“Thank you for your postcard. Happy Ok.Quoi?!”
Laura Watson’s words arrive in my Sackville community mailbox midway through the weeklong Sackville art festival Ok.Quoi?! The envelope that houses them is adorned with a Leonard Nimoy Spock stamp and drawings of birds.
If Ok.Quoi?! asked for an emblem, Watson’s Sackville Special Mail Exchange would be an ideal reply. During the festival’s run of July 25 to 31, anyone in the Sackville area who chooses to participate by sending her mail receives an individualized parcel that includes her original drawings and other art objects.
Watson sets up Monday-to-Friday in the front room at Struts artist-run centre, displaying the incoming and outgoing mail on two separate strings that decorate the wall behind her table. The set-up reproduces the warm commerce of a small-town post office. Her project is a localized version of an ongoing international one that Watson promotes and administers on her website and through Tumblr.
“It is nice to have an actual, visible, physical presence in the community,” Watson says. “Whereas usually what I’m doing is tucked away.”
It would be nearly impossible to feel “tucked away” at Ok.Quoi?!
Throughout the week the entire community is enjoined to interact and collaborate with the festival’s 25 artists, whether we are visitors or residents, participants or audience.
It is as if the entire town has briefly transformed into a utopian post office—one where there is no junk mail. Our correspondence has broadened to include experimental music, graphic novels, noontime barbecues, film screenings, alleyway installations and karaoke caves.
The door to the Struts Gallery and Faucet Media Arts Centre—the organizing force and main hub for Ok.Quoi?!—does not close once all week. My memory of this image might be metaphoric, with the perpetually open door expressing the reciprocal movements of artist-run centre and community.
“We set up an environment through the context of a weeklong festival, but it is the participating artists that make Ok.Quoi?! what it is each year,” observes Amanda Fauteux, the program manager at Struts and Faucet.
There is a long-standing collaborative relationship between Struts and Faucet, the large music festival Sappyfest (which starts just as Ok.Quoi?! is winding down), and the region’s experimental music community (specifically, Motion Ensemble and Open Arts).
In Fauteux’s words, the collaboration helps ensure that “although Ok.Quoi?! has continued to change over its 12 years, the essential character of the festival has been constant.”
Experimental music is one constant throughout the week.
There are daily outdoor performances of Liens intimes et problématiques, a 96-page score by Acadian composer André Cormier. Every page is a sonic segment that each member of the string quartet explores differently and together, with a silence that pushes them to the next page once the designated leader lands on a particular note.
The piece would take five or six hours to perform in its entirety. Ensemble Sisyphe, the quartet performing the piece, rolls the rock a little further up the hill for exactly an hour each afternoon.
Cormier, who attends every performance, is pleasantly surprised that each performance has lasted exactly an hour.
“It’s hilarious. There is a lot of freedom in that score. I thought that some days would be 15 minutes over or 10 minutes under,” Cormier says. “I can’t figure it out. I really don’t know how it is happening with all the freedom they have.”
On the first day of the festival, I am running five minutes late, and so I follow the sounds of strings to their source in the Sackville Waterfowl Park. I have a brief worry that the “experiment” in experimental might be to make the music sound like waterfowl. It is not.
When I reach the site, the challenge is to find shade. It all appears to be occupied, so I settle for a sunny bench beside the performers. The quartet has brought its own shade, in the form of a tent. All the musicians are barefoot. The sounds they make seem to bend the marsh grasses.
Andrew R. Miller, the bassist and founder of Motion Ensemble, later describes the experience as “four different colours coming together.”
Black and white are the only colours that artist Patrick Allaby requires to absorb us in his graphic novel Record Hunting—the narrative of a father’s relationship with his teenaged son, as mediated through the ritual of record shopping in New Brunswick’s six record stores. I am the first one to grab a copy of the book after Allaby sets up his table at Struts and Faucet prior to the performance.
Allaby is a recent graduate of Mount Allison’s Fine Arts program, and he currently interns at the university’s Owens Art Gallery. His books are stacked on a table in front of a sign that suggests “$10?”
No one knows who to pay for the books. I assume it is Allaby. I walk up to him and give him $10. He excitedly follows me back to the table saying “pick a good one. They’re all different. Silk screening by Laura Watson.” I pick a good one. They are all good ones, and they quickly sell out.
There is a good gallery buzz for this event, which doubles as the opening reception of the festival. Pretzels, beer and wine. Allaby is bouncing around the room beforehand. The audience, 30-plus people strong, settles in.
“You’re too punctual,” Fauteux tells us after welcoming everyone at 7:30 p.m. “We’ll wait five more minutes for the latecomers.”
At 7:35, Allaby’s bio is recited and he starts right into the narrative, projecting Record Hunting images through Powerpoint and reading to us. No framing or banter required.
“I don’t like doing autobiographical stuff,” he tells me the next day at lunch. “I didn’t want it to be about my record buying.” The dad character is “based off a collection of dads. My friend’s dad actually painted J. Geils Band “Live” Full House cover art on a bedroom wall.”
Allaby noticed the moment in the narrative where the audience stopped laughing, after a joke about there being only “one type of person [who] ever listened to” KISS, Roxy Music and Lou Reed “back in the day.” The dad character, at that point, becomes nervous about what the record choices might reveal about his son’s sexuality. An earlier version that Allaby performed at Fredericton’s Flourish Festival in April of this year stopped before this moment, which opens up into a poignant, critical exploration of the Dad’s homophobia.
A train whistle fills the room as Allaby reads to the assembled audience. He does not pause to note it. He is on a roll.
The next day’s concert moves inside St. Paul’s Church, due to the threat of rain. Karin Aurell, on leave from her summer gig in the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra to participate in Ok.Quoi?!, scouted the locations for the performances. She has chosen a back-up venue wisely. The silences are more intense than yesterday, even though the doors are open. There are six chairs, back-to-backed in an impression of an octagon, at the centre of the room.
“We think that the best seats are in the middle,” Aurell says.
Birds chirp outside in the in-between silences. Did someone tell them the show had moved here for the day? I imagine them attending yesterday’s show and finding us again. Inside a church. Come on in. Half the band is barefoot.
We listen with the attentiveness of apprentices. Our ringers are turned off.
I scan the pages over the shoulder of the cello player, Katie Bestvater. We are up to sound event #38 or #39 by the midway point. I move from the edge of the room into the vague octagon, as Aurell had hoped. It gives you a view of the performance as a communication between the musicians which is then simultaneously directed at you.
Taking a plastic water bottle inside the church feels risky at this point. It would compress and expand so conspicuously. That kind of atmosphere. We are expanding.
Aurell is promoted from location scout to music star for Tuesday evening’s performance of Cormier’s Church Forest. Church Forest is an extremely straight score, a live recording of 10 six-minute segments of Aurell playing flute while her sister, Gerd, manipulates images on an overhead projector. The segments are layered and played back as a single six-minute piece at the end.
“Visual art meets music” is how Cormier characterizes the performance. To him, Aurell is like a painter. “Karin plays the part unmusically. Like an artist plots on a canvas. At the end we get a sum of the precise gestures made throughout the performance.”
There are rituals and open invitations to complement the evening fare. In addition to the daily concert, there is a barbecue in the lot outside of Struts and Faucet, hosted by a different organization each day. A banner hangs above us that advertises a “Friday BBQ.” The same banner is up all week.
The barbecues make mundane art out of conversation. Here is a sampling things overheard: “Dogs love Diet Coke,” “too hot to go to sleep,” “what time does that rock show start tonight?” “fried onions are also my number-one favourite,” “this hasn’t touched anything yet. I’ll just stab it,” “be sure to like us on Yelp,” “I won the workshop,” “it’s got no brakes at all,” “cheeseburger in paradise” (singing), “beneath this happy façade is a broken man,” “I’m like a psychedelic band,” “it’s Wednesday. Take your sleeves off,” “vampire mohawk,” “good job on the CBC. Wow.”
There is also a different video installation each day at the Legion. They run on a loop all afternoon, so you never know exactly where your arrival syncs up with the narrative. I climb the stairs and pull back the black curtains. People are playing bingo below us. The game goes on all week.
On the first day, I see Lisa Theriault’s The Housesitter, a short film about the awkward tourism of housesitting and cat sitting, which symbolizes the anxieties surrounding the transition from school to whatever comes after.
“The film is very much inspired by true events,” Theriault tells me. “I had graduated a year ago and my former professor [Leah Garnett] asked me to housesit for a few months in the summer. I was still thinking a lot about what I was going to do next, now that school was over and ‘life’ was beginning, and staying in this house was like trying a life on.”
Mackerel the cat has Theriault to thank for his star turn. “A big part of capturing the shots came from living in the house with him for two months before I filmed the short,” Theriault confides. “By then, I knew what his habits were and it was just a case of setting up the camera in the right place at the right time. He really became a crucial personality in the film!”
The film is pitch perfect on the oscillating freedom and anxiety that defines the interaction between sitter and structure.
The next day I take in Amanda Dawn Christie’s Off Route 2. I sense that I have arrived after the precipitating event. A car is upturned on a snowy road. A bone protrudes from the driver’s arm. Wolves stalk. Deer prance. Snow falls. Steam rises from the bottom of the car. The driver shivers and shudders, immobilized beneath the wreck. There is no visual representation of the crash, I realize the second time through.
Christie pulls some powerful themes out of the wreck: “If you have a crash, you normally have to wait a long while for the responders to arrive,” she says, “and that waiting is never presented to us on screen. A lot of our lives are filled with waiting and waiting can be beautiful, but we never see it mirrored back to us in mainstream media.”
The third day’s installation is Jon Claytor’s The Animals. The film has a disjointed coherence. Things I see: juxtapositions of ocean and tundra; a sasquatch paddling; people swimming; people struggling through a snowy landscape; twins forming in a mother’s stomach. Things I hear: dark chords and profound guitar strumming; a faint scientific explanation of birth.
It is a film about survival without the comforting “-ist” tacked on.
The ending of Claytor’s film reminds me of lines from the closing paragraph of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, as a woman disappears into the sea: “She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again.”
The fourth installation is Buschbabies, by Andrea Thorne and Will Vandermeulen. If it were not already a music video for JOYFULTALK, it could be the music video for Claytor’s film. A glittering figure in a full coverage nylon suit wanders a landscape.
“With some improvisation,” Thorne says, “the video evolved into a story about some sort of being searching for an always elusive and maybe unobtainable crystal portal.”
Thorne also has a film featured in Wednesday’s Super 8 Hotel Film Festival. The films are projected onto a two-storey sheet that hangs beside the “Friday BBQ” banner. There are more people than chairs. The screening is scheduled to start at 9 p.m., but it is not dark enough. We wait for the darkness. There are chips and corn snacks. All of the festival artists are here. All of the children of Sackville. All of the mosquitoes of the world. They distribute two bottles of Off. Where are all the bats?
The Super 8 images that are still with me a week later (and the names of the filmmakers to credit for them): a beach relative walking his smile into the camera (Linda Rae Dornan), a key in a toilet bowl (C.L. McLaughlin), suburban streets overlaid on rainbows (Hailey Guzik), a dim island (Evan Furness), a sheet with a face (sophia bartholomew), a sheet swallowed by the ocean (Rena Thomas and Kallie Garcia), the ocean (Shamus Griffith).
The Super 8 Hotel Film Festival started 15 years ago, strictly as a workshop. I talk with Ryan Suter, the media arts manager at struts and faucet, about the event.
“It’s evolved into a small-gauge film festival,” Suter says. The first two films of the evening are digitized; the rest are traditional Super 8s, with no post-production. “With the exception of Hailey [Guzik] and Evan [Furness], all of them had shot Super 8 before. They [Hailey and Evan] are the first generation who isn’t really familiar with working with film—with shooting something and having to wait a week to see it.”
Suter also tells me where I can find José Luis Torres’s Passage installation. Throughout the week, Torres is building an “improvised suburb” out of found materials. It will remain for some time after the utopian post office of Ok.Quoi?! has closed.
“Think like a teenager who wants to get high in secret during the day,” Suter says. “If you’re feeling sketchy, you’re going the right way.”
I eventually abandon my instincts and go find Torres’s space as detailed in the Ok.Quoi?! program—in an alley between Downtown Digital and Jean Coutu on Main Street. Two volunteer assistants (Ilse Kramer and Dashiel Edson) are stacking objects for a structure that will eventually be taller than a regulation basketball hoop, and bright green.
Chairs, doors, shovels, brooms, skiffs and other objects climb the side of Downtown Digital, the original home of The Sackville Tribune-Post. The matte, brownish alley vegetation sharply contrasts with the bright green object.
Torres’s installation shines out from the alley onto the street into next week.
Hopefully, Torres’s installation is permanent. Unfortunately, Ok.Quoi?! is not.
It is the festival’s final year.
SoLong?!!?iouQkO is the title of Sackville-based artist Adriana Kuiper’s reversible drawing that supplies the centrefold for the festival program. It looks to me like two gramophones touching faces. I also see a black heart.
I want it on a postcard.
So long, Ok. Quoi?! If we read between the lines together, we find familiar funding challenges for artist-run centres. We also discover a community that is excited about other projects, which may not bear the name Ok. Quoi?!, but will be imbued with its spirit.
The festival’s final send-off concludes in a place that everyone should feel they need to be: karaoke in a cave constructed by the G.L.A.M. Bats. We are in on the joke, which includes a fanny-pack auction.
“Ok. Quoi?! would sing any karaoke song you dared it to,” according to Fauteux. “Why? This little festival likes to have fun and is not afraid to fail.”
Geordie Miller is a poet. This past year he taught creative writing at Mount Allison and earned his PhD from Dalhousie. His book (Re:union) was published with Invisible in 2014.
This article is part of Canadian Art’s year-long Spotlight on New Brunswick series, created with the support of the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation.