Mitch Kern’s Performance Project Flips the Idea of Suburbia on its Head

The expat photographer’s Wild Suburb project explores themes of place and one’s own sense of belonging there.

“Garden” from Wild Suburb by Mitch Kern.

On the surface, photographer Mitch Kern’s Wild Suburb project appears to be a kind of meditation on that familiar Calgary intersection where the feral bumps up against the tame. Kern himself confirms that his playfully surreal images of an individual wearing a deer-head mask at an array of citywide locations was initially inspired by the menagerie of critters — coyotes, bobcats, badgers, skunks and porcupines — he encountered on his runs through Confederation Park, near his home in the northwest neighbourhood of Capitol Hill.

But, speaking to Kern about the yearlong “performance,” which included an exhibition at Herringer Kiss Gallery this past February and the Instagram account, @wildsuburb, it’s clear he enjoys finding meaning as he goes along, resisting any one prescriptive, definitive message. That said, themes of place and one’s own sense of belonging there are undeniable. Understandable, given Kern’s peripatetic existence before settling in Calgary 18 years ago.

Born in New York City, he split his time between Long Island and Manhattan after his parents divorced. Then, it was between the East and West Coasts after moving to California with his mom. Following many years of hopping around the continental U.S. for work and higher education, with stops in New Mexico, Texas, Maryland and Louisiana, Kern ended up in Calgary, having accepted a professorship at Alberta College of Art + Design (now Alberta University of the Arts) in 2006, and subsequently became a dual citizen.

“I’ve been here almost 20 years now,” says Kern, who remains an associate professor of photography at AUArts. “I do feel a sense of belonging here, I really do. I feel like I’m part of the community, and that’s a beautiful thing. The story that I think I’m telling in the work is a kind of dramatization and a retelling of [my] socialization, assimilation and acculturation.”

As playful as the Wild Suburb series is, Kern says it took a while before he felt comfortable enough to pose questions about Calgary and what it represents. “I don’t know that I saw a lot of difference early on, but then it starts to creep up,” he says. “You start to see these subtle differences. I used to jokingly say that, in Canada, the left-hand turning arrows blink, and they don’t in the United States,” he says, laughing, “but there are more important things that run a little deeper.

“Something I think I’m looking at here is a sense of sublime beauty in terms of recognition of who we are, where we belong, what we believe; and our connection to this place, this land, this landscape.”

Surveying the images in the series thus far, it’s plain that Kern’s definition of what constitutes a suburb isn’t confined to the outer rim of newer developments in the city. In fact, much of Wild Suburb features readily recognizable landmarks and architecture that dot the city’s older neighbourhoods: Peters’ Drive-In on 16th Avenue N.E., murals in the Beltline, the Plaza Theatre’s new bar in Kensington and a smattering of early 20th-century homes.

“I think we’ve always looked to the cities as places that drive culture, but I think more and more in the 21st century, suburbs are driving culture, especially where you have these sort of liminal spaces where it’s part suburb, part inner-city,” he says. “West Hillhurst is a bit like that in places. Sunnyside is certainly like that.

“People think of a suburb as a place where there’s a lot of monotony and boredom. I just don’t think that’s true here. Certainly not in my neighborhood. It’s very eclectic … There’s some craziness going on. I love that about it. I guess that’s what inspired me to want to work on my own turf — it’s very colourful and very eclectic, and it really defies the stereotype.”

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This article appears in the July 2024 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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