In 2016, a sculpture of a cow was placed in a the midst of a Canadian suburban development and residents hated it.
One day, the citizens of Cathedraltown, a planned suburb of the city of Markham, Ontario, woke up to find a chromatic cow shimmering outside their windows. They hated the cow. The sculpture, Charity, and the ensuing effort by residents to remove the public artwork, is the subject of an interactive documentary, also titled Charity, by Parastoo Anoushahpour, Faraz Anoushahpour, and Ryan Ferko, a collective of collaborative artists.
Charity, the project, was first conceived when the trio was selected for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto (MOCA) Partnership Project. Their selection meant not only that The work will be presented as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto’s exhibition “Greater Toronto Art 2021.” but that the National Film Board would also produce their artwork. GTA21 is an interdisciplinary commissioning and producing program that works to examine the transformations our social realities have had on our cities and our towns.
Using audio from numerous town halls during which residents brought forward their reasons for removing the artwork, the collective created the piece, which dives into questions of private property, placemaking, and bureaucracy. As the audio plays, viewers can explore the interior of one of Cathedraltown’s cookie-cutter suburban homes in a 360-degree video environment. The artists uncover in this small-town drama layers of historical entanglements brought to a contentious intersection around the Charity sculpture.
The project centers on Cathedraltown, which was named after the Cathedral of Transfiguration, a partially built Catholic–Byzantine church commissioned by Stephen Roman and modeled after the church of his childhood, in Slovakia. Roman, an incredibly successful businessman, made his fortune in mining. He also bred prize Holstein cows on the side. Only four years after construction on the church began, Roman died. Twenty years later, when the suburb began to be built, it absorbed the cathedral and its obfuscated history into its new identity by naming itself for the distinctive yet mysterious building.
Raised on six-foot stilts so that it could stare directly at the cathedral, the bovine steel sculpture was modeled and named after one of Roman’s prize-winning cows, Charity. The artwork had been commissioned, executed, and presented in 2016, after little to no consultation with the residents. As Parastoo points out, the cow was chosen to represent the town’s history because “the narrative of farmland is the most neutral,” Parastoo says. “[There’s] no mention of the uranium mining that brought the family’s unbelievable wealth.” The residents, however, felt that the work—and the history it symbolized—didn’t represent them at all, and had surprisingly visceral reactions to it.
In the interactive documentary, the viewer hears the residents bring forward their complaints to the Markham City Council. One resident mentions overhearing someone pass by the cow and mock it, which causes the resident to conjecture that they had become the laughingstock of Markham. Another resident tells how the cow looms in view of almost all his windows, which is scary for his children, especially at night. One resident recounts how, after a particularly strong wind, a metal leaf from the laurel wreath hung around the cow’s neck was dislodged. He found it and produced a video, a neighbor explains, of throwing it to the ground, where it sticks quite firmly—demonstrating that the cow is now a credible threat to the safety of all those in its vicinity. The residents are successful in the end, and the cow is removed.
Though at first glance the discourse is comical, it reveals interesting tensions about who feels entitled to shaping a place’s identity. The collective has been making work about Cathedraltown and the surrounding area since 2013. Ferko explains that their longtime interest in the area was initially sparked by its mining history: “We were initially asking questions about settler colonialism and resource extraction,” he says, “since we knew that the wealth of this landowner, Stephen Roman, came from uranium mining.” Yet this catalyst for the development’s existence is little spoken of.
When the artists began the Charity project, it was very important to them to live within the development, and their exposure to the real estate market, open houses, and realtors became a central aspect of their work. “There’s this really strange phenomena where realtors create a certain historical narrative for the place they’re trying to sell,” Ferko says. “This was sort of a point of entry for us to explore a question that we generally ask in our work: How do landscapes come to be narrated, and who controls those narrations?” In the case of Cathedraltown, the symbol of the cathedral was accepted, but not the mining that gave birth to it, nor the cow—the supposedly neutral symbol that ended up becoming a surreal imposition on the residents.
As Jeremy Mendes, the NFB producer who worked with the artists, describes the benefits of the initiative, “Imagine a public artwork where the artists only made the art but did not have to deal with engineers, municipalities, lawyers, foundries, etc…” Mendes, along with the team at NFB, worked alongside the artists to make their project come to life, from inception to completion and beyond: They provide marketing for the completed project as well. The 360-degree video environment was also made possible through a collaboration with NFB’s English Program Digital Studio, which helped the artists execute the more technical aspects of their project.
Charity was launched as a 360 web documentary on September 29. To experience the project, visit nfb.ca/charity.