Feature: Felix Kalmenson

Not Just Pretty Things
Felix Kalmenson’s installation art and interventions force people to rethink space in the city.


It is the end of March and Felix Kalmenson sits alone at a small table outside of a Wal-Mart Superstore in Morningside, Scarborough. His table is laden with souvenirs: postcards, coasters, scented candles, photo mugs and a printed rug. Each displaying a picture of a mall atrium and the date 1979-2007, his wares celebrate the life of a dead mall in the suburbs.

Kalmenson is an artist who creates critical installations and interventions, and film. He has also done some really cool stuff combining celluloid, strawberries and mold. Coming from a combined degree in Geography and Architecture, his work is heavy with politics and critical theory. For Kalmenson, installation is less about a method of displaying art in three-dimensional space and more “a critical tool to get people to re-examine the environment around them; a way of disrupting space.”

In the past few years he has done a number of pieces across the city that aim to get people to stop, think and re-evaluate their own understandings. Some notable recent works include Hidden Shrines, for which he and Sasha Foster built shrines around the city using discarded materials indicative of the communities where they were found; in another, Orb Radio, he built an FM transmitter lighthouse on the Toronto Island that “transmitted” the sounds of lake Ontario into the hallways of the Artscape Gibraltar Point –in reality what was transmitted were ocean noises captured on YouTube.

Orb Radio

Back in March, Kalmenson was deep into an independent study on dying malls in North America. His souvenir stand in front of the suburban Wal-Mart was part of a series called “Eulogy for Morningside.”

“When I came into this project, I hated malls. I thought malls were these terrible privatized spaces…but the majority of people in North America live in the suburbs. So we have to rethink the way that we approach things like public space and malls.”

“Wal-Mart has a very blatant de-malling practice. When they move into an old department store in a mall, they seal off the entrance to the mall, cutting off access to the atrium and small shops. They seal off the mall, let the mall die, demolish the whole thing and then build a supercenter on it. It’s very insidious.”

Dead Malls Project

Kalmenson explains that as the major retailers started moving out of Morningside, his mall of study, it became accessible for the first time to the immigrant communities that lived nearby. “People started setting up local shops selling ethnic foods and clothing,” he says,  “you know, and they set up libraries, community and immigrant services, day cares. It became really a community hub. I guess it became a bit of a community centre because they really didn’t have one.”

His three interventions at Morningside (the others included a fake historical plaque, and a sightseeing telescope pointed at Wal-Mart) celebrated the brief period of time where a dying mall became an important community space for the first time.

Site # 0092-196

“When they started demolishing the mall, people were outside protesting, which to me just seemed absurd. Without the context of that space, people protesting the demolition of that space would have been… bizzare. And then I realized how meaningful the space was to the people and how much they had appropriated it.”

This sort of commentary can be tracked across a number of his creative works: spaces with social and cultural history are significant and should not be brushed away in the name of progress. His next project, he tells us, will be an intervention aimed at the condo developments taking of the city’s west shoreline. Part of the work will bring into focus how the new condos function to eliminate history and create geographies of exclusion.

“Interventions are only up for a short period of time and engage with a small public. There’s something really special about a small scale intervention: a select few people get to see it, and it’s not the select few that know about a gallery show.”

He recently applied for a grant for a mobile public space. “It’s an absurd project,” he laughs. The exhibit is a trailer that rides around the country. It is a holodeck-like  recreation of an ideal atrium environment: a bench and the sound of people and water. “I just want to drive around and park this thing in front of Wal-Mart, big box plazas, cities and have people walk into it and be like “What the hell is this?”

See more of Felix’s work and writing at www.felixkalmenson.com

Banner photo is an excerpt from Growths