Friday, September 26, 2008

Bookending Le Week: Warhol in MTL, Textiles in TO

Wall Street, Damian Hirst, Stephen Harper. What un week ou deux we've been having. But endorphins in the cultural community are back a-flowing, of course, thanks to Margaret Atwood's zingy op-ed on the importance of arts funding (and the ridonkulousness of Stephen Harper) in the Globe yesterday.

The stuff I've been publishing, isn't, admittedly, quite as exciting as Peggy's, but here you go: A review of the highly underrated Textile Museum's exhibition Close to You in NOW, and a Q&A in the National Post with Montreal Museum of Fine Arts curator Stéphane Aquin on their just-opened Warhol Live exhibition. To be honest, I've seen the catalogue and I think they have found a new spin on Warhol here, and I look forward to seeing/hearing it--even if, as AGYU curator Philip Monk pointed out some years ago, the Warhol spin machine has its own problems.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Talk 2.0: Pascal Grandmaison at Jessica Bradley Art & Projects

This weekend, as part of the Canadian Art Gallery Hop, I gave a brief talk at the newly renovated Jessica Bradley Art & Projects on Montreal artist Pascal Grandmaison. Grandmaison, a youngish artist, emerged in the late 90s and early 00s, breaking through to national attention with a show at artist run centre B312 in 203. Since then, he's started to do an increasing number of museum exhibitions, with a show upcoming next week at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and ones recently taken place at the National Gallery of Canada.

I found his work a little difficult to interpret at first, but as I had a chance to talk with Grandmaison and read up on his work, I drew some links together. Here are some related notes from my talk:

What made his work of that late 90s and early 00s so notable was the way he reworked photographic portraiture almost against itself. In one series from 1998, for instance, called Pres des Parcs he had friends model for him in Montreal park spaces. Something about the way they were posed and about their expressions was very fake, and almost kind of reflected that false naturalism that we see in parks themselves – as well as, to a certain extent, in most portraits.

From that point on, Grandmaison continued to rework the portrait theme. Rather than taking photos of people, for instance, he would take photos of their musical instruments, things that the people had used to express themselves passionately but which alone gave little personal insight. Rather than focusing close in on their faces, he might shoot them with a vast amount of white space above and to the sides of them—so that the person was physically dwarfed by the frame of the picture. He might also, as he did most recently in 2004 and 2005, have his sitters hold a piece of glass between themselves and the lens, making apparent the layers of distance between the viewer and the sitter, erasing or deterring any illusions of immediacy or connection.

Now given that this type of portraiture riffage is the work for which Grandmaison is perhaps best known, it’s a bit of a surprise to look around the gallery here today and see zero pictures of people. Instead, we see at first glance some kind of severe and distanced photos of machinery, crumpled paper, and other, at first more indecipherable, subjects.

But there is also similarity to Grandmaison's past work. Basically, each of these newer works broaden Grandmaison’s critical approach to media. Where before he was particularly interested in testing and questioning photographic portraiture by creating photographic portraits, here, in many of these works, he seems to question photography in general by using the tools of photography itself. Or question cinema in gneral by using the tolls of cinema. So it’s like he’s enlarged his working frame from taking and looking at and thinking about photos of people, to taking and looking at photos and films in general.

For instance, in his first work [pictured above] this one that was finished just this week, we see shots of a movie camera at work. The shots are extremely clear, so we can see a lot of the detail in the surface of the camera, we can see numbers etched into the metal and almost feel the texture of the hardened outer shell. In this way, it is very revealing, or feels like it should be. But like many Grandmaison works, it is exquisitely clear in a visual sense but the subject is extremely obscured in a conceptual sense. This is the part of the work that is turning the power of photography against itself. Everything is perfectly shot, but in some ways we can’t see anything.

If you do read the backstory on this, however, and I believe it is in some of the documentation, you find it is a kind of portrait as well…. A portrait of a technology. The camera that is being documented here is a 16mm Éclair NPR fabricated in 1963 in France. Because it was one of the first handheld film cameras with sync sound, it enabled the genre of “cinema verite” to evolve. It symbolized freedom to many filmmakers—suddenly, they could get out of the studio and capture life on the fly “as it really was.” And because so many directors are associated with cinema verite, it is in a way a portrait of them too.

Of course, however, while it may have simulated life better than studio shooting, there was always the camera and the projector between the viewer and the action. By creating a film focusing exclusively on this liberating instrument – this instrument that was almost in many ways meant to dissolve the viewer and the “real life” cinematic action into one – Grandmaison questions whether it was the technology or the spirit of discourse that surrounded it that was truly liberating. Or even whether, one could say, it was liberating at all.

Fun times! Thanks to everyone who came out. As for the rest of the day though I didn't manage to make it to the Plaskett talk, I did enjoy the conversation between Dan Adler and Nestor Kruger at Art Metropole and Sarah Milroy's talk with Reinhard Reitzenstein at Olga Korper Gallery.

Thanks to Julia at Jessica Bradley for the pic of me mid-blab

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Election Dejection: Will Arts-hating Tories sweep the Canuck vote Anyway?

It's been some time since I've posted on the Canadian election campaign and its associated forays into arts policy predictions north of the 49th. But still, strangely, the wheels of parliamentary democracy have continued to churn regardless of whether I am paying attention. Strange, that. Luckily, Jennifer McMackon at Simpleposie has been valiantly keeping fresh links posted on related news and views across the country. Here's a recap:
Photo of anti-Harper graffiti from Christian et Cie's Flickr photostream

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Update: Montreal Museums do Subscribe to Arcade Fire Model of Success after All!

Well well well. Just after posting last week on the curious matter of three different Montreal art museums showing music-themed exhibits this fall, I received an email release today from those museums--to be clear, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, and the DHC ART Foundation--announcing a fall-long "Art Rocks in Montreal" cross-promotion. The deal, to be announced in New York later this month, will offer "three rock and roll itineraries [soon to be placed on the Tourism Montreal] website for travellers interested in visiting Montréal this fall." Does getting the package deal mean you get to trash your hotel room for free, like a real art/rock star? Dunno, but it sure looks fun either way.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Please Don't Stop the (Montreal Museum) Music

How delighted was I this week when I found out Toronto's favourite anonymous art critic, the Artfag, had posted his latest online "cahier of criticism and witticism"? The answer is very.

Sadly, however, at least for me, Hogtown's hypercritical homosexual directed his sights in this edition mainly to the much-vaunted Quebec Triennial. Basically, I didn't get to see the show myself, so I'm missing out on some of the sarcastic fun. Still, this show won very rave reviews so it's fresh to see something a little less adulatory—even if the show does stand as quite an accomplishment. After all, as has been recorded here, the Triennial's creator, MACM head Marc Mayer, can be quite critically pointed himself. It's good to see someone dish right on back.

Now that the Triennial has ended, however, I'm struck by the upcoming slew of fall viz-arts shows in Montreal that have to do with music. These include Warhol Live opening September 25 at the Musee des beaux arts de Montreal, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967 opening October 9 at the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal, and Replay: Christian Marclay opening November 30 at the DHC-ART Foundation.

Has the whole town gone Arcade-Fire-model-of-success crazy? Should the major galleries rebrand themselves with the word "Wolf" somewhere in their name, as has been taken up by Montreal bands AIDS Wolf, Wolf Parade, and We Are Wolves? (Granted, the Wolf Montreal AIDS Art Parade Museum does have a certain ring to it...)

Or are these galleries simply recognizing that, in many ways, music is a more powerful, popular form than visual art will ever be?

I've been thinking about this issue lately for various reasons, and I can trace those thoughts back, surprisingly, to a documentary on Spencer Tunick that I saw some years ago. Though, like many folks, naked or otherwise, I'm less impressed by Tunick than I used to be, I remember the documentarian asking him which art form he thought was the most powerful. And Tunick said, quite sensibly, that the most powerful art form was music, simply because it was the most immediate, the most enjoyable and the easiest to distribute. Or something like that.

In general riffage on these thoughts, I'm closing this post with two things I've wanted to yoke together for a while: a video from Montreal-originated band Chromeo, and some paintings by Brooklyn-based artist Kadar Brock:

Here's another pairing of same; I think of these pairings as equivalents, though this one's a little more of a stretch:

Dang enjoyable regardless!

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Arts Cuts Continued: The Other Side of the Coin

Reverberations from the Canadian government's sudden $50-mil arts slash are nothing, I know, compared to the hell Lehman Brothers is going through today, but there are a few issues that come up for me as a result:
  • As Bloomberg (via ArtsJournal) notes today, when these big boys tank, it can spell danger for the many arts nonprofits that depend upon their beneficence in the absence of adequate government funding. Though our banks in Canada are not as threatened by the US mortgage crisis, it's clear that recession-revisioned budgets at RBC (home of the Canada's most monied painting competition), Scotiabank (sponsor of Nuit Blanche), and BMO (sponsor of 1stArt!) could spell serious shrinkage, if not elimination, of these programs. This is an especially precarious set of circumstances when word-of-mouth tells me that even arts orgs as populist as the Toronto Public Library are being asked to make sure any new programs have corporate sponsors.
  • It's also interesting to consider the market tumble in light of the art world folks who say that the government should get out of the funding biz and leave it to the corporations that actually have art on their walls and money in their wallets. This was opinion voiced by Newfoundland art dealer James Baird when I talked to him yesterday about his prize-juror duty for the RBC Painting Competition (article to follow in tomorrow's National Post). It would seem that asking corporations to step up the funding and government to step back is only really a great idea in a boom economy.
  • In the past few days, more voices have come to the fore from artists and writers themselves that question the immediate jump to attack either (a) the Harper government or (b) funding cuts in general. One of these questioning moments came up from author Randy Boyagoda during a panel discussion on CBC's Q where he noted he'd like to see artists like himself really consider how they might explain to a neighbour why part of that neighbour's taxes should go to support his art. Another came up from (and was since partially rescinded by) critic Marissa Neave who was dismayed at what she considered to be the unilateral "attack Harper" approach offered at the Department of Culture organizing meeting (previously noted here). 
  • On Monday's Q, Canadian Arts Presenting Association acting ED Deb Beauregard also reinforced the need to make personal links for citizens between the newspapers, books, songs, TV shows and websites they enjoy every day and the fact that all that is part of the "culture industry.
Don't know where these different points of view might leave us all, but I'm glad they're being voiced, for the most part. I do think that the gap between an artist's perception of art and a non-artist's perception of art, as Boyagoda and Beauregard pointed out, is something that really needs to be addressed. And if Toronto-area folks want to give Harper their own 2 cents directly, you better get moving--the man's in Oakville at 5:30pm today at 1280 Dundas St West and a group is meeting there to call him out on not just cuts to the arts, but to climate change programs and income trust promises as well.

Image of Canadian pennies, excluding artists counting them, from

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Gallery Picks: Notable Toronto Shows

After much lazing about this summer, or rather, just working at a desk rather than out in the world, I finally got off my behind and went to see a chunk of  shows this past weekend. Here's my picks:
  • Mostly painterish artist Margaux Williamson's TIFF-related vid Teenager Hamlet 2006. Peter Goddard at the Toronto Star didn't think the experimental feature-length redo of Shakespeare was any great shakes, but I disagree. Maybe I've just got a crush on narrative/high school English classes, but I really enjoyed the way Williamson's interviews with local art scenesters [disclosure: one or two of whom are friends] unexpectedly drew out real-life thematic threads from Hamlet. Those 21st-century-meets-Elizabethan-era realities included everything from betrayed fathers to cold mothers, capitalist fantasies to crown tattoos—many of these disclosures being due to the effective prying of author Sheila Heti as interviewer. Heck, there was even a bizarre old Donahue interview with Ayn Rand which seemed relevant!  Since the words "experimental feature" can strike fear into most art viewers' hearts, the watchability of this was indeed a pleasant surprise. 
  • The youthful Studio Gallery's exhibition related to Tim Barber's TV Books editions line is a fun little time, partly because the gallery is just plain scrappy; in a world of pristine spaces, it can be kinda nice to be in a ragged-linoleum environment for a change. I'm always a little wary about the Vice-mag subculture around their shows, seeing as how I am a teenage-boy skateboarder only in my wildest dreams, not in real life. It can be a bit of a clique too. But former Vice photo editor Barber assembles an impressive range of work here from several young artists. I most enjoyed Julia Burlingham's black and white street photography, Michael Schmelling's contact sheet of cloud photos with a cotton ball superimposed, and Kim Krans's paintings on fashion magazine pages. Many of these works of these are now available in book form via TV Books and also in offset-poster form via Studio Gallery. At around $30, either is a cheap way to own some neato art.
  • Also nearby, the Artillerist at Pixel Gallery was enjoyable, if a little gimmicky. For it, viewers point toy guns at framed video screens. When they aim and fire, graphics from one of 13 different artists are deployed. Viewers can keep firing patterns from different artists until they want to (a) start over (b) upload to flickr or (c) print out a copy to take home. Very neato. 
  • Finally, I have to give a shout out to Dyed Roots, a vaguely titled but quite excellent show at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art to October 26. Exhibitions at the MOCCA can be hit and miss, but encouraged by my colleague Fran Schechter's NOW review, I attended and was happily quite impressed by Reeta Saeed's UK flags which she selectively unravelled certain sections. The results left gaping but still readable vacancies in the national iconography. Also fun is Rashmi Varma's performance/installation where she invites visitors to embroider her dress-cum-wallpaper. And I'm also impressed by curator Camilla Singh's personal statement of sitting and working in a large cage for the duration of the exhibition. What came up for me looking at it was the complexities encountered both within and without while working as an "exotic" curator of colour in the overwhelmingly winter-white Canadian art sector.
Still of Margaux Williamson and friend discussing Hamlet's story from Sheila Heti's website

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thursday Linkage: Puffins, Canuck Versions of Stars ask pols to fess up on Arts Funding

A 'lil bit of linkage on the election and arts funding front:
  • As anyone who hasn't been living under a rock likely knows, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was recently forced to retract a ridiculous attack ad on opposition politician Stephane Dion--not because it was a ridiculous attack ad, per se, but because it was attacking by making a CGI puffin poop on Dion's shoulder. Well, the ad sparked cries of "WTF?" across Canada, but particularly so in Newfoundland, where puffins are the provincial bird. Said Newfoundland premier Danny Williams, who hates Stephen Harper's guts even though they are both Conservative, "Leave our provincial bird out of [your] nasty, disgusting, personal attack ads... The people of this province didn't appreciate being used by you for our votes the last time and our birds don't particularly like being used by you, either." Williams then provided evidence of same--the mascot of the defunct St. John's Maple Leafs hockey team, Buddy the Puffin, walking around the press conference with a large sign reading "ABC"--meaning "[Vote] Anything But Conservative". I love it when politics turns into absurd performance art documentation! via CBC
  •  For the record, I went on a puffin tour in Newfoundland last month and no avian political preferences seem to have been observed... though much cuteness was. That was before the election call, though.
  • Back to Ontario's version of preening flocks... TIFF! Yesterday in the fest zone, some Canuck culture heavyweights--film director Paul Gross, ballet director Karen Kain, art college director Sara Diamond, filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Caribana chair Joe Halstead and Business for the Arts' Jim Fleck  held a press conference to demand clear policies on the arts from campaigning parties. According to the CBC, panellists tried mightily to point out the connections between economic growth and arts funding. Martin Knelman over at the Star is doubtful many voters will really care about this. The Globe included a juicy tidbit to the effect that Prime Minister Harper still hasn't gotten back to Kain regarding a written plea she sent him to consider rescinding the cuts. And I'm glad to see our own versions of heavyweights chiming in, though, again, to make much of an impact, I think it would be dang helpful to get Michael Cera, Ellen Page, Rachel McAdams, hell, even Bryan Adams on one of these things.
  • Simpleposie continues to post many detailed links, including one that points out, sadly, that our "national culture portal",, is basically kaput following the last 2 years of Harper's slashology. Says the site homepage: would like to thank its visitors for using this cultural portal since 2003. We wish to inform you that has been discontinued since April 1st, 2008. This is a result of a Strategic Review of Government of Canada programs and activities announced in the 2008 Budget. The original program objectives of have been fulfilled and the decision to discontinue the Web portal reflects the changing conditions in the digital and online environment. Right. Because no one uses the Internet anymore to get cultural or other information in their own or other parts of the world, obviously!
  • The Department of Culture has starting posting their own Harper attack ads. One from Darren O'Donnell pleads with 905ers to remember Harper's more bigoted speeches when at the ballot box, while the other focuses on Harper's nonexistent track record on global warming. Both use the tagline "Not him. Not now. Not ever again." Catchy! Plus, it doesn't seem the reputations of any waterfowl were damaged in the making of these ads.
Image of Buddy the pro-literacy, anti-Harper Puffin from

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Review: Joe Plaskett's Pretty Paintings at Bau-Xi

Let me say off the bat that there is nothing that has felt as strange to me in some time as giving Joseph Plaskett's current show at Bau-Xi Gallery a rave review (see today's NOW for the published text). Usually still-life painting leaves me cold, as in "been there, seen that, got the overpriced postcard and the Made-in-China coffee mug." But goldarnit, I really like some of his works. Well, pretty much. Any one where he attempts poinsettas drives me crazy in a bad way, but the others, like Green Table, above, really rock the mic in my mind.

On another note, I think it's cool that Plaskett, now 90, is not just "still painting." He's also encouraging youngsters to paint through his $25,000 painting prize. And he also says in his catalogue essay that he still never feels he knows where he's going when he starts a canvas. Plus he has the grace to admit that a lot of past work of his left the studio too early. Good, because I agree, even for this exhibit (see again the maddening poinsettas).

In my review, I mentioned some of the larger (eg 10-foot-wide) pastel drawings Plaskett used to predominantly produce. Here's a sample culled from the website for Reflections and Shadows, his 94 BC retrospective:

Sweet, eh? The result of all this is that I like his work so much I fear meeting him in case I find he's a jerk personally speaking, or something. But if I change my mind I will make sure to go see the live interview with him on Saturday, September 20 at 1:30pm at Bau-Xi. It's part of the Canadian Art Gallery Hop, for which I'm also giving a talk--this one on Pascal Grandmaison at Jessica Bradley--at 3:30pm.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Monday Update: Mags & Elections Aplenty

Thought I'd use Monday to catch up on a few publications I've been involved with lately.

First off the bat is Dandyhorse magazine, a fine new periodical for Toronto cyclists on both the sexy and the serious side of life on two wheels in the city. First issue hit the streets just before Labor Day, and is now available free throughout downtown. I contributed some stories on the Flickr group Velocouture and the cycle-touring site Warm Showers (no, not as dirty as it sounds!). Check out--or better yet, join--the Toronto Cyclists Union, the org from which Dandyhorse sprung, at (Itching for more up-to-date Hogtown cycling info? Be sure to check out the blog I Bike TO regularly. Nationwide, Momentum is another must-read.)

Next, with a launch party happening tomorrow night, is Spacing magazine, an award-winning publication on urban and public space issues in Toronto. For the last two years I've edited their reviews section and contributed print and web pieces on the arts. Though I'm leaving review responsibilities for other freelance commitments as of this issue (sniff) I'll still be pitching them stories, like the profile I wrote up in this issue of Art4Commuters curator Sharon Switzer. Switzer organizes the short vids on subway screens that millions of Torontonians see daily, including the happening-right-now Toronto Urban Film Festival. Thanks to John Sakamato of theToronto Star for taking note of this profile Sunday's paper.

Finally, I'm long overdue to post about the exhibition essay I wrote for St Catharines artist Duncan MacDonald's summer show at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery. For it, MacDonald created a very cool piece of public art--a white picket fence that was scored in accordance with the town's annual rainfall levels. Passerby could use sticks to turn the fence into a musical instrument of sorts. Read on after the jump for a late-version draft of the essay.

On a final pre-jump note, the national election has now been called for October 14 in Canada. The nonprofit org Department of Culture has posted some more great vids explaining why the Tories should not be reelected. Be sure to check 'em out.

Image of Dandyhorse mags by the fabulous Yvonne Bambrick from her Dandyhorse Flickrstream

Duncan MacDonald: White Picket Sound Fence
Grimsby Public Art Gallery, Summer 2008
Essay by Leah Sandals

The first time I went to the Niagara Region it was for love; the second time, for art. Unfortunately, it’s not as romantic as it sounds.

That first time around, my boyfriend and I were just getting to know each other; we piled onto a $5 casino bus in Toronto’s Chinatown for a weekend trip. We’d called ahead to reserve a seat, but the fact was none was needed; many stood in the aisle the whole way to Niagara. After finding our way out of the Fallsview labyrinth, we strolled down to an actual falls view, and it was here that I understood—indeed, was swept away—by them. In the context of an affair, the falls become a symbol of something powerful, overwhelming and exciting, generating a sensation not unlike that of infatuation. They are a thundering, drenching thing, ever roiling, ever passionate, ever tumultuous—agony and ecstasy in geologic form.

The second time around, a year and a half later, I kissed my boyfriend goodbye (a comfortable, domestic, see-you-tonight peck on the cheek) and boarded a different, quite empty coach to St. Catharines. My purpose: to see artist Duncan MacDonald and view his most recent work, a “white picket sound-fence” installed at the Grimsby Art Gallery. The white picket fence, of course, has quite a different symbolic resonance than that of the falls. It conjures domestic relationships of a particular idealized sort, the kind that comes with home ownership in a green-grassed small town. It calls to mind the clichéd (and clichéd because it is true) proverb that “good fences make good neighbours”—that boundaries, and respect of them, are a necessary ingredient for peaceable coexistence. And in MacDonald’s case, it is etched with a sequence of Grimsby’s annual rainfall levels from 1936 to 2005.

The more I thought about Niagara, the more the fence and the falls became connected in my mind. It wasn’t just their head-to-toe verticality that met the viewer on their own bodily terms, nor the fact that both compiled massive volumes of water into single gleaming sheets of brightness. There were a few other things that came to mind, affinities sonic, environmental and economic. It is these I hope to sharpen over the course of this essay.

First off, the falls and fence both possess a sonic as well as a visual presence. In the case of the falls, its roar, though often overlooked in reference to its appearance, is so iconic that its absence when the falls froze in 1848 reportedly caused some Niagara residents to become alarmed. In the case of the fence, MacDonald provides sticks for striking its scored pickets, turning it (and the phenomena it tracks) from meteorological data and architectural symbol into something else altogether: a sound, a plaything, an instrument, something beyond verbal articulation. It does not sound like rain, exactly. Nor it does not sound like the falls, but plays more of a xylophone or glockenspiel to that massive, droning hurdy-gurdy.

Interestingly, this is one in a long line of MacDonald works in which nature and culture is made to sing in ways that it typically does not. For an earlier work, MacDonald copied the pattern of spots on a ring of birch bark and fed it through a player piano, generating a delightful sense of translating nature into sound waves, of making a tree speak. On a more human level, MacDonald, with artists Corwyn Lund and Janis Demkiw, also transformed a revolving door into an impromptu music box. Each mundane pass through the door generated a tinkling melody, a spritely announcement of perhaps-bleary workaday passage.

There are more examples, too many to mention. But in all of these instances, MacDonald finds some comfort or value in taking a non-sonic phenomena and translating it into sound. Here, he uses that trick to help us find enjoyment (or at least investigate) something quite disturbing—patterns of rainfall affected by climate change.

This leads to the second commonality between the falls and the fence: its presence as a malleable boundary between culture and the environment.

In terms of the falls, it is well-known to geologists, hydrologists and many in the Niagara region that they have a great erosive power—so much so that they have “eaten” their way upstream quite rapidly over the last thousand years. Rapidly, that is, until two things happened: (1) the falls hit a hard limestone “cap” and (2) flow-controlling hydro stations were installed just upstream. Now the riverbed is eroding at a much slower rate, and the falls’ location marks a restive-yet-still boundary between the needs of the river and the needs of the humans around the river.

The rainfall levels on MacDonald’s fence form a similar kind of cultural-environmental threshold. In order for agriculture, energy and even tourism industries in the Niagara region to hold steady, a certain amount of rainfall is needed every year. Similarly, as climate scientists ever more insistently remind us, in order for precipitation patterns to remain consistent, it is key that human activity does not overly infringe on the environment. Symbolically, then, the earth and its human inhabitants survive only by virtue of a complicated global version of that “good neighbours” proverb. Though MacDonald found that Grimsby has been fortunate to date in having annual rainfall hold relatively steady—steady as a well-built fence, in fact—it’s uncertain whether that will continue into the future.

Such interplay between nature and culture is another recurring aspect of MacDonald’s work. In March, he and his partner Melissa Smith, along with artist Derek Knight, started a collective, the Great Lakes Institute, to address such issues. For their first project, held in conjunction with Lake Nipissing’s Ice Follies festival, the GLI created an ice hut which resembled an iceberg on the outside and a housing office on the inside. There, visitors were surveyed about their views on the lake, including whether it should be named “great.” In another work, MacDonald videotaped the drive-in theatres in Thorold during a freak snowstorm, juxtaposing agricultural land with Hollywood movies to great eerie effect.

This leads to a final commonality to discuss between the falls and fence: pure, old-fashioned economics.

It’s no secret that the falls are a huge moneymaker for the Niagara Region, with related tourist revenues reported at over $2 billion annually. Yet the economic impact of the falls economically is also quite silo’d—and investors are forsaking traditional Niagara drivers like manufacturing and agriculture to pick up the slack. Instead, inspired by the theories of Richard Florida (who spoke in the area in February) they are turning to artists like MacDonald and his colleagues. After all, with local canneries importing fruit from China rather than buying local and GM laying off workers in record numbers, what hope remains for the region but tourism (the falls) and culture (the fence)?

In this context, MacDonald’s fence speaks to the blue-sky optimism foisted not only on small-town life before but on the art life now. St. Catharines is seriously considering investing in a Niagara Centre for the Arts, and Grimsby finds itself with a newly renovated art gallery. As exciting as such developments are (particularly for the likes of yours truly) it seems city and town planners have forgotten, in their rush onto the Florida bus, that the jobs in tourism and culture are largely low-paying, precarious, seasonal and nonunionized ones. And when property values do rise, it is the holders of such jobs who are often the first ones driven out by rent increases.

Like I said at the beginning—it’s about Niagara, it’s about love, and it’s about art, but it isn’t all romantic. MacDonald’s fence, like the region it delineates, gives realistic creators and citizens much to think about. Let’s play with that wavering melody while we can.

Leah Sandals is a regular arts contributor to the National Post, NOW and Spacing Magazine. For more of her writing, visit

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Thank gawd it's TIFFday

Besides the Prime Minister's arts cuts--which, heads-up to the ones who want to reverse 'em, tomorrow will see the Department of Culture org lead an organizing meeting 10am at the Theatre Centre (1086 Queen St W)--the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF as its friends call it, is the other big arts story in Toronto right now. You know, celebs, popcorn, lineups, American media reps--all the things Hogtowners love are basically rolled into one event. How could we not dedicate all our arts pages to it for ten days-plus?

Ah, I'm not all snark and Anne Hathaway-sucksness, really. There's actually some coverage of TIFF I've really liked, including Sarah Lazarovic's daily illustration for the Toronto Star of people she encounters amidst TIFF's long lineups. Sadly, the Star doesn't seem to put her illos online, but they're well worth searching out in print. Here's one of the choice quotes, attributed to two young guys in glasses and polo shirts: "We finished work at 3am, we work at Starbucks and they're introducing a new product (oatmeal, whoohoo!). We took the GO Train in from Mississauga and got here at 6:30. We only have one day off, so if we even get the tickets we'll see Me and Orson Welles, Three Monkeys and Still Walking." Looking for an argument that art matters? That's one right there.

Also looking interesting is some of TIFF's attempts to bridge the art gallery-movie theatre (or would that be white cube-black box?) divide through its Future Projections program. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing Glenn Ligon's The Death of Tom at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and Clive Holden's Utopia Suite at Stephen Bulger Gallery. I already saw Samuel Chow's I Feel Lucky at Craig Scott Gallery, and I heartily recommend it (see my NOW review here).

Getting back to that arts cuts story though--hard as it may be to believe when TIFF is an outlet for pure gov-art schmoozery at times--I just thought I would also post a few links on the topic:
  • The Georgia Straight's Sept 4 edition carried an article about the cuts: it's brief but it promises that the Alliance for Arts and Culture will soon be organizing a protest action there
  • Two Globe and Mail columnists, Rick Salutin and Russell Smith, have published columns critiquing the cuts. Salutin's convinced that the arts cuts will be the Conservatives' make-or-break election issue, a point I tend to disagree with. Everyone in the arts, myself included, would like that to be the case, of course, but point is many Canadians have other first priorities, like, say, the environment, or the economy, or childcare, or whatever. Smith, for his part, tries to make the case for why the arts matter, though he's rolling his eyes so much over the fact that he has to explain it (philistine Canadians!) that listening to him is a bit tiresome, even for an arts supporter. Just my take, of course, and it's better they published this stuff than not. (How else would I have known that Globe staffers used to call the arts section the pansy pages?)
  • An older article from the Calgary Herald doesn't get too radical, but does quote a few Calgary arts leaders on their view of the importance of the arts--even in oiltown!
  • Also in Calgary, the alt-weekly FFWD reports that former conservative PM Joe Clark is calling the cancellation of PromArt a mistake; why was this story not picked up in other media, I wonder? Says Clark of the now-dead PromArt: “It adds a dimension to Canada’s international reputation that is both true — because we are a country of creativity and cultural excellence — and a dimension that is necessary, because it helps define Canada’s difference,” he says. “Even on a purely economic basis, [cutting PromArt] makes no sense — those programs helped Canadians abroad draw attention to our country and our products, and helped economies at home where artists were based.” You willing to stump for Dion, Joe?
  • Speaking of the west, I'm betting the cuts will be a big topic of conversation at Calgary's Artcity and Vancouver's Swarm this weekend.
  • And as mentioned previously, Toronto arts supporters are urged to come out to an organizing meeting against the cuts at 10am Saturday Sept 6 at the Theatre Centre. It's organized by Department of Culture.
Pic of artsy Tilda Swinton paparazzo'd in TO from the TO Star celebrity blog, Stargazing

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Shame of Bishop Carroll High School vs. the Jubilance of an Arts Community UPDATED

Okay, so about a million years ago I went to a then-newfangled high school where there were no scheduled classes, just "learning centres," "unit packages" and an unerring emphasis on the use of a day planner and time management.

Sometimes I think that, much as the school--Calgary's Bishop Carroll, if you must know--was pitched as a centre for Olympic-class athletes (of which I was most decidedly not one) it was also, unintentionally, a training ground for future freelancers. Instead of coffee and beer, we had slurpees and fries, but most everything else was the same. Well, sort of.

In any case, I felt the shame of Bishop Carroll High School weighing on my shoulders last night as a forgotten, non-daytimered deadline sprang up out of nowhere to prevent me from attending the Toronto Town Hall meeting on the arts at the Theatre Centre, posted here previously.

Luckily, there were other brighter minds on the ball who are filling me in today about how things went:

All exciting stuff! 

UPDATE Here's a few more links that came in this afternoon in reaction to the arts cuts

Image of an unblemished, unblamable day planner from the Day Timer website

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