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Commentary on the Art Gallery of Alberta’s Dial R for Refinery

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Commentary on the Art Gallery of Alberta’s Dial R for Refinery

Jacqueline Ohm discusses AGA's "Dial R for Refinery"

The Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) holds two “Refinery” parties a year. The Halloween edition has the theme “Dial R for Refinery” and emphasizes femme fatale and film noir. Attendees were told to be “dressed to kill.” However, there are multiple flappers about; I guess the 1920s just aren’t ready to die. Dapper men surround me and women in tailored dresses flank alongside the bar.

Mario and Luigi are here; so are Salvidor Dali and Frida Kahlo. There is a plethora of un-ironic fedoras  and suspenders. The music is oddly modern; we’re missing the sounds from the era. Where are Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como? I could be coaxed to dance if I had the right mood music to entice me.

The second floor is a collage centre put on by artist Brandi Strauss. It’s a great activity for people to put their nervous energy into. Is a gallery a place to stimulate creativity? It feels like kindergarten: we learn how to cut with scissors again. One of my professors would complain about the unoriginality of collages, or that we have no right to cut up and dismantle the artist’s true intention for the work and separate a part from the whole. But I love a good collage.

Every Refinery party has something that allows you to build your own art. Last time I attended, I made a puppet. Many people sit beside me at the tables set up. They too want to make some art with glue, paper, and scissors.

I wander up the stairs to the third floor, where I am informed that it will be a 30 minute wait to develop a picture in the dark room. I stand in line beside some flappers in fur shawls on the stairwell, which overlooks the main floor’s dance area and is almost vertigo inducing. At the end of the line, Klyment Tan, the third-floor film photographer, takes photos for all the people waiting in the queue. After the shot, the photos will be developed by Janet Savill, who runs the improvised dark room.

In front of the dark room are many hopefuls looking at the drying film, hoping to find their images amongst the mix. Those who are lucky enough to find their shots are snapping Instagram photos of this exciting opportunity, digitizing their own negative. Savill is processing the film in an instant coffee mix, which helps to reduce the chemical funk that accompanies the process.

I walk into an exhibit on the second floor where Edmonton artists Dara Humniski and Sergio Serrano’s work-in-progress is featured. The small gallery features a table with cue cards, and the exhibit asks for the guests to interact with some of the process. A well-dressed, but tipsy, female asks the room, “Does anyone know what the artist is doing here?” She gestures to an image and then over to a cue card. “And what does this mean?” The female is looking at words on the wall: “vanity,” “media influence,” “sukiicat,” “omission,” “well alright,” and “desire.”

I then remember why I like the Refinery parties. I like dressing up in a theme alongside strangers, stumbling about the gallery doing activities and contemplating what the artwork means, happening upon random moments and conversations between strangers, and doing all this while fuelled by alcohol.

As the galleries are about to close, I am in the third-floor gallery catching a panoramic video scene of Mars. Rovers and space debris are stuck in the sand, abandoned and blinking. The artist, Kelly Richardson, wanted to imagine the future of Mars’ terrain, as it would look after being abandoned by our space programs and with objects left behind to rust. A couple is in the room with me; a woman dances along the screen while her partner plays David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on his cellphone. It is these moments I seek in life: the moments I get to witness something sweet, something special when strangers interact with art.


Photography by IQRemix. Flickr. BY-SA.