Finding light in the dark

Designer Hugh Conacher creates event-based art in socially distant times

Hugh Conacher's Invitation uses the idea of X-ray vision as an inspiration for voyeuristic art installations. 

Supplied photo

Hugh Conacher, a theatre designer and photographer, has had no work since March, but has continued to make art on his own dime. Like many arts and culture workers, he has lost multiple contracts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, Conacher has designed several different events in collaboration with theatre creator Angela Chalmers, including Invitation, a six-part series over the summer, and his own installation for Light Up Live: Day of Visibility. His latest collaboration with Chalmers, Even the Sphinx has Eyes, was scheduled for Nuit Blanche on Sept. 26 but has been postponed due to pandemic restrictions in Manitoba.

Invitation was inspired by “this idea of X-ray vision and seeing into people’s houses, being a bit of a voyeur,” Conacher says. Spotlighted artists in the Invitation series included Frances Koncan, Clayton Thomas-Müller, Camila Schujman and Conacher himself. It was one of the few performance art events offered in a summer suffering a dearth of the usual arts and music festivals.

People would gather outside the artist’s residence and watch video of what was going on inside the house, as it was projected on the building’s exterior. As an outside event, it was easy for people to socially distance but still enjoy the show. “It was a great way to safely socialize with people without making them feel endangered,” Conacher says.

Dolores Rintoul, a regular theatre patron, attended the first Invitation and Conacher’s pop-up event for Light Up Live

“I used to take my holidays for the Fringe. So that was a big miss this summer,” Rintoul says.  “The first thing I did after the lockdown was come down to Invitation. It is a lifesaver. This stuff feeds the spirit.”

Conacher helped organize people in Winnipeg so they could participate in Light Up Live: A Day of Visibility. Venues around Canada lit up their buildings in red lights to remember the live-event industry, which contributes $100 billion to Canada’s economy every year, and has been dark since lockdown started in March. 

Conacher helped organize the event in the city, including lighting up his own residence and convincing the city to light up the Winnipeg sign at The Forks in red as well.  

With winter looming, opportunities to gather outside in physically distanced settings will be few and far between. Conacher worries for the mental health of many people going into the colder months. 

“I hope that people take the public health crisis seriously but at the same time find a way to not burden their lives too heavily. Get out there and have some fun,” he says.

“I really sincerely hope that we can get back into creating art in theatres in the way we have in the past, but in a new context, with new information and new knowledge. I think we can’t go back to what was normal before, because that isn’t normal anymore. What we are doing now is facing a new world, but there are all sorts of opportunities for people to be creative and make great art.”

Chalmers and Conacher’s latest collaboration Even the Sphinx has Eyes was programmed for Nuit Blanche on Sept. 26 but was cancelled due to Winnipeg’s code orange designation. Find the event on Facebook for rescheduling updates.

Published in Volume 75, Number 04 of The Uniter (October 1, 2020)

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