It’s been suggested that what truly makes Art in the public sphere successful are moments of unexpected joy. Perhaps when you’ve suddenly remembered, amidst Pendulum Pulse’s music and the entrancing Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things, an installation that fills the entire community room at the Mahtay Cafe in downtown St. Catharines (with black light and jellyfish, squid like and Cthulhu – like beasts) that the Rheostatics have just started playing in the Festival Hub.
A mad rush ensues through back alleys, past white tents housing various performers and activities on James Street, but you pause as the first sounds of their opening song wafts across the downtown. The Rheostatics began one of the most anticipated events of In The Soil 2017 with Saskatchewan (“…the moon hung high… in the canopy of sky. Home, Caroline, home”). This wasn’t my premiere experience of In The Soil since I returned here (from Saskatchewan), but that’s a moment I’ll treasure. It joyously defined In The Soil 2017 for me.
At this (second for me) extravaganza, it became more like the joke one of the performers made onstage: spending twelve hours in the downtown, forget a change of clothes, crash at a friend’s downtown place, and lurch awake the next day to pinball from site to site, from theatre to art to music to installations to events that straddle such descriptions. My first day culminated in The Sex Appeal (“…this song goes out to all the millennials in the house. It’s called “eat ass & call me daddy….””) and Pizza Sharks. My ears haven’t yet recovered from the latter. The sheer volume that rolled out from the Merchant Ale House was physical, almost enough to stifle your heartbeat.
Saturday was a day of itineraries and schedules, initially devoted to theatre; Young Drunk Punk (Bruce McCulloch’s sometimes coarse, always cutting monologues) and lemontree creations MSM (men seeking men) specifically. MSM (dance theatre which sampled online chats of men seeking men) was graphic and salacious, not for the faint, but had moments of emotional honesty that bridged gender and orientation easily. It made me feel a bit old, but also reminded me how far we’ve come – oh, did I just make that pun? LOL. Well, “we all need someone we can cream on / and if you want to / you can cream on me…”
And more music. And Ceasars. Okay, it’s not “Art” but I must praise the bartenders for their excellent work in the Hub. My research was thorough. A lubricant to the enjoyment of In The Soil, for sure; or a sedative so you’re not too taken aback at the shambling Cloak of Cosmoss, as she silently, unhurriedly wandered the Hub all weekend…
Perhaps it should’ve been milk, as Katie Mazi’s Spent Cows of the 20th & 21st Century, which graced the window of Beechwood Donuts, was a slick porcelain white pile /herd of tiny cattle. Rose McCormick’s Children’s Toys for the Apocalypse (I repeatedly photographed floating backlit Barbie in that instalment of RHIZOMES in the MIWSFPA. As the world ends, #allwehaveisplay) and Lacie Williamson’s Garbage and the Beautiful Embrace both appealed. Garbage invited you to “write down whatever you wish to let go of, and toss it over the balcony. May your worries fall to rest while you rise above the garbage heap.”
I felt lighter – a placebo perhaps, but so what, I say, so what – scrawling “Saskatoon,” crumpling and jettisoning it away….
An interjection to my reminiscence: those of you familiar with my rants know that paying artists for their work is a significant issue. In The Soil deserves your support (as it marks a decade, next year) not solely for the quality and quantity of performers, but because Soil pays artist fees to every participating artist, as well as professional production fees, and the marketing around the fest is excellent and effective (the free booklets were indispensable to any festival goer). Too many festivals are exploitive: perhaps one of the major reasons that In The Soil is about to mark a decade – no small feat for a festival of this breadth – is due to it being respectful of participants and being not solely artist driven but by investing in the artists, making artists invest back in the festival.
Stepping off soapbox now: let us return, you and I, to RHIZOMES. Sandy Middleton’s Shadow Play was literally collaborative: stencils and objects and visitors become actors in the projections, with Middleton less a “director” than facilitator. Middleton will be posting images over the next while, so that Play – and In The Soil – has a continuing online component, after the hectic events. Blue, by Whetstone Productions, was described as “Clown meets the Blues by way of ’30s Berlin Cabaret with a detour through Las Vegas in this interactive solo musical all about love.” I attended against my better judgement (clowns!) but it was one of the best performances of In The Soil 2017: pathos and humour, and love songs that I have added to my playlist. #youlowdowndirtydogIstillloveyou #stabyouintheeyewithmyhighheel #ImallforlovebutIcantseethelight
I spent approximately six hours at the Merchant Saturday (not consecutively). The dulcet strains of Supernatural Buffalo to the raucous thunder of Strange Shakes were equally outstanding (I’d heard rave reviews about both, but not yet enjoyed them. The festival format, offering concise tastes of performers both local and beyond, has acted as a prompt for myself and others to experience more). Know performed for the first time at the Merch that evening, another fine teaser of an excellent local band: #willyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealright.
The purple pink blue lights lent an ephemeral, eerie atmosphere; the lime green drum sat atop the hot orange shag carpet. Again, an In The Soil experience as visual as aural: loud in both senses.
Sunday I was nearly eaten by The Cardboard Land Creature (brought to life by the Summer Collective) in the interactive village at the Festival Hub.
But, after documenting for posterity, my escape was facilitated by one of the numerous industrious #inthesoilfest volunteers. This might have been foreshadowing for seeing The Ash – Mouth Man by the Stolen Theatre Collective; consumption was a recurring trope in that play. Ash was a story equal parts humourous and horrid (offstage hushed sibilant ghostly voices and balloons will never be the same, for me); it also played with audience interaction.
Further spatterings of music saw In The Soil to its conclusion, to the Dirty Cabaret VI that evening at the Odd Fellows Temple. But before that, Aaron Berger + The Blues Stars offered a medley of songs in the Hub, under a greying sky that would break into a downpour as I stood inside the parking garage on Garden Park & Carlisle, listening to Sound Sound, interspersed with the outdoor percussion of the falling sheets of rain.
Alternately abrasive in tone, then suddenly delicate and deliberate, Sound Sound embodied the energy and will that is a hallmark of In The Soil: coming together to create a larger whole, for the enjoyment of many, in unexpected ways in unexpected places.
In the Soil Arts Festival ran from April 28 – 30 in the downtown of St. Catharines. Next year will make the tenth incarnation of the festival. All images here are poorly shot by the writer, with the exception of several shots from Joel Smith and Liz Hayden, and the Shadow Play image, shot by Sandy Middleton.