Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth

Jeanne Randolph

May 1 - May 30, 2020

Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth
Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth

Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth

Prairie Modernist Noir: The Disappearance of the Manitoba Telephone Booth , 2020
installation view

Jeanne Randolph is one of Canada's foremost cultural theorists. She is the author of the influential book Psychoanalysis & Synchronized Swimming (1991) as well as Symbolization and Its Discontents (1997), Why Stoics Box (2003), Ethics of Luxury (2007), and more recently Shopping Cart Pantheism (2015). Dr. Randolph is also known for her curation and as an engaging lecturer, performance artist and musician. In universities and galleries across Canada, England, Australia, and Spain, she has spoken on topics ranging from the aesthetics of Barbie to the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

These words from Jeanne Randolph:

"Once upon a time, telephone booths were taken for granted. They were available for every possible variety of calls from outdoors to anywhere. Now, they are a vanishing species. Their structure has been so familiar for so long that their original context, mid-century modern architecture, has achieved vintage status. At last count, there were thirty of these booths remaining in the province of Manitoba.

"In the milder six months of 2016, Winnipeg-based artist Dr. Jeanne Randolph followed the lead of a “mole” at MTS (Manitoba Telephone System, now Bell/MTS) who gave her a list of every existing booth’s location. Unlike devices that preceded them, there was no planned obsolescence. For more than fifty years payphones stood as small modernist buildings. They were built to stand and to withstand, to be mended efficiently after every attack by weather, vandalism, car crashes and thrown rocks. Now they are neglected; each and every booth is depreciating in melancholy decline – until Bell/MTS uproots them and drags them away.

"Using a smartphone camera to document these structures, Dr. Randolph travelled as far north as the 54th parallel in Flin Flon, and as far south as Emerson, 6.3 kilometers from the Manitoba-USA border."

These images, with accompanying texts, were gathered together for an artist book, edition of 250, as a document of a performance lecture produced in conjunction with an exhibition at the PLATFORM centre for photographic and digital arts in late 2018. The PLATFORM project was the result of a collaboration with Also As Well Too, an artist-run, not-for-profit library and shop for artist books and small press publications based in Winnipeg, MA. Paul Petro Contemporary Art is pleased to present the photographs which form the visual core of this project.

A Feature Exhibition in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

Individual works

(Various titles), 2018 / 2020, archival inkjet print, edition of 2, 11 x 8 ½ inches or 8 ½ x 11 inches, 31 prints

First our own downtown Winnipeg.

I started photographing Winnipeg phone booths I spotted driving along, well, passengering along. And here is a landmark. Does anybody recognize where this is? Yes, some of these booths are an element of our usual streetscape. Of course these modernist structures are still radiating the mid-century technological aesthetic.

To add insult to injury I had decided to immortalize them with an iPhone, the early twenty-first century invader. I think I was using an iPhone 5c—that sounds old even to me. Here’s what I liked about it—it distorts. And some day, seeing these distortions, someone will say “obviously these were taken with an old iPhone 5c!”

Look at this—that tree and the faint tower on the far left, they’re toppling; the tree somewhat by nature, but this reveals the iPhone 5c distortion. The phone booth is not quite square and, believe me, they were assembled with technical precision.

This is Winnipeg, and here’s the phone booth. Another thing about the lonely phone booth—sometimes it looks like it’s waiting for a bus. You can be aware of these bleak places but you’re certainly not mistaking this for the mid-century modern aesthetic.

As you can see, there’s a little distortion in this one. Someone who’s got the artistic eye, they probably see there’s a lot of distortion.

Here there is another theme to be discovered: incongruity. This booth is like a fossil whose environment has completely changed.

Another aspect of this is a version of “Where’s Waldo?” Now where is the fucking phone booth? I see a little sliver of blue. I’m pretty sure that’s a phone booth. And this is a high security CP Rail Truck depot, where no one stopped me from photographing prior to my break and enter crime; what is the phone booth for?

This is a classic. Not to you, I do understand.

This belongs to the Desolate Phone Booth collection. Also the Derelict, Sleazy Brother of the phone booth collection. This little ne’er-do-well is on the Trans- Canada toward Headingly. Or was. I’ve sped by often, trying to get out of town. Then one day I looked and it was no more. Now, I have to say, that is not just because of erosion and acts of god. A wonderful man at MTS understood this project and he gave me a list of all the phone booths in Manitoba. Even as
I was tracking them they were disappearing. This one probably did get pulled out by its roots.

And notice the goofy distortion here. I know it’s derelict but those poles, they were definitely not leaning into the wind.

This is one of the photos early in the quest.

The booth is in St. Anne’s MB. Dan at the MTS had told me to look for Captain Corky’s Cafe. Late modernist facsimile it is, under new management. It’s now the Cordon Bleu. The roof of the phonebooth appears to be uncharacteristically slanted—appears to be. The tall conifer sways as if the jet stream is passing through the front yard.

Another in the Modern Architecture Mortification collection. The booth itself is in good condition, not counting the telephone itself, which looked like it had been chewed to pieces.

Here it is from another view. I wanted to document this sort of view as often as I could—the forsaken telephone booth among its injured friends. As you can see, in a way, it’s in its own forlorn community.

What’s not in the picture is a really good sushi kitchen in a chip wagon. Just over to the left there.

I usually leave appealing features out of the longing to conjure: Wishing that the minimalist tendencies of mid- century modernism were not endangered. So I exclude anything that suggests a telephone booth’s surround is compatible.

To me a booth is like a spaceship captained by Yves St. Laurent, and it’s landing in a Dollar Store.

Now, this...this...THIS is...a resort. Wrong time of year. There was a swimming pool, a frozen swimming pool.

This place is called The Lilac, and it advertises itself with a logo of a great big blue dolphin. The big blue dolphin is “standing up” on its tail fin at the edge of the pool. You tell your child—and they have to be pretty small to get through his you-know-what under the tailfin—to go up the little stairs inside the dolphin and then jump out of the dolphin’s mouth into the swimming pool.

It’s the good-times version of Jonah and the Whale.

Now, another theme is revealed here to the side of the Lilac office. Let’s look closer.

The story evokes a sprinkle of tiny tears. I found it unlikely that many phone booths would have originally been set up near garbage. But, again, whether this is a return of the repressed or what? When many of these places are renovated, the telephone booths end up next to dumpsters and compost bags.

I remind you of the “Where’s Waldo?” collection.

The phone booth has been reduced to second-rate semi-outhouse status. Several decades later a style and function that had seemed so glamorous become invisible, with no allure whatsoever, and no more than a mere object. We watch so many utilitarian devices arriving on the market as the next big thing. Yet in retrospect the hype will have utterly dissolved.

If these twin phone booths really could stay true to their modernist souls...

Well, you know, when I was three years old the first of worst incidents happened. My mother said, "You don't need the blanket on you tonight. It's gonna be a warm night." And I guessed she might know best--we lived in southern Texas. So she said we'd put my little blanket away. Then I said, "Won't the blanket be lonely?"

And my mother said, "Jeanne, it doesn't have a soul. Objects don't have any soul, just you and me and your sister and Daddy have a soul." I have stayed in denial ever since. Objects do have a soul. These twin phone booths have souls. Sure, their souls can't talk or think or move but that doesn't matter.

Anyway, here these booths are, sharing a spot with the dumpster twins.

There was an adventure connected to this one and, believe me, the adventures are subtle.

This campground had signs galore. Where to go and what to do and what not to do. I didn’t bother with photos of what they said but if you look really closely you can see that there are quite a number of signs visible outside, and on the door to the office.

I decided or, let me say I imagined, that the reason there are two phone booths here is because the control freak who ran the resort did not like the friction if people had to form a line to make a phone call at a single booth. Two of ‘em might just ward off incivility.

Here they are, another set of twins. Now, they are not made of rubber. Here is the prominent iPhone distortion.

While I was photographing, an adorable what appeared to be 14-year-old boy in his security guard outfit, hat and all, approached me. He said, “I’m supposed to ask you what you’re doing.” And I said, “Don’t you worry, son. I’m from MTS. We are doing a survey to make sure we have documented all the phone booths in Manitoba and these two are on our list. We want to preserve pictures of them for our historical archive.”

And he exclaimed, “I’m a part of history!” I wanted to take him with me.

This is the Traveller’s Resort not far out of Winnipeg. There we spot the disgraced phone booths, two sisters again, nestled near dumpsters, which you can just barely see through the lush greenery.

This is the Canadian-USA Peace Garden. I thought I could portray the mid-century modern telephone booth as unmistakeably alien in a quiet woodsy environment. I’m not a photographer, that’s the problem, so I didn’t know how.

All I could do was record the juxtaposition of what
was passing for natural, which itself is somewhat contradictory—that the greenery was passing for natural; and you can say at a certain point the phone booth would pass for natural. Sometimes technological devices become so familiar that they will seem natural in another sense.

Follow up on that one however you wish, I don’t know. I’m not gonna write poetry about it, that’s for sure.

Here’s a working phone booth also at a campsite. And the reason it is kept in pristine order is because it’s beside a swimming pool.

And, for some reason, just in case whoever’s drowning is three years old and didn’t bring their cell phone, someone can run quickly to the phone booth and phone for help instead of jumping in the pool to save the little nipper.

Perhaps this park entrance is recognizable. This is the campground at Hecla Island.

Now this is not lens distortion. That is the most
dismal phone booth I found on my travels. It’s in the Whiteshell, or was, because, I think, just towards the end of my safari, Dan mentioned to me that he’d ripped out one in the Whiteshell and he wondered whether I’d gotten a photo of it in time. It was about to uproot itself with a grand topple. You can see, it’s so touching; it’s yearning for mother earth.

This one too is succumbing to the natural world. I’m not sure whether it functions or not, but it looks like everything is intact but the door.

This is also in the Whiteshell, a glass and aluminum bunny fortress.

This is another charming scene, at Otter Lake. 
The phone booth is trying to camouflage itself amid maps, shed and Coca-Cola machine. Standing strong, poorly disguised, it tells itself, “I belong here. It’s okay, I’m fine.”

This is a scene on the Trans-Canada outside of Austin MB. It’s too murky to discern what’s there—a closer view is only slightly brighter. I was disappointed that at a distance from the object of my desire, distortions aren’t especially obvious.

But this is an example of another theme I detected, along with the garbage theme. That telephone booths have become monsters, in a more classical sense of the word.

Another godforsaken view. Often, there are insinuating signs. I had not brought these along as props, but what if they refer to the phone booth’s future?

This just says Manitoba to me. I marvel at it, it’s so exotic. Lundar is a village/small town and this is the Lundar Motor Hotel. Beguiling!

And here in the other direction is the ESSO station.
If there was iPhone distortion, the booth would be leaning toward the icy depths. But this isn’t distortion— the booth may be dreading the day when it falls into the ditch. Poor thing! Its bottom is so cold! And those booths won’t float.

This scene is at the outskirts of Emerson MB. As any photographer would know, it’s fascinating how the environment where you’ve found your object of desire will differ markedly, its implications change, depending on the camera’s point of view.

And because I’m not trying to educate you, I won’t demonstrate this.

Oh, yes. This is the future of the phone booth. Maybe it’s everybody’s big box future.

Okay—Brandon, Winnipeg, Flin Flon...yes, Winnipeg. The Walmarts will always have a phone booth. It’s always in order and tidy. What was surprising to me was that Walmarts do not all look alike—I hadn’t realized that. This one is in Winnipeg at 3655 Portage Avenue, and there’s a garbage can close by. Before long yet another problem eventually emerged: I became obsessed with Walmarts. I wished I could photograph every Walmart in Manitoba.

And you know, when you get obsessed, they don’t all look alike anymore.

This Walmart is in Brandon. I had to face misery for this one. I’m a day sleeper and I had to wake up at 5am to get to the empty parking lot in front of the Walmart.

Look at the lean on that building. But of course that’s just the camera talking.
So I was standing out there in the middle of the parking lot with my camera and this burly man in a plaid shirt and khaki trousers, wearing a faux dead lamb coat, and he growled—“What are you doing with my Walmart?” “I’m from MTS. We’re recording all our phone booths for archive purposes. The focus is on the phone booth.”

“I don’t give a damn about your Walmart” (I said under my breath).

Dan told me this is a Walmart, though no brazen confirmation sprawls across the facade.

Welcome to Flin Flon.