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Fantomatique is spine-chilling

By Alejandro Bustos on September 13, 2012

On a cold winter morning, with a snowstorm blowing in the air, a crowd of 5,000 people gathered in downtown Ottawa to watch a man being publicly hanged for murder.

Many in the crowd believed he was innocent.

The execution of Patrick J. Whelan on February 11, 1869 at the Carleton County Gaol, (today the site of the Ottawa Jail Hostel), is just one of the spine-chilling backstories to Fantomatique, a multi-discipline art exhibit presented by the SAW Video Media Art Centre, taking place at SAW Gallery at 67 Nicholas Street.

The show, by Quebec multimedia artist Frédéric Lavoie, looks at the unsettling history of the Arts Court complex located next to the Rideau Centre.

Housing a group of buildings that today include Arts Court, SAW Gallery, and a hostel, this location is the former site of the Carleton County courthouse, registry office, and jail.

The various pieces in the show consider the reported ghosts that are said to haunt the complex.

One piece that particularly caught my attention was a hair-raising rocking chair that moved on its own, giving the impression that a spirit was in the room.

“A rocking chair is a common theme in horror movies when a house is haunted,” explains Lavoie in a phone interview from his Montreal home. “The horror movie theme is something I explore along with the architectural structure of the building.”

This interest in space is evident in Someone is Watching You, a work made up of a three-by-three grid of video screens. Containing images of people in their offices, Arts Court, and the street, the grid creates a feeling that Big Brother is watching.

“I was looking for material and I found it in surveillance cameras,” says Lavoie, before adding, “[t]here is potentially someone on the other side looking at you.”

Staring at the video images, I oscillated between feeling like a jailer peering into the cells of prisoners, and an inmate who was being watched.

In another piece, two set of stairs, each leading to a black door, give the impression of a never-ending loop that has no escape. (Which is ironic, considering that the layout of Arts Court is very confusing, or at least to me, as I have been lost in the building on many occasions!)

Overall, I found that the exhibit had elements for a great show. Unfortunately, and this is not Lavoie’s fault, the exhibit was not well maintained.

For instance, one short film that was supposed to be on a repeating loop was turned off when I first walked in. This is a pity, as the haunting images of the video provided a chilling but effective backdrop to the show. I finally watched the film after tracking someone down and asking them to turn it on.

The pamphlet for the show, meanwhile, was hidden in a back room and would have been completely missed by me if I hadn’t made an effort to go and search for it.

As well, while the SAW Gallery space is quite small, I would have liked to see more art works on the wall or in the room, as I found the exhibit a bit sparse – especially considering the fascinating theme. That being said, the pieces that I did see I enjoyed.

Fantomatique runs until September 29.