The Parliament Street silos, Luminato Festival, Toronto

What should have been a landmark event took place on a Saturday night last June in Toronto. The massive Victory Soya Mills silos on the Parliament Slip, just south of Toronto’s Distillery District, were the site of a projection piece by New York-based conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, staged as part of the city-wide but somewhat confounding Luminato Festival. It was rumoured that the projection was happening, although no event listing or details seemed to be forthcoming–not even an event date. I heard about it by word of mouth a day or two in advance.

We arrived before dark, spread fleece blankets over the grass and thistles of the rough ground and waited for things to take shape. Starting before nightfall, we had the pleasure of watching the project materialize gradually. As dusk turned into night, our friends arrived with bread and olives to share.

The apparatus for Holzer’s project was a Budget rental truck equipped with a generator. Light spilled from the truck in a widening beam that scrolled elongated words along the landscape. As they continued upwards, the words slid into proportion, becoming readable as they hit the face of the monolithic block of silos.

Holzer borrowed bracingly emotive texts from a range of international poets and canvas paintings, including Dan Wicks’ oversized canvas art, artworks by Wislawa Szymborska (Poland), Fadhil Al-Azzawi (Iraq) and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Disparate ideas were strung in a continuous thread by Holzer’s deft selections of text, each elevated to a scale of heightened significance and immediacy by its massive rendering–literally writ large. Many of the passages presented humanizing perspectives on ideas of conflict and peace; by allowing them to share the projection surface, Holzer dissolved cultural, political and territorial borders, making room for new intertextual complexities to develop.

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Mirroring the compelling force of the authors’ messages was the massive scale of the texts: standing storeys high, the impression of scale was enhanced by their brevity as they scrolled upward and slipped over the edge of the silo, dissolving into the sky.

Unable to pause or reverse the scrolling to fully absorb the ideas and images presented before each one disappeared, you were forced to surrender to the persistent stream of texts. As each idea rose in a layer over the last, your mind lingered on what you’d just read, making for a meal of surprising juxtapositions.

All formatting was in uppercase type, a kind textual “language” of the imperative mood. A passage from Yehuda Amichai’s “Wildpeace” read:

“… I KNOW THAT I KNOW HOW TO KILL, THAT MAKES ME AN ADULT. AND MY SON PLAYS WITH A TOY GUN THAT KNOWS HOW TO OPEN AND CLOSE ITS EYES AND SAY MAMA …”

We had camped off to one side to view the project, and as the letters wrapped nimbly around the contours of the silos, a new and elastic font was born of our oblique vantage point, its characters arbitrarily elongated or truncated, which we affectionately dubbed Silo (Sans Serif).

When the light met the landscape, it was thrown up in alarmingly stark relief–like crime-scene or car-crash lighting. As the evening progressed, viewers edged closer to the silo. Some gathered on the hills in the shadow of the lower edge of the projection, adding their silhouettes to the mix, while others explored the dramatic distortions achieved by viewing the projection from extreme angles of proximity.

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The spectacle made by Holzer’s piece had a dramatic effect on the industrial landscape below the Gardiner Expressway. The texts could be read from some distance, and those who biked along the lakeshore path or arrived by boat reported that the approach was stunning.

Despite this on-site visibility, and as striking as Holzer’s project was in its impact and elegance of execution, it suffered from an astonishing lack of promotion. Of the 40-odd people who actually saw the piece, most heard about it via word of mouth, or happened on it incidentally as they waited for the Luminato-chartered boat that ferried people between the Parliament Slip and Harbourfront Centre. Even the row of big-box-store “Muskoka-style” chairs that lined the makeshift boardwalk created for the festival sat facing away from the projection for a good part of the evening.

Pleased as I am to count myself among the lucky few who saw the work, I can’t help but see this promotional vacuum as an opportunity grossly wasted. Even now, a targeted Web search calls up only cursory references to Holzer’s inclusion in the Luminato Festival’s extensive program of co-sponsored events. A blog posting on a site maintained by Luminato refers to projections by Holzer also mounted at the Drake Hotel and the MaRS Discovery District, but no dates are posted there either.

The project was reportedly co-organized with Luminato by the Art Gallery of Ontario, which makes the event’s lack of profile doubly shocking. The increasing pervasiveness and success of city-wide events like Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche presents robust working models for amiable marriages between corporate sponsors and cultural practitioners, ensuring an audience of both the general public and arts insiders for truly challenging projects.

The organizers of this particular Luminato event missed their mark. Promoting a project by a world-renowned heavy-hitter like Jenny Holzer seems like a no-brainer: get the word out and the publicity takes care of itself.

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