BAMBITCHELL (SHARLENE BAMBOAT AND ALEXIS MITCHELL) at the Chinatown Centre Mall (222 Spadina, lower level, #19D), to April 26. Part of the Images Festival, imagesfestival.com. Rating: NNNN
In a mall housing purveyors of Chinese herbal medicines, Asian DVDs and colourful children's clothing, an innocuous-looking institutional-style sign announces the presence of Silent Citizen. Inside the bland retail space, a solitary desk holds a microphone and a start button. The set-up, mimicking Service Canada offices, is the latest participatory installation by Bambitchell, Toronto collaborators Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell.
The pair have addressed history, diaspora and immigration from a queer perspective in works like Citizen Kenney, their campy video send-up of then immigration minister Jason Kenney (part of 2013's That's So Gay at the Gladstone), and Border Sounds, a disco with headphone-played tunes based on passport texts (2011's Nuit Blanche). Less overtly queer and humorous, Silent Citizen moves toward a more disturbing experience.
Inside the room, a jumble of voices reciting phrases from the language test that Kenney instituted as a requirement for citizenship plays over speakers. All goes quiet when you sit down at the table and press the button. A condescending government video about immigrating to Canada plays with only minor interventions by the artists.
Then the test begins. A voice asks you to read phrases aloud from karaoke-style screens. Between prompts, the screens hold the word "SILENCE" for uncomfortably long periods. Is it a simple description or an ominous command that makes you wonder what you must not speak of? The interrogation-style light shining on the table adds to the atmosphere of intimidation and compliance.
As your recorded voice joins the audio, you're left with questions about personal and government definitions of who is Canadian and what voices have been excluded, what issues silenced in the citizenship process.