New tricks

January 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm | In arts | Comments Off on New tricks

Last night I took my first drawing class in decades. It was a blast – and a real mental work-out. I left feeling positively cross-eyed, my brain having gotten a rewiring to remember.

The last drawing class I ever took was in Munich, with Peter Zeiler, …in the late 1970s. The late 70s, people, happened thirty-five years ago.

I took classes with Peter to prepare my portfolio for admission to the Staatliche Kunstakademie München (a school I dropped out of, by the way, before it was cool to drop out of school – maybe this is a clue to get back into the milieu…).

Peter Zeiler was the luckiest Munich find I made in the late ’70s (aside from that guy I married, of course) – an absolutely amazing teacher. I see that he’s no longer in Schwabing (where I took classes), but his studio and school are still going strong. The banner announcing that this is the oldest private art school in Munich (50 years!) makes me rapidly move from feeling cross-eyed to historical, though. Where in hell does the time go? And why didn’t I keep up my drawing practice?

That’s what I asked myself last night as I clunked my way through Lynn Kitagawa’s excellent Figure Drawing class at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. I’ve got seven more evenings to reconnect to that muscle memory (including the ever-lazy-and-lazier eyeball muscles).

Where’s our “I, Claudius” when we need it?

December 22, 2011 at 8:14 pm | In arts, authenticity, justice, philanthropy, politics | 1 Comment

When I read about art events like this, I can’t help but think of I, Claudius and its relentless chronicle of Rome in decline…

…performance art legend Marina Abramović created a stir when she was accused of exploiting other artists during L.A.’s MOCA gala. Guests at the posh event paid up to $10,000 dollars so they could be seated at one of her tables decorated with centerpieces that included rotating human heads and naked bodies pseudo-copulating with skeletons. Gala guests were allowed to touch the performers and feed them, because the live tabletop pieces signed a non-disclosure agreement and were paid off with a whopping $150 bucks that allowed them to be manhandled as desired. (source)

Who are these $10K-per-plate patrons of the arts who shock and amuse themselves by feeding or otherwise stimulating human centerpieces?

(See also this article about an artist who protested.)

On the erosion of the middle class, see also Rich Shopper, Poor Shopper (PBS Newshour, Making Sen$e) – high end and low end are “doing alright,” but the middle is absent.

The poor artists are renting themselves out for $150 at events where the rich pay $10,000 to support the arts. This is one f-upped world.

Change everything.

May 26, 2011 at 10:47 pm | In arts, housekeeping, ideas, just_so | Comments Off on Change everything.

Weeding through personal papers the other day, I came across several small index cards on which I had noted art project ideas. The cards date from the late 1970s, perhaps 1978 or ’79. I would have been 22 or 23, and at the time I was struggling to make sense of an artistic career. Until 1980 I was a student at Munich’s State Academy of Fine Arts, assigned to the Danish constructivist sculptor Robert Jacobsen‘s studio.

Within the context of Munich-style traditionalism, Jacobsen’s modernism (he was linked to COBRA) wasn’t celebrated as much as it was tolerated. So, while most of the Academy’s other sculpture students worked traditionally, I belonged to Jacobsen’s “far-out” gang, within which was the even smaller tribe I settled in: the people who read theory and were determined to elude what Theodor Adorno called “the culture industry.”

And so, our work – my work – had to be challenging, and (because we were trying not to be co-opted) hermetic. But part of me hated the hermeticism, which, as the daughter of people who hadn’t even been able to finish high school because of financial pressures, I saw as elitism, pure and simple. Rather unfortunately, I fell into trying to square the circle (what an idiot I was) by trying to make challenging art that had pretensions to being politically correct.

Please don’t ask me what that actually could have meant. It’s blindingly obvious now that the average working class Joe or Jane (if s/he even exists) does not give a rat’s ass about high art. But at the time, I really believed (7/8ths-heartedly) that art could change people’s perception, and that by changing their perceptions, artists could change the world.

I could have been happier if I’d just dropped another tab of acid. But I digress…

I worked with packing cardboard, which was cheap, relatively plentiful, lightweight, and (this was important later) easy to toss. Working with cardboard on a fairly large scale allowed me to tackle things like spatial perception, which I hadn’t been able to test properly when I was still making models out of balsa wood. The cardboard essentially allowed for what we now might call rapid prototyping. It also allowed me to wander down some obscure paths…

At one point I began to introduce color into the cardboard constructions. From the index card headed The Blue Theme:

– the artist as reprocessor of information, even previously common-property information, i.e., hit pop songs

“Crystal Blue Persuasion”

Um, yah. Modernism and Mass Culture. Funny, I designed and taught a course on that at MIT many years later…

More on the color blue:

Colour as thing – back to the “blue theme”: make cardboard support surface sculpture, and apply the blue theme, blue stroke, blue surface, …whatever. Next, a second, identical support sculpture, the blue cut out removed, lying in front of it; third, this theme continued, the blue further refined & developed as thing.

The entire thing presented as series, as steps, together:

[and here there are tiny little sketches, as per photograph, below]

frame support becoming predominant support, supporting support, yet being blue, bluer than blue, thus displaying its thinginess.

I built some pieces to approximate the idea. Below, some color slides (2 1/4 inch format), pardon the lo-fi quality… I just taped the positives to a window pane and used my iPod Touch to photograph them.

Another card, headed Yellow, but no evidence remains of any work carried out on this theme:

As the blue wedge triumphs over the cardboard triangle, geometric and hard-edged, so yellow must from the start be a wholly 3-dimensional shape, diffuse, being outside + objective and at the same time all-encompassing + therefore subjective. Like God, or a glass perpetually overflowing.

I was an atheist even then, so I’m not sure exactly how I meant that reference to god, except probably in reference to how other people experience transcendence.

Too much of what I was doing was about other people. What other people might think about my work if it was too conventional. Or too avant-garde. Or too hermetic. Or too political.

Or just weak and a not particularly strong artistically…

Another card, without a  header. Maybe it should be Danger:

The incorporation of danger into an art work. The daily threats and anxiety experienced by the artist transposed into the work, making it a transmitter of that anxiety, that danger.

Well. Maybe I should have electrified one of my sculptures and dangerously and anxiously shocked viewers. I was thinking about electricity, albeit for a video piece (I was convinced at the time that video could be the new sculpture).


I still like the thoughts noted on this next card, a lot:

Infrastructure as art medium?

A card about the Paris Metro:

The Paris Metro as medium. All those buskers, beggars and theatre players, graffiti artists, etc., using the Metro so that it has become the ultimate transportation network: it transports ideas, music, events, information and people.

Yes, I still like this idea. Seems to me it’s indicative of a longstanding attraction to urbanism and cities.

I also have a number of index cards that detail my ideas about video. But they’re very obtuse (and if you read this far, you’re probably thinking, “More obtuse???”). When I worked on (or thought about) video (and to a lesser extent, photography), I tried to marshal time as an element of the video medium, which (as I noted above) I considered a new form of sculpture. It just got pretty hairy. Obtuser.

I think a lot of the same sort of obtuseness (hermeticism) my 22-year-old self expressed in 1978 still thrives in today’s art world. Alternatively (and quite possibly worse), it’s also ok for art to be entirely unserious and just “fun” or consume-able. Goes down easy. Doesn’t get stuck in your craw.

Too bad. I still like the idea of that glass, perpetually overflowing, though – a plenitude that changes everything.

Pornography at Theatre Inconnu (North American premiere)

May 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm | In arts | Comments Off on Pornography at Theatre Inconnu (North American premiere)

They say pornography is like art: you know it when you see it.

Maybe that’s true when you’re expecting to see something familiar. But as with art, the real thing can pull the rug of expectations out from under you. In Simon Stephens’s play Pornography, which has its North American premiere at Theatre Inconnu, Victoria audiences get to see the real thing.

No, it’s not what you expect. There’s no nudity. The sex consists of a bit of smooching: kisses, some close dancing, nothing more.

The language, on the other hand, is X-rated.

Not because it’s especially salacious, but because it’s mordant. When, in the penultimate scene (Nr. 2, counting down from Nr. 7 to Nr. 1), Pippa Catling’s nearly-83-year-old character says that aspects of modern life make her so angry she’d like to bite out the throats from other people’s domestic pets, “mordant” takes on a whole new dimension. Each word is carefully chosen to penetrate, if not your bodily orifices, your mental landscape.

This is dialog that’s perfect, and it’s perfectly played by the cast assembled under Graham McDonald’s direction.

So what happens in Pornography? The play has seven parts (or chapters), which count down in reverse order. The setting is London in July 2005, in the brief period between the announcement that London was awarded the Olympics and the July 7 bombings. Stephens has said he feels “very strongly that the objectification needed to commit an act of terrorism, and kill 52 strangers, is far more pervasive than people were saying.” And so, each of the vignettes of Londoners going about their lives highlights the objectification we’ve all learned, more or less, to take in stride.

Theatre Inconnu’s production features eight actors who morph into multiple roles depending on the story. We start with Naomi Simpson playing a new mother increasingly aware of her own alienation from her job and her husband; we meet Julian Cervello’s character: bi-cultural, but completely unmoored, fear- and hate-filled but seeking safe harbour in a crush (spoiler: it doesn’t end well); James McDougall and Alex Plouffe play brothers who fall into physical love but can’t handle the emotional intimacy: they entomb their feelings as quickly as they erupt; Michael Shewchuk plays one of “the British boys” who goes off from his tidy suburban home to plant a bomb; Jason Stevens and Marina Lagacé play a Lolita-esque game that frustrates both parties; and Pippa Catling shows the scary side of seniors who are not what they appear to be.

Catling’s part was, I thought, most emblematic of the objectification Stephens mentioned. Her character begs some food, but instead of finding compassion, she finds ridicule. She’s even objectified by another character in the scene who takes a photo of her with his cell phone, presumably to post to some social media site as a “look at this daft cow” moment. Pornographic, indeed.

The excellent staging (including props, sound, and lighting effects) would make George Orwell proud: numerous television sets serve to rivet the characters or otherwise bathe them with info-babble and eery light.

The overall effectiveness of this production hinges on how the actors support each vignette. Often, they scrunch right up to the actors playing the main part, like children attending to a storyteller. As they listen, their faces mirror the emotions the audience is likely feeling, which made me self-conscious of my own voyeuristic role in watching each chapter. In a piece that’s as verbally rigorous as this one, that strategy gave the play a powerful emotional depth. It made me, as a viewer, feel quite exposed.

Pornography, script by Simon Stephens.

Directed by Graham McDonald; Stage Manager is Jess Amy Shead.

Lighting Design by Bryan Kenney.

Prop and Set Design by Tom Mairs.

Sound Design by Jay Mitchell.

Costume Design by April Parchoma.

Pornography continues at Theatre Inconnu through May 14.

Call 250-590-6291 for details and exact dates and times (or check MetroCascade’s events page).

The Last 15 Seconds

March 18, 2011 at 11:59 pm | In arts | Comments Off on The Last 15 Seconds

Tonight I saw The Last 15 Seconds, currently playing in Victoria at the Metro Theatre. If you have the chance, go see it. I will admit upfront that the subject matter made me a reluctant theater-goer, and I was almost sure I would dislike the play. The teaser says, “You have 15 seconds left before the explosion. What would you say to the suicide bomber?” …Suicide bombings, in Jordan… Great… How uplifting (not)…

I thought for sure we’d get preached at, witness some kind of propaganda, get depressed…

Boy, was I wrong.

This play is absolutely brilliant in every respect: script, development, story, staging, acting – everything.

Yes, there’s a suicide bomber – Rawad Jassem Mohammad Abed, fantastically played by Trevor Copp. Yes, he is reared in a petri dish of violence, the legacy of Western (read American, but also French & English) policies. But he’s not given a free pass for what he does. Instead, the story – beginning with a surreal enactment of the bombing – slowly but surely brings together the bomber and his family with his victims, also represented by a family, all of which takes place “postmortem,” as it were. The script is one of the most intelligent I’ve come across in a while – the way the two sides meet, collide, and confront is worthy of a tessellation to decorate a mosque.

The acting by all five performers is stunning and kept me fully enthralled. Copp plays Rawad (and, briefly, a television talk show host). Alan K. Sapp plays the tragic figure of Moustapha Akkad, one of the suicide bomber’s victims. Sapp is perfect in the role, bringing the right combination of urbanity and sophistication, mixed with earnest moral and ethical seriousness.

The three women performers play two roles each: as mother, wife, and daughter to Akkad; and grandmother, mother, and bride to Rawad.

Pam Patel plays Rawad’s bride as well as Rima (Akkad’s daughter). She switches seamlessly from embodying a traditional bride who’s controlled by customs and by Rawad to being Rima, the American-raised shining apple of her Arab father’s eye. Copp (who is amazingly physical, starting with his death scene at the start of the play) and Patel acted out some of the most tension-inducing scenes, effectively leveraging a Thanatos-Eros dialectic. (Or was it a Master-Slave dialectic? …Hm.)

Anne-Marie Donovan plays Rawad’s mother and Akkad’s wife. She brings great gravitas to her essential roles as woman-in-between. In the Akkad family, she’s the serious woman between the idealistic-seeming daughter and the mischievous grandmother; in the Abed family, she’s the self-sacrificing mother whose husband was killed, the woman who has to let her child be raised by the grandmother while she works to keep food on the table. Both Patel and Donovan sing parts of their roles, and while Patel sings soprano, Donovan hits a mezzo (mezzo-soprano) note. Very effective.

Nada Humsi plays Akkad’s mother and Rawad’s grandmother. She is staggeringly good, able to move from sophisticated Westerner to traditional matriarch without skipping a beat. A native Syrian, she rejoices and cajoles and ululates in Arabic, which fully enriches the play. But aside from that authentic touch, she is just an amazing actress who really makes audiences understand the family dynamics, the traditions, and the deep emotions (joy and pain) embodied by her two characters. I absolutely loved her performance.

If you get the chance, go see The Last 15 Seconds. It’s playing in Victoria for another two nights. Then it goes to Vancouver.

Sign Language, created and performed by Denise Clarke

March 10, 2011 at 10:22 pm | In arts | 1 Comment

Last night I wrote about the play I saw at the Belfry Theatre‘s Spark Festival and thought I was done with local theater review. But tonight I saw Denise Clarke‘s Sign Language (also part of the Spark Festival), and it really blew me away. Go see it if you can.

Clarke’s one-woman show is subtitled, “A Physical Conversation”; there is dialogue (monologue, actually) at the beginning, but it serves mostly to embed physical clues and signs deep into the viewer’s perception, so that by the middle of the play, when the words are gone, the body (hers and ours) re-minds and is reminded again and again of what she said earlier, how she said it (using sign language), and how she danced its meanings.

We’re taken from listening to a woman who may or may not be slightly off her rocker (she may or may not be drinking a bit too much, shopping a bit too much, fixating on her multi-thousand-dollar car a bit too much, medicating with psychopharmaceuticals a bit too much, loving her $400 Ralph Lauren knit dress, snagged at Winners for $50, a bit too much, and so on) to watching, riveted, a woman embody the various stages of ecstasy (angels and devils).

We never know just what Clarke is going to do next – whether it’s nudity or near-slapstick pratfall-type comedy or dead-serious dancing. She embodies all the contradictions: slightly imperfect, but stronger and more powerfully beautiful and in control of her body than probably anyone else in the theater. To say that her performance is athletic is an understatement. I once had the memorable pleasure of seeing Kazuo Ohno perform in Berlin, and it seemed to me that Denise Clarke channeled the same kind of immense expressive power Ohno brought to the stage.

Denise Clarke in "A Fabulous Disaster" (photo unavailable for "Sign Language"

Clarke is a member of Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre (see also this page). Sign Language was created in 2003 and uses the following music: Miserere (1989) and Sarah Was Ninety Years Old (1976/90) by Arvo Pärt. The “platform monologue” at the beginning was inspired by Radiohead’s Fitter Happier.

Oh, PS: ten minutes before Clarke’s 68-minute play was finished, the power went out. The high school next to the Belfry Theatre is building out and had covered a huge load of construction lumber with a temporary roof. Unfortunately, we’re having quite a few weather events this winter – a big storm blew in this evening. The wind picked up the temporary roof and flung it onto the overhead power lines. Poof, off went the stage lights, on came the emergency lights, and five minutes later the building was evacuated. Here’s hoping the weather – and roofs – behave for the remaining performances.


Until March 13: A Craigslist Cantata

March 10, 2011 at 2:22 pm | In arts | Comments Off on Until March 13: A Craigslist Cantata

If you appreciate theater and live in Victoria BC, you have until March 13 to see Do You Want What I Have Got: A Craigslist Cantata, now playing at The Belfry‘s Spark Festival.

Written and composed by Veda Hille and Bill Richardson, the currently 70-minute long production (still being workshopped, under Amiel Gladstone‘s direction) is both funny and serious. All of the dialog is based on actual Craigslist ads. And there is some zany shit out there, transformed by Hille (whose music carries the words to new a whole new level) and Richardson into spun gold.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (as they say). Well, maybe not cry. But gasp. At some point you’ll gasp.

The Spark Festival production stars Veda Hille (keyboard, voice) and (singers, all) Selina Martin, David Adams, Allan Zinyk, and Meghan Gardiner.

(An aside: People, get your own domain names and websites, for crying out loud – especially if you’re performers! How is anyone supposed to find you and/or look you up if you’re not online? Glad to see that Selina and Meghan have their online presence set up, but I couldn’t find anything definitive on David or Allan – who were both excellent.)

Loved all four characters – Meghan Gardiner had a stand-out song about a 23-year old recent college graduate (major: Philosophy) who has moved back into her old room in her parents’ house, intending to launch herself into the adult world …later. For now, she seeks to jettison the trappings of childhood that clutter her room, namely a collection of 300 (toy, stuffed) penguins. The story that’s revealed is of course utterly nuts, but capable of eliciting empathy.

Show starts at 8, in Studio A at the Belfry. Till March 13 (that’s another 3 nights).

Arcadia, variations on a theme

March 5, 2011 at 11:44 pm | In arts | Comments Off on Arcadia, variations on a theme

Tonight I had the great good pleasure of experiencing The Art and Ecstasy of the Chaconne: From the streets of Spain to the mind of Bach, a concert by Sinfonia New York (brought to Victoria by the Early Music Society of the Islands). It was fantastic, I was literally at the edge of my seat for much of it. “Transcendent” is a word that came to mind – in the sense that Charlie Mingus or John Coltrane would have felt in sync playing with, say, Christine Gummere (cello) or Claire Jolivet (violin). Or vice versa.

The first piece was for solo violin, played by Judson Griffin: Passacaglia in g minor by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The music – and Griffin’s interpretation – reminded me, at a stroke, of Nicolas Poussin‘s great painting, Et in Arcadia ego (the version now in the Louvre Museum). In Poussin’s painting, we see three men and a single woman in a beautiful, Italianate landscape. The men are traditionally interpreted as shepherds; the woman’s role is more difficult to determine. In the foreground of this serene, classical landscape is a large block of stone: a tomb. Poussin shows us the four figures after they have come upon this tomb, which bears the inscription Et in Arcadia ego.

A lot of ink has been spilled interpreting the painting. Essentially, the scene is read as a meditation on death. “Arcadia” is “Eden,” but even in Paradise (Arcadia), there is Death. You can get all metaphysical and possibly Derridian or Lacanian (that is, ur-Freudian) here and go spare over the sole female figure (woman as life …and Death), but basically you’re left with the Latin, Et in Arcadia ego, on a tomb (which is where dead people lie). Death is even there, in the middle of bliss.

So why did I think of Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego tonight? There was something so beautiful about the music (as written, and also as played and interpreted by the musicians) that all I could think was that I, too, want to live among people who could say Et in Arcadia ego. That is, it’s not at all about death, it’s about “getting” what it’s like to know Arcadia – a place no one actually lives in anymore (we’re all postlapsarian), but which can be known through various means (including art, particular kinds of work, certain deeds, etc.). It’s a place and a state that does not need to be entombed or announced via an inscription, but one that can embodied and experienced (as per the shepherds and their enigmatic muse). It’s a place that’s defined by its absence – the fact that it’s no longer directly accessible – but which is represented by something else (art, for example), and thereby known and experienced.

Fun with camera apps

February 2, 2011 at 8:43 pm | In arts, creativity, just_so | 1 Comment

For my birthday at the end of December, I got a new iPod Touch (iTouch?). I flat out love this little gadget: it has a microphone, which means I’ve been able to use it to Skype (with video); to make voice notes on Evernote; and to send myself voice memos by email. It also has a camera, and since I always have it on me, I now always have a camera on my walks.

All you long-time iPhone users can roll your eyes, but since I’m still on a dumb phone, this is as close as I’ll get to mobile (and truly portable) computing. (Without a monthly data plan.)

I find myself willing to download various apps now, too. Never much for gaming apps, I mostly ignored apps when I was still using my old (“blind”) iTouch. But that has changed now that I have a camera.

I started with Camera+ and entered a whole new world of being able to adjust light and exposure on the iTouch camera before ever pressing the shutter. After I take the picture, I can mess around with effects. So. much. fun!


The above is a self-portrait (oh yes, these apps and gadgets encourage narcissistic self-regard!) – I’m using Camera+‘s “purple haze” effect (after having first adjusted the exposure …toward the light side). 😉

Of course landscapes aren’t immune to crazy manipulation. The following three photos (also via Camera+) are of the cell phone tower at Summit Park in Victoria: the concrete tower’s bottom section is illustrated (presumably, this deters taggers), while the top is starkly utilitarian. Here I left the colors unchanged and instead only used Camera+ to manipulate the photo “frame”: it seems to me that this really changed the feel of the scene, without changing any of the colors or effects.

Alors, regardez:

First, (1) a wider view of the tower’s base in true color, and without a fancy frame; followed by (2) a close up of the base and (3) of the tower, again in true color but with fancy frames on (2) and (3):


Here’s the second photo, zooming in on the tower base, with a white frame resonant of the 70s:


And finally, the top part of the tower, with a kind of ratty frame in white:


I find myself looking at things differently now, with an eye to using the app to capture how the scene is making me feel.

But wait, there’s more…

I also downloaded SynthCam, which lets you do shallow depth of field shots and more: use the app to sharpen one small area of what’s in your viewfinder, and the rest is blurred out. This can be interesting if you’re trying to eliminate “noise” – including passing pedestrians or other moving objects from a non-moving subject you’ve focused on.

So (drumroll…), another narcissistic move – a self-portrait (and since SynthCam doesn’t allow flipping the viewfinder, this got tricky: it’s almost impossible to focus on the face, and you end up getting the hand in focus instead):


But you get the idea, right? The hand is (more or less) in focus (ok, I was wobbling everywhere), while the other objects (in this case the rest of me) is out-of-focus.

Now check out what effect this can create in landscape/ other objects.

First, a photo taken of a small wooden toy in the same Summit Park location, shot with the Camera+ app. The colors are true (unaltered), but the photo has a “polaroid” frame for a nostalgic look:


And next, a photo of the same object taken with SynthCam, focused on the wooden toy:


In both instances, the apps let me explore emotional aspects in coming across this random, forgotten object (the toy) at the edge of a park.

So that’s it, my most recent fun-with-apps excursion. Together with SketchBook MobileX (which I wrote about here), the iTouch and its app-enabled affordances are tons of fun and a good excuse to use my eyes.

(n.b. the above photos are viewable in full size on my Picasa page; they’re down-scaled here)

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