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Image: Front entrance of the 15 Lombard Street
bank in London. Courtesy: Artspeak, Vancouver

Perfect Heists

Artist Janice Kerbel knows how to rob a bank,
cheat at cards, and sell you real estate
that doesn't really exist.
Wanna get implicated?

By Sarah Elton

Northeast corner, Dundas and University. 2:30 p.m. Thursday. I'm standing beside a row of newspaper boxes, in front of TD Canada Trust. Sky is gray, air damp, pavement wet. No sign yet of Janice Kerbel, a visual artist probably best known for Bank Job, an assemblage she first exhibited in 1999 of maps and photographs that detail the necessary steps for robbing a bank.

So we've agreed to meet here, in front of this bank. But in true fugitive fashion, Kerbel didn't tell me what she looks like so, I'm left examining every woman who passes.

In Kerbel's Bank Job (which was later commissioned as a book, titled 15 Lombard St.), she provides a check list of what you'll need to carry out a heist. The list includes a multi-band radio and directional antennae, remote-control operated explosives, various passports and changes of clothes, and road maps of England, France, Spain. There are dozens of other James Bond items listed, plus a handful of vehicles, like a black cab and white unmarked vans.

As it happens, there are three white vans idling at the curb, just a few feet from where I'm standing. A cop car drives by.

When Kerbel arrives, twenty minutes late, she tells me she's been waiting at Saint Andrew station. She explains that I mistakenly told her to go to the wrong subway, making me doubt that Kerbel and I, together, could ever successfully rob a bank.

Kerbel, who's Canadian, is living in London, England. She's in town for her younger sister's marriage and wears the drawn, pinched look of a student's during exams. She's a tiny woman--around five feet--wearing a knee-length coat and a long scarf, slung over one shoulder. On the other, she carries a large black canvas bag.

We hustle into a Dundas street coffee shop and order. Kerbel chooses the table by the window and sits with her back to the glass. She is silhouetted by light from outside, making it difficult for me to see her face and read her expression. A tactic to avoid scrutiny?

Given the sly nature of Kerbel's art, it's a motive easy to suspect. The theme of the counterfeit attracts her. She has submerged herself in explorations of that gray space between the real and the unreal. "All of my work has been trying to understand various modes of deception in one form or another. Whether you inhabit an existing structure or build one," she says. Bank Job may be her best known work, but her interest in persuasion and in creating fictions goes back to her early days as an artist. About ten years ago, she made jam from flowers and poisonous berries and bottled them like you would strawberry preserve. At some exhibitions she would accompany the jars with descriptions of what sinister effect the concoctions would have on the human body.

Image: Bird Island, an online fictional paradise Kerbel created from an assortment of other real islands. Courtesy: e-2 www.e-2.org/acjk.html

In 1999, she created Three Marked Decks, a series of playing cards for cheaters where subtle identifiers were added to otherwise clean packs. In collaboration with a lithographer, she printed the fifty-two cards with exact colour combinations, inks, and papers, but with tiny changes made to the designs. More recently, her Home Fittings project offers up ways to become invisible. Sightlines, for instance, identifies where to stand to avoid casting a shadow into another space. Soundlines maps out the way to creep through a space so as not to be heard. Markings installed flush with the floor identify how to walk without making the boards creek--a silent pathway for a visitor, or a thief. But no matter the hoax she chooses to explore, Kerbel's various works are drawn together by a meticulous attention to detail--an academic's touch. Her projects all involve the excavation of information from the real that she then fictionalizes. Her themes also plays out in our interview. Kerbel skirts around personal questions, responding cautiously, uneasily, complicating the task of deciphering who exactly is Janice Kerbel much more complex.

The basic details are easier to fill in. Kerbel, 32, grew up in Toronto, the daughter of a lawyer and homemaker, and the middle sibling of three sisters. She never aspired to be an artist. After finishing high school, she studied cultural anthropology at the University of Western Ontario. Post Western, Kerbel headed out to Vancouver where she started a BFA at the University of British Columbia, completing the degree at Emily Carr. She then moved to London to do graduate work at Goldsmiths College, and ended up staying.

She broke London, a place notorious for being difficult to adjust to. She says it helped that she joined Cubitt, a London artist collective that operates a gallery and studios. "London is a really hard place to get acclimatized to because it's a rough place to live," she says. "It's expensive and the quality of life is lower. But then it is also really vibrant. Once you get sorted, get established, you get friends, a studio, a job, then you think 'oh Christ' I don't want to go through that again. Staying here is just practical." Around this time, she married a Canadian art filmmaker ("What's his name?" I ask. "I don't see how that's relevant," she pauses. "Mark Lewis.") Soon the city became her home.

It was in London that she started on Bank Job, her first project out of Goldsmiths when she was out of work and needed a project that would complement her life. "You know when you are in that situation? When you haven't got any money, and you think well then how can you justify hanging out at the studio all day. So what you do has to coincide," she says.

The work she had been doing before was invested in the idea of the detective and the culprit, but on a much more modest scale. Like her project Under The Lapel in which she snipped fabric from men's suits in public places, unbeknownst to them, and then displayed her catch. The idea of the bank robbery gelled.

Reconnaissance at the bank involved taking detailed notes of its daily functioning, its lay out and its surroundings. She counted footsteps, explored side streets, timed security shifts, found hidden cameras, and took hundreds of photographs of the area. When the armoured trucks came, she observed them, and then followed the vehicles on their various routes. Whatever it took to understand even the most arcane detail, she devoted herself to it. She did this for almost two years.

"I was quite interested in how the bystander can gain access to things that are otherwise privileged," she says. Kerbel was unable to open an account there since 15 Lombard Street is a Queen's bank, an upscale institution where interested parties must prove they have #500,000 available to invest before they can become a patron. The only time she was ever queried about her recurring visits was by a security guard who confronted her one day when she was taking notes. She told him she was an architecture student interested in the building and he left her alone.

"I was quite focused on how to make the best plan possible," she says. "I tried to make it as tight as possible. It was really important to me that there was no fiction involved. It was very important that it was plausible. If someone wanted to take the book to the site, and try and enact it, then one could. Whether or not it works? I just did as best I could."

The extent of Kerbel's observations are duly recorded in the 15 Lombard St. book--100 pages of carefully outlined instructions and notes, street routes, time lines, and directions for three getaway vehicles to head for safety in Garrucha, Spain. To rob 15 Lombard St. you'll need a dedicated team of ten and six weeks for preparations. The heist itself, from start to finish, during which phone lines are cut, vans blow up, and the money is stolen, clocks in at 40 minutes.

If Bank Job plays with the notions of crime and deception, Kerbel's next project, Bird Island, confronts the illusion of the real. In 1999, Kerbel was commissioned by the e-2 digital arts organization to create a web project www.e-2.org/acjk.html. Before then, she had spent little time on the internet and was flummoxed by her assignment. "I had no idea what was happening online and I wasn't really interested in it. I found that all the time I spent looking at the internet, I was just looking at holiday places because all I wanted to do was go on holiday," she says. "I became quite interested in the vernacular of the promise and tried to start looking closely at what they were promising and what was possible and what wasn't."

Image: Bird Island brochure

The idealized place she invented, she called Bird Island, a tropical paradise with its own fictional ecology, geography, and ecosystem. She researched soil types, animal species, and weather patterns. She built an aerial photograph of the place--a crescent of white sand and greenery amid a turquoise ocean--from an assortment of other real islands. "I became much more interested in building the island from the ground up," she says. The website launched in 2000, featuring island time-shares. Interested parties are offered their own personal slice of happiness. Query about the availablity of beach front condominiums and you'll receive a friendly email and promises of updates.

Next, she invented a bird perfectly adapted to the island, a species she called Exuma Emerald. In collaboration with bird illustrator Brin Edwards, she developed an ornithological drawing, depicting the imaginary bird to be about the size of a hummingbird--the female plummage green, the male green with a scarlet throat. In this meticulous research, her academic background in cultural anthropology is exposed. Kerbel's obsession with detail is that of a PhD student, sifting for conclusive proof for a hair-brained theory.

Image: Kerbel worked with illustrator Brin Edwards to develop an ornithological drawing of her imaginary bird, the Exuma Emerald.

"I've started to think about the island differently. I don't actually know if it will be an extension of the Bird Island project. I've become quite interested in the South Pacific," she says. A geological formation in the region, called an atoll, has caught her interest--a coral island that consists of a reef surrounding a lagoon. It is a self-sustaining ecosystem, and it can vanish and then re-emerge throughout the ages. "There is that potential to disappear," she says.

Kerbel is considering applying this to her latest project on climate change as part of her current fellowship with the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia and a project plan for a gallery in Norwich. Working with a group of environmental scientists and studying global climate change, she's now in the research and development stage.

"As a viewer, you become involved in whatever fiction she is trying to create. It sparks your imagination," says Elizabeth McIntosh, a member of Painting Disorders, an artist collective that curated her solo show in Toronto last spring. "With the bank robbery you could imagine yourself participating in that. You become an accomplice in the robbery." Accomplice, indeed. The press around the Bank Job in London, Kerbel suspects, alerted bank managers at 15 Lombard to her paper trail for a perfect heist.

"So, would you rob a bank?" I ask after she's finished her tea. "Yeah, sure," she says. She shrugs and gets up, swings her canvas bag over her shoulder and starts for the door. A clean getaway.

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