Once in a while, someone asks me about life in America. The question might come from a European journalist on an international press trip, a distant but inquisitive Serbian relative, a São Paulo taxi driver, or a chatty seat-mate on a plane. I try to be polite: Depending on the circumstances, I vacillate between clarifying that I actually live in a different country, or taking a stab at answering anyway — because, well, close enough. Either way, I seldom feel more Canadian.
Our cities, at least, are more comfortable answering the same question. Whether it’s Montreal’s Saint-Catherine Street standing in for Manhattan in a high-speed chase in John Wick: Chapter 2, or a downtown Toronto watering hole adopting a convincing Boston accent in the “how you like them apples?” scene of Good Will Hunting, Canadian urbanism is an understated Hollywood staple. Such cinematic stand-ins are the basis of Impostor Cities, a thoughtful exhibition on now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada (MOCA).
Curated by Thomas Balaban, David Theodore and Jennifer Thorogood, Impostor Cities was initially commissioned as Canada’s entry to the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2020. While the Canadian pavilion was envisioned as an eclectic screening room, the pandemic-delayed exhibition was eventually re-conceptualized as a hybrid virtual experience in 2021. Two years later, it makes its long-awaited debut on home soil.
It was worth the wait. Stepping into the fifth-floor gallery, visitors are beckoned onto a green screen, where our own faces are superimposed over a projection showing a loop of Canadian urbanism in film. Is that Toronto’s Union Station? Vancouver’s Robson Square? Montreal? But the backdrops refuse to come into focus — my damn head keeps getting in the way.
Past the green screen, the heart of the exhibition is the screening room, where a geometric array of tall monitors plays a staggered, immersive selection of clips from over 3,000 films and television shows. The futuristic curved facade of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall makes an evocative appearance as a U.S. Senate building in X-Men, and Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University takes an apocalyptic turn in an episode of Battlestar: Galactica. In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, meanwhile, the Toronto corner of Dundas and Ossington is transformed into mid-century Baltimore.
Standing at the heart of the screening room, we take in a collage of “supercuts,” where the same Canadian locales are shown in a variety of productions. According to the curators, the rapid cuts “question the authenticity of a singular representation.” The same urban backdrops are by turns ominous or inviting, sumptuous and sullen. It’s an experience that hints at the mutable nature of our cityscapes.
Canada’s cities have range. On its most versatile day, Toronto can play New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo or Frankfurt. But as Canadian actors know, the biggest — and most seamless — roles are American. Alongside our cultural and geographic proximity, the more prosaic realities of Canadian film production account for this phenomenon. As Theodore put it to me when the show was first announced in 2019, “there’s a whole economic and professional infrastructure that supports the trend.” Government subsidies — and a comparatively weak dollar — allow for profitable cross-border movie making, and Canadian cities are rich with experienced film crews and well-equipped studios.
What does all that mean for Canadian identity? Architecturally, the protean qualities of our urban centres can be read as a post-colonial lack of assertiveness and identity — or, alternatively, as a cultural openness. According to Balaban (an architect and principal at Montreal’s TBA), it’s a mixed bag. While generic urban stretches reflect the timid, risk-averse and thoroughly committee-reviewed nature of Canadian design, “filmmakers wouldn’t be drawn to Canadian cities if they didn’t see something there,” he explains, pointing to Winnipeg’s well-preserved historic neighbourhoods and Montreal’s expressive modernist architecture. (And if nothing else, the condition of being a chronic impostor is pretty unique in itself.)
For all that, the fact that Canadian cities seldom play themselves remains a common frustration. It’s a sentiment shared across many of the interviews that round out the exhibition. On one end of the hall, a circle of screens brings forth a Greek chorus of commentary from Canadian luminaries, including the likes of Douglas Coupland, Sarah Polley, Guy Maddin, Elle Máijá Tailfeathers and Atom Egoyan.
At first, I strain to isolate a thread: There are too many voices — too much background — to listen to a single speaker for more than a few fleeting moments. Later on, I’ll listen to the individual interviews on the Impostor Cities website. Back in the museum, I slowly come to appreciate all the noise. What does it say about Canadian identity? Maybe its ineffable malleability is the point, or maybe convincingly masquerading as another can be an identity of its own. Either way, I seldom feel more Canadian.
Impostor Cities is on at MOCA in Toronto until July 23.
Curated by Thomas Balaban, David Theodore and Jennifer Thorogood, Impostor Cities is on now at MOCA Toronto.