Will the mall survive COVID? Whatever happens, these artists want to capture them before they're gone
From dead mall photography to mallsoft, why do malls make so many of us instantly nostalgic?
Ryan Taylor can't explain why he loves malls, but he knows he misses the ones he grew up with — places like Highfield Square and the Crystal Palace indoor amusement park, two long-gone Moncton-area spots where he worked back in high school. Taylor, 27, is a realtor now, but in the summer, he picked up his first film camera, and the hobby is leading him back through the concrete psychogeography of his youth.
Recently, he's loved nothing more than taking pictures of dead malls. They don't have to be dead-dead — bankrupt, derelict, marked for demolition. The term's more of an aesthetic catch-all when he uses it. Search the Dead Malls subreddit (of which Taylor's well familiar), and you'll find images that could be everywhere and nowhere, though likely some burg in North America: vacant food courts trimmed with neon, empty marble corridors lined with shuttered Foot Lockers. They're scenes that would have felt unimaginably apocalyptic 30 years ago. In the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, they perhaps read as moralistic — a story of late-capitalist excess told through frozen escalators and abandoned customer service desks. In the COVID era, they still trigger all those ideas, but right this second — depending on the severity of your local lockdown measures — every mall is a dead mall. Even in news photos, images of empty stores can read as purgatory with a parking lot — a waiting room between this and whatever virus-impacted reality comes next. Fittingly, a lot of this stuff gets filed under the hashtag "liminal spaces." (That particular subreddit has 117,000 followers.)
In Taylor's case, he photographs dead malls because he's interested in bottling the past. "I'm looking for that 1970s-to-early-2000s kind of time capsule stuff," he says, inadvertently putting a pretty accurate timestamp on the shopping mall's heyday. And when another Moncton Reddit user posted vintage pictures of his teenage haunts, he began mapping the malls of New Brunswick. Nostalgia, plus a pinch of regret, prompted him to pick up a camera.
"I went looking for stuff that was still here," he says, and he wishes he'd taken similar souvenirs of his favourite places before they vanished. Once he's captured all the malls in his home province, he plans to keep exploring the rest of the country, and he wants to get it all on film fast. The retail sector's been transformed by COVID, and though many of the spots on his shot list are still technically operating, he suspects they won't survive much longer.
"The pandemic absolutely lit a fire under me," he says. "All I know is that I feel like I have to take these photos while I still can."
The long, slow death of the shopping mall?
Taylor may be right, but if COVID does wind up killing the mall, it's only hastened the inevitable. They're already accepted as modern relics, an essential detail in any '80s period piece (see Stranger Things, Wonder Woman 1984, Valley Girl). And they are, after all, a 20th century invention — an enclosed public square, of sorts, "anchored" by department stores and connected by a network of smaller shops. A climate-controlled world of convenience, one that's increasingly threatened by much more convenient options: online shopping, for instance, and the rise of big-box retailers.
By the end of next year, the surviving American malls could look completely different. One real-estate services firm predicts more than half of the big department store tenants will have disappeared by then. It would be a potentially fatal blow to the malls that house them, although (dark twist) there's talk of Amazon moving fulfilment centres into vacated Sears and JC Penney locations. (Those two retailers declared bankruptcy in early 2020.)
But that's a detail from America's dead-mall history. The Canadian situation has its own peculiarities, though our online-shopping habits have been boosted in lockdown, too. (According to Statistics Canada, e-commerce has never been more popular; in May, online sales had more than doubled from the previous year.)
The list of COVID casualties is growing. Chains forged in the memories of millennial shoppers have filed for creditor protection: Le Château, Aldo Group — among many more. And while the mall is still very much with us, its status as a neighbourhood hangout was fading as far back as the '90s, the era when "power centres" took hold. Many of Canada's smaller-scale shopping centres began to fade as their anchor stores relocated to these new open-air mazes of box stores and parking lots. The malls were left to languish. Some were marked for redevelopment. In one hilarious (and short-lived example), a dead mall was temporarily re-purposed as a zombie obstacle course. Others persist in a sort of respectable limbo, which was the state of Toronto's Galleria Mall when Shari Kasman first visited.
'It's such a time capsule'
In 2008, Kasman moved to the Bloor and Lansdowne neighbourhood, and despite a lifetime in Toronto (Yorkdale, she says, was the mall of her youth), the Galleria was a revelation. "I was just fascinated by it. It's such a time capsule," she says.
Built in 1972, the interior was largely unchanged, and while there were arguably certain details about the Galleria that made it bizarrely distinct — where else could you see a snake show at Christmas? — there was something destabilizing about the place. Even on a first visit, it was familiar. The dim lighting, the golden tiles, the rows of grubby mechanical kiddie rides and candy machines: you could be anywhere, in any mall, in a not-so-distant past.
Kasman, 42, has published two books about the Galleria. The first, 2018's Galleria: The Mall That Time Forgot, sold its entire initial run. And the mall fuelled a handful of other creative projects for her: postcards, a photo exhibition, public tours of the parking lot, a series of Pantone swatches (or Malltone swatches) inspired by the soupy interior colour scheme. The books heavily feature Kasman's photos of the place, images she captured between 2013-'14. "The height of my obsession," she laughs.
"It kind of occurred to me that this place isn't going to be here forever," she says, explaining why she spent so long documenting it. "It served its purpose and it's important, but also, it was kind of clear that it wouldn't be around for years and years."
And indeed, the area is being redeveloped right now as part of a project that will transform the corner into a mixed-use complex called Galleria on the Park. A few of the mall's old tenants are still operating on the site, but demolition of the main building began earlier this year.
"A lot of people, they'd say to me, 'The Galleria Mall is just like whatever mall, in whatever town.' I think a lot of people have felt connected to the place because it's not just singular to Toronto," says Kasman. Their interest is rooted in a shared nostalgia — but nostalgia for what exactly, beyond breathing recycled air and collecting Club Z points?
Can you miss a place you've never been?
Whatever the answer, there's an entire musical genre that strives to capture this strange, unplaceable feeling. Call it mallsoft or mallwave. The sound goes beyond an easy-listening soundtrack, using reverb to place the listener in the mall itself. Think an old pop song swaddled in the white noise of chatty shoppers, or echoing in a two-storey food court — the sound of a million half-remembered details, especially if you pre-date Gen Z.
When Douglas Moffat first heard about it, he found the whole concept incredible. His own artwork, he says, connects sound with the urban environments we build. Here was a genre that used music to transport you to a specific physical place. And the effect was so visceral you could practically smell the Cinnabon.
Last year, Moffat, 46, presented an exhibition on mallsoft's origins at Dazibao in Montreal, a project that put him in contact with genre artists around the world. At one point in show's central video essay, he shares an email from one of those musicians. "Every year, more and more malls become lost to time, and I think that's a major driving factor in the rise of the genre," it reads.
A sense of loss motivated a lot of the artists, Moffat says. "They were never hyper-specific," he explains. The precise thing they missed about malls was hard to pin down. "But it was quickly clear that [malls] were often associated with childhood memory."
But here's the odd thing. Those memories didn't necessarily happen in malls. A lot of these artists had never loitered by a fountain or watched a friend swipe a scrunchie from Claire's. A frothy Orange Julius had never passed their lips.
"There's this sort of shorthand that mallsoft is this nostalgic experience of going to the mall, but often I was discovering that people were kind of having a nostalgia for experiences they hadn't had, or that they imagined," says Moffat.
He can argue for why the sound itself might suggest feelings of nostalgia. Reverb, as a sonic aesthetic, is a bit reminiscent of how we already think of memory. It's sound that bounces back at you, all faded and blurry — just like the images and moments we file in our minds. "That doesn't get you to the mall, necessarily," he says. But he does find something poignant in the premise: music that replicates not just the feeling of nostalgia, but the feeling of a living and breathing space — one typically filled with other people.
Don't wanna be mall by myself anymore
It's the emptiness of dead mall imagery that arguably makes us linger. There's nothing especially remarkable about any of these places — terrazzo floors, potted plants, vaulted skylights, repeated for infinity. They're only remarkable when they're not as they should be. And they should be absolutely teeming with shoppers.
I was discovering that people were kind of having a nostalgia for experiences they hadn't had, or that they imagined.- Douglas Moffat, artist
In September, Nylon magazine ran a conversation between Toronto-based musician Andy Shauf and Nicholas Braun (a superfan of the singer-songwriter who happens to star in HBO's Succession). Shauf said he'd been listening to a lot of mallsoft during lockdown, a throwaway comment that makes a lot of sense given the times. When the actual mall is off limits, the genre's a bit like an audio field trip. But it also taps into a sense of loss, a loss of community, that's only grown more poignant this year.
Pre-pandemic, that grief might have struck an echoey chord with listeners who felt a little too extremely online. There's this idea in mallsoft, says Moffat, that the mall was a place where you'd be listening with other people. That's part of the whole imaginary world the music is building — a pre-digital reality that might seem a little less isolated than the present moment. "The loss of public listening was something that was kind of a seed, I like to think, in mallsoft," he says. "And that's been a real thing that's been obviously difficult in the last few months."
Kasman says her days of photographing malls are behind her, and not just because they're closed in Toronto. But when she was documenting the Galleria, she says she was always aware of what the place meant to the people in the neighbourhood.
"I do think malls serve a purpose," says Kasman. "It's a community centre to a certain extent."
"I'm still definitely interested in malls," she says, but for all her love of time-capsule kitsch, that's not what holds her attention. "I'm interested in people, and I'm interested in knowing how people spend their time."
"It's interesting to see why a person goes to a mall. What are they doing there?"
What will they be doing there post-pandemic? Like the future of the mall, that's all still TBD.