at the ECH
by Marwan Hassan
1/ place & place names
The river named Deshkan Ziibi flows through this place. The place itself has a rendezvous with nomenclature and toponyms on a map, which involves reckonings and recognitions with place names.
Although I grew up in this city, local to the place, close to the river, sometimes it was at the centre of my life as a child, other times the place appeared on the periphery. And sometimes, I felt at the centre of events in this place, and other times an observer located on the periphery. Recognitions come slow, recognitions come fast, sometimes at the speed of light, as with the true name of the river, Deshkan Ziibi.
The village, where the Embassy Cultural House once stood, has been known in various registers, shifting variants: Lilley’s Corners (LILLEY’S CORNERS), sometimes East London or other times as London East, or even as simply as Dundas Street east or east Dundas Street.
Direct, casual and daily, Dundas Street itself as with other old streets, Richmond Street, York Street or Wharncliffe Road, is an informal pathway to memory.
2/ buildings: a pathway to memory
The Embassy Cultural House and the building (the Embassy Hotel aka the Sunnyside Hotel) which housed it, were part of the city’s distinct buildings, that create their place in the downtown’s central street. The ECH’s exhibitions and events became lodged in the flow of the city’s cultural memory, through association with the works of art and many performances by artists that occurred in the ECH space.
We say street front, but the buildings of the east end – in the Village – some are gone, such as the old Ontario Arena and the old stockyards – transit sheds of the LSR – London Street Railway (1870s to 1940s) both were demolished. Others endure as structures, yet have been re-purposed, such as the Miller Brothers Sheet Metal once located at 663 Dundas Street East for several decades or an old tinsmith’s workshop and store [C Dyson, tinsmith, at 758 Dundas Street East during 1920s] on the south side of Dundas, or the local barbershop once located down a short stairwell into a terrazzo alcove, where Jamelie Hassan once had a small space, in the early 1970s, where she sold antiques, collectibles and her own art works – a provisional prelude and precursor of her more substantial and intricate critical work, Orientalism & Ephemera.
And in the Village, other structures have been rehabilitated and rescued from destruction by the wrecking ball, renewed and revived – the Palace Theatre, once a movie theatre known as the Park at 710 Dundas Street East, which was situated near the local doctor’s office, Dr Henry. A building, which I knew in childhood as the Floral Pavilion, is now known as the Western Fair Arts Building.
3/ the ways of memory
Considering such buildings and spaces brings us to significant ways of remembering. Today we have a new set of registers, methods and modalities that are technical and scientific, involving acute and precise measurement with technology, such as radiocarbon dating (used for dating organic material and artifacts, by the rate of decay of carbon 14), thermoluminescence (measuring time with light, used in archaeology for dating materials found in soil) and archaeoacoustics (a technique used for determining ancient sounds).
These methods, highly technical, take us deeper into an obscure zone, the time depth registered in materials and matter retained in the matter as a memory of an event, thing or being, which writers such as Mike Spence, an archaeologist, may possibly use, when exploring the soil, events, bones, artifacts, etc. at an archaeological site to tell us another story that was once hidden or unknown, or known yet buried in sedimented soil, or used to confirm ancient memory and past events. Although these techniques are empirical, there is something uncanny in the rarefied technical quality to use such ways for investigating time.
These sorts of techniques for excavating the past and memory within materials stand in contrast to seemingly conventional ways of remembering in association with language, cuneiform, hieroglyphics and alphabetic language systems. In contrast, numbers and geometry are used for methods of memory, adroitly manoeuvred into association with a person, place and thing and involve decipherment and decoding, reading signs and symbols, to decode signals and images to stimulate recall. Memory is engaged and involved in the use of materials, as refined as beads and bark for conveying memory, such as petroglyphs (rock carvings), wampum and birchbark scrolls of the First Nations.
When we pass through the Adelaide-Dundas corridor to where the ECH once stood we read by numbers – street numbers – and realize this is a way of remembering, which is taken for granted, seamlessly just there, yet it signifies, where with signs – signals – symbols with words and images on the signage, facades, surfaces and faces of buildings, that allow for a stream of memory items to rise to the surface through these features as iconic features – mnemonics for events and individuals, words spoken and thoughts contemplated. The face of a building, or building’s design or textured surface, calls out to us; buildings as structures and architecture as an art have resonating influences on our memory while architecture reaches into deep time. In this way, the ECH is both a space and structure, because of its special connection with the place and time, and the making of art that is able to encode and reinforce these events and transmit the imagination of the many artists and their works of art into our memory.
4/ artists & musicians
So although I am no visual artist or musician, a fiction writer, rather than critic, I do
recall conversations and fleeting discussions and encounters with numerous artists and musicians, who were connected with the ECH and exhibited or performed in its space. Greg Curnoe, who I first encountered in his downtown studio amidst his works of art, had his comedic sense and self-parody in early art works of his own distinct moustache; or Jean Spence, her delicate textured pieces of various fabrics, stitches, beads, and other materials, shaping works of art which possess a serenity and quietness along side a startling textured surface from the various fabrics and materials that signal through both touch and sight to memory; or a show of Wyn Geleynse, his puckish sense of humour, his deft use of skills and materials, and playfulness with technology, his egalitarian creative sensibility to engage with the everyday and people encountered in daily life, when he set up an early show of antique camera works – still cameras and kinetic cameras and projectors, artifacts from the early stage of the mechanical age of the mass production of works of art, making the machinery illuminate and illustrate itself, not just as a film projector to project light and illuminations and images; Ron Benner’s inventory of the self, of plants, of images in photographs or to make singular words stand out, using radiance and darkness in luminous contrast with cochineal and indigo; or passing discussions with Eric Stach on improvisation and experimentation incurring against the notion of a settled composition or a fixed score; or other musicians’ take, reserved or bold, cautious or immediate, concerning a collision between jazz and punk music.
Memory may be personal and expressed individually, yet it coalesces within a group, gains shape, form, and endurance with the participation of the individual artist’s imagination and works of art, which show solidarity with the self and with others. The Embassy Cultural House is an expression of immediacy. Although the pre-socratic philosopher Heraclitus declares that we can’t step twice into the same place in a flowing river, nevertheless, in contradiction, we can strive to relive an art experience and step into deep time. During this turbulent electronic era in the mass re-production of images, when artists make works of art and show them, we witness these images and events, artists and works spliced through these computational moments.
This is what is still happening, unfolding and streaming from the ECH.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Olivia Mossuto for editing the text. I thank Jamelie Hassan and Ron Benner for reading the article and providing comments, suggestions and corrections for the final draft.
Published April 2021.