By Sarah Nathanson
I have always been a city girl — or at the very least, the kind of person who would instantly pick going to a museum over taking a hike, without even questioning it. From an aesthetic point of view, I’m relieved it’s summer again — the way Toronto has flourished into a green oasis after a long winter is almost cathartic. But am I ready to embark on a Toronto Island Hiking and Biking Extravaganza (if such a thing were to exist) just because some flowers are pretty? Absolutely not. My mind will probably never be changed about my hiking phobia, but there are many things that have recently piqued an interest in nature, the most recent of which was the Accidental Parkland exhibition.
I attended this exhibition, hosted by New College in the William Doo auditorium as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Students of New College (unlike me, who is, as you’ll know from my bio, a Wordsworthian) all know the Doo as a concrete block of auditorium without much light. As I walked down the stairs, I fully expected it to look like a high school gym, except maybe smaller and in a basement. But when I entered the space for Accidental Parkland, the auditorium felt both relaxing and inspiring to me. As I walked in, I was surrounded by scenes of nature and beauty, from the ducks eyeing me from one photograph to the idyllic red fields that seem so very far from hectic city life — until, that is, I looked closer and saw the CN Tower poking up on the horizon, as if to ground me in the reality that the flowing water backtrack in the room pulled me from.
The presentation of the photographs — organized with a nod to the Accidental Parkland Instagram feed (and as a reminder that this exhibition exists on multiple platforms) — juxtaposes warm summer scenes with icy winter, hikers and explorers with curious wildlife. The room is filled like an Instagram gallery as photos, side by side, stretch to the ceiling — which is especially cool because that lends the exhibition another layer of the wild-versus-city aesthetic. Each featured photograph was taken (some by New College students) in the city, and portrays sites that I (and I would assume most people) don’t experience in day-to-day Toronto existence, moving my mental image of Toronto away from the iconic skyline and the TTC to the ignored beauty of Toronto’s rivers, lakes and forests.
Of course, Accidental Parkland is a multidimensional exhibit. At the opening, students from the First Nations School of Toronto (the fourth collaborator on the exhibit project besides NEW, the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design and the Accidental Parkland documentary project) showcased the original beadwork now represented in photographs in the Doo. Until the show closes on Sunday, June 20, there’s an ever-running slide show in the room, with additional scenes of our wild ravines and water ecosystems running on a loop. There were also readings and music performances connected with the exhibit, and on the closing day, you can still catch a final screening of Berman’s documentary film of the same title (Sunday, May 20, 1–3:30 PM, Room 1016, Wilson Hall, 40 Willcocks Street). Basically, it’s not just an art exhibition, although that itself is beautiful. It’s an experience that encourages a connection to nature and a political project that reminds us of the original inhabitants of these lands.
My experience here through the university of Toronto has largely been one that acknowledges the continuing harm of colonialism, through classes in which I learned about the settling of modern Canada and the poor treatment of Indigenous peoples. Even with this knowledge, the land acknowledgment generally given before events and the impact of modern environmentalism, it’s easy to forget the continued affect that life has on our environment and the natural parts of the city. At this point, many of these spots are “hybrid, partly natural and partly engineered”, according to Dan Berman, the curator of the Accidental Parkland, and it would be dangerous to let nature take them over completely due to the number of invasive species present. It’s clear that people have done long-term significant harm to these spaces, but Berman feels that through cultivating a connection between modern Torontonians and their wild city, more effort might be put into reversing the damage. It’s healthy to interact with nature, but we haven’t quite found the sweet spot between abject destruction and museum-like reverence and distance. Exhibitions like this might help us reconnect.
Accidental Parkland highlights how beneficial Toronto’s natural ravines and wild spaces are to its residents. Even if you love nature, you might not know much about what you have access to in this city — and visiting this exhibit might remind you of that joy and give you a chance to reconnect. If you’re like me, this is the perfect way to appreciate natural aesthetics without getting a sunburn or mud on your jeans. Either way, I think you’ll be inspired to explore more of what this city has to offer beyond Kensington Market and Queens Street. I know I was.
Exhibition open hours at 45 Willocks Street:
Mon-Fri, May 14-18, 3 – 7 PM
Sat, May 19, 12 – 6 PM
Sun, May 20, 3 – 7 PM