Confluence Field Trips at the VISA Gallery

The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this. (Neil Gaiman)

I’m interested in the “secret” or “buried” histories of places. This is just my latest trope within sites of contested narratives. A recent British murder mystery I watched was built around the “lost rivers of London” and how a place can exist for so long and change so radically that something is not so much “hidden” as genuinely forgotten. But even if the formally mighty River Fleet became fouled as Smithfield abbatoirs dumped meaty effluvia into it, until it became part of the London sewer system, it still shaped the city. The Fleet defined Farrington Road, and like the River Effra or River Wallbrook or many others, the ‘borders between much of the capital owes much to its buried waterways’, to quote the BBC.

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These are ideas that Elizabeth Chitty asks us to consider in her Confluence Field Trips. Its interdependant combinations of production and presentation from Dick’s Creek to the VISA Art Gallery in The Mariyn I. Walker School of Performing and Fine Arts (barely 15 minutes apart by foot, much more distant metaphorically) straddle spaces both public and private.

This gallery manifestation of Confluence “is part of the artist’s project which includes a website (confluencefieldtrip.ca), walking project, and performance. From September – November, the public was invited to CLAIM SPACE | SEE AND BE SEEN | HEAR AND BE HEARD in three Confluence Field Trips in Canal Valley, St. Catharines.

The “confluence” of the title is that of Dick’s Creek and Twelve Mile Creek…viewed during Confluence Field Trip #1 from Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts to Rodman Hall Art Centre. Dick’s Creek is presumed named for Richard Pierpoint, escaped slave, soldier and settler griot, but is generally known by the name of Old Welland Canal – commerce trumping both nature and black history.

[Confluence] was predicated by the opening in autumn 2015 of two major arts buildings in St. Catharines: the MIW School and the City of St. Catharines’ First Ontario Performing Arts Centre. These buildings overlook Canal Valley, and mark a new phase in a site rich with cycles of wilderness, industry, abandonment, and reclamation”.

What you experience in the gallery is indivisably dependant on what “walkers” experienced. Chitty’s insightful words: “About a hundred people [participated] in seventeen walks conducted mostly in silence except for speaking into an audio recorder, while the artist walked with them wearing a chest-mounted camera. Governance and policy impacts on natural and built space, embodied experience, and marginalized narratives emerge from this work.”

It’s fitting that Confluence is within one of the sites that instigated it. This increases its historical and contemporary relevance, and perhaps troubles the more dominant narrative of economic inclusion and prosperity. Or, if you follow some of the links at Chitty’s site, and the larger history of St. Catharines’ founding, “what has been is what will be, and there is nothing new under the sun”… The economic driver of the confluence of waterways gives way to the economic engine that was auto manufacturing (a confluence of borders and trade) and that we hope is now succeeded by the “cultural city” as economic revitalization.

In light of that, my description of what you see in the VISA space is but a taste, (a map, if you remember the quote that begin this meandering tangent of a review).

On the wall furthest from the gallery entrance is the largest of the videos in the exhibition. It incorporates aspects of all the walks, so its size is merited. Approximately half an hour in length, its bracketed on the three other gallery walls by three other “walks” that are represented by two video monitors apiece (six total). Each small monitor has a set of headphones.
There is audio in the space for the main video on the wall, while another is a ‘mix’ of various audio that also appears in the ‘headphoned’ videos.
There’s a number of voices and sites along the various Confluence walks, but the stories that are most dominant in Chitty’s installation connects back to ’embodied experience’ and ‘marginalized narratives.’ An example of this is from what Chitty calls Walk # 16, from the path described as Confluence Field Trip # 2. In the audio of this walk, you hear the voice of a participant, who’s from Senegal; Richard Pierpoint was, too (once know, less politely but accurately, as Africa’s “slave coast”). So this aural excerpt starts with this gentleman’s voice (in French), wondering what Pierpoint’s ‘original [Senegalese] name’ was, which blends into Elizabeth’s voice talking about Pierpoint and the important role he played in the history of “here.” (Chitty suggests the book A Stolen Life: Looking for Richard Pierpoint).

Another story of place that infuses VISA is found in the audio program centred around the totem pole erected as part of the Canadian Centenniary. This was made by Douglas Cramner of Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, and seems incongruous here, grafted onto this space in a manner that ignores the different Indigenous nations that comprise this country (it could also exemplify taking a symbol and emptying out its meaning to force hegemonic imperial narratives). This city,this territory, has alternately been claimed by the Haudenosaunee (of the Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations) or the Anishinaabe. There’s a greater consideration of the specifics of history these days: Chitty illustrates this at her page about territory, and in highlighting what we know – or what we don’t – about the treaties that (like Pierpoint) formed this place (Nanfan or Treaty of Niagara or Wampum Belts Associated With the War of 1812, to name several). And now Isaac Brock University has a Chancellor who told me that she intends her legacy to be that Indigenous history is accorded the respect deserved in a Nation to Nation educational discourse.

But perhaps this all simply comes back to awareness and openess. In late October, when confronted with the impossibility of my usual path to Rodman Hall, I found myself along the lower mud and leaves of Dick’s Creek, the sun shining on the river, the site beautiful and somehow new to me, despite having lived here for nearly two decades, nearly twenty years ago. This was a gift, so that my return to this place was not just a redux, but something new, something undiscovered. The bridge and the water, that this space was mere minutes from St. Paul and had always been here and that I’d never know this seemed impossible.
In light of that, when you visit Chitty’s work at the VISA, it isn’t the end of a project anymore than how history “ends”, but is a place we inhabit and name, and rename, remake and see through new eyes.

 

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You can also see this review in the current issue of The Sound, available all around downtown St.Catharines.

Mori McCrae’s ON SITE: corporeality and absence

The personally engaging aspect of the brief exhibitions in the Denn Tourbin space are that they seem to offer a brief taste of different artistic practices here to a newcomer like myself. I’ve mentioned previously seeing an exhibition in this space less than 24 hours after my arrival in St.Catharines, and that immediacy of presentation – and in this space being a “raw” slice of the community – is something I enjoy.
The slice comment is an allusion to the current exhibition there, an installation / environment that incorporates finished works but these are also part of a larger ongoing reaction to the space. Mori McCrae’s ON SITE is / are many things (note the multiplicity, my unwillingness to refer to it solely as one thing or as a multitude of parts..). Considering that she presents objects that seem like excised corporeal components, removed from – or alluding to – an absent whole, this is fitting. This also matches with how part of the genesis for this installation was her residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.

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There’s a number of works that will pull you near: near the front of the left gallery entrance is a work that seems, with the sheen of the material, almost like fat. But there’s also a vertical pattern that runs down the middle of the piece, like an exposed spine, cleanly circular and naked.

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This rough rectangle pokes out from the wall in a vee, as its hung in a manner that allows it to sag forward. This makes some of the interior details of the work more prevalent: the layers of material, the folds that are exposed to our view, that make the work as sculptural as drawn (useless distinctions here – the surface and objects are worked is a better descriptor). It’s pale pink fleshy, then deeper reds, some marks that seem scars or just a continuation onto these pieces of the words on the walls that already seemed to be everywhere when I visited. The matching oval “holes” seem vulnerable, like a wound. The thin, delicate words that are so ordered across the red interior are like the striated lines of muscle fascia. Edges of this work have the sporadically spaced “stitches”, raised braided marks that further the sense of this piece as a ripped fragment of a larger body…fat, bone, cartilage, all captured in paper and paint and the artist’s hands.
There’s an asylum quality to the text, creeping and insinuating onto so many surfaces, like a resident of Arkham (Lovecraft is never far from my mind, when asylums are near): and here is a good point to interrupt my hyperbole about her lovely delicate constructions and cite her statement about her show at NAC.
Recently I attended the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.  The house and grounds were part of the estate of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, generously bequeathed to the state upon his death in 1970. His vision was to provide a haven for artists to develop.
While researching the centre I became aware that the residency had a posh reputation. However, when I returned from my stay three weeks later to my home in St. Catharines, I had formed my own ideas.  The paring down of the basic daily acts of working, eating, exercise and sleeping, under the watchful care of the centre’s unobtrusive staff, left me with the impression of residing at a “benign asylum,” in the very best sense of both words.
[Throughout] the duration of the exhibit, where along with visual works, I will install enlarged versions of the poetry I wrote while at this residency on the walls of the Niagara Artist Centre in an attempt to bring this benign asylum here to St. Catharines.
There’s an ambiguity to the works, that suggests a space where alternate, perhaps even disagreeing, interpretations are permitted. In conversation with McCrae, I appreciatively noted how some works could be internal organs, or a rendering of pelvic bones, or even cross sections of bones or cellular, microscopic portraits that are more abstracted than recognizable.
A work in the back part of the gallery, fittingly solo on its own short wall (pinned like a diagram or an excised sample with shiny silver T pins, almost as brutal as medical), is worthy of your attention. It’s engrossing and grotesque. The clear mylar overtop doesn’t inhibit escaping strands and strips that hang nearly to the floor, but instead makes it even more pseudo medical, psuedo antiseptic. These hang, loose and less decorative, like a tassel, then like tendrils, or evidence of a ripped connection to another component…

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The large shape is softly curved, or something like buttocks, fleshy and rounded, maybe even like a fine cut or loin. There’s cavities along the lower part, and the rounded patterns mimicking a spinal column are here again (it’s a motif that marks several other pieces in the gallery). The upper edge has a contour that is reminiscent of a hip bone, or even a clavicle / shoulder blade curve…this might be the upper back, hung on a wall.
There’s several smaller works: some are framed, and the text on the walls varies between strength and subtlety, words that are bold or barely legible. When I first visited several walls had the faint lines of grey, making walls into ruled note paper, and McCrae’s words were in her own cursive hand.
Let’s jump backwards for a moment: Judy Graham had work in NAC just prior to McCrae: her drawn works incorporated spills and drips and seemed more stained and soiled than “drawn”, in the excellent style of Betty Godwin’s works. Delicate marks gave way to vivid stains on large sheets of paper, with words as much incised as written, as much graphic as literary.
Returning to now: that same expressiveness is here with McCrae. And jumping back to the present, I revisited McCrae’s installation on the last day of its presence in NAC.
The words are now bold and a bit reminiscent of blood in their colour: the stripes get long longer still then dissolve or it startles lifts then reclaims to simmering elements. This makes the text on several works more inviting, and the words that appear on works are as evocative.
sHE FUmBLED AT HIS THUMBS FAINTLy TRACED HIS LIPS FLAMINGO PINK POKED STONE runs down one piece. The aforementioned smaller framed pieces, titled liver and pelvic bowl, hang on a sliver of wall, adding to the density of their composition. The larger curved work with the dangling strips has changed: a dark rich reddish stain is now just below its lower edge, as though the work has seeped into the wall, just as the words could be seen to have oozed out through them to be visible to the visitor (some have appeared in new spaces since my last visit, like above the door frame).
It’s regrettable that the show wasn’t up longer, but the briefness is also exciting, as ON SITE transformed the space and will take another form elsewhere (I’m reminded of Hazel Meyers’ tendency to paint and draw on gallery walls, exhibiting the same project in different spaces that become diverse segments of a larger whole). And that is, perhaps, a strength: ON SITE will occupy another space and graft further ideas about the Guthrie residency and McCrae’s translation of it to a different place, in literal and ephemeral ways.

Turning and turning: thoughts on Donna Szőke’s Parlamonium

I am one of those odd art critics (oxymoron, I know) whom likes to visit artworks and exhibitions repeatedly, if not for very extended periods, like repeatedly taking small bites of a larger meal.

Sometimes its how you can best enjoy something, by delaying your gratification. Sometimes its the only way to get it all down without it being rejected, and your body expelling it in protest.

Perhaps this is attributable to how, when I lived in Saskatoon the Mendel Art Gallery was (literally) across the field from my apartment. Thus I could visit often and repeatedly, and many of the shows that I reviewed there in my time in that community demanded this rigorous, experiential examination.

This has often led to interesting insights: I’ve joked that I spent so much time with the Eli Bornstein retrospective there as I’ve NEVER understood the interest or obsession with his work by a number of proponents of zombie formalism or karaoke modernism or just regionalist xenophobic pandering. Amusingly, I came away from that show with a sense of its beauty I’d not expected, even more rich as it was a surprise. And some of the gallery staff hinted I might make myself useful as I was there so often, too.

Another benefit is that exhibitions, and art works, don’t say the same things to me (or anyone, I think, who looks critically) on every visit. I’m unsure if this is simply the fluidity of criticism, like the fluidity of meaning in art making, or if its also something that goes back to a conversation I had with one of the finer art critics I know, Earl Miller. In that (slightly inebriated) conversation, we talked about how art critics can change their mind, or modify their ideas, over time. So, when I’ve gone to see Donna Szőke ‘s work at the VISA Gallery in the Marilyn I. Walker school, I’ll admit that most of my attention has been given to Parlamonium. I’m not dismissing the other two works in the space, but they’re not the focus, for me.

This might be due to the way it dominates the space, with its dynamic motions and how its a responsive piece you can influence. I would also credit the conversation I had with Donna, on my sporadic radio show The A Word, which was very focused on Parlamonium. And, something that occurred to me as a repeat visitor, was that the work perhaps best, for me, encapsulates an answer to the question Szőke poses in a work in that same space (Stuff vs. Ideas). That’s a video projection at the opposite end of the gallery, a textual discourse on art and objects, ideas and stuff, the experience of art through time and space – choosing to stand in the realm of new media, for that last point – that I initially dismissed as too didactic, too much of the “teacher” and not the “artist.”

But, then I chose to “read” it – forgive my pun – as an adjunct to Parlamonium. Perhaps even an artist statement, for Parlamonium. I also like to think of it as a philosophical “argument” for how to interact with Parlamonium.

But first, allow me an equally didactic response to Art vs. Stuff: Art is never, ever, been about the object. Its always been about an ideal, an external, perhaps existential, perhaps privileged, concern.

This has manifested in oft contradictory yet complimentary manners. Art’s been a Platonic pursuit of the absolute truth (insert your favourite High Renaissance artist here, or jump half a millennia ahead to my favourite painter, Ad Reinhardt and his black on black works, all “painting is painting is painting is painting” or his misunderstand “art is art and everything else is everything else”). Sometimes its a declaration of “Genius”  (insert Michelangelo, in one form, or Pollock, where the act is all, ignoring the high art object, for another). Sometimes its “TRUTH”, which often entails a good swift kick in the groin to those whom richly deserve it (Duchamps, Holzer, Wieland or Yuxweluptin. I like the pair that bracket that, as Duchamps’ play on “stuff” with his urinal, or that Yuxweluptin’s works are often about who “owns” the land, offer a nuance to Art vs. Stuff…)

Art is rarely what we see – or experience – within the physical realm. It’s all about ideas, when done well, or even when done poorly…(especially, if I think of a show like this).

Enough esoteric discourse, for now.

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As you enter the dark space, pulling back a curtain to do so (there are several works outside the gallery proper. I already mentioned my subjective focus on Parlamonium, but this isn’t dismissive of these outer works. It’s just my subjectivity), your eyes are initially useless. As you move cautiously inwards, the flash of moving, intense green to your left is there and gone. This is appropriate to the scurrying mice of Invisible Histories. Depending on your timing, you may have the indirect glow of Stuff vs. Ideas at your back; but the motion of Parlamonium will pull you forward anyway, in the dark reds and splash of white.
And I can’t help but interpret the raising of your hands to clap loudly, to increase the speed of the figure projected on the hanging black sphere as a devotional act, like giving praise in a church – or a rock concert, as those are our contemporary sites of devotion.

But my thoughts often take me to darker places, and as I watch the “puppet” performer “turn and turn in a widening gyre”, I already know that “the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I like “mere” here as the ideas – whether edifying or elegic – are all fleeting. The ideas are as lost as a gallery goer trying to find their way in the dark, as lost as the higher ideals that passed or failed or simply were done (old Cold War, new Cold war, history repeats in a circular whirl) that left us with radioactive mice like in Histories. This reminds me of Uranium City….

Before we go further, let me dispel any confusion that my critical words may inspire, and say that I don’t dislike the work here at all: the opposite, in fact. It bothers me, but I often think that’s the role of art….after all, Szőke is an heir (or within the historical chain) to Arthur Danto, and what is art, and how it elevates or demeans our reality is truly the debate of Stuff vs.Idea – and I don’t just mean the illustration of that argument in the space. Her enjoyably grotesque piece Decoy at Rodman Hall, still has me contemplating Brillo Boxes and what we designate as Art, and more exactly, what we surely dismiss from that rare space….

The sporadic Marxist in me feels that our history of the “West” could be spoken off under that umbrella, or I might think that as I’d been reading about John McCrae, author of In Flanders’ Fields, and he was a proud member of the British Colonial forces in South Africa in the Boer War, which most historians will tell you is when the genteel mask of the “Ideas” of Empire and colonialism slipped irrevocably to show that it was all about “Stuff”….

Here’s Donna’s words on the piece, but you could also listen to our conversation on air here:

To create this work I videotaped a dervish dancer wearing a traditional costume. The video camera was positioned at the height of a theatre lighting grid so that the dancer was videotaped from overhead. The spotlight has been enhanced to appear as if it is the surface of the moon. This work is interactive: The video is projected onto a weather balloon which is installed high above the audience. Microphones embedded or hung above the viewers collect data about the volume of the crowd. This is fed into custom software that affects the playback of the video. Audible changes in the volume of the audience control the play back speed of the video, so that the dervish dances faster for a more boisterous crowd. …I have chosen to work with the image of a dancing dervish as it exemplifies the ancient Turkish roots embedded in my Mongolian-Hungarian culture. The correlation between the Mongolian Shamanism of the Hungarian steppes and the dervish dancer is clearly intertwined, where the worldview is centered around the movement of the heavens, and the dervish dance gestures originate in the universe itself. The dervish “spiritually listens” and translates what it hears into the circular movements of the planets.

There’s an emptiness to this work: an emptiness we’re invited to fill, and with my overtly subjective approach to art, I’m one who’s happy to do so, as I suspect most viewers will be….but in the end the emptiness is what prevails, and what remains. As “the dervish “spiritually listens” and translates what it hears into the circular movements” of the larger universe and world, I’m left wondering if we’re just hearing the echo of our own voices, bouncing back, saying nothing….

A Word 30.10.2015 Donna Szőke / Cloud / Satellite

As some of you may have noticed, the radio shows are a bit more sporadic, hah, than when I was on the prairies: that’s just the way things roll these days, as I’m finding myself occupied by my writing (two pieces are in the current issue of The Sound, one on a previous guest Anna Szaflarski’s work It’s a Man’s Job and another about Bill Burns’ show at Rodman, and I’ll be talking to Bill for a future A Word Niagara) and by my job. However, I am keeping up with putting out conversations of note, and this one is definitely one of those.

Donna Szőke has two exhibitions up right now: Cloud at Rodman Hall and Satellite at the VISA Gallery. We talk about some of the ideas that formed the works as well as the directions the work drove my thoughts and some other gallery goers I spoke with, and you have a chance to hear Donna speak about her works on Thursday, November 12th, at Rodman.

You can listen to us here.

The image I’ve posted below is of her piece Decoy which sits invitingly atop a mantle in one of Rodman’s elaborate rooms) which both enthralls and disgusts me, in person. Look but don’t touch, when you see it

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A Word 09.10.2015 Anna Szaflarski and A Man’s Job

This week’s episode of the A Word is, on the surface, a very specific one to St. Catharines, while being a conversation between two people whom have connections to “here” but yet also are not from “here”…

First, let us all enjoy that I’m the NAC Member of the Moment for October, and you can read about that at the preceding link. Much praise to the community here, which has been exceptionally warm and welcoming. Many thanks to NAC and many others here who have made me feel very much at home.

Something else to consider in terms of your visual arts world in STC this Thanksgiving weekend are the plethora of events and exhibitions coming up at Rodman Hall. Here’s some information about Spare Parts,  which Stuart Reid talked about on the show a few week ago, and Donna Szőke’s exhibition which opens this weekend. I’ll be doing some follow up in the next few days to see about having her come on the A Word.

If you pick up this month’s edition of The Sound, you can also see some thoughts of mine on her upcoming show, Bill Burns’ exhibition which opens later this month, and some impressions of Shifting Perspectives. It’s not yet online, so you’ll need to pick up a print copy. When its up, I’ll share them.

But let’s return to Anna Szaflarski’s trio of installation / intervention works being presented through NAC that open this Thanksgiving weekend (a fitting analogy, perhaps, that fits in with the latter part of our conversation about “family” ) titled A Man’s Job. They’re located at NAC (354 St. Paul Street), the NAC Flea Market Gallery (46 Turner Crescent) and at the Golden Pheasant (244 Ontario Street).

Let me steal the words of the gallery :

At each newsbox location poster editions of A Man’s Job by Anna will be available for pick-up. The poster is comprised of a chronological collection of newspaper headlines tracking the relationship between the employees and the auto industry in Niagara that spans over sixty years (1940-2011). As Anna explains,

“I was researching in the library archives for another project, but quickly noticed the frequency of headlines pertaining to GM; unions, lay-offs, which rotated from hopeful to pessimistic with regularity like the wheels of a mill…Together the fluid back and forth begins to lose all meaning; an eventual entropic disintegration.”

You can listen to us here. An image of the poster is below linked to a larger version.

There is also a further piece of writing, that Szaflarski presents as part of her Letters to the Editor series where her writings are paired with another person’s response to the same subject. You can either pick up this at the news boxes too, or read her – and Stephen Remus’ essay – here.

This was very much the basis of many of the points in our talk, and I really enjoyed Stephen’s excellent contribution here, and if you have a sense of the history of this place and its relationship with manufacturing (especially in a familial or more personal way), you will, as well.

You may find me at the Golden Pheasant later on doing research on public reaction to this very interesting example of art in the public realm.

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BABELTECH™ and the power of language at NAC

And then one day he realised that of course he was always staring at his hand when he wrote, was always watching the pen as it moved along, gripped by his fingers, his fingers floating there in front of his eyes just above the words, above that single white sheet, just above these words i’m writing now, his fingers between him and all that, like another person, a third person, when all along you thot it was just the two of you talking and he suddenly realized it was the three of them, handling it on from one to the other, his hand translating itself, his words slipping thru his fingers into the written world. You. – bpNichol

Language is a virus. Laurie Anderson warned us. We weren’t listening. Like most warnings from the mid to late twentieth century made by artisitic prognosticators, she’s been ignored. (I can’t help but inject that other female contemporaries like Jenny Holzer, or Barbara Kruger, have seen their formal aesthetics appropriated, while the ideas that so challenged their – and our – worlds were not quite so popular…).

Now, Anderson is cited ad nauseum, but this is a dissapointing facile failure. Its repeated, but misunderstood. We don’t fear language like a virus as we should, like a drug resistant TB that might sweep across our city, leaving us without breathe to communicate.

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I’ll admit that these dark thoughts came to me while standing in front of two of the works in Eric Schmaltz’ exhibition BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…
THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL at Niagara Artists Centre: FUTURE and NOTHING, respectively, hung on the back wall as an apocryphal pairing, separated from the majority of works presented in the space which run along one wall.

Formally, they all employ a common template, with recurring sections and words: Assembly Instructions / Components / Tools Required / Product Detail all are contained in grey institutional boxes that move down the right side. Pride of space is given to a larger square captioned Exploded View. Like any good guide / map / instructional display, trademarks and disclaimers and warnings proliferate.

There’s something about their construction that references the impenetrable hopelessness of an IKEA catalogue but also the generic and overtly genuine and eager public health warnings (how to use that anti bacterial wash to avoid spreading the flu that will weaken our immune systems for future pestilences, perhaps).

Each image bears the disclaimer running along the bottom of the image, in its own thin grey box: USE PRODUCT AT OWN RISK. BABELTECH™ IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATION OR MALFUNCTION: after all, tools – like language – can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and just as everything looks like a hammer to a nail, language has NEVER been a clear medium through which meaning travels from one to the other without some form of corruption, correction, critique…or code, perhaps.

Perhaps the “Old Stock Canadians” reading this will nod in agreement….or our once and future king, Stephen Harper, will enlighten us at a later date. The King’s speech, or the King’s English, if you will.

Schmaltz is described as a “language artist, writer, & researcher” and that first term is the one that my enjoyment of this show hinges upon, as it can incorporate so much, and so many incongruous threads….BABELTECH™ are both works in words but also in image, and this offers a multiplicities of readings and ways in which to interact with the pieces. How might these works be spoken? In describing them, I find this to be a liberation, not a challenge….its is appropriate here to the reference of “Babel”, but I’ll evoke a number of those later, too, as they are multiple, and can mean many things to many people.

This is a good point to admit that I’m a fan of the late bpNichol, whose works were self described as borderblur, whether his graphic Selected Organs: Part of an Autobiography or more challenging Martyrology Books. I encountered his works when I was 13 (ABC: The Aleph Beth Book, which is usually listed under his “visual” works), and since then my expectations of poetry have never dropped. Kaie Kellough’s performance, the same evening as Schmaltz’s exhibition, is worthy of mention in this lineage, but more on that in a moment….boundaries are there to be broken, not to constrain, like a living, growing map that’s more about the intangibles than about the clear, hard edged marks. Was bpNichol drawing or writing? Visual or literary? Speaking or sketching?

Let’s delve into some art theory (sorry, only time this review I’ll do this to you) for a moment, and consider the notions of signs. Some are indexical, that provide physical evidence of an object, such as a shoe print, or referential, like others that are made to look like what they resemble (the simple drawing of a tree, or the gender symbols on washrooms).

But what matters here is the more abstracted sign, that has no clear, immediate or obvious relation to that which it “represents” and we’ve simply – as a society, a community, or within even more intimate spaces of communication – agreed that “this” means “that.”

Amusingly, Letraset (I’ve had numerous moments of nostalgia for the 90s since my return to Southern Ontario, and this is / is not one of them) is ideal for this. It’s all components, parts and assemblages, literally breaking apart words and symbols to make new ones, literally cutting and sticking components together to make something new, newish or disturbingly familiar…

For example, on one level the seven pieces could be a fragment word poem. Read them as a sentence, traditionally Western, from left to right: CAPITAL INTELLIGENCE DESIRE AUTOMATION SINGULARITY DATA TECHNOMICS ENNUI LANGUAGE MACHINE SIMULATION THANATROPIC SUBJECTIVATION FUTURE NOTHING. They could be switched around to form different relations to the word that proceeds or follows them, sentences or associations that build or destroy, like blocks or bricks of language.

I’d be curious to have had someone track my interaction the first time I saw them: to track my viewing, or the viewing of others…CAPITAL to DESIRE back to CAPITAL…FUTURE NOTHING FUTURE NOTHING THANATROPIC MACHINE MACHINE…our veiwing constructs the “sentence” and our attentions defines what is the verb and what is the noun. THANATROPIC DESIRE THANATROPIC DESIRE…or perhaps if I was in more of a Marxist mood, CAPITAL DESIRE AUTOMATION ENNUI ENNUI CAPITAL DESIRE and repeat as compelled…

But each work / each word in itself is an individual poem, a unique work of art: whether deconstructed in Components down to its “bones”, or reconfigured in a new way in Product Detail (which may, or may not, be seen as having a relation to the “word” itself, like any “finished product” image in a set of assembly instructions) that are simple images that could stand on their own aesthetics. THANATROPIC’s is almost like a mystic sigil, with an eye, perhaps. SUBJECTIVATION alternately resembles a plant, or foraging locust. FUTURE is more architectural, suggesting an arch or monument. NOTHING resembles a weathervane, a compass gone awry. ENNUI seems to hang in space, a hook with no loop…while DATA is dense and solid and pointing, with a purpose. LANGUAGE combines loops and points, both rounded and pointed, contradictory…

I could look for “definitions” of THANATROPIC or SUBJECTIVATION: or I could accept the ones provided by Schmaltz that don’t presume or preclude other interpretations, or the nuance of communications (though no responsibility is taken for miscommunication or malfunction…deliberate critically at your own risk. No slavery to preset meanings here, and no “freedom” in submission to someone else’s definitions).

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But let’s return to Babel as the titled point of reference: the story of the ill fated Tower is from Genesis 10 – 11, after the Flood, in which humanity, speaking a single language came together to construct this architectural wonder (I was often told as a child that the premise was to build it “to heaven”, an act of unbelievable hubris) but “God confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world.”

A typical “Sunday school” story to “explain” different languages, with a vengeful, prideful God “punishing” humanity with a multiplicity of language .

Ironic, when you think about the Judeo – Christian focus on the Ten Commandments and “so it shall be written, so it shall be done” mantra of the film of the same mythology…(my art historian is more of a fan of the Golden Legends that incorporate the flowering of Joseph’s staff, or the eroticizing of the ear of the Virgin Mary as the site of the Angel’s announcement of her impregnatoin).

But if we’re going to step into that realm, I’d rather mention Borges The Library of Babel, with its books that are alternately infinite and limited (read it. My description shall but pale in comparison). Or the babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the notions of memetics and (mis) communication from Richard Dawkins might also be worthy of consideration here. William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded may be of use in choosing a place to stand and which word you might wish to assemble. All of these are relevant when considering the BABELTECH™.

Less theoretically, BABELTECH™ is an ode to the formal possibilities of Letraset: I say that without irony or smugness, but considering the “prefab” nature of the words and language therein, they can again be seen as either constricting or liberating, and what Schmaltz has done here is entertaining and unique. While depending on the medium of Letraset, he also transcends it, and makes it so much more than it usually is…

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My affinity for concrete poetry was something that made me appreciate Kaie Kellough’s reading, especially the initial performance of RAIL that was as much musical as visceral. Kellough worked the components of spoken language in a way that reminded me of early painted abstraction. It was dangerous and honest in breaking language down to noise / sound / speech, like how past Modernist painters broke their practice down to geometrics, “pure” colours, monochromes and a refusal to tolerate any pretty pretense of “picture box space.”

rr rll rail ll rr rll rr r rail became an intoxicating chant. This in itself was hypnotic and seductive and reminded me of what good spoken word concrete poetics can be.

And then things went to another level. But first let me say it was an excellent pairing at NAC as this fluidity of speaking, this breaking down of the Components, this irreverence of Assembly, and an exposure of the banality of the usual use of language by Kai Kellough only enhanced your experience of BABELTECH™ on the walls when Kellough was done. His voice filled the room and interacted with the works, especially FUTURE or DESIRE or CAPITAL.

That other level: from an exercise that could be deemed formal, Kellough moved to a piece about the current immigration crisis that was able to cut through the calcified cynicism of the media narratives, election rhetoric, posturing and the essential egotism of the debate here in the first world. I offer nothing more in terms of description than my high praise, my appreciative amazement at his ability to move everyone in the room, and that if the opportunity presents itself to hear this artist speak, you must take it.

BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL, an exhibit by Eric Schmaltz at Niagara Artists Centre, was regrettably only on display for a week. Perhaps, like language, its just fleeting…

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A Word 24.09.2015 Stuart Reid and Rodman Hall

This week’s episode of the A Word Niagara, coming to you from CFBU 103.7 FM, is a dialogue with Rodman Hall Director / Curator Stuart Reid. This is an enjoyable conversation (I like to see what’s on air as just another segment of the engaging chats we had after Sarindar Dhaliwal’s talk, and after we finished recording this week’s A Word) where we talk about upcoming shows and the unique architecture and history of the site and how that enhances and elaborates what’s presented there – both of my reviews (Magenta, The Sound) of Sarindar Dhaliwal’s excellent exhibition The Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies touched upon this.

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We talk about two shows that are opening at Rodman soon and you can listen to us here.

Bill Burns, whose Safety Gear for Small Animals is a favourite of many both within the art world and outside of it, will have an exhibition opening at Rodman the same evening as a solo exhibition by Donna Szoke. The image to the left, Decoy, is from her show. Burns will be presenting Hans-Ulrich Obrist Hear Us, which I think you can tell that both Stuart and I are very much looking forward to seeing…

The project that Stuart talks about, with Camille Turner’s work, is part of the Spare Parts Symposium, and you can learn about that at the preceding link.

Now, if you’re listening to the show / reading this as it goes up, in the week of September 24th, then I’ll also put out that if you catch the next issue of The Sound that comes out in early October, you’ll see some thoughts I have on both the Rodman shows that are upcoming, as well as some thoughts on the show currently in the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School. If you’re reading this on the day I’ve posted, the 25th, go see BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL, an exhibit by Eric Schmaltz at NAC tonight. I plan to be there for a little while, later in the evening.

One other thing to mention this weekend in St. Catharines, and that would be Culture Days: everything you need to know about that is here.

 

A Word Niagara 11.09.15 Elizabeth Chitty & Confluence Field Trips

Chitty.header Chitty.screengrabThis week’s episode of the A Word is a conversation between myself and Elizabeth Chitty about her project Confluence Field Trips. This is an ongoing project that will inhabit multiple forms as it progresses from the “walks” to the image / audio contributions to the exhibition.

Elizabeth and I talk about this, and about the ideas that inform it, and as promised, here’s a variety of links that will both provide information that may make you want to get involved and that will help you to do so.

Here’s the page Score, with instructions on how to participate in Confluences, and here’s where you can book a Field Trip, which Elizabeth mentioned on the show. There’s also the Traditional Territory page, for further information. As well, Elizabeth mentioned Richard Pierpoint on the air, and here’s some engaging information about him.

Listen to this week’s episode of the A Word Niagara here.

Since this is going up on a Friday, there’s two other things I want to mention. Firstly, there’s an exhibition that has a reception this Saturday night at NAC, but is up right now for you to see. Just Like A Buggy Whip : New Paintings by Kevin Richardson (the latest thing in obsolescence) is in the front space, and there will be music by Attic Daddy. The show runs until the 18th.

Secondly, Shifting Practices, a Department of Visual Arts Alumni Exhibition, curated by Emma German, is open now and has a reception on the 18th, from 5 – 11 PM. This exhibition is in the Visual Arts Gallery, also listed as 15 Artists’ Common. Shifting Practices  will include work by Sarah Beattie, Candace Couse, Alicia Kuntze, Ben Mosher, Carrie Perreault and Bruce Thompson.
A schedule of artist talks to accompany the exhibition are also posted:
Carrie Perreault & Alicia Kuntze Sept. 21, 3:30pm-4:30pm, Foundation Studio (MW 151), 15 Artists’ Common.
Ben Mosher & Bruce Thompson Sept. 23, 3:30pm-4:30pm, Foundation Studio (MW 151), & site tour, 15 Artists’ Common.
Candace Couse & Sarah Beattie Sept. 25, 3:30pm-4:30pm, Foundation Studio (MW 151), 15 Artists’ Common.
I’ll be checking out that show and perhaps offering some thoughts about it, as well as touching base on some other ideas / concerns that intersect with this exhibition and the larger cultural narrative here.

 

Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 / Dave Gordon @ NAC

Dave Gordon’s exhibition at Niagara Artists Centre is the kind of show with different meaning(s) to different groups: some of these are ideas that directly relate to what’s presented, and some of these are about what his art – or more broadly, his aesthetic – is implying.

That’s not an unusual consideration for a show that chronicles 4 decades of an artist’s practice – and life – especially when that artist is someone whose own artistic origins coincide with the advent of artist run centers in Ontario. Arguably, artist run culture is still one of the strongest definers of the Canadian art world, though it’s a bit frayed (the need to remind an artist run centre in Saskatoon that its not  “exposure / experience” but exploitation to NOT pay artist’s fees more disgusts than angers me. Further nausea is induced by outgoing Sask Arts Board “CEO” Ranjan Thakre – who helped end SCN under a Sask Party agenda that also destroyed the Sask Film Tax Credit – dismissing allegations of fraud in the same space….have these groups become as bad as that they oppose(d) with their neo liberal selfish incompetence?)

Forgive my nostalgia: this is also a side effect of Gordon’s aesthetic, I fear…

It was interesting to hear Gordon speak, at the opening of Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 in the Showroom Gallery, about people like John Boyle and Greg Curnoe, both of whom I discovered at the Art Gallery of Windsor while helping Bob McKaskell research his exhibition Making It New: Canadian Art in the 1960’s. The fight regarding artist fees, and the establishment of “alternate spaces” is a history we too often forget[1].

I was also in attendance at what might have been Curnoe’s last artist talk before his untimely death, and heard him hold forth regarding a project that took his ideas of London Regionalism (“place is as important as subject” Gordon said at NAC, when invoking Curnoe’s ideology) to an almost absurd length, as he read the history of the tract of land he lived on to the audience, favouring his own fascination over the disinterest of the crowd (another aspect, perhaps, of his “regionalism”…)

Gordon’s work (some large, some smaller) fills the back gallery space, with works from variant series including Woodpiles, Clouds and Chicken à la King. There’s primarily paintings, but also drawing: a series of “text” or “scrawled” works are among my favourite, with them sharing the title of Don’t Carp London ON 1975. Gordon invokes names from that era that aren’t too “regionalist” – like the Rabinovitch twins – but are wider, like Roald Nasgaard, that acolyte of karaoke modernism on the prairies. There’s at least one found object incorporated as part of the painting Excelsior! though the duck (goose? I may have lived on the Prairies but I’m a city boy) acts as a “period” if you “read” the works from the portrait of Jean Genet moving clockwise from the left entrance and loop the room back to where you came in.

The portrait of Jean Genet (from the HeadLands Series) seems to make more sense than the bird in encapsulating Gordon’s aesthetic, but in an inverse manner. The accompanying cursive quote (It is not up to the artist or the poet to find potential solutions to the problem of evil) is the opposite of the ideal that art can, and must, change the world. This remote cynicism seems in defiance of the caustic portraits of former Ontario premier Mike Harris as Prince of Waters, whose “Common Sense Revolution” invariably led to Walkerton and waterborne fatalities…

 

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Further, Genet’s dalliances with “evil”, and his own “outsider” existential disregard for social norms, flies completely in the face (sorry, no pun intended) of the image of Bashar Al Assad: the skulls painted into his eyes offer an indictment of him that embraces the idea that the artist does have a moral role to play. This is among the later works that act as Gordon’s works from his trip to Syria (the directness of his impressions of his trip there expand the idea of regionalism, as we’re seeing it through his eyes).

In a more immediate (and contemporary, in light of Election 2015) manner, the work that entertained me the most were the portraits of our current Canadian Ruler and several of his court – sorry, I mean the current PM and various cabinet ministers – present and past, some departed by choice, others not.

Dean Del Mastro looks like he’d blend with The Godfather, looking solid of jaw and dismayed of expression. Bev Oda, with sunglasses and cigarette is channeling Lou Reed, easily the “cool” one of the group. Jason Kenny’s was perhaps the most unsettling: the night following seeing this unflattering rendering, I was watching the news and saw Kenney maligning some opponent with the same waddle of chins, camera angle from below (Remember how reporters would wait until later in the day to photograph Richard Nixon, as his five o’clock shadow was excessive and…well…criminalizing, to be honest?). Peter McKay seems a bit stunned with his tiny, dot eyes and pouched mouth, and the man himself, Stephen Harper, looks out at us askance, suspicious perhaps, painted in a manner that makes him appear to have a dirty face and a dismissive manner. John Baird’s face fills the frame, aggressively making eye contact with all. Vic Toews looks harsh and rough, like an Old Testament judge, eager to punish: his head breaks the picture frame, like Big Brother Watching Us. Tony Clement looks taken by surprise, and Rona Ambrose looks unimpressed, while Jim Flaherty seems to have a touch of indigestion…

I was once told that I’m the “most subjective art critic ever”: judge that freely in the previous passage, but I think some of you may agree with my assessment here…

There are also smaller portraits of artists (I use that term interchangeably for Arthur Rimbaud or Joseph Beuys, Philip Guston or Al Purdy) and some are granted larger spaces of note. There’s a portrait of Margaret Laurence, but also a quote from her excellent book The Diviners. Frida Kahlo will always have my love not just for herself and her work but also her declaration of her contempt for the “art bitches” of Paris, a term I’ve applied to many a place and person. The Greatest Canadian (Tommy Douglas) shares a wall with an amusing take on The Group of 7 (the seven dwarfs appear, and the same humour we saw applied to the Conservative Cabinet is here, but less acerbic).

The performance by SOUND SOUND followed after the talk and reception, upstairs: I’d not experienced this space before, and it was lovely, as a potential projection / event space, and the atmosphere was engaging even before the visuals and audio began (I was both amused and vaguely uneasy when I looked up at some point and saw the massive upper stretch of Silver Spire United Church, lit with a greenish light, seeming to look down upon us, perhaps with sternness…)

Ever since I became acquainted with Gary James Joynes or Rutger Zuyderveldt, I’ve found that its best to come to audio installations with an openness, as the best I’ve experienced (such as the aforementioned artists’ works in Sounds Like Audio Art Festival III) can overwhelm your senses and be alternately evocative and almost excessive in pushing their physicality.

There was (perhaps) a narrative to the variant projections on the massive screens at the far end of the rooftop. Apocalyptic scenes specific and iconic (images of 9/11) or more poetic and less recognizable mixed with quiet moments, all drone and ambience. These were punctuated by an almost minimalist dance of flames and smoke that was broken by the performers’ shadows, a clean delineated black among the frothing oranges. Another projection reformatted a more three dimensional version of Picasso’s Guernica: how can’t you think that Death rides the pale horse that dominates those tableaux of misery?

This was an unusual pairing, of Sound Sound and Excelsior!, but my long sentence in academia has not made me demand that all fits within boxes like a television dinner tray.

Perhaps it wasn’t such an odd evening of diverse works, if you see them as images of our world, and who defines it, whether the history (including the people and places that form it) of forty years ago, or the history of the 21st century as we’ve constructed it, so far…

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[1] A friend of mine whose history as a cultural worker is significant once commented to me that the foundation of ARCs and their “activist” mandate was intrinsically linked to the influx of conscientious objectors to Viet Nam, implying both a more “American” energy and activism but also cast ARCs as part of that larger social justice milieu. I also like to think of ARCs as having a link in this manner to groups like the SDS with their rough push for change, and perhaps this is why when places like the aforementioned ARC or Thakre betray their responsibilities they remind me of corrupt regimes.

A Word Niagara 04.09.2015

2012043089731202_Sarindar_Dhaliwal-1024x683This week’s episode of The A Word, or as I sometimes call it on air this week, A Word Niagara, is focused on two main sites. Sarindar Dhaliwal’s solo exhibition continues at Rodman Hall, and there’s an upcoming talk by the artist that I mention on the show.

The images to the left are both from The Radcliffe Line & Other Geographies, and I have some words about that show in the current issue of The Sound, but a more in depth piece will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Magenta Magazine as well.

I offer some thoughts and impressions of the show, as well as of Mary Anne Barkhouse’s installation Settlement, outside the gallery.
Dave Gordon’s exhibition just opened at NAC, and I talk a bit about that, as well. Currently, I’m finishing off some thoughts about his show, both in terms of its excellent political timing but also the history of ARCs and the idea of “regionalism” that he spoke of at the opening, and that I talk a bit about on air.

The show can be heard here, and upcoming shows will (hopefully) be conversations with Stuart Reid, the Director / Curator of Rodman Hall and Elizabeth Chitty, whose Confluence Project is already under way.