Archive for February, 2008

08w09:1 TAAGTG

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Blue eye color in humans may be caused … | Eiberg, Troelsen, Nielsen, Mikkelsen, Mengel-From, Kjaer, Hansen
The origin of the founder mutation – The mutations responsible for the blue eye color most likely originate from the neareast area or northwest part of the Black Sea region, where the great agriculture migration to the northern part of Europe took place in the Neolithic periods about 6–10,000 years ago (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994).

The high frequency of blue-eyed individuals in the Scandinavia and Baltic areas indicates a positive selection for this phenotype (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994; Myant et al. 1997). Several theories has been suggested to explain the evolutionary selection for pigmentation traits which include UV expositor causing skin cancer, vitamin D deficiency, and also sexual selection has been mentioned. Natural selection as suggested here makes it difficult to calculate the age of the mutation.

Blue Eye Genotype

08w08:2 Guest Selected TED talks

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For this Goodreads I asked Janna Popoff and Fedora Romita to select their favorite TED talks. – Timothy

Janna’s Popoff’s Links

I found TED by accident. I was in fact perusing a website and found it recommended there. I fell in love with TED the first time that I opened the page and discovered that this is what I had been looking for. I am disenchanted with the main stream media and saddened that we only hear truly horrific, terrifying, fear fueling stories on the news. It could be that I live abroad and I do not have access to local news, just CNN and BBC, so I see more of this than I should.

I had also been talking with a friend about how TV should be more about real people, people who are making differences in the world, or simply, people and their stories. We need more positive media in the world. Less propaganda about difference and hate and more about communities, understanding, and tolerance. People are doing great and positive things and we need more access and exposure to this. I know that I have become a very cynical viewer, and I don’t want to be.

People always start off by saying how difficult it is to narrow something down to their favorite, but it is true, and this task was no different. I haven’t watched every video on TED but I have watched many of them and I plan on watching more. These videos were all inspiring to me, and I learned something from every one. The videos use humour, which for me is hugely engaging, and these people were all very informed and passionate about their messages. TED covers a wide range of topics; science, technology, business, the environment, art design, culture, and global issues. The speaker are people who are recognized in their fields as making a contribution and a difference. The average time of a presentation is about 20 minutes; move at a quick pace, spark your interest, engage the viewer and then they are done, leaving one energized and introspective. Occasionally for some speakers the time can get up to about 40 minutes but this is rare.

The presenters make me feel lazy and sad that I am not contributing more to the world; I should because I can, and because I still have the passion that these people speak with.

Sometimes it is hard to know where to start Watch TED, the videos and speakers will surprise you. If there were a TED university, I would definitely attend. – Janna P.

Isabel Allende: Tales of passion.

Vik Muniz: Art with wire, thread, sugar, chocolate.

Malcolm Gladwell: What we can learn from spaghetti sauce.

Amory Lovins: We must win the oil end game.

Gever Tulley: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do.

Eva Verters: My dream about the future of medicine.

Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

Ron Eglash: African fractals in buildings and braids.

AND I would like everyone to check out the web page for Pangea Day, this website is about people telling their stories, people from all over the world sharing their experiences and we can submit our own stories for others to watch.

Janna Popoff is a Canadian artist who is a part time university lecturer in Cheonan, South Korea. The rest of the year she lives and paints in Northern Poland.

Fedora Romita’s Links

Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson is a business man who in 2002 took over the TED conference. He talks a little about the .com failure and how that led him to the conference. Anderson expresses his vision for the conference. He sees TED as a multidisciplinary conference and expresses some of the core TED values as being truth, curiosity, diversity, no selling or corporate bullshit and the pursuit of interest across all disciplines.

Vilayanur Ramachandran

Ramachandran studies the functions and the structures of the brain. He talks about patients who are unable to recognize familiar faces, others who are able to recognize faces but where the wire in the brain that connects vision to emotion is cut. He also presents his simple and innovative solution to remove phantom limbs from patients. Finally he talks about Synesthesia, how it functions in the brains and why it is commonly found in artists, poets and writers.

Majora Carter

Majora Carter is from the South Bronx and runs a grassroots activist committee that works towards developing green space in that community. Faced with a number of challenges in her neighborhood such as a power plant, waste companies, North America’s largest food distribution centre and the potential for the building of a sports complex Carter is fighting to revitalize her community with the help of the TED community.

Sherwin Nuland

Sherwin Nuland is a well-known writer and physician who was hospitalized for extreme depression in the mid 70’s. Unable to carry on with his work as a physician his stay in the hospital lead his psychiatrist to offer the controversial suggestion of applying electro shock therapy as a cure for his depression. After this treatment he was totally cured. Here he talks about his journey through this period of his life.

Sirena Huang

An 11 year old violinist.

Fedora Romita is an artist living and working in Toronto

08w08:1 Preview: The Cdn Art Reel Artist Film Fest 21-24 Feb 2008

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The Canadian Art Reel Artists Film Festival, 21-24 February 2008
screening at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC
750 Spadina Ave (at Bloor), Toronto

In his as-yet-untranslated book Formes de Vie (1999) Nicolas Bourriaud makes the argument that Duchamp treated the gallery as a film camera, a box in which the gallery ‘recorded’ the work and in so doing made it art. Throughout the 20th Century, the dominance of film as a medium has seeped into our consciousness to such an extant that it seems that all art today works in cinematic terms. The spectacle, the grandeur, the big budgets … the gallery has become a film set and must borrow from the film-production’s capacity to make the impossible real. Take for example the open pits of crude oil shown in There Will Be Blood – accurately reflecting the lack of environmental concern of a century ago, and yet filmed in 2006 under conditions that were probably heavily controlled and legislated behind the scenes. Also consider something like Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, where the Tate gallery undertook intentional damage to the foundations of the building and displayed it with an aloofness which makes it seem no big deal.

But the ugliness of its construction is as hidden as that which goes into the manufacture of our consumer goods by foreign wage slaves. We are only asked to marvel at the gleam, and not think of the grime.

I raise these points as an introduction to the blending of the cinematic and locational art forms, which is annually celebrated by the Canadian Art Foundation’s film series of artist documentaries. This year’s selections have a common theme of monumentalism, and the documentaries give us insight and access to the grime behind the gleam of art-stardom. Having watched previews of most of the films in this year’s series, (I was provided with all but four of the series’ screeners) what follows are reviews and reflections on them.

Jeff Wall | Jeff Wall – Retrospective 58:42 dir. Michael Blackwood (2007)

Peter Galassi and Jeff Wall
Peter Galassi (L) and Jeff Wall (R)

This film is an hour long eavesdrop as Wall walks through his 2007 retrospective exhibition at MOMA with its co-curator Peter Galassi. The format makes it a little boring at times – but it’s worth it if you’re at all interested in his work, and Wall gives wonderful insights into what inspired his classic pieces. It can be said that he’s a painter using photography to make his images, which are so composed and choreographed to assume the one-off aspect of a painting, albeit made in a medium which ensures a maximum reproducibly. Looking at Wall’s backlit images I was reminded they are precursors of the digital photographs we are all getting used to. One imagines that many HD-flat screen panels will be used to display future photography, as luminous and well resolved as a Jeff Wall. It makes his work seem almost prescient in that regard, and makes the technology behind it seem merely primitive rather than gimmicky or even as sophisticated as it appeared ten years ago.

Philip Johnson | Philip Johnson: Diary of an Eccentric Architect 55:00 dir. Barbara Wolf (1996)

Philip Johnson and Rem Koolhaas
Philip Johnson and Rem Koolhaas in the rain
This film is essentially a grand tour of Johnson’s sprawling estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, which was used as a literal field of experimentation by the architect. Johnson gives tours of the projects he undertook on his land over fifty years, meanwhile the film documents the construction of one such experiment, a building inspired by Frank Stella (who comes to see the work in progress), and which when completed is visited under umbrella by Rem Koolhaas. Once painted, it looked magnificent. I appreciated the inclusion of a scene where the construction workers quarrel with the managers, who are quibbling over ten-grand. ‘Ten thousand dollars is a drop in a hat. I see your place over there, you’re not working for $25/hr with guys making $12/hr, and think you’re going to live on that’. This sentence encapsulates what’s wrong with startchitecture to begin with, and for me is the key-phrase of the film.

As we go forward, this documentary may become one of those historical curiosities in which the rich playboy gives a tour of his Versailles and the interconnected social and environmental repercussions are totally ignored. Johnson (who I’ve most often seen in a suit at the office commenting in documentaries on the work of other architects) here is seen as a full resolution person, who had lived a blessed life of success and had reached an age when he couldn’t help but take it all for granted. His personal art gallery, brilliantly designed to exhibit many large paintings in a small space, consists of work that he needs explained to him by an assistant who first appears in the film sitting in the gallery in such a way that I mistook him for a Duane Hanson. Had The Simpson’s Mr Burns been written as an architect, he would have been modeled on Philip Johnson, and this Mr Burns would return the affections of his Smithers.

Bas Jan Ader | Here is always somewhere else 70:00 dir. Rene Daalder (2006)

Still from a Bas Jan Ader Film

Bas Jan Ader died the year I was born, and yet he has the best artist website I have ever seen, the result of some benefactor buying up his estate in recent years. As a part of this media revival, Rene Daalder was asked to make this film by Ader’s widow. (The trailer can be seen on the Ader website here). This film was a little slow getting started but got more interesting near the half-way mark. One of the nice things about this feature is how Daalder revisits some of the locations Ader used for his art-films, which have been so transformed in the intervening years as to have become unrecognizable.

Featuring interviews with people inspired by Ader’s work, including Tacita Dean, we learn much about his background, and the similar background of Daalder, who attempts to tell Bas Jan’s story by giving us insight into his own. Before he too immigrated to Los Angeles, Daalder began as a film-maker in Holland (one of his early films’s stared Rem Koolhaas, thirty years before getting his rainy day tour at Philip Johnson’s) before leaving after his first ‘most-expensive Dutch film ever’ failed at the domestic box-office. The result is a story of a small group of Dutch expatriates who ended up in L.A. trying and make their fame and fortune in Hollywood. With the exception of Koolhaas, they succeeded while remaining obscure. For example, one of the actors in another early Daalder film was Carel Struycken who I was familiar with as Mr. Homn, Lexanna Troi’s butler from the Star Trek episodes I watched as a teenager, and who also starred in the Adam’s Family movie as Lurch.

Wikipedia states that Ader’s work began to be revived in the early 1990s, and I first learned about him through the Phaidon Conceptual Art book, published in 1998. Richard Rorty described genius as the coincidence of one’s personal obsession meeting a public need. Throughout the 1980s, Bas Jan Ader was to a small group of Dutch men just that friend who disappeared at sea. As one says early on in the film, ‘I didn’t know I was friends with a myth’. This myth was constructed in the early 1990s, which is to say that the public need for Ader’s obsession only began then, this public being an art-world increasingly interested in the type of work Ader produced. As a video artist, his work can be seen throughout the movie (and on his website), and on the one hand it can seem both boring and absurd (what’s up with all the falling?) but on the other it can seem interesting and profound (the sea captain who had thought about it a lot). Ader’s work is a reminder to artists that there’s an potential audience for anything, but it may take twenty years after your death for the public’s interest to coincide with your obsessions.

Richard Serra | To See is to think 44:33 dir. Maria Anna Tappeiner (2006)

In Sheila Heti’s interview with Dave Hickey, he says of Richard Serra that ‘he’s totally not hip, can’t speak without drawing’. Throughout this film Serra is seen carrying a sketchbook, and only once to we see him actually using it. I’ve often thought that Serra’s work will survive for as long as there’s no iron shortage, but give us another couple of hundred years of material squandering, and then will see if this stuff is really worth something as art. Serra’s obsession with drawing allows one to see his sculpture really as a drawing in itself – only he is marking three dimensional space with the material of steel, rather than working with graphite or charcoal on two-dimensions. This image illustrates this for me: a simple line drawing, highlighting the space of the sky, consisting of one of Serra’s steel sheets seen edge-wise. (Of course, this interpretation is aided by the framing offered by the film camera).


Serra’s work makes me question wether things like Stonehenge were really about the stars and the Equinoxes. Perhaps they too liked to mark space with massive objects? I hope that Serra’s work, if it survives future material scarcity, will never be interpreted as astrological charting. That would make our culture look unimaginative. It’s worth persevering the memory of these rusted pieces of steel as attempts to mark the landscape in a creative way, although here I’m again reminded of what bothered me about Johnson’s estate. The land was fine as it was, and along came some egotistical human set about ‘improving’ it by dumping a hunks of rusted metal in it. I don’t think we’ve (as a culture) quite figured out the balance between imagination and destruction.

Anish Kapoor | Art in Progress: Anish Kapoor 27:24 dir. John Wyver (2007)

Anish Kapoor discussing the maquette for his installation
Anish Kapoor discussing the maquette for his installation of Svayambh

This documents the Kapoor retrospective which opened three months ago (Nov 2007) in Germany. Kapoor is one of the bigger names in sculpture right now, but he’s another reminder that artists these days (when they are successful) make big work that highlights vulgar industrial excess (a block of red wax weighing 45 tons and measuring 10 x 4.5 x 3.5 meters. WTF?) and it’s all ok because there’s enough money in the world, it’s affordable to these aristocrats, and besides, what else are we going to do with 45 tons of red wax? Cover cheese with it?

Kapoor emphasizes that his work is about color. The monumentalism of its material just seems like a paradoxical cheap trick: an expensively produced contrivance. Like, this is what it takes to awe people today – not fragility, not the delicate, but the heavy metal (Serra) in your face ear-bleeding loud message. The red wax is awe-some because it’s big.Kapoor’s ____, 2007

In a world where the British-American Empire is guilty of war crimes while we face environmental catastrophe, this type of work just pokes my cynicism. When the process is supposed to be an important part of the work, and when that process is fictionalized (as it appears to be in this case) than what is the work but bullshit? Asking me to imagine the process just renders such installations as the set-design for an unmade film that it so often appears to be these days. With that in mind, I’d much rather walk through the set of the now-filming Star Trek movie than look at a giant block of red wax smeared against a gallery’s wall. Then again, if I saw this is person I might disagree with what I’ve just written.

Sam Wagstaff | Black White + Grey: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff 72:15 dir. James Crump (2007)

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

As Philippe Garner (Director of Photography at the London Christie’s) says near the end of this documentary, ‘It horrifies me to think that there’s a generation growing up now in photography that doesn’t know who Sam is. And yet his legacy permeates the field, there’s absolutely no doubt about that.’

Featuring an extensive appearance by Patti Smith, roommate of Maplethorpe and part of the relationship wherein Maplethorpe took advantage of his wealthy sugar-daddy Sam Wagstaff, this is also a reminiscence of the New York 1970s art-scene and gay-demi-monde. What I most appreciated learning was that Wagstaff was responsible for a vast bulk of the collection of Getty Images.

There was some structural problems with this film’s editing, near the middle it became too crowded with interviews and from that point began to seem incongruous. Nevertheless a nice history of a man who helped change the direction of art through his curation and who amassed one of the most important photo collections in the world.

Phyllis Lambert | Citizen Lambert: Joan of Architecture 52.00 dir. Teri Wehn-Damisch (2006) Citizen Lambert

One scene of this I recognized as something I’d seen on TVO’s Masterworks last year – a scene where Phyllis Lambert-neé Bronfman is walking through a Mies van der Rohe building and showing disgust at the curtains put up in its lobby. If I remember correctly, that scene was originally from a Mies-centered documentary. One of the fellow-architects interviewed for this portrait of Lambert (ridiculously modeled on Citizen Kane for god-knows-what reason) stated that architecture as we know it today would not have been without Lambert, primarily because when her family wanted to build their corporate phallic symbol in New York, she reviewed the initial design and convinced them to hire Mies instead, the result being the Seagram building. This resulted in a collaboration between Mies and Phillip Johnson, reputations established and architectural history writ. Considering how devastating architecture has become (the renegade architect Christopher Alexander having declared most of it ‘insane’) Lambert’s role is either a good thing or a bad thing considering which side your on.

Rodin | Rodin: The Sculptor’s View 53:00 dir. Jake Auerbach (2006)

Interviews with contemporary sculptors on the legacy of Rodin. This is really for sculpture geeks. Featuring Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Rachel Whiteread, Rebecca Warren, Barry Flanagan, Tony Cragg, Anthony Carro and Richard Deacon. (I just copied that from the blurb, incase those names spark any interest on your part. Honestly, this one I found the least interesting, since I’m not a sculpture geek. It’s just sculptors talking shop, with requisite cinematic close ups of Rodin’s work).

Tickets and times for the screenings available at the links listed above.

08w07:5 Michael Redhill's Consolation

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Consolation by Michael Redhill

York St to Queen 1857
Looking up York St to Queen.
Osgoode Hall at the Intersection, 1857

York & King 2007
Looking down at York and King, 2007.
The area above today.

The Earliest Known Photographs of Toronto | Toronto Archives

Old photos inspired Michael Redhill’s ‘One Book’ Consolation | Geoff Pevere
“Redhill recalls being thunderstruck by a series of photographs he discovered in book by William Dendy called Lost Toronto. A 360-degree panorama consisting of thirteen shots of the city taken in 1856 from a hotel at the corner of Simcoe and York Streets, the pictures sparked in the author a kind of hypothetical reverie of the city that once was. In fictional form, the photos would also come to play a key role in Consolation. ‘Seeing those pictures,’ recalls Redhill, ‘And reading Dendy’s narrative of what happened in those streets and in those buildings and in those shops and who lived in that city, it just brought it all to life.’ Considering the book is so profoundly motivated by the author’s passionate conviction to know the city through its past, and to protect that past from further acts of developmental sabotage, Consolation’s selection as the inaugural book in the community-wide ‘Keep Toronto Reading’ campaign touches Redhill considerably. ‘As you can imagine it’s a huge, huge thing for me,’ he says. ‘It’s big for me because it’s the city of Toronto that chose it, it’s the Toronto Public Library where I did a lot of my research who chose it, and it’s also especially sweet because a year ago, by January of 2007, the book was dead. It had had its run, for whatever it was worth, in Canada, it had not done well in the States and it was not looking good in England either.’ He pauses, no doubt scanning well above storefront level for the right metaphor. ‘It’s like being showered with gold.'”

Keep Toronto Reading 2008
“We encourage all Torontonians to read Consolation by Michael Redhill. Then join in discussions and events throughout the city about its themes, issues and sometimes controversial ideas.”

Panorama | CBC News at Six
Consolation was inspired by a panorama of 13 pictures of the city, taken in 1856 from the rooftop of an inn that once stood at King and York street. These images are on display at the Toronto Reference Library. They’re arranged in a partial circle, allowing you to walk into the centre of them, and get a sense of what the city must have been like back in 1856. The first thing that struck me was seeing Lake Ontario. So that’s what it looks like. Before it was pushed a kilometer to the south, and the city erected highways and condo towers in front of it, it had quite a presence on the town.”

Torontoist Reads: Consolation
“This is first installment of a new Torontoist column – Torontoist Reads – that will feature reviews of new books by Toronto authors and interviews with the authors themselves. This week, Torontoist is pleased to feature Consolation, by poet, playwright, and novelist, Michael Redhill. Redhill is the author of the novel Martin Sloane, the short story collection Fidelity, as well as several collections of poetry and the plays Goodness and Building Jerusalem.”

Hero: Michael Redhill | Torontoist
“Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains of 2007––the people, places, and things that we’ve either fallen head over heels in love with or developed uncontrollable rage towards over the past twelve months. Get your dose, starting Boxing Day and running into the new year, three times a day––sunrise, noon, and sunset.”

One Book: Spacing Reads Consolation | Shawn Micallef (Feb 1 2008)
Spacing Magazine is excited to announce our participation in the Keep Toronto Reading ‘One Book’ campaign. An initiative of the Toronto Public Library, the aim is to get as many people as possible reading Michael Redhill’s Consolation — much like what Oprah does with her book club, but on a civic level.”

One Book: Hallam of Toronto | Todd Harrison (Feb 4 2008)
“Michael Redhill makes use of a few familiar Toronto surnames for characters in Consolation. Perhaps most prominent of these is J.G Hallam, late of Camden Town, sent to Toronto by his father to open the first New World branch of his family’s apothecary business. The real Hallam, the one for whom the street in the west end is named, was the man who led the campaign for the creation of the Toronto Public Library. John Hallam was born in 1833, and came to Toronto from Chorley, Lancashire, England in September of 1856. He started a business as a hide, wool, and leather merchant, and eventually became an alderman.”

One Book: The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library | Jessica Duffin Wolfe (Feb 8 2008)
“The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is a multidimensional map of the city: it contains documents from every locale in Toronto, but also every moment. As Michael Redhill’s Consolation flips back and forth between eras, the library is a kind of waystation. While the late twentieth-century character David Hollis spends all his time studying the Toronto archives at the Thomas Fisher Library, the mid nineteenth-century characters can only wonder if their city will ever be established enough to keep those archives. To them a city library is a futurist dream. While Thomas Fisher himself also lived in the mid-nineteenth century, he wasn’t an archivist. He came to Canada in 1821, owned a mill on the Humber river, and was active in civic affairs. The library has his name because of his great-grandsons, who donated their rare books to the collection in 1973, the year the present building opened.”

One Book: Natural Light | Dylan Reid (Feb 11 2008)
“This passage, in which some of the book’s characters are trying to establish a photography studio in a shopfront in 1856 Toronto, brings to the fore the essential role that natural light played in building and city design at the time, and still does today. […] When I interviewed Ward 20 Councillor Adam Vaughan for an article about the Queen West Heritage District, he suggested that one of the reasons why preserving Victorian buildings is valuable is that they had developed a range of techniques for managing natural light and its energy efficiently — techniques that we can learn about and bear in mind as we try to move towards a more sustainable, less energy-intensive future.”

One Book: Hanlan’s Point | Shawn Micallef (Feb 12 2008)
“Once on the ferry, you get the most magnificent Toronto skyline pass-by this side of a late night drive along the Gardiner Expressway. You can stand still on the ferry deck and watch the buildings of various distance shift between each other as you move west. In the superhotsun and dizzy smog you might almost think it’s some kind of Proustian Remembrance of Things Past episode, where you can see all the Toronto skylines at once. Other times it’s just Toronto and it looks good. As Redhill says, the ferry arrives at the buggy, unkempt part of the island.”

08w07:4 John Ralston Saul on Canadian Culture in 1986

by timothy. 1 Comment

Culture: A Mirror and a Weapon (Excerpt) | John Ralston Saul
From Culture: A Mirror and a Weapon by John Ralston Saul. Found in “You’ve Got Ten minutes to get that flag down…”: Proceedings of The Halifax Conference:A National Forum on Canadian Cultural Policy (Conference took place in September 1985, and the book was published in 1986;; partially browseable on Google Books). Occasional comments on content by me footnoted:

This is not to argue that Canadian culture cannot make money or that it is not produced by a group within the community. It can and it is. But that has nothing to do with the role and importance of culture. Financial profits are artistic communities are by-products of culture, not the reasons for it. Only a great dominant culture can afford to concentrate on by-products. We are obliged to be extremely careful in the ways we choose to build our own mythology and to protect it, not only against the force of America, but also of France and of England, all three of whom perceive us a being worthy of their cultural leadership.

Culture, in all places and at all times, is a mirror for the nation out of which it emerges. Those who create should not claim for themselves the reassuring status of a specialized community. Their role, after all, is to provide a reflection of all of the communities within the nation. This is not to say that writers must sit down with the hand of socialist realism upon their shoulders. We, as individuals, may produce thousands of images for thousands of reasons. Nevertheless, each of those images, each of our reasons, will reveal themselves as part of our society’s reflection of itself. The farmers, the garment makers, the teachers, each have their jobs and their lives; but their reflection of themselves in in our hands. Whether the CBC or McClelland and Stewart make money out of it, whether the creator is compensated by a pension plan is of interest to the individuals immediately concerned, but irrelevant to a people’s reflection of themselves.1 That is, irrelevant to culture.


The remarkable thing about Canada’s culture is that despite unprecedented pressures from the United States, England and France, despite a branch-plant class of Canadian citizens who work partially or entirely at cross purposes to the national interest, we continue to run our country in our own very peculiar way and to produce ever greater amounts of accurate cultural reflection.

While the American novel sinks into degenerate university methodology or verbose facility, and the English novel into provincial regret and the French novel into perfected navel gazing and paralyzed language, the Canadian novel, English and French, appears young and strong, charged with a tough clean language and an unforgiving eye. Much of the same could be said for our painting or our poetry or, for example, our theatre, if you were to compare the force of a Tremblay or a Murrell with the helpless self-indulgence of the West End or the endless droning on of revived Broadway musicals. But if all of this is true, if our culture is perfectly healthy, what then is our problem? Because we do indeed act as if we have a great problem.

Perhaps it lies with the curious psychological blanket which we seem determined to lay over our culture. Worse than constantly attempting to define our efforts, we also insist upon making those definitions in relationship to three other nations. And yet, as we are not ancient, self-indulgent, declining ex-colonial powers struggling through the last steps of European nationalism. Nor are we the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, brandishing riches and nuclear force on the one hand, while slipping into poverty on the other thanks to an inability to deal with 60 million ex-slaves and Hispanic immigrants. It is therefore somewhat lunatic to expect our reflection of ourselves to resemble theirs of themselves. We are, despite our standard of living and our democracy, more like a third world country than anything else. And if we are to find soul brothers beyond our borders, then we should be looking for energetic, lean, aggressive, self-criticizing language and thought patterns, almost free of self-indulgence, almost free of proselytizing mythology. Friends with those sorts of qualities we are far more likely to find among dissidents of Eastern Europe or of Central and South America; among the creators of Australia and New Zealand or other smaller democracies.

It makes no sense for us to chase after the indifferent shadows of ex and current super powers. Our own reflection is a complete and adequate picture. It is the portrait of an outsider. Of a third world. A provincial body. I use this word – provincial – with enthusiasm and pride. Provincialism has always been a strength for the creator. The great imperial urban centres have never been hot beds of creation. Their citizens have always been too satisfied with the fast and easy excitement of their environment. They mistake fashion and sophistication and knowing the right people for creation and culture.2 They are too carefully political, too basely ambitious. They specialize in salon art3 and closed conversations disguised as fiction. The best of those who wish to write and paint flee these places. Those who wish merely to succeed stay, and indeed arrive from all points. Even within the borders of the great powers the creative impulse comes not from New York or Paris, but from the provinces. It was no accident that Flaubert stayed in Rouen and Twain in the south; that Cezanne fled to Aix and Byron to Italy.

These very cities – which live off the creativity of the provinces and corrupt all who are drawn into their arms – are the places that Canadians seem obsessed by measuring themselves against. The imagined brilliance of New York, London and Paris is forever before our eyes while we remain indifferent to, for example, the Spanish world, which is alive with real ideas and questions and is, incidentally, the second world market for books.

On top of our search for false relationships, we have laid a second, even more suffocating blanket. The culture of this country – an accurate reflection of the people – is in constant production or is ready to be produced. But it is not allowed to reflect. It is not allowed access to the technical means of reflection; that is to say, to the systems of distribution.

The Americans, the English and the French, despite their vocabulary of cultural superiority, go to great pains to secure their international cultural power through a hearty concentration upon the structures of culture – or ‘entertainment’, as the Americans say. Through this control they sell their own cultural products and therefore their ideas; which in turn sells everything that is a part of their own reflection – everything from their cars to their foreign policy.

The Americans are quite right to perceive their ‘entertainment business’ as an assault force. Culture is the most powerful weapon of any nation. To reduce culture to some sort of arcane middle class activity for those who have the luxuries of high education and spare time is in fact to abdicate control over our entire destiny.


But if our culture is so vibrant, how is it that, despite massive governmental aid, Canadian efforts to make headway in the distribution of our own culture continue to fail and to lose money, while foreign efforts to sell us their cultures (plus a token amount of our own) seem to succeed relatively easily? Why are we so ineffective? So amateurish? The answer to a great extent is that we are struggling within a system created by foreigners and therefore designed to work in their interests. This bias is not apparent in any written rules which could be identified and therefore changed. This bias is endemic to the system itself and therefore invisible to a legislator. Our obsession with specific legislation and specific support programs leads us blindly into a maze where only those who laid out the paths can find their way. The existing system dictates by a thousand unidentifiable signs, by its very breath, by its cadence, exactly which cultural elements will be able to find their way through to the Canadian public. It is worth adding that we are the only democracy in the world to have entrusted its culture delivery systems in this way to outsiders.

The governmental support programs – legislative and financial – which are intended to change this situation, in fact confine us ever more narrowly within our own marginality within our own country. We are increasingly the special case. The delicate flower. The only way to change this is through sweeping – not specific – legislation, which in one radical step would place us and our interests at the centre of our own society, while removing the foreigners to the margins.

But even if it is true that no other democracy except Canada accepts cultural marginality within its own borders, why is it that we need such radical legislation to establish a normal situation? No other country has needed to deal with culture in this manner. The answer is that no other democracy is in our situation: twenty-five million people4 sitting on the border of the century’s most powerful nation and culture. Our situation cannot be compared to others when we search for solutions because no other democracy exists under the kind of cultural pressures which we experience every day. Our solution must be specific to the Canadian situation, but aimed at creating a system not unlike the kind which makes it possible for national cultures to exist in other medium-sized or small democracies.


If we believe that no governmental action will be taken to put Canadians at the centre of their own cultural structure, or if decisions are being taken which we feel will dangerously damage this country, then we are perfectly capable of action and must therefore act. If the bureaucratic mind is so attached to the concept of ‘cultural industries’, why are we, the employees of those industries, so loath to engage in industrial action? We are able, for example, to shit down all the communication systems. Cable systems. Film distribution systems. Book distribution systems. What’s more, we can shut down these systems selectively: blocking foreign interests while allowing Canadian interests to function. Furthermore, we are surrounded by politicians obsessed by image. We can deal with their images in many ways.

We must not be trapped into a bureaucratic frame of mind which makes us believe that our only avenue is the negotiating of ‘deals’ in a ‘professional’ manner with governments and civil servants. It is these deals, these little victories, which have convinced us that the only marginal success is possible. It is this desire to appear professional which makes us afraid to dirty our hands. Is it not remarkable that we are more concerned about our dignity than were the nationalists in the oil industry?

If we believe that our culture is vibrant, then we should not waste time discussing that culture. Instead we should be engaged in action which shows we do actually believe that vibrancy to be real. If we do our job as the reflection of the people, then the people must expect us to stand up and use, in their defence, the talents which make us the creators of their reflection – that is, the talents of public words and public images and public actions.

1. Consider that now (22 years later in 2008) the following Canadian television shows: Little Mosque on the Prairie, Corner Gas, and MVP, which offer some sort of reflection of Canadian life.
2. Susan Sontag and George Steiner come immediately to my mind.
3. The art of the Whitney and the Venice Biennials.
4. In the twenty three years since, the population of Canada has increased to 33 million.

08w07:3 Roberston Davies on Canadian Culture in 1949

by timothy. 0 Comments

Robertson Davies’s Fortune my Foe | Phiip Massolin
From Canadian Intellectuals, the Tory Tradition and the Challenge of Modernity, 1939-1970 (2001; by Philip Massolin. This excerpt from Chapter 5: ‘Battling the Philistines: The Quest for Culture in Post-War Canada’.

Penned in 1949, Fortune, My Foe was [Robertson] Davies’s most sophisticated treatment to date of the ongoing theme of cultural poverty. The play displayed an ‘overt Canadianism’ in that its characters included new immigrants, long term residents, and native Canadians, all of whom are embroiled in a discussion of the merits of Canadian society. Cultural destitution and artistic deprivation, again, are themes of Fortune, My Foe. The play is set in a university town in the modern, urban Canada. If culture could flourish in any area of the dominion, then surely it would prosper in an urbane setting, presided over by numerous intellectuals. That it does not demonstrates, for Davies, the pervasive indifference of Canadians everywhere to cultural activity.

There are two plots in this full-length piece. The main storyline is set in Chilly Jim Steele’s establishment. The key interplay is between Nicholas Hayward and Idris Rowlands. Hayward is a young and promising English professor, who is contemplating a move to the United States, where his talents would be better appreciated and rewarded. Rowlands is a middle-aged professor from Wales, whose failure to foster in his students the same love he feels for the arts has made him cynical and bitter about Canada. The play centres around Nicholas’s decision to abandon Canada and take a job in the United States. Rowlands chastises his young colleague for thinking about leaving a nation in grave need of scholars and cultural leaders so as to make more money and achieve greater acclaim. While Canada’s ‘raw, frost-bitten people have numbed [his] heart’ and therefore left him a cynical and bitter man, Rowlands nonetheless attempts to persuade Nicholas not to quit his country in search of greater recognition and better remuneration. Canada, Rowlands argues, desperately needs its scholars and artists even if it does not appreciate them. Without such intellectuals to teach other Canadians the value of art and scholarship, there would be no hope for a better Canada. Ultimately, Rowlands hopes to convince Nicholas to make the same sacrifice he made for the greater good of expanding the country’s spiritual and cultural outlooks. While the central conflict in the play is Nicholas’s internal struggle to decide what course of action to take, Rowlands nevertheless is important as a kind of alter ego through whom Davies expresses the plight of the intellectual and Canadian cultural activity more generally.

The secondary plot revolves around Franz Szabo and his story. Szabo, a recent immigrant from Prague, is a puppeteer, who has recently fallen on hard times. Instead of prospering in his chosen field, he works at Chilly Jim’s as a dishwasher. Szabo’s storyline is much like that of the main plot. Common to both characters is the problem of finding in Canada an environment that will nurture artistic effort. Indeed, Szabo’s wonderful marionettes are as unappreciated by the unschooled masses as in Nicholas’s literature. Davies demonstrates the antipathy to Szabo’s art in a scene in which Szabo presents a part of a puppet show to Mattie Philpott and Orville Tapscott. Philpott and Tapscott are a locally influential duo who could gain funds for Szabo’s productions if they were favorably impressed, but they are semi-educated and raise numerous infuriatingly mundane objections to the show. Rowlands, who is also present at the performance, can no longer bear Philpott’s and Tapscott’s insensitivity to Szabo’s art. In a climactic moment, Rowlands, in a drunken rage, destroys the puppet show and drives the pair of ‘donkeys’ out of ‘the temple of art’. While Rowlands, greatly embittered by the incident, warns Szabo that ‘Canada will freeze your heart with folly and ignorance,’ Szabo is less pessimistic than the old professor. Szabo argues that he is an artist and that artists ‘are very tough.’ ‘Canada is my country now,’ he declares, ‘and I am not afraid of it.’ Although there may be ‘bad times’ and ‘misunderstandings,’ he resolves to be ‘tough’ and ‘hopeful too’.

The scene provides considerable insight into Davies’s view of the cultural prospects of Canada. First, it reflects the low regard in which the Canadian middle class, represented by Philpott and Tapscott, held highbrow culture. It also shows the growing impatience and frustrations of the intellectual with the universal masses. Ultimately, however, Davies’s message is one of toleration and restraint. Through Szabo, he reaffirms his most important theme, brought out by Rowlands earlier in the play: Canadian scholars and artists must be committed to their country in spite of the inhospitality its citizens have shown them. Canada, Davies suggests, continues to be a land of cultural philistinism. Yet in Fortune, My Foe, he acknowledges an increasing need to counter philistinism with a determined attempt to foster cultural growth. Through Szabo, Davies teaches that Canadians should be resolved to thwart the Baileys, Ethels, Philpotts, and Tapscotts of the world and instead continue the struggle for spiritual fulfillment. He sums up this sentiment in a final soliloquy by Nicholas, who is heartened by Szabo’s resolve to endure cultural philistinism and help to nurture Canadians’ artistic sensibilities. ‘Everybody says that Canada is a hard country to govern,’ Nicholas pronounces, ‘but nobody mentions that for some people it is also a hard country to live in. Still, if we all run away it will never be any better. So let the geniuses of easy virtue go southward; I know what they feel too well to blame them. But for some of us, there is no choice; let Canada do what she will with us, we must stay.’

08w07:1 'Jack who?'

by timothy. 2 Comments

I was at this panel discussion in 2005, and was glad to see its transcript on the CCCA site when I remembered the quote in bold below. My recent research has led me to find this at this time and it is for this reason that I am posting it on Goodreads at this relatively late date. – Timothy

Isaacs Seen | Panel Discussion: Make the Scene: Get Critical
University of Toronto Art Centre Thursday, June 23, 2005, 7 – 8:30 pm
Moderator: Sarah Milroy | Panelists: Harry Malcolmson, Barry Lord, Joyce Zemans
“[Barry Lord]: ‘And of course we know Av, with the kind of promise he gave to the work of Joyce and others, was part of that. But one of the really big changes, one of the big improvements certainly, is that nowadays that kind of article would not be written, because we all take it for granted that there are serious women artists. Just to add just a line to what I was driving at in referring to the need for biennials and retrospectives, the tragedy is to go into a young artist’s studio and see real talent and real passion and real commitment, real capability, and see a link with other Canadian artists. So one says ‘That’s really pushing farther than Jack Chambers did on that line’ … or whoever you happen to recognize. And he looks at you blankly and says ‘Jack Who?’ We laugh at that, but that’s terrible. That is an absolute tragedy because it means that we are losing the potential for a Canadian tradition. And if we want to talk about loss, I think that in that period we had a grasp, suddenly, that there was something that was ours and that you could build on it, you could run with it and go with it. Many fall by the wayside. It doesn’t mean that every artist who plugs into it is able therefore to become great. But the point is simply that it is a terrible thing when an artist is working in a vacuum, and of course we know the they are never working in a vacuum because we have an enormous power to the south of us which is always telling us about the Judds and the Warhols, and what have you. So that young artist doesn’t know about Jack Chambers, and he sees himself in relation to Warhol or whatever, and that’s what he sees as his tradition or her tradition. And that is a terrible shame bbecause it is a loss of the potential of a real tradition that we can build, we have the potential to build, if our private and public institutions will do the job of making everybody familiar with the tremendous accomplishment we have. Even just looking at this exhibition, you can see that Meredith is a pretty damn fine painting. That’s pretty major stuff. I want to see a retrospective of Meredith. I wrote about him at the time. I thought he was really major. We can’t judge it until we see that retrospective.'”