"What's up with the doilies?"
(Video courtesy of Terry Fox Theatre's PechaKucha program. More info on the entertaining, informative and globally-popular PechaKucha format here.)
This just uploaded... Six and a half minutes devoted to that question I get a lot:
"What's up with the doilies?"
(Video courtesy of Terry Fox Theatre's PechaKucha program. More info on the entertaining, informative and globally-popular PechaKucha format here.)
What do you do when one of your closest friends is in the hospital with complications and the weather outside is the perfect visual for seasonal depression? You make!
And so I devote this column to the silly business of making and make-believe in trying times.
First, let me say that Halloween is my kind of holiday. It is an intoxicating cocktail of glue guns and spontaneity, material-hacking and thrift-store-hopping, laced with peanut-butter cups and just a smidge of anti-consumerism.
It all sounds a bit contradictory but after a lifetime of costume-making I've pretty much found the place I need to find a little meaning in this sugar-cranked occasion.
It starts in late September, that one time of year when the little people in my life are willing to share their full-throttle imaginations (before their emerging Inner Critic begins to outshout them).
Then I strike out for my usual haunts (thrift shops, ReStore) with an opportunistic eye. My rules for costume-making have been distilled down to one: 'nothing new.' Except for tools and fasteners (glue, thread, pins etc.) all the fabrics and bits must have already finished their first use. There is more than enough stuff already in existence without creating a new market; it's just a matter of moving goods from their past use (clothing, construction scraps, bolt-ends) to my costume purposes.
Finally, there is the fabrication stage, which may or may not involve the tykes in question, depending on age. I encourage them to at least draw something about the costume they envision, or be 'in the manner of' to help me conceive it. I will make a portion of the costume early on for them to play with (business types would call this a progress meeting) and revise as I/we go.
For the price of some semi-toxic treat from their loot bag, I will ensure the costume will be durable and comfy enough for dancing and leaping around during their sugary highs.
To wit, we have three-year-old Mimi's costume this year. She showed me that she needed to be a lock-kneed, arms-extended robot so I scoured the second-hand aisles in search for a way to create the all-important illusion of stiffness. A small bundle of metalic-polyfiber pipe insulation found at the VGH Thrift Store on Broadway and Main fit the bill, coupled with a metallic girls' sweater and silver shoes from the nearby SallyAnn. I found the other bits around the apartment: a couple of unlistenable CDs, metal washers, jar lids, orange wire nuts and silver buttons she selected from my button jars. (Not shown: the extendable treat can made from accordion air duct tubing.)
I invest some effort in my costumes so that they are durable enough to be passed on to some other kid and have even spotted my handiwork worn, often in new ways, by neighbourhood kids I've never met.
Not a Halloween goes by when someone (always a woman) will say to me, "You have too much free time." It's one of those jokey putdowns but now that I've embraced making full time, I see that throwaway comment for what it is. Mister Rogers sang it to me when I was a kid and I sing it when I'm making with kids: I like to take my time.
My costumes have nothing to do with perfection or approval but are a maker's way of engaging with kids to play in a whole new way before they are fully seduced by the marketing complex.
Like the Mister says, you can think about things and make-believe; all you have to do is think and they'll grow.
When finally — yet suddenly — I graduated from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, I was done, done, done, exhausted after four intense years of input. Now I needed space for four more years of output, to practice and to develop a practice.
But finding a suitable work space in this pricey city is no easy task. Self-(un)employed artists are no match for the slick technology firms and ad agencies that will pay top dollar to set up their cool premises in the port-town-era brick buildings. So we make do, sharing whatever space we can get while keeping an ear open for rumours of where we might be able to jump when the Permit Application billboard springs up in front of our crumbling building.
Another art school in another city might play a part in providing studio rental opportunities for its new grads, encouraging a healthy cross-pollination of creative post-school work in industrial design, animation, sculpture, painting, media arts and curatorial services. But Emily Carr University is bursting at the seams and is focused on its campaign to move east to Great Northern Way. It's a grand vision, but what will become of the Granville Island community when the two-building campus vacates? What of the dependable Opus Art Supplies, which depends heavily on the student customer base next door, as well as the other material suppliers on the Island? And the George H. Scott Gallery?
Vancouver Sun reporter Daphne Bramham took on the topic this week. In her story, one of the original designers of Granville Island, architect Norm Hotson, said replacing the school with another educational institution would help modernize the zone. Or it could be re-energized as "an incubator space” for "innovators", he said, or developed into a cultural hub that might include galleries, artist studios, residencies. And he pointed to Paris’s Cité Internationale des Arts as an example.
It's this kind of forward thinking that could stop the downtown core and Westside from slipping into a blandly privileged area with all the cultural texture of glassy high-end condos.
Granville Island needs a vibrant injection of new ideas and opportunities and Vancouver desperately needs a cultural hub, a multifunctional space with rental studios and residencies for everyone from painters to industrial designers, techies to musicians, performers to writers.
Yes, it's a balancing act. Nobody wants the Island to shut as tight as a tomb at night but the neighbours won't take kindly to the place being mobbed by booze-fueled night-crawlers. Artists and students work all hours, often after a day of slinging Italian coffees or serving Public Market customers. As students we purchase our supplies on the island, we depend on the visitors for our shows and showings. Our work ensures Granville Island is a tourist draw, not a tourist trap, that it is committed to Artisan over Ye Olde, authenticity over Disney.
It may sound like a pipe dream, but Granville Island was part of the inspiration that led the not-for-profit Artscape in Toronto to turn a collection of industrial buildings into a major cultural hub and tourist draw, in a remarkably short time. (See YouTube interview with Tim Jones, president and CEO of CityScape below.)
Thank god for The Walking Dead. It is the one force that has the power to kill off the overpopulation of pink princesses.
All that Pepto-Bismol-hued froth and glitter kicks in my gag reflex but I'm no censor; I've indulged in the princess fantasy of those little girls (and, shockingly, some grown women) for too many years to mention. But there is hope. Pink fatigue appears to have set in this year, at least for Halloween, due, no doubt, to the craze for the undead.
Next battle: the pink aisle.
Princesses and stupid Sexy costumes (popular YouTube clip at the end of this rant) are a waste of a great fantasy opportunity — and an art opportunity.
American photographer Cindy Sherman's long and rich career dedicated to using her body as a blank canvas on which to apply various female personas, makes her an artist of an ever-changing body-sculpture, earning her an important position in conceptual art, performance art, and gender studies.
There's a lot of concept to be mined when altering one's appearance, whether for art or undercover information. Former New York Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl, who donned disguises to ensure she would be treated as a regular restaurant patron, discovered that her different range of personas garnered different reaction from the wait staff. That body effect became equally as interesting as her reviews, and even more so to many of her readers.
Buenos Aires photographer Irena Werning explores the persona of the past, recreating photos of subjects using their own childhood images. She not only recreates the pose and garments, but goes to great lengths to mimic the backdrops and particular photo quality of the original image. Werning insists she has no arching concept in mind in her two-part series, but the effect is there in black and white or colour: a riveting time-based visual study in changes in body and persona.
Above: Christoph 1990 and 2011, Berlin Wall.
Whenever I'm hit with another CBC countdown promo of its exclusive Canadian coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi that viral image of Putin in drag makeup pops into my head.
That one cheeky act packs a political wallop and reminds me that while the pen is mightier than the sword, there's the same power in the paintbrush. And Photoshop.
That image (which I'm still searching for in the form of a legal-fundraising T-shirt) has me dreaming of an Olympics that has athletes wearing rainbow scarves on the podium. More likely it will be the very real nightmare of the military dragging away brave individuals in the stands and the streets who are demanding justice in the face of a homophobic president and its national political policy of hate.
A taste of things to come was most recently seen when Russian artist Konstantin Altunin fled to Paris to seek asylum after his painting of Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in lingerie was seized along with three other paintings in his August show. The crime is unclear. It may be promoting homosexuality to minors. Or hooliganism, which sounds funny but landed the members of Pussy Riot with two years' hard time for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral last year after Putin was reinstated as president.
So 'performance', even if it's a sloppy dance in homemade hoods, is mightier than the sword. The heavy hand of Putin's policies may be winning the battle — Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova ended her nine-day hunger strike last week to protest working conditions in the women's prison, to no avail, apparently — but the war for social justice is just beginning.
It's unclear whether these unlikely political terrorists (the three convicted seen here pose with their verdict) see it that way.
Taking on the U.S. President or his policies through art has none of that threat of individual freedom of expression. True, there may be a sort of White House Down going on there at the moment, in the form of a government shutdown over a glacial move toward universal health care, but you don't go to jail for performing or painting or Photoshopping your president in a political artwork.
You can march on Washington, carrying your homemade sign depicting your president's head on a Pez dispenser spouting one Lie after another, or you can even tattoo his face on the sole of your foot so you can stomp on his image with every step (below) but you can't mess with individuals. And in these parts that includes private companies, as we learned in viewing The Corporation (written by Vancouver's own Joel Bakan, UBC law professor).
You want a taste of the kind of trouble you can bring upon yourself via the paintbrush or Photoshop or performance, take on some of those individual-companies. You might not land in the gulag but you may find yourself paying through the pocketbook in legal defence fees for violating their 'individual' rights.
You can thank Europeans’ dwindling Christian faith for a sensory bombardment that's taking over Europe. The poor attendance at all the churches and cathedrals has been a boon to a new totally immersive art-architecture experience of sound and image, artist-architect Francois Wunschel said in a lecture at Emily Carr University Wednesday night, while fellow Frenchman musician Fernando Favier manipulated the audio.
All these old, underused stone edifices became opportunities to develop new forms of public engagement, said Wunschel. Pierre Schneider, his colleague at the Paris-based 1024 Architecture firm, shared with the audience some video examples: building facades visually distort and morph into faces; public squares transform into pulsating spaces of light and sound, all controlled by simple devices like a public microphone or a joystick.
Using MadMapping — AutoCad-like building-design software that overlays the spaces on actual architecture — Wunschel and Schneider are innovators in the growing artform that turns hard surfaces into an embodied experience that has become a signature European urban festival experience.
Tonight Vancouverites will get a (free) taste of all that at 10 p.m., behind Emily Carr’s digital media building on Great Northern Way, when the Paris team joins forces with some local artists as they premiere Live/Work, a 10-metre cube of scaffolding that promises to be a “manifestation of interdisciplinarity, collaboration and an exploration of the contemporary landscape in relation to changing cultural and economic conditions.” Gotta love that artspeak. (Translation: A bombardment of lights and sound that will have the locals yelling, “Woooooo!”)
Hypercube is all part of the New Forms Festival 13.
Below: Two videos of distinctive, immersive physical experience of sound, light: A voice-activated setup allows the public to animate a building in Lyons, France. At bottom: Transporting a dance club crowd through light and sound.
My nephew is about to launch. Freshly freed from high school, he'll soon be flying high at the National Circus School in Montreal.
If there is one kid who would run away and join the circus, Domenic is it. Long before he pushed the physical limits of the human vessel, long before there were even any apparent muscles on his skinny little frame, he was destined for something different. His mind has always been a playground, his outlook wide-eyed and sunny. From him I’ve learned that play is not just fun but work, and that devotional practice comes in many forms.
He has easily devoted what Malcolm Gladwell has suggested is the 10,000 hours it takes to master a skill, and his motivation comes from his own wonderment. He spent his childhood wondering how high and how long and playing with the limits of muscle and bone. He can't wait to carry on the body experiment among others in the same pursuit from around the world.
“Experimenting with your own life is the most fundamental medium we have,” says scientist/environmental artist Natalie Jeremijenko, whose ‘design systems’ include the Mussel Choir: sensors connected to bivalves that can inform humans of the health of the East River through sound.
This is why I'm compelled at this time of year to grab random high school graduates by the arm and say: Go away! Go see the rest of the world! This is not everything! Things are not everything! Don't let comfort hold you back!
“Inconvenience yourself” is the prevailing take-away in The Blue Zone, Dan Buettner’s book of studies in longevity throughout the world, and it’s a good first step toward getting out of emotional and physical ruts and jump-starting experimentation. Bus instead of car. Paddle instead of cruise. Make instead of buy. Outdoors instead of indoors. All these little decisions of inconvenience, these tiny risks to our comfort, lead to new paths and new outlooks. (One routine-breaking idea: taking in one of the free nightly Bollywood, Bhangra and hip-hop yoga classes or the Indian Summer in the Park as part of the Indian Summer Festival of Arts, Ideas & Diversity, on now through July 13 in downtown Vancouver. See promo video below).
I think about the many, small social and physical tests my amazing nephew took on that brought him to where he is now: fierce, if a little afraid — just where he likes to be.
I am inspired.
My biggest obstacle is over-thinking — not to be confused with big thinking. Over-thinking is my umbrella term for all the second-guessing, the predicting, the analyzing and the re-thinking that can turn my mind into a maelstrom. It's unproductive and it's exhausting and it's why I and many of my maker friends are involved in repetitive, obsessive (I prefer the term "devotional") artwork methods. The focus required is just the ticket to get out of the rabbit's hole of circular thinking. Less mental chatter, more mindfulness.
Making is the key to learning for me. As the work takes shape I try to make out what it's saying, where it's situated in the whole art discourse thingy. It's clear that I have to be clear about my intentions, where I'm going with all this, and why. Some thought is necessary.
But over-thinking is a form of self-sabotage and it has threatened the existence of my latest project, Monumental Doily. As I hook into those strands I find myself grasping at threads from my art history and cultural theory classes, trying to work in ideas of power struggles and psychoanalysis. Next thing you know I'm assuming the posture of German artist-shaman/renegade educator/former Nazi militiaman Joseph Beuys, in some sort of feminist response to his famous 1974 performance art piece, I Like America and America Likes Me (below, left) until my Inner Victorian Grandlady cries, "Enough nonsense!" (She would never say, "I call bullshit!")
I have to be able to speak about my work but I have a pretty low tolerance for too much artspeak. I like artwork that has me at Hello, that hooks me in to investigate further and is not just some in-joke designed for the rarified few who have had the benefit of art-historical education.
It should evoke a wide range of responses from a wide range of viewers — 'multiple points of entry', as they say. It should resonate in different ways and over time, and not rely on an instruction manual disguised as an artist statement full of exclusionary academic language (unless the point of the artwork is to create a feeling of alienation). Yet if it's too definitive, it's over quickly, like a trick, and I'm done. Next!
Elitism is ugly and I really do agree with Beuys' belief that everyone is an artist, or at least can be if she would just shut out the rational jibber-jabber already and hook into the emotional/spiritual, the unquantifiable, even the unreasonable. (Beuys' beautiful mind is behind his urban intervention project, 7000 Oaks)
Sometimes a giant doily is just a giant doily, material evidence of one person's attempt to connect in an increasingly chaotic, hectic, overly-quantified and unrationally rationalized world.
As much as I would like to believe I have enough focus to while away an evening at an art or design lecture, my attention span is... this keyboard is filthy. What was I saying?
Our hyper-accelerated culture calls for accelerated information delivery systems. We've reached the PechaKucha period: lectures delivered as 20 slides, 20 seconds each, with breaks that involve a cash bar.
It's not exactly new; this month marks the 10th anniversary of the very first PechaKucha — Japanese for chit-chat." (Here’s a fun way to remember how to pronounce it.)
Networking events and guest lectures never looked so dry and dull since I went to my first PechaKucha event. For the uninitiated, PechaKucha 20x20 is a simple presentation format dreamed up by a couple of architects living in Tokyo. The presenter speaks, the images roll, and before you know it it's all wrapped up. Next! If the content of each presenter isn’t enough to hold you for six minutes and 40 seconds, there’s usually plenty of entertainment watching that presenter getting the bum’s rush from the slides automatically moving forward. The pace and the party atmosphere keeps things rolling along nicely. No wonder PechaKucha has gone global.
Gary Cheng presents his ever-changing micro-apartment in under five minutes, in Tokyo. (from pechakucha.org)
For artists, getting familiar with the format is becoming sort of essential as PechaKucha is likely to continue to take over the graphically banal PowerPoint presentations where most times the presenter just reads what they've typed on the screen and the audience feels like putting a gun to their collective head. Or maybe that’s just me.
Sharing thoughts about the creative process, past projects and future explorations can be tough-going, I've discovered as I try to splice all my tangential thoughts together for an in-class PechaKucha next week. I’ve been scouring the official website for some good examples. One favourite is Gary Cheng’s insight into his incredible transformer Hong Kong apartment. If anything, he reminds me to have a little fun with the format.
Dave Olson at a 2011 PechaKucha event at the Vogue. Photo by Jonathan Hanley
Architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham held their first PechaKucha Night in February, 2003. Their firm still organizes and supports the global PechaKucha Night network as well as the PechaKucha Night Tokyo.
The winning format for these easily distracted times can be seeing locally next week, when Vancouver's Vogue Theatre hosts a special PechaKucha night on Feb. 28, with all presenters speaking to the topic, "Women Transforming Cities."
I got the gift of a visual feast for Christmas: a date to see some performance-art mastery by Cirque du Soleil. And it was no less a sensory experience than the first show I saw when Alegria debuted in Vancouver in '03.
Amaluna also has an operatic storyline but I looked past that to better focus on the abstract. Narratives can be distracting, in the same way that lyrics in music distract me when I'm in the middle of a creative process. Instead, I let the spectacle of sound, light, and unimaginable feats of the human form wash over me.
I was close enough to the stage to feel the velocity of Olympics-level gymnasts in fiery costumes swinging through uneven bars while others scrambled below and pushed them into the air, in a kind of choreographed chaos in the dark void, set to a hard-rock soundscape and mesmerizing light show.
This is my kind of Olympics. All of the technical ability but none of the brutal, singular competition and nationalism. No instant-replayed technical errors, no ranking, no tears, but instead a slightly psychedelic viewer experience of human physical and creative potential.
Acrobatic coach Stacy Clark told thestar.com that she challenges the highly trained gymnasts to find ways "to strip away some of the intense discipline they had as a gymnast and turn it into a much more expressive experience."
I could see it on the faces of the mostly female cast from as far as China, Japan and Russia that they were fully engaged. Some of those talents were not found in elite training schools but in the world's most egalitarian performance space: YouTube.
Compared to Cirque, Olympics gymnastics — and the whole Games — feel too hard-core, too political, even fascist.
But I have to admit I'm a little puffed up with nationalistic pride myself as this wildly successful French-Canadian company displays new possibilities for showing off what bodies can do in creative collaboration.
A taste of Amaluna:
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