People & Culture

Edward Burtynsky discusses new installation: In the Wake of Progress

Featured in the heart of downtown Toronto, this larger-than-life art installation tells the story of humanity’s impact on the planet 

  • Published Jun 23, 2022
  • Updated Jun 25
  • 1,134 words
  • 5 minutes
Photo: Michela Rosano/ Can Geo
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At Young-Dundas Square, one of the most developed intersections in the country, an image of an old-growth forest is projected on every media screen, as a large crowd gathers. The lush greenery of the scene is the only “nature” that can be seen in this concrete space, save for a few small trees in planters along Yonge Street. The screens go dark and the show begins.

In the Wake of Progress is a 30-minute art installation featuring video and photographs from Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky that premiered at the Luminato Festival Toronto on the festival’s opening weekend on June 11-12, and is now making its indoor debut at the Canadian Opera Theatre Company from June 25-July 17.

Burtynsky’s trademark beautiful-yet-haunting imagery of industrial landscapes immerses viewers in the inconceivable impact that humans have had on the planet. Punctuated by an original score composed by Phil Strong and co-produced by Canadian music legend Bob Ezrin and punctuated by an original score composed by Phil Strong, the piece moves from one devastating image to another, interspersed with reminders of natural landscapes; In one moment we get an Orwellian view of a textile factory in China where a sea of workers sew in synchrony, and the next, we’re taken to an apocalyptic graveyard for rusting freighter ships on the coast of Bangladesh. Then, swirling water in Lake Superior.

Here, Burtynsky gives a behind-the-scenes account of In the Wake of Progress, explains its conception and discusses his favourite image.

Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo
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On his work’s message

I certainly try to make images that people will want to live with and be engaged by, whether it’s in the museum world or the office or the home, which is where most of my work resides. It becomes part of the fabric of a workplace or a home. And I love that about visual art.

But then I also understand the narrative in all the work that I do: these are the largest examples of human industry on the planet. And we don’t get to see that [here]. So photography and film are great mediums to show what’s happening to the natural world. It is a kind of lament for the loss of nature in all of this. That’s why the piece is buttressed at the beginning and the end with the natural world – to show that we live in it. This whole piece is about it being at risk, risking habitat, risking the systems that support all life.

On the choice of Young-Dundas Square for the premiere and the piece’s concept

Naomi Campbell [artistic director for the Luminato Festival Toronto, which also commissioned and co-produced the piece] approached me four years ago. She was standing at Yonge-Dundas Square and said, you know, ‘it’s so grim.’ It’s concrete and consumerism. It’s just all ads. And that’s when she had the idea to invite an artist to take over all the media screens. So when she asked me, I immediately thought, ‘wouldn’t this be great as a feedback loop, to show the origins of these towers of concrete, glass, steel and copper, and manufacturing of this merchandise.’ I thought it would be great to take all those screens and showcase the other part of the world that allows us the possibility for the urban lives we lead. That was the concept.

It’s not a permanent public work, but it was a very ephemeral, powerful way to engage the square. And I particularly like the idea that somebody could have walked out of Nordstrom with their bag and then, all of a sudden, they have an experience they never expected. It was a fun idea to engage with the community.

On coordinating the media screens in YDS

As far as [Campbell] knew, nobody had taken over all 22 screens at YDS. There’s eight companies that own the screens, and we had to negotiate with each one of them. And then figuring out the colour balance for each one of those screens. It was it was a technical, organizational and political tour de force.

On moving people with images and music

That’s one of the things that we are trying to do, and what I was encouraging everybody on the team to do – let’s make something that touches people, that makes them think, gives them an inflection point for a conversation about our world and what we’re doing with it. I’m a big believer that if you can reach out and hit somebody in the heart and the gut, then there’s a better chance that they’ll digest it and intellectualize it in a different way, and possibly it will even motivate them to make a difference in their own lives.

Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo
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The music and imagery together, that creates an emotional connection to the piece. The images alone wouldn’t do it and the soundtrack alone wouldn’t do it. But when you get them together, that’s where one plus one equals three.

On the most impactful image for him

The Bangladeshi boy in front of the inner wall of an oil tanker. He’s one of the labourers, working in a scrap yard barefoot. It speaks to globalism, our need for oil and our understanding of where things go when we’re finished with them. Like an oil tanker, the largest vessel ever built, and it’s a toxic, dangerous environment for him to work. He’s doing the dirty work after the tanker served its purpose, and it’s now going to be cut up for scrap steel. That speaks to globalism, and the relationship between the first world and the developing world.

On water in the piece

In the fall of 2020, I was in the North Superior-Algoma region taking photos and video for another body of work on the Great Lakes. I was struggling with an exit to this piece. I wanted it to end with a positive feel, and so water seemed to be the medium that is life affirming. And so I ended with this rush of water. [Ed—Watch for more Great Lakes content as part of Can Geo’s Biinaagami project, an Indigenous-led multimedia collaboration with Swim Drink Fish that aims to connect people with the Great Lakes.]

On In the Wake of Progress’ tour after the Canadian Opera Theatre Company

We’re trying to do both the festival circuit and indoor, ticketed events. The piece is very flexible. This piece is kind of like a Swiss Army knife of presentations; we can adapt it to all kinds of different venues to make it work. I think the indoor version is going to be really quite exciting because it’s fully controlled.

Catch In the Wake of Progress at the Canadian Opera Theatre Company until July 17.


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