Wednesday, December 31, 2014


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.

The party next door began as a pair of high heels gently kicking their way up the stairs. A soft knock, muffled laughter, and the door shutting harder than the knock.

Hours later, it is the ocean roar of a crowd I hear. Someone brought an accordion, and every now and then attempts "Auld Lang Syne", getting a bar or two further than the previous attempt before collapsing on the wrong note.

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
but we've wandered many a weary foot,
since days of long ago.

Monday, December 29, 2014

"With a Little Help from My Friends"




Joe Cocker's performance of Lennon-McCartney's "With a Little Help from My Friends" was a highlight of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Apart from Cocker's expressive vocal (of which Rolling Stone writer John Mendelsohn wrote: "his feeling for what he is singing cannot really be questioned"), it is the backing vocals that I most look forward to every time I come upon the film version of this fair.

In the studio version of the song, the backing vocals are supplied by four women -- Madeline Bell, Rosetta Hightower, Sue Wheetman and Sunny Wheetman. But at Woodstock the gender roles are reversed and the backing vocals come to us from Cocker's long-haired male guitarist and bassist -- in falsetto. What could have easily turned this song into a farce turns it into something infinitely more ambiguous. A "live" music classic.

R.I.P Joe Cocker (May 20, 1944 - December 22, 2014).

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Killer Queen" (1974)




Yesterday's post features a song lyric with some nice gender role reversals, including a "king in the kitchen/ Cooking breakfast for the queen."

Zanzibar's Freddie Mercury was aware of how gender roles are constructed -- and a "master" at blurring them.

KILLER QUEEN
(Freddie Mercury)

She keeps her Moet et Chandon
In her pretty cabinet
'Let them eat cake,' she says
Just like Marie Antoinette
A built-in remedy
For Kruschev and Kennedy
At anytime an invitation
You can't decline

Caviar and cigarettes
Well versed in etiquette
Extraordinarily nice

She's a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laserbeam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime
Ooh, recommended at the price
Insatiable an appetite
Wanna try ?

To avoid complications
She never kept the same address
In conversation
She spoke just like a baroness
Met a man from China
Went down to Geisha Minah
(killer, killer, she's a Killer Queen)
Then again incidentally
If you're that way inclined

Perfume came naturally from Paris (naturally)
For cars she couldn't care less
Fastidious and precise

She's a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

Drop of a hat she's as willing as
Playful as a pussy cat
Then momentarily out of action
Temporarily out of gas
To absolutely drive you wild, wild..
She's all out to get you

She's a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

Ooh, recommended at the price
Insatiable an appetite
Wanna try ?

You wanna try...

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Cry Baby Cry" (1968)




An advertisement combined with a nursery rhyme.

CRY BABY CRY
(Lennon/McCartney)
Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
The king of marigold was in the kitchen
Cooking breakfast for the queen
The queen was in the parlor
Playing piano for the children of the king
Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
So cry baby cry
The king was in the garden
Picking flowers for a friend who came to play
The queen was in the playroom
Painting pictures for the children's holiday
Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
So cry baby cry
The Duchess of Kircaldy always smiling
And arriving late for tea
The duke was having problems
With a message at the local bird and bee
Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
So cry baby cry
At twelve o'clock a meeting round the table
For a seance in the dark
With voices out of nowhere
Put on specially by the children for a lark
Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
So cry baby cry, cry, cry, cry baby
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
So cry baby cry, cry, cry, cry
Make your mother sigh
She's old enough to know better
So cry baby cry
Can you take me back where I came from?
Can you take me back?
Can you take me back where I came from?
Brother can you take me back?
Can you take me back?
Can you take me where I came from?
Can you take me back?

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Box Tops on Boxing Day




The Box Tops performing their Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham-penned hit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An Art Critic's Poem From a City Not My Own


A City Poem
(Frank O'Hara)

1
I understand the boredom of the clerks
fatigue shifting like dunes within their eyes
a frightful nausea gumming up the works
that once was thought aggression in disguise.
Do you remember? then how lightly dead
seemed the moon when over factories
it languid slid like a barrage of lead
above the heart, the fierce inventories
of desire. Now women wander our dreams
carrying money and to our sleep's shame
our hands twitch not for swift blood-sunk triremes
nor languorous white horses nor ill fame,
but clutch the groin that clouds a pallid sky
where tow'rs are sinking in their common eye.

2
My ship is flung upon the gutter's wrist
and cries for help of storm to violate
that flesh your curiosity too late
has flushed. The stem your garter tongue would twist
has sunk upon the waveless bosom's mist,
thigh of the city, apparition, hate,
and the tower whose doves have, delicate,
fled into my blood where they are not kissed.

You have left me to the sewer's meanwhile,
and I have answered the sea's open wish
to love me as a bonfire's watchful hand
guards red the shore and guards the hairy strand,
our most elegant lascivious bile,
my ship sinking beneath the gutter's fish.

3
How can I then, my dearest winter lay,
disgorge the tasty worm that eats me up
falling onto the stem of a highway
whose ardent rainbow is the spoon's flat cup
and in the vilest of blue suited force
enamored of the heated needle's arm
finds the ministrant an own tongue's remorse
so near the blood and still so far from harm,
thus to be eaten up and gobbled down
volcanoes of speedometers, the strike
that heats the iris into flame and flow'rs
the panting chalice so a turning pike:
you are not how the gods refused to die,
and I am scarred forever neath the eye.

4
What are my eyes? if they must feed me, rank
with forgetting, in the jealous forest
of lustrous blows, so luminously blank
through smoke and in the light. All faint, at rest,
yet I am racing towards the fear that kills
them off, friends and lovers, hast'ning through tears
like alcohol high in the throat of hills
and hills of night, alluring! their black cheers
falling upon my ears like nails. And there
the bars grow thick with onanists and camps
and bivouacs of bears with clubs, are fair
with their blows, deal death beneath purple lamps
and to me! I run! closer always move,
crying my name in fields of dead I love.

5
I plunge deep within this frozen lake
whose mirrored fastnesses fill up my heart,
where tears drift from frivolity to art
all white and slobbering, and by mistake
are the sky. I'm no whale to cruise apart
in fields impassive of my stench, my sake,
my sign to crushing seas that fall like fake
pillars to crash! to sow as wake my heart

and don't be niggardly. The snow drifts low
and yet neglects to cover me, and I
dance just ahead to keep my heart in sight.
How like a queen, to seek with jealous eye
the face that flees you, hidden city, white
swan. There's no art to free me, blinded so. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Three Noteworthy Shows



At its best, the "Best Of" list provides an opportunity for its author to highlight that which was missed in the midst of writing about other stuff.

Because I am human, I miss more than I see, and it is for this reason that I submitted a "Best of" list to my editors at Canadian Art.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Artists, Art Critics, All Around Emotions Managers




Brad Phillips is an artist whose paintings I admire. I remember when he moved to Vancouver.

At the beginning of his essay for Artslant, Brad, who now resides in Ontario, describes himself as "astonished," which I find hard to believe of someone as self-possessed as he is.

Sky Goodden is an Ontario-based editor who is trying to establish a magazine of art criticism. I remember when she visited Vancouver last summer.

Well into her response to Brad's essay, Sky talks about her visit here and how disappointed she was in the city's art critics. What she doesn't tell us is that she came here not to visit with critics but with gallerists who might buy ads in her magazine.

Amy Fung describes herself as a "Writer,  Organizer, @ImagesFestival Artistic Director. All Around Emotions Manager." I remember when she moved to Vancouver.

At the beginning of her response to Sky's response, Amy, who now resides in Ontario, finds it "surprising" that Sky's article is "making me want to respond, since in many ways I have stopped caring about circular conversations."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" (1963)




Last night's last Letterman performance is not up yet, so last year's will have to do.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Tree




The market's conical mosaic.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Seasonal Tree



Vancouver Art Gallery librarian Cheryl Siegel's seasonal tree is once again up and on display.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Glacier Water




An insurer promotes its client's praise.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Retreating Glacier




The scale of an event -- in space and time.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Climate Change



The United Nations climate change summit in Lima, Peru is coming to and end, and "[n]one of us is really happy," said a member of the Swiss delegation.

With temperatures and sea levels rising, are there any theologians out there willing to tell world leaders that the afterlife includes vacations on Earth after the deluge?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tom Burrows



Also opening on January 8, 2015 is Tom Burrows at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. A shuttle bus will be available for those who would like attend both openings.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage 1972-1982



This Monday, amidst the bustle of Christmas shopping, co-curator Allison Collins and I take possession of Satellite Gallery (560 Seymour, upstairs), where we will begin the installation of Mainstreeters: Talking Advantage 1972-1982, an exhibition we have worked on for the past year-and-a-half.

For more information, click here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


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.

The rains are hard and at times sound like poured gravel. The radio host I wake up to talks in nervous tones of waves pounding the southern suburbs. 

"El Niño," he keeps saying, "a cycle of warm and cold air."

The cause of this oscillation is still under study.

Another load of gravel. I roll over and think not of sheep but of sandbags.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Ash Hash"




A Bob Snider song "about" what it is to be stoned.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Pictures of Someone I Used to Know"




Bob Snider is known for his story songs (or essay songs, in some instances). But he has written many songs over the years, some of which are small and tender and feel like a raindrop sliding off a leaf. Like this one.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bob Snider




In 1990 our band was invited to play the Mariposa Folk Festival, held that year at Molson Park in Barrie, Ontario, just north of Toronto.

I have many fond memories of this festival, some of which include singing "Walking Cane" with legendary folksinger Ed McCurdy, who signed my banjo ("Peace!"), Stompin' Tom Connors, who signed my guitar, as well as contemporary musicians like the Leslie Spit Tree-O, Violent Femmes, and a then-unknown singer-songwriter who has, over the past quarter-century, penned some very nice tunes: Ron Sexsmith.

But of all the musicians we met at the festival, the meeting I cherish most was with Bob Snider, whom we rode up with from Toronto.

The video above, which is from the musical performance series The Neighbour's Dog, is a good example of what Bob does well.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Malibu Creek State Park




A 1970 film set made to look like a mobile army surgical hospital in 1950s Korea. Here, at Malibu Creek State Park, bodies were dressed to look wounded and, during their repair by kooky sexist doctors, we realize, in that simple Hollywood way, that it is not the Korean War that is supplying these "extras", but its sequel.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Scopic Beheadings




In this interview, the subject begins by saying: "The idea of the film set is almost like a military operation." Later he mentions how, at the start of every morning, members of the cast and crew are given "call sheets" that outline the scenes to be shot that day.

I was never sure of the origin of the expression "calling the shots," but assumed it did not begin with a film director. One example I found was of a Confederate soldier calling out incoming cannon balls to camp cooks; another from billiards.

Returning to the video, note the three portraits above the interview subject -- each one cut off at the neck by the video camera.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Don't Argue



Don't Argue is a pizzeria that opened last year in a former Hungarian goulash house on Main Street. Its proprietors -- Anna de Courcy and Nathaniel Geary -- are artists, and they hire artists to work there.

Although careful in my consumption of wheat, I like Don't Argue's crusts. Same with the pizzeria's layout and design. Unlike Globe and Mail freelance contributor Alexandra Gill, who, in her September 26, 2014 review, writes as if one needs a didactic panel to place an order, not to mention her own critic-specific chair.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Food (1971) and Untitled (Free) (1992)



Two food production and distribution projects by visual artists. The first, Food (1971), was initiated by Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard, Caroline Goodden, Suzanne Harris and Rachel Lew; the second, Untitled (Free) (1992) by Rikrit Tiravanija, first appeared at Gallery 303 and was later reprised at MoMA in 2012.

Friday, November 28, 2014

No Lokum



Centre A's current exhibition by Derya Akay is built around meals and mealtimes. Last night I joined a group of eleven for a yummy supper of lamb, polenta, kale salad and wine.

Those interested in dining with Derya can find more information here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Magazine Building



Earlier this year, Capilano University announced that it would no longer contribute funds to the Capilano Review, a magazine founded at what was then Capilano College, in 1972, and a champion of vanguardist writing and visual art. While the magazine receives revenues from advertisers, sales and government, institutional funding was key.

Rather than allow the magazine to fold, editor Jenny Penberthy has sought additional funding sources. Most recently, she instigated a kickstarter campaign, with goods and services in return (including a tour of the Vancouver Art Gallery's upcoming The Poetics of Space exhibition with yours truly).

For those who cannot afford a yearly subscription ($25), the kickstarter campaign offers rewards for contributions of $10 and $15.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stuart Building



In 1982, one of my favourite Vancouver buildings was demolished. In its place, a private residence.

The Stuart Building (1909-1982) stood at the entrance to Stanley Park, at the northwest corner of Chilco and West Georgia Streets.

Not sure who took this picture. John Mackie might know. If not Mackie, then John Atkin.

Artist Barb Wood remembers the demolition:

[W]e were told it was too frail to stand, so it should come down. When they drove the first bull-dozer through it, the results were like a Bugs Bunny cartoon -- the structure was so sound that the machine left a bull-dozer shaped hole, side to side.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Park Drive (1994)



Earlier this year, the Pinakothek Der Moderne in Munich displayed a Jeff Wall light box entitled Park Drive (1994). A couple years earlier, former Canaccord Financial Inc. chair Peter Brown was goaded into paying too much for a smaller ink-jet print on paper on aluminum version at a Vancouver Art Gallery fundraising auction. Now it is for sale again.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Gastown Police Riot




Long before the mayors of Burnaby and Vancouver took a stand against transnational companies and their potential threat to the environment, when a magazine like the Georgia Straight concerned itself not with the advertising revenues of private developers, as it does today, but a critique of the social forces behind such companies, there was the Gastown Police Riot.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On Burnaby Mountain




My respect and admiration for those who, on these rainy days, have left the comfort of their rooms to take a stand on Burnaby Mountain against a Texas-based oil company that wants to make as much money as it can, by whatever means, and a Canadian federal government that is acting as its enabler.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


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.

At my bedside are four books. Each book has a different bookmark.

For this one, a plastic picnic knife:

“Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night. By protracted contemplation of the same thoughts, his mind grew sharp, his vague, undeveloped ideas took on form.” -- Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours (1884)

For this one, a receipt of its purchase:

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” -- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

For this one, a real-estate agent's "Just Sold!" postcard:

“I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” -- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958)

And for the English translation of Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle: Volume One (2012), a printout of Kyle Buckley's November 4, 2014 Hazlitt interview with its author:

"I feel the novel is very much like a room, or rooms: that you’re in this room or that room, and that the whole aim of writing is to create a room where you can say something. And that’s what writing is about. You have to build up a place where it’s possible to say something. If you understand what I mean."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong (1969/2006)




The above work was made at the Western Front (1973-), in a large upstairs room known as the Grand Luxe Hall.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Numb" (1993)




Received in my inbox this morning notification of SFU Galleries' upcoming For a Long, Long, Long Time: The Music Appreciation Society Presents Drones, to be held at Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre on Wednesday, November 19th at 7:30PM.

Say what you want about U2, but who can forget their 1993 "Numb", a monotonal droner that the band released as the first single from their Zooropa album at the height of their record-selling powers.

Note the opening of the video, which features an impatient homage to Bill Viola's He Weeps For You (1976), with later allusions to Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1965) and General Idea's Body Binding (1970)

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Who is this Duane Linklater and what significance is his wanting to see the sunrise before anybody else at Cape Spear!!!!"



In addition to tonight's George Bowering reading at the Western Front: a Duane Linklater opening at Catriona Jeffries Gallery.

Not sure what Duane will have on hand, but here is a project he has contributed to over the past few years.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Garry Thomas Morse on George Bowering



When I first met George Bowering I was still singing Italian arias and he would only answer in Spanish. I never listened when he called Rimbaud (or someone) a little puke but I picked up the lingo anyway. In spite of all the leaves of poetry I gave him, his response was almost Buddhist in nature; but, man, when you listened to him read a sonnet by Archibald Lampman or talk enthusiastically about those Montreal cats like Artie Gold and three-headed dogs like Irving Layton and Louis Dudek . . . and the other guy . . . man, then you were a believer in CanLit, zeow! Then he would pitch you curve balls like Lola Lemire Tostevin or George Stanley. At one point, I threatened to leap out of a window, but that didn't stop George. He was always willing (allegedly) to head to Helen's Grill to talk about The Double Hook and other Canadian stumpers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

George Bowering Reads "Fred Wah" and More




This Friday at 8PM the Western Front hosts a reading by George Bowering. The event is co-presented by The Capilano Review and will serve as a launch for their current issue, which, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, is dedicated to George and certain of his books.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Recent Publications



A couple of publications out this week, with recent work by yours truly.

The reproduced cover of Kevin Schmidt's EDM House catalogue* (top) is notable because a) the title of the work is misspelled and b) its co-producer's logo translates less as a profile of the island that bears its name than that of a torn edge.

As for The Capilano Review (bottom), it makes sense that an issue dedicated to the books of George Bowering would have a picture of George reading a Pogo comic on its cover, but nowhere are we told about the little guy beside him. [Correction: TCR editor Jenny Penberthy emailed to say that the "little guy" is George's brother, Roger, as stated on Page 4.]


* the reproduced cover on the Sternberg website has since been corrected

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Billy Budd (1962)




Not a blond cabin-boy but a bottle-blond foretopman.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"La Condamné à mort" (1942)



The seventh stanza from Genet's "La Condamné à mort":

Ne chante pas ce soir les "Coustauds de la lune"!
Gamin d'or sois plutôt princesses d'une tour
Rêvant mélancolique à notre pauvre amour,
Ou sois le mousse blond qui veille à le grand'hune

and its translation ("The Prisoner Condemned to Death") by Mark Spitzer:

Tonight, golden child, don't sing "Lunar Studs"
be instead a sad princess in a tower dreaming
of our poor love -- or the blond cabin-boy
watching from the main mast

Friday, November 7, 2014

Un chant d'amour (1950)




Small rooms -- without bay windows.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


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.

Last week a parcel arrived: a 1965 Bernard Frechtman translation of Jean Genet's Journal du voleur (1949). A book I did not order, and as I later found out, a gift from a friend.

Those familiar with the book will know that it begins with a description of the convict's pink-and-white striped outfit. Then the proposition that sets the tone for what follows: "there is a close relationship between flowers and convicts."

As the last of the penal colonies close, Genet blooms, his tendrils taking us through Spain, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovokia, Poland, Nazi Germany and Belgium in the 1930s, mostly at night.

Something else: on Page 165 he writes:

"In a friend's room, looking at his bed and all the bourgeois furnishings:

'I could never make love here.' That kind of place freezes me. To have chosen it I would have had to make use of qualities and have preoccupations so remote from love that my life would have grown disenchanted with it."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

November Rain




November rain was what I drove through today -- from the Centre of the Universe to Vancouver.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Emily Dickinson


"November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Centre of the Universe



Fifty kilometres east of Kamloops is the Vidette Lake Gold Mine Resort. To Tibetan Buddhist monks, the area overlooking the lake (from where this picture was taken) is known as the Centre of the Universe. The  Secwepemc have their own names for these places.

Here is how Tourism Kamloops introduces the Centre of the Universe:

There are many interesting sites you can visit in the Kamloops area and one of them is a short trip to the Centre of the Universe. The experience at the Centre of the Universe is not an attraction as you may think of one. This is a very spiritual place where people will come away with an experience based very much on what they believe in. Do not expect admission turnstiles and hotdog stands or souvenir shops. It is a quiet, rustic and isolated spot and we recommend that visitors do some research prior to visiting to have realistic expectations of what they will see and experience.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Doubletree by Hilton



Now that the province has raised the speed limit to 120 kph, getting somewhere also means getting there faster. What was once a four hour drive to Kamloops is now closer to three-and-a-half -- this despite torrential rains.

Tomorrow marks the opening of Luminocity, Kamloops Art Gallery's foray into public art programming. Although Luminocity is scheduled to run all week, I am only here for the weekend, primarily to review Khan Lee's latest video (for Canadian Art), but also to partake in Instant Coffee's Pink Noise.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stangers On a Train



Tonight at 7PM the Langara College English Department kicks off Strangers On a Train, a monthly reading series at the Railway Club. On the bill are Raj Grewal, Mariner James, Sarah Selecky and yours truly.

Not sure what I will read, but in the "something borrowed" category, most likely a piece I subtracted (from) after a recent tour through the Okanagan.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)




It is not what Linus wrote in his letter, but how he sent it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lou Reed Tribute




Last month, while crossing Main Street at East Broadway, I noticed a hand-drawn, black-and-white poster for a Lou Reed Tribute concert. The poster did not list the names of those involved, but provided info for those interested in taking part.

Later that day I received an email from Dallas Brodie, someone I had known since Grade Three but lost contact with after graduation, asking if I would contribute to her event -- a Lou Reed Tribute concert.

In considering Dallas's request, I put on the Lou Reed album that means the most to me, the one Reed penned but walked out on before it was completed -- the Velvet Underground's Loaded (1970).

As most Velvet fans know, not all of the tracks on this album feature Reed on lead vocals, including my favourite song, the one I was thinking of performing -- "Who Loves the Sun".

In thinking further about this album, I began to think about the different ways to approach my contribution. The one I decided on is to perform the text from "Sharkey's Day" by Reed's partner, Laurie Anderson.

Also participating in this event is another school chum of ours, Phil Comparelli, who will act as musical director. For years Phil was a member of 54.40, until his retirement in 2005.

The Lou Reed Tribute will be held tomorrow Monday October 27th, 7PM - 9PM at 3289 Main Street.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Vancouver Opera's Production of Stickboy



At bottom is the result of five hours of thinking, reading and writing (10PM - 3AM), what I submitted and what was published in today's Globe and Mail. The only difference between the text at bottom and the text in the paper is a correction I made (my fault) to Paragraph 6: it is Act One to which I refer, not Act Two.

Stickboy
Music by Neil Weisensel
Libretto by Shane Koyczan
Performed by Vancouver Opera
At the Vancouver Playhouse
Thursday Night

An opera about a boy bullied for his chubbiness should have no problem casting its lead. A bigger problem lies in assembling a cast slender enough to keep him from blending in. No difference, no problem, right? But bullying is more complex than that, and if there is a prescription for this social problem, it might be found not in what sticks out on life's playground, but in our relationship to stereotypes -- such as the one that has opera singers as chubby. 

Understanding the construction and perpetuation of stereotypes is among the challenges that face Vancouver Opera's adaptation of librettist Shane Koyczan's 2008 novel-in-verse Stickboy: Does this production simply supply us with a feel-good recovery narrative, populated by stock characters, one suitable for all audiences? Or does it attempt to convey the more complicated interior conversation of its source material?  

The Boy at the centre of this opera is not the Stickboy but the conductor of an internal chorus made up of inner selves with whom The Boy converses. We meet him first at the schoolyard, where he is walloped by Chris, a bully two years his senior. The attack (one could hardly call it a fight) is broken up by the Old Man, a war veteran who, after a few too many recitative lines, takes The Boy home to his sympathetic Grandmother and remains with them as she tends The Boy's wounds.

The visual transition from schoolyard battleground to kitchen triage is slight, aided by the Playhouse's revolving stage and coloured by the equally spare story book animation of Giant Ant, whose manic images are projected onto three window-to-the-mind-style screens. As is the case with more-recent North American operas, where historical periods (Romantic, Modern) stand in for mood (sadness, anger), composer Neil Weisensel's score is similarly patterned, though in its fluidity it often feels more like design than art.

But it is the relationship between The Boy, played to perfection by lyric tenor Sunny Shams, and his Grandmother, mezzo Megan Latham, that lifts this production and provides us our love story. Although little is asked of them musically (apart from a soaring duet in Act Three), their union benefits from recurrent scenes where the two exchange notes under The Boy's bedroom door, with their cursive texts projected onto the screens as if written by the melisma of their vocal lines.

As for the remainder of Act One, The Boy returns to school and is again attacked by Chris, after which he discovers the word FATASS written on his locker. "Maybe if you lost some weight," the Janitor intones. But it gets worse. Upon entering class, The Boy is harassed by his fellow students, then blamed by his Teacher for provoking them. When the Principal asks The Boy who defaced his locker, he refuses to say, and is given a detention -- with Chris. Once home, The Boy punches his bedroom wall. Following that, he receives the first of his grandmother's notes.

Unlike the Old Man and his Grandmother, who rescue and console him, the Janitor, the Teacher and the Principal blame him. This is where Koyczan's libretto threatens to transcend the stock characterization and stereotypes associated with more hyperbolic operatic roles, revealing the libertarian side of the "personal responsibility" argument that has come to infiltrate our schools and those we elect to fund them. Nowhere is this argument more manifest than in the United States, where one of its biggest lobby groups has as its slogan: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

And so it is in Act Two that The Boy, amidst further debasements, becomes acquainted with his Grandfather's gun. However, despite his attempt to take the gun to school, the gesture is just as quickly diffused by his Grandmother who, in a riveting passage, declares that neither The Boy nor the gun will be leaving the house because "We are sick today." Although this would have made a fine end to Act Two, this time it is the energy of that passage that is diffused through the Grandmother's subsequent attempt at a teaching moment.

Act Three begins with the Grandmother announcing to The Boy that they are moving. Things go well at first -- until a classmates teases The Boy and he explodes, beating him up. Thus the bullied becomes the bully, and in confronting his new status we meet the Stickboy inside him, an equally explosive daemon who, through self-mutilation, causes The Boy more harm than before, until he ends up in the hospital.

Rather than contrive the situation towards a triumphant end, the opera concludes not with an aria but with The Boy speaking to the audience directly, like the disembodied Narrator at the beginning. Only this time the tense has shifted -- to the present. "I can only tell you how it feels," he says. And in telling us without song, he returns us to its source.

Friday, October 24, 2014


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.

Awoke late this morning -- from a late night of writing. Cannot remember the last time I had a nine hour deadline, but that was the case. I got home from the opera at 10PM, and had until 7AM to hand in my review.

Strange thoughts visit the writer after 2AM, and some of them found their way into my piece. We shall see what survives the edit, what evidence remains of my haunting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"evolving visual landscape"




For Philip Guston, the "evolving visual landscape" led him from figurative painting, to abstract painting, to a hybrid of the two -- not merely figuration, as many suggest.

Earlier this year we noted a similar evolution in the painting of Elizabeth McIntosh, as featured in an exhibition Mina Totino curated at Equinox Gallery, entitled Persian Rose, Chartreuse Muse, Vancouver Grey.

A painting included in this exhibition is McIntosh's The Girl (2014):


When I first saw this work, I recognized it as a McIntosh painting for its use of colour, its attention to line and form -- this despite the presence of a figure.

After Guston debuted his figurative paintings in 1970, critics turned on him. Guston, who was clearly bothered by this, withdrew from the art scene, but continued to paint. A painting he made some years later was of the composer Morton Feldman, a friend who turned on him after he changed his style.

Here is Guston's Friend -- to M.F. (1978):


Although I would never suggest that the figure in McIntosh's The Girl is someone who turned away from the artist after her introduction of a figure into her painting, one wonders if in the midst of such a painting she might have considered for a moment what had happened to Guston.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Press Release



In 1963, the Jewish Museum in Brooklyn gave us Towards a New Abstraction, an influential exhibition that featured Dan Flavin's first light tubes. Now, some fifty years later, the museum invites us to a panel discussion entitled What's At Stake For Abstract Painting Today -- and Where Do We Go From Here?

The panel, led by Bob Nickas, includes artists Joanne Greenbaum, Philip Taaffe, and Stanely Whitney. It asks:

Why, at a time when there is greater interest in abstraction, is so much art seemingly unconcerned with evolving the visual landscape? And why is so much of it embraced by collectors, and not by critics and curators? Perhaps one question answers the other. This panel considers: What's at stake for abstract painting today.

When much of what we see today isn't actually painted, claims to be conceptual, borders on design, eagerly lends itself to branding, and, self-satisfied to have been quote/unquote emptied of meaning, provides an inoffensive backdrop to an endless succession of art fairs and auctions. Of one point we are certain: there is nothing in any way abstract about this recent turn of events.


Reading through this description, one cannot help but ask: Are the questions raised based in reality? Is there a greater interest in abstraction?

I would say no more than usual.

Of this abstraction, is it "seemingly unconcerned with the evolving visual landscape?" If the question of an abstraction "embraced by collectors, and not by critics and artists[,]" constitutes an aspect of the "evolving visual landscape" (not so much the abstract work of art, but its function as a flag of conquest in the private spaces of collectors), then I would say, as much as art can be "concerned" with anything, its makers and agents are very much aware of -- and indeed contribute to -- this "evolving visual landscape."

To ask, "What's at stake for abstract painting today?" is (Eli) broad enough.

The sentence that leads off the second paragraph leads nowhere. Shouldn't it be placed before the sentence that ends the paragraph before it? As in:

This panel considers: What's at stake for abstract painting today[, w]hen much of what we see today isn't actually painted, claims to be conceptual, borders on design, eagerly lends itself to branding, and, self-satisfied to have been quote/unquote emptied of meaning, provides an inoffensive backdrop to an endless succession of art fairs and auctions[?]

As for the final sentence, let me rewrite that one too:

Of one point we are certain: there is nothing in any way abstract [about my reading of this press release].

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"red water in the swimming pool from some mysterious source of rust"



Arthur Erickson's "Graham House" was something of a marvel when it debuted in 1963, a work inspired by the Villa d'Este near Rome. But the house suffered birth defects; and though the original budget was $35,000, it ballooned to over twice that.

In his biography of Erickson, Stouck provides details of a letter David Graham wrote to project manager Garry Hanson in 1966 that cite "nine major problems and omissions," which include "stains throughout the house, unlevel beams, and red water in the swimming pool from some mysterious source of rust."

But the house endured, until it fell into disrepair in the late-1980s. In December 2007 it was torn down.

Friday, October 17, 2014

c̓əsnaʔəm



In his biography of Arthur Erickson, David Stouck devotes space to the architect's lecture at the closing of the 1963 Festival of the Contemporary Arts at UBC: "In North America, Arthur reminded his audience, the most present visual symbols were power poles rather than church steeples, the traffic exchanges rather than the pedestrian space. Where to find the indigenous forms that were waiting to be discovered and transformed was the specific questions he posed for his audience. Architectural form is eloquent only in context, he said, and in a poetic vein continued: 'The act of siting betrays to us the tenor of human aspirations, the shape of God, and the worth of man.'" (p.179)

Thursday, October 16, 2014


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.

At my bedside table, a copy of David Stouck's biography of the architect Arthur Erickson, who affected me at the memorial for art historian and curator Doris Shadbolt some eleven years ago, when he said, "We have lost the ability to converse with one another, have conversations."

This was a comment that brought to mind a line from Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One (1948), when Sir Francis Hinsley, sitting in the fading light of his backyard in West Hollywood, and on the topic of Americans, turns to the younger Barlow and says: "Always remember that, dear boy. It's the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Stranger Song (1967)




stran·ger
ˈstrānjər/
noun
  1. a person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar.
    "don't talk to strangers"
    • a person who does not know, or is not known in, a particular place or community.
      "I'm a stranger in these parts"
      synonyms:newcomer, new arrival, visitoroutsidernewbie
      "they were taught to fear strangers"
    • a person entirely unaccustomed to (a feeling, experience, or situation).
      "he is no stranger to controversy"
      synonyms:unaccustomed to, unfamiliar with, unused to, new to, fresh to,inexperienced in; 
      archaicstrange to
      "I'm afraid I'm a stranger to these automated methods"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Andrew Keen



Still thinking about Kaja Silverman's talk the other night. Specifically her thesis: how photography has always been with us, even before its invention.

Yesterday morning I listened to a CBC radio interview with Andrew Keen on the latest phenomenon in our "sharing" economy: Uber. But it was what Keen said at the outset that stuck with me: how the internet's lack of regulation -- or rather, the lack of regulation at some of its "sharing" sites (from uploaded music to airbnb) -- has nasty consequences. Not just for artists whose work is distributed without remuneration, but for Uber users who think nothing of stepping into a stranger's car.

Although I have yet to read the details of Silverman's argument, it seems her idea of photography, or the photographic, involves a particular set of criteria that we are unaccustomed to associating with the medium.

When the question of criteria is applied to the internet, I am now thinking of it less as an "information super highway," as it was originally billed, or a robot-patrolled surveillance/data accumulation service, as it has become, but as a celebration of the (government) deregulation that took root in the west in the mid-to-late-1970s, which resulted in attacks on the welfare state and, ultimately, what comforts us when we think of democracy: electing representatives to look after our best basic human needs -- with empathy and compassion.

Perhaps what I am saying sounds naive, a duh moment, as it were, but that is how I am now thinking of the internet: not as a game-filled free playground, but an advertisement for a libertarian tomorrow. That this advertisement might feature a smart phone, a stranger's car and a road to hell is wholly apropos.

Friday, October 10, 2014

View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827)



The Gernsheims' 1950s retouch of View from the Window at La Gras.


Fontcuberta's 2005 Googlegram version.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Unstoppable Development"



Kaja Silverman's talk last night was from the second chapter of her upcoming book The Miracle of Analogy, to be published in February, 2015 by Stanford University Press. The title of her talk was "Unstoppable Development".

As one might expect with a second chapter, the talk was less an introduction to the propositional content of her book than a series of descriptions in support of its assertions (that the world has always known photography, even before its invention).

As such, Silverman began by taking us back to our first "photograph": Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 27). From there she pressed forward, through Daguerre and Fox Talbot, all the while returning to Niépce's picture in language both lush and inspiring.

Like Lucy Lippard, Silverman is seamless in her presentation of her writings and the writings of others, so much so that at times I lost track of who said what.

Looking through my notes this morning, I noticed a number of unattributed quotes.

"Objects moving are not impressed."

"Nature in motion is not represented."

"Every disclosure is a concealment."

"…until photography was chemically stabilized."

"When the houses are finished the trees are not."

"Vacillating objects made indistinct pictures."

"Faded before the eyes of the nations assembled."

"Drawn with the pencil of Nature."

"Archival noise."

"The human psyche is another place where the photographic image develops."

Let's see what happens when I feed these lines to Google.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Kaja Silverman




Art historian Kaja Silverman had an enormous influence on Vancouver writers, scholars and artists while at Simon Fraser University in the 1980s. The video above was posted three hours ago by the publisher of her most recent book, Flesh of My Flesh.

At 5:30PM tonight Dr. Silverman will be lecturing at the University of British Columbia's Lasserre Building. Do not expect to find Al Razutis in the audience.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Americans Abroad




This scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) never sat well with me.

I saw the film shortly after it came out, at the once grand Totem Theatre in Prince Rupert.


The scene received a huge laugh when it flashed across the screen, but as a young anthropology major, I knew how images like these are damaging, how they contribute to disrespect, and how that disrespect comes back to us in the West in the form of staged decapitations.

Here is another scene from another film that is at least aware of how such images allow for, and perpetuate, the attitudes they pander to:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Article 23




A five minute pro-West gloss on the relationship between the People's Republic of China and Hong Kong.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Road Narrows As You Go (2014)



A new novel by a writer who wanted to write comics and does so in his novels -- this one about a cartoonist and her kind set in that hair shirt decade, the 1980s .

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Cold Pop (2010)



As mentioned in yesterday's post, Mark DeLong was an early contributor to Hardscrabble Gallery's "first chapter" of exhibitions and events. Although I did not see DeLong's show, I did pick up a copy of his Cold Pop (2010) at Geoffrey Farmer's Every Letter In the Alphabet and have cherished it ever since.

Cold Pop is comprised of three sections: the first and largest includes DeLong's six-panel cartoons, followed by a short (colour) section of his ceramic works, and finally a series of his full-page drawings.

While I appreciate the variety, it is the cartoons and their psycho-sexual blend of repulsion and desire that has me returning again and again to this frighteningly insightful book.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Hardscrabble Gallery



How pleased I was to see in my inbox this morning Erik Hood's announcement that Hardscrabble Gallery at 1029 East 15th Avenue is back for a "second chapter."

Opening this Sunday September 28 1-4PM is Cameron Kerr: A Photograph Is No Substitute For Anything.

This exhibition of new work by Cameron Kerr considers two things; sculpture and photography. Known locally for his sculptures of marble and wood, Kerr initiates this dialogue with a conversation between the material and the pictorial world using photographs. Kerr proceeds on developing this lexicon where a pastiche of references and various mediums are composed into a documented mise-en-scene.

These photographs can be split into two distinct and contrasting modes. First, where the subject of the studio is the primary activity and secondly, single pieces of sculpture isolated against painted backdrops. Kerr then completes the exhibition with a single sculpture of yellow cedar. 

Cameron Kerr is a North Vancouver based artist. He has most recently had public works installed in Vancouver and North Vancouver and was included at the Kamloops Art Gallery’s exhibition "An Era of Discontent: Art as Occupation" (2012).


Past Hardscrabble exhibitions and events have included work by Kim Kennedy Austin, Fabiola Carranza, Mark DeLong, Michael Drebert, Jacob Gleeson, Nathan Haynes (see image above) and Scott Moore.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Rain" (1966)




Over 50mm last night!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Emily Dickinson's "Besides the Autumn poets sing" (131)

Besides the Autumn poets sing, 
A few prosaic days 
A little this side of the snow 
And that side of the Haze - 
  
A few incisive mornings -         
A few Ascetic eves - 
Gone - Mr Bryant’s “Golden Rod” - 
And Mr Thomson’s “sheaves.” 
  
Still, is the bustle in the brook - 
Sealed are the spicy valves -         
Mesmeric fingers softly touch 
The eyes of many Elves - 
  
Perhaps a squirrel may remain - 
My sentiments to share -
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind -        
Thy windy will to bear!