Thursday, January 28, 2010

First Impressions from your AGA*

It is amazing how the last few years of the AGA in Enterprise Square have suddenly disappeared and only memories remain of the old concrete fortress that once stood north of Churchill Square. Inside and out, the new Art Gallery of Alberta bares absolutely no resemblance in any way to the old gallery, or any gallery for that matter that Edmonton has ever seen.

Although the final stages of construction were still visible on every floor of the building, a new aesthetic standard is evident. The leisure of open space and natural light, in a city crippled by unimaginative development, was the first noted detail as you walk into the foyer. Boasting 85 000 sqare feet of space, from all first accounts every square foot was effectively used to steer you towards something of relevance. Unlike the waste of public space next door at City Hall, the gallery's flexibility in transforming public space into private rentals is perhaps unattractive in theory or on paper, but as a feat of architectural repurposing, the multifunctionality of the building holds immense future potential.

Photo credit: Eden Munro, 2010

Another laudable detail was the expansion of the gallery's education spaces. With four new colour-coordinated classrooms and its own private street level entrance, the growth of the gallery's education component doubled previous capacity and raises the prominence of art education in time with the notion that art is for everyone.

While Degas and Goya remained off limits and Storm Room remained under heavy construction, Gilles Hébert, the new Executive Director, led us into Karch: Image Maker as well as the highly anticipated The Murder of Crows. (We didn't stay past the introduction of Freida Abtan's score in the 30-minute installation piece, so it is highly recommended you go hear George Bures Miller and partner Janet Cardiff speak on Thursday, January 28 at the Telus Center, U of A, 7 pm)

Coming from the Portrait Gallery of Canada, Karch is a meticulously curated exhibition revealing a lifetime's work by Yousuf Karch, one of Canada's most celebrated portrait photographers. While the digital portraiture of Karch's 4 x 5 process is nothing but disturbing, the exhibition and archive as a whole was otherwise superb. As the show itself will require further elaboration, it was these first moments of walking through the doors of the actual gallery, stepping onto the dark-stained maple wood floors and into humidity control, that was the tour's definitive moment. The first time I noticed a gallery's flooring was the first time my ankles didn't hurt after walking through the then-newly Yoshio Taniguchi redesign of MoMA. The esteem and quality put into every facet of that gallery elevated the experience of the building as well as the objects which it housed onto a level of worship, which according to the AGA's last exhibition, Museums in 21st Century, revealed a sustaining global trend that the our own gallery aims to match.

However, most of the "starchitect"-led galleries and museums have elements of design centered on objects from that institution's permanent collection. With nothing from the AGA's offsite permanent collection being shown in the new building, and an ongoing moratorium on new acquisitions, the weakest link in the new Art Gallery of Alberta is the void of art made in and from Alberta. Bures Miller, Cardiff and Burtynsky have long moved on, but what of those who have stayed? If the point is in fact to create a gallery of national notoriety, should there not be an emphasis in presenting the gallery's potential for distinction such as curating works from the permanent collection and giving presence to regional artists?

Although a Ken Macklin sculpture sits on the sparse sculpture terrace, we will have to wait until summer time to see Alberta artists inside of our new, beautiful AGA.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Gabriel Coutu-Dumont, Sketches of Synchronicity, Latitude 53, January 15 - February 13, 2010*

Based on the premise of Carl Jung's philosophies of synchronicity, which is the experience of two or more events that are causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner, Montreal/Berlin-based artist Gabriel Coutu-Dumont presents a series of photo-based works taken during an international tour with audio-arist Marc Leclair.

Image credit: Gabriel Coutu-Dumont, 2010.

Initially trained as a photographer, having made his name as a visual collaborator through MUTEK and maintaining a career as a videographer for musicians such as Patrick Watson, Coutu-Dumont shies away from any one label in his artistic practice.
Returning to his roots in photography from his days at the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, Coutu-Dumont spent some time in Spain going through his countless contact sheets that have resulted in a forthcoming book to be presented by Clark Gallery in Montréal this year and the exhibition currently at Latitude 53.

From three-dimensional polyhedrals to formal and informal presentations of people, landscapes, tattoos and other random moments, Coutu-Dumont was interested in playing with the conception of a photography exhibition.

"I can't get away from my training, which was very precise and technical, so that's why I find drawing and video much easier," he explains. "I'm more free to do what I need to do, but I do not feel comfortable with being called a photographer or anything else, because that is limiting, and there is so much more to say, but I personally find photography very hard to mix into everything else and I wanted to escape the single flat image on the wall."

Discovering underlying patterns filtered from the thousands of photographs taken in China, Europe, South and North America, the final 275 images—some figurative, some of abstract textures— are the fruit of fleeting moments captured without great intention, shots in the manner of a diary or a family album. Discovering afterwards the surprising pictorial instances of Jungian-inspired "synchronicity" between certain images, it was an occurrence that initially paved the three-year road process that led to this show.

Clarifying on his understanding of Jung's philosophy, Coutu-Dumont states, "Synchronism is a coincidence in time. The sound a glass would generate when shattering while shattering and not a nano second before nor after. Although synchronism is something that fascinates me, especially when I work with video/new media work, often in collaboration with audio artists or when making video for my own music. But to count as synchronicity, the events should be unlikely to occur together by chance."

Re-reading the images into a "remix/a sample" of his photographic data bank, the project by no means proposes to be a "best of" series from his travels. Rather, Coutu-Dumont is hyper aware of creating an interlacing between situations that commune/communicate—or not—between each other.

He shares, "For me, synchronicity is not only a content component, it very much defines the very practice of photography in which one captures pictures in one moment and then develops and fixes them in another so that one constantly finds oneself in a time-space of differed simultaneity that is rife with echoes, dialogues and resonances. Whereas 'sketches' are a way of taking notes, practising scales and improvising along the way. In my view Sketches of Synchronicity is a very personal collection of 'photographic markers' that defines me as much as they influence my work through synchronicity's dual play."

*First published in Vue Weekly

Prairie Artsters: Winter Light*

With listed events from January through mid March, Winter Light at first appears to be the ultimate marathon festival—even for the city that can't get enough of festivals.
You may have seen its glowing LED lanterns strewn along Victoria Promenade during the Olympic Torch parade or a mobile video installation in Abbey Glen Park, or perhaps you may warmed your hands over one of its fire sculptures. At its peak thus far, Winter Light was producing up to four events in six hours at various locations across the city.

"We have a SWAT team capacity for winter art," laughs Pamela Anthony, producer of Winter Light, which is now in its second year. Keeping Winter Light mobile, its signature appears to be its uncanny capacity to set things up quickly, including shelter stations with flooring, campfires and often hot chocolate that remains consistent as it moves across the city.

"We're like gypsies moving from site to site carrying an atmosphere," explains Anthony, who distinguishes Winter Light as produced by the Edmonton Arts Council as something separate from Edmonton's existing and independently produced Deep Freeze Festival, Ice on Whyte and SilverSkate Festival.

"For people who go outside, we give them something to do. There's a destination affect, and that's really important for tourism and regional representation," continues Anthony.

Attempting to make Edmonton a destination spot in the winter, Anthony, who admits to bundling up and wandering around outside on the recent coldest place on Earth day to take in the awe of mother nature, she notes how there are untapped possibilities in a well-resourced urban environment, "For us [winter] is ordinary, but for other people the idea of winter is exotic. Northern Canada is intriguing and astonishing, and falls into the category as a unique experience, and because you really need to see it to really get it, we say if your feet are warm, it's actually pretty fun out here."

On January 22 and 23, the Winter Light team once again takes over 1.6 kilometres of Whitemud Park, re-creating the story of the Slavic favorite Baba Yaga folk tale. Framing the walk as similar to the journey of the tale's heroine, Vasilissa, visitors will be able to encounter various characters, diversions and surprises all along the way, as well as warm up at designated resting stations. Says Anthony, "It's a hero's journey, and it is a bit of a hike, but you're invested as an audience member. We're creating an interactive experience with one of the most exquisite areas in the city, and I can say last year this delighted everyone. Grown ups, not just children, expressed how delighted and surprised they were, to be bewitched and feel the magic of walking through the woods."

Perhaps to some, Winter Light appears much more subdued in comparison to the winter wonderland festivals from across the country such as Carnaval in Quebec City or Winterlude in Ottawa. Beyond just budget differences, the vision is also quite different in emphasizing the idea of place by exploring the city beyond a city block.

"We're not performing on traditional festival sites like Churchill Square, we're out in our river valley and parks. That distinguishes how people experience our events, and distinguishes how we do our programming," explains Anthony.

With its main office on East Jasper Avenue looking over the Rossdale flats, Anthony connects Winter Light back to Edmonton's pre-fort history, particularly along the flats, emphasizing that the city has a long tradition of being a meeting place during both summer and winter periods.
"[The flats] was a gathering place, a celebratory gathering place for rituals and trades and ceremonies. Regional groups and tribes met during summer and winter gatherings and celebrations," she shares. Although she is still exploring the First Nations history of the flats, Winter Light has worked with the aboriginal community from day one to integrate their voices into how the festival thinks and proceeds.

"The festival's main themes are light, fire, and shelter, which are all markers or rituals of gathering and civic bonding."

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

PIG: A Peep Show of Forbidden Acts From the Farm, January 2009

Showing a real sense of that prairie tenacity, PIG in its fourth reincarnation remains to entertain with equal parts gore and show tunes.

Touching down on all themes taboo from religion, vagina puppetry, to cannibalism, PIG loosely plays off the notion of pig as the beast, or the synonym for the basest of human nature. The show’s grotesque clown burlesque cabaret has moved away from its original inspiration by the Pickton murder trials to come into its own horror peep show of our insatiable enjoyment of crude violence, especially its conflation with the morally depraved behaviors of sexualized women.

The basic narrative of PIG follows sweet orphaned ugly duckling Saskatchewan Magnunson (Georgina Beatty) as she is invited to join the Christian tent meeting of the glamazon Evangeline Evangelista (Joelle Prefontaine) and the slickest sickest Bible salesman, Harry Peacjock (Jesse Gervais). Gervais sets the tone for the show, reveling in the garish persona of Peacjock (the J is silent) and the individual peeps into the lives of each girl (Caitlin Fulton, Andraea Sartison, Ryland Alexander, and Ava Markus round out the cast), but the narrative isn’t what pushes this two hour show along--not for a minute. Moving at break neck speed with a flurry of fishnets, pink frills, gold lamé, lacquered heels, rubber boots, an army of blonde bob wigs, PIG drags you, often more than willingly, into a downward spiral of depravity and disappointment--the two main themes running through playwright and Grinder actress Kristine Nutting’s work.

Self-reflexively describing itself as a show with “no story, just entertainment”, PIG’s biggest challenge is also its biggest draw: that it is just too damn entertaining. Accompanied by an all star live band led by Curtis Ross (along with Cam Boyce, Silas Grenis, and Jason Kodie), it is undeniable the music becomes the backbone to the show, and proves that everything--even classic rock hits--can be perverted into catchy cabaret numbers. No matter how dark the material may actually be, from the interplay of family, acceptance, and ultimate disappointment, to sexual abuse, and suppression of desires and identities, the audience is too enthralled in the pure spectacle of the production (and rightly so) to notice the conflicting ethics of enjoying sex and violence in a show that is ultimately critiquing our culture’s obsession with sex and violence.

Playing with minor elements of physical theatre, silhouettes, and pyrotechnics, all of the show’s lavish production values seemed to click in the traditional theatre setting of the L’unitheatre. Building out a catwalk stage and rigging a stripper pole with cabaret style seating, the illusion of the show--for once--did not compete with its venue. As a non site specific show, PIG was able to communicate that missing piece of the puzzle that was lost every time the public audience stepped into a genuine strip club and became a patron of the club more so than an audience member for the show. The re-creation of the atmosphere was far more powerful than using the real thing, perhaps because this time, it rang loud and clear that the audience remains the most disturbing aspect of the show. With a few of the darkest moments pushing past the guts and glamour of the production and into the one-liners that feed directly off the facts and figures of prostitution, from Johns with backseat baby seats and the invisibility of Aboriginal prostitutes disappearing, to the point blank question of "Do you think killing girls is funny?", the roar of the audience’s laughter and delight is in fact the real cannibalism that occurs.

If you can get past the distraction of blood and guts, often covering your clothes at the end of the show, past the glamourosity in the name of funsies, PIG may be one of the most depressing theatre shows you’ll ever thoroughly enjoy sitting through.

Photos by Marc Chalifoux and Jay Procktor

PIG continues as part of Workshop West's Canoe Festival in Edmonton and High Performance Rodeo in Calgary

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, AGA 2010*

As the largest installation to date by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “The Murder of Crows” (2008) makes its North American premiere as one of the inaugural exhibitions for the newly redesigned Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.

Inspired by Francisco de Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Plate 43” of the Caprices (Los Caprichos) series, “The Murder of Crows” made its international debut during the 2008 Sydney Biennial, and its European premiere in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in 2009. Running 30 minutes, the elaborate sonic installation features 98 black speakers standing individually amidst lone stands and chairs, while a single speaker rests on a table, occasionally emitting Cardiff’s ambisonic narration of dreams and visions.

Image credit: Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Murder of Crows. Installation view: Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2009.
PHOTO: Roman Marz. Coutesy the Artists, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; Luhring Augustine, New York.

Goya’s drawing depicts a man huddled at a desk with his head in his arms. Behind him, wild-eyed bats, owls, cats, and other nocturnal creatures swoop in, as if they’re about to pounce on him, an allegorical critique of the tyranny of the 18th century Spanish rulers. Cardiff and Miller have structured their installation with the same movement and visual composition found in the Goya piece. Sound shifts as a visitor walks through the room, giving a sense of the movement of the representational creatures.

Known for their complex sound installations, Cardiff and Miller’s work has long addressed the spatial and sculptural effects of sound on the body, beginning with Cardiff’s solo work “Forty Part Motet” (2001), which uses Thomas Tallis’ choral work “Spem in Alium” which surrounds visitors with sound, as if they’re in the choir. Their collaborative pieces include “The Paradise Institute”, which represented Canada at the 2001 Venice Biennale, a work that eerily misdirects the senses to recreate the experience of seeing a movie in a theatre. Though they currently split their time between Berlin and the north Okanagan region of B.C., both artists have close ties to Alberta — Miller is originally from Vegreville, and for many years Cardiff based her practice out of the University of Lethbridge.

“Janet and George no longer work independently of each other,” says Catherine Crowston, the AGA’s deputy director and chief curator. “They have had single careers, collaborating every now and then, but in the last three years they have always worked collaboratively, and with that shift the work has grown. It has become larger and more immersive. Janet has been primarily audio, and George has been more sculptural, but together they have expanded on the physicality of George’s work and the narrative of Janet’s work. The partnership has resulted in a different scope and scale. Simultaneously they have been addressing and grappling with content that is darker than what people may be used to.”

The artists’ ambisonic sound field system can generate multiple unique spatial soundscapes, layers of sound generated by replay techniques and a trademark stereophonic recording that seems to reverberate within the inner ear. Blending compositions by Freida Abtan, Tilman Ritter and Titus Maderlechner, “The Murder of Crows” has been likened to a play that physically envelops audiences into a moving structure of disorienting sound. This work advances beyond a sound-based installation, dramatizing acoustic material into a fully formed psychological melodrama.

Accompanying “The Murder of Crows,” Cardiff and Miller will debut “Storm Room,” commissioned for the AGA’s reopening. Staged in a theatre set of a Japanese sitting room, the work’s soundscape creates a thunderstorm that envelopes the room. The 10-minute sound loop, complete with lightning flashes and rain on the windows, continues the artists’ exploration of the effect of false realities on the human mind and body.

*First published in Galleries West, Spring 2010.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Prairie Artsters: New Year Revelations*

Never being a fan of the lists that reminisced over what was great, mediocre, or terrible over the past year, I sit here on New Year's Day thinking about the next little while, and in so doing, I would like to propose the 10 things I would genuinely like to see or wish for in this coming year. In no particular order:

1) More cross-provincial exhibitions throughout Canada. It's not news that this country is vast and geographically spread out, but this major fact affects how we see each other—and how the world sees us. Artists, writers and curators can't just hop on the next train and go from Vancouver to Toronto, Edmonton to Montréal, or Winnipeg to Halifax in just mere hours the way Europeans can. The accessibility of going to see each other's works and meeting and talking face to face plays such an important role in shaping and cultivating the arts. I was once told by a Saskatoon-based scholar and curator that when she attends international art biennials, Mumbai-based artists and collectors from Sao Paulo don't know or don't care if Canadian artists are from Saskatchewan or Ontario. That's only an issue for those of us living here.

2) Well-made artists books and formal and informal exhibition catalogues. It's a record that goes a long way.

3) Amazing public art. In Edmonton.

4) I would sincerely like to not feel disappointed by the visual art programming in our city's gauntlet of festivals. Any sense of past disappointments go beyond the quality of works, but how they are integrated into the festival framework by way of programming initiatives, venues and artists chosen.

5) I would sincerely like to not feel disappointed by Edmonton's only visual art festival, The Works Art and Design Festival, for similar reasons.

6) Now that Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, the main force behind site specific exhibition events including 2007's The Apartment Show and 2009's The Office Show, has left to pursue an architectural degree in California, here's hoping that artists will take advantage of a budding and built-in audience for their own brand of daring works that exploit Edmonton's transient façade.

7) A travelling or at least well-talked about Alberta Biennial-—or Triennial as it stands. With the new building and Canadian Art Editor Richard Rhodes guest curating 2010's edition, it would be nice if the biennial either reached beyond its provincial borders to connect Alberta art to non-Albertans or opened up its mandate and invited national and international artists to bring the art world closer to Alberta.

8) Confirmed plans for a new art space. Be it the proposed shared co-op space between different disciplines on 118 Avenue, or the table talks between different organizations teaming up for a new building, or the media arts finally getting their own space and recognition separate from FAVA, the realization of ArtsHab as modeled after Toronto's Artscape as a proactive mediator between artists, the city and developers has great expectations to fill, and hopefully, has a strategy in place.

9) Artists staying because they want to and leaving because they don't have to.

10) New blood in old places.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Friday, January 1, 2010

Vue's Best of 2009 in Visual Arts*

I honestly don't know if enough happens within the visual-arts scene for trends to emerge, but sticking to the positive side, a few individuals have really stepped up in the last year and their efforts are duly noted.

In thinking about the best shows of the past year, Josée Aubin Ouellette has been a common denominator. From the programming of the all-ages Hydeaway space which saw solo exhibitions by some of Edmonton's most promising emerging artists such as Justin Shaw and Alexander James Stewart to curating daringly different exhibitions by Chelsea Boos and Jonathan Kaiser during the usually bland lineup of Nextfest, Ouellette has also been active in her own artistic practice as a painter, fashion designer and co-organizer of Institute Parachute, which has been involved in various activities such as organizing portable art festivals in the last few years. Working with what she's got, and remaining conceptual about her surroundings, Ouellette is doing good work with no false pretensions.

Another artist gaining momentum is Gabe Wong. Meeting him during the preparation for his recent exhibition, Where Do You Come From? which gathered illustrators and graphic designers from across Canada for an edition-based poster show and accompanying art book, it was clear that Wong's sense of overwhelming meticulousness was the result of hitting full steam. As co-author and co-designer for the recently published We Eat Together cookbook as well as receiving one of the city's upcoming public art commissions, Wong is certainly flexing the multitude of possibilities for an Edmonton-based freelance illustrator.

And in terms of injecting a new perspective and energy into the arts community, I will go on record and say how glad I am Anthea Black is back in her hometown after being away for over 10 years as a print-based artist, a freelance arts writer and curator and at one time the executive director of Stride in Calgary. From being the first exhibitions manager the AGA has ever had to organizing printmaking workshops for queer youth and holding arts writing workshops and challenges, Black is genuinely interested in generating community in a critical and conceptually challenging manner.

*First published on Vue Weekly

Alberta Art Comes To Age*

In 2005 the Edmonton Art Gallery announced it would be renamed “The Art Gallery of Alberta” (AGA). In honour of the name change, it was also announced that the building itself would receive a dramatic redesign. Now, just five years later, the new building, designed by Los Angeles-based architect Randall Stout, has risen—a statement that the AGA is ready to stand alongside other major art institutions across the country and around the world.

Image credit: Taken from Flickr

Stout’s architectural vision combines Edmonton’s undulating river valley and the city’s functional grid system in a new space that serves artists as well as it serves the general public. “The public spaces will rival the Citadel’s when it was first built,” says Catherine Crowston, deputy director and chief curator of the AGA, referring to the mix of private and public spaces at the other end of Sir Winston Churchill Square. “Our intention is that it become a great space for people to see art exhibitions, but also to gather. The opportunities for public use are exciting.”

The public expects a lot from the new AGA, Crowston says, and she’s confident that it will deliver. Not only is the gallery’s architecture unique in the province, but the AGA is able to offer a world-class exhibition space; especially the third floor, which features 6,000 ft2 of open space and can be subdivided, as it will be for next summer’s Alberta Biennial.

Image credit: Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller
Installation view: Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2009 Foto: Roman März © Courtesy the artists, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin, Luhring Augustine, New York

For the AGA’s grand re-opening, Alberta expats Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller will launch the North American premiere of “The Murder of Crows,” which made its world premiere in the 2008 Sydney Biennale and its European premiere in Berlin’s prestigious Hamburger Bahnhof. “Janet and George can do one huge exhibition in the open configuration,” says Crowston. “In Sydney, they had an old 200 ft long wharf on the waterfront and they had a [similar] space in the vaulted ceiling room in the Bahnhof.” The artists created a piece specifically for the new AGA entitled “Storm Room,” a smaller work which will be shown in the RBC New Works Gallery. In addition, new retrospective exhibitions on Francisco Goya and Edgar Degas will feature as the gallery’s premiere exhibitions.

The new AGA opens its doors on Jan 31, 2010, celebrating with free admission on opening day and a full weekend of festivities. For more information, visit

First published in Alberta Views, December 2009