Cole Swanson: Devil’s Colony

Devil’s Colony
Cole Swanson

June 8 – August 10, 2019
Opening Reception: June 8, 7:00-9:30 pm

Using field recordings, photography, performance, and installation, Cole Swanson explores how non-human organisms shape contemporary urban ecologies, including the politics of settlement and land use. Devil’s Colony is an interdisciplinary exhibition examining the material, sociocultural, and scientific relationships between humans and double-crested cormorants.

Commonly known as the ‘devil’s bird,’ cormorants are an ancient species of highly adaptable water birds. They have been reviled in the West since biblical times, and have recently attracted significant media attention for their apparent destruction of green space and commercial fish populations. Toronto’s Leslie Spit boasts North America’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants, with their annual nesting site situated on a human-made parkland comprised entirely of decades of backfilled waste.

Cormorant populations were nearly decimated in the twentieth century due to exposure to chemicals like DDT. The birds’ rebounding numbers in recent decades is a testament to their adaptability and the conservation efforts of the scientific community. In November, the Ontario government proposed an unprecedented open season on the birds – a bag limit of fifty birds per day with no concession for spoilage. The widespread belief in cormorants’ destructive abilities and the proposed action to cull birds in alarming numbers may once again put this vital species at risk.

Working closely with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority under the mentorship of environmental biologist Dr. Gail Fraser (York University), Swanson undertook field research to produce audiovisual documentation of this massive, local bird population. Devil’s Colony is a re-creation of the cormorants’ nesting site, transporting viewers into the heart of the colony to witness the complex lives of the species at a critical moment. Through an intimate, tactile encounter, Swanson encourages our sense of curiosity and empathy, pushing us to consider our manifold relationships with other agents in the natural world.

This exhibition is accompanied by a publication featuring an essay by Carolyne Topdjia. The publication can be downloaded HERE.


Auxiliary Programming

Tour, Talk, and Publication Launch
Saturday, July 6, 2:00-4:00 pm

Join us for a conversation between artist Cole Swanson and Dr. James S. Quinn, as they help us to unpack the complex relationships between humans and double-crested cormorants. Grab your free copy of the publication with writing by Carolyne Topdjian, and experience a guided exhibition tour led by the artist. This event is hosted in partnership with Environment Hamilton. Free admission, all are welcome!

Dr. James (Jim) S. Quinn is a professor in the Biology Department at McMaster University. He studies the behaviour of birds living in complex social groups and the effect of air pollution on DNA (inherited mutations) in birds and mice. Jim has managed and monitored colonial nesting birds in Hamilton Harbour since the early 2000s.

Environment Hamilton is a local not-for-profit organization that was established in 2001 with a mandate to provide Hamiltonians with knowledge and skills to enhance and protect the environment around them.


Cole Swanson is an artist and educator based in Toronto, Canada. He has exhibited in exhibitions across Canada and throughout international venues in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. He is a two-time national fellowship winner through the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute for his research on miniature painting and fresco techniques in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Swanson’s recent work is a cross-disciplinary exploration of materials and their sociocultural and biological histories. Embedded within art media and commonplace resources are complex relations between nature and culture, humans and other agents, consumers and the consumed. Swanson has engaged in a broad material practice using sound, installation, painting, and sculpture to explore interspecies relationships. Swanson has performed many professional roles within the arts and has held positions in curatorial work, arts administration, and post-secondary education. He has been invited to lecture at several academic institutions abroad and has received support from public agencies including the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council. www.coleswanson.org

Carolyne Topdjian is an interdisciplinary writer and educator with a background in visual art theory and practice. She received her PhD in Social and Political Thought from York University, and has since published numerous scholarly essays and stories. You can find her latest work in Dreamers Magazine (Summer 2019). www.carolynetopdjian.com


The artist would like to acknowledge project funding from the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts.

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