TORONTO – Last Thursday night, a dozen or so Torontonians made their way through the face-numbing wind to a cozy storefront screening room on Augusta Avenue in the city’s bohemian Kensington Market neighborhood.
This minuscule crowd, huddled together in this little room, had come to see a modest program of film and video work by Buffalo-based artists, curated by Buffalo designer and installation artist Julian Montague and Squeaky Wheel Media Arts Center Director Jax Deluca.
The screening was part of a trio of events that made up “Beautiful Buffalo Week,” a look into the artistic landscape of the Queen City presented by the Toronto director, filmmaker and playwright Jordan Tannahill and his partner William Ellis, an actor. The project, limited in scope though not in potential, could signal the beginning of a new kind of grass-roots collaboration and cultural exchange.
It began Monday with readings before a near-capacity crowd of two plays by Buffalo playwright Neil Wechsler. Thursday’s screening, featuring film and video work including a hilarious five-minute version of Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ’66” by Sherri Miller and Mario Fanone and Deluca’s own poetic abstract film, was designed to shed a light on Buffalo’s eclectic media arts scene. (It ended with a performance by the popular Buffalo-based rapper Jack Topht, perpetually dressed in Buffalo Bills paraphernalia.) And Friday night, the space hosted a conversation between Montague and the Windsor-based arts collective Broken City Lab about the ways creative citizens are reinventing the battered post-industrial cities of the Great Lakes.
It’s the latest of the small-scale efforts to forge stronger grass-roots connections between the growing metropolis on Lake Ontario and its shrinking sister on Lake Erie. Tannahill and Ellis launched their DIY performance space and screening room out of a former beauty salon and barber shop last October. “Beautiful Buffalo Week” was one of their first orders of business.
After Ellis and Tannahill paid a visit to Montague two years ago, they fell in love with the ways artists were reclaiming and repurposing Buffalo’s stock of cheap and abundant properties.
“I think maybe we can offer a little bit of awareness to other young artists about the vitality that Buffalo has to offer. We certainly experienced it ourselves,” Tannahill said over tea at his kitchen table, through an open doorway just a few steps from the screening room. “I think of Buffalo as a city that requires and values innovation as a way of re-energizing its economy or sense of self. So anyone who has an idea will be pretty much embraced.”
Though the reality is a bit more complicated, it’s easy to see how a trip down the QEW might appeal to young artists in Toronto, where rents are prohibitive and barriers to entry steep.
“The biggest thing we can offer without any resources is those connections [like ‘Beautiful Buffalo Week’] and we can connect artists who may not have thought of Buffalo as a cultural center,” Tannahill continued. “They may decide to pay a visit there, or to try to send their work there to institutions, or visit the Albright-Knox or go to school there, or make connections where Buffalo companies might host their plays.”
In fact, that is already starting to happen as a result of this week’s events. The Toronto-based theater group The Unit, which co-presented Monday’s play-reading event, has plans to present work in Buffalo. For Montague, whose work has helped him forge connections in several cities around the world, “Beautiful Buffalo Week” should give both cities plenty of reasons for optimism.
“I’m not naive,” Montague said. “I mean, Toronto can get along fine without us, but I would like to just tell them that there’s interesting things going on and that there’s a reason beyond going to the mall to come to Buffalo.”