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New Temple Weighs Heavy in Transnational Digital Age

Publié le 1 octobre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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The immigrant diaspora is the backbone of the North American success story and its growth pushes the boundaries of both nationalist identity and the urban landscape. Recently, a Hindu temple/heritage museum was erected in Toronto by the local Indo-Canadian community as a physical reminder of Canadian multiculturalism. The traditional stone-carved edifice is impressive and heralds the appearance of another immigrant population. But can traditional art forms alone properly represent the transnational reality of Canada? Can digital art, for example, give voice to a modern multicultural society?

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
Toronto-Ian Mutoo, BAPS Shri
Swaminarayan Mandir
, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

July 22nd, 2007 was the official opening of the impressive Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a stone temple made of over 24,000 pieces of Turkish limestone and Italian marble hand-carved in India and shipped to Canada. The local Hindu community privately funded the $40 million building with the help of over 400 volunteers. « It wants the world to know that it has arrived (and) […] there is no chance its presence will go unnoticed.(1) » On hand at the celebration, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that « the architectural marvel represents India’s and Canada’s embracement of spiritual and ethnic pluralism.(2) » It represents another metaphorical tile in the multicultural mosaic of Canada.

Canada has prided itself as being a country that welcomes diversity, fostering social harmony between various ethnic groups while protecting the uniqueness of each mosaic piece. The mosaic identity is most common in Canadian urban centres. There’s a Chinatown and a Little Italy in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Festivals like Caravan, Caribana, and Taste of the Danforth are annual celebrations of this mosaic. The Canadian view of multiculturalism, largely defined against the American melting pot, is deeply entrenched in the national psyche. The problem with the Canadian mosaic, however, is that the harmony between tiles implies that each ethnic community is a separate homogenous piece of the heterogeneous whole. Statistical categorization of Canadian identity aims for rigid definitions of ethnicity. Although the trend is to increase the number of categories to better reflect new immigration, compartmentalization remains a national objective.

Statistic Canada’s categories do not account for complex articulations of identity.

“In 2001, Chinese and South Asians were already the largest visible minority groups in Canada […]. According to the 2001 Census, 1,029,000 individuals identified themselves as Chinese, and they accounted for 26% of the visible minority population. In comparison, the 917,000 South Asians represented 23% of the visible minority population.(3)

The rest of the visual minority population is left to the following categories: Arab, Black, Latin American, Filipino, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean, Japanese and an ‘Other’, catch-all, category.

Cultural identity, however, is not as easily definable as a Census Canada tick box. To which group do Jamaican-born Chinese or Malay-Indians belong? The vagueness of being defined as « Latin American » does not account for the cultural differences between Spanish-speaking Mexican-Canadians and Portuguese-speaking Brazilian-Canadians. Does an open « Other » category properly reflect the growing rate of inter-marriages between ethnic groups in Canadian society, or are we implicitly asking members of inter-racial groups to define themselves by their « visual difference »?

In reality, cultural diversity is taking on new hybrid forms that are often dissonant with cultural-religious buildings or geographic groupings of ethnic shops and restaurants. What are needed are new vehicles of expression that can better represent the fluidity of transnationalism and inter-racial identity.

The Digital Alternative

New modes of artistic expression have historically faced opposition from traditionalists. At its inception, photography was critiqued for its reproducibility. Similarly, digital art is slow to gain acceptance as an artistic medium. Broadly defined as the creative combination of art and technology (4), digital art has been used as a general term to categorize a variety of emerging media including photo-manipulation, video installation and web-based art. The interdisciplinary nature of digital art challenges the traditionally accepted definition of art. Similarly, the emergence of transnational communities puts into question traditional notions of multiculturalism and nationhood.
Digital artists have challenged the idea of a societally-imposed community identity. In a satirical look at the statistical categorization of intra-national communities, digital artist Meg Cranston used data from the 1990 US Census to create a visual portrait of the female population of the US. The Average American Woman (1996) is a realistic image that was digitally constructed from empirical data that determined the averages in body dimensions, height, colour of hair and eyes of the female community (5). The result was a photo-realistic representation of the limiting demographic category: the average woman of a nation.Digital art provides an alternate, fluid, way of representing community identity. An example of its adaptability is Chris Dorley-Brown’s combined images of communities—what he terms a « digital photographic morph.(6) » In his Haverhill2000 Series, Dorley-Brown pieces together individual portraits of 2000 members of the Haverhill community, a British town, to create one fused portrait. Digital representations of community provide a contrast to expensive, architectural monoliths that rely on uniformity as their strength. In addition to physical edifices, traditional multicultural communities are defined by social borders and categories. The term “Chinatown” implies the community isn’t embodied outside of a definable geographic context. Similarly, the creation of the Shri Swaminarayam Mandir Hindu Temple-cum-Indo-Canadian Heritage Museum defines the Indo-Canadian community in relation to Hinduism, even though there are a number of other distinct religious groups that form the global Indian diaspora.

The advent of digital arts, on the other hand, has connected and created tangible communities of interest rather than of national boundaries. Computer scientist and web artist Warren Sack created the Conversation Map, which visually represents both the social and semantic relationships that emerge during Internet text-based exchanges (7). Sack’s work recognized the existence of virtual communities based on real world connections, on topics from the Balkans to Britney Spears, and that did not rely on geography or nationalism as their foundation. Community models based on shared experience rather than on imposed national boundaries better fit the reality of contemporary transnationalism.


The rigidly-defined borders of the Canadian mosaic model of multiculturalism are losing their relevance in a contemporary transnational society. Tiles are blending together to form a palette of mixed hues that have not yet had the chance to dry. Emerging hybrid communities are defining themselves anew and will most likely rely on new visual analogues and the innovative methods of expression and connection such as digital art. References

(1) Christopher Hume. « Serenity that’s set in stone. » The Toronto Star 2007.
(2) CTV.ca News. « Harper officially opens elaborate Hindu temple-July 22, 2007 ». http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/print/CTVNews/20070721/hold_hindu_temple_072107/20070722/?hub=Canada&subhub=PrintStory
(3) Statistics Canada (March 2005). Population projections of visible minority groups, Canada, provinces and regions 2001-2017.
(4) Canadian Arts Council. « Glossary of Council Terms 2007 ». http://www.canadacouncil.ca/help/lj127228791697343750.htm#d
(5) Lipkin, Jonathan. Photography Reborn: Image Making in the Digital Era. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2005: 37.
(6) Lipkin, 33.
(7) Blais, Joline & Jon Ippolito. At the Edge of Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006: 160.

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