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Retail Apocalypse

Exhibition, Hall Cases and Octagonal gallery, 15 April 2022 to 15 January 2023

In 2001, The Harvard Guide to Shopping notoriously asserted that shopping had become the last remaining form of public activity. The eight-hundred-page tome was an exploration of how retail had refashioned cities at the turn of the century. In 2005, less than five years later, Amazon introduced its Prime membership service and accelerated the shift to online commerce. By 2017, reportedly up to half of American households were subscribed to Prime. People were choosing to spend more on food and travel. The so-called “experience economy” was producing new spaces for constructing one’s identity and values. Shopping as an urban activity was entering its terminal phase.

Watch Retail Apocalypse: The Epilogue, produced by SSENSE and the CCA

Au Bon marché interior of central space, Paris, France, ca. 1920, Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print, 22.8 x 28.5cm, PH1985:0172, CCA Collection

It was in this context that curators Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen initiated Retail Apocalypse, a compendium of cases studies, interventions, and object lessons rescued from the bonfire of retail culture. The project can be read as a time capsule for the entire glorious, messy, self-aggrandizing history of retail. Relaunched at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Retail Apocalypse is presented as a narrative in three parts. Unpacking the research initiated at the ETH Zurich in phases, the exhibition explores current commercial transformations and their impact on society and the built environment, in the context of historic cycles of accumulation, decline, and reinvention.

Chapter I: Modern Tales

In Chapter I: Modern Tales, pages of the ETH publication line the CCA’s Hall Cases, recalling the provisional blackout of shop windows with final sale posters. The scenography developed with graphic designer Teo Schifferli destabilizes the conventional museum vitrine to produce a dialogical display of critical case studies and CCA Collections objects. Artefacts—including souvenir models, commercial catalogues, and consumer surveys—demonstrate how integral retail architecture has been in shaping cities and landscapes, organizing class and culture, and influencing individual and social behaviour.

Chapter II: Bonfire

The exhibition continues with Chapter II: Bonfire, where documentary films and video essays depict the spectacular collapse of retail as a pillar of civic life. Dan Bell’s Dead Mall series portrays the architectural and societal decay of shopping, while Cao Fei and Andreas Angelidakis present the ever-growing world of distribution by e-commerce. Steel Cities documents the architecture of logistics in Central and Eastern Europe, focusing on workers’ lives to contradict the mute appearance of infrastructure often described as posthuman. Bernadette Corporation and Hannah Black focus on the political aspects of dehumanization as it relates to capitalist acceleration, presenting possible forms of resistance—through acts of protest and looting—despite a collective sense of helplessness.

Chapter III: Renaissance

Shanzhai Lyric, Untitled (Timeline) 2020. Photos of Canal Street featuring visitors’ inscriptions. Courtesy Canal Street Research Association, New York. Photo: Daniel Terna.

Chapter III: Renaissance engages with the museum itself as a site of cultural production and consumption, and the CCA Octagonal gallery poses as a retail space under transformation. Latent within visual culture is the interplay between techniques of art-making, techniques of display, and techniques of exhibition. Claire Fontaine and Alex Bag question the social frameworks that determine use values. Heimo Zobernig and TELFAR use ready-mades to represent the commodification of the artist and the designer. Anonymous Club pushes the boundaries of the runway into the museum, occupying an institutional space as an open studio for experimentation. Akeem Smith and Canal Street Research Association act as archivists in their creative practices, tracing movements and mutations of culture. Victoria Colmegna, Richard Sides, and Gili Tal produce artists’ garments as a format to repurpose and deprogram icons and language. Georgie Nettell renders pervasive data systems and exploitative economic models as neoliberal forms of abstraction. David Chipperfield Architects and Atelier Barda create fluid commercial spaces operating between the real and the virtual. Ibrahim Mahama transforms discarded vessels of global exchange into cultural sites. By engaging with retail through various media and techniques, artists and designers exploit their position within systems of cultural production to reveal new values and models.

Curators: Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen
Curatorial research: Irene Chin
Graphic Design: Teo Schifferli
Design development: Sébastien Larivière and Anh Truong

Retail Apocalypse: The Epilogue

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SSENSE and the CCA present “Retail Apocalypse: The Epilogue”

Audio introduction – Chapter I

Audio introduction – Chapter II

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