Saturday, July 31, 2010

Active Participation

Robert "Willy" Pickton is likely to stay behind bars for the rest of his life. Yesterday the Supreme Court of Canada rejected the appeal of his 2007 conviction in the murders of six women missing from Vancouver's Downtown East Side.

Pickton's defence lawyers had argued that BC Supreme Court Judge James Williams had erred in instructing the jury, seeking clarification during their deliberations, that they could find Pickton guilty of murder if they agreed he had "actively participated" in the killings--thereby implying Pickton did not act alone. This, Pickton's lawyers said, contradicted a previous statement by Williams to the jury that said in finding the Coquitlam pig farmer guilty they must determine that he was "solely responsible" for the women's deaths.

In June 2009, in a 2-1 decision, the BC Court of Appeal agreed that Williams had erred in his final instructions to the jury, but that those mistakes were not serious enough to merit another trial. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed, meaning that Pickton's legal avenues are exhausted and that the Crown will not reopen the cases of 20 more missing women whose murders Pickton had been charged with, charges that were stayed upon Williams issuing Pickton in 2007 six consecutive life sentences.

But there are more than 20 other women missing from the Downtown East Side whom Pickton himself is alleged to have boasted killing. And 20 more who still remain unaccounted for by the Missing Women's Task Force. Which, by the way, is still active.

As it should remain, especially after years of willful inaction on the part of various institutional state apparatuses in seeking answers not just to where these women are, but why they went missing in the first place.


Thursday, July 15, 2010


The hand of government that taketh away also now giveth, it would seem.

Having denied long established arts and cultural festivals in the province much-needed gaming funding, the Minister of Tourism, Culture, and the Arts, Kevin Krueger, has just announced a three-year, $30 million fund to stage BC "Spirit Festivals" across the province starting next February.

The idea is to tap into and reanimate the residual good feeling from the 2010 Olympics (about which I talked in a previous post) and, according to Krueger, to help cultural organizations across the province get a leg-up in their funding. You can read the details here.

Never mind that it was the government that slashed that funding in the first place. Or that this new fund--and its "inspiriting" mandate--is yet another disturbing incursion by the Liberals into the cultural programming of arts institutions in BC.

Why some festivals in the province are denied sustainable funding and told to fend for themselves and others (as yet to be chosen) merit infusions of cash as long as they can somehow rekindle our lost Olympic mojo has yet to be explained by Minister Krueger.

To paraphrase Kurt Cobain, this exercise in spirit-making certainly smells like something.


Monday, July 12, 2010

This is the Way the World Cup Ends

Not with a bang, certainly. And hardly even a whimper. But with plenty of yellow cards--a record 13 to be exact.

The beautiful game didn't look so comely yesterday afternoon, especially on the Dutch side. Scoreless matches can be tense, exciting affairs, showcasing brilliant defending and great goalkeeping. But in this case I imagine the vuvuzelas were being blown more out of frustration than anything else. As the tackles and fouls and stoppages piled up, things went from scrappy to just plain ugly.

As it turned out, we were in a rented convertible on the Alex Fraser Bridge, on our way to a family barbecue in North Delta when Spanish midfielder Iniestia (the man of the match, to be sure) scored the winning goal in the last minutes of the second extra time. Richard's 91-year-old mother, who was with us, and who was fulminating along with the BBC announcers about what a poor game it was, let out a whoop, praising the soccer heavens that we didn't have to go to penalty kicks, and insisting that Richard toot his horn all the way to his brother's house.

That moment made the previous inglorious 115 all worth it, and is while I'll be back watching the tournament in four years--hopefully alongside the irrepressible Nellie.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Were They Worth It?

So the numbers are in, and apparently the little wingding Vancouver threw for the world this past February cost close to $1 billion--$925 million, to be exact. That is, if you go by the government's internal accounting--which is, shall we say, rather creative.

Gary Mason, in the Globe, thinks all of this was a small price to pay for the pride and confidence and overall warm, fuzzy feeling Vancouverites have been left with as a result of the Olympics.

Vaughn Palmer, in the Sun, is a bit more sober in his assessment of the figures, wondering how Finance Minister Colin Hansen can get away with saying that the $325 million extra on top of the $600 million the BC Liberals (and Premier Campbell, in particular) kept repeating the Games would cost doesn't represent an overrun of 50%.

Apparently because that $600 million, according to Hansen, was just for a specific list of projects. And none of those projects, nor any of those covered by the additional $325 million taxpayers are on the hook for, includes the Canada Line from YVR to downtown ($2 billion extra), the new convention centre ($900 million extra), or the expansion of the Sea-to-Sky Highway ($800 million extra).

Indeed, if the government were honest, and factored in all Olympics-related costs, we're looking at a price-tag of at least $5-6 billion--and that's a conservative estimate.

But then this government is not honest. Witness the HST. And as anyone working in the arts in this province well knows, there definitely won't be any attempt to connect the dots between Olympic cost overruns and the decimation of funding to cultural industries and social programs.

That would require the sort of audit Mr. Hansen is unprepared to authorize.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Beyond the Status Quo

The 22nd edition of the Dancing on the Edge Festival got off to a flying start (quite literally) last night at the Firehall Arts Centre, first with Byron Chief-Moon's Essence of Life, his dance-media reinterpretation of the Blackfoot Sun-dance ceremony, and then with Amber Funk Barton and Shay Kuebler's return presentation of Status Quo (see photo above), a high-octane, high-altitude surfing/surfeit of gravity-defying movement and thumping music.

It's always intoxicating to see Barton and Kuebler--joined here by Kuebler's fellow 605 Collective member Josh Martin, and Manuel Sorge--launch themselves horizontally through the air, and the kinesthetic energy pulsing through the audience was palpable. However, I think I've had enough of the jerky convulsions and spastic gasps of air that often accompany their work. These young and immensely talented dancers certainly have a distinct and urban/hip-hop inspired aesthetic. Now I think it's time to change things up a bit, which was ostensibly the motive behind the two solos by Kuebler and Barton that preceded the quartet. In this regard, I think Kuebler's was the more successful of the two.

In her opening remarks, Firehall Artistic Director and DOTE Producer Donna Spencer mentioned that they were selling raffle tickets (at $20 a piece) to make up a shortfall in funding due to the BC Government's cuts to gaming fund allocations to the arts (and festivals like DOTE, in particular). I bought two, and I encourage other patrons to dig into their pockets and do the same. We want this Vancouver dance institution to stick around for another 22 years.

Next up for us on the program is the Vancouver premiere of German choreographer Thomas Lehman's Schriebstück at the Dance Centre on Saturday. Looking forward to what promises to be a fascinating experiment.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Should They Stay, or Should They Go?

Last night at Robson Square, Kathleen Bartels, Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, convened a public information session and discussion on the Gallery's proposed relocation from its current site on Robson Street, between Howe and Hornby, to the former bus depot six blocks east, between Cambie and Beatty streets.

On a panel chaired by Michael Goldberg, professor of business at UBC (whose Sauder School occupies the basement of Robson Square, where we were meeting, and which no doubt is eying a potentially vacant space upstairs for possible expansion), we heard depositions from the following distinguished persons:

1. Michael Audain: CEO of Polygon Homes, arts philanthropist extraordinaire, VAG Board Member and Chair of its Relocation Committee, whose case for why the VAG should move was initially a little vague (we need an education centre and an outdoor space to display sculpture), why the current site was a no-go even vaguer, and who all-in-all just isn't the best public speaker.

2. Ray Spaxman: Vancouver's Chief City Planner from 1973-89, now an independent urban design consultant, who said that in order for this project to succeed the VAG had to be as transparent as possible in its presentations to and consultations with the public, and that above all there needed to be a comprehensive independent and unbiased review of the pros and cons of relocation. Much talk was made of this being the public's art gallery, that the works in its collection were held in trust for the people of Vancouver. But, as Spaxman suggested (and as several questioners later pointed out), the VAG has so far done a poor job consulting the public on the move, and engaging them in an open debate on its merits. Instead, it has presented the relocation (and above all the bus depot site) as a fait accompli, and has asked us to get on side.

Spaxman made another very compelling point: he noted city representatives' absence at the forum and said that, really, it should be the City leading this conversation. The City should be taking charge of what kind of art gallery Vancouver wants, and where it wants it, instead of the Gallery lobbying its patrons to lobby in turn elected officials to agree to hand over the desired plot of land the Gallery has chosen.

3. Mark Soo: a local artist (whose work Richard and I in fact own) included in the Gallery's collection, and who reminded us that the artwork should always be at the centre of these debates, and that the Gallery had a responsibility and obligation to display its permanent collection to the citizens of Vancouver (something it cannot do effectively at its current site).

4. Stanley Kwok: developer, buddy to Li Ka-shing, and major Concord Pacific player, who made the point that when people travel to major cities around the world, art galleries and museums are often first on their itineraries. In order to brand itself like Bilbao, according to Kwok, Vancouver needs to create a "masterpiece" of a new gallery, which means holding an international architectural competition and commissioning a bold design by a bold designer--something Bartels very much wants to do.

5. Hank Bull: legendary Western Front founder and current Centre A Director, who reminded us that Vancouver is a very young city, and that this presented us with opportunities that other cities didn't have, especially in terms of the (un)built environment. Despite the "For Rent" sign in his own gallery's window, Bull remains very optimistic for the future of arts and culture in Vancouver, and supports the Gallery's relocation, with the proviso that as part of that conversation there is included discussion of what happens to the VAG's current site post relocation, that something equally visionary occur with respect to who gets to occupy the old courthouse space (Bull's suggestion, a very good one, was that a new institution for the display of classical and contemporary Asian art be set up there).

This last point was picked up in the Q&A discussion that followed, with many in the audience worrying about the flight of cultural institutions from the downtown core, and while I'm willing to be convinced that expansion and conversion of the current VAG is impossible and too expensive, I'm equally anxious about what happens after the VAG leaves. To this end, I'm reminded of what happened when the central branch of the VPL moved east from Robson and Burrard to Robson and Hamilton, near to where the VAG now wants to go. Not only did it give us--through a major design competition of the sort Kwok is in favour of--a questionable new grand building in the form of an ersatz Coliseum, but it also lead to the ruin of what was once a beautiful modernist building--and I'm not just referring to the fact that HMV now occupies the premises. If some cultural presence is not maintained in the old courthouse space, then the commercialization of Robson west of Granville will be complete and what is at present the closest the city has to a central public square will be abandoned wholesale to the spectacle of consumerism.

Interestingly, in her opening remarks Bartels concluded by saying that she envisioned the new VAG at the bus depot site as being a "town square for the 21st Century." This theme was picked up on in the discussion by a number of relocation supporters on the panel and in the audience (the first few people to speak at the microphones were all former or current VAG Board members), many of whom made the point that the centre of the city is moving east, and that a new VAG, positioned adjacent the VPL, the Queen E, and the Playhouse, would be at the heart of a vibrant new cultural zone that would shift the axis of the city (indeed, this is the theme of an op-ed by Goldberg recently published in the Vancouver Sun).

However, many of the comments from at present skeptical observers of the VAG's conversations on relocation subsequently expressed concern about the former bus depot site as the de facto choice for a new building. Why has the Gallery put all its eggs in one basket in settling on this site, and why hasn't it revealed what--or even whether--other options were considered?

It also bears remembering that a VAG relocated to Beatty and Dunsmuir is also adjacent the Downtown East Side, an area of the city that was not mentioned once last night. In addition to doing a poor job of communicating to the public--and the City, for that matter--any sense of a vision of what a new Gallery in the east might have as its mission, I have yet to hear any reassurance that a relocated VAG wouldn't be used as a further gentrifying agent in the DTES or, worse still, as effectively a cultural cordon sanitaire between the DTES and the rest of the downtown core.

I want to hear someone address some of these issues, as well as reassure me that whatever design is chosen for a new gallery that it's one that serves the art rather than the architect, and then maybe I'll get on board.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Objecthood of Chairs

Okay, it somehow seems more real now that we have our funding in place, dates more or less booked, and even a poster template courtesy Rob K (see above). So I’m gonna go ahead and tempt fate and talk about this play I’ve written that will have its premiere at SFU Woodward’s this September.

It’s called The Objecthood of Chairs, and it’s a physical/dance-theatre piece about the romance between two men, as told through Western culture’s historical romance with chairs. We follow the men as they meet, move in together, and eventually part as the result of a freak accident that leaves one of the men in a wheelchair and the other wracked with guilt. Along the way, and in a largely presentational style, we are provided various “object” lessons in: modernist chair design; Shaker asceticism; the revolution in sociability and sexuality inaugurated by the Thonet café chair; the inherent cruelty of childhood games of musical chairs; and Buddhist sitting practices. In this way, the men communicate to the audience what they cannot say to each other about the necessary loss of autonomy that comes with asking for, and offering, unconditional support. The text draws on architectural theory and art history, industrial design and neurophysiology, poetry and pop culture to think through the relationships and resistances between bodies—and objects—as they move through space.

However, the text I’ve written is really only the starting point for a larger interdisciplinary collaboration with much more talented colleagues from SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, in which we’re investigating intersections between scripted and devised processes of dance-theatre composition, and exploring the complementary integration not just of text and movement, but also dramaturgy, video, music, and design. As such, the theory of movement articulated by the script is being transformed and supplemented in thoroughly amazing ways by Rob Kitsos’ original choreography, Rob Groeneboer’s film, video, and image sequences, Martin Gotfrit’s musical composition, Barry Hegland’s lighting design, and DD Kugler’s direction and dramaturgy. Not to mention by the contributions of our performers, Victor Mariano and Justin Reist, a professionally trained actor and dancer, respectively (and SCA alums), who are making bold forays into each other’s disciplines. And then there are all the current SCA students working behind the scenes: as costume designer; stage manager; assistant stage manager; film production assistants; editor; video effects coordinator; etc.

We’ve been workshopping the piece since January, and no matter how the final product turns out, already it’s been an amazing process to see how the various component parts are coming together: how an independently choreographed sequence by Rob K gets married with a section of text to reveal something new about both the words and the movement; how both words and movement are transformed yet again by Martin’s free-form improvising on his electric guitar in the rehearsal studio; how a cinematic vision of independently moving chairs inside Rob G’s head gets worked through on a bare film soundstage downtown; and how lines I thought clunky or flat on the page come alive through Kugler’s coaxing of different readings and inflections and physical exchanges from Vic and Justin.

The boys will be completely off book this Thursday. Most of Rob G’s film sequences have been shot, and Rob K has set something like 10 or 11 separate movement sequences. We start intensive rehearsals in August, with an opening set for September 8th. Exact dates and ticket information still have to be confirmed, so stay tuned for further details.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

World Expos, World Cups, and Wolf Parade

On what has to be one of the coldest, most overcast Canada Day long weekends in Vancouver in recent memory, I've had Wolf Parade's new album, Expo 86, on repeat as I've contemplated the fallout over the mass arrests in the police state that became Toronto during the G20 (can't these leaders just Skype, for shit's sake?!); marveled at the Queen's fashion forwardness (you go with those hats, girlfriend!); and of course watched Dunga and Diego fall on their own swords following the double calamity of Brazil's and Argentina's respective losses at the World Cup (did everyone see the jive Angela Merkel did when Germany won?).

It was in 1986, in Mexico, that Canada fielded its first--and only--World Cup team. They lost all three of their round-robin games while failing to score a single goal. Another thing, along with my weak ankles and lame beer ads, I like to insist hockey take the blame for.

But who in Vancouver was actually paying attention to what was happening on the pitch in Mexico in 1986? How could that compete with images of Charles and Di greeting Expo Ernie? With the UFO H₂O water park? With the floating McBarge? With, goddamit, the unveiling of that giant hockey stick? Where, indeed, would Vancouver be today without Bill Bennett's chutzpah, Jimmy Pattison's vision, Grace McCarthy's hair?

Coincidentally, another World Expo is taking place on the other side of the Pacific right now, and we all should be paying attention to what's going on in Shanghai, as with this spectacle--on which the Chinese government has lavished far more money than the Beijing Olympics--the world's most populous country is saying not just to G20 leaders, but to the entire globe, we control much more than your collective debt. Ironically, in banishing Michaëlle Jean to Shanghai during the Queen's visit to Canada (a deliberate and coordinated plan according to Michel Cormier on the CBC), Stephen Harper has actually given the outgoing Governor General a major international platform to promote the historical ties between Canada and China. By all accounts she is doing so superbly. And given the choice of the heat and humidity of Shanghai or the heat and humidity (and blackflies) of Winnipeg, where would you rather be?

I'd take either--heat or humidity, that is--right now.

Go Uruguay!