Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Stylish pumpkins

I was walking through Mirvish Village on my way home from brunch on Sunday when I happened upon this pumpkin-carving competition for children.

Laughing Jack

"Can the judges convene here, please?" a woman was saying. "It's going to be hard to choose, they're all so good!" remarked one of the judges.

"It's okay if I don't win," a little girl announced to her mother. "I don't mind."

Thoroughly decorated pumpkin

Happy Halloween, everyone!


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hipster boys say the darndest things: Special indie rock edition

I haven't been overhearing many random remarks from Toronto's hipster boys lately: maybe I'm just not paying attention. Instead, here's some stage patter from concerts I have been to recently.

They Might Be Giants, Mod Club, July 23:
John Flansburgh: John, I don't understand what the hell you're talking about. Why don't you write about it on your blog?
John Linnell: [mysteriously] This is my blog.

Andrew Bird, Opera House, Sept. 25:
[Produces a See 'n' Say and points the arrow at the chicken. The See 'n' Say makes an inappropriate animal noise, like a moo or a quack. Exasperatedly]: This isn't a See 'n' Say, it's a time machine.

Shout Out Out Out Out, Lee's Palace, October 26:
Nik Kozub [to one of the 2 (!) drummers, who was nursing a torn rotator cuff]: Dude, your rotator cuff is so fucked, it has its own postal code.

I have never seen a Toronto audience get up and move like they did at last night's Shout Out Out Out Out show. There was a whole lot of sweating and arm-waving and jumping up and down. Plus, the band brought snacks. They passed one of those sectioned plastic supermarket trays of Halloween-coloured candies into the audience ("Crowd-surf the snack tray! Share! Crowd-surf the snack tray!"), and they threw bananas. I was there with Bret and Casey, and Bret caught one of the bananas and passed it on to me on the condition that I blog it, so here it is:

Indie rock banana

OK, now I have to go make this banana into a smoothie and finish grading midterms.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ghost City, USA: A road-trip to Buffalo

City Hall

On Sunday, Jamie, Alison and I went to Buffalo, N.Y., for Doors Open Niagara (which included Buffalo as well as both the Canadian & American Niagara regions). I have spent a grand total of 4 days of my life in the U.S. -- a long weekend in New York City -- and that was 10 years ago, so I was excited about an American road-trip. I knew very little about Buffalo except that it's a mid-sized city with some great architecture, making Doors Open an ideal reason to go.

We crossed the border at Niagara Falls with no trouble at all -- the customs officer was actually pleasant to us, which astounded Jamie -- and headed straight for Buffalo. Entering the city, we drove up the Elmwood strip, which I'm told is the closest thing Buffalo has to a hipster neighbourhood. Soap bubbles hovered over an intersection; we saw a man blowing them out of a third-storey window. We waved to him, and he waved back.

We reached downtown quickly -- Buffalo's not big -- and parked near our first destination, the City Hall. We got out & wandered a bit, looking at a remarkably large jazz-age hotel. Something was bothering me from the minute we got out of the car -- something just didn't feel right -- but it took me several minutes to put my finger on it.

"Guys... where is everybody?"

"I noticed that too! I guess it's just quiet downtown, since it's Sunday."

"But it's not just quiet, it's completely deserted."

Once I'd noticed the absence of other people, it seemed stranger by the minute. With the dark, ominous weather, and the massive, stunning old buildings all around us, the effect was like being in a zombie movie -- the beginning of 28 Days Later, maybe -- or one of those old Star Trek episodes where the away team beams down onto a planet covered with the mysteriously abandoned ruins of a once-grand civilization. "Why did these people leave, Captain? Did they find a better world somewhere else? Did something... drive them away?"

The City Hall, above, was fantastic -- it looked like it ought to have Superman standing on top of it, cape flying in the wind -- and it was even more impressive inside. Look at this:


Upstairs, the ornate Council Chamber, with its magnificent sunburst Art Deco stained-glass skylight, was open to the public. And still, there was almost no-one else around. We did see a couple of people in the Chamber, and then a small group at the observation deck right at the top of the central tower, but mostly we poked around on our own, discovering oddities like a glass case displaying President McKinley's death certificate.

Check out the view from the tower!

Two Liberties

Lunch consisted of excellent cheeseburgers and milkshakes at an authentic 1950s diner that had been relocated to Buffalo from somewhere in Pennsylvania; apparently there is an organization in the US dedicated to restoring old diners and moving them to different cities. We drove around a bit more. Outside of the downtown core, there were residential neighbourhoods. They looked very poor, but here we finally saw some people, albeit not very many. All of the people we saw outdoors in Buffalo were African-American, with the exception of a handful of white anti-abortionists who were picketing a women's clinic, and a dude with a huge cross on a chain around his neck and no front teeth, who was standing on a street corner talking on a cellphone.

We checked the Doors Open booklet and decided to have a look at the Buffalo Central Terminal. Now, I remembered hearing from Liz about a fantastic abandoned station somewhere in Buffalo, and seeing her pictures of an all-night art installation/party she went to there, but I wasn't sure this was the same place -- the listing in the booklet didn't say much. So we weren't sure what to expect.

What we found when we got there astonished us: an immense Art Deco structure, covering several city blocks and featuring a 17-storey office tower, all elaborately ornamented and completely derelict. We wandered around the outside of it for awhile, taking a lot of photos and saying "Wow" and "Holy shit" a lot, and then we went inside and were even more impressed.

Way out

The main hall looked like Toronto's Union Station might look a few years after the end of the world. Over the course of the day, the postapocalyptic atmosphere of Buffalo had become almost oppressively intense -- it was starting to get to me -- but this seemed to take it to a kind of gorgeous, melancholy logical conclusion.

And then we went shopping in the suburbs. We hit a Hallowe'en superstore, staffed by hilariously bored-looking teens (smoking cigarettes outside the front door, wearing pirate costumes; slumped melodramatically over the counter inside), and a Wegman's, and a Target -- all the only-in-America places. It was like being in a Rick Moody novel.

I took loads of pictures! Click here!

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Nuit Blanche II: The sophomore jinx

Okay, so if you didn't see it for yourself, you've probably heard by now: Nuit Blanche '07 was no Nuit Blanche '06. There were several reasons for this. A larger, rowdier crowd (many exhibits were too crowded to get into or see, and there were several reports of installations being stolen or destroyed before the night was over), and awful transportation didn't help. (The subway ran all night, but it was still hell trying to get around.) The most significant disappointment, as I saw it, was the lack of large-scale immersive installations this year. Last year's event featured a cloud of dense, illuminated fog in a campus park, Darren O'Donnell's ridiculously fun ballroom party, and 3 different exhibitions in swimming pools -- all astonishing, dreamlike environments you could get utterly lost in at unreal hours of the very early morning. There was nothing like that this year, or if there was, I couldn't find it.

Then again, if my expectations hadn't been so pumped by the gloriousness of last year's Nuit, I probably would have enjoyed this year's for what it was: a pretty good all-night art party. There were some fine highlights, and the whole thing was worth a recap.

8:30 p.m.: Having made reservations earlier, then wandered around a bit & looked at the nearby Cecil St. Community Centre, Leigh Anne, Alison and I check into the Dumpster Hotel. This is, in fact, a posh, one-suite hotel made out of a dumpster. It is located in a back alley at College and Spadina. Our lovely room has all the amenities, except a roof, which means that people on the outside can climb up the side of the dumpster and take photos of us.

Audience member

We have been told we can call for room service, so I decide to give it a try, and pick up the phone that's lying on the desk.


The concierge answers. I can hear his voice, and see a tiny, ghostly image of his mouth in a black & white viewscreen on the phone.

"Can I help you?" asks the mouth.

"Room service! We'd like to order room service!"

"Yes, very good, what would you like?"

"We would like some service! In our room!"

"What would you like them to bring you?" the mouth asks patiently.

"Snacks! And champagne!"

Seconds later, there is loud banging on the doors of the dumpster, and a voice bellows, "ROOM SERVICE!" The doors creak open, and women in sanitation uniforms bring us potato chips and sparkling apple juice, while a crowd watches from outside.

Room service!

9:30: After our hotel stay, we head over to Baldwin St. to get something to eat. On the way there, we pass the beginnings of a performance/installation in which the entire contents of a Baldwin St. apartment are being transferred to the northwest corner of Cecil and Beverley; they will be put back when the night is over.

10:45: We pass Cecil & Beverley again; considerable progress has been made. There are places to sit now, and shelves of neatly folded clothing. Between this & the Dumpster Hotel, there's an interesting theme about the boundaries and definitions of indoors and outdoors, public and private space; unfortunately this doesn't seem to have been pursued much beyond these two pieces.

11:00: Kensington Market. We watch a Punch & Judy show put on by Clay & Paper Theatre. In this version, there's no Judy; instead, Punch meets Prime Minister Stephen Harpy, throws his Blue Book of government policy out the window, then beats him to death with a broomstick. An RCMP officer, a hangman, the Devil and, finally, God meet similar treatment. "I don't know why," Alison observes, "but there's something endlessly entertaining about little puppets hitting each other with sticks."

We run into lots of people we know. Ron joins us as we wander up Kensington Ave.

11:30: A man in a dapper uniform and impressive moustache glides by on a bicycle, then turns sharply and brakes near us. He leaps off the bike and runs up to us, crying "Telegram! Telegram delivery!" in a Pink Panther French accent. He rifles through his bag, and produces a telegram for Ron: it is actually addressed to Ron.

Nuit Noir telegram 2

Tino, it turns out, is on a mission to deliver 50 (or was it 100?) telegrams to people he knows, whom he hopes to find wandering the streets this evening. It's his own independent project: he calls it Nuit Noir. (This was one development I liked this year: the proliferation of guerilla indie knockoff groups and projects. Margaux Williamson, Ryan Kamstra and some friends had one called Nut Bland; the TPSC's was called Not Blanche. Also, Jonathan deserves some kind of prize for suggesting the Toronto Tree Tour's Nuit Blanche event should have been called "Blanche Du Bois.")

12:30: I've gone to Queen West by myself. There are thousands and thousands of 20-year-olds here.

1:30: I meet some friends and watch a bit of Misha Glouberman's Cobra event at Mercer Union, but other than that, nothing is really grabbing me in this neighbourhood. I get a cup of coffee and decide to head over to the Church of St. Thomas, up on Huron St., where Maggie has organized some stuff. Jordan Scott is supposed to be reading Thomas Merton aloud by flashlight for 7 hours, in a tiny back room.

3:00: Finally arrive at the church, having walked the entire way without seeing any streetcars or available taxis. Jordan Scott is stuck in an airport in Rome. The flashlight and books sit forlornly on a table in the tiny room. The church does have a very nice Levitating Rock, however, billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Levitating Rock

Maggie says people have been coming in and telling her all night that this year's Nuit Blanche is a bit of a disappointment. She's only seen the Lower Bay installation, and says that was underwhelming too. I decide to walk over & see it anyway.

4:00: Apparently, earlier in the evening people had to wait in line for a full hour to get into Lower Bay, but by the time I get there, there's no line at all & I walk right in. I'm afraid Maggie was right, though. The installation consists of low, rhythmic thumping noises. With the dim lighting, large security guys, and throngs of 20-year-olds, the overall impression is of a fashionable but dismal industrial-themed nightclub, missing only the overpriced fruity martinis.

Lower Bay

And honestly, Lower Bay has lost a lot of its mystique, for me. What with the Bloor trains being routed through it for a month earlier this year, the constant film shoots, and its routine use as a training area for new drivers, it's not a Ghost Station so much as an auxiliary station. Now, Lower Queen...that I'd line up to see.

4:30: In Hart House, Darren O'Donnell's "Slow Dance with Teacher" looks, at this hour, like a '50s-style dance marathon on its last legs. Exhausted teachers and patrons cling to each other and sway to slow music. Half an hour later, when I look in again, there's no-one there. The exhibits in the rest of the building all seem to be video projections; the pool's not open this year, and there's no dance room. The posters advertise "Early Bird Breakfast from 4:00," but there's no sign of this anywhere; people keep coming in & asking the attendant at the front desk, who has no idea.

5:00: Wander around campus. "Event Horizon," the installation in King's College Circle, is just silly. Newmindspace's "String of Diamonds," a few blocks north, is minimal (I learn later that a lot of it was stolen early in the night), but peaceful. I watch the cluster of red and black balloons, with its long tail of little white lights, rise and fall in the breeze.

6:00: Back to St. Thomas for a reading in the garden by Sean Dixon, Mark Truscott and Jessica Westhead: a fantastic lineup at any hour. Also I get to meet Mark and Lisa's 3-month-old son Sam, who is fascinated by the sight of the trees above us against the pale dawn sky.

7:00: I am very, very tired, and my legs hate me. Fortunately, it's a short walk home.

Full set of photos here.