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Co-directors November Paynter and Rachel Hilton sit on Andrea Angelidakis's 'DEMOS - A Reconstruction', 2018, at the MOCA in Toronto on Feb. 21, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Since it opened last fall in a repurposed aluminum factory in Toronto’s gritty Junction neighbourhood, the Museum of Contemporary Art has welcomed visitors with a crowd-pleasing installation of foam cuboids scattered around its lobby. With vinyl coverings that mimic a global array of traditional textiles, the lightweight shapes created by artist Andreas Angelidakis invite visitors to rearrange them, creating seating, walls or towers at will. Almost six months into the life of the new MOCA, that installation is as popular as ever, whether it’s for grownup meetings or toddler play. Meanwhile, the institution itself is still trying to figure out if a museum is a place to contemplate art or just rearrange furniture.

MOCA has an unusual history and a checkered one, marked by an ever-expanding mandate, an ambitious real estate play and a revolving door of leaders. It’s a tale of soaring ambitions that the institution has yet to fulfill.

It began life as a small civic gallery, the Art Gallery of North York, housed in the lobby of the white-elephant performing arts centre at Yonge and Sheppard. After that suburb amalgamated with the City of Toronto, the gallery reincarnated itself as the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art but handed its collection of 400 works, mainly paintings by prominent Canadian artists of the postwar generation, back to the city. It eventually resettled on Queen Street West in 2005 and there, under the direction of David Liss, became an exciting venue for temporary shows of work by newer Canadian artists.

Ezra James-Malkin, two, runs through Andrea Angelidakis' 'DEMOS - A Reconstruction', 2018, at the MOCA in Toronto on Feb. 21, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

When the Queen Street building, a former textile factory, was sold in 2012 to make way for the inevitable condos, the MOCCA board launched yet larger plans. They included the Tower Automotive Building, a former aluminum and auto-parts factory perched above railway tracks in the west end, a final separation from the city and a name change that would reflect a more international approach. MOCCA lost a C and “MOCA – Toronto, Canada” – to give the place its full think-global-act-local title – was born.

Except, of course, it wasn’t that simple. Predictably, the move to Sterling Road took much longer than planned and changes at the top further complicated matters. While Liss, the front man on Queen Street, settled back into a curatorial role, a high-profile hire for a new chief executive – Montreal curator Chantal Pontbriand – had not lasted a year in 2015-16. The opening went ahead last September, more than a year behind schedule, but Pontbriand’s replacement, Heidi Reitmaier, also left quickly, moving to a job at the Art Gallery of Ontario in January. Today, November Paynter, who was in charge of programs at MOCA, and Rachel Hilton, who was directing communications and visitor engagement, oversee the new museum as artistic director and managing director, respectively.

What they oversee is an evolving question: MOCA is on a quest to figure out what a museum is and what it should do. Paynter says the institution, which currently has no permanent collection and no acquisition budget, should be more experimental and multidisciplinary than its closest peer, the Power Plant gallery at Harbourfront, which is also dedicated to mounting temporary shows of new international and Canadian art. Paynter points to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where programming includes mindfulness sessions and a study hall for local students, or the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which runs an art-and-technology incubator, as institutions offering the kind of community-engaged programming that interests MOCA.

People lounge in Andrea Angelidakis's 'DEMOS - A Reconstruction', 2018, at the MOCA in Toronto on Feb. 21, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

“For me, it’s people feeling that it’s part of their everyday experience,” she said, adding “How do you put MOCA on a platform where people understand what a museum is, yet come to visit and are surprised?”

This means that MOCA is an institution that it is literally querying the utility of art. The tower’s principal tenant, it occupies five of the building’s 10 floors, and on the fourth floor, its Art in Use gallery asks “How can art and museums be useful in today’s communities?” Current displays in that space include a light-therapy room by Slovenian artist Apolonija Sustersic, in which visitors can expose themselves to intense whiteness while reading essays on happiness, and a selection of modular metal frames and felt pads by Canadian artist and designer Adrian Blackwell, which can also be rearranged for meeting or lingering.

It’s dubious intellectual territory; after all, the world of craft is filled with things that are both artistic and useful. The most obvious utility for MOCA itself is as a cultural anchor for a growing neighbourhood: Its tower is surrounded by empty lots where future residential and commercial development is planned. Fortunately, Toronto is intrigued by the idea of a new hub in the Junction: In less than six months, 30,000 people have visited the site, already matching the Queen Street venue’s annual numbers, and another 10,000 showed up for citywide open-house Doors Open last May, just to get a look inside what was then an empty building. Paynter reports that every Saturday and every Sunday several hundred people visit, and numbers should continue to grow since the café, run by the Forno Cultura bakery, opened in January. Meanwhile, the building is kept humming on a daily basis by the presence of artists: MOCA rents out studios for residencies to both the Ontario Science Centre and Akin Collective, a group that provides affordable working space for artists.

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Basma Alsharif's 'A Philistine', 2018 at the MOCA in Toronto on Feb. 21, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

But all this activity will be for naught if there is no defining core of exhibitions, and in that area MOCA is still seeking a self. Its opening group show of Canadian and international artists received mixed reviews from the artistic community; the winter exhibitions, which opened in mid-February, pair an emerging international talent, Basma Alsharif, with the veteran French filmmaker Chantal Akerman, but don’t give much context for either artist’s work.

Alsharif is a Cairo-based artist of Palestinian extraction whose art speaks to her peripatetic Middle Eastern identity. In living-room settings established with furniture and plants, she invites the viewer to consider both personal and historical imagery displayed in framed photos and on videos. It’s detailed work that might be evocative in a setting that encouraged the viewer to ponder it, but on MOCA’s third floor, three of the four works on display are so intertwined it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins. One piece includes a novella in English and Arabic, but the visitor who might like to take a seat and read it is going to have difficulty concentrating because of the sound from a nearby video.

Alsharif’s art shares concerns with Akerman, a renowned experimental feminist filmmaker who died in 2015 – they both consider the intersection of the personal and the geopolitical – and the main Akerman piece, NOW from 2015, is also placed in a generic Middle Eastern setting.

Chantal Akerman's 'In the Mirror' at the MOCA in Toronto on Feb. 21, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

It’s a tough work, loud and unforgiving, and perhaps when TIFF programmer Andréa Picard, who curated the Akerman show, organizes a fuller retrospective at the Bell Lightbox next fall, viewers will be able to screen the precedents that are missing here. At MOCA, NOW is only paired with In the Mirror, from 2007. In that piece, Akerman took an episode from one of her earlier films – a young woman dressed only in underpants stands in front of a mirror and critiques her own body – and mounted it as a life-size gallery video. It’s a clever repurposing that immediately asks the viewer to consider her – or his – relationship to the undressed woman, whether as witness, voyeur or participant.

There, Akerman’s intentions are quietly and effectively political. NOW, meanwhile, reads as an apocalyptic cri de coeur from an artist in late life: The aggressively immersive work features five video screens that bounce the viewer along a desert road while a layered soundscape plays a babble of languages as well as explosions and gun shots. In NOW, the contemporary world is hurtling through violence. At the very back of these screens, down on the floor where the casual viewer may not even notice them, there are two small plastic aquariums, little back-lit boxes where colourful plastic fish swim by.

In Akerman’s apocalyptic scheme, the role of beauty and nature has been reduced to a cheap commercial toy. And at the busy new MOCA, it often feels as though the act of contemplation could only be an ironic joke.

Work by Basma Alsharif and Chantal Akerman is showing at MOCA until April 14.