Tag: online

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone And Together

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Igor Levit classical music performance series empty hall

Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

Berlin Philharmonic concert empty hall Philharmonie performance classical conductor orchestra music live

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Nagy Muller opera classical music performance series empty hall

Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

sea shore rocks sky blue scene clouds

Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

bread baking homemade kitchen aroma warm bake oven

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

Personal Essay: “She Had A Choice”

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum Berlin)

Today’s news about Placido Domingo was shocking to some and not to others. I spent much of the day pouring over various reactions, curious to take the temperature of the online classical world. What was and is most striking throughout various forums I read has been the divisive nature of the comments, sharply moving between “finally” and “bunch of lying opportunists.” Addressing this in writing offers a rumination on something I’ve not commented on very much publicly. I’m not one to shriek about anything on social media (those who know me know I do that enough in-person over anything I feel strongly about), but with news of one of the most famous living opera figures being accused of sexual harassment, the time feels nigh, and so.

I met Placido Domingo as a wide-eyed child who was pulled out of school to attend a record store one blustery Toronto afternoon. My mother smiled graciously when it came to be our turn. I only later understood the looks exchanged between the tenor and my starstruck (if very beautiful) mother. He told me to “study hard” and off we went. Years later my mother and I would watch Three Tenors concerts now and again, and after her passing, I got to see Domingo myself, in a concert version of Thais at the Salzburg Festival, and later in Macbeth at LA Opera. In any business the reality of transaction is part of overall functionality; scratch my back, I scratch yours. Within the arts world there exists, with equal if not greater presence, a spirit of what I’d call relationality, where the bonds of positive relationships power much of what is experienced within a live performance, in opera or in concert. Those relationships are, quite often, sacred things, creating webs-within-webs of connectivity between artists, administrators, musicians, designers, directors, managers, dramaturgs, répétiteurs, and the many, many others who help to make classical things happen. Transactionality, and more vitally, relationality, create a frequent blurring between art and life, a blur which often manifests itself in some of the most magical and unexpected ways, but within that world, there are barriers people (professionals, that is) know not to cross. Others – those in positions of power – step over the lines without a second thought; they know they can. Power affirms a feeling of impunity, entitles poor behaviour, highlights narcissism. When your norm is applause and adoration, you don’t care about blurring lines, because the rules don’t apply. This, of course, is where abuse happens.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

Those who’ve been shrieking about opportunistic ingenues tend to point directly at Instagram as evidence of their claims, and while one might suspect any number of young artists would happily go to some effort to meet such powerful (and obviously useful) men, in this age of carefully curated selfies and meticulously groomed feeds, yes, sex sells, and always has; the classical world is not immune. (In working on a story about Instagram and opera last year, one friend commented that the platform has become “one giant competition to see which ingenue can pout the hardest –never mind the singing.”) It could be reasonably said that young women in the arts are more empowered than ever when it comes to presenting the image they wish the world to see; there are others who claim they’ve experienced instances of ingenues coming on to those in power (directors, conductors, major leads). I would argue such instances are perfect examples of women feeling they need to play into a male-gaze game for professional advancement. But, you may say, isn’t that how the world works? My question is, why should it have to be in 2019?

In my own younger days, I was agog at any attention from men whose work I enjoyed; they were indeed gods to me. (One of Domingo’s accusers speaks of him in similar terms.) Yes, it’s dangerous to put people on pedestals, but it happens with predictable regularity in the arts world, and it can be hard to see our heroes as fallible beings who are capable of screw-ups, let-downs, and generally terrible behaviour. When I was the receiving end of some flirtation by a famous man in my 20s, I remember being flattered, stunned, bewildered (“he’s paying attention to little old me?!“) – it was a sort of high I didn’t want to come down from. I did not possess the maturity or self-confidence to be able to discern whether or not such attentions were appropriate or sincere; I only knew it was exciting, addictive, and good at quelling the blizzard of negative inner voices, all of them crying for validation. If such validation happened to be coming from the object of worship… what better thing? I felt I was getting ahead; I felt, as a twenty-something stuck in a series of dead-end jobs, I was finally progressing. I felt the true me was being heard, seen, accepted, celebrated.  Of course, it wasn’t the “true me” at all that was being recognized but the part handy to the powerful man. I gave away a version of myself, quickly and freely, in exchange for the validation I thought I needed, the feeling of advancement conflated with acceptance and affection with equal determination.

Altes Museum, Berlin, sculpture, naked, couple, man, woman, sex, face, stone, art

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Altes Museum, Berlin)

It’s tough when the only arena in which you might hope to experience intimacy (or its fantasy-laden pastiche) is a transactional one. Some powerful men will, quite purposefully, sing a siren’s song to one’s doubting inner voices, a song that promises success, wholeness, joy, that says “I can give you all this…“. Attention, flirtation, the promise of success: narcotics for a young woman with a shaky sense of both herself and her worth. It’s hard to say “no” to all of that. It’s hard to say “no” to someone you idolize, who is powerful, who says he’ll help you, who convinces you that he thinks you’re talented and sexy and brilliant. It’s hard to say “no” to the attentions of a powerful man when you, as a young woman in a far less advantageous position, feel you need those attentions, and you need to accept them to climb the ladder of success. You don’t recognize you’re being groomed because you don’t have the tools for that, much less to refuse and walk away. And even if you do recognize the predatory nature of the attention, what “choice” do you actually have? Would it be right to call it “consent”?

The use of that word has been widespread in today’s online discussions. I take particular issue with its misuse because it begs the question: from which environment — mental, emotional, intellectual, societal — does that consent arise? From which vantage point? From whose history? From which influences? A woman’s history with that word, and its power in her life (to say nothing of the culture in which she was raised), may have taught her to think of it in ways that are the precise opposite of its true meaning and lived application, thus leading to a deep internalization of patriarchal notions of power – who holds it, why, how. So I ask again: whose consent? In what spirit was such consent made and given? Was it even a conscious decision, made with the full faculties of reason, rationality, maturity, and experience? “Consent is consent!” some may argue, “Stop twisting things!”

lucke grimace

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collectiion Bode-Museum, Berlin)

But the situation itself is twisted, because current ideas of who holds power and why have been internalized to the point of a total blindness that does not and literally cannot allow for empathy (which extends to much of the current political discourse as well). The perception of what true consent actually is, in and of one’s self, is (and was) a ridiculously complicated (though it shouldn’t be) matter when one is starting out in a notoriously difficult industry which, in itself, is adverse to change and evolution. A woman may be “consenting” because she feels there’s no other path. She may be “consenting” because she truly believes this is just how things are done, and have been done, in the industry. She may “consent” because she was raised in a culture that says men are always horny, always the boss, and always have more power than you. She may be “consenting” because the idea of courting rejection from someone she idolizes is too painful to bear, her sense of self being so closely tied up and twisted with the person she’s presented – and it may well be career suicide to say “no.” From what I’ve read today there are a number of people who simply don’t comprehend the vast power of someone like Placido Domingo – though there are just as many who do; there isn’t real “choice” in dealing with someone who has sat so high, for so long, on the throne of his own classical kingdom. Failure to recognize this constitutes the worst form of ignorance, willful or not. The exercise of choice within such a context is illusory at best. A powerful man can sometimes be very clear about the sex-in-exchange-for-opportunities thing, and so a young woman’s choice (so-called) between offering sexual favors to ascend professionally, and not having any professional opportunities at all, is hardly a climate in which any human should be expected to operate. It certainly isn’t one in which the notions of choice and consent can be freely exercised.

Bode-Museum, Berlin, della Robbia, face, art, painting, fresco, round, circle, doubt, expression

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

I want to believe that human evolution is moving far past a place where sexual transactionality within the classical industry is perceived as normal and fine and even (good grief) empowering for women. I believe serious damage – creative, emotional, spiritual – is being wrought through the perpetuation of a casting-couch culture, a damage only felt decades down the line, as women face the fallout of their perceived choices, ones made for reasons wholly unconnected with true advancement. New worlds are opening up as more people feel emboldened to come forwards and say: I don’t accept this as our system. This is not the key we should play in; this is not the aria we should continue to sing. This tempo stinks; let’s rewrite the whole thing together.

It takes a lot, to risk saying this in public, much less living it –to risk being perceived as a flake, a golddigger, a finger-wagger, an apologist, a malicious figure of angry embitterment. One must continually acknowledge that we operate within a system that’s been set up with the most strict and narrow conventions (of race, sex, opportunity), but we love the classical arts enough to push for change. It is a risk, and  areward, to be truly heard, seen, recognized, accepted for who one is, without the thousand masks we wield on a daily basis to please our respective audiences. To the ladies who spoke up: thank you, and encore.

Counting From One To Ten (But Not In That Order)

books collage mine

#7BooksILove (Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

#HBD is probably the most common hashtag I use online. I use it to mark birthdays of artists, musicians, poets, and others whose work I admire. Overall though, online trends are not things I tend to engage in. I know about them, working for myself and needing to be aware of what’s popular when, but rare is the moment when I feel inspired to partake, partly out of a fierce desire to protect my non-online life , partly because the trend will fall a little too far outside my interests; also, my style simply doesn’t fit the compact style social media promotes. (My #SaturdayThoughts are here, and they are more than 280 characters.)

The pullback in personal online shares has been gradual if needed; I tend to agree with a blunt assessment on the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter triumvirate made to me last year, that their nature is essentially “vampiric.” I will only add that one can play the vampire as much as the victim here, and I have certainly drunk more than my fair share of digital blood, in the form of music, movies, history, and art, as well as an unfettered love of Mariella Frostrup columnsBBC Food, and cat pages. (A million thanks to Curious Zelda.) Curation — of what I share, what I imbibe, how I do both, when, and in what spirit — matters, and is largely a private matter.

nigella favorite books

#7BooksILove Day 3/7. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

So I surprised myself in choosing to partake in a recent revelation of favorite books on Twitter. Nominated by Washington Post classical journalist Anne Midgette with #7BooksILove, I shared a variety of titles from different points in my life, with no explanations and no respective personal histories. (A similar nomination took place on Facebook a while ago with music albums, and I am still mulling participation; my Instagram is full of record covers, after all. ) The photos are not perfect; I don’t care. For those wondering, “why all the legs? Don’t you ever wear pants?!” — again, the answer is spontaneity; I grabbed a book, flopped on a chair, and took the photo. (Also I largely favor dresses in my wardrobe; for days off, large shirts.) The pose was semi-planned (you have to see the covers somehow) but also intended as a simple reflection of my life and ethos — one integrating curiosity, intellect, sensuality, the vividness of living. This vividness is something I admit to currently finding difficulty in keeping and cultivating lately, perhaps an important reminder to myself, that amidst so many changes and challenges of late, it’s important to keep (nay, cultivate) the parts of my identity where beauty, wonder, and the ever-present sensuality so central to my life and being can eat, drink, dance, and also stop, embrace, and inhale, free and unencumbered.— well, as free as I choose to be online, that is, in my big shirt, on my big fancy chair, feet up.

Doing this list was ultimately a useful cosmic reminder of  accepting what was and what is, a notion applicable to method as much as to content; it took more than seven days to complete this task. It was once said about director Francis Ford Coppola that “he can count from one to ten, but not in that order.” I relate to a similarly scattershot, non-linear, non-conventional thinking and approach to living. In learning to navigate a life free from maternal influence and its concomitant harsh judgement, it is liberating to give one’s self permission to explore the unorthodox person within (the artist? I wonder this), a figure who forced into the shadows for so long. In my teaching life, lessons do go from A to B to C as they must, but they might incorporate A flat, C sharp, diminished fifth, dominant seventh (and so on) along the way, and my students might tell you (I hope?) it makes for a rather less dry learning experience. Explorations across the digital realm (and that includes my professional writing work) move in similar ways — the greatest difficulty has been in sustaining the tone. Ah, the ever-present digitally-inspired attention deficit; combine it with the weighty responsibilities and ever-expanding anxieties of older age, and one is sometimes left with impatience instead of enlightenment , impotence in place of inspiration — cracked eggs over Kandinsky, you might say. The course of any serious study requires diligence, dedication, and concentration, even (or especially) voyages within the creative realm. Clarity can emerge from chaos, but that chaos has its own kind of order and definition and schedule that can (and probably should) change with every experience.

books mine

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That shouldn’t mean leaving spontaneity by the wayside, however. As I wrote, the photos of the books were done spontaneously, and the choices made as to which books I’d share was equally unplanned. Still, I admit relishing the mystery folded into this entire process: Here’s a little slice of my life; no, I’m not telling you more; here’s a bit of me but no more than that, hurrah! There is a great value and power to mystery, particularly in this reveal-all, tell-all age, which leaves little if anything to the imagination — notably when it comes to the lives of women. I am aware of this reality, and have learned to deal with it in different ways since my first posts on social media more than a decade ago. A mix of spontaneity and mystery seems like the best recipe I can muster when dealing with the sometimes welcome, sometimes-unwelcome nature of the digital realm. You can hit “delete” in your online life, but technology has a memory; there’s a reason the word “branding” has become so popular. Similarly, there’s no “delete” button in life. The consequences of choice can be dire, but they can also be surprising, strange, beautiful. Sometimes it’s worth the effort and the inevitable mess to apply a pure color, to scrape it off, to reveal something entirely new; to take away a note, to add a pause, to leave unsaid what escapes mere language —  each act a mystery, a prayer, a stab at grace. There are no hashtags for such moments; there is only the beautiful silence unfolding between the bleeps and bloops of new, unfolding life.

Sashay, Art, Eh

One of the many things I learned reading Patti Smith’s beautiful memoir Just Kids was that she loved Vogue Magazine as a child. Patti, the (I had supposed) anti-fashion poet? Trying to categorize her is impossible, and, I realize (as with many of the women I admire), that’s just how she likes it. Appearing on the cover of her first album in a man’s shirt (which she got, natch, from the Sally Anne) and rocking a strong, sexy, androgynous look ever since, Smith is one of those figures who stops me in my tracks on many levels, including how I think about fashion.

I had a conversation with a journalist-friend recently about the connections between culture and fashion, how one feeds into and is frequently informed by the other, but how frustrating it is that followers of each so rarely cross into other worlds. Save for the Gaga/Madonna/McQueen/Bjork/Warhol / Jacobs / Murakami types who a/ are super-rich b/ super well-known, and b/ don’t seem to care about categorization (in a more flamboyant if no less effective way than Patti), each world lives in a separate, distinct fifedom of fabulous, heady, arty, blissful ignorance. And that doesn’t seem right. Creative = Creative. And opportunities need to be created to foster that sense of the grandly creative and visionary -in any medium – and to properly to nurture and promote it. Enter Ukamaku.

My visit to the head office of the Canadian online fashion site inspired on various levels; partly because it was exciting to meet the people sewing/making the items -I consider them artists in their own right -and partly because, the way the items were displayed, it was, to my eyes, a mini-gallery of ideas and influences, the way any good exhibition is. And Ukamaku’s office itself is gallery-like: housed in a sprawling linked series of buildings featuring loft-like spaces with plenty of natural light, white-washed walls, and high ceilings and wood floors, it provided the perfect backdrop to the creations of people like Heidi Ackerman, Andy Hall, Paris Li, Breeyn McCarney, and David C. Wigley, among others.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around fashion and the founding of Ukamaku with a few of its principal players recently. It struck me, reading over their thoughts, that these ideas could just as well be applied to the art world -be it performance, visual arts, music -as to fashion. Let’s stop the lines and categories, says me. I think after reading this you might agree too.

Why did you start Ukamaku?

Chris Tham, Communications Director:

Ukamaku stemmed from our interest in creating an affordable eco-friendly brand. After looking at the costs involved with designing, manufacturing and marketing a fashion label, we decided that our talents and specialities aren’t enough to cover the different aspects involved. Talking to other designers gave us the same impression. We finally realized that instead of designing and manufacturing, we could help designers with their sales, and marketing their labels with a focus on e-commerce.

George Ng, Operation Director, also Founder/Owner:

We (George and Chris) started Ukamaku after seeing a need within the fashion industry. We realized that although designers are good at fashion design, some require additional help with marketing – e-commerce in particular, due to the cost and training involved. Based on our individual interests in fashion and in e-commerce, we decided to start Ukamaku.

Who do you think it’s for?

George Ng:

We created Ukamaku with two different groups of people in mind. First, Ukamaku targets customers who like purchasing high quality goods at a price that reflects the quality. These customers are people who want unique items that aren’t mass produced (i.e. custom made clothing or jewelery). Customers who want to support Canadian designers are also part of this group.

We also created Ukamaku for independent Canadian designers. Canadian designers wanting to sell their items beyond their physical market boundaries. They want worldwide marketing for their items. Ukamaku gives them the opportunity to enter a new market at a faster pace and an affordable cost. Designers no longer need to spend time creating their own websites, online marketing and shipping. Ukamaku covers all of these for them.

How do you choose designs / designers to feature? How much is it about being ‘trendy’ vs being simply unique & well-made?

Marcus Kan, Fashion Director:

We first look at their quality and designs when choosing designers to showcase on our site. We try keeping a balance between trendy and simple fashion pieces to fulfill our customer’s needs. Many of our designers do not mass produce their products, allowing our customers to purchase unique fashion pieces with high quality materials. A designer with a good reputation in the industry is desired by Ukamaku. However, we believe that new emerging designers are equally as important. We will working alongside the new designers to help improve their reputation within the industry.

The term “locavore” is being thrown around a lot in Toronto food circles -how much do you think it can (or should) apply to fashion as well?

Marcus Kan:

There are many hidden gems in the Canadian fashion industry. However, these designers do not seem to be able to gain their deserved exposure. We firmly believe that Canadians should play a role in supporting these designers. With each person pushing these designers a little bit forward, the Canadian fashion industry can be well known to the public, with some designers becoming household names. In turn, the exposure of Canadian designers would allow Canadians greater options to purchase Canadian designs.

How much do you see
ethical sourcing and production becoming the norm in Canadian fashion and overall in the fashion world?

Chris Tham:

There is a belief with the general public that Canada is environmentally friendly and an equal opportunity country. Many of our designers use environmentally friendly materials to produce their collections. We think they represent Canadian fashion very well. Being a Canadian company, we’ll continue supporting the designers in using eco-friendly materials for their collections. Hopefully one day, when people think Canadian fashion, they’ll think of trendy eco-friendly clothing.

Where do you see Ukamaku in five years’ time?

George Ng:

Similar to the meaning of Ukamaku – “That’s It!” -we’d like to see Ukamaku as the main source of Canadian fashion. We want customers to find Canadian fashion items on our site, and designers finding their customers through us. We’d love to run more fashion related events, not only in Canada, but outside of Canada to showcase the many talented designers we have in Canada.

Photo credits:
Top photo of 1950 Vogue Magazine cover from Make The World A Prettier Place.
Ukamaku office and designer photos courtesy of Magnetic Creative.

To The Left

Trying to balance fashion design and ethical sourcing and production can be a right headche for many designers. Cleverly integrating past designs and looks with modern ideas can be just as hard. I thought about these issues as I took a wander through Canadian company Ukamaku‘s loft-style offices recently. Located in an up-and-coming, just-gritty-enough-to-be-hip section of west-end Toronto dominated by renovated factories, Ukamaku has a mission to promote young Canadian designers in new and innovative ways. A big “way” would be online, where you can go and buy all the items featured, read the designer blogs, and see just how much Ukamaku is trying to push the envelope in Canadian fashion with their offerings.

When I visited, it struck me just how many of the designers under the Ukamaku umbrella were interested in two things: one, trying to find that fashionable/ethical balance, and two, fusing the past with the present. This concern was made most obvious in my conversation with Heidi Ackerman. The bespecled young Canadian designer, who sports a huge set of green-black wings tattooed on her upper chest, has a sexy, cosy mix of styles but a consistent high-quality frame of cuts, colours, textures, and shapes. Her patterned cowl-neck dress proudly proclaims on its label that half its materials are bamboo, with the remainder of the dress’s fabrics being ethically-sourced soy. This label, running across the top of the garment, proudly adorns her other work as well. There was a real pride when Ackerman told me that, for the most part, she’s able to balance her design ethos with her ethical concerns, but she quickly added that design always comes first, and always will. Her work is reminiscent of the women’s pieces Sharon Wauchob designed for Edun this past fall, especially the modern, angular knits and Japanese touches. Ackerman captures something elegant, feminine, and experimental, all while balancing wearability and sustainability. Nicely done.

Worth By David C. Wigley also displayed an incredible flair for the fusion between forward-thinking and classic design. Like Ackerman, Wigley expressed a furrowed-brow over trying to balance sourcing and production with quality -and price point. Wigley’s work was among the most modern and stylish men’s design I’ve seen in a while in North America; eschewing the conservative dark palette most men’s designers favour, Wigley opted for an eye-popping furnace-red, sharply-cut suit. Like a lot of the Worth collection, it fuses punk-rock and dandy with more than a touch of hip-hop. This ethos extends into casual wear. My initial reaction to a Wigley-designed gold-studded hoodie jumper was, “I can see Jay-Z in this!” The response, met with a chuckle, was, “Everyone likes this one!” -and I can see why. Wigley is super-good at combining classic qualities -good tailoring, square shoulders, sharp lines -with modern sensibilities -bright colours, unique fabrics, details like studding and dyeing -and doing it in a high-quality way that is both cost-effective and entirely unique.

This talent for integration isn’t specific to menswear, either; he also for gals. Wigley’s angular, sexy, fitted crop dress has square, kimono-like sleeves that slit open from underneath, and sphere-like white embroidery that provides a nice contrast to the heavy charcoal color. Like other designers Ukamaku features, Wigley has a few tie-dyed pieces in his collection, notably a drapey hand-dyed silk dress that wouldn’t be out of place at an event like Open Roof Films next summer.

What accounts for the return of the 60s technique? “Designers like the organic quality,” Wigley told me, before adding, “you can’t control it.” It was interesting just how much this sentiment was echoed by other designers, and indeed, Marcus Kan, Ukamaku’s Fashion Director. “Retro theme is a major trend in the fashion world right now,” he said via email. “No one can forget the tie-dye trend back in the 80s. (It) gives off a fun, bright, care-free and funky feeling to the clothes, perfect for a Spring/Summer collection. If people are into technology more, laser print pieces is a great option. The feeling is similar to tie-dye pieces, but the laser prints are more precise and futuristic.”

Precision is one thing, spotaneity quite another. As Wigley noted, you can’t quite control what tie-dye on fabric will do, and that’s part of the joy for him as a designer. The sense of “happy accident” with the dyeing technique mirrors the sort of spontaneous, quasi-accidental artistic accidents that happen at something like Art Battle. Painters and some designers have this much in common: they’re willing to embrace the unknown if it makes the end result more interesting. They’re also willing to embrace the fantastical. While at the Ukamaku head offices, Wigley excitedly showed me another of his popular ladies’ pieces, a snappy fitted red coat that had a distinct Little Red Riding Hood vibe; the “hood” part was clevlerly. stylishly replaced by a massive sprawling grand collar that flattered the wide arms and fitted waist of the very-warm looking piece. It was like Kate Hepburn meets Sioxsie Sioux. Beguiling, sexy, adventurous.

This sense of creative exploration and spirited adventurousness most clearly seen in the work of Breeyn McCarney, whose 1950s-meets-punk-rock looks definitely makes her a stand out in the super-traditional world of fancy women’s wear. A myriad of cultural touchstones and figures, new and old, came to mind in looking at her stuff: Elvis Presley movies, Mad Men, Grease (the movie version), Johnny Suede, 1980s Madonna, 1990s Courtney Love, Tim Burton in Wonderland. A bright yellow party dress, a sheer, corseted, party-like black dress, another sheer lace number with big gold hearts… it was all very new and yet very vintage, all at once. McCarney has a distinct voice that defies easy categorization, which, I realized, is probably the way she wants it. Who wants to be stuffed into a box, in life, fashion, art, or otherwise?

In conversation, McCarney confessed her love of theatre, calling the dresses “costumes” and talking about the various elements of theatre she integrates into her work. Dressed in worn-looking leather boots, black leggings, and a ruffled, short-sleeved chemise with a spectacularly ruffled back, the petite designer gave off a vibe of punk, rockabilly, and pirate. In response to a question about inspiration, she, rather casually, responded with a bon mot I consider to be the good and proper mantra of artists of any discipline, at any given time:”Every day I wake up and wonder, ‘Who am I going to be today?’” (I would add, “Does this still fit me?”) McCarney’s adventurous, cute-sexy designs are clearly aimed for the downtown party-girl crowd who wants to make a statement with the confidence of modernity and the cool elegance of vintage. She’d have to be a theatrical gal for sure to pull off the numbers McCarney designs. I leaned towards a sheer, short, simply-cut polka-dot dress with a contrasting black polka-dot cloth belt; flattering, feminine, flowy… just plain pretty, the piece proves McCarney is a designer of many moods, visions, and talents. She, along with Ackerman and Wigley, will be ones to watch as the Canadian fashion designer scene expands further. It’s encouraging Ukamaku wants to be part of that road.

Later this week I’ll be posting a Q&A with a few of the people behind Ukamaku -why they started it, what it means. I think you’ll find it illuminating in terms of the cultural conversation around the role -and worth -of fashion in the 21st century.

Black Dub Magic

Olympics? What Olympics?! If I had to award a gold medal, it would go straight to Black Dub.

The super-band is lead by incredible Canadian musician and music producer Daniel Lanois and features the super-charged pipes of Trixie Whitley, daughter of the legendary Chris Whitley. A few lucky souls have already seen them live this year, but Black Dub treated fans and curious music-lovers February 17th by streaming a live broadcast from New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. Together with the multi-talented Brian Blade on drums and bassist Chris Thomas, the concert was filmed by Here Is What Is collaborator Adam Vollick. During the hour-long set, the band covered a good bit of their own material along with some Lanois favorites, and proved why their upcoming release is one of the most anticipated of the year.

Images displayed in the run-up to the show were a surreal, ambient mix that reminded me of the work of artists as wide afield as the Emergency Broadcast Network and Bill Viola to Mark Rothko, and even Antonioni. The zipper of comments that ran along the side of the live feed was filled with impatience, excitement, and even a few hilarious observations from people in the Bowery’s capacity audience (ie: “I can’t see who’s in the VIP section. Granny’s eyesight is bad here.”) Watching the mix of images and reactions, there was, I felt, an truly intimate quality to this kind of live event; with just a cozy room to play in and a friendly crowd sharing thoughts and reactions in real time to Vollick’s every close-up and wide pan, it was the kind of communal, creatively connected experience that nicely reflected the band’s ethos.

“Surely” by Black Dub

As for sound, trying to categorize Black Dub’s music is no easy task. It’s a mix of grinding rock, blues, early punk, and dark rockabilly, with an occasionally eerie, swampy, Waits-like slink and touches of Sunday-morning gospel. Watching them live from the Bowery, this defiance of definition was obvious, loud, and proud. Whether steaming through blues-influenced numbers like “Silverado“, the gospel-meets-blues hip-swaying meditation of “Nomad Knows“, or the earthy, 21st century psychedelia of “Ring The Alarm“, one was continually reminded (whether via rimshots, timbres, key changes, well-placed pauses, or a combination therein) of the magical chemistry at work between these accomplished individuals. Chemistry is a huge key to what makes Black Dub so special, particularly in this era of superstar narcissism, where every American Idol seeks to be a famous icon instead of a real musician. Black Dub turn their collective back on all that, focusing instead on a gorgeous exchange of ideas manifest in sound. In many ways, their work harkens back to jazz, with its focus on group dynamic, interplay, improvisation, and experimentation. The online audience lapped it up, perhaps hungry for a real musical experience that showcased real people playing real instruments.

One of the finest instruments on display was Trixie Whitley’s powerful, soul-searing voice. Moving comfortably from mellow to blasting to soft and pleading, Whitley proved herself a formidable front-woman. In addition to showing her incredible vocal chops, she also showed her musical versatility, bashing along with Blade on her own drumkit, playing a keyboard, strumming a guitar, or providing vocal back-up at points. With her black suspenders, white t-shirt and fitted black trousers, with blonde hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, she cut a stylish, strong figure reminiscent of rock feminist icons like Patti Smith or Debbie Harry in her early Blondie days. Lanois, in knit cap and low-slung jeans, played a few of his own hits, including a grinding, guitar-heavy version of “The Maker” with a shuffle-beat percussive undertow courtesy of Blade, and Lanois’ own effects-laden guitar work lending a virtuosic, woozy counterpoint to Whitely’s acidly sharp backing vocals.

Overall, the evening was a showcase of musical talent that conjured a kind of beauty rarely experienced in live show -whether in-person or viewed online. The balance of instrumental and vocal pieces, of thoughtful and straight rock-out numbers, of give and take between musicians, demonstrated both an awareness of their audience and a courage of creative convictions. Black Dub aren’t out to make sing-a-long favorites, but they are out to create a musical experience for both themselves and their listeners. I got the distinct feeling in watching them that no two concerts are ever quite alike. They’re so aware of their collective talent as a whole but never become arrogant within their individual egos. That doesn’t mean they don’t rock out, however. What a gorgeous showcase of adult rock and roll: real, lived-in, world-weary, and honest, or, as one viewer typed on the live feed, “fuzzy, smoky, and sensual -that’s what I came here for.” It could be the definition for rock in this century, and Black Dub are already ahead of the curve.


Photography by Brad Gilley.

Yele


The tragedy in Haiti is unfolding moment by moment.

Anyone who learned of the massive earthquake the country suffered lastnight shared a visceral response; the tragedy is compounded by its location, with a country infused with a painful past that still pollutes the present.

One of the requirements of my position is to put aside the humanist gut-response and stick on my journalist’s hat. It isn’t always easy. But looking at the footage lastnight and into today, I am fascinated by the ways the earthquake has been reported. As darkness fell last evening, I was transfixed by television updates, though, this being 2010, I was online almost constantly as well. The internet was truly at the frontline of reporting, with people posting photos to Twitpic and the like, showing massive devastation. There were groups set up for families and plenty of links to aid organizations (see list, below). Outlets like CNN and CBC were using the very photos I’d already seen online in their news reports.


The nature of news reporting has changed -widened, expanded, and become far more immediate. Wyclef Jean understands this; his Twitter feed was providing constant information and updates on how to help -particularly through fast, easy, mobile means. It was heartening to see him get on 360 With Anderson Cooper so quickly. The question of a music/entertainment artist also being an activist has many people creasing foreheads and furrowing brows, but I don’t think anyone questions Wyclef’s commitment and dedication to making his homeland a better place. It’s the precise reason Yele Haiti exists.

Along with Yele, here are other ways to help:

Oxfam
Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
Samaritans Purse
Unicef

The Globe and Mail has a good resource page. It’s constantly being updated by a continual zipper of information, including phone numbers, stories, facts, and links, including a statement from Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, who, one presumes (hopes), will be using all the resources available to help her homeland. ONE has a very extensive list of links and statements from aid organizations. CBC also has a thorough list of facts, phone numbers, and ways Canadians can help.

History and politics always play into any aid effort, perhaps nowhere moreso than in Haiti, but let’s hope the online world mobilizes people to put those aside for now and focus on the healing.

Has Oprah Seen This?

Here’s a great example of what I meant by “play” a few posts back:

Linky Goodness


It’s been a long time. Too long.

Between family drama and… more family drama, it’s been a challenging time. The holidays always tend to throw a wrench into things too. For now, some linky goodness -thoughts on a few things that have been sitting on online tabs now for ages, and deserve a line or two.

First, and most recently, Harold Pinter has died. Pinter was one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century, and, for many of us drama students, was our first introduction to truly disturbing characters. Disturbing, because they said so little, but conveyed so much. Silence, in Pinter’s hands, became a weapon, a shield, an absolute zero, to be placed within any and every concept of one’s choosing. From his written work, he seemed to love actors -and he trusted them. I workshopped scenes for Old Times during my time living in London, England, reading the part of Anna. I’ll never forget the whirlwind of possibilities that swirled around a perfect eye of stillness within Pinter’s writing. It was after that experience that I began to realize just how much Pinter changed the course of modern drama. Grazie, Harold.

Switching gears, this article from the Guardian examines the changing role of theatre writing and criticism in the internet age. Fascinating, challenging, compelling. Being a person who cares deeply about the intersections between culture and technology, I am still flummoxed at the level of ignorance displayed by those in … let’s just say other, arts-related areas, who ought to be more concerned about reaching new and younger audiences. Internet reporting is going to become the cornerstone in arts reportage, and yet there still exists this strange attitude (is it endemic to the Canadian persona?) that online reporting isn’t somehow as relevant or “real” as print or broadcasting. Well, I guess it depends who you’re marketing to, and writing for. Rule #1 of writing: know your audience. But to quote the article’s author, Andrew Dickson (bold mine):

it’s important for editors to commission robustly independent reviews; but it’s also important for us to encourage differing opinions, and allow people to tell us about things we’ve missed, whether the price of tickets or the horrors of restricted-view seats. Yes, we should support specialist voices and encourage experienced judgment, but we shouldn’t allow theatre critics to become isolated from what’s happening in other art forms or the wider world. Yes, we should care about the written word and encourage it to flourish – but we must also experiment with other ways of reaching audiences too, whether it’s via video, social networking, Twitter, or whatever else is waiting round the corner. Yes, we should cover shows when they open, but we shouldn’t shackle ourselves to a diary decided in advance by PR companies, as if every performance after press night wasn’t worth bothering with.

While we’re on Twitter, a fascinating article from the New York Times about the mini version of blogging; I have a theory Twittering could be the next big trend in arts criticism and writing. Can you imagine reading Twitters on the latest theatre shows, concerts, films, even television? And then gathering up a bunch of Twitters on the same? Talk about a conversation-starter (or two). The possibilities are endless.

So is print really dying? Or is it -like radio -just re-defining itself and its audience? Here’s a good piece on how employees of Denver’s newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, are using the internet to try to save their paper. Interesting, how it takes a crisis to provoke a marriage -it’s usually the other way around, but in these times, everything is gone topsy-turvy. I still wonder what print writers -specifically arts journalists -think the whole online/print/economic situation might ultimately mean for them (us). I ran into a major Toronto critic who works in both print and radio earlier this month; she said her outlets are “going the way of the doh-doh bird” and encouraged me to continue pursuing online opportunities. Who knows, she said, “I could be working for you someday.” It was the weirdest compliment ever, and, come to think of it, quite Pinter-esque.

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