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Noel Harding (centre) and two of Live Arts' staff, Carmen Victor and Walter Willems, don't waste a moment from the job of raising funds and awareness for their big plans at the Zoo.

The New Zoo

Noel Harding and a staff of three are about to transform the Toronto Zoo entirely, and they're using art to make it happen.

By Sarah Elton

If you turn right instead of left at the Toronto Zoo's main entrance, you'll see a small sign that reads Live Arts and a gravel road that leads to an old mansion. It's a romantic place with an ethereal, dreamy feel. Towering trees line the driveway to the front yard, where there is an overgrown Japanese garden. Down some stone stairs to the side of the house is an open field, a former horse racetrack that separates the house from the Rouge River. Artist Noel Harding calls this place The Bestiary.

It's from here that Harding and his team of three plan to transform the Zoo into an entirely new cultural experience. "It's a bit like everything you think of will be a possibility," says Harding about the project. "Your experience of animals and your experience of art and your relationship with both will be effected as you move through any number of places and events in and around the Zoo." If successful, Live Arts has the potential to transform the Zoo entirely, by collapsing the divide between we bipeds and the rest of the animal kingdom, through art.

Sound nebulous? Well, it is--so far at least, since the endeavour is still less than a year old. At this stage, Harding and his team are working out the concepts, which include redesigning areas around the animals and integrating performance, visual arts, and music. There is talk of creating a huge, bronze elephant at the 401 Meadowvale exit as a way to signal the Zoo's presence along the highway. There's an idea of inviting topiary gardeners from around the world to create alternate forms of signage. At the Zoo's entrance there could be a shopping terminal with a nursery specializing in indigenous plants, and shops for learning about and purchasing solar heating panels. Various barns will be overhauled into theatre rehearsal spaces and high-tech recording studios. The Zoo grounds will be an open stage. All these plans include artists working in collaboration with other artists in other fields, and working side-by-side with scientists, zookeepers, ecologists, you name it. Anything's possible.

On an even grander scale, architect David Oleson has expressed interest in designing a "living bridge," essentially a residence (for people) that crosses a ravine and is harmoniously integrated into the natural environment. Yet another plan is to have closed-circuit video cameras focused on animals so people can watch their daily lives online--a kind of animal reality TV. Live Arts is the brainchild, in part, of Noel Harding, who is acclaimed in Canada, as he is around the world, for monumentally scaled outdoor projects and installations. In Toronto, he's better known for his work than by his name. He's the one behind the Elevated Wetlands--those giant orthodontic sculptures that appear unexpectedly along one of the northbound bends of the Don Valley Parkway. They are a creative take on a water purification system that Harding conceptualized and created through a commission from the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. The sculptures cleanse part of the polluted Don River's flow through a mix of recycled plastics and native plants that grow at the top of each of the six molar-shaped sculptures.

Noel Harding's Elevated Wetlands (in operation since 1998) is a unique water purification system located along the Don Valley Parkway (Toronto).

Indoors, Harding's works can be just as theatrical. Past gallery installations have included live trees, elephants, and rabbits. In 1980 his sculptural installation Enclosure for Conventional Habit drew international attention--not all of it positive--for involving chickens, a treadmill, and feed and rest stations. Even though the installation provided an idealized environment for six live chickens, he was stalked for two years by an animal rights activist who deemed his use of live poultry to be unethical. Where else but the Zoo for his next step?

The Bestiary--the old mansion on Zoo property where Live Arts is now headquartered--is a magical place that seems to echo the "anything's possible" mandate. The staff is currently transforming the house into an artist quarters and studios, though elements of its former majestic self remain. On the main floor there is a ballroom with a grand fireplace and a small balcony that lets from the second story. The many bathrooms are bizarre. There's a shower with thirteen spray heads in one, and another with a pthalo blue colour scheme that looks like Elvis Presley recently visited.

The Bestiary, a mansion built in the 1930s, is Live Arts' headquarters, and future residence for artists and scientists.

When the land was originally donated in 1967 to create the Zoo, so was the house. It was built by a millionaire in the 1930s, Dr. Robert Jackson, who made his money selling Roman Meal Bread--an early health food that became popular enough to soak him in dollars. It's only since June, when the artists arrived, that people have been using the house on a regular basis.

Harding, 56, sits in The Bestiary's so-called boardroom. It's a glassed-in room off the ballroom that probably once was a conservatory or sunroom. "The context of bringing the arts and culture forward into the Zoo is rather a natural one for its evolution. What you can contribute to the Zoo is a deep and enriching experience," he says, leaning slightly over a large veneer office table. "Within the notion of informing people and educating people about the environment at large, you can start to see the scope of our engagement vis-a-vis Live Arts."

That's how Harding talks; in well-crafted statements that are both grand and blank, and wonderfully useful for getting things done in places that prefer a bureaucratic process. It's a method honed, perhaps, over years of working on so many public art projects, which inevitably involve swaying elected officials and corporate types into thinking outside the box. Without Harding's extensive experience in just this sort of art and politicking, it would be hard to imagine Live Arts actually happening.

At other moments, Harding's banter can be wide-eyed and candid, especially when discussing just how far he intends to push the potential he sees with Live Arts. "I'll plant topiary illegally if I can't get permission from the province," he says, half seriously. Though Harding is not the only one excited by the project. Wayne Baerwaldt, director of The Power Plant, has agreed to be a consulting curator for a procession of four to five large-scale public art works, some temporary and others permanent, along the 401 stretch that leads to the Zoo. The unveiling could be as early as next year.

The project was initiated just two years ago when the Zoo's chairman of the board and Toronto city councillor George Mammoliti suggested the Zoo would benefit from having buskers at the front gates. That idea of cultural involvement sparked interest with general manager and CEO Calvin White. An art committee was formed and by November 2001, Harding was on board to develop a direction and vision. At Harding's prompting, the old house was designated as headquarters.

Harding gets down to the how-to's of what will drive Live Arts financially beyond the Zoo's commitment. They are in negotiations with a few companies, including Steam Whistle, he says, and they are looking for co-sponsors, The Power Plant being one possibility. More immediately, the house has been booked for film productions and the team is in the process of applying for grants. By next summer, they expect to have raised $500,000 and restored The Bestiary. This fall will inaugurate the first tangible stages of the project with five upper-year OCAD students selected to live and work in the house. One student from York University's environmental studies program will be staying with them, along with a visiting Korean veterinarian. The hope is that a cross-pollination occurs and that the group will in some manner interpret the academic research that goes on behind the scenes at the Zoo.

Setting up the house is a small but essential step, one that Harding describes as being key to the larger goal of what he calls "the practice of interfacing disciplines." Live Arts is definitely geared toward that. There is no other model like it where creative types from about the globe will convene at a zoo for inspiration. Oddly, it's among the wild beasts where humans are finding new ways to communicate with one another.

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