Massive art and music fest In/Future brings Ontario Place back to life
The story of how a tiny arts organization collaborated with 30-plus partners to pull off the year's most ambitious one-of-a-kind festival yet
SEPTEMBER 14, 2016
Update! Get a closing weekend pass, good from September 22 - 25, for just $40.
What do you do when you have less than 12 months to plan an enormous music and art festival?
That's the question Rui Pimenta and Layne Hinton of Art Spin bike tours faced when they got the green light to host In/Future on Ontario Place's largely abandoned West Island .
"Immediately realizing the scale of it, we started reaching out to creative partners," says Hinton.
Not that it was their first rodeo. Curators Pimenta and Hinton had taken 300 or so people to the site last summer for one of their art tours, so they were on familiar territory. And since 2009, Art Spin has commissioned artists and musicians to create site-specific works in some of the city's unlikeliest pockets, from rickshaw residencies to a pit behind the Tower Automotive Building on Sterling Road. Participants pedal in a mass ride to each installation or performance.
But now they had 14 acres to program with a small team and an even tinier budget, so they knew they needed help. Pimenta contacted the Small World Music Festival, a world music fest now in its 15th year.
"We were so excited by the site from our early visits, we felt the best way to do this was to bring potential partners on site for visits," he says. "Once they saw it, they were either convinced or they weren't. If they were, they started presenting ideas for what they would want to do and where they would want to do it. So things unfolded very organically that way."
Small World's Alan Davis was an easy sell, signing on as music curator. Gradually, artists, choreographers, gallerists, curators, sponsors and more - from the Power Plant to OCAD to Wavelength and Vtape - visited the iconic, shuttered Cinesphere. They toured the concrete silos, the old helipad site on the water and the precious log ride (the least educational but most thrilling component of the experience) to get inspired.
If you remember Ontario Place's thriving years through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the site might bring back memories of seeing performers like Miles Davis or Bruce Cockburn at the Forum or watching the tummy-flipping North Of Superior on the Cinesphere's IMAX screen - only to line up to watch it all over again as soon as it ended.
Before the province closed Ontario Place in September 2011 due to low attendance, some of us had gone on school field trips where we learned about the province's natural resources and how weather works. For those without that nostalgia, there's a different kind of allure: the site brings to mind those photos on the internet of distant Olympic host cities where futuristic-looking structures and facilities have been abandoned and forgotten. When a maintenance worker drives by in a pickup, the movie Jurassic Park springs to mind; a mad genius could easily be up to some sinister science tucked away down here.
"My first visit to the dystopian ruins of the West Island of Ontario Place was unforgettable," remembers choreographer Peggy Baker, whose show The Perfect Word will be on in Silo #3. "Rui walked me through a labyrinth of silos and pods connected by elevated sidewalks and invited me to choose a space. I had no idea if I would be assigned one of just two locations that I thought could work, and waiting for confirmation was nerve-racking."
"We're taking all our cues from the West Island and Ontario Place and its history," Hinton says. "It's interesting because they built the space with all these futuristic ideas and utopian models, but they were also referencing something from the recent past. So we've been interested in that relationship, the play of time the site seems to hold."
Each day of the 11-day fest has a different program, with lots of room for spontaneous experiences, too. In addition to 50-plus installations by artists like Max Dean, who's repurposing elements of the defunct Wilderness Adventure Ride within its fibreglass cave, there's a full slate of onstage performances and Cinesphere film and music.
Montreal's MUTEK is bringing experimental and improvisational musicians who will play alongside some of the Cinesphere's greatest hits flown in from IMAX headquarters in Los Angeles as well as contemporary visual works by local and international artists.
The Small World musical offerings are consistent with the concept, too.
"A lot what we're dealing with are artists who are interpreting old, traditional music for modern times, whether it's BaBa ZuLa coming from Istanbul - they've been doing this psychedelic rock based on Turkish roots - or Dhol Foundation making their Canadian debut from London," Davis says. "I mean, it's a Punjabi bongo drumming group doing this spectacular, modern show. So it's interpreting a lot of these old traditions for modern sensibilities."
Oh, and did I mention that the entire island is licensed? That's right: if you'd like a beer before you swing by the Art Metropole pop-up shop, you won't be cordoned off to some sad corner plastered with logos. Wander with drink in hand and put your map down for a minute. A DJ could start spinning on the beach in the afternoon, or an artist may float by on a swan boat.
It's the kind of event that sounds almost too good to be true in a city like Toronto. Since when did government agencies get cool? Denelle Balfour, media relations officer at the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, wasn't eager to expand on that question (which, don't worry, I posed in different words). But she did confirm that the ministry is continuing with plans to revitalize the area. The first phase, a 7.5 hectare park and trail, won't open until 2017 due to delays, which proved a blessing for these festival organizers.
The city's many development projects have opened up opportunities for site-specific shows and events like this (and Luminato's Hearn programming earlier this year) as more people become interested in Toronto's fading histories. In/Future could be setting a precedent for all kinds of collaborative and ambitious experiments down the line. Not that it was painless for these trailblazers.
"It's been a passion project for a lot of people, and I think that creates a like-mindedness that actually makes the collaborative part of the experience really wonderful," Pimenta says. "It would just be nice to have, y'know, a little more lead time and a little more money. But that's the nature of unique opportunities like this one: they come up, it's a limited, narrow window of opportunity and you run with it or you lose it."