Work crews in hard hats have been busy the last few weeks fixing the future.
Or, to be more precise, they’ve been repairing the future as it once was by the north shore of Lake Ontario. We’re talking, of course, about Ontario Place, that multiple-use pleasure/education zone of three islands fashioned by dumping umpteen mounds of landfill into the water just across from Exhibition Place.
The site, opened in May, 1971, after more than two years of construction, was the brainchild of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government which, like the rest of Canada, had been enamoured of what Montreal had wrought on the St. Lawrence River with its fabled Expo ’67. The Tories were keen to have something equally far-out and futuristic for Toronto and Ontar-i-ar-i-ar-i-o.
Funny thing about the future, though: it gets old; it gets scuffed; it gets weedy. Or at least its emblems do. What once seemed the very incarnations of the future – at Ontario Place, this would be the geodesic Cinesphere, the pods-on-stilts structures on the centre island and the diamond-shaped pavilions on its west island – become, over time, the fodder of nostalgia, saying more about the era in which they were conceived than what they seemed to portend.
Which perhaps, in part, explains why, after additions and fixes, including a $10-million refurbishment in 2010, then sundry redevelopment and enhancement proposals, Ontario’s Liberal government closed Ontario Place in February, 2012, and punted its future into, well … the future.
Now, however, the site appears on the cusp of a mini-revival, or at least the six hectares that make up the complex’s western island are. Beginning Sept. 15, the former amusement park site is going to host the first In/Future art festival and the 15th annual Small World Music Festival.
A symbiotic exercise, the dual festival is set to run over 11 days and feature at least 60 art installations, indoors and out, plus more than 45 performers appearing in concert and wandering the locale.
Even Cinesphere is re-opening, to show such IMAX classics as North of Superior (1971) and Labyrinth IV (1972), plus newer works, while every day activist-artist Mary Coble will climb the structure’s exterior to its top and transmit a series of Morse code light messages to receivers scattered across the island. The event is licensed.
Many organizations are contributing time and talent to the project, including Dancemakers, Pleasure Dome, Owen Sound’s Tom Thomson Art Gallery, The Power Plant, Mutek and Wavelength. But the overall vision is courtesy of Rui Pimenta and Layne Hinton. They’re co-founders of Art Spin, started eight years ago as a bicycle-led tour of “Toronto galleries, institutions and organizations with existing content.”
From there, “it quickly evolved into us creating and commissioning our own content and pairing that content to certain locations,” Mr. Pimenta explained during a recent tour of the west island.
The genesis of In/Future occurred in early spring 2015 when Mr. Pimenta and Ms. Hinton pedalled down to Ontario Place to see if it might work for an Art Spin installation or two later in the year.
“We were really struck by how intriguing the space was,” Mr. Pimenta said. It was no longer this modernist conception of yore but “a sort of grey area between the natural and the artificial,” ripe for the re-imagining. “Really, it felt like it was calling out for being used in a special way.”
After successfully presenting two installations on the site in June that year, “the energy of it and people’s excitement got us and Ontario considering a larger project.” Negotiations then began to create what has since become In/Future.
Mr. Pimenta describes the festival as “something of a pilot project, a litmus test for Ontario Place to see how the location holds up hosting these kinds of events.” If it works, there very likely will be more – and with them, it’s hoped, the end of whatever talk there may still be about converting Ontario Place to a casino or condominium district.
Even in its heyday, Ontario Place was never a place you just visited; it was a destination, somewhat off the beaten path, that required a commitment from you and yours to get to. It’s still that way – “a trek,” in Mr. Pimenta’s words – even as “the city has grown up around it,” especially in the past 10 years. Mr. Pimenta admits to being “a little concerned” about the west island’s “relative separation” and the fact Ontario Place has been largely mothballed the last four years and therefore out of public consciousness. The hope is patrons, who can pay a $30 for a single admission or $90 for an 11-day pass, will stay for the better part of a day or make several return trips.
Mr. Pimenta added that Art Spin always wanted music to be part of the project and are pleased to have Small World Music’s executive director Alan Davis on board. Part of the appeal is simply numeric: After being around more than a decade, Mr. Davis’s festival has a large, loyal and multicultural audience. The hope, too, is “to cross-fertilize our respective audiences and communities,” Mr. Pimenta said.
The festival won’t lack for quirk. Max Dean, a 2014 winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts is re-purposing many of the animatronic figures, human and animal, that used to populate part of the defunct Wilderness Adventure ride.
He’s constructing a narrative in which the bears, moose, deer and miners, realizing they’ve been abandoned by the proprietors of Ontario Place, “take matters into their own hands and proceed to get themselves repaired,” with often grotesque results. In one tableau, based on Thomas Eakins’s famous 1875 painting The Gross Clinic, visitors will come across a full-size bull-moose on an operating table, its electronic innards exposed, as five human mannequins loom over the patient, seemingly pondering what to do next.
The In/Future art festival/Small World Music festival runs Sept. 15-24. It opens Sept. 15, 6 p.m.-11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 11 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 10 p.m.; Mon. through Thurs., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Further details at infuture.ca.