Photo courtesy of Gabriel Parniak.
I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t like Tim Hortons. I never crave watered down “double-doubles” or old-fashioned (and often, literally, old) donuts, no matter how cheap they are. For some reason, the mediocre Ontario-based coffee chain has become synonymous with Canadian identity, as if there was nothing better to unify our country than reheated pastries and not liking gay people. So naturally, when I saw Cup (24 Ounces of Misrepresentation), I, like many Redditors, was taken aback as to what a beaded X-Large Tim Hortons cup could possibly mean in the larger context of the nebulous national identity. Art is already tough enough to “get” as is, I wasn’t sure how I felt about giving so much visibility to, what is in my opinion, a brand that has already been attributed way too much significance. Regardless, there must have been some reason it was shown at Stockholm’s Supermarket art fair’s only Canadian booth, so I decided to call up the artist behind the work, Guelph's Gabriel Parniak, to figure out what it’s about.
VICE: Hey Gabriel, a lot of people seem confused about your piece and what it stands for. What would you tell these people who seem to not be getting it?
Gabriel Parniak: It’s not about Tim Hortons.
That’s a good start.
Yeah, it has very little to do with them. Tim Hortons is just the perfect symbol of how Americanized Canada’s identity is becoming in subtle ways. We never had a supersized cup like that before. This is a supposed Canadian iconic brand that has this cup, and downsized everything else. I just found that very poignant. The piece is about what Canada’s becoming, and how a lot of people in Canada seem to just unquestionably accept little things like that and don’t tend to think about the connection between supersized corporate culture.
How did the idea for this beaded Timmy’s cup come about?
I made the piece originally in October-November 2012, while at NSCAD in Halifax, finishing my BFA. I was inspired earlier, when I was walking to work on Canada Day, just super pissed off seeing how all these families were all decked out in Roots gear and all drinking Tim Hortons, when voter turnout had barely reached 60 percent that year. There was all this trash everywhere—Timmy's cups and beer cans—and I saw this one freakishly large Tim’s cup. It was the first time I’d seen the super large version, a full 24-ounce cup. It actually had a tiny Canadian paper flag stuck in it upside down, in the mouthpiece. It struck me as this super tongue in cheek representation of how Canada is right now—an upside down flag is an international symbol for distress.
I was also taking a contemporary indigenous art history class at the time with an amazing professor—Carla Taunton—as an elective in my fourth year. I wanted to try to do something that spoke from my non-aboriginal viewpoint and question why I was in my fourth year at a supposedly exemplary Canadian institution and yet this was an elective course. I was trying to draw connections there.
Has Tim Hortons contacted you at all?
No, nothing! I got an email from the guy who originally designed the cup, or created it. He thought it was funny. He liked it, but it wasn’t on behalf of the company.
Have you tried to contact Tim Hortons?
No, it’s not about them, but it did end up on some Tim Hortons fan site.
How does beading and putting the cup into a glass casing come into play?
Specifically, I decided to bead the cup with glue just to make it a symbol of the surface treatment. None of the beads are from Canada either, they’re all imported. We don’t have glass beads here. I always wanted the cup to be shown in a Plexiglas vitrine because it mimics the colonial action of coming into an area and taking things that were contemporary art and ritual objects and giving them a purely anthropological standing; they weren’t upheld as contemporary objects.
Would you feel like people will look at this cup in a couple hundred years and treat it like an artifact?
I don’t know! If it lasts that long, perhaps. It would be interesting to know whether the context would hold up and I hope we can change the context in that time.
So, this is a call to action?
I suppose so, or at least a call to acknowledgement and question. I just wanted to ask questions, I really don’t have a ton of answers with the work I make and I don’t want to. I think a lot of Canadians don’t want to be faced with questions about our identity. We want to see our country and our political self as very benign or respectful, when really there’s a lot we don’t talk about in the education.
Was Cup purchased?
I had an offer, but I chose to bring it back to Canada in the hopes that maybe, eventually, it would get into the hands of a Canadian collector and I could continue on with the conversation. I was amazed with the amount of debate it was sparking. The stuff on Reddit was more about the food, but it was interesting to see some real conversation and this was on a very non-artistic media.
Why did you choose to expose it abroad rather than in Canada if you wanted to keep the discussion here?
Well, I showed it at my grad show and, to be honest, since I graduated I haven’t had any large public transits to show it. I included it in a proposal for the Arts Incubator here in Guelph, for which Scott McGovern, who took it to Stockholm, is on the mentorship board. He messaged me after looking at the applications and he wanted to take something he saw as very ponderous and tried to create a dialogue.
Do you mind me asking what the offer was?
Sure, I mean I didn’t take it. It was over $2,000.
If you saw your own piece at Supermarket, in Stockholm, would you have placed an offer on it?
I can’t say. I’m a maker, and it’s a hard thing for a working artist to put a price on their work. I’m not a collector… I collect my friends’ stuff when I can; we trade. I don’t know, I can’t put myself in that position. What would you offer?
Hmmm… I don’t know, I’ve seen art go for millions or end up in trashcans without really understanding why one was better than the other. It’s always surprising.
It surprises me too, and I’m in the industry.
And it changes depending on context, right? Do you think that’s why people didn’t know what to make of the Reddit post?
I think Scott [McGovern] intentionally posted it de-contextualized; it makes it more ponderous that way, as a singular art object. There’s no context for people to talk about, which is really interesting. It created a lot of conversation and confusion. Without context, it pushes people to talk to each other more, rather than just focus the conversation towards Scott or me.
And how would you explain to these people who don’t get it, me included, why a beaded cup would go for over $2,000?
The fact that I’m here talking to you to explain it and getting a conversation going, that’s more satisfying for me, to get the word out and talk about these things than the money is.
That being said, I still took 'X' number of hours to do it, and art is labour. A lot of people don’t want to recognize that because they think it’s selfish labour. But then again, a lot of art can be and that’s where there’s some confusion. My justification, I guess, is that I’m at least trying to say something broader.
So it’s giving value to the conversation and the ideas?
Exactly, to the creation of ideas that aren’t necessarily talked about.
If you could chose anyone in the world to buy the piece, who would it be?
My end hope would be for a Canadian collector to buy it and eventually leave it to a regional or national museum collection. But it would be hilarious if Stephen Harper bought it.
You sound open to people projecting their own interpretation onto the piece.
It’s unavoidable. There's no point in fighting it. You’re deluded if you think your creations speak perfectly. Nothing speaks perfectly. Acceptance is key.
Any parting words?
The aim of the piece is really to put a Canadian icon in display and freeze your acceptance of the identity we uphold for a second. It’s about national identity, and how histories are created. Maybe sometimes we shouldn’t just shut our mouths.