Since 2000, real estate values in Canada have risen 3 times faster than household incomes. Facing this explosive rise, most people searched for the “immediate enemy”. Debates framed around the concept of gentrification often fixated on a prime suspect : the middle class couple who just bought a condo in a former working class neighborhood. Might the “chief enemy” might be much more elusive? The excessive production of growingly unaffordable cities is, in fact, a complex assemblage of financial mechanisms and regulations, political norms and interventions and social values. Let’s not see the forest for the trees. We live in a forest named speculation.
Excess and the City marks the inauguration of the (Anti) Speculation desk of the Office of Rules and Norms. In this experimental seminar, we engaged with a major urgency of our times: real estate speculation and the housing crisis. During the Winter 2020 semester —in the wake of a global pandemic — we explored the underlying intersecting systems that produce real estate speculation and form a wider assemblage responsible for the painful experiences of displacement, eviction, precariousness and homelessness.
Throughout the semester, students courageously embraced the emerging sensations of chaos and confusion and grappled with it; maybe our best shot at grasping something designed to be ungraspable. The following projects form a body of creative work attempting to question, reveal and sensualize the seemingly cold and rational apparatus of these systems. Art meets excel spreadsheets, accounting formulas and contractarian legalities.
Marie-Sophie has a master's degree in urban planning from Université de Montréal and a B.A in gender studies and political sciences from McGill University. Her academic research background touched upon complex systems theory, postructuralist philosophy, affect and embodiment as epistemology. Over the years, she did work in community organising, non-speculative innovation in housing and real estate strategic development and philosophy of finance. She is also an author and independent journalist who focuses on housing, planning and ethics. Banville’s pieces have appeared in academic, specialised and general publications.
How do we value our homes, our neighbourhoods, our cities? Individually, each day, we establish countless valuations of the world around us. Some things we adore, to others we are indifferent. But can these myriad little valuations always be measured, calculated? In the world of real estate, value is established under one parameter – desirability – and under one metric – money. It is along these lines that developers decide what gets built, where, how, and when. It is in this extremely narrow scope that our cities develop, discarding the infinite plurality of other forms of value – social, cultural, environmental, spiritual, experiential, pedagogical ...
How does a financialized housing system affect our relationship to land and to the concept of home? How do we collectively address the exclusivity of such a system? Through a series of poetic and visual posters, Tricia Enns encourages us to consider who is favoured and who is excluded by our current approach to housing.
In the world of real estate, one form of value obscures all others. Through the mechanisms employed to raise funds, to lure investors, attract partners, develop land and sell property, financial value overrides a multitude of other forms of relationships and conceptions of worth. In Valuable Things, artist Marianne Rouche conducts an intimate, interactive survey, bringing participants to explore and expose the small parts of everyday life we value.
This project functions in a way that suits Christine White best as an artist: asking people to do weird things. Better yet, it can all be done from the comfort and safety of one’s own home! In this project, White tackles common land value assessment by asking participants to assess the emotional value of their residences, based on qualitative and subjective criteria.
In a world of maxed-out credit cards and life-long mortgage debt, can we imagine a scenario where money is decentered from the economy? With the experimental residence Value Collective, Madelyn Capozzi imagines an economic arrangement based on sweat equity and the creation of non-financial value – whether social, cultural, aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, or ecological. This speculative piece defamiliarizes us from the financial systems that harness our economies today and, in so doing, allows us to dream just a little.
The real estate market relies on a fundamental principle: that of “highest and best use”. Land is a sponge from which capital extracts every last drop of value. But what happens when land is intentionally occupied to challenge this notion? What happens when other forms of value (like experiential, or emotional value) are prioritized over financial value? Armed with nothing but an ambulant wooden pavilion, Gabriel Townsend-Darriau challenges concepts of private property and our most basic conceptions of real estate development.
Historically, whether it be through red-lining, urban renewal or gentrification, power structures have always manifested themselves through the development of real estate. The built environment is subject not only to political but also financial systems that regulate access to housing and land. This power structure was made most evident in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, as the recklessness of a handful of Wall Street banks led 10 million Americans to lose their homes. Even in times of general stability, we must be reminded, as economists Peter Marcuse and David Madden do in In Defense of Housing (2016), that “For the oppressed, housing is always in crisis”. In this cluster, seven students bring forward new tools and expressive artworks that seek to even out the playing field. From proposing a new database that traces patterns of debt and ownership, to a collection of papier-mâché sculptures, these projects aim to document experiences of vulnerability and incite reflection and action.
Properly addressing a housing crisis begins with understanding the immediate realities of tenancy and housing insecurity. We need to enter the worlds of the vulnerable and see for ourselves. In their publication How To Rent in Montreal’s Housing Crisis, Park and Fountain intimately document these realities through conversations and interviews. This publication aims to encapsulate the collective tenant experience and thus serves as a rallying call for solidarity.
Housing is often discussed in theoretical and quantifiable terms, bypassing the crucial importance of creating a home as well as a house. Josephine Garoufalis describes how their song Crybaby addresses an intergenerational need for belonging and feelings of safety amidst a precarious housing market on colonized land.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the housing market in an unprecedented context. With increasingly precarious access to housing in Montreal, tenants’ sudden loss of income has placed many of the city’s most vulnerable in dire straits, despite government aid. Max Hunter describes how the ongoing rent strike is not only a gesture of solidarity, but a response to an unsustainable wider system.£
During times of crisis, racial prejudice and scapegoating often surface as a response to fear and uncertainty. As a queer, Chinese-Canadian artist, Viola Chen explores through sculpture feelings of vulnerability in the public realm during the COVID-19 pandemic, and questions the role of the State in influencing racist behaviours and actions.
The world of real estate finance is replete with obscure jargon and mind-bending notions. Yet at its core housing is a primal and quite simple need. Just like food. In this video, Lucy Earle juxtaposes contemporary relationships to land and to food, in which excess and exploitation overshadows the basic necessity of both.
Tenants and landlords are often antagonistic, yet dependant forces. Despite their differences, small property owners and tenants are often subject to the same financial stress that threatens their livelihood: debt to large banks and private corporations. Interrelated networks of property ownership and debt are obscure, preventing significant solidarity between tenants and even between tenants and their landlords. Heather Mitchell boldy envisions an interactive map that visualizes these networks, a democratic ressource for housing solidarity.
Our built environment reflects who we are as a society and what systems guide us. Our urban landscapes indicate one hand a very primal need for shelter and community. But on the other, their exact form communicates a deeper message on how exactly we occupy space, and what values reinforce this occupation. In a neoliberal economy, perpetual growth and financialization dominate virtually all spheres of life, including urbanism and architecture. Over time, our cities morph, sprawl, and rise according to these principles. To effectively tackle the challenges faced by communities in our cities, we must first unearth the mindsets that shape them. The two projects in this cluster address this argument in two contrasting, but mutually reinforcing, ways: one through technical analysis, the other through poetry. These projects bridge the systemic with the personal, the quantitative with the qualitative, the hidden with the visible.
These texts are an attempt to delve into the affective and experiential qualities of the built environment. Through an anxious realism, I explore the impermanence of the city. The central story, Destiny’s Child, imagines the life of a worker in an unspecified construction trade. The narrative follows this nameless protagonist through the familiar motions of a day on the job. The worker works to level a stretch of ground in preparation for a generic building project, plaza or perhaps a housing development.
Montreal is developing upwards. Immense luxury condo developments sprout like crystalline weeds across the city, as housing across town grows increasingly inaccessible to the ordinary person. To the common person their presence is a little puzzling: who, they wonder, would blow $300,000 to live in anonymity in a tiny studio, 61 storeys off the ground? In an analysis and creative response to the Maestria Condominiums project in Montreal’s Quartier-des-spectacles, Thomas Heinrich breaks down how residential buildings serve primarily as financial assets in accordance with a financial system that is dissociated with the realities, needs and values of local communities.
Humans are relational beings. Instinctively, we seek connections and relationships to the environments and other living beings that surround us. But when it comes to land, the attitudes and conceptual frameworks we've inherited from past thinkers can insulate and restrict these relationships. Take a look at John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689), for example: “as much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property”. The notion of private property, something we all take for granted today, not only boils the Earth down to a parcelled grid but also implies an inherent need for exploitation. In contrast, we might consider Indigenous relationships to land. The interactive project Native Land for example demonstrates territories as overlapping, fluid, and shared. Or take indigenous scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), presenting a relationship to land-based on reciprocity and gratitude. The two projects below attempt to reconfigure our understanding of property along these lines. They seek to instill an awareness of the life-giving qualities of the land on which we live and all the reciprocal relationship this entails.
How can a community garden serve as a model for new forms of governance and collaboration within a city? With the site-specific installation The Green House, Ana Bilokin explores how a contractual relationship to land and communal stewardship can bring about new understanding of how cities are regulated, curated and imposed.
Land value is assessed not through any intrinsic quality but strictly on the grounds of profitability and desirability. Drawing from indigenous theory and relationships to land, Monica Thom and Melanie Vidakis imagine an alternative contractual agreement that challenges commodifying conceptions of ownership.