In the Wake of Progress

Photographer Ed Burtynsky transformed the 22 screens in Yonge Dundas Square into a canvas for an immersive media piece; the piece has moved to the Canadian Opera Company for viewing until July 17.

Photo by Jim Panou

Toronto’s Yonge Dundas Square is usually a canyon of advertising. But in a commission for this June’s Luminato festival, photographer Ed Burtynsky transformed the 22 screens in the square into a canvas for an immersive media piece entitled In the Wake of Progress.

Drawing on footage from Burtynsky’s 40 years of photography and film projects, the 20-minute wordless piece traces humanity’s fall from Eden: moving from old growth forests to lands swept barren by clear cuts, and thence to suburbs, skyscrapers, and slums. Burtynsky’s iconic images of mountain-deep Carrera marble quarries, post-industrial shipbreakers, and blood red copper tailing pools make an appearance, the latter set to an especially ominous passage of chanting in the cinematic soundtrack by Phil Strong.

Photo by Robert Leslie

“The whole idea was born out of wanting to create a feedback loop for Yonge Dundas Square as the epicentre of consumer capitalism in Canada,” says Burtynsky. “We’re familiar with shopping for high-end fashion and with glass, concrete, and steel, but we don’t know where that glass comes from, or where the clothes are made, or where the waste goes. To make the world we know, there’s a whole other world needed—and it’s the scary one that can come from behind and get us.”

Photo by Alanna Joanne Smith

That shadow world is most poignant in the human images that opened the film Manufactured Landscapes, which also appear around the square: warehouses packed with Chinese factory workers, one group staring like living ghosts at the cameras. Trash pickers, sorting through mountains of discarded plastics, give a human face to first world wastefulness, pointing to how even environmentalist efforts such as recycling amount to virtue-signalling.

Photo by Jim Panou

Just as the film starts with images of redwoods, it ends with waterfalls, suggesting a return to nature, or a flood that overtakes civilization—maybe both. “The piece is buttressed by nature on both sides,” says Burtynsky. “We’re part of the natural world, and if we lose sight of that, what’s at risk is ecological collapse.”

Photo by Robert Leslie

In the Wake of Progress is set to continue indoors at the Canadian Opera Company’s Theatre, where it will be projected on a set of 30-foot-high screens, but it’s hard to imagine it having the same synergistic spark as at Yonge Dundas Square. The position of the various screens is woven into the narrative, with timing carefully synchronized to give a variety of lenses into each scene, blending still images, videos, and close-ups. In one passage, cameras pan quickly over a relentless row of shipping containers, abstracting them like colour bands; another scene fills the screens with crashing waves.

The dynamic setting also draws out different aspects of the film. At a dusk screening, images of Hong Kong skyscrapers were reflected by the glass of surrounding buildings, multiplying and blending them into the Toronto setting; as darkness descended, an image with dozens of strip mall signs off a highway interchange merged with the neon backdrop of Yonge Dundas Square. The setting also brought about some sly juxtapositions: an image of garment factory workers took the place usually occupied by advertisements for a global fast fashion brand; photos of discarded rotary phones loomed over a cell phone store. The nighttime activity of Yonge Street participated in the drama, too: at one moment, real-world sirens competed with the soundtrack, a fire truck whizzing by beneath images of gas flares from an industrial plant.

Photo by Robert Leslie

In the Wake of Progress was originally scheduled to run in 2020, but that year’s edition of Luminato was pandemic-cancelled. A 2021 version aired to an empty square—public health restrictions at the time limited the ability to gather, even outside—and was filmed as a digital presentation. But Burtynsky insisted that his piece needed to be shown in a public setting as intended, and his team pitched into the logistics and fundraising to make that happen. A digital take-over of Yonge Dundas Square involves an intense production effort to sync up footage across screens owned by eight different companies, each with their own systems and servers, and a need to adjust the lighting balance as the evening progresses; two evenings of screenings displaces some $1-million worth of advertising. “It’s the biggest public artwork I’ve ever worked on,” says Burtynsky. “To take over a whole square of the city—it’s not a small task.”

In the Wake of Progress screens as an indoor immersive experience from June 25-July 17, 2022. For more information and to purchase a ticket, visit the Luminato website here.