Living among art is, at multiple levels of urbanism, a broadly desirable state of affairs. Come Up To My Room, an annual art and design exhibit held at the Gladstone Hotel as part of the Toronto Design Offsite Festival, is saddled with the unenviable task of representing many of those levels: the city, the neighbourhood, the hotel, the gallery, and the room. It is a million different things from one moment to the next. This year’s iteration drew much of its energy from the tension between different scales and forms of artistic expression. The difficulty of reconciling these disparate elements, however, was also the exhibit’s inescapable reality. Although Come Up To My Room 2017 featured some standalone highlights, it functioned primarily as a difficult reflection on the place of art in a rapidly growing city.
Consider “Cleaving, Cutting, and Striking,” an installation by Bruno Billio and Joseph Clement housed in a small room near the exhibit’s entrance on the hotel’s second floor. Video footage of man-made natural atrocities—collapsing ice floes; downed trees—is projected onto the room’s ceiling. Stand there and look up at the horrors. The installation’s justifiably loud soundtrack—all bangs and crashes—seeps out of the room and into the rest of the floor. You can hear it while taking in Kaitlyn Bourden’s “Memories Relocated” in a neighbouring room; the installation piles furniture against the wall and then covers the whole assembly—as well as the walls and floors—in a white rubber membrane. The crashing is still audible while taking in Jennie Suddick and Anna Rose’s “Spring on Hold,” which restages a forest scene out of familiar crafting materials. Both installations, with their mildly sinister undertones, benefit from this contagion insofar as it adds a bit of menace to otherwise pleasant spaces. Come Up To My Room, however, cannot fully commit to this tension; it must at every turn remind you that the Gladstone Hotel is a pleasant place to stay. The curatorial logic of the exhibit leaves little room for the intriguing architectural body horror of New York City’s Sleep No More.
In rare cases, exhibited installations make something interesting of the Gladstone Hotel’s architecture. The Grove Collective’s “Hothouse” turns a corner room with two bay windows into a sort of greenhouse, the perfect venue for a series of mechanical flowers whose petals open and close in reactions to gestures. Oasis Skateboard Factory’s “Rat’s Nest Skatepark” imagines a post-apocalyptic hang-out spot for rodents that curiously ends up looking a bit like an alternate design for a boutique hotel. It’s the rare moment where the setting adds something of value to the piece. Many of the rooms, however, are just spaces in which art sits, their unusual shapes better suited to bedrooms than exhibitions: the totality of these experiences, in many cases, is less than the sum of the parts.
Those makeshift gallery spaces cannot help but be compared with the hotel’s actual rooms. “Did you know we have 37 artist designed hotel rooms,” signs on most walls read. “Explore one here,” they urge you. These are less challenging works, which makes sense insofar as guests have to sleep in them. They run the gamut from vintage-style boudoirs to industrial chic. The beds are nicely made; there are copies of Designlines and The Walrus on every polished dresser. You could comfortably watch Chopped on these rooms' TVs as you drifted into unconsciousness. Save, perhaps, for the magazine selection, those are all admirable design qualities for hotel rooms. They have a sense of place. The inescapable subtext to Come Up To My Room, then, is that the Gladstone Hotel is a comfortable and artsy space.
Fair enough. I don’t really dispute that point. As a curatorial undertaking, however, Come Up To My Room often feels more enamored with the idea of surrounding oneself with art than the actual reality. Collectively, the three floors of exhibitions and demo rooms are more of a celebration of their own artsiness than any other idea. This tension reflects the changing role of hotels in urban spaces. There are, on the one hand, hotels for businesspeople that are purposely the same in every city. In that way, they embody what the architect Rem Koolhaas describes in his book S,M,L,XL as the generic city. “Compared to the classical city, the Generic City is sedated, usually perceived from a sedentary position,” he writes. “Instead of concentration—simultaneous presence—in the Generic City individual moments are spaced far apart to create a trance of almost unnoticeable aesthetic experiences: the color variations in the fluorescent lighting of an office building just before sunset, the subtleties of the slightly different whites of an illuminated sign at night.”
Airbnb’s are supposed to exist in opposition to the placelessness of these Marriotts and Holiday Inns; they are rooted in specific locales. But, as Kyle Chayka argues, the Airbnb aesthetic has coalesced into a sort of international style, AirSpace. He writes: “The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration.” The Instagram-friendly aesthetic of Airbnb’s and coffee shops, like the decidedly Instagram-hostile aesthetic of downtown hotels, ends up being fundamentally placeless. That dichotomy leaves an unclaimed middle space for small hotels, which can differentiate themselves by offering a diversity of designed spaces. Come Up To My Room functions best in that framework; it reflects the room for artistic variation a space like the Gladstone Hotel and a neighbourhood like West Queen West can afford.
That is not to say that Come Up To My Room escapes the Instagram problem of Chayka’s AirSpace. Many of its moments, especially those staged in hallways and communal spaces, essentially function as photo booths. That description is unfair to exhibited pieces, but they, like the event itself, are frequently saddled with too many functions; they must be art while also representing the idea of living with art. Most artistic expression reflects back on the viewer in some way, but the curatorial logic of Come Up To My Room makes that reality suffocating and inescapable.
Amidst these conflicting imperatives, the occasional work still managed to stand on its own. Patrick Li’s “Fortune Room,” which covers the walls and assembles a carpet out of abandoned fortune cookie prompts and winning lottery numbers, is a suitably meditative cubbyhole. The fortune of being in a boutique hotel room only adds to the subtext. Rey Midax’s “Queer Army,” which superimposes military imagery on floral and botanical wallpaper, however, is the exhibit’s real standout. It is the only work to function at all of the exhibit’s levels: it makes the Gladstone Hotel’s spaces more interesting; it serves as a point for sociability [read: selfies and social media]; and the combination of cluster bombs and nature patterns produces a piece of art worth stopping and analyzing. In that respect, Come Up To My Room ultimately proves that it is possible to live among art, but doing so is harder than the exhibit may want to make it appear.