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Art festival questions value of art

Art of the Danforth, the biennial celebration of art on East Danforth, is back for its third instalment.

Founder and East End Arts managing director Cindy Rozeboom and AoD director Asad Raza may appear excited about this edition of the relatively new festival, but the whole reason this year’s AoD is happening is not excitement, but ambivalence.

When Raza was asked to return as director, he insisted the only way he would do so was if he were permitted to take risks, and be allowed to actually fail. After many long conversations with Rozeboom, the two decided their own ambivalence about the value of an art festival should actually be the theme of the show.

An AoD release states the festival consists of “site-specific public art interventions to test whether artists have anything to say to the community and whether the community has anything to say about art.”

Raza said it was Rozeboom who first succinctly phrased the driving question behind this year’s AoD: “art, what have you done for me lately?”

“We believe that it’s important, so prove it to us,” said Rozeboom of the instruction given to guest curators. “When you stop thinking ‘why is this important?,’ you shouldn’t be doing it.”

The path to this year’s theme led through a number of more specific questions about art and art festivals, including their role in gentrification and change. Raza read a real estate article in a daily newspaper about a home in the East Danforth area, which specifically mentioned AoD. That sparked a conversation about art’s role in neighbourhood change, along with questions about who the residents of a neighbourhood really are, and who decides whether changes are good and bad.

“We don’t have a stake in development and change. What I can speak to is the role of an art festival in that change,” he said.

Neither wanted AoD to be reduced to simply a check mark in the ‘plus’ column on a real estate sales pitch, and so that constant questioning will hopefully be a running theme of this year’s festival.

“Every opportunity I have, I’m trying to insert a little uncertainty,” he said.

Part of that uncertainty will come from a sort of forced coexistence. While past festivals have included installations in empty storefronts – a precursor to the Danforth East Community Association’s pop-up project – all of this year’s installations must share space with existing residents and businesses.

In one case, this includes projections in the living room of a home across the street from a subway station. Both organizers seemed pleased at the thought that many who see the projections might not even realize they’re art, and part of a community art festival, no less.

In another instance, an artist will live as an alien in Value Village, interacting with customers and asking constant questions in an attempt to learn about the local inhabitants.

Of course, while there are concepts and ideas behind all the projects at AoD, there will also be entertainment and spectacle for area residents not necessarily interested in asking the “bigger” questions.

Artist collective VSVSVS built an obelisk for a previous art event. For their AoD performance, they will play with the notion of permanence and importance by lighting that monument on fire.

Even if one isn’t inclined to ponder an artist’s questioning of the very notion of permanence, there’s still the communal spectacle of standing around while something is set ablaze.

Raza described it as the magic of having entry points at every layer of a project – “the Black Forest cake theory of art,” he said with a laugh.

Another aspect of the questioning nature of the festival, and the minds behind it, can be seen in the recently-acquired office space that houses AoD and East End Arts. Both share a former bar on the second floor of the Linsmore hotel and tavern.

“I’m fascinated by the forces of change that are ingrained in the building itself,” said Rozeboom. “It’s amazing how many people visiting our office say, ‘I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never been here.’”

It’s better to instigate conversation about change now, Raza said, before most of it has happened.

Of course, Rozeboom said, those attending AoD shouldn’t necessarily expect answers to larger questions of a community art festival and its role in a neighbourhood.

“There can’t be any one answer,” she said. “The best thing we can do is increase the number of people who might ask that question.”

Art of the Danforth runs from May 2 to 11. For full event and installation listings visit artofthedanforth.com.

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