Tag: economy

Rumbles In The Barnyard

When WNYC announced the removal of Ai Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads at the Pulitzer Fountain recently, a wave of shock went through me. Was it government-related? Part of some nefarious plot? No, it turns out the time of the Heads was up and they were off to their next destination in Los Angeles.

All good things, it seems, must come to an end, and sometimes those endings aren’t as dramatic as we initially believe them to be.

A week tomorrow, I’m going to be returning to Toronto. The reasons are, I suppose, somewhat dramatic; I’ve a family member undergoing a third round of chemotherapy, and I’ve been unable to secure reliable, paid, full-time employment here in New York. Much as it’s horribly depressing in the most theatrical way, it is also hugely, soothingly logical. Emotionally, I’m pulled between falling into a huge vat of overheated self-pity and rising above it all in the cold, clear knowledge that this could very well be the sort of vision-over-visibility issue I’ve been rattling on about for a while now.
Consequentially, Ai Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads have been on my mind a lot. The first time I saw them was entirely intentional, while the second time I had an appointment locally, and the third was totally by accident. Each time, I observed the people there, laughing, posing for photos, snapping away blithely unaware of the plight of the artist behind the dead-eyed sculptures.
Each head represented an animal in the Chinese zodiac, and seemed to be innocuously bland and possibly, to quote an artsy acquaintance, too blatantly, inoffensively commercial to be rendered artistically interesting. But, in my mind, the placement of the heads said a lot about them, and one’s reaction to them. Sometimes the context in which an artwork is placed is nearly- or just as -important as the work itself, and in this, Zodiac Heads was certainly no exception.
The Pulitzer Fountain isn’t that hard to find -if you know where the Plaza Hotel is. And the world-famous Plaza isn’t hard to find if you know where Fifth Avenue is -that mecca of retail exuberance and commercial worship, that temple to spending and decadence. Emerge from the swirling heat of the New York City subway and you’re confronted with high-end (or wannabe-high-end) stores, tottering divas, ogling tourists, fast-walking assistants, immaculately-suited business men, and over-make-up’d teenagers. Ai Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads was situated at the end of this zoo of humanity, where Central Park starts.

Far from being a simple “retail bad/art good” dialectic, Ai’s work has a whimsical, laughing quality that lives in perfect harmony with its darker undertones. There’s a hollow stare to these animals and their coy expressions; the pig head that was nearest to the Plaza has an eerie grin, while the rabbit head was benign if air-headed, and the strong ox looked dazed and overwhelmed.
Zodiac Heads’ proximity to the retail mecca of Fifth Avenue underlined the transactional nature of the art world, as well as its paradoxically community-building ethos. People who posed with the Heads may not have know who Ai Wei Wei is, but they certainly had fun with the heads – picking out their own animal, or, failing to know that, their own personal favorites. Acting as counterpoint to all this personalizing, the political (not to mention their historical context) can’t be overlooked. China’s economic relationship with the United States gains particular heft in such a commercial environment where transactions -whether in clothing or real estate -are a microcosm of not only trading relationships but of supply, demand, and ideas around credit and… owing.
To what do we owe Ai Wei Wei then? Or the Chinese government for freeing him? Anything? Ai Wei Wei’s recent release made me re-consider my own position as an artist -here in New York, and indeed, back in Canada. What is the definition of “home”? Where do we find ourselves, truly? To whom do we “owe” our freedom? I wonder how Ai’s creativity has been shaped by his captivity in his homeland and how much he’s been able to balance his need for freedom artistically with the rules around his release. When and if he figures it out, I’m sure the results will be spectacular.
Until then, I’ll keep thinking about his Zodiac Heads. Sure, we’re free to figure out “sign,” but it remains to be seen whether that’s a sign in and of itself, or signifying larger connections and relationships, seen and unseen, real and unreal, factual or mythologized -and the nature of those transactions, their value in our lives, the payment they demand, and the freedom they do and don’t grant us. Does it matter? Should it? Some things are choice, others things are necessity; how we negotiate what’s in the middle is what makes us better artists -and human beings. Yes, we have an “animal” side, a side that wants glamour without the payback, fabulous without the bill, excitement without anxiety, success without responsibility. But remembering Zodiac Heads, I want to believe in more, in that ever-changing art of the possible. Now, it’s up to me to me to live it, and figure out my place in the stars -and here, in the barnyard of earth.
Photos taken from my Flickr photostream (lots more Zodiac Heads there!) …

Stimulate The Future, Argues Florida

In a brilliant piece in this weekend’s edition of The Globe and Mail, Richard Florida argues that investment in the arts is an integral part of solving the current economic crisis. As I swallowed down rivers of tea and tried to mind the bad news exploding from every corner, recalled Obama’s past support for the National Endowment for the Arts. All things considered, Florida’s argument makes a wonderful kind of sense:

What drives the economy today is not the old mix of highways and single-family homes but new, idea-driven industries. They range from software, communication devices and biotechnologies to culture and entertainment – and importantly the convergence of the two.

What I love about Florida’s writing is that he isn’t into finger-pointing and blame so much as solutions and ideas. Seems like that’s just what the doctor ordered. Now if only I could figure out a way to stop getting colds.

Hopes Bud; Get dashed. Sort of.

The Federal Budget was released this afternoon. Every television channel and radio station in Canada was covering the announcement; this is a big one for us, because it could mean the fall of the current Conservative government over a vote of non-confidence by opposition parties, if they don’t like what they see. And the dissolution of Parliament could mean an election within months.

So far, there’s been reaction from two of Canada’s opposition parties: the NDP and the Bloc. Verdict for both? Thumbs down to Jim Flaherty et al. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff (leader of the third opposition party) spoke briefly with reporters too; the rise or fall of the Stephen Harper’s Conservatives essentially rests with Ignatieff and the Grits. What did he say? He didn’t. While he likes some elements, he and the party have issues with other things tabled within Flaherty’s report. He’s going to announce the Liberal reaction tomorrow at 11am.

It was with particular interest that I’ve been noting the expectations and hopes centred around the release of today’s budget; in some ways they very much mirror the expectations and hopes surrounding the start of the Obama presidency. Lord knows there are many, many issues at hand right now -the economy being the biggest. But as an arts-lover, I don’t necessarily think art and the economy are at odds. James Bradshaw reported on the connections between the two recently. Arts economy is economy, period. It’s work, it’s money, it’s energy. It seems like Heritage Minister James Moore understands this. There’s been a nice allocation of money ($160 million, in fact) put towards the arts sector. President Obama gets the relationship between the two as well.

But in the same way there’s an inherent connection with arts and economy, there exists the same between the latter and environment. Everything is everything, and it seems like more people are aware of that, even as there are those who cling desperately to the old ways. James Clancy, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees, lays out the intimate connections between environment and economy in a convincing piece on Green Nexxus. He says: “This is the opportunity of our lifetime; to lead the transformation to a stronger economy and a cleaner environment.” I’d add, “and a vibrant arts scene” to that.

Binding everything is our access to share and deseminate information. The Globe and Mail created a Wiki on Public Policy in anticipation of the budget, and it was a neat bit of interaction. CBC and Cisco started One Million Acts of Green back in the fall (encouragingly, they’re seven months ahead of schedule in hitting their target, too). The budget announcement this afternoon featured live blogging by various media. Part of President Obama’s stimulus package includes money for technology. Now that’s forward-thinking… make that present-thinking, and present-embracing. Michael Geist has thoughts about the Conservatives’ allocation of money for technology and comparisons to spending in other countries. It all underlines the ways in which the internet have re-shaped our perceptions and understandings around the most vital issues of the day.

Now, let’s wait to hear what Mr. Ignatieff will say tomorrow morning. I’ll be watching online, and wondering who will be adding voices to the discussion.

A Good Investment

Lovely Peggy

Amidst a day filled with news of job loss, bombings, and gloomy predictions, I found myself meditating over the final scene in Radio Play. Dancer Peggy Baker and actor Michael Healey sit together, on a raised table, their faces nearly touching, their hands joined. It’s the end of a beautiful, poetic journey, and a powerful symbol of connection.

Though I’m not well-versed in modern dance, I found myself entirely entranced with the movement-meets-theatre piece. It asks nothing more than turning off that part of your brain that constantly seeks to understand, to make sense of, to explain. As Marcel Duchamp said, “This desire to understand everything fills me with horror.” Like art, there’s something resoundingly primal about dance -particularly modern dance. One either reacts by shutting down at its confounding nature, or opens up entirely to its instinctual roots. I found myself willingly knocking down my walls of intense rationalism watching Radio Play, frequently relating to the trials and frustrations faced by Marnie (played by Peggy Baker); the changing nature of her relationship with Angus (played by Healey) was equally compelling, and was expressed with brushes of subtlety and grace.

I also found myself connecting some of the issues Radio Play raises -namely the idea around how artists make a living -with yesterday’s layoff of the members of the B.C. Ballet. There is still a predominant attitude, at least in certain circles, that working as an artist doesn’t constitute “real art.” I’d argue that a dancer is every bit as vital to the economy as a Magna employee. And after seeing a piece like Radio Play, I’m more convinced than ever of the importance and vitality of culture in harsh times. It’s only by turning that needling, analytical voice off, and allowing a few subconscious realizations, that one finds any sense of clarity. If you’re in or around Toronto, run -there are only three more performances.

Confusion Reigns

I don’t know what to make of this.

My first feeling is that $100,000 could be so much better-spent inviting Canadian groups to present their works overseas. It would certainly go farther. Artists, last I checked, could barely afford their rent, let alone fancy hotels or European jaunts.

However, my second instinct says Canada’s Governor-General is a really good ambassador to sell Canada’s cultural industry abroad. It’s part of her function, and it’s good to have a smart, accomlished, classy figure like Michaelle Jean as the public face of this country internationally.

In stark contrast to those who feel that $100,000 is too much money to be wasting in these economic times, I point you to a certain politician’s platform on the arts, and his stance on the importance of promoting them amidst harsh economic times.

Not only is arts education indispensable for success in a rapidly changing, high skill, information economy, but studies show that arts education raises test scores in other subject areas as well.

As Russell Smith pointed out last week, it’s precisely in such times that people turn to the arts. The 50,000+ who lined up in the cold to get a peek at the new Art Gallery of Ontario this past weekend are proof positive that art matters to people -all people, not just some of them.

Oh, and it makes a whack of dough too. I’m just not sure Mme. Jean’s overseas visit is the best way to use our resources right now. Considering the Conservatives are all about fiscal prudence, it seems like a bit of a waste not to consult the arts community about what they want first. Surely they could be of help in advising on matters like cultural diplomacy? Hmmm. Considering the resourcefulness of this country’s artists, it seems like a pity they weren’t consulted.

If You Want Something Done…

Over at the wonderful theatre blog cleverly titled Tynan’s Anger, the idea of the intersection between art and commerce is examined, specifically through the lens of theatrical production. Ethan, the blog’s author, writes:

If you’re in theater, even using the term “commodity” in referring to theater will make you cringe. Yet, the fact that this cringe is nearly universal is a unique thing to theater, in terms of business and even in terms of the arts.

Maybe this is the problem the arts in Canada have: people who stomp about decrying the wasteful spending of their tax dollars see artists turning away from commercial models, from things like Dirty Dancing, Jersey Boys, and The Sound of Music. Sure, on one level, it’s apples and oranges comparing those sorts of shows to, say, something from Passe Muraille or the Tarragon or even Soulpepper, but still, those inside the arts community -not all, mind, but some -turn up their noses, and, to quote Jeremy Kushnier (who’s in Jersey Boys), regard musicals as the dirty cousin of the stage. Hello, unity?

Without getting into an argument about what constitutes either culture or commodity, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised at the amount of shock coming from artists over the cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery. Is it really that surprising? Culture is not on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s priority list. Right or wrong, like it or lump it, it isn’t there. Period. That isn’t going to change.

Ergo, the onus is on us to promote our work in unorthodox, inventive ways. This is an opportunity. It means more than ever, arts companies -including theatre companies, of course -need to be more aggressive than ever to get the word out there -about who they are, what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. To quote an arts journalist friend who has covered this issue extensively, most voters who object to public funding of arts projects have a/ little to no idea of funding structures, and b/ are unaware that funding is less than half of the total operating budget of any project or company.

What does this mean? See above.

To quote Ethan again, “most theater people are introverts” -but it’s time we came out of our collective safety shell of our familiar community and started courting those people coming out of the Royal Alex. Call me naive, but I think it’s worth a shot, particularly since culture isn’t about to be promoted by our own government anytime soon. Just as I refuse to bitch and whine about the arts’ collective victimization in this country, I refuse to believe all hope is lost. It isn’t. Let’s go.

Politics. Economy. Art.

One of my favourite pastimes is pouring over the weekend papers amidst steaming cups of tea, with Go or Michael Enright on in the background, nibbling away on bits of toast, egg, bacon or waffles. It was with great interest and more than a little sadness that I read the story of Zakariya Zubeidi in Saturday’s edition of The Globe and Mail:

It was the hardest decision of Zakariya Zubeidi’s life. Slightly more than a year ago, the powerful commander of Jenin’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, one of Israel’s most-wanted for plotting shooting attacks and suicide bombings, walked into a Palestinian security office and handed in his gun.

At 32, he had concluded bitterly that his fight had failed. And he had another ambition: to deter this poverty-stricken camp’s children away from the path of violence by rebuilding a children’s theatre destroyed in the last intifada.

Offered, along with other gunmen, a rare amnesty from Israel, he spent time in a Palestinian jail and swore to remain unarmed. On his release, he pledged to dedicate his time to the Freedom Theatre’s workshops and performances, trying to recreate his own boyhood experiences in drama thanks to the work of a Jewish-Israeli peace activist.

But today his past has caught up with him, illustrating the difficulty of starting a new life after one of violence. The theatre, now thriving under the direction of the original founder’s son, does not want him there for fear that he will scare off much-needed foreign donors in the theatre’s quest to expand.

I wonder if anyone in the Canadian theatre world could imagine this happening. We all understand the importance of keeping benefactors happy, and resorting to sometimes-questionable measures to keep its members happy. Juliano Mer Khamis’ has a point about fearing Zubeidi’s association with the theatre; it may truly harm their reputation, their chances of fundraising, and indeed, their physical safety. Still, to isolate someone whose whole being seems so entirely bound up with theatre feels… horribly sad. Isn’t part of art’s purpose to enlighten? Even re-reading it now, the story puts the role and significance of theatre –and its relationship to politics -in a whole new light.

At a time when artists need to stick together, cultivate community and spread awareness, it’s heartbreaking to see possibilities being ripped asunder by politics and nationalism. I don’t know what kind of a suggestion to offer here, but I’m so grateful to the Globe for publishing this story. Yet another example of how art impacts life, and life impacts art.

In that vein, it was with great interest that I read Mark Vallen’s blog this morning about the impact the global recession could have on the livelihoods and outputs of visual artists. While it’s tempting to tut-tut at art’s role in harsh economic times, it’s equally apt to suppose that (to twist a phrase) “art is the mother of necessity.” History would seem to bear out the fact that harsh economic reality tends to yield some wonderful stuff –and that stuff, whether it takes the form of painting, sculpture, performance, writing or otherwise, is a reflection, examination, and exploration of the economic reality we all face.

Hardship knows no bounds; conversely, its unbound nature allows its expression in many creative outlets. And there’s something reassuring about that.

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