Art

Ai Weiwei's New York Photographs

This is the transcript of an address given 13 Nov 2014 at the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver.

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Thanks everyone for being here. And thank you Shelly Rosenblum and the Belkin Gallery for inviting me.

I've only been full time faculty here for 18 months or so. And one thing I didn't know to anticipate were these cross-disciplinary conversations that were possible on-campus. Last week I enjoyed listening to novelist Camilla Gibb talk at the Peter Wall Institute about empathy and anthropology. Today I get to talk with UBC History professor Carla Nappi about Ai Weiwei. This is a great pleasure.

I’m going to avoid saying anything that might be mistaken for art criticism today. It’s not my field. What I’m going to do instead is draw on my own practice area – both in journalism and writing novels – and talk about the narrative that these images suggest to me.

I feel encouraged to do this by Ai Weiwei himself, who didn’t really consider this collection of photos to be a work of art in themselves. This will seem counterintuitive, I realize. Ai WeiWei is one of the most recognized contemporary artists in the world today. He curated this selection from 10,000 original pictures and took the time to put them in a particular order. And of course it’s hanging in an art gallery, so it must be art.

But what he actually said about this collection is: “I would not consciously have called it art. It’s just the activities in my life. Becoming more conscious of my life activities, that attitude was more important than producing work.”

The attitude Ai Weiwei was speaking about was the conviction that he was indeed an artist, a belief that everyone who wants to practice in the arts must somehow attain. Not trying to be an artist. Not planning. But being. With these photographs, Ai Weiwei seems to be telling us, he wasn’t making art, he was making himself as an artist, which is never easy.

As a storyteller, I find that very interesting. Narrative comes to life when three elements first combine: (1) character, (2) desire (for concrete or abstract outcomes), and (3) obstacles that prevent the character from merely claiming what is desired. That’s the juice of narrative right there.

And as I look at these photographs, that’s what I find myself seeing. The beginning of a narrative about Ai Weiwei’s movement towards an objective. He may be a superstar now. But these pictures offer a glimpse of Weiwei at his crucial moment of becoming. 25 years old, out of China for the first time, and for the first time also engaged in a fully autonomous way with his own dreams and desires.

So who was this young man, before becoming the famous man?

History is relevant here. Born in 1957 in Beijing, Ai Weiwei arrived just a few months after his father, the well-known poet Ai Quing, had been denounced by authorities, banned from writing or publishing. And the family had been sent to a work camp in Northeast China. The cultural revolution in 1966 arguably made things worse for them. And without dwelling overly on this history, just consider that Ai Weiwei as a nine year old boy saw his father publically and ritually and repeatedly humiliated. He saw posters with his father’s image and defamatory statements. He saw his father force-marched through the streets, chanting confessions to crimes he hadn’t committed, while children threw stones. In a particularly vivid memory, the artist remembers when his father was denounced as a “reactionary novelist” by people who knew nothing about his father's writing – he was a poet, and had never written a novel – and these people then doused his father’s face in black ink. Since the couldn’t afford soap, his father’s face remained black for many days.

The end of the Cultural Revolution didn’t heal everything either. “After 20 years of injustice,” he said. “We were given only these words: it was a mistake.”

They were back in Beijing however, and more free than ever before. Ai Weiwei joined the Beijing Film Academy in the Set Design department, where he was going to learn how to paint. But almost immediately he began producing work so outrageous to his instructors that they declined even to consider it for grades. Ai Weiwei eventually quit and applied to study abroad in the US.

So that is the young man who arrived in the East Village in 1981, working part time jobs and by his own description, not really having any solid idea what he was doing there. He speaks of just leaving his apartment in the morning and wandering, without direction or agenda.

But he did have a vision of himself as an artist. And so a crucial triangle takes shape: a character, desire, and all the many obstacles that you might imagine for a broke, new immigrant, shortly to be an illegal immigrant, who has this most impossible of dreams.

Luckily for us, he also had a camera with which that narrative beginning might be captured.

Not immediately however. But it seems that around 1985, or 1986, the photos really started to accumulate. This documenting of himself doing the thing he’d dreamed of doing.

Here’s the son of a poet who was forbidden to write for twenty years. Here’s an artist declaring himself to be subject to no such powers.

“I started my own life, in which I was very clear about my own decisions. Before that, I was a student and all the decisions were made by common requirements – you study at school, finish your studies, and then try to become an artist. Then I realized that I am an artist and that it’s my life and that’s the way I choose to live. So I started to take some photos… excited about this new life and this kind of attitude.”

No surprise then that Ai Weiwei developed what you might think of as the proto-selfie. Here he is at the MOMA


Here he is on West Fourth Street, where Ai Weiwei and other Chinese artists would paint the portraits of passersby.


The artist here is in the process not so much of examining himself as gathering the supporting evidence to prove himself, something this shot into the mirror really captures.

That’s Ai Weiwei recording Ai Weiwei in the process of becoming Ai Weiwei.

In the Facebook era, there is a tendency to dismiss this as self-promotion: fatuous and transparent. But here is a man raised on the edge of a northern Chinese desert, exposed for the first time to the possibilities of the individual. I find this mirror shot makes a lot of sense in that context.

Of course, it's important to understand that he wasn't an isolated loner as these images might suggest. Selfies run the risk of suggesting total self-absorption. But this doesn't appear to ahve been the case. In fact, Ai Weiwei seems to have been a social magnet during this time, constantly in touch with people, exploring, listening, exchanging ideas. One imagines the conversations to have been very lively.

Artist and intellectuals:

A film student from Taiwan.


Here’s the well known Chinese poet Bei Dao visiting with Ai Weiwei in 1988.

Bei Dao is the most notable representative of the Misty Poets, a group of Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Dao would go on later to write a book of essays about his time in New York called Midnight’s Gate which includes a cloaked reference to Ai Weiwei.

In a piece in Artforum, Philip Tinari writes: “Everyone in Bejing knew that his basement apartment on East 7th Street had become an unofficial embassy for the avant-garde in exile.”

As you might expect, in that case, he was friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Harry Smith

Smith was one of the Godfathers of the beat movement, an artist and experimental filmmaker and bohemian mystic. He was also a fanatical collector of paper airplanes, Seminole textiles and Ukrainian Easter eggs. He would have been living with Ginsberg at this time, having run out of money, an arrangement Ginsberg’s doctor eventually put an end to, the story goes, because Smith was giving Ginsberg high blood pressure.

 

 

Ai Weiwei met Ginsburg at a poetry reading at St. Marks In-the-Bowery. Ginsberg knew Weiwei’s father and had met him in Beijing. In the New Yorker, Weiwei describes Ginsberg reading his poetry aloud including White Shroud, which Ginsberg wrote for his mother. “I didn’t quite understand it. But he loved reading it.

If there was a kind of narrative bump, or turning point in this material, this collection of photographs, to me it seems to be the Tompkins Square Riot photos of 1988.

 

As some will remember, New York had a series of riots in 1988 relating to housing and public parks access. Tompkins Park had itself become a squatters camp which then Mayor Koch famously criticized for being filthy before acknowledging he'd never been there. A curfew was imposed. And on August 6 and 7, police tried to clear people out of the park in what was later referred to as a "police riot".

This is the front of Christodora House, which is on Avenue B on the east side of Tompkins Park. This is kind of ground zero for the whole dispute. Originally part of the American Settlement House Movement, Christodora House was built in 1928 to provide “low-income and immigrant residents food, shelter, education and health services.” It had a pool and a gym, and was sort of like a private rec centre with social housing. It was in financial difficulties by the 40’s and was sold to the city, who seem to have more or less left it for a couple of decades. During the 60’s it was full of squatters and was reportedly the National HQ of Black Panthers as well as serving as a set for porn films. Wiki tells me that both Iggy Pop and Vincent D’Onofrio at one point lived here.

In 1975, the city sold the property for $62,500 and within a decade the developer began to convert the building to condos, which cause further friction in the area. During the Tompkins square riots crowds broke in and trashed the lobby yelling “Die Yuppie Scum”.

Imagine how angry people would have been if they’d known that in another 20 years, 25 years, a 1400 square foot one bedroom in Christodora would run around $2 million.

Later there would be other protests in Washington Square Park Protest 1988, and Ai Weiwei would be there too.

And the following year would be the year of ACT UP AIDS protests.

 

 

I think what we’re seeing here is the shaping of a world view, shaping of a sense of skepticism about power. Here’s a young man marked by the cultural revolution, adrift in America, in the process of proving himself to be what his imagination told him he could be… It is probably critical to note that these protests here would have been followed in months by events in Tianamen Square.

Here’s an artist intensely, ferociously engaged I think. Taking stock.

“We were young at the time and soon identified with the values of the free world because of our recent history. We hated totalitarian society very much and longed for the so-called free world. Later, we  became more critical of the US when we found out the country didn’t have as much freedom as it claimed.”

Did Ai Weiwei feel hopeless though? One suspects not. Because woven through the difficult images are always people acting, people (like Weiwei, but in their own ways) claiming themselves.

For every act of suppression, and act of expression.

 

 

After 1989, although I haven’t counted them, it seems to me the selfies begin to get less frequent. Ai Weiwei is still present in all of these, but we sense the process of self-discovery is now past its beginnings, that something like conclusions or at least convictions are shaping themselves in this young man.

The future beckons.

The Godfather of Beat Generation, Harry Smith dies

Smith had a heart attack in Room 328 of the Hotel Chelsea. He died in the hospital later in the arms of a poet friend who reported that he was “singing as he drifted away”.

I find myself thinking that Ai Weiwei had an ironic glint in his eye as he selected this as the last of the series.

End credits. Cue the violin. The artist has left the building.

“My experience in the US was the most important experience of my life. There I learned about personal freedom, independence, and the relationship between the individual and the state, as well as the power structure of that society – and art, of course, I learned a lot."

I want to return to the poet Bei Dao for a moment to close.

This is a short excerpt from Bei Dao’ book Midnight’s Gate about his time in New York. Note that he does not name the artist friend that he meets, but you be the judge who he’s talking about…

“The first time I visited New York was in the summer of 1988. We went to the East Village to look for W...

He’d been living illegally in New York for eight years. People have different reactions to living illegally. Some people live as if they’re walking on thin ice, while others take to it like a fish to water. New York remakes people like no other place.

This man who was a good student – a sophomore in film school – had completely transformed himself. His eyes were gloomy, his face fatter, and his ears bigger.

He was now full of New York slang. As he walked down the street all sorts of people walked over to greet him, their faces full of respect. At that time, the East Village was a land of the homeless, drunks, drug dealers and those suffering from AIDS. He would always grunt a response, but would not say much, just pat them on the shoulder, or stroke their bald heads, and miraculously, their enraged, crazy spirits would calm instantly.

I asked him how he made a living, and he said he painted people’s portraits on the street. He then got out his painting tools, hailed a taxi, and dragged us to a section of West Fourth Street, where a number of other Chinese painters were already trying to drum up business. Unfortunately, luck was not with him that evening as he waited two hours with no one even inquiring about prices. When someone suggested he go to Atlantic City for a little gambling, he immediately closed up shop and sailed off.

I’ll let Ai Weiwei have the last word, a quote which I find resonating in each of these photos. It seems to me that if these photos do one thing, taken all together, it is to show Ai Weiwei reaching this conclusion:

“Creativity,” Ai Weiwei wrote in 2008, twenty years after that visit with Bei Dao… "is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one's imaginationperhaps more importantlycreativity is the power to act."

 

Posted: Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 10:27am
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The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

I'm very proud that my piece on Fred Herzog for Canadian Art has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. It was one of the very view pieces I worked on and published last year for various reason including a change in my mix of work as I moved to UBC full time.

Canadian Art has given me a couple of the richest assignments I've had in recent memory, and I'm grateful to Rick Rhodes for the editorial relationship we've developed.

THE WAY THINGS ARE: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

See the rest of the story here.

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

 

Posted: Friday, May. 2, 2014 8:46am
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The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

First published in Canadian Art Winter 2013

By Timothy Taylor

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

We’re in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, just east of the downtown core...

To continue reading, please

visit Canadian Art

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Posted: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 10:35am

Music in the City and the Psyche

Update: 28 August 2012

The editors at Harpers have assigned the story. So this piece will be appearing in an upcoming issue of that great magazine. We're very much interested in the story of PTSD and how it is illuminated by Christian Ellis's story and the remarkable opera inspired by his experiences. That's both sides of the story: what makes battlefields ever more virulent breed grounds for the types of trauma that induce the syndrome, but also what cultural evolutions in contemporary civilian life contribute to the problem when the vets return home.

It's a thorny issue. And some recent online posts I made about PTSD prove that feelings are very strong on the topic. It touches more people than I realized. But that only makes the potential for this article greater, and I'm glad to be working on it.

Thanks to Jeremy Keehn at Harpers for the assignment. Great to be working with him again.

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I had coffee with a fimmaker friend John Bolton recently, who'd been hired to video a remarkable event: the Vancouver City Opera's full rehearsal of an opera based on the combat and post-war experiences of gay former Marine Seargent Christian Ellis.

The opera, called Fallujah, isn't remarkable because Ellis is gay or even because he was a Marine. It's remarkable because, in writing this work, Iraqi/American Heather Raffo and Canadian composer Tobin Stokes (with crucial support of Charles Annenberg and his Explore.org foundation) have done something that nobody has previously. They've written a musical work about the Iraq War and what is arguably its most deadly inheritance: Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a huge and increasing problem for nations engaged in modern conflict. Read "A Veteran's Death, A Nation's Shame", written by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York times earlier this year, and you may be horrified to learn that there will be a suicide by a veteran every 80 minutes in 2012. Yes, you read that correctly. 25 times the death rate of soldiers in actual conflict.

I mention this story because I'm developing a magazine feature about Ellis. And I'll say more on that project, hopefully, as weeks go by.

But in the meantime, I wanted to mention how - just after a recent discussion with a friend about Ellis and his story - I found myself sitting at my desk, trying to get my mind back on other assignments, and I had the strangest sensation.

I thought I could hear music.

Of course, I laughed at myself, thinking this was a brain image carried over from my conversation, something that Ellis' story had somehow burned onto my imagination.

After a moment or two however, the auditory reality of what I was hearing could not be denied. Somebody, somewhere, was playing a brassy, orchestral tune, that was dancing along the light Vancouver breeze, from somewhere down on the streets, and was wafting up in strands and disconnected phrases to me, at my computer, in my office overlooking the city.

I went downstairs to investigate.

And it turned out: I hadn't imagined the sound. In Victory Square there were a dozen plus horn players, a couple of percussionists and a conducter. And they were rolling through an improvisational jazz number that I learned later was the work of long time Vancouver jazz player Brad Muirhead.

The piece is called "What's the Idea?"

So beautiful. I was glad to be there, glad to be alive.

Thanks Brad Muirhead. And if you want to hear it yourself, the show rolls again Tuesday July 10th at noon, and again on Thursday July 12th at 5pm.

What's the Idea? Here I'll go all romantic on you: the idea is music in the city, in the psyche, in the wind, in the heart.

 

Posted: Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2012 11:36am
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Creative Chaos Now Available in Paperback

Two things are happening right now that have an intense and resonant connection.

1. The Blue Light Project is published in paperback at the same time as being selected as a contestant for a reality-television-styled vote-based Bookie Award.

2. The Red Gate artists' collective has found a potential new home, but needs City of Vancouver approval to move in as the City owns the property.

The connection is forged by my knowledge that The Blue Light Project might never have been written were it not for the Red Gate.

This is the piece of art that started my whole creative process.

It's called Rise Fly Land and the day I first saw it, I stood in that alley for a good twenty minutes staring at it. At that point in my exposure to graff and street art, I didn't know enough to recognize that signature at the bottom, which is that of the legendary Canadian graff writer (and almost equally legendary train-rider) Take5. All I knew was that there was something mysterious and entire in the image. Rise. Fly. Land. There is a echo of eternity in the phrase. A bass note of wisdom, of peace.

I had only very recently seen Les Blank's oddly captivating film Werner Herzog Eats his shoe in which Herzog makes the following slightly enigmatic statement: "We need adequate images. If mankind doesn't develop adequate images, we're going to die out like the dinosaurs."

Somehow standing in that alley off Hastings Street, I felt like I was confronted with an authentic attempt at an adequate image. It was a moment both warming and chilling, if that makes any sense.

Of course, like I said, I had no idea who had made the piece. Until I talked to Jim Carrico at the Red Gate, that is. And he introduced me to Take5 who then told me that he and the artist OTHER had made Rise Fly Land. Take5 also gave me my first glimpse into the world of the street artist in a long and fascinating conversation in the original Red Gate location. From there, literally branching out from the Red Gate and into this hidden community of artists, my interest in the area and my ideas for the book began to surge and take shape.

The Red Gate always was a chaotic place, with no particular central plan or manifesto. But it was from that environment that came the sparks of original idea.

When the Red Gate was threatened with shut-down last year, I lamented the prospect in a Vancouver Review essay called Chaos and Planning. In that piece I argued that the Red Gate was the source of creative chaos that all cities need. Kill these sorts of institutions - out of some hyper-vigilant sense that everything has to be planned centrally in coordination with official messages - and you kill the organic creativity on which all cities depend.

My article didn't help. The Red Gate lost it's fight and were evicted. It was a real loss to the city.

Now we come to another turn in the story. The Red Gate has a chance to reopen. The building they want to use is empty. They're willing to pay rent. And the whole situation is in the hands of the City of Vancouver, as they own the building.

Is it possible that our civic leaders will miss for a second time the contribution that the Red Gates of this world make to the cities where they're found?

On the cover of the paperback Blue Light are three eyes, by the artist Rich S. For awhile prior to the Olympics in Vancouver, these could be found widely through the downtown east side. I loved those eyes. What a lot they managed to say in one image about the hovering reality, good and ill, of our governments and leaders.

What will our leaders in Vancouver do now?

Posted: Monday, Mar. 19, 2012 12:41pm

The Stock Market with French Flaps

The Blue Light Project has been nominated for a CBC Bookie Award. Thanks to the CBC producers who included me on a list with Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyen, Brian Francis and Elizabeth Hay. Those are amazing writers! I’m truly honored.

That said, it’s fascinating that this particular novel would be nominated for this particular prize.

The Blue Light Project is the story of a lone street artist, Rabbit, who pulls off a city-scale installation so beautiful that it stops chaos in its tracks. The chaos in question is a hostage crisis. A man storms a TV studio where they’re taping a cynical reality show called Kiddiefame. The man has a bomb. He seals the studio with a bunch of kids inside. The surrounding city descends into bedlam as confusion mounts. The power of Rabbit’s installation is that it umbrellas the city in a moment of intense splendor. But the work also mesmerizes people by magnificently opting out of the intense rivalries that animate shows like Kiddiefame and the broader culture the show reflects.

Rabbit’s art rises above. And dazzled by the vision of it, people are moved and changed.

Obviously, Kiddiefame wasn’t an arbitrary choice. It represent entertainment in our era. What television show isn’t “reality” now? Check out food TV. Five years ago Mario Batalli was sharing recipes. Now he’s battling to the death in Kitchen Stadium. But the whole television product has shifted that way, as television critic John Doyle recently lamented. Everything on the tube now seems to be about people getting chopped and eliminated and dragon-denned into submission.

Literature used to stand aloof from all this mano-a-mano action. At the Giller Prize ceremony with Stanley Park, I recall feeling real sympathy for my fellow nominees. We were all in the same boat, tossed together on the seas of fate. Competition between us was purely abstract since there was nothing we could individually do about anything.

Online voting competitions change that dynamic completely. You can choose not to self-promote (more on that in a minute). But candidates can absolutely influence results. If a vote is your objective, the Tweetiest and most Facebookie candidate can indeed win. Klout = clout.

The Bookies are precisely tuned to the cultural moment, in other words. And their impact will compliment other developments which now extend the writer’s job far past merely writing the book. Post-publication is now the busiest season, where the author needs to be out there working the networks, pumping hands and kissing babies, on the stump, looking for love.

In all of that activity, however, it’s worth pausing to reflect that literature in a contest for votes is just the stock market with French flaps. Art might save us, as it promises in the conflicted world of my novel. But there aren’t very many people left in our real and conflicted world who think the stock market can save us now.

None of which should be taken to mean that I feel above it all. I set up a Facebook page for Blue Light. I’ve been nominated for Canada Reads, previously. I Tweet (@Timothy_Taylor_). I’m part of the phenomenon.

Do I sit this one out, then? Well, I won’t email the universe. I won’t Facebook or Tweet anything other than this post. Not because I don’t want to win. Of course I want to win (although I’m pretty sure Patrick will nick the prize for his wonderful book). But it’s academic, because you can’t very well ask people to make you the most popular for a book that ruthlessly criticizes that very social impulse.

I could vote for myself, of course. I have already. I discovered that by opening and closing Firefox I can vote for myself endlessly. I could probably squeeze in several thousand votes for myself before the month end. I could RoboCall my way to a win!

And I was tempted, I confess. After all, I’ve been nominated for book prizes and never won. A favorite magazine editor once said to me: dude, you better win one of these soon or you’re going to go down as the Susan Lucci of Canadian letters.

But I won’t. I promise. I will vote only as many times as there are days remaining in the contest, as per the rules. I’ll enjoy the irony and go on to what I now think of as the blissful part of the publishing cycle. I’ll just get busy on this next book.

It’s going to be a winner.
 

Posted: Monday, Mar. 12, 2012 5:31pm

They're Everywhere

 

Holy stickers Batman. These things have hit Toronto, New York, Halifax... everywhere.

Now they've reportedly crossed the pond. They're going up in the UK now.

Move over Banksy. Or whatever. I have no idea what this means.

Posted: Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 10:47am

Chaos and Planning

This article ran first in Vancouver Review. Sadly, I have to report that the Red Gate did finally lose its battle with the city and has been evicted.
CHAOS AND PLANNING: A tour of Vancouver's public art
ONE: THE RED GATE
By the time you read this article, an interesting but little-known Vancouver public-art institution will either have dodged a bullet or bit the dust. I’m talking about the Red Gate. And because of the timing here, I don’t know if I’m talking about it in celebratory or funereal tones.
Sometimes referred to as the “Rainbow Art Institute,” the Red Gate is (was?) a non-profit art and music space run by Jim Carrico in the 100 block of West Hastings Street in a rapidly developing part of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). In the spring of 2011, Carrico—who describes the ramshackle space as a “cultural wildlife refuge”—received eviction papers from the city. And with that, a drama of survival that had played out over the Red Gate’s entire history reached its pivot point.
Why was the City acting, all at once? The 30-day notice to vacate cited building-code violations and fire-risk issues, deficiencies that might not surprise a casual visitor to the building. It’s old and obviously in need of some repair. Still, many people were outraged at the eviction notice, since the building has been in that condition for many years. The decision to evict seemed unfair, and worse, it seemed counter to the city’s insistence that DTES development would follow a “mixed-use” as opposed to “gentrification” model.
Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 9:53am
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Man Standing

This profile of Inuit film-making legend Zacharias Kunuk was originally published in Canadian Art
Edited by Richard Rhodes
***
Final descent into Igloolik and I’m feeling the cold already. It’s seeping into the plane, into the soles of my feet, stiffening my knuckles and knees. It seems to be reaching out toward me, and I find myself thinking about the story a man told me an hour ago in Iqaluit, just prior to departure. Joseph Palluq was sitting beside me on the shuttle from the terminal to the plane. He turned to me, spotting a first-time visitor to the Arctic, and decided I needed to hear his story about hypothermia.
Perfect timing. I’d just been telling him I was up there with the photographer Donald Weber to visit the Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. “You guys know Zach?” Palluq asked. I said no, but that we were interviewing him about his new film, Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.
“Huh,” Palluq said, impressed. It meant something that two “southerners” would travel all that way to talk to a man he’s known since grade school, a man who may now be Nunavut’s most famous citizen. Then, apropos of climate change, along came the story about hypothermia.
Palluq had been a teenager when it happened. The weather had been mild that day, so he’d dressed only in a light jacket when he went out with the dog team. A few hours later, far off on the land, the weather radically worsened. The wind picked up. The snow started. The dogs lay down in the mounting drifts and refused to move. He was stranded. And by the time 12 hours had gone by, he knew what was happening to him. He knew the symptoms: first you shiver, then you start stumbling. Pretty soon you can’t walk.
Palluq scratched late-day silver stubble, reaching this point in the story. He lives in Ottawa now, he‘d told me. He was going back to Igloolik for his father’s funeral. I wondered if this sad journey had reminded him that the man he was about to bury once saved his life.
“Then, they found me,” Palluq said.
“Where?” I asked. “How far from Igloolik had you wandered?”
Palluq tried to explain. He said, “You know the ridge above town? You know the rock outcropping past that? You know…” He stopped, looking at me again. “But you’ve never been to Igloolik before.”
“No. I haven’t.”
He shrugged. He smiled. “Ah, well.” Then he drifted away.
I’m thinking about this last comment as the landing gear drops, as the ground nears in a blur of white and blue, as we thump down to the tarmac, as the Igloolik Airport hurtles by in a rainbow spray of ice crystals. I’m minutes from finding out my luggage is still in Iqaluit—a separate matter. Looking out of the window, I’m thinking about what Joseph Palluq told me, and I think I know what he meant. He wasn’t being dismissive. He was only saying: if you’ve never been to Igloolik, if you don’t know the ridges and the outcroppings, the line of the shore and the way the tongue drifts form in the winter season, how could I possibly explain where exactly I was when my father found me, half-dead and about to slip permanently into the very heart of this cold?
 
Posted: Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 12:06pm
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CBC "cultural secrets": Byron Cameraman

 I've written several times in these pages about my friend Byron Dauncey, who is also the street artist known as Cameraman. I'm happy to do so again, as Byron was included in the CBC show "Cultural Secrets", for which the CBC asked a whole range of people for suggestions. When they approached me, I took it to mean they wanted my idea of something/person/place that was culturally significant but not well known. Byron was my very first thought, although I hope that he does indeed become more widely known. He's a secret that shouldn't be secret.

The link to the CBC show is above. Here's the clip of Cameraman by itself:

Posted: Monday, Oct. 3, 2011 10:03am
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