In the Soil 2017: your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s purely subjective synopsis

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 Pulses 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. 

Amber Lee Williams / “Embracing Randomness”

When I attended the RHIZOME activities at MIWSFPA during the 2016 In the Soil Festival, I strayed from the designated areas, as I often do. I found myself in the studio space where Amber Lee Williams was “inviting participants to pose for a blind contour drawing [for] her interactive exhibit. Each drawing will be done individually and privately but the drawings will be connected through medium and drawing surface.” The rooms had the drawings arranged on the walls, and you sat / stood /acted among them as Amber rendered you in a similar manner.  I was trespassing during “down time” of her performance, but she was gracious enough to answer my questions then, and talked about both process and portraits. Blind contour, for those unfamiliar, is when an artist draws a subject without looking at the paper (often considered a “warm up exercise”, with the intent to loosen the hand and encourage creativity, but like any medium, can be different things in different “hands”).  

When I sat down to talk with Amber again, her work in Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity at Niagara Artist Centre had just opened, in the Dennis Tourbin space. Her encaustic works are lovely in texture and tone and mark a further exploration and refinement of her use of this often difficult medium of wax and pigment.

We talked about her practice – which exists in a threefold manner – and the ideas that have informed her artwork over her artistic career. Her work is likely familiar to you if you live in the STC area, and seeing some of her photographs in a show nearly a year ago makes me pleased to feature Amber Lee Williams as the latest instalment in The Sound’s ongoing local artists series.

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As mentioned, Amber works in three different “areas” of art: encaustic painting, photography (a more recent practice), and the blind contours. These are very different and unique media, with distinctive history and baggage. None is the “favourite”, but wanting to work on them all together or have them influence each other, is an aspect of Williams’ art. But they’re “all different” and Williams says she can’t speak of them as one “entity”. I might posit that her practice is an umbrella and these are all under that arching cover.

A term she used often is “embracing randomness.” Williams spoke of process as “a vessel for the creativity of the act, and sometimes even in the selection of the works, to see what’s worked, and what has not.”

Her works in the NAC embody this: rich encaustic abstraction, the generous application of colour, the use of a blow torch, then repeating the wax and the pigment and the melting and seeing what colours come to the fore. There’s a slim vertical triptych, mostly black, mimicking wood grain or veins that “flow” like pencil marks through the wax. This blackish web “sits” on top of the oranges and off whites: there’s similar depth to others, at NAC, such as two small works on the back wall. Primarily whitish, the small dots and blots of colour in them make these encaustics resemble mould or colourful lichen. Another triptych have wax and colour like icing or fudge, slathered on a form and now cooled and hardened.

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Returning to Williams’ contours, another sentiment that informs her work takes shape: that the process is not so much about control, but about setting up a framework (some rules, a specific technique) to get to the end result.

This returns again to “embracing randomness”: Williams expressed a dislike for very “formal” drawing, with the pressure of intention in a “final result.” With blind contours, if she looked she’d want to make it “perfect”, remove and erase any marks that aren’t “good enough”, with over determination ruining potential creativity. She prefers “taking chances, embracing the questionable nature of the outcome, and the process that defines all” (there’s a similarity to William Griffiths’ ongoing painted process where a work is never truly “finished”).

encaustic8 encaustic10If she’s unhappy with a piece, it’s recycled, or discarded: “fearless creativity. Step up to the edge and take the chance of destroying the piece if there’s a chance you can make it better.”

The break from one process to another fosters continuous work (“encaustic painting day”, as it takes four or five hours, but contours are fast and more social. This was clear with In the Soil, as it became a social performative space, of the drawing with participants and collaborators).

Photography is perhaps the most technically formal of Williams’ work, with f stops / light readings, focal lengths and such. But in creating multiple replicated images, it has an element of experimentation where you can discard or repeat. When asked about her “most significant piece of the past year”, Amber indicated that being introduced to photography as an art form was notable. She’d always enjoyed taking pictures, but with the influence of a class taught by the fine artist Amy Friend (an excellent artist / educator) she’s begun exploring analog, film, lumen prints, pinhole and “hasn’t felt this obsession since discovering encaustic”. It’s a medium that she can see working with for some time. She mentioned  an artist whom she’s interested in right now, Joseph Parra: a young, Baltimore-based photographer who produces CMYK screen prints of photographs printed by hand, or photos that are sanded, cut, braided and that represent more than just the physical identity of the subject. This is similar to what Williams wants to do with her blind contours and photography. She also cited the necessity of it being tactile and that it has that immediate physical connection, both to her and viewers.

If you missed Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity (all the images in this post are from that exhibition), Amber will be exhibiting more photographic works at NAC in November, and more of her work can be seen here.

 

In the Soil, Sewer Music

To write about visual art is in itself a difficult endeavour that attempts to graft speech onto vision (usually): to apply language to audio art is equally rife for fracture. But sometimes those “failures” are the most interesting, as they break expectations or assumptions. More possibilities present themselves.

It is, to paraphrase Duncan MacDonald, like going to an art school to make music, because most music schools are a bit more prescribed, and won’t allow the transgression of artmaking in their hallowed halls. There’s an aspect of this, in his collaborative piece for In The Soil, titled Music for Sewers, that privileges the experiential: attempting to put what you hear and feel into words degrades your experience, and only limits your interaction. Eleanor Antion, a significant if underrated artist associated with the FLUXUS group of the ’60s, put it best: “All art works are conceptual machines…All art exists in the mind.”

And art in the public sphere where the environment and audiences are so diverse and different that they deny classification, makes it “worse” – or “better”, perhaps. In John Perreault’s Street Music I, “he dialed calls for two hours from one midtown Manhattan telephone booth to another and hung up after three rings, which may or may not have been heard by passersby. It was a work so displaced, scattered, and marginal that it resided only in the imagination of the artist and the audience to whom it was later described.”(Paglia, from her Glittering Images).

But back to the installation proper: although MacDonald is the designated artist, its really a variation on the improvisational performances that he’s done with several fellow artists. Listed like a band lineup, MacDonald does “bangy things”, Ben Mikuska “big strings”, Arnie McBay “skinny strings”, and my favourite designation: Greg Betts provides “face.” Music for Sewers will be in the old raceway (visible from MacDonald’s office in the MIWSFPA), the watery offshoot of the old Welland Canal, that used to power the Canada Hair Cloth Building that the Walker absorbed and reformed. The “adaptive re use of the industrial Hair Cloth building” as the architect of the MIWSFPA stated once displays that “we were very aware of the palimpsest of history in your building.” This manifests in many small ways: Music for Sewers might be another example.

The project statement is delightfully honest and fresh: “We have been improvising and making what at times could be referred to as music for about 4 years now. This installation work will be our first public presentation as of yet”.

Now, the performances have been recorded, if untraditionally and experimentally. But MacDonald was coy about whether there’d be a speaker in the sewer or if his merry band would be “below”, translating their frenzy to a “public sphere.”

If you detect a hint of the absurd here, you’re correct: its in the spirit of John Cage, who could make some deep points about listening / creating in a manner that cast the whole framework of assumptions in a critical – perhaps heretical – light. In conversation about Sewers, Jacques Attali’s book Noise: Political Economy of Music was spoken of, by MacDonald, as a touchstone for experiencing this aural intervention beneath our feet and street. It’s an odd text that proposes a number of ideas about how we understand “music” which meld nicely with the visceral immediacy of Sewers. Attali talks about a way of thinking, not about objects and commodity but wider conversations. His division of the history of music offers gems like “repeating” where performances of music are all about a fidelity of imitation of an idealized, “perfect” recording.

Sewers isn’t that. It’s a site of reactionary reactive collaborative noise performance; a “readyfelt” (like readymade) physical experience of audio (like Darren Copeland or Myriam Bleau, who construct very formal, technically heavy situation, then react intuitively and instinctively within it). Past public audio interventions MacDonald played a hand in were Music Box Revolving Door, which led to pedestrians pausing unexpectedly to rethink their relationship to where they are / were, or another public art piece in Kitchener where “the entrance to city hall becomes a music box.” Again, absurd plays on propriety and perverted expectations that make you see the wider possibilities of experience.

In the heady days of late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism, an experience of unexpected “Sewer Music” is less about a “use” but moreso a “joy” value. Picture a balloon, a gleeful and treasured “nothing” filled with air, all temporal emptiness but a well known symbol of happiness and celebration. Here we come back to Attali, talking about how we must “possess” music, and thus collect it in an artificial form that is so exact and defined it denies the original, unique, ephemeral, shared performative experience…

Music for Sewers will be brief, fleeting, then only a memory. If you tell someone you heard it, they may assume you’re just delusional. Description may be impossible: but it will be a unique, perhaps impossible to “code” into words, experience. Go and seek it out.