Thursday, October 29, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Art and the Recession*

"Recession" as a noun, or state of being, has been unavoidable. Be it in your bank account, on the front page news or even as a narrative hook in films and television shows, the idea of living the poor life is simply everywhere.

When the market began turning over a year ago, I remember having a conversation with a friend who shrugged off the dipping real estate prices and the rollercoaster stock exchange. As a full-time artist, she said something to the effect that as someone already living, working and surviving well below the poverty line, the onset of a recession wasn't going to harm her.

For the most part, this has been the case for the arts in general. Not many of the stereotypical "poor, starving artist" types I know have been hit very hard by their nonexistent or paltry investments. None of the independent artists, writers and dancers have lost their nest egg since they never had one to begin with. And while on the immediate level this seems fine by most everyone, as artists are used to working for next to nothing as purse strings are tightening across the board, I do find the continued lack of value, be it monetary or social, in the arts a disturbing fact.

The recent end-of-summer plans by British Columbia's Liberal government to drastically cut their arts funding by up to 90 percent has gotten the rest of the country's attention. With a provincial deficit in the $2 billion range, even BC, which boasts one of the highest quality of living stats in the country, is not prioritizing their arts and cultural legacy.

In looking at what's unfolding out west, everything from projected standard $20 ticket prices soaring into the hundreds of dollars just to break even to the devastating closure of many long-standing companies and organizations are becoming more than just looming threats. The reality is, arts and culture from production to dissemination has become so dependent on government funding that to cut even just a little bit will only further starve the malnourished.

Alberta during the Klein years completely drained away its Heritage Fund. With most arts funding coming from private endowments and allocated gaming revenue from lotteries and casinos, the value of arts and cultural production in this province continues to exist on a spiraling decline combined with pockets of instability. And while this may be the case for everyone, BC is proving that arts remains the first to go.

In pitting arts and culture against other aspects of our social needs like healthcare, education and infrastructure, lobbyists have successfully blinded the greater population into believing the arts can actually be segregated from our daily lives as something excessive to our quality of life as a human being. When in fact, it becomes preposterous to even think of our lives without concerning choices made in colour, design and esthetics. In always receiving the smallest slice of the pie, arts and artists have lost sight of their value and contribution to society as a whole. And as the overall pie shrinks, perhaps perceptions of values may be reset for future productivity.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Monday, October 26, 2009

Exhibition: Or What?!? 9662 Resident Show, ARTery, November 2009

Since being converted into living spaces from one of Western Canada’s oldest Farmer's Markets, The City Market Apartments has been home to a some of Edmonton's brightest and youngest artists, designers and musicians. From emerging to established, individuals and collectives, residents of City Market live and work in the newly deemed "Quarters" district, the stretch of transitional property east of 97 St and Jasper Avenue. As the city and developers focus their attention on revitalizing this once propserous area of downtown Edmonton, OR WHAT?! aims to showcase what is already happening in downtown’s east side.

Partnering with the ARTery, a discrete multidisciplinary venue within the Quarters district, OR WHAT?! looks to showcase the diverse artistic voices already living and working in East Downtown before our cityscape changes once again.

Image credit: Aaron Pederson, 2008-09

Featuring works by: Jayme Chalmers, Aryen Hoekstra, Loyal Loot Collective, Jonathan Luckhurst, Laura O’Connor, Josée Aubin Ouellette, Aaron Pederson, Jordanna Rachinsky, Adam Waldron Blain, Laurel Westlund, Gabriel Wong and Greg Swain.

*Organized by Amy Fung

Friday, October 23, 2009

Alexander James Stewart, The Hydeaway Oct 22 - Nov 1, 2009

Double majoring in sculpture and printmaking, while working in the basic premise of industrial design and sometimes dabbling in video and performance, Alexander James Stewart's solo exhibition at the Hydeaway is convincing proof that the future of contemporary art will be interdisciplinary in process, and perhaps, praxis.

Only a third year undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, Stewart has appeared in past Student shows, from an honorable mention as a Victoria Composite student to last year's Student Design Association show where he performed as furniture (where his performance as object in fact reveals the purpose of why we create furniture and the functionality of objects), the current exhibition is his first solo show before an upcoming SDA group exhibition in November.

In a brief conversation, Stewart comes across more curious than precocious, intelligent than conceited, and his works carry a tone of an artist learning more about himself and his capacities. In one of his latest pieces in progress that is currently on exhibit, the bare bones white outline of a three dimensional shape takes shape against a heavily textured black and white background. Achieving this sculptural white outline by first constructing a shape with LED lights and then drawing its lines, Stewart still plans on sewing the outline onto the physical canvas to achieve yet another layer, and in so doing bringing back the element of an object into the piece.

Lucid in his approach to art making, where many art students and artists become bogged down by the histories of their predecessors in either mimicking or overcoming their achievements, Alexander James Stewart is offering something unique in just being himself.

All images are credited to: Alexander James Stewart, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Glow Hotel*

Back in January when the skies darkened before the evening news, some peers and I had driven up to Grande Prairie for the outdoor public and intervention art exhibition Here Now or Nowhere. Curated by Micah Lexier and coordinated through the Prairie Art Gallery, the outdoor exhibition emerged as the sun settled and Grande Prairie's main street storefront windows came alive with an array of video and media works. As a project to facilitate the presence of visual art in the community in lieu of a gallery space under construction, the calibre of the exhibition was undeniable as it featured new work by Adad Hannah as well as intervening in the local newspaper with engaging works of art.

Running for three weeks all together, the exhibition also featured a weekend of panel discussions and a weekend-long showing of Kelly Mark's Glow House (#4), an installation that has been reincarnated throughout the country and in the UK since 2001. As the buzz project of the exhibition, a small group of us turned off of main street and walked along the darkened river bend. Isolated save for the passing vehicle on the quiet residential street, we had come to experience the fleeting sensation of Glow House set against the complete darkness of a quiet Northern Alberta town.

From the street, the house at first appears like every other house standing on the corner of any suburban street. Already carrying a local reputation as a haunted corner lot, the sudden glowing pulse of the house garnered pauses by passing vehicles, but lacked any real pedestrian audience. As any suburban walker may intimately know, the flicker emanating from living room windows at night casts a virtual light show. A friend had always noted the same moment of passing window after window of glowing television sets, but she was depressed by the mundaneness of it all. Multiplied and hyperbolized, Glow House takes this common experience and projects it from every single window, heightening the entire house into a pulsating orb of a fleeting moment.

Now less than a year after this mini-art pilgrimage to the north, Kelly Mark will be altering this project into Glow Hotel for one night only on Stony Plain Road. As the former main street of the town then known as Jasper Place before being annexed by Edmonton in 1964, Stony Plain Road continues today as a major expressway that is better known for pawn shops and sex stores. Programmed as part of Store Front Cinema Nights, an initiative by the Stony Plain Road Business Association and co-presented by the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Edmonton Arts Council's Public Art Program, Glow Hotel marks the occasion of attracting high calibre artists to Edmonton for artistic opportunities unique to the city.

As the Glow project is almost a decade old and has since existed as indoor gallery installations with televisions playing specific videos, it remains unknown whether Glow Hotel will have a similar affect of its predecessors; but as the season of long nights starts up again, I for one am certainly looking forward to finding out.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Kelly Mark's Glow Hotel will be available only from 7 – 9 pm at Jasper Place Hotels (15326 Stony Plain Road). An artist talk will precede in the Hotel eatery at 6 pm.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The New Flâneurs, Art Gallery of Alberta, Sept 5 - Dec 13, 2009*

Urban Decay: The New Flâneurs suggests a modern world in ruins

The flâneur is the quintessential figure of urban modernity. Coined by Charles Baudelaire, romanticized by Walter Benjamin and reinvestigated by Rebecca Solnit, the flâneur, or flâneurie, is at its root the embodiment of physically moving through modernity.

Almost always understood as male, privileged enough to idle his days away walking and meandering aimlessly and restlessly down urban corridors, the flâneur feeds off the pulse of the city and its crowds of anonymous passers-by. Beginning as a figure in the post-Haussmannisation of Paris' urban centre, the flâneur moves through his city streets with little to no end purpose, but simply meandering to the nuisances and rhythms of modernity.

Doubling the notion of flâneurie with the Victorian aesthetic of the Picturesque, which is an aesthetic often experienced during walking that encapsulates a fragment of civilization in ruins (or inversely, of nature overpowering the urban), the The New Flâneurs exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta ambitiously attempts to bridge these 19th century notions with more recent practices such as Situationist psychogeography, parkour and contemporary art works culled from its own collection.

Though there are evident ties between flâneurie and parkour as they share similarities in being of Parisian origins, being a mostly male activity and sharing mutual inclinations to subvert urban landscapes with no economic agenda, the element of the Picturesque fits awkwardly with the rest of the show.

Photography is the prominent medium of choice, as Hubert Hohn's deserted black and white suburbia are shown facing Edward Burtynsky's consistently sublime devastations of human advancements. Equally, George Webber's portraits of deserted sweat lodges evocate the decay of the sublime. Together, they spell out the doom of the 20th century. Depressing as it sounds, the new flâneurs appear to be more excavators than field researchers of a desolate and static modern world.

Proposing a common thread tying all of these ideas together, that thread is in fact a movement-based approach to how one experiences the world. Only restricted to the gallery save for a few outdoor programming initiatives and film screenings, there is a major void of actual movement within the show.

Image credit: Don Gill and Sarah Williams' "Erratic Spaces" 2009

Movement is suggested amongst the handful of frozen pedestrians in Mark Arneson's dated Edmonton photographs, but it's really only media artist Don Gill's photography slideshow and video collaboration with dancer Sarah Williams that evokes movement as a keystone. As a formal exercise, "Erratic Spaces" documents a series of Williams' non-choreographed movements in relation to urban spaces and shapes, but beyond showing the athleticism of Williams as she responds to urban sites, the body-explorations she explores do not translate onto video—which differs in execution to the physical traces left by parkour and the revelation of shared and concealed histories discovered through psychogeography.

The biggest issue in viewing this show was, ironically, the inability to navigate the viewing space. Erecting a multi-panelled installation that doubles as extra wall space, the viewer is immediately forced around a lot of awkward corners—which although suggesting viewers can trace their own paths around and along these temporary blank structures, in reality, just creates physical barriers.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Prairie Artsters: Farewell, Anonymous*

Moderating online comments has become necessary to maintaining a relevant dialogue

A few weeks back, I was asked to informally share my thoughts on the subject of criticism. Leaving with more questions than answers, I wrote a column on my experiences as both a critic and as a subject of concentrated critique.

Just barely one month later, that initial piece—which concerned itself with devaluing anonymous online criticism—has ironically become fodder for anonymous online critiques to the point where I now feel obliged to moderate all comments on Prairie

Criticism, as a basic feedback system, is an intensified response. Done well, criticism could be a sensitive and conscious response to an expression. Not everyone wants to engage, but there are those who are so vehement in their engagements that their arguments are more aligned with monologues.

It has been said that anyone who comes up to the artist immediately following a performance or presentation of their work with either accolades or criticisms is a selfish foe. Genuine or helpful criticism tends to take time—to formulate all the facets and considerations of the experience of an expression. Criticism can be informed in a number of ways, and if done properly, the opinions shared are heard as productive insights rather than defensive reactions. In addressing criticism, especially in an era of instant communication where process time disappears and alternate personas are privileged, instant feedback forums slide into a war of weightless words and egos that add little to the heart of an issue.

As both an active venue and archive for dialogue, Prairie Artsters continues to shift in mandate, starting first as an across the board reviews space, then growing into contextualizing works to their place, to its current phase of addressing regionally, if not nationally and internationally relevant issues facing contemporary artists by using Edmonton-based works as examples.

In this new role of monitoring the flow of feedback, there is now a check and balance to the issue of generating dialogue rather than just picking fights. Not responding only goes so far, and even responding only goes so far, but in actively shaping the conversation, a productive feedback system can now acknowledge the merit of all comments said by simply publishing or rejecting them in relation to the overall arch of a discussion.

This has all been tried and tested through print publishing, but in the realm of online publishing, the accessibility for anyone and everyone to partake in discussion remains its grace and its Achilles' heel.

While I concede anonymous voices are capable of producing incredibly fruitful and profound insights, let's be real that the anonymous voices we're talking about are a specific handful of anonymous or moniker-wielding voices that have rarely, if ever, offered anything fruitful or profound.

They are the equivalent of hooded hecklers, espousing rants without taking responsibility in connecting their words to their real identities. Although most of us know who these hooded voices are, in the long run there remains a very palpable lack of credibility and respect for opinions offered by real artists who choose to separate their opinions from their real persons.

In my desire to move past the moot points of Edmonton's potentials and short comings, past entrenched stances of idolatries and -isms, I, and anyone else interested in moving the conversation along, need to let go and bid farewell to all that does not inspire and feed us.

As an end note to those who have entertained themselves and many Prairie Artsters readers for the past two years, this is very likely the very last acknowledgment I will ever make of them. Take care and good-bye.

*First published in Vue Weekly