Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Big Picture 45

My 80 year old mother spent her childhood in a rural village in New Brunswick during the Great Depression, and she has not thrown out anything since. Her basement cupboards are packed with used (and mercilessly bleached) margarine tubs, jars of all sizes and girths, paper shopping bags, egg crates and enough Styrofoam trays to insulate a two family log cabin.

Mum has no plans to make clever mobiles, decorative waste baskets or bird feeders with all this crap, but there’s no telling her to get rid of it either. Only very recently have I convinced her to recycle old magazines and newspapers, an activity she engages with much suspicion.

“What exactly,” she asks every other month, when the paper products begin to resemble a child’s fort, “does the government want to do with my trash?”
They give it to the poor Acadians, I tease her. “Both of them?”, she invariably cracks.

I used to think Mum’s hoarding was some sort of psychological disorder, an habitual, anxiety-driven response to the traumas of the Dirty 30’s. But now I realize, after seeing Re:Imagine, the Eastern Front Gallery’s new exhibition of art made from refuse and trash, that dear old mother has actually been engaged in an un-credited, decades-long performance art experiment. Can she apply for retroactive funding?

Re:Imagine’s premise is simple enough: round up a bunch of artists and ask them to make something lovely, or at least amusing, from whatever disposable or disposed of materials they can find. The results of this open-ended experiment are, as might be expected from such a generalized scheme, decidedly mixed. Some artists are lazier than others, and nothing better proves this maxim than a room full of tired updates on the good old Cornell box. What could be less mentally taxing than collecting some broken knick-knacks and pop culture scraps and gluing them into a shadow box? Even I am industrious enough to do that, and I’m practically too lazy to sleep.

What excited me in Re:Imagine were those works that took discarded materials and transformed the flotsam into objects that both illuminate and rise above their mundane origins - art that truly re-imagined the junk, not just re-assembled it. To wit, two artists truly stand out in the scrap heap, no offence intended.

Daniel Megill’s tiny sculptures are easy to overlook amongst the exhibition’s louder and more didactic works, but bend down and pick them out of the pile. Inspired by those diminutive but very brainy little black cartridges that make your computer work (and that’s as deep into the technology as I go), Megill has crafted a swarm of adorable, thumb-sized metallic insects.

Like their microchip cousins, insects are miniscule information machines, fragile bodies wired to receive and convey complex systems of responses. The metaphor is plain to the point of obviousness, but Megill’s lively robo-bugs are a perfect example of the kind of work Re:Imagine should be full of – art that imaginatively re-casts found materials while asking the viewer to consider the similarities between the source object and the new creation.

Emily Rosamond’s two sculptures are less driven by this manufactured/natural dynamic, but are so gorgeous that I hardly cared about their metaphoric potential.

As you walk into the gallery, it’s hard to miss Rosamond’s enormous sculpture of a fish head, made from plastic pop bottles and thread. The light-catching shreds of blue, green and clear plastic are as pretty as a clean lake at high noon; and when the sunlight hits the fish, it appears to gently sway, the way my goldfish do when they’re too fat to swim to the top of the tank. Rosamond’s other work, a wind sock made from the soft pink plastic netting used to protect mangoes, is a subtler but no less delightful work. The long tube of netting reminded me of those slinky rice paper lamps Ikea sells, the kind meant to fill your bedroom with muted Zen mystery.

With a bit of editing, and more from Rosamond and Megill, Re:Imagine could have been a seductive combination of trash and transcendence. As it stands, it’s still got enough quirky fun to be worth the visit. And if anybody at Eastern Front needs a few hundred margarine tubs, I know just where to find them.


Being terminally un-cool, I had no idea what the press release advertising Toronto video collective FAMEFAME’s upcoming evening of “scratch video”, “orchestrated signal and noise”, and “rhythmic edits” was on about.

I suspect the event will be a happy mess of cacophonic sound art (what a friend calls “Nazi disco”), ironically culled film clips from B movies, and a lot of artists standing around computers trying to play the mouse like it’s a bitchin’ axe. According to FAMEFAME co-founder and video artist Jubal Brown, I’m only half right (a personal best!).

“The show’s not really about chaos, its about the dislocated position of the audience – they won’t know whether it’s art or a party, whether they are participating or having something done to them.”

“In scratch video, the visuals are not chaotic, they’re very rhythmic and precise, but they create a sense of chaos. It’s all very carefully planned. The application is not chaotic, but it induces a sense of chaos, because the results are ultimately unpredictable.”

But how does it work?

“Scratching video is like the scratching and mixing a DJ does – it’s editing and chopping up simultaneous signals of audio and video, so that there’s a syncopated link of visuals and sound. We treat the video editing software the same way a musician uses a sampler, creating a techno music that also exits in a visual realm.”

Structured as a battle-of-the-video-bands competition between FAMEFAME and the Paris-based collective V-ATAK, who mine a similar video/sound mix and match terrain, the evening will conclude with an audience choice prize for best (most irritating? least coherent?) team.

And who will win?

“We expect to win,” Brown says with a snicker, “because, to quote the band Jesus and Mary Chain, ‘we’re so f-ing good’. But I really don’t care about getting the most claps from the applause-o-meter.”

Ah-huh. We’ll see who’s left crying on the podium with his runner up bouquet.


Those of you who enjoyed the Power Plant’s Images of Justice show will want to catch the Market Gallery’s Heart-Shaped Box - another wonderful historical exhibition that weirdly combines violent historical events with lovingly made outsider art.

Following the failed 1837 Rebellion – an uprising in Toronto that ended in several deaths, including two executions for treason – the imprisoned rebels whittled away their days in stir by carving beautiful gift boxes. Many of the plain but meticulously made boxes carry heart breaking inscriptions to family members or sweethearts, and a few are decorated with political poems. My favourite inscription, by John Gibson, reads “Prity (sic) maidens shun each Tory” - advice I will live by with Belinda Stronach-like determination.

By focusing on these incidental but deeply personal side products of the rebellion, Heart-Shaped Box brings the events into a new and poignant light. The simple and still- relevant aspirations of the rebels – prosperity and fair government – resonate loudly from these rough souvenirs, and reading the hopeful inscriptions is as satisfying as stumbling on a cache of old letters.

Eastern Front Gallery 750A Queen Street East Until August 28.

Videodrome: Experimental scratch video art tournament
August 27, 10pm MOCCA, 952 Queen Street West $5 entry

Heart-Shaped Box
The Market Gallery South St. Lawrence Market, 2nd Floor 95 Front Street East
Until October 2