Brick + Mortar

Video & spoken-word festivals downtown Friday & Saturday

This year’s Brick + Mortar International Video Art Festival features a blizzard of creative visual artworks from Canada. They’ll be shown continuously at nine downtown Greenfield buildings from 4 to
10 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. The selections, highlighting what’s trendy and new in Canadian videography, were made by Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASSMoCA) curator Denise Markonish.

“I think the whole spirit of the show is going to be one that people will want to see,” the curator said recently, speaking from her North Adams office. “A lot of the pieces are fun and engaging.”

Running concurrently in the downtown are both the Greenfield Annual Word Festival — some 10 businesses will host poetry, hip-hop and short story readings — and “Art in the 01301” — a juried art by local residents on view at 9 Mill St.

“This is going to be a huge weekend for pedestrian cultural activity,” Becky George, event coordinator for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce said, speaking from her office.

This year’s video festival is the distillation of Markonish’s intermittent 31∕2 year-Canadian odyssey in which she met with some 400 artists. The quest was undertaken to curate MASSMoCA’s “Oh Canada” exhibit, an installation of sculptures, videos and paintings from 62 artists continuing through April 1, 2013. It’s the most comprehensive profile of that country’s artists ever brought to the states. While involved with that undertaking, she began choosing video artists for the festival 18 months ago.

“I decided to focus the show on artists that were doing work that would somehow align with ‘performance,’” Markonish said.

She explained that performance art in video may be theatrical or simply the actions of an artist. The curator noted that in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a fledgling primitiveness to the form, rendered in grainy films or low-contrast video. There was often a single, fixed camera simply documenting the action. Performance has now become more complex, with artists creating specifically for several cameras and screens, both possibly run at different speeds with different effects.

As an example, at this year’s festival there’s Alison Kobayashi’s “Defense Mechanism,” a surreal live performance by the artist on a New York stage. It presents a constellation of visual ideas provided by several video screens.

“She’s definitely playing off the idea of theater and old movies,” Markonish said.

Fortunately, for any of us who may still remain confused about the concept, Calgary artist Dick Averns and Toronto artist Johannes Zits (pronounced “Zights”) will be present to perform as their videos play. Averns is an art instructor at the Alberta College of Art + Design. Zits is a multimedia artist whose 30 solo exhibits have toured the world.

Symbiotic meetings

George estimates that festival attendance has doubled each year with some 1,500 viewers in 2011 viewing films at sites ranging from the dormant hotel rooms on the upper floors of Wilson’s to the magnificent Art Deco ghost of the former First National Bank.

“There are a group of people in town who probably couldn’t give a hoot about video art, but they like to get into the buildings,” George said. “Then there’s people who don’t care about the buildings, but they really want to see the art.”

She noted that a certain symbiosis then takes place between the lovers of architecture and video enthusiasts.

“You get the two of them standing next to each other and they say ‘Oh! We’re neighbors.’ There’s a certain camaraderie that you build in the community around that,” she added.

Putting on the free festival costs in the neighborhood of $15,000 annually, relying upon the efforts of some 60 volunteers. The Chamber of Commerce and the Greenfield Business Association, the event’s chief organizers, seem to have tapped into an artistic mother lode.

“Greenfield is developing a reputation as a destination for cultural events,” George said. “We get a lot of people coming from outside the area who end up loving what they see.”

Because the event offers attendees a tour of vacant retail and office spaces displaying videos, it’s also a subtle advertisement for available properties. George noted that several unused sites, available in past years, are now occupied by businesses.

“It’s going to be an ever-changing game,” she said, noting that there’s some suspense each year in finding new venues.

Art Deco and grain

“I was very careful to pick things that are all pretty short,” Markonish said. “I know that the nature of the event is that people are sort of wandering around town and popping into things.”

If you’re pressed for time, pop into the vacant First National Bank on Bank Row, where five different videos will be on display.

The building, as Peter Miller, vice-chairman of the Greenfield Historic Commission notes, is one of the few surviving examples of Art Deco in the region. The style was the bee’s knees in the 1920s and 1930s, identifiable by its bold geometrical symmetry. The bank opened for business in 1930 and has, for decades lain dormant. Miller, who once worked there, described it as “an ark. It was a monstrosity, hard to heat. It was a waste of space.”

Threatened at one time by the wrecking ball, it’s been saved with a cash infusion that shored up leaking windows and the infrastructure. The marble counters have long vanished and the elegant walls have been stripped. The design of the check-writing podium, however, gives you some idea of what the interior details may have been.

As to what could revivify the structure, Miller said it would require “somebody who’s going to have a really good imagination.”

On the opposite side of the street, a few hundred yards downhill on Bank Row, is the Abercrombie Building, where videos will also be shown. Dating to the late 1800s, it was originally a grain storage building, one of three which served the booming railroad commerce in that era.

“Greenfield was a huge railroad center for generations, a really important one,” Miller said. The site then became Luey & Abercrombie, wholesale distributors of dry goods. It’s been vacant for some 35 years.

Four not to be missed

Canada is not only where the first electric cooking range was invented, or where almost 10 per cent of the earth’s renewable fresh water is to be found. It’s also a country that provides subsidies for its artists. Studio space is found in government-funded “artist-run sectors.”

“There are fewer commercial galleries and much less individual patronage,” Markonish said. “(There) was a more experimental studio practice than one driven towards the market.”

Among the artists to be viewed, the curator suggested four not to be missed.

For “Ambivalence Blvd” videographer Averns traveled everywhere with his eponymous sign — from the Canadian prime minister’s home and Buckingham Palace to U.S embassies and military sites.

In an e-mail, the artist said that he thinks of ambivalence as indecisiveness, the coexistence of opposing thoughts.

At the festival, he wrote that he’ll be “promenading ... to local sites of historical, cultural, or political interest.” His hope is to spur dialogue.

Rhode Island School of Design instructor Jocelyne Prince intends to provoke dialogue of another sort with “Cherry Blossom.” Filmed at the Korean University of the Arts in Seoul, the short captures the ephemeral quality of newly created glass flowers noisily fracturing and breaking apart as they cool.

“I hope there is amusement,” Prince wrote. “Then I hope there are thoughts about the fragility of things.”

Zits wrote that his video “Snow Mounds” was inspired by a trip to Dawson City, in the Yukon. He was struck by the transformation that major snows had made to the environment.

The artist intends to perform in front of his video for several hours and wrote that “(t)his work plays with the artifice and illusion that have been created through the manipulation of material, space and technology.”

Algonquin Indian Nadia Myre is of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, meaning “we, the people of the Garden River.” The multimedia artist has created “Rethinking Anthem.” It’s a critique of Canada’s Euro-centric national anthem where the lyrics “our home and native land,” are, on film, continually written and erased.

For almost three years, we had a violent dustup with British-ruled Canada, known as the War of 1812. As peace broke out, the British suggested that an independent state be set aside for Native Americans. The U.S. government ignored the request.

“I am bringing to memory ... the native land that was taken to build the country and the devastating effect this had on the tribal people.” Myre wrote. “Although specific to Canada, similar historical subtexts are shared with many countries.”

For more information on the festival, including information on all the films being shown, got online to

The Greenfield Business Association will also have tent on the Greenfield Common (Court Square) with maps, schedules and other information.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.

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