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People & Culture

Fall art festivals

Harvesting the talent in Toronto, Halifax, Montréal and Vancouver

  • Aug 31, 2012
  • 2,170 words
  • 9 minutes
Jerry Whitehead Expand Image

To really connect with any big city, to fully explore its appeal, you need to know what moves the locals. You have to pin down whatever touches hearts, tickles minds and shakes hips. This is no easy task, and yet sniffing out a cultural scene’s most absorbing events can sometimes be as simple as being in the right place at the right time. In at least four great Canadian cities, autumn festivities are about as compelling as it gets. In Toronto, a massive all-night art installation turns the centre of the universe into another planet. Halifax assembles a pile of tremendous talent and kicks out the jams for five days. Galleries in Montréal become periscopes, transformed by the world’s best photography. And Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside reveals its true colours, which turn out be that city’s most dynamic and vibrant. All you have to do is show up and blend in.

Overstimulated under the moon
Nuit Blanche, Toronto,
Sept. 29, 2012,

Toronto’s all night street-party-meets-art-festival is sort of like when the kids turn the living room into a fort, improvise a talent showcase and let giddy dream logic fuel them into the wee hours. Once the sun sets, downtown becomes flooded by rambling, installation-laden paths through bizarre and often beautiful reuses of public and private space. Facades become canvases. Parks become open stages. Offices morph into exhibits. Otherwise methodical locals blow off bedtime and hop between the core’s bars, galleries and random nooks and crannies until sunrise.

Last year’s sixth annual version assembled 134 projects by more than 500 artists, plus another 40-plus unsanctioned pieces as part of Les Rues des Refusés (streets of rejects). The free event does have a lingering corporate presence, in part because Toronto’s version — a cousin to similar all-nighters the world over — is officially Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. But the fortbuilding metaphor dominates nonetheless.

In 2011, pyjama-clad pillow toters literally turned a retired subway platform into a giant sleepover. At the Gladstone Hotel, you could explore four floors of art, spy on strangers, watch a burlesque marathon and wail karaoke. Toronto International Film Festival headquarters hosted a dance party soundtracked by Game Boys. A group of uniformed joggers spelled out “run” using GPS. One artist drew portraits while having blinded conversations with his subjects; another turned a bus shelter into The Free Shop and gave away his possessions. Sword fights broke out in the Distillery District. Beside Bay Street, a perfectly costumed duo re-enacted one of the most famous tennis matches in history, the 1980 McEnroe vs. Borg tie-break in the Wimbledon final.

Save for the haunted thought of a Leafs cup run, no other night brings out such droves of Torontonians of so many shapes, sizes and colours, all psyched up and unbridled by rush hours. Once huddled, you’ll undoubtedly hear some griping about what constitutes art. Sadly, those folks are missing the remixed urban forest for its least engrossing trees.

The actual exhibit is the city’s transformation, the leap from convention that prevails for a single moon. Celebrating it well means planning loosely and preparing for surprises, simple pleasures, long lineups, malfunctions and whatever you find as you wander.

Because it could be crime scene barriers recast as a humble communal monument. Or animated waist-high reeds projected along a building wall, swaying like alien pendulums. It might be the looming violence that surrounds a circular infinity pool between tall office towers, created by fog and wind machines, strobes and sweeping spotlights, and cranked-to-11 droning and siren sounds. Or another dimension tucked inside an old church. Perhaps it relies on passersby — a spotlit patch of pavement, a live-feed video camera on a revolving dolly or a full-on mock sitcom production.

In any case, the idea is to carpe noctem.

Rambling around the roots
Heart of the City Festival + Eastside Culture Crawl, Vancouver,
oct. 24 to nov. 4 + Nov. 16 to 18, 2012, +

Vancouver is full of eye candy: mountains, beaches, Stanley Park, startling architecture, ocean traffic, sweet bikes and svelte bodies. But to see what really makes the place tick, you have to trace the many layers of its tangled, motley heart.

If you’re spooked by the Downtown Eastside, you’ve only encountered one side of the city’s original and still most dynamic community. The Heart of the City festival is about discovering all the other dimensions, textures, talents, cultural rituals and great ideas that locals have to offer. Programming runs the gamut — jazz, blues, classical, choral and offbeat live music; theatre, cabaret shows, circus acts and buskers; aboriginal ceremonies, meditations, drum circles and dancing; readings, poetry nights, open mikes, public forums and documentary screenings; and all sorts of exhibits and workshops, from origami to culinary to getting garden-ready.

The festival also shows off the spectrum of contributors, organizations and ethnic backgrounds that hold a stake in the area’s vibrancy. Walking tours explore heritage architecture, street murals, Chinese and Japanese immigration history and more. Open houses are held at unsung gems such as the Vancouver Police Museum, an old coroner’s office now filled with humble and haunting artifacts from the local crime scene. There are 100-plus events over 12 days, most free or by donation, put together by volunteers and local partnerships and hosted by libraries and galleries, cultural and community centres, parks and gardens, small businesses and service groups. The camaraderie bears an exotic streak too, with everything from Day of the Dead celebrations to the Ukrainian feast and hoedown that caps the festival.

While Heart of the City exposes the neighbourhood’s overlapping roots, the Eastside Culture Crawl (ECC) unveils what’s blossoming below the surface. More than 350 local artists and craftspeople in 75 buildings opened up their studio spaces for last year’s 15th annual; in 1997, there were 45 artists spread around three studio buildings.

This event also reins in an impressive diversity: painters, jewellers, sculptors, carvers, furniture makers, clothing designers, weavers, potters, glassblowers, musicians, writers, printmakers and photographers. Essentially, it’s a chance for connoisseurs, novices and Christmas shoppers alike to wander the semi-industrial groundswell of Vancouver’s art scene and scope out the unknown and renowned forces that give it shape, colour and form.

The ECC bypasses the gallery system for a weekend, providing an unbridled opportunity for artists with small businesses and creations for sale, and also for spectators wanting to buy a piece, get involved, ask questions or find inspiration. A huge part of the attraction is simply peeking behind the curtain, where works in progress lurk and intimate collections are haphazardly scattered.

But it’s also about building community. “One of the hardest things about being an artist is getting your work out there and getting people to see it,” says abstract painter Travis Watters, “so it’s wonderful when you can have 2,000 people see your work over a weekend.”

And wonderful for us too.

Through the looking glass
World Press Photo & AnthropoGraphia + Le Mois de la Photo, Montréal,
Sept. 7 to 30, 2012 + September 2013,, +

What happens when we see through the eyes of another person facing struggle and cataclysm, surviving on instinct? At what moment does opportunity emerge from crisis? What does 21st century humanity look like?

An unbeatable focal point for such cavernous questions lands in Montréal’s Old Port as summer fades. World Press Photo assembles photojournalists’ most mind-boggling pictures from the front lines and rough edges of the planet’s wars and conflicts, natural and man-made disasters, and curious phenomena.

South African Jodi Bieber’s startling portrait of a disfigured Afghani woman was 2011’s photo of the year, chosen from 108,059 entries. Canadian Ed Ou’s spectral images of Somali refugees escaping to Yemen topped the Contemporary Issues category. Photographers also captured Haitians coping with post-earthquake desolation and Pakistanis with colossal monsoon floods; crude oil floating psychedelically in the Gulf of Mexico; subterranean lifestyles of Chilean miners; and matador Julio Aparicio, gored through the chin.

Sharing space with 50-plus World Press winners, AnthropoGraphia presents 16 potent photo essays which profile victims of strife and dysfunction. These are raw, intimate, breathtaking views of genocide, persecution, interrogation, displacement, resource corruption, human rights abuses and, most important, defiant perseverance. A third exhibit is also on display, C41, which culls work by emerging Québécois photojournalists examining local and far-flung subcultures.

Every other year, there is also a chance to dig deeper into the method and meaning of photography itself, with art spaces all over Montréal serving as oracles. The 2011 version of Le Mois de la Photo explored the theme of “Lucidity: Inward Views” — an attempt to find clarity in human complexity, framed by illusions of identity, fear, death, anger and not knowing — by inviting 25 international artists to install their images and motion pictures in 14 galleries and libraries.

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “100 Jahre” series chronicled both mortality and vitality with portraits of family, friends and acquaintances from ages zero and 100. In Jesper Just’s fantastical, dialoguefree short films, pariahs confronted their vulnerability. Roni Horn’s 58 images of London’s River Thames evoked both terrestrial textures and abstract paintings in black, white, blue, grey, green, bronze, gold and metallic.

The centrepiece installation at Arsenal’s warehouse space featured work by 10 artists, each wielding a mysterious power. Jack Burman’s jarring, enigmatic still lives of preserved cadavers were, in a word, haunting. Roger Ballen’s “Asylum” used demonic hieroglyphics, bird taxidermy, blow-up dolls and other macabre mental fragments to build scenes from his psyche. Audiovisual collective Gemmiform created a mesmerizing vision of primordial energy and matter, an experience beyond words. Equally stoic were Norman Rajotte’s “omens” — puddles, tracks, carcasses, ripples of life — found and photographed on an abandoned 100-acre wooded lot.

There’s also a cerebral colloquium held at the esteemed Canadian Centre for Architecture, plus workshops and launch events. September 2013’s 13th biennial festival tackles yet another compelling concept, “Drone: The Automated Image.”

Rare sounds on tap
Halifax Pop Explosion,
Oct. 16 to 20, 2012,

You might expect this kind of scene on a small concert stage in Halifax: An earnest young woman with a scraggly thicket of blond hair and an acoustic guitar, belting out sparse, sharp, folksy originals, accompanied by a banjo player in a ball cap. But during the city’s polymorphous fall music festival, things aren’t quite as they seem. The banjo player hails from Edmonton, the singer lives in Montréal and her songs are hardly saccharine. The stage is in a black-draped, square space inside The Bus Stop Theatre. Old guts of recording consoles hang on the gallery walls, and the lady behind a makeshift bar explains why I can’t get beer until between sets: “Because we’re an art space, our liquor license says we can’t serve while the art is actually happening.” She flashes an infectious grin, endemic to Halifax.

Beforehand, in a Citadel Hotel conference room, an oddball Taiwanese hip hop crew who pepper their beats and flow with traditional instruments performed for 15 people as if the room were packed. Afterwards, American bands Titus Andronicus and The Thermals joyfully thumped the Olympic Community Hall crowd into a tide of wagging heads and hips.

For five days, a musical melting pot brews, accentuating an already healthy local appetite for independent and innovative sounds. Last year’s 19th annual festival featured more than 150 bands, their many styles cross-pollinating 20-plus venues surrounding downtown: churches, reception halls, concert stages, record stores, kitschy bars, pubs and nightclubs. What began during the heyday of bands such as Thrush Hermit and Eric’s Trip has only amped up its mandate as a smorgasbord of rare musicianship, easily devoured on foot and without feeling rushed or overcrowded.

“There’s a lot of good, weird blood in this town, and a lot of cool bands,” says Seth Smith, one half of a celebrated local two-piece called Dog Day. The city’s remoteness limits musicians’ touring options and deters acts from elsewhere coming to play, he adds, giving Pop Explosion something of a homecoming vibe. “It’s kind of magical because it feels a bit like an untapped scene.”

Mining their own dark magic, Dog Day gigged into Friday’s wee hours on a cramped, forest-wallpapered stage at Gus’ Pub, with Smith crowd surfing and ceiling walking through his final guitar riff freakout. The next morning he was immersed in the festival’s marquee daytime event, manning a table of posters and paraphernalia created by his graphic arts duo Yorodeo in a church hall, alongside another 30 artists selling zines, comics, screen prints, records and handcrafts.

Trading barbs with fans after finishing a “secret guest” show early on Saturday night, Canadian psych-folk wunderkind Chad VanGaalen nailed the festival spirit: “Get out of here, go see something else now. There’s awesome stuff happening all over the place, right nearby! Go!”


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