Erring on the Mount

I once determined, after a particularly retrograde period in my life, that my new goal would be not to succeed, but to commit to making 1000 mistakes. So I have a certain trust in error as a method, a way to move beyond perfectionism, to get over oneself and let creativity flow. Public Energy’s festival of multidisciplinary art, Erring on the Mount, as its name implies, is built on such a concept.

Really this project had so much to do with trust and risk-taking, and therein lies an archaic meaning of the word erring, worth resurrecting. As Public Energy’s Artistic Producer Bill Kimball puts it, “the best art making is always worth the risks taken to pull it off. So it is in that spirit that we use the word erring, drawing as much on the Latin meaning to wander or stray as to be mistaken, to describe an event in which artists and audiences alike search for new and unusual experiences in an unfamiliar place.

Erring’s namesake took place in 1996 in the apartments of the upper floor of Peterborough’s landmark Only Cafe, which were slated for demolition to make room for The Gordon Best Theatre. A few of the original performers were on hand for the second go-round, including David Bateman, Brad Brackenridge, Kim Blackwell, Ryan Kerr, Kate Story and Esther Vincent.

The convent of Mount St. Joseph of Peterborough was founded in 1890, via LePuy, France, and at one time housed 300 nuns whose ministry extended as far as Brazil and Zambia. Last year about 60 remaining Sisters of Saint Joseph moved into a new Leed Gold certified mother house next door to the original convent and put the deconsecrated historic building up for sale.

Bill Kimball, not unlike these women, has never been one to be intimidated by doubt and, with utter faith in Peterborough’s creative community, saw an opportunity when the 130,000 sq. ft. building was purchased by the Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network. The plan was to convert the building into affordable housing and other community spaces under the umbrella of the The Mount Community Centre.

One of my most memorable moments last fall was watching Peterborough’s arts community explore the space for the first time and let their imaginations run wild with the possibilities – clambering up heritage staircases, ducking into cupboards, marvelling at the acoustics in the chapel, and cooing with admiration for the theatrical architecture of the musty and mystical trunk room.

Stage manager Esther Vincent, curator Elizabeth Fennell, general manager Tara Lember and a cast of Public Energy staff and volunteers threw their heart and soul into the daunting logistics of presenting over 50 site specific installations and performances, in a building with unpredictable staircases, tiny quirky rooms, peeling paint and 4 storeys in need of a major renovation. But the chance to give artists access to multiple spaces replete with character and provenance was hard to pass up. Elizabeth Fennell writes, “By inviting artists to speak to the site, we investigate its place in the communal imagination.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the lives of the sisters and the anomalies of the historic building permeated the work of the artists participating in Erring. Many of them interviewed the now-elderly sisters and researched their lives and the history of the convent building.

There is also much to celebrate about public experiences of art and performance and their distinct social value. On my first adventure to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche it suddenly dawned on me that I felt safe and oddly validated in the middle of the night in a dense urban setting, because the crowds on the street were after the same cultural high that I was; experiencing culture in the company of strangers heightened the experience as well creating a sense of camaraderie. There is also the thrill of the hunt and discovering artwork presented with a certain nonchalance in an unusual setting.

In truth, Erring on the Mount was a delirious whirligig of an event, a garden of earthly delights, an invitation down the rabbit hole with the Mad Hatter. The fact that it had both memorable and imperfect moments tells me it was successful, as Public Energy’s Emergency’s – 2 decades of experimental performance programming – have been in the past, because of the opportunity it offered artists for growth, exploration and collaboration. With 51 projects to choose from, I can only share a few of the highlights here:

Gillian Turnham and Hartley Stephenson’s The Fall claimed the beautiful wooden central staircase with a crowd-pleasing Rube Goldberg marble run and a kinetic slinky that lit up the bannisters. The electronic waterfall, mirrors and bones paid homage to recently deceased local artist Brion Wagner. Wagner’s artwork was also part of the video projection in Lester Alfonso’s installation Brion Wagner where are you now? and his collections were components in Michael Poulton’s Remembering Brion Wagner. Poulton writes, “Brion was a visual artist and friend, who took his own life last December. That is one of Brion’s boxes on the plinth. Brion had the condition, face aphasia, in which he didn’t recognize faces. He could meet his own mother on the street and not recognize her until she spoke. It must have been like living in a world of strangers.

Kate Story, accompanied by guitarist David Bird, utilized the coveted, shadowy Trunk Room to fine effect as she merged imagined ghost stories and true tales of a young novice’s arrival at the convent in A place you’d go to find something, something you’d left there. Her talent for seamlessly marrying stories and abstract concepts in both word and movement is a marvel to behold.

Sister Mary’s Room of Requirement, an installation by Jeff Macklin and Phillip Chee, with its 60’s decor and cheap roller blind used as projection screen for extracts of period media was oddly moving for me. It didn’t romanticize, mock or identify with the nuns, but gave us a glimpse into moments of banality in their lives and juxtaposed the clash of global events with a cloistered world.

Without props, costume or set, Hermione Rivison commanded the stage with a strong and unvarnished delivery of the story of Abraham woven into stories from the convent.

Brad Brackenridge’s tiny, exquisite Brechtian puppet theatre, Murmuratio was held aloft (one could also say grounded) by soprano Melody Thomas’s bittersweet a cappella delivery of German lieder.

I always laugh when I hear critics of social services insist that no one would work if it weren’t for a financial incentive. Well, artists do, from morn til night, and we would do well to look more closely at what drives creative motivation. As Francie and the Golden Key’s creator, Sarah McNeilly, chirped, “This is like summer camp for artists.” To witness the energy of a joyous hive of artists, on fire with the spirit of transformation and collaboration, and then to watch the public excited, engaged and even moved to tears by the result is worth much more than gold.

How Erring on the Mount might evolve within or without the unfolding of the Mount Community Centre is a question already in the wind and bursting with possibility – an artists’ collective, studio and rehearsal spaces, a performance venue in the Chapel, an annual multidisciplinary arts festival, an art school, arts residencies, a centre for experimental arts. Any or all of the former would be welcome –  like scientists, artists need time and space to discover their most profound work. The success of multi-arts festivals such as Luminato makes it easy to see how Erring or its offspring could easily impact tourism in Peterborough with some savvy marketing. Even Huntsville started its own Nuit Blanche North last summer. One thing is certain – artists and audiences ate it up and are hungry for more Erring.

 Public Energy »

Full program guide to Erring on the Mount, May 30-June 1, 2014 »

The Mount Community Centre »

Work of Art by Phillip Connor »

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