissolve technique borrowed from film. Each photograph, taken from a different vantage point in 1969 and 2005, is made partially transparent so that the other is visible through it. The 1969 image, taken just following the Towers’ construction, surveys the two skyscrapers from the ground. The other photograph, taken in 2005, overlooks the entire complex from the height of the CN Tower and includes the Commercial Union Tower, a third Mies-designed TD tower that was built in 1974, just following the architect’s death.

The oblique angle produced by Sworn’s superimposed perspectives presents an aporia: its implausible span connects a vanished viewpoint situated on an area of land now usurped by the third tower, with a vista taken above the TD complex from its priapic, camera-friendly vanquisher. While the earlier photograph only faintly registers the significant expanse of lawn space designed to integrate the domain of the towers with street-level Toronto, evoking perhaps the later development of civic bonuses for the corporate accommodation of public amenities, the more recent photograph records the built-up area around the complex and brings to mind shifting conditions of labour under advanced capitalism. Yet, in the composite, neither appears distinct, setting up a representational impasse that confronts architecture’s social claim to present an object for simultaneous collective experience. If, as Walter Benjamin suggests in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), buildings are appropriated by habitual use and incidental perception, might this subjective mode demur the recording of history “Would it emit any symptoms?”

The third TD block, visibly subordinated in the CN Tower-mounted aerial shot, is rumoured to be haunted. Haunted, Sworn appears to propose, by a range of haptic, affective, intuitive, or intersubjective modes of perceiving space that modernist architectural discourse occludes. The perpetrator of the disturbance remains hidden, yet the first work in the show suggests that attending to the history of the Commercial Union Tower might give us a sense of its ghost. This tower sidesteps the ostensibly linear development of history maintained when a building is designed, completed, and received during the life of the architect. In its posthumous condition it veers outside a dynasty projected by the primary twin towers. Within Sworn’s exhibition, accounts of paranormal encounters in built-space counterweigh the problem of how to narrate the subjective experiences of tower occupants, their relationships with the building in time and space, and their erasure from forms of representation that work to objectify.

Just inside an enclosed space that functions as antechamber to the large projection room, Sworn has tucked a small abstract photograph in a black portrait matte. Uninhibited by the formal constraints of architectural representation, the sudden flip into abstraction and clear evocation of subjectivity is disconcerting. Stylistically, the image bears little relationship to the one before it, so its interpretation perhaps directly engages with the other picture positioned within the space. This work is placed on the wall across from the small abstract and comprises two interior shots of the TD towers hinged by a cut-out that resembles Mies van der Rohe’s signature black I-beam, containing a Rorschach-like mirror image of structural detailing. The interior views, taken from an exhibition catalogue entitled Toronto Modern: Architecture 1945–1965, published by the Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism in 1987, are set up as “spaces of action” (as per the convention in architectural photography) by way of subtle directives to the viewer-cum-prospective occupant. For example, a chair is pulled away from a desk slightly, as on the left, or the shadow of an absent figure is revealed, as on the right.

Each space, of action or absence, depicts a ghost of a different stripe. Alongside broader shifts in style, certain documentary approaches to encounters with the real and the supernatural have prevailed over time. Our present broad awareness of the capabilities of photographic reproduction to capture images that escape natural vision, mixed with cynicism about photographic manipulation, has replaced traditional records of paranormal occurrences in the form of ghostly silhouettes or detailed, pallid figures with the more modern bumps and jostles of abstraction. The authenticity of the image as a document of the supernatural forsakes its representational value and takes refuge in the medium of film, perhaps more credibly susceptible to the touch of ectoplasmic residue.

What eludes the diachronic architectural cross-dissolve, the psychosomatic hinged interior, and the abstract spirit-portrait is a sense of the actual twenty-one thousand workers that currently occupy Toronto’s TD towers. Their absence is elaborated in a DVD projection which combines the voice-over testimonies of security guards who have experienced ghostly encounters with footage of a lone figure wandering the empty halls and cubicles of the deserted office buildings. The camera trails the figure for a while and then cuts to the outside of the towers at night—slowly panning their dark mass and wavering lit windows. Video has become the historical successor to still photography and the favoured medium for attempts to record, with veracity, the unseen. While the video’s flat voice emphasizes each account’s objectivity, the recognition and acceptance of such narratives often adheres to the expressive charisma of the subject, which is here diminished. The loop insinuates itself between the figure of the security guard and the exhibition viewers in the darkened projection room, questioning the uneasy realm of testimony—legitimated neither through the weight of scientific proof which directs laws nor the appeal of the individual subject.

The anomalies of individual experience elude representation in this liminal zone as they do amidst the controlled directives of cubicle architecture, multi-storey elevators, and parking bays. Sometimes experiences of space that resist being characterized produce physical effects: sick building syndrome, infrasound, and the Taos Hum could be viewed as contemporary examples of the manifestation of bodily resistance to overruling technologies of vision as illness. A nineteenth century example of this was agoraphobia, the “fashionable” disease of modern life initially diagnosed by doctors in Vienna and Berlin in the late 1860s. In 1906, the art historian Wilhelm Worringer attributed agoraphobia to “a residue from a normal phase of man’s development, at which he was not yet able to trust entirely to visual impressions as a means of becoming familiar with a space extended before him, but was still dependent upon the assurances of his sense of touch.” 1 In Sworn’s exhibition, the testimonies of security guards function as a foil for the unrepresented experiences of daytime workers in the towers. The photographic works elbow the constraints of their medium, and they are positioned unexpectedly, perpendicular to the roving viewer’s gaze. Sworn sets up passages and a projection space that create zones of transition and tactile negotiation. The towers fade in and out of being just as they come into view.

  1. Anthony Vidler, “Agoraphobia: Psychopathologies of Urban Space,” Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2000), 25–50.

Image: Corin Sworn, The Toronto Dominion Towers 1969–2005 (2006) Digital print on metallic paper, 45.75 x 30.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

About the Author

Jessie Caryl works as Curatorial Associate at the Catriona Jeffries Gallery, co-facilitates a free school currently taking place at Spartacus Books, and most recently titled the exhibition, And to stop you interfering, I shall have to dematerialize you again.

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