The scavenger is the primary actor in Laura St. Pierre’s photographic and installation work. An imagined character of unknown origin, sex, and background, the scavenger is only ever implied by the traces he or she leaves behind. Both the builder and inhabitant of the artist’s haunting, cobbled together constructions, she exists on the outskirts of society, and at the margins of architecture. Her sculptural dwellings resemble the corrugated, metal and plastic structures found in shantytowns all over the world, but the scavenger’s abodes are always isolated, set in a non-descript desolation that is either dystopian, or simply overlooked. St. Pierre attempts to draw our attention to these overlooked spaces not only as symptoms of haphazard urban development, but also as sites of potential.
Large cities are like palimpsests, filled with spaces that have been transformed to serve new functions. This is most obvious in lower income neighbourhoods where a larger portion of the population is forced into the position of the scavenger. Simultaneously, the scavenger is also a part of DIY culture, which has gradually expanded into a larger movement toward re-skilling and sustainable living. There has developed a desire for hands-on interaction with one’s environment, which at times results in unorthodox urban developments. Walking down the densely packed streets of Bushwick, New York, for example, I came across a vacant lot that had been transformed into a monumental chicken coop teaming with a rooster and hens. St. Pierre describes a similarly jolting juxtaposition experienced as part of her recent participation in Land|Slide: Possible Futures, an off-site group exhibition at Markham Museum, in Markham Ontario. For this exhibition, St. Pierre continues her series, Urban Vernacular, where she reinterprets liminal urban sites as narrative devices, and imagined worlds. In the case of Markham, she was drawn to two boarded up houses directly adjacent to the new pristine museum hosting the group show. Until recently, these derelict landmarks were inhabited by squatters who left behind various artifacts ranging from thrift shop paintings to gumball machines. St. Pierre collected these objects, and created a theatrical installation in the overgrown back yard of one of the houses. She then lit and photographed it at dusk. By drawing attention to this site in transition and the objects within it, the artist highlighted parallels between the museum’s collection, and the collections of various itinerants living in housing slated for demolition. Which collections hold value and why? When do items cease to have value?
While people were encouraged to view the installation itself, it is the photograph that plays the most important role in her practice. It is here that possible stories unfold and new futures are imagined. A photograph, St. Pierre explains referring to Susan Sontag, is a means of possessing a space. Tourists, for example, take photographs of sites not only to keep as souvenirs, but as a way of leaving their mark, as a means of anchoring themselves in space. But while a tourist attempts to leave their unique mark on sites that are destinations for many, the scavenger inhabits in-between spaces that are overlooked by most. Often, these spaces are parkades, overgrown backyards, or vacant lots. They are spaces of transition or, conversely, spaces in transition. For the artist, building on these sites, and then photographing the result, is a way to visualize potential, as well as a way to highlight how much of our urban fabric we pass through and do not see. The scavenger’s structures become a commentary on spatial organization as well as an effort to understand it.
The scale and context of its presentation also influences the way the photograph is read. St. Pierre opts for the scale of the billboard and so implicates her work with the vocabulary of advertising. Whether presented in a gallery or outdoors, the large scale of her photographs invites the viewer to confront these otherwise non-confrontational spaces. As a billboard, like the one she made for aka artist-run in Saskatoon, the photograph references the many condo advertisements popping up around the city, bringing into question whom this housing is made for, and who might be losing his or her home as a result. In a gallery setting, notes the artist, the monumental scale of the photograph verges on the haptic rather than just the visual. One might get the sense of being in the space itself, and inhabiting the precarious position of the scavenger.
St. Pierre’s affinity to the liminal space parallels her own position as an artist who has lived in various Canadian prairie cities. When asked whether or not Saskatoon’s changing cityscape influences her work, she remarks that while the city holds many particularities she holds dear from having grown up here, it is remarkably similar to most other prairie cities. The generic stamp of the Canadian prairie city, interestingly, renders it a liminal space in its own right. Located between East and West, it has traditionally been a very long, and monotonous, thoroughfare. As Saskatchewan develops into a site that attracts people from across the country, St. Pierre’s installations and photographs serve both as warnings and dreams of potential futures. Her timely work highlights that the decisions made today will impact our future as either isolated scavengers or as active agents with the power to collectively shape our environment and community.