Consider the shape of zero. A little egg, smaller than most words, standing in for nothingness. Its shape is the consequence of being a form without angles, containing a void. All it is, is the boundary separating the nothingness within from the somethingness of everything else. And so it is gently curved like an egg, to withstand the outward-pressing from within, as its contents try to join the rest of the world, to become something. Existing on the continuum between within and without, the built environment of Chris Reid’s Brandon, Manitoba is her personal dreamscape. The exhibition Nothing Smells in Absolute Zero is an invitation to enter. It is a call to inquire: is the essential quality of a home its permanence, its past, or its future?
In homelessness studies, “absolute zero” means that no person is without a secure and stable place to spend the night. Its pragmatic sibling, “functional zero,” aspires that for every person who is sleeping precariously, there is a place standing empty where they could be secure(1).
In physical sciences, absolute zero is the temperature at which molecules stop moving. Many substances behave strangely as they near the coldest temperature--helium, for example, moves frictionlessly and its atoms become perfectly synchronized. Scientists call these quirks “funky quantum behaviour,” a whimsical umbrella term for a number of the greatest mysteries of the physical world(2). As atoms slow to a halt, their wavelengths become so long each one begins to reach out to its neighbour(3). The temperature at which atoms stop moving is -273° Celsius (otherwise known as 0° Kelvin), and it is an impossible temperature to reach.
It is impossible to stop moving.
Perhaps this belabours the metaphor. It is natural to suppose that the use of the term “absolute zero” across these two disciplines is a coincidence--while each is descriptive in its own niche, it becomes abstracted outside of it. From within a winter city like Brandon, however, the thoughts of shelter and cold temperatures are inextricably linked. Without a shelter, to stop moving through Brandon as it reaches its coldest temperature is to stop moving, finally.
Chris Reid, who for many years has worked in support of Brandon’s unhoused people, has witnessed residences fill with life and just as quickly crumble away. She began an investigation, looking for some innate quality of tenuous housing. Why, she wondered, are some places allowed to stay, while others barely get to exist? Interviews and surveys collected from unsheltered and at-risk people, as well as care workers, all of whom were remunerated with funds from the Manitoba Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts, contributed to her data as she looked for an answer to the question: “How do you know when you’re home?”
For the narrator in the animation Places I Stayed, “home” seems to consolidate the smells of dirty clothes, cigarettes, and cats in a seasonal loop, as though time moves differently within those walls. Other subjects wax nostalgic about the smell of home cooking and cleaning supplies. Another person said that although their last place smelled of cigarettes and liquor, it was a comforting smell because it indicated that they still had cigarettes and liquor to consume.
However, smell is composed of two things: volatile compounds and memory. At absolute zero, where movement ceases, there is no volatility. At absolute zero, places of public congregation stand empty, and personal connections are preempted. At absolute zero, MMB (the compound that gives cat urine its odor) stands still, and besides, it doesn’t mean anything without a memory to reference.
Wielding her unique brand of pop-surrealism, Reid infers the significance of these citizens by rendering fragile structures substantial. Shadows and hybrid figures stand watch as sentries or as ghosts. Devoid of human presence, representations of places are understood to be portraits in the negative, if one believes that a person’s substance can be gleaned by what they carry with them when there is no place to leave anything behind.
ii) Oral Histories
Responding to the insufficiency of defining home in terms of a physical structure, scholars and policy-makers have begun to include emotional and non-material standards, such as social and personal histories and authority over one’s own narrative(4). Reid reflects this sentiment with the motif “I like to Believe I am Telling the Truth,” which recurs in her work. The comic-like panels of the same name set a different sort of tone. As an epigraph for the installation of excerpts from the interviews she conducted from 2019-2021, it serves as a stark reminder that memory and self-description are neither true nor untrue.
In most Western logic systems, ambiguity and uncertainty are the byproducts of a failure of knowledge: to know all the facts is to know the truth(5). Eastern ideas, such as those contained in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, assert that, to the contrary, not only is there middle ground, but there is only middle ground--things are all true, untrue, both, and neither. It is no coincidence, it has been argued, that these cultures are the ones who first conceived of zero(6). Absent any tools for judgement, Reid resolutely moves the testimonies to a space in the middle, offering no clues as to which, if any, deserve scrutiny. Their existence is evidenced by virtue of their presence here, and in turn, their presence must be taken as evidence.
These excerpts are rife with humanity; the homes are recounted in a way everyone can recognize: family, freedom, and food, while the anxieties are likewise familiar: vermin, danger, and isolation. Paradoxes also linger within these reflections: a need for company and for privacy; a desire to be cared for and to be depended upon; a future-vision that can focus enough to hope but that cannot reconcile consequences.
To convey the professional filter she must use in her work with Brandon’s unsheltered people, these excerpts are transcribed onto translucent plastic--the same material that temporarily patches shattered windows or waterproofs a square of earth. Varied handwriting by multiple participants represents the heterogeneous voices that Reid collected in the course of this research. The sheets have been hung like scrolls, voices from the sky, inviting an adjustment.
iii) Myth & Symbol
Chris Reid’s uninhabited shelters are, paradoxically, rife with inhabitants. The lanky cat-headed man, who appears in numerous works here, has been a constant figure throughout Reid’s decades-long career. Despite his skeletal face and empty eyes, he should not be understood as a phantom. Though he is lurking above, he is not a harbinger. Rather, this character is a protector and a witness. In Reid’s œuvre, the cat-headed man stands in for her husband, often engaging in domestic tasks or standing resiliently with Reid’s own cypher, the Baker’s Daughter, who can be seen in I Like to Believe I am Telling the Truth. The cat-headed man’s long shadow in 1st and Rosser is coming to help, and he leans over a ledge in 8th Street Bridge with Baba Yaga Feet and Chicken Paul’s not as an assassin but as a watchman.
In Burnt House Down the Street, shadows in the shape of Victorian dolls, who should be at play, face us head-on. Without any form, they are frozen in terror, their shadows taking on physical properties that recall paper dolls on the one hand and shooting range targets on the other. The cat-headed man and the baker’s daughter spy through an unlit window in Space Between Two Buildings on 10th Street. In the absence of corporeal forms, Reid emphasizes empty spaces and the missing bodies that would morph a space into a home.
Huddled among the detritus of Homeless Camp at Greyhound, we find rabbits, another common motif in Reid’s work. They mourn with the neighbourhood in 4th and Louise After the Fire, and loiter, waiting for some unknown event, in 8th Street Bridge, Bunnies, and Couch. Especially visible in the last, the leporine residents each hold a duck tightly in their arms, either in a gesture of protection or abduction. The duos make direct reference to a villainous Slavic archetype: Koschei the Deathless.
Koschei’s power and his downfall lie in his immortality, which he has approached by the careful safeguarding of his soul. Koschei’s soul is tucked into a needle, in an egg, in a duck, in a rabbit, in a locked chest, which is buried variably under an oak, a mountain, or any number of great features that are subject to a different scale of time. If the chest is breached, the rabbit will run; if the rabbit is caught, the duck will fly; if the duck is shot down, the egg will fall and shatter; if the egg shatters, the needle will shatter as well. Modern audiences might think of Voldemort’s horcruxes from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, or, in considering the risk of this practice, think of little Billy Costa from Phillip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass, who clutches a dead fish to his chest when his dæmon, the external manifestation of his soul, is severed from him.
Reid has had many opportunities to consider the consequences of addiction in her work with unsheltered Brandonites. The immediate symptoms of debilitating addiction--loss of family, finances, and health--are empirically survivable. The bunnies in these works are engaged in a more essential task. It is so essential, indeed, that its parallels are found in children’s literature, outside of the purview of economy, infrastructure, and adult responsibilities. These bunnies are keeping tabs on their own souls, left outside of their bodies, in a syringe.
“It was never about housing,” said Housing First founder Sam Tsemberis, “it has always been about choice.(7)” At the heart of the problem with absolute zero is the paradox: freedom of choice encompasses, necessarily, the freedom to make damaging choices.
The ethos of Housing First emphasizes that the problem of unsheltered people is not a lack of shelter. There are entrenched systems, habits of society, that cause homelessness, and they will continue to cause homelessness until they are addressed. In 2012, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) amended their definition with a separate formulation of Indigenous homelessness. In twelve dimensions, it builds a conceptual “home” that has little to do with walls and roofs. A feeling of belonging to the human and non-human world, a connection to a spiritual and cultural past, and validation that one is a valued citizen, all factor in to this definition(8). It offers a counter-narrative to a settler mentality of human dominion, and pays heed to the nuances of residing. The failures of modern society become apparent in an Indigenous Worldview: commercial land is valued over ancestral land; one Creator crowds out another; descendants cannot access their rightful cultural legacy.
Reid’s maquettes highlight the absurdity of a shelter-first approach to housing. The decimated, hollow forms of the 4th and Louise diptych and the weightless monument of After the Landlord Found Squatters are built at the scale of a dollhouse--impermanent, frivolous, foundationless. She pays tribute to the 8th Street Bridge by inverting its import from above to below. The bridge was demolished in 2017 because it had deteriorated to the point that it could no longer support vehicles. With the monumental sculpture 8th Street Bridge, Reid notes its other function as a place of assembly and contact for people who gathered in the slope of land underneath its concrete abutments. The recurrent use of exaggerated scaffolding triggers a sudden awareness of the ground, as though it could be pulled right out from under us.
Cultural critic Elke Krasny recently wrote about life as it relates to living within a shelter. Living, she says, is the human body engaging in eating, socializing, resting, and evacuating. Having a place that allows for those performances “tied to social reproduction” is basic to survival. She allows that living is larger than homemaking, and also occurs outside of the household, but what must not be neglected is the verb: “to live--which implies two critical aspects: to occupy a home and to maintain oneself. To do both is to be alive--aliveness.”
Consider home as the opposite of exile(10), and consider how exile might also be the opposite of living. A built dwelling and the action of dwelling within it feed back onto each other. These are the spirits of occupation and maintenance. They enact tending to a home with tenderness. Like particles approaching absolute zero, they are bound together with a force. They reach out to each other as neighbours. In this worldview, functional zero is no longer a compromise. Secure spaces sitting empty are not empty. They are an escape hatch, a place to store a soul. An eggshell is fragile, this is true; but an eggshell is also a marvel of engineering. It is exactly as strong as it has to be to fulfill its function, a series of domes distributing pressure until what’s inside no longer needs its protection.
-Lucie Lederhendler, Curator, March 2021
(1) Alina Turner, Tom Albanese, and Kyle Pakeman, “Discerning ‘Functional and Absolute Zero’: Defining and Measuring an End to Homelessness in Canada,” The School of Public Policy Research Papers (University of Calgary) 10, issue 2 (January 2017): 1-41.
(2) Caitlin Gainey, “Racing Towards Absolute Zero,” 2019, August 16.
(3) Nigel Cooper, “How cold can you go? What is absolute zero?” Interview with Chris Smith, The Naked Scientist. 2019, June 11.
(4) Hedda Haugen Askland & Matthew Bun, “Lived Experiences of Environmental Change: Solastalgia, power, and place,” Emotion, Space, and Society 27, 2018. 16-22.
(5) In mathematics, this is called “the law of the excluded middle.”
(6) Amir D. Aczel. Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).(7) Katie Mingle. “Chapter 5: Housing Finally,” According to Need: A Project of 99% Invisible podcast, 2020, December 15.
(8) Jessie Thistle, “Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada,” Homeless Hub, 2017.
(9) Elke Krasny, “Care.” AA Files 76, 38, 2019.
(10) Askland and Bunn, “Lived Experiences,” 20.