The annual Word on the Street festival returns to Queen’s Park this Sunday—it’s a chance to flaunt your new scarf with a warm bevvy, renew all your magazine subscriptions, check out some of Canada’s best authors and indie publishing houses, and stock up on enough reading material to get you through the wintry months ahead.
Among the stacked tables and reading tents at this year’s fest will be five sculptures, part of the brand new Sculpting New Reads program, which paired local visual artists with Canadian novels released this year. Torontoist spoke to one half of the curatorial team behind Sculpting New Reads, Laura Mendes (co-director of Labspace Studio with John Loerchner) to find out how visual art will fit into the literary love-fest that is Word on the Street.
Torontoist: Where did the idea for Sculpting New Reads come from in the first place?
Laura Mendes: This is a big year for the festival—it’s their 25th anniversary—so they were really looking to do something different and bigger and something that they’ve never done before. Heather Kanabe, the executive director, contacted us. Heather is a big visual-arts lover and was an artist in her former life before she got into the literary world, and she invited us to come on board to help build this new program for artists and authors.
We had a meeting and first concocted this idea to partner up five local artists with five new Canadian books. The concept is really simple—read the book, re-read the book, and develop an art installation inspired by the themes and content of the book. And [the artists] were completely free to interpret the book however they felt would challenge themselves and their practice.
And they were assigned their books three months ago?
Yeah, so not a whole lot of time. But that was sort of the challenge. We met with them a couple times to work through their process, but mostly the artists worked on their own and developed their own projects. And the installations are sort of all over the place in terms of media.
And the artists had no idea what book they were getting?
Actually, WOTS chose the books. We started with a big long list, and Heather whittled down those books to five, and from that list I then selected the artists. I was really interested in matching up artists with books that I thought would really complement them and their practice and would challenge them to go beyond the kind of work that they normally do. And there were some funny similarities. For example, Layne Hinton, who’s one of the artists, was paired up with a book called Walt, which is a psychological thriller. The character in Walt is this crazy guy who’s obsessive compulsive and collects discarded shopping lists. And I had no idea until after I invited Layne that she has this same sort of obsession, and she’s been collecting discarded shopping lists herself. I specifically chose Layne because I knew of her interest in collecting and archiving in her installations, so it was a natural fit, but that sort of coincidence was uncanny.
The same thing with Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo, which I paired with BAMBITCHELL (artists Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell). Shani Mootoo deals with queer themes in a lot of her books, and so does BAMBITCHELL, but I had no idea that both of them were actually really big fans of Shani Mootoo. It’s just really great as a curator to have these happy similarities and coincidences. And I think they will kind of pop up in the works, and reveal the relationship between the author and the artist.
What’s great about Word on the Street is the scale of it—the crowds of people, the food, the kids running around. How are these sculptures to fit in with those aspects of the festival?
It was important that we approach artists that already had experience in creating public works so they feel comfortable creating work that is interactive in a sense, and actually three of the works are quite interactive. In BAMBITCHELL’s piece, you actually have to go inside a cordoned-off area to experience it. Layne’s piece is a room that she’s constructed, and you have to peer through peepholes to see it. In Felix Kalmenson‘s piece, similarly, you actually have to climb onto the piece itself and peer into it to see a video that he’s created. So we really wanted to create pieces that weren’t just a standalone thing, you really have to take time to interact with them to really experience them. Because that’s really the same way you experience a book, you have to take time and go page by page to get into them.
And this wasn’t planned either—all of the artists worked independently, but that theme of interactivity sort of emerged in the project … I think that’s because that was their process of reading the book. There are so many layers to a book, and thus so many layers to an artwork, so that’s what I think is really cool about this project, and unique.
And the artists will be around to talk about their works on Sunday?
It’s completely informal, but the artists will be present to answer any questions. Some of the authors will be there as well … all they know is that there will be an installation based on their book. So it’ll be exciting to see what they think. None of them have seen the finished pieces.
What do you think the presence of visual art at WOTS will do for the festival?
If anything, they’ll help to promote these books in a really interesting way and get people interested in picking up these new releases. But also, on a higher level, get people thinking about the creative possibilities of art as a whole. I’m sure there are a lot of people going to that festival who go to a lot of other cultural organizations, but aren’t necessarily going to galleries all the time. So it’s also about drawing a totally new and accessible audience to contemporary art. We really wanted to bridge the gap between literature and art, and make contemporary art prominent in a very accessible environment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.