CCA Retail Apocalypse Chapter III renaissance Montreal Canadian Centre for Architecture

The CCA’s Retail Apocalypse exhibition details the death of shopping

Divided into three chapters, the exhibition takes visitors through a cycle of shopping history, collapse and renewal.

The premise of Retail Apocalypse is a simple one, one visible in everyday life: the shopping world of our parents is dying, on the way out, a remnant of a different social period.

Since the advent of online shopping, particularly the inception of Amazon Prime in 2007, and in the wake of the COVID pandemic, shopping as a shared, commercial, physical space, has become terminal. The shopping malls are losing customers, main streets are boarding up their windows and the companies are falling into bankruptcy.

“It was in this context,” the pages pasted beside the exhibit explain, “that curators Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen initiated Retail Apocalypse at ETH Zurich, producing a compendium of case studies ranging from Felix Vallotton’s depiction of the Bon Marché to Friedrich Kiesler’s display windows to TELFAR’s critical utopias.”

Divided into three chapters, that compendium has been reframed for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), taking visitors through a cycle of history (Chapter I: Modern Tales), collapse (Chapter II: Bonfire) and finally renewal in Chapter III: Renaissance. With the latter now on display, it is possible to view all the work brought together for Retail Apocalypse at once. (Retail Apocalypse: Epilogue, a short film by the CCA and SSENSE, was also recently added to the exhibition online.)

Beginning at the “shop windows,” the exhibit plays on the spatial and experiential similarities between main-streets and museums — an idea made even more explicit by Claire Fontaine’s STUFF hoodies, which are both display pieces and for sale ($50). The vitrines are decorated with the hot-pink sheets from the gorgeous Retail Apocalypse book, and display samples of work by those architects and collectives who helped to shape our perception of where and how shopping was once done; who designed spaces with more than sales in mind. Here it can be seen how the shopping mall formed as a kind of post-religious church. It is also the closest relationship the exhibit shares with its location, as the objects in these windows come from the CCA’s own collection. 

From Retail Apocalypse at the CCA

The majority of the pieces otherwise are held in one of the CCA’s bright, white octagonal rooms, where the suggestion of a mall or main-street is somewhat lost. The combination of fabrics and items arranged here, however, accumulates into a surprisingly tactile exhibition. The STUFF hoodies hang on racks in the centre of the room, joined by more pink print-offs taken from the accompanying book. “Reduced to Clear,” by Richard Sides and Gili Tal, makes a post-modern play on those logo T-shirts always found in metal baskets in markets; the kind emblazoned with immediately outdated, knock-off icons. This sense of the physically tangible is continued in Shanzhai Lyric’s “Canal Street Research Association,” which collects a bric-a-brac history of the street, complete with discarded coffee, caricatures and handbags, hung up as if for discounted sale. 

“This exhibition was conceived long before the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads another enlarged page, “prompted by the realization that ‘shopping’ was history – that it is not merely a practice that can be historicized […] but that the physical, commercial and social practices that had converged to make it a ‘unified field’ were parting company, perhaps irreversibly.” While Retail Apocalypse does seem to depend a little too heavily on textual material, it is in this historicization attempt where it really stands out. It is easy to see the death of “shopping,” as we grew up with it, as a cause for celebration — that such a commercial glut could never be sustained. But consider what is lost in this shift: the badly stitched corners of clothes stalls; the weekend family shop; the jobs that were as much a part of that history as anything else, unrecorded and lost; the cultural off-shoots and working-class adaptations. Some of these things already feel retro, distanced by the speed of digital progress. Watching Akeem Smith’s collages of Caribbean dancehall video footage, framed as if in storefront windows, it is hard to believe the early noughties were only 20 years ago, and not 40. 

Retail Apocalypse is a rag-tag exhibition, and whether by accident or design, the effect is ultimately generative. Everything on display — whether the work of Ibrahim Mahama, who repurposes the abandoned buildings of Ghana to help foster new, post-colonial identities, or Alex Bag’s tongue-in-cheek collection of stolen items, tagged and morphed into museum objects — is conducive to a broader system of thought (articles on and around the exhibit are planned to follow). We are being asked to go out and continue this analogy between the plexiglass display case and the storefront window, to walk into downtown and see the shops as histories-for-sale, each one carrying the potential to be the last of its kind. And in fact, that is precisely what you go out and do. ■

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Retail Apocalypse continues at the CCA (1920 Baile) through Jan. 15, 2023.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.