TIFF – red carpets, questionable dresses, celebrities telling each other how much they admire each other, and hysterical journalists. Let's face it, the Toronto International Film Festival (the event, I stress, not the actual films), is hardly a moment when Toronto turns pensive and inward-looking. Unless you go to the art installations.
Future Projections, a well-curated collection of time-based works installed in two venues in Yorkville, a handful of spots in club land and all along the gallery district west of Bathurst (why no east-end participation?) – is an engrossing, frequently patience-testing (in the good way) program that encompasses everything from re-workings of cult cinema to faux documentaries to traditional video art. And it is 100-per-cent starlet-free.
I distrust "best of" lists, but a film festival is sort of asking for it, so here are my three top picks from the Future Projections selection. Sadly, there is no Oscar buzz attached to any of these projects. Art is cruel.
Ben Rivers at Gallery TPW
Until Oct. 1, 56 Ossington Ave., Toronto
British-based artist Ben Rivers's four-part 16-millimetre film Slow Action, playing at Gallery TPW, is one of the most complicated works in the series, and one of the most problematic.
Rivers offers the viewer scenes of devastation, abandonment and ecological ruin, all accompanied by a documentary-style series of voiceovers, written by the science-fiction author Mark von Schlegell. The central conceit of Rivers's project is that the voiceover narration – which describes a network of non-existent societies, utopian/dystopian fantasy lands influenced by 1970s sci-fi films ( Zardoz and Logan's Run come quickly to mind), Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos: Archives novels, and mid-century BBC anthropological documentaries – does not match the parade of destroyed, uninhabitable, or otherwise fraught landscapes captured on film.
This is great fun, especially when the narration slides into outright silliness, a kind of sci-fi comedy, until, unfortunately, actual human beings living in ruined landscapes show up onscreen.
The middle section of Slow Action is made up of footage taken on the atolls that constitute the island nation of Tuvalu, a deeply impoverished Pacific micro-state prone to flooding exacerbated by global warming. As we watch children play in garbage and look at homes made out of scrap materials culled from nearby mountains of flood wreckage, the narrator informs us that life on this island, which is given another name and a fake history, is "particularly novelistic."
How to unpack this conflation? Is Rivers mocking anthropology's tendency to romanticize poverty? Or, is Rivers showing us an endangered space and attempting to create a new trajectory for said space, via fantasy? Or, is it all a form of particularly arch British humour? If the latter, the joke falls flat. Living in garbage is never funny.
I found this section of the film so distressing, I almost walked out. At best, one could argue that the artist's intentions are larger than the immediate shock the viewer experiences. (Indeed, the didactics for the project tell us that because Tuvalu displays "a significant degree of life and activity despite its dire straits, [Rivers and von Schlegell]feel comfortable adopting a lighthearted tone.") One could say that Rivers seeks to create a new narrative for Tuvalu, a new set of possibilities. But that's a very generous interpretation for what appears to be a nasty sight-versus-sound gag, and I'm not certain I buy the official explanation.
An otherwise stellar installation is marred by this too casual, poorly-thought-out use (or abuse) of footage conveying other people's misfortune.
Duane Hopkins at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
Until Sunday , 952 Queen St. W., Toronto
The multiscreen installation by Duane Hopkins at MOCCA, entitled Sunday, mines similar terrain, but with far more clarity, if not, at times, overdetermination.
Hopkins's series of videos depict U.K. youth aimlessly seeking entertainment in an abandoned, overgrown housing project. (If you are sensing an end-of-the-world vibe coming from Future Projections, don't fight your instincts.) The boys cycle in circles, swing from telephone wires, kick garbage dumpsters and smoke while staring at the sun.
These works are given added, more toxic relevance by this summer's riots in Britain (events neither the artist nor the TIFF programmers could have anticipated), a time when the lid flew off the dirty, perpetually roiling "chav" against "posh" pot. For vast numbers of people in the U.K., Britain is a failed state, a state where one might as well spend the day kicking cans, because there is literally nothing else to do.
If, at times, Hopkins appears to overplay the class-war ennui, it's more likely that his tight looping (the sequences last about 10 seconds each, then replay and are very loud) is too jarring, and thus gives the viewer time only to react, to jump to the most literal interpretation. But you'll never be bored.
Nicholas and Sheila Pye at Birch Libralato
Until Oct. 15, 129 Tecumseth St., Toronto
Finally, if you see nothing else in the Future Projections series, see Nicholas and Sheila Pye's gorgeous projected videos at Birch Libralato. In what is essentially a suite of intimate character studies, the Pyes present the dream-fuelled lives of a couple, played by themselves, who are simultaneously haunted by Romantic visions and repulsed by Romance's downside, morbidity.
Sheila floats above her bed while her sheets bubble and twist beneath her. Nicholas watches a parakeet struggle to free itself from a tether. Sheila and Nicholas eat blood-red roses, then pull the petals from their mouths and re-assemble the flowers. Sheila, dressed in a flowing white nightgown, hovers over the floor, spinning like a feather caught in a dust devil.
Love, these videos argue, is messy and transcendent, merciless and (literally) elevating, mesmerizing and idiotic. The Pyes have made a grand, sweeping rom-not-so-com, minus the bad dialogue.
In other venues
CAFKA: Survive. Resist
Until Oct. 2, various artists and venues, Kitchener-Waterloo region.
A cross-pollinating biennale now in its 8th configuration, CAFKA (Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area) brings art to the people, and vice versa, with buoyant, but thoughtful glee. Look for video interventions by Jenn E. Norton, scrapyard rejiggings by Soheila Esfahani and performance provocations by Mammalian Diving Reflex.
Rachel Wong at KWT Contemporary
Until Oct. 1, 624 Richmond St. W., Toronto
Winner of the 2010 RBC Glass Award, Wong twists the hard liquid around her little finger like a besotted lover. Seashells and single-cell organisms, intestines and seed pods, all captured in pristinely painted and polished glass, bounce off the gallery walls in a mad cascade. Let's give her the 2011 prize too.
Post No Bills at MADE
Until Oct. 8, 867 Dundas St. W., Toronto
Multimedia collective No Idea slathered MADE's backyard fencing with hundreds of manic, faux advertising posters – all designed by the collective – and then left their pretty assemblage to rot in the rain. Someone call Mayor Rob Ford's graffiti SWAT team!