From Saint Pablo to In/Future, these are our picks for the best of 2016
It's been amazing year for culture, but these are CBC Arts' favourite moments of the last 12 months
What's the best thing you've seen all year?
For everyone here at CBC Arts, it's a near impossible question.
Every morning, someone's crashing into the office raving about what they're writing about, what they're filming — or just what they binged on Netflix the night before.
There are enough "favourite things" between us to name one for every week. Or every month, at least — from singing goodbye to David Bowie with Choir! Choir! Choir! at the AGO (January) to the mind-bending, hybrid documentary/theatre of The Situation Rooms at Luminato (June) to the movie-musical perfection of La La Land (December).
For your sake, though, we'll keep it short.
Here, our team of producers shares their favourite art shows and festivals, concerts and cultural events from 2016. Starting with my pick...
It was music, it was film, it was art — it was even roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories on the beach. And for 10 days in September, it was my absolute favourite place in the city. Hell, I went back three times just to see all the things I missed (knowing it'd be impossible to catch it all), discovering new programming or just climbing the abandoned silos for an even better view of lake.
The location was Ontario Place, an old Toronto attraction that's been closed to the public since 2012. Whether or not you had memories of the park — as someone who grew up in a whole other province, I didn't — the venue was a giant playground of nostalgia during the festival, with art installations and performances happening in every quasi-futuristic building: the Cinesphere dome, the angular pavilions, right down to the abandoned log ride.
I'm still haunted by Ed Pien's project, "Revel," which reflected on the nature of memory and the passage of time. It also just looked damned amazing. (A room-sized cobweb of intricately cut mylar? Just wow.)
Maybe my favourite thing about the whole event was the feeling it could only happen once — at least not like this. There are plans to redevelop the site itself, for example, and the first phase is expected to be ready in July. What happened there this fall is just a memory — another futuristic fantasy from the past, like Ontario Place itself.
It's a sci-fi play about the future of romance, but according to playwright Rosamund Small, you'll have to see it 472 times to get the full story. Let's try to break down that number without getting into any actual arithmetic...
TomorrowLove is one play, but it's one play split into 15 two-person vignettes. Each night, those scenes are played by different actors (the cast knows every role) and an audience member only sees three or four parts during the show. Got it? As if love wasn't complicated enough!
Still, when senior producer Romeo Candido caught a show earlier this month, it left such an impression that the production — staged inside a repurposed funeral home in midtown Toronto — is his favourite thing about 2016.
"After a week of seeing theatre that left me uninspired, I watched this show that was not only framed as an immersive theatrical experience, but one that changed every night for not only the audience but for the players as well. It was stacked with diversity and great performances, and the writing was super cool. Like Black Mirror and Sleep No More had a baby in a funeral home with Toronto actors."
Kanye West at the Air Canada Centre
For two nights in August, Kanye West's Saint Pablo Tour touched down in Toronto — though "touched down" is a bit of a misnomer given the production's centrepiece was an illuminated, floating stage, one that hovered across stadium like a UFO. Foreboding, sure, but also alluring, not least of all 'cause the star of the show was performing on top of it.
It was the first week of the ambitious tour, a trek that was infamously cancelled in November following reports of West's hospitalization. (Plans for European dates have also recently been scuttled.) CBC Arts producer Lise Hosein caught the second night of West's Toronto stop, Aug. 31 at the Air Canada Centre. "I wish everyone who went to see the tour saw it that night," she says. "I go to a ton of shows, and in all of my life, it was in my top three."
I was expecting a lot of bravado and ego and it was such a completely ego-less performance.- Lise Hosein , CBC Arts
"I love him," she says, "though I'm not a big fan of Kanye right now." (Please refer to recent news involving his bro down with Donald Trump, for example.) "I was expecting a lot of bravado and ego and it was such a completely ego-less performance. The focus seemed purely on the audience." For one, the spotlight was literally on the mob thanks to the lights below the stage. If you were in the seats, your eye was always on the sea of fans below, who responded to the glow like a tractor beam, chasing it — reaching for it — from every end of the stadium.
"It's the only show I've ever been to where I totally didn't care about what was happening on stage. I was aware it was happening, but it's just part of a bigger thing," she says. "It came across as this gift," and even though she laughs about the implications of saying that — the suggestion that throughout the show, West was sailing over Toronto, offering the spotlight like some "benevolent god" — "it really did feel like someone was saying, 'Don't worry about me, I'm fine. I'm going to play this. You guys go wild.'"
"It was like a choreographed concert with no choreography. I think we got to be there on a really special night when he was at the beginning of his run, when he seemed pretty happy and healthy, and I feel I got to see that show as it was meant to be performed."
TIFF 2016 Master Class with Jill Soloway
Best known as the showrunner for TV's Transparent, Soloway gave a talk at this year's Toronto International Film Festival as part of the fest's industry conference. Full disclosure: our own Karina Rotenstein actually programmed said speech, her pick for her favourite cultural event of the year (she was at TIFF before joining CBC Arts). That said, she never predicted the impact of Soloway's words.
"I got schooled and I got woke," she says.
In an hour, Soloway explored what it would take to totally flip the current reality in film and media production — to "smash the patriarchy," in common T-shirt slogan parlance, and see women in charge of shaping the culture. (You can watch the entire keynote, by the way, via the TIFF website.)
I got schooled and I got woke.- Karina Rotenstein , CBC Arts
"She kind of just threw down the gauntlet and said, 'Look, I'm a person with a position of power and we're not going to take it anymore.'"
"It just unpacked the injustices in media, in representation, in how women are treated, how women treat men — all of these things. ... It really showed how embedded all of this stuff is in our lives, in the media — and how it shapes our behaviour."
"I think about everything she talked about since then."
Sigur Ros at Massey Hall
On their first tour in three years, the Icelandic trio returned to Toronto's Massey Hall October 3. "It was my very first time ever seeing them because their Toronto shows always sell out so fast," says CBC Arts associate producer Eleanor Knowles. "They did two back-to-back sets without intermission, [...] just music, from start to finish."
"I've never seen a light show like that, especially at a venue like Massey," a seated concert hall that can hold about 2,700 fans of eerie and expansive post-rock. "It was just so immersive," she says of the set-up.
"I always go to a lot of shows, but this was the show that took me out of myself the most — that made me completely forget everything else in the world for those two and a half hours," she says. "That made me oddly emotional to say. It really was! It was overwhelming, but in a good way."
In June, CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt interviewed William Ellis and Jordan Tannahill about the end of Videofag, the queer art space they'd run together in Toronto. Since 2012, the venue had nurtured projects by local artists including Vivek Shraya and The Hidden Cameras, but on "a hot summer night in Kensington Market," they closed their doors for good, hosting the farewell party, RIP Videofag.
"I witnessed the end of an era," he says.
"Dozens of familiar faces who I'd met at the space over the years — whether for a performance, an exhibition, a potluck or a party — gathered round as Ellis and Tannahill set off fireworks in the street and took down the space's iconic 'Videofag' sign. While a bittersweet event to choose as my 2016 standout, the legacy of the space, which was like nothing else in Toronto, is too strong to ignore."
"New People Make Me Nervous," Fucci
"Hot prints and hot people." What more can you ask for?
In October, CBC Arts video producer Jess Hayes took in Fucci's solo exhibition at Toronto's Struck Gallery — the local pop artist's first at the gallery, though his CMYK cartoons of bums and boobies have been taking over the world. (The show was just one of 17 exhibitions he's appeared in this year alone.)
His work's best known on Instagram, where he has 32,000 followers and growing, and everything he posts is "pop and jokey and hot" — images featuring pneumatic nude women, or silly-sexy sight gags. At the gallery opening, the house was packed with fans. "The work has so much fun imagery — some things that jump out right away and some things that are less obvious," she says.
"It was refreshing because it felt like a show that was made to be enjoyed. It was bold."
Queer Songbook Orchestra: One For the Ages
If you catch a show by Toronto's Queer Songbook Orchestra, every pop song comes with a story. The project is a "living archive" of the LGBTQ community, and after CBC Arts aired a short doc about the group, video producer Lucius Dechausay got a ticket to their June event, "One For the Ages," at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
"I didn't know what to expect. We went in thinking that the music was going to drive the night, but actually, the stories completely took over," he says. "It wasn't just the gay community that was there — it was a mixture of everybody. It resonated really strongly with me that the stories being told were very much about that idea of not being able to share something about yourself, hiding that."
The mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub had happened just one week prior to the show, and though the tragedy wasn't directly acknowledged during the program, he says "the space took on this completely different character."
The night wasn't about expressing pain, he explains — it was about "expressing joy."
"It really was this place to celebrate the beauty and depth and resilience of the community, and how we support that going forward."
"Fade Resistance," Zun Lee
Back in February, CBC Arts producer Mercedes Grundy made a short doc about Toronto photographer Zun Lee and this particular exhibition, an archive of some 3,500 found photos of black families. "Seeing them online is one thing," she says. In person, you understand just how impressive that collection really is.
The exhibition filled the second-floor gallery space at the city's Gladstone Hotel. "He took up the whole floor — so it was rooms and rooms with photographs at eye level. You would walk along the hallways, and go into all the little rooms, and see these photographs.
The images themselves, she says, are beautiful, but not just because of their composition. "It's moving to see these intimate moments from people's lives" — proud and affectionate snapshots of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.
Lee's own work has been influenced by the collection. "He's so interested in relationships, specifically between fathers and their children," she says. His 2013 series, Father Figure, is one example.
"I love family history, and the history of photography, so I can't imagine losing all my family photographs. It really hits you. It's family history on the walls." They've been separated from their owners, but the love captured in each shot lives on.