Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Deficit Budgets and Surplus Performances

Let me begin with the political news before we get to the performances:

I was interested to read in the paper yesterday that Jim Green, former COPE and Vision city councillor and one-time mayoral hopeful, has been appointed by Millennium Development Corporation to get the troubled Athletes' Village project back on track regarding its financing and post-Olympics neighbourhood conversion. Despite the all-round quagmire that has resulted from this project (another bonding company revised the city's credit rating to "negative" yesterday), this latest development is, I believe, good news. Green has already stated that one of his primary goals will be to see that the commitment to social housing in the original proposal for the project remains a priority.

Coincidentally, the British government has just released hundreds of millions of pounds from its contingency fund to keep construction on London's 2012 Olympic venues, including its own embattled Athletes' Village, on track. Given what a hit the UK has taken in the global financial meltdown, one wonders why the grand Olympic-related development projects planned for east London have not yet been scaled back. Likely because the London Development Agency is a big stakeholder and is still hoping to do for the Lower Lea Valley and the working class and racial minority communities of Stratford and Hackney what Canary Wharf did for the Docklands in the 1980s. This is all billed as economic revitalization, of course, but when one considers the residents who live in these areas, it starts to look more like a social engineering project. Build better transport and nice recreational facilities, and with that will come tourists, followed by more job opportunities, quality health care, and a higher standard of living. I believe this process is called gentrification.

Vancouver's own Carrall Street Greenway project is a glorified beautification project to allow more pleasant direct access for Olympic tourists and the next wave of condo purchasers expected to follow in their wake from Gastown to the downtown portion of our famed seawall. To this end, the hypodermic-strewn Pigeon Park is undergoing a make-over that not only includes the painting over of graffiti on walls, the repaving of its concrete, and the replacement of benches and tables, but also the installation of high-powered street lamps to deter loitering, malingering, and public drug use. See, in this regard, my comments on Althea Thauberger's Carrall Street in my very first post to this blog.

Parliament is back in session after its unprecedented proroguement last December. The Tories have presented their economic "stimulus" budget and are feeling a tad more conciliatory this time around, particularly towards arts and culture, which they are giving some $335 million in total. Here, in thumbnail, are the details:
  • Two-year funding of $60-million to support infrastructure-related costs for local and community cultural and heritage institutions such as local theatres, libraries, and small museums
  • Increasing funding by $20-million over the next two years and $13-million per year thereafter to the National Arts Training Contribution Program
  • Providing $30-million over the next two years to support access to Canadian magazines and community newspapers
  • Providing $28.6 over the next two years to the Canada New Media Fund, and $14.3-million annually thereafter
  • Providing the Canadian Television Fund with $200 million in funding over the next two years
I have to say this is much better than I expected. However, the news is not so great on the education front. Despite $2 billion for universities and colleges to fix their aging buildings, some $87.5 million for new graduate scholarships, and $750 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation research infrastructure fund (which all goes to science-related projects anyway), the government is actually reducing the base budgets of the three federal research granting councils (SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR). That means my colleagues and I, especially those of us who work in the humanities, which always shoulders the brunt of such cuts, will have a much harder time conducting new research. Which in turn means our students will be shortchanged. At a time when Obama is calling for major investment in education south of the border, this move is short-sighted and sad.

It appears the Liberals, under new leader Michael Ignatieff, will support the budget (as was expected), but according to CBC Radio this morning old Iggy is flexing his muscle somewhat (and drawing Harper's attention to his steadily increasing poll numbers) by insisting on accountability updates from the government on the results of its spending in March, June, and December of this year. Each of these updates will apparently be treated as a vote of confidence. One doubts that Harper will be able to get away with a replay of December's shenanigans a second time, which is no doubt what Iggy is counting on. That and the fact, like Chretien before him, he will be able to position himself and the Liberals as the ones who will pull the country out of deficit mode. Indeed, there is something strangely satisfying in seeing Harper, who swore he would never do so, follow his erstwhile mentor Mulroney in plunging the Conservatives down the path of deficit spending.

Now on to some performance-related matters:

Vancouver's Second Cultural Olympiad is in full-swing, and the line-up already seems much better than last year, particularly in the international offerings. Well worth checking out, in this regard, is the Action-Camera: Beijing Performance Photography show that opened at UBC's Belkin Art Gallery two weeks ago. Curated by Keith Wallace, the show is a survey of the relationship between performance art and photography in China as both emerged from the underground scene in Beijing's East Village in the 1990s. That relationship, as the large-scale, professionally illuminated, and formally composed C-prints in the show attest, has little to do with documenting for historical posterity the officially discouraged and temporally ephemeral live public performances and body art actions of East Village pioneers like Ma Liuming, Rong Rong, Zhang Huan, and Xing Danwen. Rather, these and other artists are using the medium of the camera itself to stage agitprop performances of individual self-expression and collective national consciousness as highly choreographed, repeatable, and overdetermined with paradoxical meaning as any Photoshopped and digitally manipulated images released by the Chinese state in the lead up to its Olympics (and, significantly, many of the images in the show, including ones by Hong Hao and Li Wei, do in fact use Photoshop to achieve their performative effects). As Wallace suggests in his catalogue essay to the show, this places a special onus on audiences in terms of negotiating between a locally distinctive and culturally specific versus globally assimilative and formally partial comprehension of the work. For example, do we read bad boy Ai Weiwei's contribution to the show, his 1995 triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, as a logical extension of the Duchampian questioning of the cultural value of art via the ready-made, or as an iconoclastic comment on Ai's part about the relative national worth bestowed by China on an historical past that predates the Cultural Revolution?

I've actually been doing a bit of work on Ai in connection with the Olympics chapter in my new book. The man is an artistic polymath, and I've been particularly taken with the series of digital video and photographic works documenting the urban transformation of Beijing that he embarked upon in the early part of this century, coincident with his hiring by Herzog and de Meuron as design consultant on the Bird's Nest Stadium. For example, in the C-prints that make up his Provisional Landscape series of photographs, Ai represents a spatially and temporally "void" Beijing as a perpetual construction site, recording "empty" images of areas targeted for redevelopment and repurposing in the lead up to the Olympics at the moment just after the old built environment has been demolished and just before work on the new one has begun, the detritus of the past a passive rebuke to dreams of future progress:

Ai's images, though much smaller in scale, remind me of Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky's massive and visually stunning photographs of "manufactured" industrial landscapes. As a result of Jennifer Baichwal's award-winning documentary film on the artist, Burtynsky has become famous for his towering portraits of several hallmarks of China's industrial progress, including the Three Gorges Dam. However, An Uneasy Beauty, a solo exhibition of the artist's work that recently opened at the Surrey Art Gallery, also as part of the Cultural Olympiad programming, reminded me that he has documented the visible evidence of our planet's collective consumption and waste at sites much closer to home. The Surrey show features 24 images Burtynsky shot in Western Canada between 1985 and 2007, including compositionally precise photos of oil sand extraction sites at Fort McMurray, Alberta, open-pit mines in northern BC, and the container port of Vancouver. 

Designed and exhibited as a series, the photos trace both the material roots and spectral routes of our dependence on non-renewable energy resources, a global fuel economy that leads from Alberta's oil fields, through Vancouver's port, to the bulldozers, heavy diggers, and forklifts awaiting start up in Ai's photos of Beijing. The human-altered landscapes in Ai's and Burtynsky's photos are likewise linked in that they are devoid of bodies and yet paradoxically demand of their viewing audiences bodily engagement, a sensorially immersive accounting of how we are locally implicated in these "placeless" spaces by the cars we drive, the food we eat, even the entertainment and sporting spectacles we attend. At the same time, both Ai and Burtynsky have separately stated that their work is not meant to be read as an overt judgment, not as political indictments but as performance indicators. In this, Burtynsky's lens, like Ai's, would find a rich resource of subject matter in the venue building sites of any number of recent or future Olympic host cities, including Vancouver and London:

The 2009 PuSh Festival, also the recipient of Vancouver Cultural Olympiad funding, is in full swing. Richard and I have seen three offerings so far:
  1. Five Days in March: a play written and directed by Toshiki Okada and starring a group of talented young performers from Tokyo's chelfitsch Theatre Company. The entire piece is written as narrative exposition; a group of urban hipsters successively recounts and revises a tale of a young man and woman meeting up following a rock concert and spending the next five days have continuous sex in a Tokyo love hotel against the backdrop of the US invasion of Iraq--and the controlled and closely monitored Japanese student protests against the invasion. The story is deliberately inconsequential and slight, the repetition of the scenes as dramatically bathetic as the sex our lovers are having, and one soon realizes it's not all that important to follow the English surtitles. What becomes compelling, then, is watching the performances, in particular the young actors' exaggerated bodily gestures (stretching a leg, tugging at a shirt sleeve, bouncing awkwardly on one foot) as they successively, and mostly affectlessly, add another layer to the story. The movement, which occupies a physical realm somewhere between hyper-kinetic fidgeting and choreographed dance, seems to speak at once to the restless narcissism and aimless irony of this particular generation of Japanese, for whom a spontaneous love affair and a stage-managed war are equally anticlimactic.
  2. while going to a condition/Accumulated Layout: two solo pieces by the Japanese dancer, choreographer, and sound and lighting designer Hiroaki Umeda. Borrowing from butoh and hip hop, Umeda's work begins slowly, marrying small movements (the repeated flick of a wrist, or turn of the head) to percussive bursts of sound and sharp light pulses. Through a steadily more rapid and propulsive process of accumulation, sound, light, and movement increase and merge in intensity, until Umeda is sculpting a fully immersive sensory environment that truly defies description (hence the poverty of my own accounting of his extraordinary performance).
  3. The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac: inaugurating the new Club PuSh, what organizers are calling a festival-within-the-festival (and designed to create a more intimate, cabaret-like performance atmosphere, complete with tables and booze for sale), was New York performance and drag artist Taylor Mac. I confess to being completely oblivious to Mr. Mac's singular talents before last night, but boy am I ever a convert. The show was simply amazing, with Mac combining political satire, autobiographical musings, virtuoso musical numbers and ukulele-playing, heavy doses of camp irony, and of course a fierce sartorial style, to beguile us all about the benefits of sometimes stepping out of the bubble of white light into the darkness, and about what it means to prepare oneself to be surprised. I look forward to exploring more of his work. In the meantime, I leave you with this offering.
Lots more from PuSh is on the horizon, and I hope to be back soon with another report on what I've seen. 


Friday, January 9, 2009

Things Worth Celebrating

The contract for the book has arrived. Hoorah! It will appear with Manchester University Press, in their "Theatre: Theory, Practice, Performance" series either late this year or early next. Before the Olympics, at any rate, I've been assured by my editor. Greatly relieved by this, although it does increase the pressure to finish up final revisions and get the typescript off asap. If only world events would take a time-out and allow me to stop tinkering. It's terribly difficult, despite what Benjamin says, to write a history of the present.

Have I mentioned the title? It's called World Stages, Local Audiences: Essays on Performance, Place, and Politics. You've likely sensed a theme.

Our 2009 PuSh Festival passes have also arrived. We're psyched about the shows we've chosen: new work from Marie Brassard and Ronnie Burkett; dance and experimental theatre from Japan; more dance from Toronto and Cambodia; lots of whacky local work; and late-night cabaret at the new Club PuSh the organizers have set up on Granville Island. Am especially looking forward to catching a show there by dragster extraordinaire Taylor Mac.

On the horizon, there's a show at the Vogue by Antony and the Johnsons to look forward to in February, and before that the (imminent, I believe) release of their new album, The Crying Light. I got to interview Antony Hegarty as part of Susan Stryker's TransSomatechnics Conference at SFU Harbour Centre this past May--an amazing experience, and as an added bonus he serenaded conference participants with a short private solo concert.

While the news on the expected cost overruns for the Olympic Athletes' Village in False Creek gets worse by the day, Mayor Robertson and his new Vision team have so far made some bold decisions that are shaking things up for the better at City Hall. First, Robertson fired City Manager Judy Rogers, who bears a lot of responsibility for the False Creek mess, and who had amassed far too much individual power for an unelected bureaucrat. Next, Vision councillors instituted a new Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) that succeeded in getting more than 300 people off the street and into shelters during the recent cold snap in the city. And, finally, there are signs that the new regime is going to be more responsive to culture and arts infrastructure, reversing a decision of the previous administration, for example, that will allow the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, undergoing a massive LEED-certified renovation of its main performance space (a former church on Venables), to also purchase and renovate a second venue nearby.

Now if only the mayor could do something about getting rid of all of this snow. To be fair, he does seem to have ordered up a rather controlled melt so far. The rains have arrived, but not in the force with which they were first predicted.

In Vancouver, that's always worth celebrating.