No man is an island. How come communities are?

November 15, 2012 at 6:28 pm | In guerilla_politics, ideas, just_so, land_use | Comments Off on No man is an island. How come communities are?

I don’t like every article published by City Journal – too often, I can imagine conservative think tank folk nodding their heads while reading its jeremiads about popular culture and decline, particularly as the articles describe how that decline is hastened (so they would argue) by “liberalism.” In other words, it’s often just a tad too ideological.

But I really liked Michael Anton’s piece, Tom Wolfe’s California. Anton points out that Wolfe, who’s seen as quintessentially belonging to New York City, spent a lot of time in California – seminal time, in fact.

In City Journal‘s grand tradition of California-bashing (the magazine does like to mention frequently that the state is a basket case, although I have no idea what they would like California to become… Florida?), we learn that in the 1960s Wolfe recognized in California’s incipient “statuspheres” (those subcultures fixated on surfing or pimping out and drag racing cars, etc.) the trends (downward, of course, this being City Journal) that would soon be embraced by the whole (declining) USA. (It just makes you wanna shout “yee-haw!” and go rustle up some cattle, drill for oil, and ride a horse into a healthy Texas sunset, don’t it…? /snark)

But seriously. Anton’s article is a great read – and it makes this reader want to get her hands on Wolfe’s books, to re-read some as well as read others for the first time, in either case with Anton’s insights into Wolfe front and center. Given our current passage through an economic age of sharp divisions (fabulously gilded on the one teeny-weeny tiny hand, soiled and dragged through the gutter on the rather over-large other), Anton’s analysis of what Wolfe wrote about money is especially interesting.

The economic boom after World War II resulted in a middle class that was rich, which in turn had a profound effect on how culture shaped up in California. As Anton notes, “But the thing about California’s middle class, especially at the time Wolfe began his investigations, is that it’s weird.” And a little further down: “All that money, freedom, and sense of limitless possibility have the same effect on California writ large as they do on people who rocket overnight from steelworker’s son to superstar. Out pours everyone’s inner weird.”

Between these two observations, there’s the following – and this is what really grabbed me, because after ten years of living on an actual island (one that was quite weird, too) I’m very interested in the phenomenon of “islanding” generally:

There is, in California, an inherent strangeness that has always attracted loners, dreamers, and outliers. Hemmed in on all sides by mountains, forests, deserts, and the sea, California is an island in every sense but the literal, with its own distinct climate, air, soil, flora, and fauna. Geographically and culturally, California is a world unto itself. [emphasis added]

“…an island in every sense but the literal”: there’s the key thing, for me. How does it happen, this “islanding”? What makes communities self-referential and relatively immune to outsiders? Not too long ago I heard the term “island” applied to a neighboring Boston North Shore municipality. The town in question is definitely not an actual island. The unflattering implication, however, was that people who come from or move to this place are (or become) islanders, and that their world-view changes.

Does it mean that islanders (real or figurative) become too convinced of their own importance, uniqueness, singularity? Do they care less about those not “on the island”?

What’s the balance between tradition and innovation on an island? How does change happen? Is “balance” between these two possible or desirable in the first place? What do communities (municipalities, cities) need to do to avoid islanding? My first thought here is allow more immigration and increase density, get people to rub up against one another. But my “real island” experience also taught me that once the island mindset is in a place’s DNA, it infects newcomers, too. If you live on an island – real or figurative – you will go native, believe me.

And what about modern versions of islanding, as described in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort? Is this just an instinct we have, one which we repeat whenever we clump together? Probably. Then how do we make sure it doesn’t i-s-o-l-a-t-e us? Can you isolate (hah, there’s that word again) the island DNA and inoculate against it?

Seems like an important thing, ’cause if it goes too far, you end up in a bubble, unable to perceive beyond the limits (and illusions) you’ve constructed. Even Republican ideologues ought now to understand that danger.

My Victoria friend Jarren Butterworth contemplating “Too many islands,”
photo ©Lena Vorontsova
(used with permission)

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.

Reading in the archives

January 31, 2011 at 8:41 pm | In authenticity, creativity, ideas, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

I was rooting around in my Google documents just minutes ago and came across two 2006 blog post drafts I’d parked there. I published them to my blog at the time, but hadn’t re-viewed them since then: All Eyes (Oct.22, 2006) and Winter will come soon enough (Oct.25, 2006).

Both posts convince me of two things: 1) that I should be leveraging my own archive; and 2) that I’ve become stupider over the past couple of years.

When I started blogging in 2003, I paid attention to what was said about blogging – what it was “supposed” to be, and what it wasn’t supposed to be. I guess I wasn’t particularly good at following instructions, though, so I never rose anywhere near the ranks where the big A-listers hung out – and instead I usually wrote long, convoluted posts.

Why? Probably because I had enough belief in my own ability to analyze – and most importantly: to synthesize – ideas. I continued to pursue my “big” ideas, irrespective of my marginal status and my inability to be popular. So what if my texts were an acquired taste and had a readership of …a few? These few were my readers, and that’s what counted. And so I wrote what I wanted to write.

While it bothered me that popular bloggers insisted that one should write at a Grade 8 level or that one shouldn’t write large blocks of text and that one should always break text up with lots of images and bullet points and paragraph headings, I kept going along in my style. Why? Because it helped me think – and I happened to be thinking about important matters.

That changed.

Somehow, in the last few years I lost touch with my intellectual side, the side that kept me thinking about important things. And it wasn’t other bloggers or A-list pundits who convinced me to lose that touch. It was my local environment. Here, in this island city, I tried to be a local pundit, and lord, what a disaster that was. I wrote for a print publication, which garnered me even less feedback than my blog posts had. I tried writing simply, because I was made to understand that overly complex texts aren’t popular. But I still wasn’t getting any resonance, even if I tried to write at a Grade 8 level. Therefore, it must all be my fault, I concluded. In 2007 the local mainstream media ripped me off, which hammered home the insight that ideas count for nothing when there’s an old boys’ network and $$ at stake.

Things got worse: in 2009 I also got sucked into a very fraught local political issue, which nearly completely destroyed my sense of …being able to make sense. That disaster happened in the slipstream of another lowlight of 2008, the aftereffects of which have dragged on for over two years: a municipal election that swept into power an awful mayor and council, further alienating me from Victoria. The 2011 election promises no relief, incidentally.

Doubly alienated – from my academic self as well as my engaged civic self – I have spent the last many months floundering. I’ve thrown myself into other projects and subjects, but my output has gone to the lowest common denominator. I tried to make myself understood locally, and that was my personal Waterloo. So much time wasted… talking to …whom? The town closed ranks and shut me out.

And I have lost years of serious thinking. What an idiot I’ve been to waste my time like this.

Health is a virtuous circle

January 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm | In addiction, health, ideas | Comments Off on Health is a virtuous circle

Health is a virtuous circle – that thought came to me the other day, as I thought about how well I’m feeling lately.

…Knock on wood that I didn’t just jinx things… Shades of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition… 😉

Vicious circles are pretty familiar, right? You have an itch, you scratch it. It gets itchier, you scratch some more. Before you know it, you’ve got a rash or a raging case of scabies. Mental scabies, even.

Drink a little too much. Burn the candle at all six ends. Abuse those relationships. Drink (or toke) some more. Whatever. Sit on your ass all day. Pretty soon you’re an open wound, baby.

At which point you have more reasons to pour on the salt – ’cause then you can get even more deeply into the vicious circle. Scratch scratch scratch.

(Or bitch bitch bitch. Mind you, I’m a big fan of critique, which I think is necessary for mental acuity. But bitching is just debilitating. If exercising critique can get you into exciting realms of possibility, bitching just gives you a tighter grip on your walker…)

When you’re healthy, it’s easier to stop scratching the itch that’s making you crazy in the first place. After a while, it’s not so itchy at all.

Bingo. Virtuous circle.

Not so superstitious, either.

Playing around

January 19, 2011 at 9:55 pm | In arts, authenticity, creativity, ideas, just_so | 2 Comments

Last week I put SketchBook MobileX (free app) on my iTouch. For the first time in a really long time, I had fun just doodling around, using my finger. Also for the first time, layers felt intuitively easy. Keep in mind, the screen on the iTouch is teeny-weeny, yet still it was fun to doodle around…

Ok, my images are crude enough – I haven’t made an effort to draw anything in a long long while, and boy, did I get flummoxed trying to get any kind of detail around mouths or eyes using just my finger – but the point is that I felt empowered by how easy it was to put something down via SketchBook MobileX.

Since using just my (relatively) big finger tip on the tiny iTouch screen did feel frustrating, I sprung for a Pogo Sketch stylus.

It’s less intuitive than using fingers, but on the limited real estate offered by the iTouch screen, it makes sense if you want more detail.

So, in that top sketch on the right ( –>), I first used the iTouch to take a photograph of Werner and me and imported it into SketchBook. (Don’t laugh – being able to put a photograph into an image manipulation interface was a major discovery for me; I never got the hang of the gimp, and my last foray into image editing was on a really basic/ cheap version of Photoshop half a dozen years ago…)

In this image, I used the stylus to doodle over the photograph in a second layer, just to fix the position of eyes/ noses/ mouths, etc. Once I had the outline, I continued working on that layer by adding some detail and coloring it a bit, and then I deleted the underlying photograph layer. Wow, that was fun!

(I know, I know! “How pathetic,” is what all the image manipulation nerds are thinking…)

The doodle below that is another free-from face, this time I was focusing on getting the eyes in about the right position, but mostly I was fixated on getting some architecture around the mouth. Incredibly, I used to know how to do this (hard to believe looking at the primitive scribbles here) – maybe, just maybe, this mobile-on-the-go sketching tool will get me to start re-learning this, and to look at how things (including faces) are built. And that would be amazing. I know I lost a big part of my ability to look – and to see – when I stopped drawing …when? three decades ago?

I can only imagine the pure joy of what it would feel like to draw on a bigger surface (like an iPad) – if I had that, I’d buy the upgrade (which has more features). 🙂 Yes, I could just get a big piece of paper, I know. But I’m so married to digital that paper presents a barrier. Putting a drawing directly into pixels, being able to send it via email or into my iPhoto collection – without scanner hassles – is just amazing to me.

Now, another interesting aspect is how this app lets me join several approaches to capturing an idea. The other day, while waiting for a coffee date and ruminating deeply about living in Victoria, I used the app to “write” a back-of-the-napkin thing – which is much looser than writing a “proper” text:


I felt loose enough to throw that out – and once I had that, I was able to make it “edgy,” as a longer-worded text. I’ll spare you my conclusions as formulated in the full text I ended up writing as there’s enough text here already, but basically, I need to get outta town… 😉

I’m looking forward to doodling around a lot more these days. Maybe I can eventually draw me a ticket.

TEDwomen, global

December 7, 2010 at 7:53 pm | In conference, ideas, victoria | Comments Off on TEDwomen, global

I spent about two hours at UVic this afternoon, where the Washington DC-based TEDwomen sessions were being live-streamed. I came in for Session 2: Life’s Symphony, featuring (among others) Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook); Mona Eltahawy (journalist); Tony Porter (educator); and Lauren Zalaznick (television exec).

I was fortunate to have heard about the live-cast (via a friend), and that was evident when I got to UVic. Some of the attendees (mostly women) had been there for Session 1; I arrived right at the break, about 10 or 15 minutes before Session 2. As we waited for it to start, one of the organizers noted that we were a lucky bunch to be privy to the simulcast … since it wasn’t publicly advertised.

Given that there were only about a dozen people in a room that could easily hold about sixty, I really couldn’t understand why the event wasn’t publicly advertised…

At one point, the DC event cut to a map of all the locations, globally, where TEDwomen was being simulcast, and via the magic of simulcasting and Skype, we “visited” the group located in Mexico. Its audience seemed a lot bigger than ours; they had strung up a banner, and were holding a parallel mini-TEDx conference of their own during breaks in the DC simulcast. They had made a big, decidedly public event out of this – I just had to wonder why our Victoria BC session was so private.

I don’t know… I dropped in late, I probably missed something.

But it reminded me of too much in Victoria – taking “it’s on a need-to-know basis” to a whole new level… #dislike

I’m sorry I failed to take notes – there was lots of good stuff.

The picture, above, is of Lauren Zalaznick, whose riveting analysis of TV-watching habits correlated to social trends (in cynicism or judgementalism or optimism or…) was eye-opening. From what I recall: we have so much in common with animals, except this – humans love to watch, whereas other animals don’t have that voyeurism fetish. From that core insight, Zalaznick looked at what we watch (hint, TV), and then extrapolated social trends. She matched these up with TV trends, and made the argument that TV is our “conscience”… Really looking forwarded to getting my hands on an archive broadcast of her talk, and the others, too.

I signed up for another session tomorrow, but I don’t think I’ll take the time out to attend. It’s a hassle to free up the time, and if I’m going to do that, it has to be better than bowling alone.

Random notes

November 15, 2010 at 10:07 pm | In harvard, ideas, notes | Comments Off on Random notes

I’m in information overload right now – cramming into my head a 2 1/2-inch thick binder full of sometimes esoteric data well beyond my usual comfort zone (financial info and accounting, anyone?), as I get ready to interview a few arts organizations. Too many words, too many numbers.

But of course, when it rains, it pours – which is why I’m finding additional information online that I really want to splash around in, versus just dipping my toes into.

So…, here’s a very brief shout-out for two (ok, three) pages in particular.

First, Alexandra Samuel has an incredibly useful 5-part series called Social Media for Journalists, which is a must-read for researchers of any sort. Want to know how to use Evernote or LinkedIn or bookmarking services or even Google to your best research advantage? Click on through. I’m not sure why or how I missed the series when it came out (it began on October 26 and ended on October 29), but better late than never, as they say…

Next, tomorrow morning there’s going to be a Berkman Center lunch hour webcast scheduled for EST 12:30pm with Juliet Schor (in our Pacific Standard Time zone, this will start at 9:30am), called Using the Internet to “Save the Planet”. The webcast will be archived for those who want to view it later, but if anyone has a free hour around tomorrow, drop in on Schor’s presentation. From the blurb:

We are witnessing escalating evidence of human destabilization of the climate and biodiversity loss. In the sustainability community, both activists and practitioners are increasingly turning to the internet to foster new lifestyles, consumption patterns and ways of producing. There has been an explosion of web-enabled innovations around consumption sharing and extra-market exchange in order to reduce footprint. At the cutting-edge people are turning to peer production and open-source practices to accelerate the design and diffusion of ecologically-intelligent and efficient modes of provision in agriculture, consumption and manufacturing. (source)

The page has additional links to explore, and (this my third pointer) there’s a great video of Schor’s presentation last May at the Seattle Library, which you can watch here.

PS: And since Schor has talked about up-scaling and up-ticks in consumption, which sounds like the Gilded Age of yore, here’s a link to a great Frank Rich op-ed from Nov. 13, 2010, Who Will Stand Up to the Superrich?

Victoria, the ecosystem

November 10, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In ideas, victoria | Comments Off on Victoria, the ecosystem

When people say that Victoria British Columbia is “a small town,” I think they’re dead wrong. I understand what those people are getting at, but I think they’re completely missing the mark: because, with a Capital Regional District (CRD) population of over 350,000 people, it’s not a small town by Canadian standards. We punch above our weight in many areas: we have several universities and colleges in town (and research and medical facilities to go with these); we have art and music and ballet schools; a kick-ass opera (and I say that even though I’m opera-challenged – love the singing, but hate the stupid story-lines); a great symphony orchestra; an exciting youth orchestra; a gazillion music groups and gobs of talented players; an incredible indy music scene; a whole bunch of thriving, innovative theaters, from musical to improv to way-out-there-fringe; slam poets galore; an art gallery that has the best Asian collection (albeit mostly in storage); …the list goes on.

It’s true that we are very very small if we count only the population of the City of Victoria, but no one in their right mind understands those arbitrary political boundaries as having actual social or practical significance in real life (except, of course, when those same political lines in the sand mess up your life with regard to pulling permits or other bureaucratic niceties, etc.). For all intents and purposes, “Victoria” is comprised of all the people in the CRD.

We don’t punch above our weight economically, perhaps in part because there are no “big” employers aside from the Province (government) and we don’t attract any head offices. But there’s a sometimes surprising network of small businesses that increasingly (thank-you, interwebs) plug into the world beyond the island. (For non-BC readers: we’re located on a peninsula on the southernmost tip of a rather large, vastly uninhabited island.)

That we are an island-locked ocean-bordered city is, aside from our municipal political structure (balkanization into 13 municipalities), our biggest constraint, and I’m not yet sure how even if you look at it as a design issue and say, “let this constraint be a feature, not a …well, constraint/ bug” – or whether it’s possible to get around it. At the end of the day, there’s something so final about geography.

Essentially, people say that Victoria is “a small town” because anyone who begins to engage in any of the city’s spheres comes to realize very quickly that everyone knows everyone here.

Isn’t that the very definition of “small town”?

I don’t think so.

You know what a Venn diagram is, right? There’s a simple example on the right —>

In a small town, a simple Venn diagram would explain the overlap of people connections. There would be this core group of individuals (the ones in the area where all three circles overlap) who sort of know everyone and everything, and there would be slightly weaker overlaps in those areas where just two circles overlap.

What makes Victoria different – possibly unique – is that we can’t use simple Venn diagrams to “explain” overlaps or cultures in this city. Imagine, instead, a Venn diagram drawn by M.C. Escher (on the left, a relatively uncomplicated – heh – structure called Circle Limit <– click that link for a larger image).

Or perhaps imagine a Venn diagram drawn by M.C. Escher, which is then re-interpreted by Benoit Mandelbrot as a fractal.

That’s the sort of overlap we deal with here, and it can make for some very strange overlaps indeed – and it can create the feeling that it’s literally impossible to get away from anyone anytime anywhere in this city. Wherever you go, there you are – and you are connected to everyone else.

Why is that? My theory is that Victoria has one of the densest (and sometimes weirdest) ecosystems of any place around. This ecosystem is of course expressed in the nature of the place – a nature which is indomitable, impossible to squelch or suppress – and it replicates in all the “little” human ways of the two-legged inhabitants of this place.

This is not a small town. This is an especially dense and concentrated ecosystem (albeit economically still underdeveloped). But if it ever busts out and becomes the sort of economic generator that Jane Jacobs talked about when she described economies as ecosystems (stretching imports in the conduit, she called it), it’s going to be very big (that is: rich and complex and vibrant) indeed.

I would like to think that our political and civic leaders get this. Most of the time, I’m not convinced.

Power/ Influence

November 3, 2010 at 11:41 pm | In arts, authenticity, fashionable_life, guerilla_politics, ideas, social_critique, vancouver, victoria, women | Comments Off on Power/ Influence

A few days ago the Vancouver Sun published BC’s top 100 influential women – it’s entirely possible that I would have missed the Sun‘s report if not for Alexandra Samuel‘s extensive blog post, Vancouver Sun list of 100 influential women in BC shows influence beyond Twitter.

This evening I came across Are you an influencer? on The Next Web Shareables. There are two videos in this post – one is a short trailer, the other is a 14-minute version. The influencers are almost all – and I mean all – men. Young, too, and often pretty macho. There’s one woman who gets interviewed more extensively, and aside from her (and a brief image of Marilyn Munroe, of all people) it’s men, men, men: discursively, it’s a world where women simply don’t exist, except for exotic exceptions that serve to rub in how absent we are otherwise.

From my not-so-in-depth examination (so far) of the Vancouver Sun piece (I have some ambition to pick it apart later, but haven’t done so yet), it seemed to me that the top 100 influential women in BC are almost all from Vancouver: it’s as if anything beyond Metro Vancouver doesn’t exist.

Before seeing the Are you an influencer video tonight, I had been thinking, tangentially, about the importance of location / place in determining who gets to be counted as an influencer (and why), and about how location concentrates and drives influence and power. Specifically with the BC’s top 100 influential women piece in mind, I had been thinking about Vancouver and how it seems unlikely for that location to share power and influence with other locations in BC.

At the same time, I was recalling that 25 years ago Vancouver was for all intents and purposes a hick town, really: when my friend and fellow grad student Steve at the University of British Columbia announced to faculty that he planned to write an Art History Master’s Thesis about a Canadian art movement, one of the senior professors – an Englishman who studied Tiepolo, regularly removing himself from Vancouver as often as he could to pursue his studies in situ in Italia – warned Steve that, by limiting himself to such a provincial scope, he was burying himself “in a very shallow grave.” In other words, young man (or young woman), if you didn’t study Pollock or Picasso – or any of the other big-name brand-name all-male stars – and if instead you chose a new (but obscure!) topic that you cared about (or, gasp!, a woman artist to study), you were not going to be an influencer yourself. You could only become an influencer by attaching yourself to a Big Name.

Fact. Honest truth. The Tiepolo scholar was telling Steve that he could not, within the framework of the Academy, become an influencer if he chose to study something un-influential (sotto voce, that meant “study an important male artist, it will pay off for you – do not choose to study an insignificant movement or heaven forbid a woman artist”).

Do you see the contradiction? Sure, you might say, “well, hip influencers these days don’t want to work in the Academy,” but I’m telling you that there is no “out there,” and that instead, the academy is all around us, morphing to provide the context of power every time. Call it Academy 2.0, call it Influencer Academy: it’s still a power structure. If you’re outside that Academy, good luck flopping around in your shallow grave.

So the question with regard to the “top 100 influential women” article and its Vancouver-centrism might be, “how does a place become the sort of framework that allows certain things / people to achieve influence?” Vancouver has become that sort of place. Is it the concentration of capital and power, which in turn conveys some sort of benediction on those who do manage to achieve success within it?

As for the continued existence of the Academy, just watch the Influencers video and be amazed at how tightly it’s still controlled by men – but then realize that the video was created by two men. So, no big surprise, eh? If women don’t step up and make these kinds of documentaries, well, then, tant pis pour nous, as they say might say in Quebec. In that sense, I applaud the Sun‘s B.C.’s Top 100 Influential Women series and I’m thrilled to see every single woman on there.

The issue of place keeps nagging at me, of course. Victoria can certainly be the most shallow of graves…

I don’t know what became of Steve, who “sacrificed” becoming an influencer (aka, joining the Big Men) by instead studying obscure Canadian socialist art of the 1930s.

But how superficial would our culture be if we only studied the Big Men, amplifying a power structure that trades only within the Academy? We don’t need another hero, and we don’t need a fancier Echo Chamber either.

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