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Art Spin: Critical Mass in the Making

Recently I found myself in an unusual position as an art critic: having to elbow my way through more than 300 other art-goers, many carrying bike helmets and panniers, to try to get a glimpse of Douglas Coupland’s recent solo exhibition, “The 21st Century Continues…” at Toronto’s Daniel Faria Gallery. It’s not the popularity of Coupland’s work that’s odd. The best-selling novelist and, now, successful visual artist is something of a Canadian cultural icon, and this current body of work—a series of sculptures and paintings that mimic the Pop aesthetic of artists like Roy Lichtenstein—riffs on the ways digital information has an impact on our perception of global travel, playfully using forms like a universal luggage barcode to depict a setting sun on a low horizon, or a set of sequentially smaller globes atop one another to create an Earth Kebab.

Coupland’s work looks like what popular culture would have us think contemporary art is supposed to look like. It’s familiar, referencing Modernist masters in a tongue-in-cheek way, and using common symbols and everyday materials. What was unfamiliar at Faria’s usually spare, loft-like space was the past-capacity, attentive, enthusiastic audience that any major Toronto art institution—the AGO and the Power Plant immediately come to mind—would love to attract. Children wandered carefully among the sculptures. People stopped to point at details in the images and consult one another for interpretations. And, when a gallery assistant offered to speak about the works in the show, the massive crowd gathered to politely listen.

This was my introduction to Art Spin, a monthly bicycle tour of contemporary art exhibitions and installations organized by Rui Pimenta and Layne Hinton that has become rabidly popular since its inception in 2010. Combining tours of gallery exhibitions with specially commissioned projects and performances, and always culminating in a reception and after-party at the final stop, Art Spin is a free, public event that implicitly promises a gentle introduction to the world of contemporary art. But Art Spin is also a curious social experiment that tests the conditions under which a large public is willing to engage with contemporary art. My shock at seeing Coupland’s exhibition overrun with viewers raises questions about what it is that we want from contemporary art and, more specifically, about what we expect from the space of the gallery versus the public spaces of the city. In what seems like a take on the how-many-people-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-light-bulb joke, Art Spin provokes questions about whether it requires the company of hundreds of strangers and the sanction of an organized bike tour to make contemporary art feel approachable.

These questions were prompted by the unusual perspective I had on that July tour, one which, at times, had me making easy conversation with other cyclists, and awkwardly waving to home owners standing on their front lawns, like some forgotten representative of one of the less fashionable royal families. I was perched in the back of a bicycle rickshaw—there as Art Spin’s first writer-in-residence through a Rickshaw Residency program initiated by Casey Hinton. The idea was to sit back and watch the event unfold, while my driver, Chris Litt, followed the rest of the cyclists, and to try to write about the art I was seeing along the way. Writing from that strange perspective—literally elevated and public, but also at a remove from the crowd—forced me to consider the role of criticism in an environment like this. Was my job to critique the art, or the event, or both? Was it fair to evaluate artworks that are meant to be seen in passing, in the course of a one-time event, and by large crowds, using the same criteria I’d employ in the quiet, protracted viewing space of the gallery?

Part art crawl and part public demonstration (the huge parade of cyclists ends up briefly blocking car traffic along the route and might at first resemble a subdued version of the monthly cycling demonstration, Critical Mass), Art Spin offers some of the spectacle of events like Nuit Blanche, but does so in an understated, family-friendly way. Unlike Nuit Blanche, there are no drunken teenagers in the crowd. The makeup of the audience is closer to that of a farmer’s market than a typical gallery opening. And the art projects presented along the way also stray from the bigger-is-better formula that seems to drive those larger corporate events, opting instead for a DIY sensibility that seems more aligned with artist-run culture. At the park where the tour met up, for instance, Faye Mullen’s Studio Crate—a tiny plywood studio space that the artist moves from site to site by hand crate—operated as a commentary on the precarious, nomadic nature of artists’ production spaces and also drew attention to the physical labour that goes into making art. Alongside the Complete Streets Band, who performed throughout the tour from a moving flatbed trailer (attached to a bicycle instead of a truck), the two peripatetic projects echoed Coupland’s fascination with international travel, but suggested its dark underside: that, with ever-busier itineraries, art has to be made in transit, wherever a small space can be found.

At other stops on the tour, the performances’ responsiveness to the sites felt more strained. An improvised sound performance by the Somewhere There Collective at St. Anne’s Anglican Church was aurally stunning, but seemed to rely on the venue’s incredible architecture and interior design to provide any visual interest. A musical and dance performance by Bluemouth Incorporated in front of the foreboding parking lot behind the West Lodge Apartments suffered from the reverse problem: the imposing structure of the building visually overwhelmed the performers, the Brutalist design at odds with the set’s bluegrass aesthetic.

Art Spin works best when the specially commissioned projects are responsive to both the site and the tour’s format. At the fourth stop of the night—a series of warehouse studios on Dufferin Street just north of Queen—the artist collective VSVSVS created a miniature world in one of the building’s loading bays, providing an oasis in the middle of the summer heat. Viewers were greeted at the door with freezies pulled from large coolers on the floor, and then entered a makeshift screening room where a double-sided screen displayed Frozen, the group’s edited compilation of YouTube videos depicting feats of bravery (occasionally verging on idiocy) in a variety of icy landscapes. A man uses a banana to hammer a nail into a post; a group of bundled pedestrians fights to stay upright against a gale-force snowstorm; dozens of people bravely submerge themselves in icy waters as part of various polar-bear swims (one group of men even crosses themselves, seemingly asking for divine protection—or intervention?—from the conditions). Curated by Rafi Ghanaghounian, the video was a reminder of the ways that the environment literally influences group behaviour, often with violent results.

At the last stop on the tour, Art Spin met art opening at the reception for “The Fernanda Faria Collection,” a group exhibition curated by Art Spin and drawn from the collector and Akau Framing–owner’s personal collection at the nameless 1093 Queen Street West gallery (once famously occupied by Thrush Holmes Empire). Faria’s collection boasts an impressive list of Toronto artists, including works by Daniel Barrow, Shary Boyle, Wanda Koop and Micah Lexier, but the stand-out piece in the exhibition was Philippe Blanchard’s installation New Troglodytes. Tucked away at the back of the gallery, Blanchard’s multicoloured stalactite and stalagmite forms, painted in geometric patterns with the RGB colour spectrum used to illuminate television and computer monitors, seemed to come to life when illuminated by stage lights hanging from the ceiling, shimmering and dancing along to an electronic composition by Fan Fiction. By transposing the two-dimensional aesthetics of early-1990s video games into a three-dimensional immersive environment, Blanchard’s installation served as a reminder of one of the strengths of contemporary art events like Art Spin: their ability to transform our perceptions of the world around us by staging an encounter between viewers and their physical environment, yielding surprising, ever-changing results.

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