Art and the Invention of North America, 1985-2012

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Smith, Sarah Ellen Kathleen
North America , Cultural Diplomacy , Free Trade , Visual and Material Culture
This thesis examines visual and material culture in relation to free trade in North America, focusing on cultural production between 1985 and 2012. These dates broadly encompass a period in which the Canadian state entered into progressively larger free trade agreements with neighbouring states, including the United States in 1989 and Mexico in 1994. This period resulted in significant changes to the dominant understandings of North America. I trace the substantial role that art endeavors played in establishing and naturalizing economic integration in the continent. Through discussion of diverse examples of art production, I posit that consideration of the selected artworks and exhibitions is integral to properly assessing histories of free trade in North America. Each chapter deals with a different case study of forms of art production, chosen because they helped promote new understandings of North America after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. These case studies deal with how exhibitions of modern and contemporary landscape art and exhibitions of indigenous visual and material culture contribute to constructing narratives of North America. They also cover the contemporary art festival inSite, as well as the history of Mexican modern art in Canada. I demonstrate that visual and material culture played an integral role in deploying new understandings of the continent, while concurrently serving as a means to circulate counter-narratives of North America. To foreground Canadian artistic responses to free trade, I insert interstices between every chapter, each focused on a specific work of contemporary video art from the period. These six interstices demonstrate a sustained engagement by Canadian contemporary artists to respond to and comment on North American integration, and thus provide a map to the key issues of neoliberal expansion.
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