R.M. Vaughan: The Exhibitionist

A simple and refreshingly democratic street festival

Special to The Globe and Mail

At the Bloor Alternative Art Fair, bringing art to the public sometimes means getting soaked.

Bloor Alternative Art Fair

July 23, 1 to 9 p.m., Bloor Street West between Dufferin and Lansdowne, Toronto; www.bigonbloor.com

Johnson Ngo has a lot on his plate. And by plate I mean a groaning Lazy Susan, with condiments in the middle.

The performance artist, writer, and academic works with FADO, the influential Toronto-based performance festival, occasionally writes about art and culture for the popular art blog Akimbo, sits on the board of Trinity Square Video, and has just been hired to do two new jobs at different cultural institutions (the full details of which he's not ready to announce).

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In the last couple of years, Ngo has participated in a diverse range of projects, working with such art stars as Brendan Fernandes, Allyson Mitchell, Ulysses Castellanos, Hélène Lefebvre and Deirdre Logue. On the day we met, Ngo was preparing to perform in an 18-hour "endurance performance" at VSVSVS, a multipurpose space in Toronto's docklands.

Oh, and he's also the co-ordinator of Saturday's Bloor Alternative Art Fair (BAAF), part of the BIG on Bloor street festival in Toronto that runs Saturday and Sunday on Bloor Street West, between Dufferin and Lansdowne. Not bad for a 23-year-old.

BAAF's mandate is simple and refreshingly democratic - to bring art and art-viewing into a broader, more populist context. Art, BAAF argues, should be as approachable as any other business or service you can encounter at a street festival, part of an economic and cultural continuum that stretches from hot-dog vending to high-concept video projection.

To wit, this year's BAAF/ BIG on Bloor includes participation by Bloor West galleries Toronto Free Gallery and Mercer Union, the conclusion of artist Dyan Marie's illuminating public art project Responding Festival (a month-long occupation by dozens of artists and community groups of a soon-to-be-closed school playground at Bloor and Dufferin), as well as offerings from several art magazines, independent artists and artist collectives

Then there's Saturday's highlight - Off-Table Projects, a performance series curated and assembled by Ngo. Throughout the day, performance artists Adriana Disman, Julian Higuerey Nunez, Daisuke Takeya and Nils Fischer will be inserting themselves into the street action, in manners both mysterious and bold. Expect, Ngo tells me, anything (while promising no one will get Slushied).

When Ngo signed on to run BAAF last winter, he could not have foreseen that summer 2011 would be defined by raging debates over the use (and funding) of public space initiatives (from parades to bike lanes). Inevitably, someone will be complaining, come Monday morning, about the street closure, the tiny amount of public money spent on the cultural components of BIG on Bloor, or even the art itself. Toronto has a bad case of crabby pants.

If Ngo is worried, however, he's not showing any sweat.

How does BAAF work in the larger context of BIG on Bloor?

BAAF is in partnership with the Bloor BIA, and the Bloor Improvement Group (the BIG in BIG on Bloor), they are paying the bills, putting on the whole street fair, with the goal of reinvigorating the area and the community. It's an umbrella group - all the bars, restaurants, shops, and art galleries. Everything. BAAF is one section of BIG on Bloor, and we'll be concentrated in one area. We have, at present, about 20 plus participants in BAAF - from emerging artists and craftspersons to established galleries to the always popular Performance Artist Dunk Tank.

Are you going in the dunk tank?

I'll be far too busy!

Chicken.

That is in my contract! No dunk tank!

When you began to assemble art for BAAF, what were the participants most intrigued by, and what were they most hesitant about?

Participants are intrigued by the numbers, the possibilities of reaching much larger audiences. But people have been worried about the weather. That sounds banal, but for the past two years there have been torrential downpours during the festival. So, we are helping vendors and presenters to make arrangements for weather conditions.

There's also a bit of resistance to street-fair participation in general - some galleries worry that a street festival is not the best way to do community outreach, because street festivals are geared toward shopping and eating. There's a concern that the work won't be properly presented.

What's the ultimate goal of BAAF?

It's twofold: to focus on emerging artists, and to create a more visible space for performance art.

I've asked the performance artists to consider the context of the larger street fair, while at the same time letting them know that they of course have the freedom to express themselves. It's a complicated balance, because the performances will be happening alongside the vending. But I know these performers, I've worked with them in the past, so I'm confident that people will negotiate the boundaries, and have fun too.

And for emerging artists, BAAF is more affordable than some of the other outdoor fairs.

How do you respond to the whining over street closures?

Well, it's only one day, and we do alert the public well in advance.

I appreciate that people get frustrated in traffic, but even with last year's terrible rain, we still had about 20,000 visitors. Toronto has always been a cultural space, so bringing culture into the street is an extension of that reality. Art is part of the whole fabric of the community. Art is everywhere, and this temporary car-free zone only makes art more accessible.

Other venues

Robin Laws at Hang Man Gallery

Until July 31, 756 Queen St. E., Toronto

If Field's rule-breaking, stitched mash-ups of everything from jewels and paint to photography and sticks, her abundantly nutty tapestries, don't catch your fancy … well, you might be dead inside.

Lyla Rye at Olga Korper Gallery

Until Aug. 20, 17 Morrow Ave., Toronto

Rye's investigations into the industrial origins of the Korper Gallery space lead her to hang a temporary, reflective stage, a long rectangular pendulum, from the gallery ceiling. Step up and hover over the floor, just like one of the building's many ghosts.

Bahram Dabiri at Queen Gallery

Until July 26, 382 Queen St. E., Toronto

Sensual and cryptic, Dabiri's paintings are melancholy love songs (or lovers) on canvas. They break your heart, they turn you on, they demand repeated visits.