Erik Kessels & Thomas Mailaender Play Public

    Midway Thrills, [Date Unknown], Canadian National Exhibition Archives, Slides Midway 40-8. Courtesy of the CNEA
Midway Thrills, [Date Unknown], Canadian National Exhibition Archives, Slides Midway 40-8. Courtesy of the CNEA

As two insatiable and compulsive collectors of found photographs and keen observers of sociological patterns, both Dutch artist and designer Erik Kessels and French multimedia artist Thomas Mailaender take the absurd and ridiculous very seriously. Joining forces for this collaborative project, they draw from the photographic archives of the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) to activate their constructed urban playscape resurrecting the past to create new experiences in the present.

Kessels takes an experimental approach to photography, re-appropriating and re-contextualizing images to create new significance for materials that would otherwise be overlooked. His exhibitions and publications celebrate moments of absurdity, accident, surprise, and confusion in vernacular photography. Mailaender takes unclassifiable imagery and re-appropriates its once fixed meaning in new and unexpected contexts. He is also the creator of The Fun Archive, a project that aims to become the worst image bank ever. In each of their independent practices, Kessels and Mailaender gather inspiration and source much of their material from the weird and wonderful worlds of the internet, flea markets, and secondhand shops, as well as photo albums and collections.

The pair’s site-responsive installation at Canoe Landing, Play Public (2021), is held in conjunction with The Bentway’s summer season, Playing in Public, which prompts the questions: When does play create rules for public interaction and when does it work to subvert them? How can games be used to engage and activate citizens? With these cues in mind, Kessels and Mailaender dove into the CNE archives and emerged with a characteristically quirky selection of archival images, spanning the 1950s through the 1980s, to accompany an open-air, interactive play space. Neighbouring The Bentway, the CNE is a longstanding late-summer staple in Toronto, and its midway of games, rides, and attractions remains one of its most popular features. Its photographic collection captures a portion of the CNE’s history, from 1879 to the present day. Kessels and Mailaender’s project integrates these playful, often bizarre images from the archive onto large wooden structures suggestive of the remains of a fairground site, with various components arranged like a parkour course. In keeping with their practice of re-framing photographs’ once-fixed meanings by bringing them into unexpected new contexts, the installation reinvigorates the idiosyncratic images, bringing this past back to life in a contemporary environment.

Set within Canoe Landing, proximate to its schools, playgrounds, community centre, and vertical urban neighbourhoods where thousands of people live and work, Play Public further activates the civic spaces heavily used by families and fitness enthusiasts. Creatively interrupting the quotidian aspects of everyday life, the installation speaks to the shifting nature of play in a mid/post-COVID world—the CNE’s historic cancellation in 2020, for example, impacted more than 1.4 million annual visitors. While the pandemic has altered lives and cities, it has further highlighted the importance of public space as a site for play and well-being. As ardent instigators of art that invites participation, Kessels and Mailaender here generate what they call a “funny feedback loop” where visitors can playfully photograph themselves in this animated juncture between the past and the present moment of urban recovery.

Best Cat in Show, 1962. Canadian National Exhibition Archives, MG5-F660-I1. Courtesy of the CNEA
Martial Arts Demonstration at Grandstand, 1962. Canadian National Exhibition Archives, MG5-F771-I4. Courtesy of the CNEA

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein

Co-commissioned with The Bentway Conservancy

Supported by the Institut Français


Erik Kessels & Thomas Mailaender
Play Public

My name is Erik Kessels. I’m an artist from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and I’d like to introduce you to our exhibition “Play Public” in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto. I did this exhibition together with Thomas Mailaender. He’s an artist from Marseille in France, and both of us work almost exclusively with found photography and with archives. So by looking at other people’s photographs and photographs from archives, we take them out of context and re-appropriate them almost into a new context. We’re making installations and public art installations, interactive installations with this. And in this way, by putting it in a different context, people will really look at these images in a different way.

For this festival, we worked with the CNE photography collection. This is a rich collection that has been built since 1879. By working with these images from Canada’s largest fair, we played with this archive, but we also want the public to play with it. This archive is normally not accessible for the public, but in this way by making the “Play Public” installation in the Bentway area, the public can really interact with it.

We show the photographs from this past fair on constructed wooden panels, very playful, and these panels, they look almost like the remains of the fairground site that was once there. But we changed it into a track, or a parkour, where visitors can really interact with these constructions by jumping, climbing, or sitting on them, enjoying themselves with these photographs from the funny past, almost. By interactively participating in this playground, you could almost say that your body and your eyes can burn some calories. Hopefully.