The Power Plant

Aria Dean: Slaughterhouses and Simulations

DEC 19 2023
by Samantha Lance
Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Installation view: Abattoir, U.S.A.!, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Henry Chan.

Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Installation view: Abattoir, U.S.A.!, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Henry Chan.

Aria Dean is a New York-based artist and writer who has an interest in tackling issues, systems, and places typically left out of daily conversation. One such space is the industrial slaughterhouse. Fascinated by the unique architectural typology, she sought to understand the role that slaughterhouses play in our lives—seemingly invisible yet nonetheless integral. Dean’s research eventually led her to Sigfried Giedion’s novel Mechanization Takes Command (1948), where the renowned Swiss architecture historian and critic wrote that slaughterhouses had served an important role in the lineage of modernist architecture in Europe and North America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And, in the generation of modernity itself, Dean notes that society has this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality when it comes to the mechanized slaughter of animals.

She explains how slaughterhouses (or “abattoirs” in French) are places exiled to the outer limits of cities “in order to maintain and uphold the boundary of and the functioning of civil society. We push this sort of activity of animal slaughter to the outskirts, but also conceptually—we don’t want to think about it.” In her latest video installation, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023, the artist confronts viewers with this denial, bringing us face to face with the violent realities concealed behind closed doors.

Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Installation view: Abattoir, U.S.A.!, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Installation view: Abattoir, U.S.A.!, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

As Dean was unable to film inside these industrial spaces, she, instead, employed Unreal Engine—a computer program conceived for game design—to create a virtual environment seen through the uncanny first-person perspective of an animal awaiting slaughter. Here, she merges architectural and industrial elements from both the past and present into one “compressed historical space” to prompt questions about ornamentation within sites of slaughter. The glass ceilings are reminiscent of the neoclassical design of the Grand Palais (“Great Palace”) that was built for the Universal Exposition of 1900 in Paris, France. In addition, when Abattoir, U.S.A.! was first exhibited in Chicago, locals said that it reminded them of the infrastructure built for the city’s 1983 world fair.

In response, cultural historian Paula Young Lee considers this “ an ‘exhibition grounds’ or site of technological display” where “the slaughterhouse inverts the conventional strategies of distraction and invisibility that routinely inform historical narratives of the institution.”5 While slaughterhouses may present themselves as pristine museums on the outside, within their walls are various interiors of organized, systematic, and industrialized death and execution. Placing the spectator in the victim’s seat, the artist reveals the endless contradictions and false appearances embedded in the abattoir.

Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Single-channel video, sound, colour. 10:50 minutes. Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York.

Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Single-channel video, sound, colour. 10:50 minutes. Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York.

Throughout the film, death becomes calculated, manipulated, and drawn out rather than coming to a poetic, symbolic, or metaphysical end. Though largely automatic, operators are still needed to maintain the systematic process at the slaughterhouse. Perhaps, then, the camera could also be seen as the institutional apparatus ensuring all runs smoothly, placing viewers uncomfortably as both animal and employee. This is heightened by the gallery environment itself, rendered as its own abattoir, complete with swinging industrial doors and rubber floors.

Although this mode of production continues to endure, Lee suggests that “behind the obdurate skins of received information, there lurks the possibility of alternate readings of the practice and deeper forces capable of offering resistance.” When considering our relationship to these places, Dean asserts that simply having empathy for the animals is not enough to challenge the status quo. As slaughterhouses continue to be repurposed into new spaces, perhaps there is an opportunity to critically engage such “uncomfortable heritage” rather than sanitizing these histories or purging them from our collective psyche.

In this sense, Abattoir, U.S.A.! draws direct connections to the long history of Toronto’s own slaughterhouses and their impact on present development. Nicknamed “Hogtown,” the city was once known as one of the largest meat producers in North America, particularly when it came to pork. In 1874, the William Davies Company was the first in the country to build a large-scale hog processing facility on Front Street East, near the Don River. By 1914, the Toronto Municipal Abattoir (later bought by Quality Meat Packers) had grown to handle one quarter of Ontario’s pork production. After almost 100 years of production, Quality Meat Packers would eventually close in 2014 due to the combined stresses of a porcine virus, bankruptcy, and the health and environmental impacts on the surrounding neighbourhoods. Since its demolition in early 2023, the City of Toronto has been working with developer TAS to redesign the topography with affordable housing, commercial buildings, and event spaces.

Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Installation view: Abattoir, U.S.A.!, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023. Installation view: Abattoir, U.S.A.!, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

However, traces of this history continue to linger within the 2 Tecumseth Street project. Even when considering its heritage preservation, landscape architect Marc Ryan of Public Work (the studio in charge of the site’s new urban connection) emphasized that they will reintegrate the red brick and patterned concrete slabs from the previous abattoir as part of the scheme. “It’s not just concrete,” he said. “It’s the floor of an animal shed, where the hooves of livestock found their grip. The theme of life, death, and rebirth is very strong.” Similarly, merging elements of past and present, life and death, through the same industrial typology, Dean opens up a conversation around hidden histories, unspoken stories, and controversial sites enmeshed with the built environment. While Toronto’s industrial landscape continues to undergo a process of transformation, Dean challenges us to take a second look at the everyday architectures of death—seen and unseen—in order to keep a critical eye on the making of our world.

Bibliography

“2 Tecumseth Street.” TAS. Accessed November 3, 2023

Atkins, Eric. “End of a chapter in Hogtown history after Toronto's last pig plant shuts its doors.” The Globe and Mail. May 30, 2014

Bozikovic, Alex. “Deconstruct this.” The Globe and Mail. April 7, 2023

“Made in Toronto – Meat.” City of Toronto. Accessed November 3, 2023

The Brooklyn Rail. “NSE #760 | Aria Dean and McKenzie Wark, with K Allado-McDowell.” YouTube. March 6, 2023. Video

The Renaissance Society. “Aria Dean Artist Talk.” Vimeo. February 28, 2023. Video

Young Lee, Paula. “Hide, Seek, Slaughter, Meat: The Slaughterhouse as Site.” Food & History, vol. 3, n° 2 (2005): 241-290. Accessed October 28, 2023