Reflections on Art and Artists in the Financial District

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As curator for Zone B of Toronto’s 2008 Nuit Blanche, I attempted to integrate a range of artists, cultural producers, actors, ideas, platforms and media to both complicate and facilitate a range of original artworks, all requiring some level of explanation to qualify as subversive, challenging, and aggravating to audiences. I was interested in the audience that may commit to the idea of art as something subversive, challenging and able to embrace a strong dose of nothingness.

I was curious about a recent editorial in _The Globe & Mail_ commenting on how art should function: “art is by its nature subversive, challenging, provoking, aggravating, questioning.” It suggests an illusionary “public” consensus has been struck as to what constitutes important art, that real art is first and foremost transgressive and contentious, not produced by mild-mannered, weekend landscape painters. I would further complicate matters by saying all art is abstract yet also concrete, subsuming the contradiction in terms especially when performative art is presented in Toronto’s business district. _The Globe & Mail_ did not delve that far into the abstract nature of artmaking, its ultimate drive to nothingness.

In Nuit Blanche’s Zone B, I proposed a series of performative events and installations to skewer audience expectations of the function of a new artwork. None of the projects were typically “spectacular” by the standard of Nuit Blanche Paris’ programming, for example. There were no sparkles, bubbles, fireworks, or ecstatic situations in Zone B. Well, maybe one. But my primary intention was to blur the lines between artist/performer/audience member and spectacle and perhaps in so doing provide an openness that might incite public discourse along the lines of, “What the hell is that?”. Many of the artists in Zone B produced works that demanded a close proximity to the chasm of nothingness. An experiential response was a shared goal.

Recurring themes of order and anarchy did emerge. In Zone B both were presented with shifting contextual values and meanings that constitute the nature of politics, power relations, the creative spirit and sex on a day-to-day basis. These were accommodated in the form of elastic, inclusive experiential events and artworks that initially appeared as simple provocations. The jury is still out on whether we succeeded. However, what the artists managed to offer along Zone B’s thin white line between order and anarchy were layers of humour, pathos, biting satire and ethical dilemmas (particularly with one ear attuned to the stock market fiasco) that may resonate in the following descriptions.

Kelly Mark created a different level of intimacy for her audiences than the other artists curated for the Zone. She wrote earlier that she has “an intense preoccupation with the differing shades of pathos and humour found in the repetitive mundane tasks, routines and rituals of everyday life.” Her underground Horroridor at Union Station featured an assemblage of brief, intense video clips from some 200 horror and suspense films and TV programming backed by appropriated soundtrack clips blaring from a massive sound system hidden behind black curtains. Mark unleashed a stream of terrified actors and gory scenes in a corridor of doubly wide large screens with men on one side and women on the other. Regardless of gender, mayhem ruled, loud and clear. It was the ultimate archive of visual and audio representations of horror and stalking suspense and felt simultaneously strange and familiar, even benign, owing to the status quo of horror vacuii in mass media entertainment.

It was, however, the rare project in Zone B that commanded a line-up. What can be said for a collective desire for horrific scenes of the cruel, sadistic, cutting of flesh and body parts, the nauseating and endless screams of victims? It’s like a cleansing of the mind’s desire reflex. One doesn’t waste more time on the critical and very complicated act of destroying. Is there some level of catharsis, both in the intense representation of ripped flesh and maniacal screams and the stepping away from the carnage? I think these questions introduce another level of inquiry to the enacting of repetitive, commonplace activities that are consistently depicted in Mark’s art-making.

Noam Gonick’s large-scale film-to-DVD projection, _Commerce Court_, at CIBC Commerce Court on King Street West was the most timely bit of satire and sarcasm. The 9-minute DVD loop was a presage to the disgraceful implosion and downfall of national and global stock markets. A 6-metre tall man in suit and tie addressed the audience as a preppy stockbroker, alternating spoken lines about the strength and confidence in the stock market juxtaposed with extreme delirium as the markets crash. The wise and lofty money manager became a convincing hysteric within seconds. The transitions were shockingly believable. Psychic distress is accompanied by the picture routinely breaking into jagged edges, like a million champagne glasses smashing. How prescient of Gonick to offer Nuit Blanche a most potent soothsayer for and of the business district.

Marisela La Grave’s performance artwork, _Business Class_ extends the delirium of the business district’s downwardly mobile characters in the most infectious, disturbing way possible. They become victims. The Business Class is being inexplicably deported with baggage in tow. They and their luggage are inspected by customs Gestapo who operate while a media shower of real time recorded and pre-recorded voices are amplified for the audience standing inside and outside the chain-link fence of the deserted parking lot.

I wrote to Marisela the next day: “Your _Business Class_ scene was dark and dirty and secretive and real. Your lens would follow Chris [the Commander] and a subject eating apples, together, seemingly having some form of intimate discussion but it appeared increasingly disturbing…. No one is innocent, anyone can be hired as interrogator, we will all fill Chris’s prototype controller/comptroller boots some day and not only for the camera. Not that the other interrogators on your team weren’t compelling. They were. But your roving camera technique, very Costa-Gavras, very much a roving eye viewpoint came across as the icy surveillance camera from a black and white and grey underworld that suggests a reportage of very casual and accepted security measures and yet intimate fear. We will get used to it.”

The “still life” photographs of Ricardo Okaranza are haunting and unsettling in a different manner. His urban subjects are captured under cover of darkness to reveal the invisible or inconsequential parts of the built environment—leftover green spaces, the elaborate but abandoned public gardens, backlots and graffiti tainted surfaces, and recurrent vacant spaces. Each subject is given new expressive values. There are traces of human presence and nature but no human forms, only the transience of life. He has always been very specific about his scale of representation: a very intimate scale of reproduction on archival paper.

For Okaranza’s _Toronto Nocturnes I_, we sought an exhibition space in the lobby of Mies van der Rohe’s TD Centre Plaza: intimate and starkly cold. But it was not to be. Property managers Cadillac Fairview were not interested in the thirsty throngs of Nuit Blanche. City officials at Nuit Blanche however demanded a larger, more unusual space and scale for Okaranza’s presentation. Brookfield Place provided a setting for a 10’ x 15’ cube of metal scaffolding to support four super-sized, backlit images chosen by Okaranza.

Unfortunately, a Toronto printing company totally fucked up and printed a mirror image of sections of the photograph as a two-foot border around each billboard image. Spacey looking but not the intention of Okaranza. The photos are late night back alley and garden settings, “Toronto without Torontonians” and, more significantly, a reinterpretation of the urban Toronto landscape to the breaking point of identification. The most striking photo depicts a dusty, ill-kept residential alley. Ramshackle garages and odd bits of the dirt road alley challenge the remaining tufts of grass and weeds. In the distance is a shape-shifting tower, at once both minaret and iconic communications needle. Torontonians commented on the CN Tower. Visitors to the city commented on the presumed “side street in Kabul.”

Toronto artist and graphic designer, Barr Gilmore produced a very different level of engagement in the form of a flashing advertising sign installed behind the old Court House on Adelaide East, now a restaurant. His brightly lit sign spelt out “HONEST” in more than one hundred and sixty intense light bulbs encased in a custom bi-coloured sheet metal case. Gilmore’s _Benefit of the Doubt_ was a meditation on a much-vaunted communal and personal ideal inspired by “Honest Ed” Mirvish, the late Toronto dry goods merchant and performing arts impresario. “HONEST” is a reminder of one man’s legendary neighbourhood-based commercial ethics and integrity from the Golden Era, the Toronto post-war boom years. Mirvish helped develop a neighbourhood, integrating a formerly salt-of-the-earth ethnic Bloor West Street into a larger, WASP-owned downtown business district.

“HONEST” is also a sentimental reminder to the often politically motivated Christian ideals represented by the nearby St. Michael’s Anglican Church around whose foundations are the skeletons of hundreds of poor cholera victims buried in an unmarked, mass grave from the 1840s. The most immediate site, that of the sign itself, represents one of the most abstract, highly moral dilemmas of the 20th and 21st centuries, that of capital punishment. Gilmore chose the location of the last public hanging in Toronto for “HONEST.”

Classic Western singer and Calgary performance artist, Matt Masters, created the production of a multimedia Western cabaret musical called _Don Coyote_ for St. Michael’s Church. The script is loosely based on Cervantes’ _Don Quixote_, whose protagonist and sidekick Sancho Panza travel throughout Spain addressing issues of personal and social freedom, reality and fiction, and the related responsibilities of honour and love. _Don Coyote_ is a 21st-century resident of southern Alberta who goes crazy and becomes a cowboy troubadour, roaming rural Alberta singing songs, righting wrongs, and essentially running a course that parallels the trials and tribulations of Don Quixote. Masters played six half-hour sets as the protagonist Don Coyote. A superb Western backup band was incorporated, and Calgary artist Terrance Houle played a feisty Sancho and provided original video projections on a large screen between the simple stage and the church altar.

In a seemingly parallel Baroque universe in the garden adjoining the church, Montreal-based (Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard) presented a new processional performance entitled _Quixotic_ and later known as _Maldoror_. _Maldoror_ brought audiences face-to-face with a baroque, operatic and dark processional whose focal point was a five-metre tall mobile, black funereal Victorian hoop dress. Designed by famed set decorator and costumer Eric Barbeau and co-directed by’s Aaron Pollard and Calgary performance creator Eric Moschopedis, the heavily camouflaged mixed-media corset became a giant black cone-shaped stage of death and resurrection with black plastic and spray painted plastic bottles dangling from its surface. This was the moving stage out of which Stevie Lawson emerged to interpret and lip-synch to a grand aria recorded by Maria Callas. The gigantic Victorian mourning dress as pushed by a team of Goths who animated its winged appendages and dramatic orifices, slowly criss-crossed the park six times throughout the evening. On each occasion _Maldoror_ came to rest in front of the park’s 19th-century bandstand and bronze bust of an early human rights crusader. A chillingly dynamic Lawson was costumed in a bodysuit of dried leaves and twigs, his bare torso, neck and head painted a luminous blend of red and white.

Too bad _Maldoror_ did not dramatically link up with _Don Coyote_. Two ships passed in the night and they could have ignited a firestorm of breathtaking proportions in the aisle of the church. Imagine _Don Coyote_ and _Maldoror_ walking hand-in-hand in and out of the church doors. The church’s organist would have had reason to play selections from _Oklahoma!_ I regret the misinterpretation of _Maldoror_ in particular. However, both productions succeeded on their own queerly spectacular stages, reflecting on morality, the Church and the Garden of Eden. Each used music to examine our knowledge of the quest for human integrity and courage, and suggested that the power of music can elicit social change and evoke powerful memories of lost souls.

Cape Dorset-based Shuvinai Ashoona and Pilot Butte artist John Noestheden collaborated on a powerful graphic drawing measuring 5 x 43 metres and entitled _Earth and Sky_. It was dramatically positioned horizontally like a filament over an enclosed Bay St. pedestrian underpass. The graphic was an engaging line drawing made more complex by issues of scale, curvalinear contour lines, saturated colours, lighting and the close proximity of the filament itself to the viewer. Viewers traversed the length of the drawing or lay down beneath it to comprehend its meaning. It is the first contemporary art collaboration between an Inuit and non-Inuit artist, bringing a peculiar perspectival dimension to the immense, imaginative sky and groundscapes that both artists experience above the 49th parallel.

Most of the projects in Zone B became durational art spectacles that tested the patience of artist and audiences alike. Rita McKeough’s intense, oil industry-conscious performance event, _Alternator_, was presented in a deserted low-rise parkade near Union Station. The long ramp walk up to her installation gave audiences a moment to reflect on automobiles, space and the incessant demands for energy. Strewn across fifteen parking stalls were miniature oil wells interconnected by black electrical cords—pipelines—leading to the remnants of a makeshift automobile of sedan seating and a steering wheel mechanism. The motorized, scale model wells symbolically pumped oil and the base of each well was mired in dark viscous matter, as if the wells were overflowing. The sludge sat on the surface of the parking lot, not able to seep into the ground. McKeough, decked out in rigger’s overalls and oil field helmet, actively attended to her oil field, operating from the steering wheel and car seat, and invited viewers to join in and turn the wheel until exhausted. The more McKeough and viewers symbolically turned the manual steering wheel, the more oil was pumped.

It may be a common leap of the imagination to read this as an unstable field of play, one that is easily overpowered by the greedy. And the possibilities for considering oil in the imagination easily inter-resonate. Oil sludge as the base element for garish make-up, modernist plastic molded chairs, Versace sunglasses, hospital syringes and oil’s invasion of the earth’s water table are all viable associations. McKeough’s performance is a near endless comment on a resource-extracting enterprise that has yet to address the repressed, co-opted and betrayed. Perhaps the oil rigger overalls she wore become the final salute to the working class man and woman who directly feel the environmental and economic fallout from a temporary event that is an oil boom and bust period.

It’s hard to imagine a spectacle more awesome and strangely dead than what Chaos Computer Club achieved at City Hall. Entitled _Stereoscope or Blinkenlights_, the CCC turned the curvilinear City Hall windows into a huge Pong game board. Early evening electronic music in Nathan Phillips Square accompanied programmed symbols and patterns of light and dark windows. But where was the subterfuge in the pixilated moving images? There was no opposition, nothing to hate. That’s one problem with the Nuit Blanche spectacles after the rather negligible artist fees and production budgets for the majority of the original works. They feel sanitized and rendered like a dry biscuit. They turn into black holes that can easily elicit a sense of deflation if you’re not drunk.

A young artist from Victoria, Larry McDowell presented an endurance performance art installation called _Corvidae Ibidem_ in an intimate green space called Berzcy Park. McDowell was blindfolded in a starkly lit outdoor space open to passersby. McDowell sat barefoot in a chair and dressed in black, a body-as-ambient-element wedged in the apex of two walls running at right angles to one another, the white floor yet another level of austerity. He sat motionless, positioned in the corner of his space among eccentric wall-mounted cabinets and the diagonal placement of a heavy link chain from his chair into the fractured white cube gallery. McDowell combined references of a solitary but powerful monk and a Rasputin-like heretic in an intriguing and surrealist nightmare through which the audience is obliged to pass, unable to avoid physical contact. His piece became a demand on the audience to resist the demands for interpretation, defeating the impulse to accept the black narcissist.

Last but not least, the Montreal-based Thierry Marceau produced _The Greatest Falls_, a highly personal ensemble performance commenting on the mass media’s preoccupation with the illusion of power in a singular body and voice. A crafty, full wall video projection and parking lot sound installation by Marceau was one of the most absurd and exhausting performances of the evening. Marceau was projected as a distance tightrope walker over the roaring Niagara Falls. Despite the attention of three Royal Canadian Mounties in latex uniforms in the parking lot, Marceau’s projected self falls from grace, off the tightrope into a fire ball only to be questionably saved by a modified Superman hero (Marceau), one that becomes a debilitated Clark Kent (Christopher Reeves) in a wheelchair, effectively dividing and moving audiences to a level of coy, guarded laughter and a stunned silence.

All of the proposed works in Zone B were, in retrospect, practical and uncomplicated but substantial in physical scale or in their conceptual scope, allowing multiple access points for audiences. Thank God for the scattering of viewers instead of the crush of drunken revelers. The audience consumed all that was odd and delightful in the panorama of nothingness and all that was transgressive and contentious.

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