Monday, August 29, 2011

Framing Canada's Farm Workers: Q&A with Meera Margaret Singh

Goldarnit, I really like Meera Margaret Singh's photographs. She has some up right now at Harbourfront Centre--part of a commission to document the Ontario Greenbelt. Singh tackled the project by doing portraits of migrant workers, immigrant farmers and women farmers in the Greenbelt.

Part of what I like about these portraits is they do an excellent job of making me consider the individual histories behind occupational roles--kind of like August Sander in reverse, mebbe?

So I was happy Singh was able to take some to time to chat with me about this Farmland series a few weeks ago. The resulting condensed Q&A came out in last Thursday's National Post. An excerpt:

Q: When you were commissioned to photograph the Ontario Greenbelt, you decided to focus on female farmers, immigrant farmers and migrant workers. Why?

A: My first degree was in anthropology, and I love working with portraiture and with people. I’m also interested in suspension, whether it’s physical or psychological, and in displacement. So when I started researching and realized how many migrant workers were living in the greenbelt — people who spend eight months here and then re-adapt to their homelands each year — I gravitated toward that. And when I actually started cold-calling farms, I was introduced to immigrant farmers, and some of those were really powerful women. So I branched out. Overall, I wasn’t interested in doing an exposé or a documentary; I was interested in pulling people aside from work and interrupting that routine for a period of time.

Q: In your images, I see these people quite forcefully as individuals, rather than as workers. Who’s the individual in your photo Patricia?

A: Patricia was shot in this big greenhouse for begonias and cacti. When I went in, the light was so beautiful. There were predominantly Mexican workers, but also women from Cambodia, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and a few Jamaican workers, too. I saw this very shy woman who, at the same time, had this strength in her. I work very intuitively; I can really be drawn to somebody and not understand why. Patricia didn’t even make a lot of eye contact. But the moment I was one on one with her, it was like she became this goddess or something! I was really happy that her strength came through. And then the moment the camera was put away, she went back to her routine. I like these odd, out of the ordinary moments.

For more details, read on at the Post's Ampersand blog. For more images of Singh's work, check her website.

(Image of Meera Margaret Singh's Patricia courtesy of the artist)

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Artists in the GTA: Nothing but the Besque

Catching up on publications I missed while on vacation, on Wednesday Yonge Street Media published my profile of Mississauga-raised hip-hop artist Besque. An excerpt:

He's toured with Grammy-winning reggae artist Sean Paul, opened for Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon, and released albums on three continents. But as he gears up for a fall of singles releases, Juno-nominated hip-hop artist Besque (formerly known as Arabesque) is still happy to call the GTA home. "I know it's so cliche, but there's no place, really, like home," the Mississauga-based Besque says over the phone during a recent trip to New York City. "Touring, I'd visit all these homogenous societies. You come back to Toronto and you feel the mosaic -- there's nothing really like it."

Besque has been spending parts of his summer in the stark opposite of blingy, marquee-name environments: namely, nonprofit organizations serving the poor and homeless in New York, Washington and Toronto's own Moss Park. The aim is to create a video and brief documentary for "Not Enough Love," one of Besque's fall singles.

"[Not Enough Love] is basically looking at poverty and how people have become so desensitized to the homeless," he explains. He hopes the video and doc will show some of what's most impressed him in these places -- "the bond between the [shelter] volunteers and the folks that they're serving. They have strong relationships, even genuine friendships, which I've found pretty incredible."

To find out more about Besque's fusion of play and politics (including his fun tribute to 80s TV), read on at Yonge Street.

(Image of Besque by Ryan Couldrey via Yonge Street Media)

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Do You Believe Money Has Succeeded in Devaluing Art? (Excerpt from Good News 3)

Back in the spring, some members of Instant Coffee asked if I was interested in contributing to their pamphlet Good News 3. The contributions were to be themed around the following question: Do you believe money has succeeded in devaluing art?

I said yes, I would like to contribute, and I recently received a copy of the finished pamphlet, which was distributed at The Fair in Vancouver and I'm told is also available at MKG127 and Art Metropole in Toronto.

Here was my long-winded answer to that question:

“Do you believe money has succeeded in devaluing art?”

I find questions like this to be a bit funny.

First, maybe it’s my training as a copy editor, but it niggles me to see “money” characterized as an active subject—a kind of independent body that acts on art of its own accord, or even, alternately, as a dumb piece of matter like water, which acts according to certain immutable laws. (Try to ask, “Do you believe water has succeeded in wetting art?” and you might get a sense of the annoyance these kinds of all-encompassing questions raise for me. Granted, it’s far from an airtight—or watertight—comparison, as I admittedly never get antsy when I hear Cyndi Lauper crooning “Money changes everything,” a statement with even broader implications. I’m open to criticism on this point.)

Second, the question’s lack of specificity is another thing I find annoying. Whose money? What art? What values? In what context? There are so many ways to have and spend money, so many ways to have and make and obtain and appreciate art, so many ways to value life, art, thoughts and (yes) money in the world. Really? You want to reduce it to this? Well, okay.

Third, given my own context—that of an art school grad still paying off student loans, and likely to into the future, as I work freelance-contract-cheque to freelance-contract-cheque in this wonderful creative economy—I often find it amusing/alienating when people imply that the problem in the art world is too much money, or too much power accorded to money by virtue of there being so much of it thrown around. That money-flush situation is a reality very, very far from the place/subculture/ring of the art circus where I (now a writer and editor) and my close friends and colleagues happen to live. In my experience, artists and writers (even successful artists and writers) are people who by and large struggle to make ends meet, who juggle multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads, who must rent instead of buy (at least in Toronto). Not that that’s a tragedy of any kind; I don’t mean to wring out a tearful sob story here and imply that artists and other creative professionals are at the very bottom rung of the economy or are in dire need of help. Compared to domestic workers and service workers, artists often have some social capital and, if they chose to go to art school, often have the security of some middle-class (or yet loftier) family background to act as a safety net. All I’m trying to say is there are many different subcultures to this thing called “art” and in the one I live in, a surplus of money and the power it might wield isn’t typically something one has to worry about.

Fourth, as might be apparent from the above paragraphs, I really don’t have the expertise or experience needed to accurately answer this question. I feel embarrassed about that given that I’m a supposed expert on art, or at least a person who passes for same every once in a while. So I can see that one of the reasons I find this question “funny” or “niggling” or “annoying” or “amusing/alienating” is that I really have no good way of answering it. Put a piece of art in front of me and I can try to empathize and emote with it and/or its maker (and sure, throw in some judgment or snark as well) to the tune of 300 to 500 words; put a question like this in front of me—something that implies a knowledge of history, of markets, of current events, of recent and faraway auction results—and there’s not a whole lot I can productively say.

I do know this: that I continue to be concerned with the way that increasing admission fees at our public museums and art galleries, paired with disappearing free hours for permanent-collection access or weekly evening access, is contributing to a situation where a whole new generation of Canadians likely has little option but to devalue art, just as art institutions devalue them.

Such high admission prices, after all, demonstrate an institutional devaluation of public access to public art collections. In my view, this in turn reflects an institutional devaluation of (a) the idea that anybody and everybody can look at or learn to look at art in a way that is rewarding or helpful to their own enjoyment and well-being; (b) the notion that public collections, by virtue of being held in trust for the public, deserve to be seen freely by the public; and (c) the thought that public arts institutions have a duty (even if it’s a self-interested one) to be engaged in public arts education. Museums and galleries sometimes like to complain that they are being abandoned by an increasingly unpredictable, uneducated and uninterested public. I say, who first abandoned the public and showed a lack of interest in their rights or needs?

So… given this reality of diminished institutional interest in providing public access to art—a situation that contributes to a lack of public understanding of all the diverse ways art can be valued emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually—perhaps it is little surprise, ultimately, that questions like the one heading this missive are of increasing interest. After all, when people are given no other ways to value art, money is an easy (and sometimes the sole) metric left standing.

A concluding note: I file this reply with some fear that I will come to regret it, either because it lacks rigor, or reason, or reality, or some combination of all of the above. I do know that I would have spent more time on this reply if I was being paid to pen it. Maybe that’s another essay—either about art, or just about me—for another day. Or maybe it’s exactly the same thing. Feel free to let me know what you think at

To read interesting (and more concise) responses by Michael Turner, Caitlin Jones, Rosemary Heather and other respondents, you're gonna have to shell out 6 bucks, buster, at Art Metropole and other outlets.

(Image of Instant Coffee's Good News Issue 3 by yours truly)

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Friday, August 19, 2011

On Vacation!

Posting has been so slow here at Unedit My Heart this summer that ya'll probably assume I've been on vacation.

Sadly, no.

But I'm on very real do-nothin'-'cept-fun vacation from August 20 to 28 inclusive. Nothing will be posted and no comments moderated until the 29th. Happy summer!

(Image of Toronto Blue Jays game -- lazy hot dog eatin' and beer swillin' not included -- by yours truly)

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Friday, August 12, 2011

A Few Reviews, aka Let's Talk About Things I'm Generally Sensitive About @ the Design Exchange, Power Plant, TIFF & More

Sometimes I think I should do away with the term "reviews" altogether in relation to the writing I do and just call these pieces of writing something more accurate: Let's Talk About Things I'm Generally Sensitive About. The latest edition of my At the Galleries column for the National Post (online now and in print tomorrow) brings up a few of these Things: Staycations, Canada, Outdoor Stuffs, Distance (Physical and Otherwise), Wall Texts and Catholicism.

More conventionally speaking, the column discusses the following shows: Play>Nation at the Design Exchange, Rearview Mirror at the Power Plant, Fellini and My Name is Raj at TIFF and, in a recommendational way, Magic Squares at the Textile Museum.

An excerpt:

Rearview Mirror: New Art from Central and Eastern Europe at the Power Plant - 231 Queens Quay W., to Sept. 6

This exhibition left me with an uncertain feeling. On the one hand, curator Christopher Eamon tries to make the case that new art from Eastern Europe resists any idea of the region as a cultural monolith. On the other hand, all the exhibition’s works seem to fit into a theme: distance between past and present, “here” and “there,” or “us” and “them.” Whether spun humorously (as in Dusica Drazic’s Young Serbian, where a young woman dances to a cover of David Bowie’s Young Americans alongside a bleak, rainy highway) or soberingly (see Igor Eskinja’s tape-gun sculptures of gallows), this sense of distance predominated for me. Granted, artists worldwide make careers of juxtaposing disparate objects, images and contexts, so the uniformity I observed may simply be a reflection of this international trend. Also, there’s plenty of strong works to view, like Anetta Mona Chisa and Lucia Tkacova’s film of a cheery baton troupe marching along a drab, Soviet-style bridge. Still, I’d hoped for a bit more rigour — even if it was just acknowledging that Ukraine-born artist Taras Polataiko, showing a series of compelling monochrome paintings, has worked in Canada for two decades. Omissions like that make me wonder what other details have gone unsaid for the sake of an interesting-sounding thesis.

Read on for the rest at Posted Toronto, the National Post's Hogtown-centric blog.

(Image: A still from Anetta Mona Chisa and Lucia Tkacova's Manifesto of the Futurist Woman (Let's Conclude) Courtesy the artists and Christine Konig Galerie, Vienna and via the National Post)

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Greg Girard Q&A out in today's National Post

Vancouver-raised photographer Greg Girard has won much acclaim in recent years, with The Independent touting his Phantom Shanghai as one of the top 10 photography books of all time. With a new series on Hanoi showing in Toronto, Girard took some time last week to chat with me. The condensed conversation is out in today's National Post. An couple of excerpts:

Q You’re known for photographing Asia, where you’ve lived for the past 30 years. But just this week you moved back to Vancouver. Why?

A I felt it was time to make work in other places. And having been away for almost 30 years, I realized how exotic the West has become to me. In a way, I find it as inspiring to be here now as I did when I first moved to China. I think this happens to anybody—when you’ve been away from home for even a week, you come back and for a little while, you see things just a bit different. Maybe the longer you’ve been away, the longer those first impressions of your home stand out.


Q Throughout your career, you’ve used intensely coloured light to alter our views of cities. Do you actively pursue that?

A That’s fair to say. When I started taking photographs as a teenager, I started experimenting with what film did at night. Things look very different at night: colours against a black background are emphasized. In those days, most of my visual inspiration came from movies. A lot of films from the 70s, like early Scorsese movies, had this even tone, even when things didn’t end well. You were left with this flat or slightly down ending, even if it’s blue sky, middle of the day. I was drawn to that and tried to emulate those colours. I still work mostly on film that’s balanced for daylight, and when you’re using it in artificial light, it takes on unpredictable colour shifts. I try to bring what I know technically together with this narrow window between dusk and nightfall.

One thing that was trimmed from our Q&A along the way had to do with Girard's amazing Half of the Surface of the World series, which will be showing at the International Centre of Photography in New York next year. Here's what was cut:

Q Another of your series, showing at New York’s International Center of Photography next year, focuses on US military bases in Asia. What drew you to this subject?

A In the mid 1970s, I’d just moved into a very small apartment in Tokyo—my first time living overseas. I was listening to the radio and at midnight The Star Spangled Banner started playing and the announcer’s voice said, “You’ve been listening to American Forces Far East network.” I thought, oh right, they’ve had American bases here since the end of World War Two. The announcer would talk about things going on at the bases, like a high-school car wash or bake sale—these very suburban American events taking place on the outskirts of Tokyo. It was this odd sort of dislocation feeling, because you think you’re far from home, and you are, and you’re hearing all these intensely familiar things. I started the project then. More recently, I wrote letters to the Pentagon and got clearance to photograph big bases throughout the region in-depth. I think it’s one of those worlds hidden in plain sight, and in that sense, it’s probably connected to other things I’ve done.

Girard's Hanoi-related show is up until August 21 at Monte Clark Gallery in Toronto, and his related book, Hanoi Calling, is available at booksellers. At Monte Clark you can also see some images from early in his career in the mezzanine area.

(Image of Greg Girard's Buildings on Bat Su Street via Monte Clark Gallery)

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