The Volcano Research Station: summation of a themed art collaboration

This past week I wrapped up a 10 day long project at the Visual Fringe (Festival) in Toronto. That was never in doubt. However, the evolvement of the space towards an eruption of collaborative work and the resulting potential for social / civic research was quite … unpredictable.

So, Dawn Buie and I decided to put up our own work in half the tent and that was that. I was super happy to be asked to participate and really had not been exhibiting much outside group shows and curating things.The price was right for the tent below, but then I learned a few months ago that we had to take down and pack away our stuff everynight – and to be prepared to have to move from tent to tent.

So that kinda nixed my idea to show some of my digital prints – not the right venue both practically and conceptually for this aspect of my studio work. But this was the Fringe Festival and, to my delight, I also learned that the “artist alley” was in the bar area and that lots of people come through.

So what to do with the space?

What began as an idea for a couple of artists sharing a tent became The Volcano Research Station – a pollster / lobby effort to bring a volcano to Toronto. It was a performance and installation collaboration based on volcano imagery, reacting and changing to interactions and answers to our survey question “what area of Toronto do you think would benefit from having a volcano?”.  We promised to send out results of our research when we “collated the answers”.

Dawn had been working with the concept of volcanoes, and I had a series of ongoing work on drawing images onto discarded paintings and prints. I remember, when we were talking about the tent, I suddenly envisioned a series of bucolic landscapes with volcanoes in the background. The VRS collaboration was born.

The station was comprised of three main areas 1) left: The gallery of volcano art done by “local artists”, educational charts and pioneer volcano technology antiques 2) back wall: Historical documents of Volcanoes and people living happily together and 3) right: interactive zone and gift shop. We had replicated a museum at a fraction of the cost.

However, our description for our initial idea had already gone to print – but we were undaunted in our ongoing process of making this up as we along.

I have a bit of improv and theatre, and have been an active performance artist over my career, so building a pro-volcano character to dialogue with the public was a perfect fit to the project. My corporate, right wing “volcanoes bring jobs” alter ego (who is very reminiscent of my consultant work) emerged over the course of the festival. The degree of that really depended on the people we talked to.

We started offering tours of the VRS, and we made up stuff and/or borrowed and adapted each other’s stories. People would offer their own interpretations of the “volcano research” and share stories of volcanoes they saw or even climbed on. We used those too in our continued educational talks with the fringe public.

A series of volcano silkscreens – I really enjoyed using the hanging tshirts as a place to arrange some drawings. People often stopped and looked for a little while.

Dawn had a different approach so I don’t want to represent her work on this post (but you should check out our facebook for more of her documentation) but it was great to work with and off of someone who thinks so deeply and clearly – and was evolving her own character at the same time that was so good she ended up garnering real interest from some of the performance folk around.

For me, the volcano is a metaphor for industry. It represents the absurdity we condition ourselves to live with – constantly evolving conditions in our environment are quickly normalized by the society we live in. A hundred years ago, it would be absurd to propose that soon Lake Ontario would be polluted all to hell, or that cars would be everywhere, or that the night sky was rarely visible for most people. I feel like urban sprawl is probably something equally as horrifying, if we weren’t so adaptable as humans. It’s always been like this – except it hasn’t but no one remembers that.

Kinda like volcanoes. They are both new and sudden, or ancient and measurable but living with one is absurd to me – but not to the people who do live with volcanoes.

People know volcanoes and have an opinion of them even if they have never seen one. What most people have not thought about was having a volcano in Toronto and that question alone made this project very interesting – people thought about their community differently, even if for a minute. Some wanted to obliterate a section of the city they did not like and many suggested city hall as a location, as well as sacrificing the Mayor. Most wanted the volcano to be active.

Others were more practical and less like a vindictive god – suggesting the harbour or Toronto Island as a “safe” area and optimal for viewing. Still a few were outright horrified at the suggestion and saw no safe way to accommodate such a mega-project, even though I constantly reminded them that this would be “good for the economy”.

All very interesting.

The “Historical Documents” section – I have enjoyed gathering discarded bargain bin works from value village and drawing on them. Other artists do as well, but when someone asked “what is that kind of work called?” I had no answer.

I must add this was outdoors during a heat wave that turned into a drought – and still is – for our area of the world. Plus the commute into town from Hamilton, hanging and tearing down all the work everytime … I am happy I did not suffer heat stroke in the 40c weather. But I was very happy, once again, that we were inside the beer tent zone. It was like a week long vernissage.

Jesus loves the children, but volcanoes love Jesus and the children. A popular work.

local artists

The Volcano Zen Garden – also very popular. This was a nice mix of casting work by Dawn and my construction of painted clay and plinths. The variety of pleasing compositions especially engaged kids visiting the station.

another angle

The four plinths represent tectonic plates, of course.

She was very happy with this tshirt, which made me very happy. I’ve been seriously jonesing for some positive feedback and I was very … relieved … at the positive reactions.

An unexpected and innovative use of the Zen Volcano Garden by a visitor.

Near the end of the project, my research partner constructed this ideal volcano.

A video interview going on in the station. Our research may benefit future generations.

Other tents at the visual fringe were pretty cool, including one called “Fort Awesome” – I made them this drawing after they gave us a poem about volcanoes. (the poem will be released later)

Dawn chatting with our volunteer audiologist Micheal.

Pancake Volcano on Lake Superior

Volcano on a Winter Morning

Volcano and an American Farm Scene

Volcano and American Country Life (note the price)

Volcano and Western American River Scenery

Still life with Flowers

Children love Volcanoes, and work collecting valuable minerals for mom & dad all day.

The Nova Scotia Volcano

I started seeing volcanoes everywhere. I even made this pile of dirt at home look like a volcano.

I told people this was a painting of Hamilton, which already has a volcano. I also proposed calling a volano in Toronto “Hamilton 2”

some drawing with oil pen on wood panel. photo: Michael Cumming

I had done a drawing a while ago of what the first volcano might of looked like, so we kept that theme in mind when creating work.

Dawn castings – terrific work and very popular. photo: Michael Cumming

Here we are – Team Volcano Research Station. photo: Michael Cumming

In short, the harbourfront was the most popular choice for the volcano and for it to be active.

This project is ongoing.

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