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City Overtaken by Art: Creative Power in Downtown Kitchener
Echo Weekly    Issue #51, Volume 5, September 19-25, 2002

By Noel Michaels

Don’t be surprised if you notice a few more oddities contributing to the cultural mish-mash of downtown Kitchener over the next week. Unique ‘urban beasts’ perched amongst the exterior of City Hall, a spotlight illuminating unsuspecting citizens, the shadow of an absent merry-go-round, a perpetual motion machine, a massive interactive marquee - all works of experimental art brought to you by the ambitious Power to the People, this year’s installment of Kitchener’s Contemporary Art Forum. In relevance, scope and general level of interest, the Contemporary Art Forum could be the principal cultural event that Kitchener will see in 2002.

Power to the People commemorates and explores the 100th anniversary of one of the first publicly owned utilities in the world. Ontario Hydro was mapped out in Kitchener, known then as Berlin, back in 1902. The looming privatization of Hydro One gives the event and its contributors both a timely and ironic cultural palette to work from.

The event’s Artistic Director Andrew Wright explains, “The phrase [Power to the People] has encouraged artists either to make works that respond directly to this history, to take up its democratic connotations, or simply to view public activity as an act of empowerment in itself.”

The theme of power - in all of its meanings - is politically important and hits so close to home it’s in your home (not just in the AC currents running through your sockets but with the Direct Energy marketing thugs that are knocking on the doors and ringing the phones of every citizen in the province). The featured exhibits not only take power as their subject but they empower the viewer. Art, if it’s worth checking out, is created to raise questions and provoke responses - an exchange of energy.The conceptual works will be on display from Sept. 21 - Sept. 29 throughout Kitchener City Hall and the blocks surrounding it. There are a total of 20 works of art being brought into the civic space by regarded contributors from across North America, Europe and Mexico. The exhibition will literally be brought to the people as it seeps right out into the familiar settings of downtown.

There are many additions to the space between Queen and Victoria you may stumble across over the course of the week. Hamilton artist Simon Frank will spread Concrete Poetry across the streets of the downtown with each line of his poem painted on the sidewalk and connected to the next by blue arrows. The arrows will map out a trail through Kitchener’s urban ‘wilderness’, beginning and ending at City Hall, with the text acting as a reminder of the ways in which the natural world has been transformed into our man-made world.Montrealer Daniel Olson brings his interactive concept, Fifteen Seconds, to City Hall’s Civic Square where according to Olson, “I intend to offer the people of K-W a brief moment in the limelight. From a small guard tower equipped with a follow spot - a familiar scenario in countless films - I will highlight certain people, transforming them into instant celebrities. Everyone is offered their chance to have their moment of fame as they make their grand entrances and exits.”

Kitchener’s own design collective made up of Matt, Rob and Susan Gorbet is presenting P2P at the entrance to City Hall. This high-concept interactive piece brings real power directly into the hands of the public as it provides a direct line of electrical current from a massive marquee lit with a great number of individual bulbs leading to individual switches. The participants are encouraged to flick the switches allowing them to see the result of this everyday activity “without the oversight of a centralized authority and within a government-owned public space.”

On a Limb, conceived and created by Toronto multidisciplinary artist John Marriot, puts a human figure holding a flag atop of a flagpole. The spectacle of this absurd sight can be interpreted in the context of its title, “play upon the question of what hardships each of us is willing to endure for society.”

Power to the People has selected a program of seven videos which, using a variety of media, illustrate the flow of power as a two-way current. The video program features short films from North America and Europe, including Vocal Demonstration by Canadian Charles Officer - “a simultaneous exhortation and critique of public protest” which, with German Mathias Frisch’s Kneecam no. 1, show that “public exuberance and activism contain their own hierarchies.”

The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, provided by American Matt McCormick, looks at the act of cleaning graffiti off of the streets as a “product of artistic merit that was created without conscious artistic intentions” hence turning municipal power in on its self. The seven short videos are running almost constantly throughout the week-long exhibition. The video program will likely light a bulb above the viewer at least seven times in its 47 minutes duration and certainly isn’t the stuff of television or of Blockbuster - uncensored, real and worth the time.

If you find yourself in the area of City Hall over the next week and are a bit confused by what has been added to the cityscape, stop and give it a couple minutes of your time and think about it, it’s there for you.


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