I’m feeling really annoyed at the Dean of Edmonton Theatre Reviewers

I’m feeling a little annoyed at Colin MacLean, “the Dean of Edmonton Theatre Reviewers.” You see, when writing in the Mary Poppins playbill earlier this year about the then-upcoming Citadel production of Romeo and Juliet, he reminisced about the 1976 Citadel production of the same play:

“It featured Canadian Brent Carver (who went on to win a Tony in New York) and a young Tom Wood as Mercutio. (Also it featured a Juliet who performed the balcony scene topless but that is another discussion.)”

Well, Colin, that Juliet you dismiss with such puerility has a name. She’s Nicky Guadagni. John Neville brought her to Edmonton fresh from playing Miranda to Paul Scofield’s Prospero in London. She’d graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She’s since been nominated for five Geminis and won two. She’s had as successful a career as that young man who played her Romeo in 1976. I’d argue she’s gone much further than her Mercutio.

It is absolutely shameful and sexist of you to dismiss Nicky Guadagni as the topless, nameless Juliet on the balcony.

Shameful.

By the way: if I remember correctly, Mr. Carver also played that scene topless, Colin.

Check out Ms. Guadagni’s CV here.

And then see again what the Dean of ‪#‎yegtheatre‬ Reviewers has to say about her:

Colin MacLean being sexist

La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910 (and a little bit of Toulouse-Lautrec) at the Art Gallery of Alberta

The most important thing to say about the current exhibition on the second floor of the Art Gallery of Alberta is that it is  a magnificent, overwhelming survey of the graphic arts produced in Paris in the decades around 1895.  It presents a tremendous opportunity for the student of art history.  It is a marvellous collection of beautiful art to be enjoyed for its own sake.  Art Services International has assembled a stunning collection of works and the Art Gallery of Alberta has again done a great service to Edmonton by bringing La Vie Moderne to our city.

But . . .

Everywhere the show is being marketed as somehow a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit.  If you go to the AGA expecting a Toulouse-Lautrec show, you’ll be sadly disappointed.  Only about ten percent of the works are by Toulouse-Lautrec and most of those few are not particularly outstanding examples of his work.  Art Services International would have been wise, I think, to give the exhibition a more honest title.  The show presents the flowering of La Vie Moderne in the works of a wide range of artists working in media from lithograph, to oil, to shadow theatre.  Historically accurate or not, Toulouse-Lautrec is not shown by this exhibit to be central to the scene: he is no more than one of the many inspired artists working to show and shape the modern life in Paris.

With that out of the way . . .

I would like to comment a bit on the exhibition and some of the works and then I will say some things about the accompanying catalogue.

The Exhibition

The works are somewhat haphazardly divided by subject matter: Landscapes, Scenes of Daily Life, Cabaret Life, The Cafe-Concert, Portraits, Symbolism, and a few works depicting the Circus, and, of course, a single wall of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works.  I say “haphazardly divided” because, for example, Mucha’s absolutely monumental portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, will listed in the catalogue with the Portraits, is hung at the AGA with scenes of the Cafe-Concert.  In fact, the entire show seems to be hung in such a way as to make reference to the catalogue as difficult as possible.  If one perseveres, however, it will be found that three works, Auguste Jean Baptiste Roubille’s shadow theatre influenced “La Comedie”,  André Devambez’s amusing theatre audience character study “Une Première au Théâtre Montmartre”, and Charles Maurin’s exquisite “Jeunes filles a la charrette” are wholly absent from the show.  A disappointment.

A few works I would like to point out

Guilloux’s “The Lake” (Catalogue 10) is absolutely luminous.  A tiny jewel of a painting that is in no way done justice by the washed-out reproduction in the catalogue.

Lacoste’s “Hazy Sun” and “View of Paris” (14 & 15) also are betrayed by the catalogue reproductions. The Hazy Sun is, in fact, a hot white textured ball reaching out to the viewer over an oppressively atmospheric heat haze.  The “View of Paris” also is hazed by the summer heat and the high clouds are a line of fire in the sky.  Lacoste has put all of summer’s light and heat and weight onto cardboard with a bit of paint.

Jeanniot’s “Le Parc Monceau” (17) has done for a Paris winter what Lacoste has done for summer. Our feet are we with slush, the damp wind gets inside our coat.  The air itself seems to be rushing through le Parc Monceau, looking for a warm, dry place.

Rivière’s “Isle of the Swans” (18) is a large, magnificent pastel and crayon piece heavily influenced by Japanese graphic art.  Two women and a dog share the empty artificial island in a twilight of ochre and violet.  The formal lines of trees are bare, reflected in the huge puddle of melted snow.  Rivière has drawn a piece of great ballance and strength with great assurance.

Maurin’s “Woman Sleeping” 21 is a simply stunning piece of draughtsmanship!  One thinks to single out that right hand, they eyes, the left shoulder, but the pencil work is all perfection.  And Maurin has used his interesting vaporizer painting technique on the pillows, the coverlet, the background.  So fine!  And so sad that Maurin’s “Jeunes filles a la charrette” (20) is not on the wall at the AGA.

Carrière’s “Young Violinist” (29) is a little disturbing.  The pale child violinist seems to creep from the shadows like some sort of revenant.  Fascinating.

Lunel’s “Illusions of the Evening” (34) feels ominous.  There is more than a little of the terror/horror story illustration about the woman hurrying toward the viewer, the stiffly erect man following her and the horse-drawn cab further behind but gaining on her.  Sublimely discomfitting.

Bernard’s “Still Life with Fish” (39) is a marvelously bold collection of coarse brush strokes making a luminous and realistic still life of unreal colours.

Laugé’s “Composition of Three Flower Vases” (40) in contrast, is a meticulously controlled composition of fine, largely parallel brush strokes.  In person the brush strokes are much more subtle than in the catalogue reproduction.

And here I will mention two Toulouse-Lautrec pieces:

“Troupe de Mlle Églantine” (60b) is to be noted for two things: the rapid, minimal lines; and those black-stockinged right legs raised in dance which have come to be a symbol of Lautrec, Montmarte and fin de siècle Paris.

“La Vache enragée” (62b) again has the rapid minimal lines. This poster has a whimsy which takes away any possible horror stirred by the wealthy man’s jaundiced skull-like features or terror of the enraged cow in pursuit.  This is a cartoon, in the Saturday morning sense, and a perfect advertisment for the convention-flouting journal of the same name and for the artists’ parade called the Vachalcade.

It is fascinating to see Manet’s “Polchinelle” (66).  Here Manet shows remarkably assured drawing skill, so different from the childlike mess he so often makes of horses.

Rivière’s illustrations for “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (73.1-73.5) are fascinating and offer a hint of what the shadow plays must have been like.  And the zinc cutouts (76-81) which were used for some of the plays give a hint of what an elaborate production the plays could be.  What a fascinating thing it would be to see a shadow play somehow restaged!

Vidal’s book cover “La Vie a Montmartre” (90) is beautiful and whimsical (there’s la vache enragee again). Dancers and artists float in the sky above Paris. Life is good in Montmartre!  Again the catalogue doesn’t do justice to the work.  I particularly noticed the simply managed atmospheric perspective of the lithograph.

Legrand’s “Private Bar” (115) is a fascinating piece. I’d love to find out more about the story behind the black man and the little white girl sitting together in the Private Bar.  A small detail I found of interest is the ads for Bass Ale above the girl’s head.  Bass Ale also features prominently in Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”.  It is sad that Bass has vanished from our modern life.

Villon’s “From other bars” (118) is reminiscent of Degas’ “l’Absinthe”, but here the couple are gazing blankly toward and through – not at – each other.  There is only melancholy here.

Veber’s “La Cariatide” 120 is absolutely hilarious because of the expression on the Cariatide’s face as she looks down on the theatre goers with their own varied expressions from interest, to shock to disgust, to boredom and perhaps even to a few cases of narcolepsy.  Very nice.

Legrand’s Dancers (122-127) are exquisite! The dancer in 124 is strong and in control, whatever the nature of her pose. Legrand’s washes of blue and black provide a simple depth which allows the dancer’s figure to thrust forward.  The blush wash (not well reproduced in the catalogue) on chest and thigh in 127 bring the dancer to warm life.  The young redhaired dancer in 122 and 125 is marvellously alive in variations on the same pose.

Mossa’s “Salomé” 155 I found to be quite interesting because Salomé seems to be presented in a manner very similar to the no well-known Minoan snake goddess discovered by Evans in the ruins at Knossos. Evans first published his find in 1904, three years before Mossa’s “Salomé”.  Could Mossa have heard of Evans’ discovery or seen pictures of the bare-brested snake goddess?

Maxence’s “Hour of Peace” (156) is a simply breath-taking watercolour.

Chabas’ “Daydream” (157) is yet another piece not done justice in the catalogue reproduction.  The subtle greens in the sky and reflected in the water and picked up in the dress of the woman, while visible in the small photo, are simply not of the same effect as when standing before the piece in the gallery.

Guilloux’ “Belle Isle” is simply luminous in person.  The sun and its reflection leap off the canvas.  The light of this sunset (sunrise?) piece is remarkable.  His “The Waterway” 171 again does wonders with light, this time of the moon.

Ménard’s “The Temple of Corinth” (175) I found personally interesting because of it’s very limited palette and its classical subject.  What is not apparent in the catalogue reproduction is the sketchiness of the brushwork.  The temple columns are painted with a quick series of lines through which the sea and distant headland can be seen.  A fascinating piece.

Mucha’s portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (186) I’ve already mentioned.  It is a glorious piece of work.

A few notes on the Catalogue

In her Acknowledgements, Lynn K. Rogerson is absolutely right that we in Edmonton should give our thanks to Catherine Crowston and Laura Richie “for their foresight in making this rich cultural experience available to [our] communit[y].”  The exhibition, despite misleading marketing and missing pieces, is truly a marvelous thing to experience.  The catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, while beautiful and big, leaves much to be desired.

While the essays are very helpful in providing a general context for the art works, the commentaries on individual works I found to be uneven.  Sometimes there was simply no commentary and so, I was left wondering, for example about Legrand’s “Private Bar” (115).  At other times I detected hastiness and superficiality of analysis, for example concerning the placement of the blond woman’s hands in Osbert’s “Rêve du Soir (168) (she clearly has her hands clasped together on her friend’s shoulder and the shape on her face is a shadow). And research seems hasty at times, as in the suggestion that the small stream beyond the railway in Roy’s “Young Girls in a Landscape” is the Siene when it clearly seems to be the small Le Cailly River near Deville-les-Rouen and the young ladies seem to be standing in the vicinity of le Bois l’Archevêque, perhaps near the location of the present Cimetière Communal de Deville-les Rouen.  But now I’m just showing off.

As I’ve mentioned, the reproductions in the catalogue are not the best.  Many works appear muddy, washed out, or dull. Others are garish and bright compared to the actual works.

Certainly it is better to have a catalogue for a huge exhibit such as this than to have no reference material, but there is much that disappoints in this book.

While I have been critical of a number of things about Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910, I must emphasize:

Please go to the show and take time to absorb the marvellous works on exhibit.  The Art Gallery of Alberta is the only Canadian stop for La Vie Moderne. Please take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880-1910 is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until November 16, 2014

Hasty Thoughts on Angie Abdou’s “Between”

I can’t help thinking that “challenging” is an overused word in the book review shtick, but,  Angie Abdou’s Between is a challenging book.  It’s not challenging in a stylistic sense, like Joyce or Woolf — Abdou’s writing is laid-back and accessible.  And Between is not a monumental modern day À la recherche du temps perdu — it’s a quick three hundred pages covering a year in the lives of an upper-middle class Canadian family and their Filipina nanny.  Potentially pretty tame stuff.  And while Between is perhaps challenging  in that it acknowledges that parenting is often gruelling, that one must often “make the conscious choice to laugh instead of cry”, the deep challenge of the novel, I think, is a challenge to our fundamental assumptions about what is desirable in life.

“Between” is the story of Vero and Shane, 40-something parents of Eliot and Jamal and Ligaya, the nanny they bring to Canada to look after their children.  The basic premise in some ways makes me roll my eyes like Debbie in Stoppard’s The Real Thing: “Infidelity among the architect class. Again.”  Rich people have it so tough.  As annoyingly self-absorbed and blinkered as Vero and Shane are, what becomes quickly clear is that they are a mirror held up to Canadian affluence.  What starts out as the story of a couple suffering the burden of success, desperately trying to find themselves or lose themselves in drugs and sex, soon becomes a mesh of interwoven metaphors pointing to larger issues than “Where will Vero get her Percocet today?”

Early in the book, Shane tells Vero “We can have everything. Let’s take it.” This becomes their almost unwavering policy through the book, from bringing Ligaya to Canada, through their Saturnalian Jamaican holiday, to the final crisis in Ligaya’s basement bedroom.  Near the middle of the book, Vero remembers (and quickly forgets) a statement her own mother once made:

My generation worked for a world in which women could do anything. Your generation misinterpreted that to mean that you must do everything.

Shortly after, Vero and Shane are at the Jamaican resort named “Hedonism”, making a brave effort to do, in fact, everything.

There is a sense of panic in “Between”. Vero spends her days frantically doing little or nothing.  Her work is proofreading manuals for military equipment, manuals which will be translated into Arabic, rendering her work pointless.   Her children seem to be little other than frustrating pieces of furniture until Ligaya takes over as parent. At that point the boys become cute things to look at before another round of Bikram Yoga.  Vero is unable to see the obvious: she doesn’t want the life and the family she’s constantly chasing.  Almost all that’s left for here is the meaningless chase.

Ligaya, on the other hand, can’t have the life she wants with her family in the Philippines.    She is constantly and productively working to make life better for her employers and for their children in order to make life better for her own family.  Neither woman is particularly happy, but Ligaya’s life has purpose beyond “I can have it, so I’ll take it. I can do it, so I must.”

And, Ligaya’s thought: “This world is not made for women. Not in the Philippines. Not here. Maybe not anywhere.”  This fact is made most explicit (word chosen carefully) at the resort which is “everywhere and nowhere”, where the rules are clearly made by men.

Before the Jamaican holiday, Vero, talking like an English major, says “sex is a metaphor!” Although no one seems to realize it in the book, the holiday proves her absolutely right.  In fact, almost everything in Between is a metaphor.  The resort is “nowhere and everywhere”.  “Bikram yoga: destroying the environment one tree pose at a time!” “SWEAT KILLS!”  In a surreal scene, Vero demands of a young man “Protest the oil sands, the war in Iraq, the cuts to public transit, for God’s sakes.”

And the young man’s response sums up Vero and Shane’s life, Between and our world: “They’re all the same thing.”

In the end, Abdou offers a solution, a resolution to vast, tangled web of self-deception which is a big metaphor for our diseased, tangled, self-deceiving  society: the outsider takes control.  Remembering that Ligaya’s name means “Happiness” in Tagalog, the final two words of the novel provide yet another layer of metaphor, and a touch of hope:

“Ligaya drives.”

Art on Consignment

Imagine you were planning a party.  Imagine you rented a hall for your party, paying the landlord the going rate for renting a hall of that size.  Imagine you then sent letters to every caterer in town, inviting them to send “submissions” for the meal, which read like this:

Please provide a list of menu items, with pictures in jpeg format, a list of ingredients for each item, and a brief chef’s statement about your work and a bio with relevant training and previous catered events listed.

And then imagine that you selected the menu items you thought might appeal to your guests and sent an acceptance to the successful caterers along with a contract like this:

You will deliver the menu items selected on the date of the party, ready to be served by 5:30 pm.  You will be responsible for all costs of transport and preparation of your menu item(s) and insurance if you choose to insure your utensils, etc.  You will be responsible to provide all serving dishes, trays, utensils as well as dishes, cutlery and tableclothes. I will provide tables (rented from a supplier of my choice).

If my guests choose to eat your menu item(s), I will receive payment from my guest(s) for the item(s) consumed.  All unconsumed menu items and all dishes, trays, etc. must be removed by midnight at your expense. Any food or equipment not removed by the deadline will be charged a daily storage fee.  Thirty (30) days after the party, I will issue you a cheque for 50% of the sale price of your menu item(s), retaining 50% as my commission on the sale.

Thank you for being a part of my party and it is such a pleasure to support the wonderful catering industry in our city!

I think we would all agree that no caterer would submit to such an arrangement.  It simply seems absurd to offer the product of your labour and training, the investment of your capital, on consignment.

And yet, this is the standard business model in the visual arts industry in most of the world.  A private gallery, a not-for-profit arts group or festival, a public gallery will host a show.  They will pay their directors or shareholders a salary or dividends or both. The will pay the caterer and the string quartet or guitarist for the opening reception. They will pay hall rental. They will pay the printer who prints posters and invitations.  But in almost every case, the artists whose works are on the walls and plinths, the producers of the products which are said to be at the heart of the whole event, will never see a penny unless their piece sells, and then they see 50% of the purchase price, if they’re lucky.

“But you benefit from the exposure.” I hear someone call from the back. Why don’t your directors, or the caterer, accept payment with exposure?

 

“Support” for the arts often is just treating art like an old frock on a rack in a consignment store

 

This business model is nothing other than exploitation.  No other industry today would tolerate such harsh exploitations of the producers of that industry’s product.  Recording artists get a royalty every time their song is played on the radio.  There are Equity pay scales in live theatre.  The only other industry I can think of which functions on the same model is the consignment used clothing store.  I don’t think a piece of art, the newly manufactured product of years of training and hard work, is equivalent to an old frock, no matter how gently used!  Even second-hand book shops don’t do consignment!

Thankfully, there is a campaign in Canada, led by Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadians(CARFAC) (Visual Arts Alberta/CARFAC[VAA] in Alberta) to standardize and press for artists’ fees to be paid for all exhibitions.  It is a difficult hill to climb.  VAA sets an example by putting the Association’s money were its collective mouth is, paying artists’ fees even for its fund-raising members’ exhibitions.  I must also mention Edmonton sculptor and art show organizer Pat Jacob, who made a point of purchasing outright some paintings from me for his gallery in Eastend, Saskatchewan.  Imagine that!  Buying a product wholesale and then selling it retail at an appropriate mark-up.  What a revolutionary business model!

I expect many working artists, particularly the young ones, don’t want to rock the boat: as well as their passion, their art is, to varying extents, their livelihood.  Rebelling against the status quo could well end their chances of being exhibited in some places.

But I’m an old guy.  I’ll survive even if I offend gallery owners and festival organizers and curators by asking  again:

You pay the caterer for stuff you give away! Why don’t you pay the artist something for the stuff you’re trying to sell, for the products that actually bring the customers into your place?

CARFAC phrases the question more simply:

“Has the artist been paid?”

Sadly, far more often than not, the caterer has been paid, paid even for the uneaten food in the bin out back of the gallery, but the artists get nothing except a brusque order to get their stuff off the walls and out the door. It’s closing time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Afterthought:

 

“But artists get government grants.” Someone else shouts out.

 

Yes, some artists get grants sometimes. Many never get a grant. Many never apply for one. Those artists who receive grants are, while the grant lasts, effectively government employees — civil servants. When grant-funded art goes into a gallery without an artist’s fee being paid, it’s a government subsidy of the gallery.

 

 

Update, August 29, 2014:  Today, Paddy Lamb, Alberta Representative on the Board of CARFAC posted  a positive and encouraging clarification to my Facebook page and he has agreed to it being reposted here.

 

I’m really glad you’ve written this John and I agree that it’s often an exploitative business model. However, I’d like to clarify something. Thanks to the efforts of CARFAC, who helped establish and maintain an artists’ fee schedule, most public galleries and artist run centres do pay the exhibiting artist(s) an exhibition fee. I suspect the reason that some don’t is because they are inadequately funded. Your point about “benefiting from exposure” is well taken. I’ve noticed a lot of this lately – not least from charitable, non-profit and fundraising organizations who should know better. A lot of people remain unaware of the inequities and artists have to educate. One way to do this is to join CARFAC. Whatever the method, artists have to become more vocal and less acquiescent about the present state of affairs.

 

Yes, things are improving for artists, in large part due to the hard work of CARFAC. 

 

Remember, artists: Join CARFAC, for the Union makes us strong!

 

 

A few amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning

City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions.  Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce. 

                         — Hugh Ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, p.142

There’s a thing going on in Edmonton about Infill.  Personally, I think infill of various types is vital to our city. Personally I think that increasing density through infill can build more vibrant communities and continue to make Edmonton the exciting, inspiring place to live that it has been as long as I can remember.  But I think there’s been some misleading rhetoric in the debate.

First, a definition

To me and, I expect, to many in Edmonton, a “neighbourhood” is a geographical entity with a name and probably a Community Hall and a Community League. Parkallen is a “neighbourhood”. The 100 block of Whyte avenue is a “block” not a “neighbourhood”.  A number of blocks is “a number of blocks” or an “area”, not a “neighbourhood”.

There’s been a line trotted around in various forms that no neighbourhood in Edmonton has a right to be exclusively single-family houses.

I agree. When I first heard this line I thought of the outlying suburbs where single-single family houses are the overwhelming majority of the residential dwellings.

But no neighbourhood in Edmonton, not even the most exclusive, is exclusively single-family houses.  Not a single one.

Sure, there are blocks, numbers of blocks and areas within neighbourhoods which are now exclusively single family houses.  My side of the street is exclusively single family houses. The other side of the street is a mix of duplexes, basement suites, single family houses. Across the alley from them it’s all walk-up apartments. And across that street is commercial. This area is a vibrant community within the perhaps equally vibrant neighbourhood called Strathcona.  It is decidedly not exclusively single-family houses, but areas of the neighbourhood decidedly are. This patchwork, this mosaic of areas is, I think, part of what makes and maintain the vibrancy and liveability of our neighbourhood.

Edmonton does not need a residential infill development free-for-all. Edmonton needs incentive to increase density through infill guided by conscientious zoning of all  residential types, including single-family houses to create a mosaic of blocks, groups of blocks and areas within a neighbourhood – within a community.

Take a walk through Parkallen

Take a walk, a ride or a drive through Parkallen sometime and you’ll see what I think is a terrific neighbourhood made up of zoned residential types. If Parkallen’s areas of RF1 (single-family houses) were simply removed, the neighbourhood would be quite simply destroyed by chaotic redevelopment.

Density could be easily increased through a judicious use of rezoning, juggling the mix, decreasing the total area zoned RF1 so that the transition is orderly, organic, and retains the essential overarching character of the neighbourhood.  This course would be planning. Simply eliminating RF1 would be the abdication by the City of the responsibility for planning and, indeed, the ability to plan.  Neighbourhoods would, in the end, become more dense, but homogeneous and chaotic, grey and unpleasant.

I must thank my good neighbour and good friend Charlie for the conversation this afternoon which really focused my thoughts on this subject.

 

Update, August 22, 2014:

First I want to thank Councillor Walters for engaging in conversation both here in the comments below and also on Twitter. And thanks to Paul, as well.  It’s a fine thing to live in a community in which elected officials are so accessible. As a matter of fact, yesterday, as well as the online conversation with Councillor Walters, I was fortunate to have pleasant face-to-face conversations with Councillor Michael Oshry and Alberta Cabinet Minister Heather Klimchuk. It’s so encouraging to be able to simply chat with our elected officials.

Second, in the interest of transparency, I must mention that I don’t have a personal neighbourhood dog in this fight. Strathcona, the happy neighbourhood in which I live, is considered “Central Core” and so is not the subject of the “Infill Roadmap”.  The Roadmap is directed at Edmonton’s “Mature” and “Established” neighbourhoods, one of which is Parkallen, which I use above as an example of a very liveable neighbourhood which could be destroyed by injudicious, sweeping zoning changes.

Third, Edmonton seems to like to have pilot projects. There’s one happening right now about backyard beekeeping. There’s one coming up about backyard chickens. I wish our City’s Administration, instead of conducting studies and then implementing the infill plans, would consider a pilot rezoning project.  Why not rezone a single street or the end of a block within a neighbourhood and see what happens?  We do pilot projects about relatively small issues. Why not do one or two to investigate this major change in our urban landscape?

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On Viewing the International Space Station

When I was about ten years old I climbed with my family to the roof of our house in Windsor Ontario one summer evening to watch the little light called Skylab sail silently across the dusky sky. Memory is a funny thing. I remember Skylab flying from East to West, but I know that its actual path was necessarily from West to East. However distorted, that childhood memory of Skylab’s passage has stayed with me these forty years. I had seen a space station!

Fifteen or twenty years ago, one early Edmonton morning I looked up and saw a dim light I knew to be one of the Space Shuttles pass overhead, just after re-entry. A few minutes later, I saw the same shuttle on live television landing in Florida. The memory of that strange moment, seeing on television as one of an audience of millions the science fiction machine to which I had just been solitary witness — that memory has also remained clear for me.

The other night at 10:17 my neighbour in his bathrobe came out to our back alley. I felt a bit of a Ford Prefect/Arthur Dent moment but resisted the urge to mention the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My neighbour brought two of his teenage children along and we watched with happy hoots as the International Space Station came into view in the West. It was brilliantly bright! After a moment, Céline yelled out “there’s the other one!” I had briefed the kids earlier in the day that the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vessel Georges Lemaître would be flying in formation with the Space Station, station keeping before docking the next day. I hadn’t expected Georges Lemaître to be so far behind and so clearly visible. It was as though the ATV trailed on an invisible thread, like a space launch towed behind a sky-yacht or a crystalline caboose on a marvellous celestial train.

I saw Skylab as a boy because my father had noticed the time of its passage in a newspaper. I saw the shuttle because I knew it was returning to earth that morning and looked up hopefully and got lucky. Now, in the Future, once or twice a day my phone clangs with a notification from NASA telling me when the ISS will be visible from Edmonton, where on the horizon it will appear and disappear, how long it will be visible and how high in the sky it will be. On my phone!

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: whatever stupid, cruel, barbaric, inhuman evils or simply foibles we humans get up to, we live in a world where Science Fiction truly has become Science Fact. When I ride Edmonton’s LRT from the south toward Southgate Station, see Hugh Ferriss’ heroic Architecture of Power in the Metropolis of Tomorrow, a Garden City in forest and parkland. When I look up at night I see the World’s shared Space Station chased by a friendly European robot. I look around on the street or the train and see people talking through colourful strings in their ears to friends half a world away. And each of us has all of human knowledge on little computers in our pockets.

” O brave new world,. That has such people in ‘t!”

A Few Thoughts on Edmonton’s “Galleria” Project

The people behind the proposed glitzy new Downtown Edmonton theatre complex/University campus/outdoor roofed-over thingy have started asking for input from the arts community and the public, apparently wanting to tweak the plans to increase the less than 50% of Edmontonians on board with the thing.

I love Edmonton and I love the Arts in Edmonton. I love Downtown. I confess, however, that I thought it was a little laughably artificial when the “Arts District” signs went up around Churchill Square a number of years ago when the area’s Arts items amounted to the Citadel Theatre, the Edmonton Art Gallery, and a few pieces of public art. Meanwhile, Old Strathcona had art galleries and theatres and music venues around every corner. Art Galleries also lined the west end of Jasper Avenue and north along 124 Street to live theatre at the Roxy. And the University of Alberta Campus had galleries, concert halls, and theatres. And . . .

Then the Winspear Concert Hall opened between the Citadel and the new Art Gallery of Alberta. And 118 Avenue picked up and a cultural hub and festival centre, in large part due to the efforts the good people of the Carrot. And the Freewill Players continued doing Shakespeare down in the River Valley rain or shine. And Expressionz Cafe opened on 99th Street and now is in danger of closing due to zoning issues. And St. Albert’s Arden Theatre and that city’s Art Gallery, and the Spruce Grove Art Gallery, and the Stony Plain Gallery up on the hill, and Sherwood Park’s Festival Place and Gallery@501. And . . . .

So, the “Arts District” has a theatre, a concert hall and an art gallery. There are a number of neighbourhoods in the city with more claim to the title “Arts District” than Downtown, even after the Galleria gets built. Old Strathcona, home of the Fringe Festival, is the most obvious choice, but personally I don’t think such a choice should be made. Greater Edmonton is Edmonton’s Arts District and that should be the guiding principal of support for the Arts.

And so, how would I tweak the Galleria project to make it work better for Edmonton and Edmonton’s Arts Community?

I wouldn’t build it. I’d build a black box theatre space in Beverly. I’d build a Terwilligar Community Art Space. I’d build a concert hall with a sprung stage for ballet in Mill Woods. I’d build a Jazz club in Belgravia, a Blues joint in Allendale, another art gallery up in Belvedere. . . And more theatre spaces and galleries in more neighbourhoods.

Imagine if there were no Community Rec Centres in Edmonton, only a huge Rec Complex Downtown. Imagine if there were no branch libraries, only a bloated Milner Library on Churchill Square. Does that make sense? Of course not.

I’m not really interested about the funding formulas and Trusts and whatevers about the Galleria. I simply think putting all or even a large number of a city’s artistic eggs in one basket is a mistake.

And, to be honest, the whole Galleria project strikes me as an effort by a few civically insecure individuals to make Edmonton “World Class” and that’s just offensive. A shivering desire to make Edmonton “World Class” is just an annoying way of saying “I don’t like Edmonton, I like Paris or London or Toronto or Portland or Timmins better!”

I like Paris and London and Toronto. I’ve never been to Portland but it sounds nice. I don’t remember Timmins, but I bet it’s got a whole lot of cool to it. I really like Mexico City, too.

But I feel quite happy to say that I like Edmonton a whole lot and I’ve never seen any place I’d rather live. The opportunities for artists are phenomenal, the Arts Community is electric and hugely supportive of each other.  I don’t think there’s a better place to be.  We don’t need to build something to impress the World. We just need to keep doing the great things we do in the great ways we do them.

If the Galleria ever gets built, I expect it’ll be pretty nice and it’ll be pretty great. But it won’t be great because it’s World Class. It’ll be great because the creative hearts of Edmonton will be on those stages and in those seats.

But the stages would better serve the City and it’s creative hearts out in the neighbourhoods rather than stuffed into the absurdly artificial  “Arts District.”

Mack D. Male has a tremendous article on the Galleria called “Want to solve the space problem for the arts in Edmonton? Stop shaving that yak!” Definitely worth a read!