Hitting downtown starting Thursday night, all day Friday, parts of Saturday and briefly on Sunday, my experience of The Works Art & Design Festival once again fizzles and splits after the first weekend. As the premiere festival in showcasing “international” art and design in Edmonton, I am continually saddened and perplexed as to how we continue to tolerate mediocrity. Art in big plastic tents, exhibitions low in production value and works that belong more on a fridge than a wall: I’m at a loss as to where our value of art actually sits.
I’ll state off the bat that my favourite experience of the weekend was an exhibition in direct contrast and completely separate from the festival. Art and Life in the McLeod Building, which was perhaps what the festival once used to be—at least in theory—taking an empty street front space, polishing it up and filling it with challenging, quality art that has both a local connection and a global reach. Sculptures from Catherine Burgess, Sandra Bromley and Zimbabwean stone works from the Mark Kumleben Collection were aided by the grandiosity of the space, and its sheer rawness and elegance was so simultaneously uplifting and frustrating that it left me to wonder what The Works was about anymore. As an ideal example of bringing a spark of art to downtown life, the glow left by Art and Life already outlasts anything I have ever experienced from the Works.
Starting on Thursday, Harcourt House’s members show kicked off my journey by easing in with the festival’s “art around town” exhibits. With a BBQ in full swing at Harcourt, a rooftop patio party at Latitude 53 and a party crowd gathering at the ARTery, it was a good feeling to see diversity coexisting. But formally, the work at Harcourt was considerably more amateur this year, and this was a point of discussion brought up to me as I stepped into the ARTery later that night, which is organically becoming the best (non)-artist-run centre in the city.
On Friday, the first stop was at Latitude 53 to go through Judy Cheung’s Mind of a City step by step. Cute, and preoccupying, the result was, however, not worth the effort. Continuing on, I had to stop at the McLeod Building again to show the space to Gerry Morita, Artistic Director of Mile Zero Dance and my art fiend* for the day. Crossing the river to see the shows at FAB Gallery and to see the Japanese woodblock prints at the Telus Centre, the woodcuts were treasures hidden inside this highly underused building of odd hours, and the poor misuse of space would be the defining lesson of the day, challenged only by the lesson on how poor quality of sound ruins an experience.
A solo jaunt back downtown across the bridge and through the legislature grounds, I came up onto Jasper Ave to be stopped dead in my tracks by one of The Works artists, furious over the presentation of her work and struggling to decide whether to pull the work or not. Wishing her the best of luck, I soon found the excellent prints at Manulife Place that were unfortunately washed out against the granite walls; the large abstract paintings in Scotia Place that left me indifferent; Lylian Klimek’s sculptural interventions inside the Bank of Montreal that made me smile and look suspicious; the exhibitions upstairs and downstairs at the Milner library that left me wondering if the festival is just actually community art on steroids; and a stroll through the square, through the tarped rooms of art and over to City Hall to see and touch the bird tubes outside and the panels of stellar buildings inside. Seeing the work en route through downtown isn’t too bad, but if I had come specifically to see any of the exhibitions I would have been severely disappointed. Later that evening, after the AGA opening, we headed to SNAP, catching the tail end of Karen Trask and Kyla Fischer’s opening, which was worth crossing Churchill Square for.
Saturday night I attended the under-attended The Works Opening Night Party. The first band, Jane Vain and the Dark Matter, was actually pretty good, but the sparse, restless crowd mostly stood outside in the gravel parking lot for the majority of the evening. Looking around the room after Terrence Houle’s performance of “I’ll See you Again,” the room was only thinly lined with AGA staff and guests, Works crew and volunteers and the performers themselves. Feeling nothing, I left before the DJs started.
And as I write this on a very rainy Sunday afternoon after listening to talks by Estonian new media artists curated by Shawn Pinchbeck, a talk that touched upon their social and civic conditions through media interventions as contemporary artists, this festival’s unmannered array of works and unqualified water theme trickle through my head as I’m left exhausted in hope and simply horrified at how our public art festival has slid into a mishmash of disconnected lobby art.
*First published in Vue Weekly June 26 - July 4, 2008
**Corrected from print publication