Redefining the function of galleries through experiential art

The need for functional community spaces is evident in the shift from regular gallery programming in favour of experiences

On a dreary January morning, I paid a visit to the warehouse on Sterling road, the site of the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Toronto. In September of 2018, the museum finally reopened its doors at its new location in the slowly gentrifying Lower Junction neighbourhood, after being shuttered at the old Queen and Shaw location in 2015, back when it was still called MOCCA (the second “C” stood for Canadian).

In the depths of a particularly dark and cold winter, several major Toronto blogs were writing about MOCA’s new light therapy room, which was being reported as the cure-all for the winter blues as well as the condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This exhibit, simply titled “Light Therapy,” is a travelling installation by Swedish architect/artist Apolonija Šušteršič. It has now found a temporary home in the “Art in Use” area of the fourth floor at MOCA.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a disorder caused by seasonal change, which is characterized by hypersomnia (oversleeping), social isolation, overeating, concentration lapses, feelings of hopelessness, general malaise and even suicidal ideation typical of other major mood disorders. Most sufferers experience an intense mood shift in the winter due to lack of light, while trace studies indicate some sufferers may even experience some symptoms in the summer. It’s estimated that about 15 per cent of Canadians experience some form of SAD1.

What is Light Therapy?

While health professionals generally recommend that SAD be treated with a combination of psychotherapy, vitamin D infusions and/or light therapy, the latter still carries a pseudo-scientific stigma, despite the hard evidence in support of its efficacy.

For example, in an American light therapy clinical study2 from 2010, researchers identified a “significant immediate reduction in depression scores” within one hour of treatment among 15 subjects. Another study3 concluded that light therapy exposure for 30 minutes before 8 a.m. using a Litebook4 LED device proved to be an effective treatment for SAD. The body of research on this topic continues to grow concurrently with the ongoing destigmatization of issues pertaining to mental health.

Šušteršič’s exhibit uses white Philips brand LED lights–which are meant to mimic sunlight—suspended from the ceiling in an all-white room. Participants are asked to wear light colours, or make use of one of the many white lab coats provided, in order to reflect as much of the 10,000 lux (measure of illuminance) from the overhead therapy lights as possible. MOCA members can book the room for up to one hour, however it’s recommended that you leave the room as soon as you begin to feel “high.”

I tested the room out for myself in January. I had booked a timeslot earlier than I was accustomed to waking up, and my basement-apartment dweller eyes had no time to adjust. I definitely experienced the “high” I was warned about. The rest of my day was normal aside from two things: I had a random burst of energy leaving the museum and decided to walk the 3.5 km trip home; and as soon as I arrived, I fell asleep for three straight hours. Was it a side effect of light therapy? Hard to say.

In fact, there are a few observed side effects (albeit mild ones) involved with practicing light therapy; headaches, eyestrain, irritability, agitation and nausea can occur, but usually only for a short period of time if at all. If you do experience these symptoms at home or in therapy sessions, it’s best limit or change your exposure, and hope to see a difference in as little as a few hours.

Aside from the act of sitting in the room itself, Šušteršič has laid selected materials for reading on a table that can accommodate up to 12 people comfortably, each one with titles like “Happiness and Light Therapy,” “Happiness and the Economy” or “Happiness and Gentrification.” Most attendants seem to gloss over the packages, but they are bound by an interesting common theme. What are the limitations and hardships that communities face which affect overall happiness?

Certainly for the residents of the Lower Junction, happiness and gentrification is a pertinent and ongoing issue, especially with MOCA opening its doors on Sterling Rd last year. Much like the way British sociologist Ruth Glass says of London’s growing gentrification trend, the same could also be said of west end Toronto, “One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

On January 18, 2019, in an artist talk hosted by MOCA, in regards to her work at the gallery, Šušteršič asserted “the role of the museum is for providing experiences,” and the context of art in relation to gentrification and the economy is that it should be, “a tool for the development of inclusion over exclusion.”

Professionally trained as an architect, Šušteršič was not satisfied in her work and wanted to explore space theory through an art context instead. She found resolve in experiential art in relation to urban planning and social experimentation. With Light Therapy, she says she aimed to harness “sensory stimuli, which gets us to place we can’t get to on our own.” Her takeaway from her years as an architect formed her into an installation and sculpture-based artist, far away from the practice of creating what she calls, “autonomous art objects.”

Experiential Art

There is a growing trend for museums and galleries to feature interactive or functional experiences to their guests. Take for example, the ever-popular Friday Night Live (FNL) at the ROM, which regularly features select exhibitions, as well as live music, food and dancing. As well, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) monthly event, First Thursdays, is wildly popular amongst a younger crowd, again featuring drinks and dancing, as well as carefully curated performances and artworks reminiscent of Nuit Blanche and Long Winter.

In both cases, we see these spaces functioning well outside their typical programming. Suddenly transformed into social hubs, these institutions show just what they’re capable of facilitating. It is possible though, to lose the primary institutional function in the depths of experiential programming. Striking a balance between the institution’s primary function and secondary community experience is important.

“The main consideration for museums and galleries is at what point these creative and sometimes-immersive experiences become too predominant, overtaking the artwork that underpins the experience in the first place,” London-based curator, Cilff Lauson, told Artnet in an article about experiential curation5.

In Toronto, regular programming balanced out with eccentric party-centred experiences is commonplace for institutional spaces already, especially at MOCA and the AGO. MOCA’s “Art in Use” floor already regularly features workshop-style experiences, such as the Ontario Science Centre-partnered project “Resolution (Mass of Clarity),” a oddly-named collaborative community clay-art project to be displayed at the Science Centre in the coming months.

Similarly, the AGO continuously hosts a variety classes and workshops on topics such as painting, drawing, sculpture, photography film and even a course topically named “Art & Ideas: Happiness,” in which participants review the theory and practice of happiness through the consideration of art. In both cases, these spaces effectively function as a “third place,” commonly understood as the type of place people congregate for activity outside of home or work. Unlike most third places (cafes/bars/malls), galleries and museums seek to actively enrich people’s lives with education and socialization.

Community Space

The Light Therapy room also functions as such a community space, however, the topic of happiness remains contextual to its environment. During the winter months in Toronto, as our planet revolves around the sun on its tilted axis, we tend to see less and less light closer to winter solstice. In November alone, Toronto saw record low levels of sunlight, with only one day that had cloud-coverage of less than 50% for the entire month. The rest of the winter wasn’t much better with severe snow and ice storms wreaking havoc on local transit systems and causing school board closures.

As such, people who experience SAD and other mood disorders were likely to experience acute symptoms aggravated by the severe and atypical weather conditions this winter. “It’s been a very dark winter for me,” says Liza Agrba, who experiences major depressive disorder. “A little re-up would be nice. I think if the research is sound, light therapy rooms should be more commonplace.” So it comes as a blessing to have spaces like the Light Therapy room, which focuses explicitly on reinforcing the happiness and mental well being of its attendees in the dead of winter.

Digital nomads and freelancers in particular may experience an acute difference in seasonal change due to their stagnant scenery6. “I work from home mostly. So I’m used to working in my PJs and being comfortable,” says Sarah Emery, a stay-at-home graphic designer. “I live in a basement apartment but my front door is like a big glass window. When the sun is coming through the door, I honestly do feel much more awake.”

Emery also supplements her wintertime light exposure with an at-home Phillips brand light therapy box set on a morning timer. “The lamp helps get me mentally and emotionally awake, and it makes me want to get up and start doing stuff instead of just going back to sleep,” she says. “It’s more of a motivator. It’s really nice to wake up to a brightly lit apartment.”

Sadly, access to at-home therapeutic light is neither common nor easy. A domestic therapy lamp can cost upwards of $100 and ranges to the thousands for luxury varieties. In an effort to offset the economic gatekeeping of light therapy treatment, MOCA waived their entry fee during the month of February in favour of pay-what-you-can admission.

During that time, I visited Light Therapy with Laura O’Brien who, like Agrba, also experiences clinical depression as well as anxiety. While light therapy isn’t typically implemented to treat these disorders alone, O’Brien felt nevertheless better after only 20 minutes inside Light Therapy. “I feel kind of happy, I would say. I feel a little better than I did before; less sluggish,” she said. Though she did note that the exhibit would benefit from better noise insulation. “It’s a lot of echo; it’s a lot of ‘white’ noise. I think that it would be [better if it was] a little more insular,” she said.

Gentrification, the Economy and Happiness

“The subject of happiness is always related to a specific context or situation where light therapy is installed. In this context, it allows visitors to a contemporary art museum to be aware of its role in society today,” reads the Light Therapy room artist statement posted just outside the door. And context is key indeed. Made acutely apparent by the select readings scattered around the room, gentrification is a hot topic for the new space that MOCA occupies in the Lower Junction. The neighbourhood has seen rise to the now running-joke influx of condominiums, and the subsequent expulsion of lower-income residents.

In fact in 2017, mere blocks away at Lansdowne and Bloor, outrage that the discount grocery store, Food Basics, being built instead of the proposed Metro grocer at the base of the new condo development sent the neighbourhood into absolute carnage (even drawing a petition to “save Metro” from more well-to-do residents). Metro and Food Basics are of course, owned by the same conglomerate, Metro Inc., who in a surprising act of servitude, made the decision to build the discount grocery instead of a more expensive Metro in order to “better suit the community.”

Similarly, community needs should extend to neighbourhood institutions like galleries. It remains important that institutions like MOCA facilitate the fulfilment of its immediate area residents first, in addition to its art-loving patrons alike. Since its opening, Light Therapy has drawn hordes of people, either strays from the regular programming, or those who are curious about diffusing their winter blues. The online private-booking website shows the room is fully booked until the end of the exhibit. Members have been using the space for book clubs, meetings, socializing and hanging out.

Again, striking a balance between functional/experiential programming and regular curation comes into play. While the community space owes to its community the “third place” option, it should do so carefully. Experiences aren’t worth anything to a community if they don’t offer some kind of intercultural value and/or function. Experiential art should increase intrinsic spatial value, not commoditize it. In a way, having a members-only access period somewhat diminishes the inclusive values MOCA strives to uphold through Šušteršič’s work.

Though fittingly, the room is also being promoted on MOCA’s website as a workspace. Agrba, who attended Light Therapy with her laptop, thinks that more of these types of spaces should be available to the community. “This particular space would make a good co-working space,” she says. “I work from my couch and find it difficult to concentrate in the dark. So I might come here to do the more boring elements of my freelance work [in the future].”

While MOCA aims to serve its community in more ways than a typical gallery, its experiential exhibits still have some ways to go before issues of accessibility and functionality are resolved. In the meantime, Light Therapy continues to serve as a beacon for the art world and its immediate community.

Light Therapy runs until the end of April 2019.

Visit the new Museum of Contemporary Art location at:

158 Sterling Rd, Toronto, ON, M6R 2B2

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