Art galleries were among the many non-essential businesses that were shuttered during the two years of pandemic-related lockdowns leaving artists unable to showcase their works in traditional ways and many potential buyers could not see the creations in person.
But there is a different feeling in the air and a renewed sense of hope this year. Some might even say it’s a celebration. The annual Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival features Canadian and international photographers at Toronto venues throughout the month of May, and they are finally back in business.
“To be in a gallery, happy artists everywhere, lowered masks, drinks in hand… the very first night, it was so loud, this was a full-on party, and no one was breaking any rules. It was just wonderful,” said Darcy Killeen, the festival’s executive director.
Last year, the organizers quickly enhanced their website to facilitate video and better engagement tools, and pivoted to online programs, video screenings and conversations recorded in living rooms. But there’s nothing like the connection enabled by being in person, he said.
“Let’s face it, nobody really wants to see an exhibition online after being in Zoom meetings all day,” said Killeen. “You want to celebrate with the artists and the curators. CONTACT is about community and community just cannot exist the same way on the internet.”
The festival features over 140 exhibitions by Canadian and international lens-based artists presenting an array of projects in museums, galleries, and public spaces across Toronto. The festival is free and open to the public, with some exceptions at major museums.
CONTACT is about community and community just cannot exist the same way on the internet.
—Darcy Killeen, Executive Director, Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival
So, who’s coming to the party? “We typically see 1.5 million visitors and 400,000 of those are tourists, which means they're coming from outside of 80 kilometres,” Killeen said. “We should get 20,000 Europeans, we’ll get 25,000 Americans, and 200,000 Canadians from outside of Ontario.”
The range of artists for CONTACT’s 26th edition of the festival spans the globe and brings insights and observations on different cultural, political, and environmental issues. One such environmental artist is Brendan George Ko, a Toronto-based visual storyteller who uses imagery and poetry to depict the natural world. “I had the privilege of travelling throughout Canada and I’ve been to very remote places where some of the wilderness is just incredible and spectacular and I've documented it very thoroughly over the years,” said Ko.
Ko’s feature The Forest is Wired for Wisdom is presented on billboards in eight cities across Canada, and comprises a series of luminous, almost incandescent images paired with his personal poetry.
Brendan George Ko, Fern, Courtesy of the artist
Brendan Geoge Ko, Funguy XI, Courtesy of the artist
“My work isn't about accuracy, as you could tell. Those colours aren't real for the most part.” Ko says he plays with colour and density, light and dark. But this is no Instagram filter. “I painstakingly make my colours. I like the labour. I like the process of getting those colours out, to evoke an emotion.”
His poetry comes from scribbles in his scrapbook that he creates every year as he travels and edits thousands of images. “They come from my reflections of being in the spaces. There are images that were taken in the boreal forest on the Canadian Shield, in the Arctic. And it's a timeless place. It was so quiet. I wrote how my ears were ringing because of the noisiness of where I came from.”
Ko says his intention is to transport people to an experience. And he loves that billboards are so accessible, pandemic or not. “I love the opportunity just to have these random encounters with so many different people because they exist in a space in the real world. It's not like something that you can only see during exclusive hours or in a place that you don't normally go to. These are accessed by all.”
But he does enjoy the gallery experience too and is thrilled that it’s back. It’s also a good way to gauge reaction from his audience, he said. “I actually really like when I'm anonymous and I go to an exhibition in the night, eavesdrop on somebody critiquing my work. See their reaction. I really enjoy that,” said Ko.
CONTACT aims to foster creative engagement and meaningful dialogue between contemporary artists and the public, and artists like Ko say they are grateful to be a part of it.
“There is a real sense of pride to be attached to this festival because it's a proper celebration of our dialogue over the years,” Ko said. “And it's becoming more and more of a diverse dialogue too with different beautiful voices being included.”
Brendan George Ko, Pyxie Cup Lichen I, 2019, Courtesy of the artist
Brendan George Ko, The Wild Carpet, 2021, Courtesy of the artist