Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nuit Blanche: Alight, but for how Long? at

Also on the Nuit Blanche front (as per the last few posts!) today published my Q&A with one of Nuit Blanche's big honchos: Julian Sleath, programming manager of special events with the City of Toronto.

The Q&A (condensed from a 15 minute phone conversation) looks at the difficult (to many observers) fiscal and political context Nuit Blanche may be taking place in this year. Here's an excerpt:

Leah Sandals: Given the $500 million-plus that the City of Toronto is looking to trim from its budget this year, the 10% reduction in spending demanded of all city departments, and the many recent recommendations to cut funds for city-owned museums and other municipal cultural programs, it’s a tense time for many in Toronto’s arts community. What are the challenges of mounting Nuit Blanche in this type of fiscal and political environment?

Julian Sleath: Challenges? We probably don’t really know, because we’re not party to those discussions so far. We as a team have, increasingly, a 24-month planning cycle. So we’ve hired next year’s curators already. We’ve had the commitment of a title sponsor from Scotiabank till 2014. And the Special Events team are working on that basis, that we’re here to stay. At this point, I’m actually seeking proposals for 2013.

LS: Yet because you work so far ahead, you and your team must have projected the possible impacts of our city’s deficit, and efforts to eliminate it. How have you dealt with that long-term factor?

JS: Well, in our department as a whole, we’re subject to the standard and ongoing operating efficiencies. Aside from the Core Service Review, every department of the City of Toronto is under an annual challenge to decrease its expenditure by an amount set each year by the city manager. And we continue to do that, in no small part due to those commercial and branding sponsorships that we obtain. We’re extremely fortunate that we have a number of partnerships in the form of commercial sponsorship that help us sustain the program and help us look forward to a long-term future.

Sponsorship and other outside funds are providing us with 73 percent of our funding this year. This includes Scotiabank, GMC Chevy and Timothy’s Coffee, as well as the various tourism-related grants we get through the Ministry of Ontario’s Celebrate Ontario program. In alternate years, we usually get money from the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund. We also get a significant grant from Tourism Toronto each year.

To read on for the rest, where Sleath discusses what more permanent arts institutions could learn from Nuit Blanche (I have to say I agree with him!) read on at Also, just wanted to note I spoke with Sleath by phone on Monday, and I appreciate him taking the time to chat at such a crazy time for the festival.

(Image of revellers near Toronto City Hall during the 2009 Nuit Blanche, courtesy the City of Toronto and via

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Flightpath: A Nuit Blanche Q&A with Usman Haque & Natalie Jeremijenko

Given the budgetary struggles at Toronto's City Hall this week, voters across the political spectrum are likely wishing some councillors would take a flying leap.

Well, a Nuit Blanche artwork being built just outside council chambers is inviting all Hogtown residents - elected or otherwise - to do just that. In Flightpath, residents will be able to soar across Nathan Phillips Square on cables some four storeys tall. On Tuesday, London architect/artist Usman Haque and New York engineer/artist Natalie Jeremijenko talked to me about this eccentric solution to deadlocked urban politics as they were setting up on the Square. The resulting condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q Flightpath promises to help Torontonians "reimagine the city." But to a lot of folks, it might just look like a bunch of zip lines and scaffolding. Which is it?

Usman: The point of this project is to explore ideas of mobility around the city.

Natalie: Yes, there's a big idea here about how we design our cities. Are they for efficiency? Are they for pleasure and wonder and play? There's a claim here that there is a place for playful reimagining - for pleasure-driven, wonderdriven engagement with possibilities for the future.

Usman: And the birds of Nathan Phillips Square were a very direct inspiration. As human beings, we experience the city in straight lines, you know? You walk down the street and go up an elevator, then you go across a floor and down another staircase. In Flightpath the city can be experienced in a completely different way.

Q Why debut Flightpath in Toronto? Did this "reimagining of mobility" result from a bad experience on the TTC or the Don Valley Parkway, perhaps?

Usman: Well, I think Toronto has a history of being creative or open toward reimagining the city from the perspective of the environment - often in a way that other metropolises are a little more reluctant to. And this project looks partly at emission-less transportation.

Natalie: It's absolutely the case that Toronto is an intellectual leader in green technology. There's the Carbon Zero initiative here, there's the sustainable buildings festival. When there were 20 food coops in New York City, there were 2,000 in Toronto. There's an urgency and openness here to meeting environmental challenges.

For more, I urge you to take a look at the Arts & Life section of today's National Post, which has some fun pictures of Haque and Jeremijenko setting up. There's a more disjointed version online as well, but given the layout it may be a bit harder to understand. You can find that here.

Also, I was really pleased to learn there will be a group sound-and-light piece happening as part of Flightpath. (It's discussed later in the interview.) Haque has done some pretty cool projects in that vein before, where a light projection is controlled by the public's voices. I'm embedding a couple of examples below. The first is from Yorkminster Cathedral in 2007 and the second from Santa Monica beach in 2008.

Primal Source (video documentation) from haque d+r on Vimeo.

Cool, eh? I'm looking forward to seeing this work on Saturday night.

(Image of Usman Haque testing out one of the Flightpath harnesses and wings by Aaron Lynett for the National Post)

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Art Criticism in a Truck! All Night! Nuit Blanche!

Art Criticism in a truck, people! This is what the Toronto Alliance of Art Critics is bringing you this Saturday (aka Nuit Blanche). It's all thanks to Leitmotif, an exhibition-in-trucks organized by curator Stuart Keeler and the Parkdale BIA. You'll be able to find the truck-o'-discourse in the parking lot of the Gladstone Cafe, 1181 Queen St W, ie. in the parking lot across the street from the Gladstone Hotel.

Here's the tentative critics schedule I've got - subject to change (+ indicates may be present intermittently):

7pm - 10 pm
Leah Sandals
John Bentley Mays
+ Otino Corsano
+ Murray Whyte

10pm - 1 am
Elena Potter
Katherine Dennis
+ David Jager

1 am - 4 am
Sky Gooden
Fran Schechter
+ Mary McDonald

4 am - 7 am
David Jager
Amish Morrell
+ Murray Whyte

I was on the 4-7am shift for the all-night project TAAC did last year, and I enjoyed the conversations had about art and criticism. I encourage anyone and everyone to drop by this Saturday for opinions and discussion on art and writing about art. Also feel free to bring artwork if you'd like us to discuss it in situ. Time limits may apply, but it would be great to meet folks face to face for whatever we can squeeze in. Questions or feedback about the way we practice (sometimes not so well in my personal case, see previous post) are also welcome.

For more information visit the Leitmotif Facebook page or the Leitmotif Nuit Blanche page and look for Leitmotif maps on the night of Nuit in Parkdale.

(Concept image via Leitmotif's Facebook page)

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Friday, September 23, 2011

CORRECTION Three Painting-Show Reviews: Mark Crofton Bell @ General Hardware, Rajni Perera @ 129 Ossington, Dil Hildebrand @ YYZ

CORRECTION - Sunday September 25, 2011 - As a reader helpfully pointed out in the comments below, there is an error in this At the Galleries column. The original text states incorrectly that Winnie Truong was the winner of the 2010 OCADU Drawing & Painting Medal. In 2010, Truong actually won the W.O. Forsythe Award from OCADU, and the correct winner of the 2010 OCADU Drawing & Painting Medal was Vanessa Maltese. I very much regret the error, and any confusion it may have caused. My editors at the National Post have been notified in order that a correction be run there as well. Again, my apologies for this inaccurate statement.

Sooooo many painting shows going on in Toronto right now! For my lastest National Post gallery column, up now at Posted Toronto and out in tomorrow's print edition, I look at three such shows I recently enjoyed: Mark Crofton Bell at General Hardware, Rajni Perera at 129 Ossington and Dil Hildebrand at YYZ. An excerpt:

Mark Crofton Bell at General Hardware Contemporary
1520 Queen St. W., to Oct. 8
The luminescent quality of Mark Crofton Bell’s oil paintings — and the dreamy, slightly surreal scenes they render — made Peter Doig’s internationally famed canvases an inescapable reference point for me while visiting Bell’s exhibition at General Hardware. Nonetheless, there is much to be enjoyed in Bell’s paintings in their own right. The thin layers of oil paint that he uses to build up each image convey a simultaneous sense of lightness and depth, a delightful combination that keeps you looking. Yet that considerable visual pleasure often gives way to a scene that feels slightly off — a hallway crowded with dogs, say, or a sky dark with swarming birds. This more sinister underpinning to Bell’s images is elucidated in an exhibition essay by Shannon Anderson, which explains that a colourful image of balloons on water is based on the story of a drowning victim, and that a puff of cloud above a lake, classic wilderness-scene material, at first glance, is based on a photograph of a North Korean explosion. Once I became aware of such sources, a tension was set up in myself between wanting to look longer, and wanting look away — particularly when it came to the cell-like images in the gallery’s basement. That dynamic was reinforced on the second floor in an assortment of Bell’s delicate watercolours, which are often more explicitly drawn from news photos of riots and other disturbing incidents. Whatever your take on Bell’s possible influences, his mix of wondrous technique and worrying content is a hard one to forget.

For the other reviews, plus a couple of other recommendations, read on at Posted Toronto.

Also, I came across a link recently that will be of interest to many who do arts reviewing -- it's by a PhD student studying the concept of "quality" in the arts and who's been researching how literary critics evaluate books differently in writing and in spoken word. The article, "Morals and Mean Reviews," by Phillipa Chong, is up at the Toronto Review of Books. Chong says she will soon be expanding her field of research into art criticism and movie criticism, and I look forward to seeing what her results yield!

(Image of Mark Crofton Bell's painting Double Phenomenon via

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

The DIY Red Carpet Treatment: Q&A with Vincent Chevalier out in today's National Post

Following on the celebrity-crazed heels of TIFF, I was even more powerless than usual to resist the charms of Montreal artist Vincent Chevalier's satirical twist on fame: The Red Carpet Treatment. With prior performances in Finland and Montreal, and a current one in Kitchener as part of CAFKA, I think Chevalier's cheeky gesture is definitely autograph-worthy. Chevalier took some time to chat with me on the phone about the project this week, and the condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q How does your project The Red Carpet Treatment work?

A I'm in Kitchener for 10 days, until the 26th. And for those 10 days I will be walking on this piece of red carpet, which is about my height and my width. Everywhere that I go for that period in outdoor space - doorstep to doorstep - I move forward by putting the carpet in front of me, then taking two steps, then turning around and picking it up, then putting it in front of me, taking two steps, turning around and picking it up, then putting it in front of me, and so on. In indoor spaces, I roll the carpet up and put it in a little bag and walk normally. So I'm always arriving on the red carpet in every place that I go.

Q Wow. Why did you start this project?

A I'm interested in the way that celebrity is taken for granted and given a lot of attention. Obviously, there's also a lot of capital and labour that's put into the whole production of celebrity; there's a whole slew of people working to put that red carpet down for the Academy Awards - people who "don't have names, don't have personalities." The only personalities that shine through are those of the people on the red carpet itself. I wanted to create something that collapsed the privilege and the labour of all that into one gesture. So I'm the producer and the product of my own fame. This is my fourth day in Kitchener and people have already begun to recognize me.

For more--including info on a possible evolution of the project-- read on at the Post. Check Chevalier's website for images from past performances too. And to catch Chevalier in person, check out the streets of downtown Kitchener until September 26th. Again, his presence there comes courtesy of CAFKA, the Contemporary Art Forum of Kitchener and Area.

(Image of Chevalier performing The Red Carpet Treatment in Finland in 2009 from his website)

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Richard Barnes Q&A out in today's National Post

American photographer Richard Barnes has spent more than a decade photographing in museums, and prompting questions about their role in contemporary culture. Some of the striking results are on display at Bau-Xi Photo in Toronto until September 24. (A comprehensive view of his projects is also on display in his book Animal Logic, available nationwide.)

Last week, Barnes spoke to me over the phone about some aspects of his practice. The resulting Q&A is out in the print edition of today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q You’ve been photographing in museums for some time now. Why?

A When I was a student just out of college, I was the photographer for an archaeological excavation in Egypt. Over years of doing that, I started to become interested in the trajectory of what we were taking out of the ground and where it eventually ended up. That led me to photographing in the Cairo Museum, which is an amazing place. Slowly, my interest turned to natural history museums. How we define ourselves through collections, whether they’re individual or national, is something I find fascinating. And the fact that most of what we collect in museums ends up in deep storage—that 90 percent is hidden—is fascinating to me as well.

Q Where did you take some of these photographs?

A Man with Buffalo was taken in Ottawa at the Canadian Museum of Nature; I was working with a Missouri man who goes around the world and does restorations of dioramas. Academy Animals with Painter was taken in San Francisco at the Academy of Sciences. They’d had a fire and were repairing smoke damage, and I happened to be there to photograph something else when I walked by and thought, “My god, that’s curious—animals all covered in plastic.” That was the start of this project. Overall, I’m interested in the theatricality of museums, in the things that are choreographed for you as you walk through, especially dioramas. They’re quite moving for me.

Q How are they moving, exactly?

A Well, I find it paradoxical, the fact that we go out into nature and kill an animal and bring it back and reanimate it behind glass. It’s odd. And dioramas are magical. When I looked at them as a child, and now as an adult, I’m still taken in. I know these animals are dead, but for me, in a sense, they’ve come back to life.

To read the rest, seek out today's Arts & Life section of the National Post.

A very cool thing coming up for Barnes: National Geographic will be publishing his photos of what he calls "living dioramas"--Civil War reenactments. He photographed these reenactments with Civil War-era tintype technology, but, since his first rounds looked too much like what he called a "Civil War trove" he made sure to include images of contemporary spectators on the later rounds of the project. I got a peek at the photos and they are very cool. I advise keeping an eye out for 'em!

I also like the way that Barnes, later in the interview, insists on the validity of what a viewer brings to an artifact, rather than simply giving over to the meaning that has been "choreographed" for it.

(Image of Barnes' Man with Buffalo via Bau-Xi Photo)

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

"I'm fascinated with the problem of art in the suburbs": Trevor Copp profile now up on Yonge Street

My education in different art forms and different parts of the city continued this August with some visits to Kitchener and Burlington to meet Trevor Copp, founder of Tottering Biped Theatre, one of the first--if not the first--contemporary professional producing theatre based in the City of Burlington.

Copp loves avant-garde theatre but also loves living in the suburbs/small cities surrounding Toronto. So he decided to bring the former to the latter.

An excerpt from the resulting article, published yesterday on Yonge Street:

At first, this August evening in Burlington's Optimist Park seems like a typical suburban midsummer night's dream: Two adult slo-pitch teams compete on a diamond, a passel of dog walkers stroll lawns and a few errant balls thwack softly into tennis-court nets.

But in a two-storey cinder-block building at the edge of the park, history is being made.

Inside, First Dance, one of the first—if not the first—professional contemporary plays to ever originate in Burlington, is premiering to a rapt audience. The chatty audience hushes as the house lights dim to reveal a man shaving—a ritual interrupted by the arrival of another man who carefully proceeded to dip, twirl and lift the first while shaving off the rest of his stubble.

Moving from this intimate moment to scenes set in salsa clubs, small-town backyards, Algonquin lakes and 1980s-era World Wrestling Federation matches, this funny, poignant play is far from typical summer stock fare. Tracing the story of a young gay man trying to determine a suitable "first dance" for his upcoming wedding, the production deals with same-sex marriage, homophobia, the politics of ballroom dance and (yes) real life in the suburbs.

"I've become fascinated with the problem of art in suburbia," says Trevor Copp, the performer and co-creator of Tottering Biped Theatre (TBT), which brought First Dance to fruition. "Suburbanites allocate their sense of culture to the city. They feel like we're just an adjunct of the city, that our life is just sort of a surrogate thing, a temporary life between commutes. And I have a problem with the sense that our stories are not legitimate."

For more, read on at Yonge Street Media.

(Image of Tottering Biped founder Trevor Copp and First Dance co-creator Jeff Fox via Yonge Street)

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Friday, September 9, 2011

TIFF Art Thoughts up at Posted Toronto

TIFF is very celebrity friendly, but it's also got an art angle in its Future Projections and Wavelengths programs. Today, Posted Toronto (the Hogtown-centric blog of the National Post) published my art recommendations for the fest. An excerpt:

There’s serious, yet seriously enjoyable, works at Future Projections this year — many by Toronto artists. At the top of the heap is Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatsky’s terrific Road Movie, showing at 51 Woleseley St. Demonstrating that there’s often more than two sides to every story, Road Movie’s layered look at life in Israel and Palestine unfolds across six screens on three wall-like structures. Though some might find the premise heavy-handed — one side of the “walls” features stories from travels with Israelis, the other side tales from journeys with Palestinians — this duo weaves an experience that is elegant and unexpected.

Also strong is Nicholas and Sheila Pye’s show Light as a Feather Stiff as a Board at Birch Libralato (129 Tecumseth St.). The Pyes may have split romantically, but their collaborative art practice continues to chug along here with a characteristically dreamy brew of sensual and painterly psychic dramas. In the central work, The Flower Eaters, one artist eats a rose, while the other plucks petals from their mouth — a mythical, ancient-seeming premise remade Gen Y style.

Finally, veteran filmmaker Peter Lynch’s Buffalo Days gives the ROM’s gloomy Spirit House (100 Queen’s Park) some much-needed, well, spirit, marrying views of Alberta landscapes with an evocative soundtrack of Blackfoot drumming. Also promising: When David Rokeby’s electronic installations work (like his light cube at Telus House) they’re wondrous. When there’s technical glitches, not so much. Fingers crossed for his effort at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen St. W.).

For more (including James Franco and Mr. Brainwash) read on at Posted Toronto or look in tomorrow's print edition of the Post's Toronto section.

(Installation view of Elle Flanders & Tamira Sawatsky's Road Movie by Tom Blanchard and via the National Post)

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