Monday, December 31, 2012

A Night In

For those who prefer to stay home and watch a film on New Year's Eve, let me recommend Frank Vitale's Montreal Main (1974). This is a film that is rarely discussed when the topic of Canadian cinema is raised, and does not bear a mention in film critic Katherine Monk's "populist-oriented primer" Weird Sex & Snowshoes (2001).

Like Jackie Burroughs, Louise Clark, John Walker, John Frizzell and Aeryln Weisman's A Winter Tan (1988) (adapted from Maryse Holder's 1979 memoir Give Sorrow Words), Montreal Main is about desire. Unfortunately (for some) it is the wrong kind of desire. Keep that in mind while watching Vitale's understated yet emotionally complex film.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Analog Deathwatch

Apropos of yesterday's post the artist Raymond Boisjoly sent me no less than thirty links to people who plugged in their analog-only TVs to record their final seconds.

The links are fascinating, but the one I thought most poignant was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin -- what sounded like a grandfather and his grandson gathered in a basement workshop.

This is the vid I would have posted had it not been "disabled by request."

Saturday, December 29, 2012

First in Colour, Last in Analog

In 1861 Thomas Sutton saw what theoretical physicist James Clerk Maxwell saw six years earlier (red, green and blue) when he "took" the first colour photograph, a picture that is referred to informally as the "tartan ribbon."

Just as wet photography gave way to digital processes, this year marked the end of analog broadcast signals in Canada. So these "ears" (below) are useless too.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Holiday Viewing

I enjoy the days between Christmas Day and New Year's Day. I enjoy how patterns change, how that which moves slowly blooms, and that which moves quickly is suspended -- invisible yet echoing.

Television is fun this time of year, a time to catch up on the movies I recorded on my PVR.

Last night I watched Vanilla Sky (2001) and thought it a fairly accurate snapshot of our times, where libertarianism, narcissism and mental health issues overlap, become indistinguishable, regardless of the filmmakers' intentions. After that, a film that is suddenly 32-years old -- The Blue Lagoon (1980).

Like Xaviera Hollander's The Happy Hooker (1972) (a best-selling book that, in its nonchalance, features racism, homophobia, heterosexual pederasty and bestiality), The Blue Lagoon is a film that would not be made today. Not because no one would watch it but because questions concerning childhood and, invariably, sexuality are topics that have become rooted less in love than in fear.

In 2007 I was invited by the Witte de With to take part in an on-stage interview with Hollander at a bar in Rotterdam, an event I have little recollection of, apart from being struck by how someone with a mind as quick and expansive as Hollander's could be so narrow on certain topics. Or maybe it was me. Maybe I mistook precision for narrowness, conviction for privilege.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Bowie and Der Bingel

The "Bing Crosby Christmas Special" was a seasonal mainstay in our house. Watching it as a child was to visit a world that had long-since passed -- until the night David Bowie showed up to sing with Bing this duet.

Monday, December 24, 2012


Judy Radul is my co-vivant of nineteen years. Her mother's brother, David Lucas, and his co-vivant, Margret Samson, have been going steady for at least twice that long. Margret's brother's son is the singer-songwriter John K. Samson, making John my second-cousin twice removed (I think).

Five years ago I flew to Winnipeg for Christmas, where I met Judy and David, who were en route after two weeks vacation in Buenos Aires. Judy and I stayed at the Fort Garry Hotel, and the following night we had Christmas dinner with Margret's brother's family, which included John and his wife, the singer-songwriter Christine Fellows.

The Samsons are an important Winnipeg family. Margaret's father owned and operated a printing press that served the Icelandic community and their fellow workers of the world, most notably through the Icelandic Quarterly, which amalgamated with another Icelandic paper in 1959, owned by Margret's father's sister's husband. John has carried on this tradition with a book publishing company, Arbeiter Ring.

A recurring topic at the Samson dinner was Iceland's gift to cuisine -- the vinarterta. Margaret is a passionate historian, advocate and maker of this prune- and cardamom-infused dessert, and John gave me every indication that he too is a fan. "Have you ever written a song about it?" I asked him, to which he replied, "Everything I write is in some way related to the vinarterta."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

VAG Librarian

The Vancouver Art Gallery has a librarian. Her name is Cheryl Siegel.

Over the years Cheryl has helped me on a number of projects, most recently an exhibition I co-curated with Scott Watson in January.

Every December Cheryl erects her Christmas tree at the VAG library. In the spirit of the advent calendar, click here to see it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012


One of the many vacant storefronts I saw during my most recent walk along Robson Street is the ground floor/basement of the former Vancouver Public Library main branch, at the northeast corner of Burrard and Robson.

Designed by Semmens and Simpson, the VPL opened in 1957 and remained a library until 1996, when it was redesigned for retail and commercial use -- CTV and the Globe and Mail upstairs; a Virgin Megastore and, later, an HMV below that.

But now that lower space is empty. Who its new tenant might be will depend on who can pay its rent. That this space has sat empty for the past six months tells us that the rent is higher than a tenant's ability to make a profit. The same could be said of the other high-traffic corner spaces along Robson west of Granville.

At dinner last night someone suggested this space would make a great art gallery. Some suggested an annex of the VAG, while others suggested a new home for the Contemporary Art Gallery, whose current Yaletown location (below a condo tower) has never sat well with me -- a design that looks as if it was built less for an art gallery than a former art gallery, one that could easily be converted into a retail shop.

Does the City of Vancouver still own the former VPL site, or was it sold to someone rich enough to keep its lease rate high enough that no one can afford to rent it?

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Songs to Aging Children Come"

Tigger Outlaw's version of a 1969 Joni Mitchell song from Arthur Penn's 1969 film version of Arlo Guthrie's 1967 song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree".

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

7 Up

Among the finer documentaries of the past fifty years is not a feature-length film but a serial work: Michael Apted's Up Series (1964-).

In the first film (7 Up) we meet a selection of seven-year-olds spread throughout the British Isles. Some board at charity homes, others live with their families in council flats, while others still are among the privileged, like Suzy, who, for many Up fans, remains a favourite.

The above video is a fifteen minute segment from the first film -- 7 Up.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A small room inside a bay window. A single bed, a table and chair, and a sink. I could manage something larger, with more conveniences, but I could never match the view.

From the table I hear children, young children. Not a pair of children -- the first plural of "child" -- but a few, what our teacher once told us (when I was a child) meant "three to five."

The voices of children -- some high and melodious, others rough and husky. I cannot see them but I know that their voices are shaped by their motions -- voices that appeared out of nowhere, as if descended from birds.

What has them in motion?

I listen for what I do not hear -- the skid of a soccer ball, an object. But more than likely theirs is an instant game, the kind some of us were good at making up, while others argued over what should be its rules.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Broad Strokes

Eli: "What Zaha Hadid did is certainly iconic."

Zaha: "It is great to have a champion like Mr. Broad."

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Vancouver Art Gallery System

What is the role of the art critic? Is it to look at art as an autonomous enterprise, on its terms, and report on it, point out where it succeeds and fails? Could that be amended to include the larger social context in which that art occurs, such as where and when, and the times we are living in today?

Yesterday I received David Baxter and Bob Rennie's 22 page pdf: "VAGS - A Community Centered (sic) Vision of the Vancouver Art Gallery System". This document was not sent to me by its authors but by those who received it directly from them. Those who also did not receive this document directly include the director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, who, according to the authors (their mail-out list was unsuppressed), is not part of their "Community". Not a good start.

Here is their email preamble to the pdf:

To all of you on this email...David and I are not just looking for a solution to the VAG here .... we want to bring to the surface and create a real discussion around puplic (sic) and private support of arts and culture and philanthropy in this new economy. 

The attached document does come with the non-negotiable that Vancouver is not a Head Office city and that the limited resources for philanthropy and tax dollars cannot be towards any single arts and cultural institution at the expense of all others....David and I just took a practical approach to a 15 year water cooler discussion that we thought deserved a broader discussion amongst some of the voices on this email...

WHO SHOULD DECIDE THE COMMON GOOD...was the title of a panel discussion at the Trudeau Foundation that I participated in last month...and if the question is asked of Arts & Culture ...the answer is....easy....all of you on this email...should decide the common good along with everyone you care to share this document with...

Seriously thank you for allowing David and I to have a voice here.

David Baxter/Bob Rennie 

I suppose in fairness I should include the authors' "Vision" in this post. (Indeed, I would have done so if their preamble was not in need of unpacking.) Suffice it to say, what is said in this "Vision" includes an idea Rennie floated in the Globe and Mail last summer, about multiple VAG galleries, or what is now, like his own company, a "System."

Is the VAG in need of a "solution"? If so, it might help to know what the problem is? And if there is a problem -- or problems -- why does Baxter and Rennie's report not "bring [that] to the surface" as well?

Perhaps in their attempt to be positive, appear constructive, present a "Vision", the authors, like many of us, have eschewed critique altogether, preferring to dismiss it as negative, counter-productive, "mean-people"? But is a deeper understanding of the structural problems facing public institutions today not a bigger asset to helping these institutions achieve what we, the public, expect of them than beginning at the top -- a problem the VAG encountered after trying to excite public interest in their proposed move to a new building? Is it not part of the "real discussion"?  I am all for private and public partnerships, regardless of who instigates them, but I cannot help but be suspicious when the authors of this "Vision" cannot even spell the word "public" correctly.

To say that Vancouver is not a "Head Office City" does not take into account its many self-employed residents, from independent writers such as myself to janitors who, after their unions have been busted by private companies, work on contract. Because we are self-employed, are we not our own "Head Offices"? Ah, but if by "Head Offices" the authors mean corporate "Head Offices", why did they not say so in the first place?

When Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States, the bulk of his campaign contributions came from individual donations under twenty dollars. If the VAG received twenty dollars from every self-employed person in Vancouver, the City would surely take notice -- not for the money raised but for the votes those dollars represent. That the authors of this "Vision" have ignored these many individual "Head Offices" for a few corporate ones tells us their first priority is a corporate VAG, not a public one.

"WHO SHOULD DECIDE THE COMMON GOOD," they shouted. Well, for starters, it might begin with those who speak in lower case letters.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Art Critic

Above is what I imagine to be an excerpt from a larger video on the end-stage Robert Hughes (1938-2012), whose art criticism appeared in print and on TV. While I have laughed out loud at some of his pronouncements, as well as marvelled at his prose, Hughes was a connoisseur who, through his force of personality, saw no problem conflating the personality of the artist with his or her work (an example of which can be found in Hughes's almost child-like assessment of Warhol).

Friday, December 7, 2012

Newspaper Criticism

For the past three days I have been in correspondence with a newspaper that approached me about writing and reporting on visual art. What they asked of me was, forty years ago, what they would have asked of someone hired to fulfill the now-defunct role of staff art critic. Like a lot of jobs today, what was once a staff position (with great pay and benefits) "belongs" to that of the freelancer (poor pay, no benefits).

The post below is a slightly revised version of my latest contribution to the correspondence, a correspondence that began with what the newspaper was looking for, followed by my brief exegeis on the importance of "community art".

Dear ___________,

I think I know what you are getting at, but for me capital "A" Art is all art, just as capital "B" Business is all business and capital "C" Criticism has been supplanted by capital "P" Publicity. These capitalizations -- these categories -- are not unrelated.

As I mentioned earlier, within capital "A" art there are subsections, one of which -- the capital "A" to which you refer -- is art that is part of a Modern (western canonical) continuum, what is referred to by those who manage its terms -- critics, art historians, private galleries, collectors, artist-run centres and museums -- as contemporary art. This is art that is made with an awareness of that continuum, a dialogical quest for the "new" that carries with it traces of the old, expanding on its suppositions and/or critiquing them.

The continuum that runs through my neck of the woods begins with painting -- the abstracted landscapes of Emily Carr, followed by Jack Shadbolt. The 1960s gave us intermedial practitioners such as Roy Kiyooka (an artist who quit painting for poetry) and Michael Morris, a co-founder of the performative art-as-life Western Front in 1973.

The late 1960s brought with it an interest in conceptual practices; it's pater familias being Ian Wallace, who begat Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum and Roy Arden -- the so-called Vancouver School. The 1980s saw the emergence of Post-Modern practices, which included a de-centering of the Modernist continuum, one that allowed for multiple, identity-based modernisms. The 1990s saw sculpture give way to installation, which gave us Geoffrey Farmer and Brian Jungen.

One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp put a bicycle wheel on a stool and called it art, his materials "ready-mades." Fifty years ago Andy Warhol, a commercial illustrator by trade, remade Brillo Boxes and displayed them in serial form, forcing us to look at them not as objects but to consider our relationship to them as unilateral consumers.

The contemporary art conversation today includes "relational aesthetics," or what is spoken of now, this minute, as "social practices." The emphasis here is not on objects but on systems and their supports. While these systems include artist-run culture and public funding, they also include private galleries, museums and big business. Whereas art criticism once provided both the chisel and the grout within these systems, today it is has been replaced by publicity and advertising.

This line I have drawn is not a horizontal line but vertical line, not a spatial line between us but a temporal one, a continuum that is real by its consequences.

Ten years ago I supplied your paper with reviews. Two hundred dollars for five hundred words. My peers laughed at me, said I was wasting my time. But I believed that the contemporary art conversation was important, and that your paper was a good platform. I would say the same today, except your platform, like a lot of platforms, has gone from observation deck to backdoor stoop. 

Please don't take this the wrong way, but after three nights sleep I have come to the conclusion that writing for your paper will do me more harm than good. I just can't reconcile myself to a system that is paying me less (for more) than I was receiving ten years ago.

Thank you for thinking of me. Good luck finding that "reporter and critic."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Protect Me from What You Want Them to Say

A pioneer in public text work is U.S. artist Jenny Holzer (b.1950). In 1977, Holzer began pasting her Truisms (anonymous legal-sized broadsheets drawn from her Whitney Independent Study Program reading lists) onto walls and utility poles around Manhattan. Five years later, her tweet-sized texts were appearing on electronic surfaces, such as the Spectacolor billboard at Times Square.

Another artist who has made something of text in public space is U.K.-based Gillian Wearing (b.1963), whose emergence coincided with Holzer's often garish attempts to modify her texts for museum display.

While Wearing works in a number of different mediums (video, photography, performance), she first came to our attention with Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-1993), where she approached people in public space and asked them to write down the first thing that came to mind.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Having Said it with Flowers

In 2007 artist Lauren Marsden, along with a team of volunteers, performed an unauthorized planting of red impatiens on the tomb-like mound at the east end of the Dunsmuir Viaduct (between Union and Prior Streets, just east of Main). I say tomb-like because underneath this mound once lay the entrance to Hogan's Alley, Vancouver's first African-American neighbourhood.

Both the Dunsmuir and Georgia Viaducts are the closest Vancouver came to having an inner-city freeway, the initial stage of a massive public/private development known as Project 200. The abandonment of Project 200 came about in the late-1960s, after a citizens' group formed to block the freeway proposal's second stage and yet another potential erasure: Chinatown. The core of this ad hoc group went on to form Vancouver's COPE party.

As anyone who has visited a graveyard knows, it is customary to leave behind flowers -- a fresh sign of life to show those passed that they remain with us today. Marsden has done just that with her uncut shade-loving impatiens, whose plantation scheme follows words solicited from the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project: HOGAN'S ALLEY WELCOMES YOU.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Vision Critical

One of my favourite public text displays was the Vision Critical sign at the north end of the Cambie Street Bridge. Then one day, like a lot of things in Vancouver, it disappeared.

Despite its function as a market research engine, Vision Critical gave us a text work in the form of business signage, one that, inadvertently or otherwise, set the tone for a day's looking and thinking. I am sorry to see it gone.

Monday, December 3, 2012

"Unlimited Growth Increases The Divide"

The above photo (compliments of Scout Magazine) captures a text -- UNLIMITED GROWTH INCREASES THE DIVIDE -- installed by artist Kathryn Walter over the entrances of the Del-Mar Hotel and, to the south (left), what was then the Contemporary Art Gallery (555 Hamilton Street), who commissioned this work in 1990.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"shoulders, necks"

Poet and Thursdays Writing Collective member Elee Kraljii-Gardiner reminded me of another text-based project in Vancouver's downtown eastside -- the Whispers Project.

The above text, located on the east wall of 58 Powell Street, is an excerpt from a larger poem by Intrepid Pens collective member Amanda Grondahl. Yesterday afternoon I walked past this text on my way to Mina Totino's talk at Artspeak Gallery, where the artist spoke on her Cloud Studies (1997-2010), as well as a history of clouds and their naming.

What attracts me to Amanda's text, apart from its proximity to the storefront tattoo parlour it shares its wall with, is the poet's decision to use a comma, not the conjunctive and, between that which "used to fit so well together."

Would "our shoulders, necks" fit better together with that and between them? I don't think so -- I find the comma's seriality more connective, capable of uniting the entire body in a smooth, less intrusive fashion. Yet this section of her poem (itself removed from what precedes it) asks us to consider just that.

Click here to read Amanda's poem.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A New Sign in Town

Nathan Coley's current exhibition at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery includes an illuminated sign -- WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN -- atop the Pennsylvania Hotel at the corner of Hastings and Carrall. Re-opened in 2009, the Pennsylvania is comprised of 44 studio apartments, in addition to support services for its low-income residents. (The above photo, by Liz Nall and Bella Edgely, is of the sign's installation in Paris.)

This is the second text work on a block that already features Martin Creed's EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT atop the Wing Sang Building around the corner, an earlier -- and permanent -- commission by real estate marketeer/art collector Bob Rennie.

In 2010, Vancouver-based artist Kathy Slade attempted a call-and-response with the Creed work through the installation of her Pablo Ferro-inspired IS EVERYTHING GOING TO BE ALRIGHT? sign in the window of the SFU School for the Contemporary Art's Audain Gallery. Of course Coley's is the more subtle of the two, supplying not a question, like those asked at a place of higher learning (the Audain is also a "teaching gallery"), but a generative conclusion, in this case drawn from the last line of Voltaire's Candide.

The Pennsylvania is a site of social housing; the Wing Sang houses Rennie, his private businesses and his extensive art collection. Yet while the differences between these two buildings and the roles they play add specific weight to our readings of their signs, they are not necessarily representative of extreme positions but, provided we CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN carefully, respectfully, a potential complement, what some might consider ALRIGHT.