After a two-year wait, Edward Burtynsky brings massive climate change exhibit to Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square
COVID restrictions delayed 'In the Wake of Progress' for two years, but Burtynsky made good use of the time
"In the Wake of Progress," the latest exhibit from photographic artist Edward Burtynsky, has been a long time coming — in more ways than one.
The exhibit — which is part of this year's Luminato Festival — consists of photos of human's impact on the world around them, selected from across Burtynsky's 40-plus year career. The pictures are displayed across 22 massive outdoor screens at Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square, screens that usually show advertisements, and choreographed to music by composer Phil Strong.
It was also, in an alternate world, supposed to happen two years ago.
"I got approached [by Luminato] in September 2019," says Burtynsky. "I was supposed to show this in the square in June 2020. Well, as you know, June 2020, nobody was in the square."
In the ensuing two years, Burtynsky and his team have pivoted and refined the project in a myriad of different ways. He created an indoor version. A filmed version, shot at a largely empty Yonge-Dundas Square, was done last fall. Music was changed, including adding vocals by Cree experimental musician iskwē. The choreography of the photos was tweaked. And now, finally, two years later, it's back where it was originally supposed to be.
The project was also incredibly technically complex. The screens in Yonge-Dundas Square are owned by eight different companies, all of whom had to be convinced to give up ad revenue to make the project happen. The screens all then had to be colour corrected and choreographed from eight different servers.
Human impact on the natural world and the workings and by-products of industry have been a dominant theme throughout Burtynsky's career.
"Something that I've been passionate about, something I've been working on as an artist, is to understand what it takes to make the world that we live in," he says. "It's something that you can stand and experience, even to the shopper walking by. They can get caught up in it and all of a sudden be in a kind of exhibit that they didn't expect."
Burtynsky says his interest in "where all our things come from" dates back to the beginning of his career. Back in the 1970s, when he was a photography student at what's now Toronto Metropolitan University, he had to figure out how to pay for not just tuition, but the tools of the trade: camera equipment, film, photo paper, chemicals.
"It was one of the more expensive programs that one can take," he says.
He wound up working in heavy industry — auto manufacturing and mining — and, in those jobs, discovered the subject that would dominate his career.
"When I started thinking about what would be interesting to do [as a photography project], it was to somehow bring that world into people's consciousness through the camera," he says.
Once the show is done with its Luminato run, it will be moving back indoors, to the Canadian Opera Company Theatre. Burtynsky says the experience will be different, but equally powerful and interesting.
"We've tuned the whole room," he says. "The sound is optimized; the images are 4K on three big surround screens. The centre screen's like 32 feet wide and 27 feet high. The wings are like 50 feet. There's a big exhibition of my work that I've kind of curated, that fits with all the thinking. And then, you know, there's an AR experience at the end of it. So there's a whole other part of it that we're going to [add.]"
Burtynsky says his goal for "In the Wake of Progress" is to get people — whether they come to see it intentionally or just stumble across it while "trying to get shit done and pick up pants for their five-year-old kid or whatever" — is to leave them thinking differently about where the things they're buying come from.
"There's a deep, deep message being kind of teleported into your life in the middle of the city square," he says, "about who we are as humans and the challenges that face us and the predicament that we're in. My ideal thing is that the person has been moved on a totally in a way they never expected to be."
"In the Wake of Progress" is on view June 11–12th from 8:00–11:00pm in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square as part of this year's Luminato. The full festival runs June 9–19th. The indoor immersive experience will be at the Canadian Opera Theatre, 239 Front St. E., Toronto, from June 25-July 17.