Shooting Blanks

Dave Proctor’s recent book, Blank State Volume Zero: Condopocalypse Now! is more than just a dystopian story about what happens when real estate markets crash (again), artists are left behind in factions, self-expression becomes a weapon, and empty, condo-riddled cities become war zones. It’s also an engrossing read by a U of T grad, putting our city in the spotlight in a very unexpected way. Proctor will be lecturing at Hart House this Wednesday. The Varsity spoke to him about the first book in his planned series.

The Varsity: Blank State satirizes both the Toronto condo market and art scene. Why did you decide to take on both things at once?

Dave Proctor: It started with the art scene being what I wanted to jab at. When it came to trying to figure out how I wanted to create the book’s world, I heard the doughnut-hole theory of economics from a friend [wherein neighbourhoods become prohibitively expensive due to increased pricing], and at that point I was living in Toronto, and condos bothered me. No matter where I lived, there was construction and new developments everywhere that never seemed to be finished. So the condo scene is a bit ridiculous, and the art scene is ridiculous.

TV: So you took on the mutual ridiculousness?

DP: Exactly. I took on the dual ridiculousness.There is much to be said about both.

TV: Your book is, thankfully, fictional, but how much of it can be seen as a possible truth? Do you ever fear something like this will happen?

DP: Every word of this book is entirely possible. As for how much could happen from the condo side—we could get overpopulated. I mean, even nowadays, you see little buildings and strip malls that you thought would be open forever being closed down. Anything could happen. As far as the art scene, I like to be prepared for anything, but the condo side seems more plausible than an art war.

TV: There are a lot of mentions of Toronto streets and landmarks, and the book begins with a hand-drawn map of a part of downtown. Is Blank State solely directed at people who live or have lived here?

DP: It would help to have knowledge of Toronto, as I’m not planning for national distribution yet. But I did send it to a friend in London (England, not Ontario) who sees the same pretentiousness in his art scene, so I like to say that there are universal themes everyone can appreciate. I like to keep the places in Toronto as well-described as possible. Toronto doesn’t get enough of a spotlight in literature. I want to create a living map of the city and connect it to the rest of the world.

TV: What can we look forward to at your lecture?

DP: I’ll be talking about a vague topic: DIY art. I’m approaching it from the perspective of someone who played in a punk rock band, growing up. We knew how to do different things—we put on our own shows, we made our own records…I put out my own book based on that. You can do all these things yourself. I want to talk about DIY versus. mainstream art. The most important thing about creating art is to give it the ability to be criticised.

TV: Condopocalypse Now is labelled as Volume Zero. How many books are you planning on writing?

DP: I am planning on eight. The last will be volume seven. I’ll also be working on some online, free download prequel-type stories.

TV: What inspired you to write Blank State?

DP: A lot of things were set in motion in terms of coming out of the whole music scene and seeing what goes on in terms of the labeling of people and cliques there. There is a lot of nepotism in the Toronto scene—very fine lines of who gets in and who doesn’t.

TV: So it’s like high school.

DP: Yes. Toronto is like high school. Everything is like high school. Based on that observation and applying, perhaps unfairly, the same closed-offness of the art scene, I was inspired to write the book and boil these things to their bare essential stereotypes. So many musicians failed for no reason. And so I began to think.

TV: Is there a message in the book that you want the readers to grasp?

DP: It’s not super obvious in the first volume, but there will be an underlying message of hope—and the possibility of everybody getting along. I want people to just kind of take a step back, and evaluate what they’re capable of doing, and what the people who judge them are capable of doing, and make decisions based on that.

TV: What books have influenced your life the most?

DP: The first book that I ever read in less than one week was 1984. It turned my head around. It was the first book I read without a happy ending. So then I got into the dystopian trilogy—1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451—and Kurt Vonnegut. I liked to giggle at the disparity of humanity. You know what works are actually really important? Those of Dr. Seuss. They’re fun, important, heartfelt, and critical. In such a basic and wonderful way. I also like Happiness by Will Ferguson, which is about a self-help book that takes over the world. You can see a recurring theme here. I like the really ridiculous, over-the-top fiction the best. Like Slaughterhouse Five.

TV: Do you find any part of writing particularly challenging? What was the hardest part of writing your book?

DP: The hardest part of writing my book was committing to two days at work, not going out, not partying, not doing any extra spending, and making a budget I could live off of. I wrote four days a week. It’s hard to make it your job instead of your whim. But then after that, the writing part went okay.

TV: Any advice for budding writers or U of T students?

DP: You’re an idiot if you think you can’t do this. Anyone can. What your parents told you—what I hope your parents told you—is that you can literally do anything. All it takes is a few phone calls and some legwork and some writing. You can do anything—write a book, make a photography album…This isn’t an unachievable frontier. People make this into an achievement, and I love that, but it’s so doable.

Dave Proctor will be speaking at Hart House on Wednesday, Nov. 25 at 6 p.m. For more information on Blank State, visit woodenrocketpress.com.

Man killed near St. Mike’s

A man was shot and killed early Sunday on the edge of St. George campus, in Toronto’s 53rd homicide. The victim was shot in the back at 3:20 a.m. in front of a condo building at 1001 Bay St., at the intersection of Bay and St. Joseph, the Toronto Star reported. Witnesses said he was in his 30s, wearing a hoodie and what seemed like baggy jeans.

Megan, a resident at Sorbara Hall, was awakened by the shots. “I only heard four shots, but apparently people heard five, so I guess I woke up right after the first one,” said Megan, who asked that her last name be withheld. “Then I heard the guy that was shot screaming, and a woman screaming afterwards, and then it went silent for about 10 minutes.”

Other residents at Sorbara Hall and witnesses who spoke to the Star said they saw an individual who might have been the shooter run down St. Joseph Street and get into a black Honda Civic in front of Kelly Library. Also seen leaving the scene were a white stretch limo, a white Hummer-style limo, and a black 2005 or 2006 Infinity SUV.

A gun was found at Queen’s Park Crescent shortly afterwards and police are looking into whether shell casings found at the crime scene came from the weapon, according to the Star.

“Everyone’s pretty freaked out,” Megan said. “I guess the area seems less secure than people found it. I would go to Tim Hortons, which is two seconds away, but the shooting happened in between here and Tim Hortons so it seems less secure.”

Campus Police declined to comment on their involvement in the investigation.

Colleges fume at UTSU meeting

Tensions ran high at the U of T Students’ Union’s annual general meeting Thursday evening. College council representatives expressed dissatisfaction with UTSU, citing what they regard as inappropriate priorities, lack of transparency, and most importantly, lack of consultation and communication with the colleges. Several St. George students complained of preferential treatment to UTM.

So many students wanted to speak—and some spoke at length—that the chair finally motioned to cut the speakers list. It was put to a vote and passed.

The annual general meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. It started at 6:45 p.m., because students from UTM were stuck in traffic, and ended around 11 p.m. Steve Masse, president of Woodsworth College Students’ Association, stayed until 9 p.m. “I was here on time and I have to leave when it was supposed to end. By delaying it, they’re disenfranchising me and all the students who came on time,” said Masse.

Gabe De Roche, a Trinity student, spoke about what he called a “special arrangement” between UTSU and UTMSU. The bulk of fees that UTM students pay to UTSU are returned to UTMSU. At St. George, students’ UTSU fees are not passed on to college councils. UTMSU is also allotted their own student commons and seat on the Canadian Federation of Students, a privilege that no college councils share in.

“Most of their campaigns come from the CFS, and not the other way. A lot of the campaigns do affect St. George. They are student concerns, but they’re being imposed on us, not coming from us,” Masse later told The Varsity, adding that many people on WCSA don’t support UTSU campaigns because they don’t feel connected to them.

Masse emphasized that he supports the content of some UTSU campaigns and recognizes that the executive works hard. But he took a step back from UTSU involvement after the Nov. 5 drop fees campaign last year. “I didn’t see the commitment to the St. George campus that I wanted,” he said.

UTSU president Sandy Hudson said UTSU’s relationship with CFS is just the opposite. She gave the drop fees campaign as an example. When U of T students wanted to call on the government to let students without immigration status stay in school, CFS liked the idea and included it in their campaign.

Francesca Imbrogno, president of the St. Michael’s College Student Union, said defederation is a possibility. “I really can’t speak officially on behalf of my council because we haven’t discussed it, but opinions around SMC are pretty serious because no one sees the cons of defederating,” she said.

“A lot of students have been asking me, ‘What does UTSU do for us—why do we even have to be attached to them?’ It’s really hard for me to come up with answers other than health benefits and Metropasses, because on this side of campus we don’t see any benefits coming from them, only detriments.”

“The process is very collaborative and from the grassroots,” Hudson told The Varsity in a later interview. She said UTSU has reached out to college councils, going to their meetings. “We’ve told them to come and air your grievances so we could have a working relationship, and they don’t come to any of the commission meetings,” Hudson said. “I don’t think it’s a priority for the folks at the colleges to mend these relationships.”

College council reps gave homecoming as an example, arguing that the event would have been far better if UTSU had included them in the planning. Danielle Sandu, VP campus life, responded that aside from a few exceptions, the heads of college councils did not respond to emails and text messages inviting them to get involved.

Catherine Brown, president of the Victoria College Student Administrative Council, pointed out that around $500,000 in student fees intended for health and dental care weren’t spent last year. UTSU’s budget auditor confirmed that that money went into UTSU’s general surplus. “I really question the fact that they are profiting off student health care plans,” said Brown. “This is a service they provide and it shouldn’t be surplus for them.”

Doly Begum, a St. George student, defended UTSU. Begum said she was disappointed with the divisiveness, saying, “I think we need unity across colleges—we all need to work with each other and the UTSU to make a difference.”

Canada should step up marketing for higher education, group says

International students are worth billions to the Canadian economy. According to a recent report, they contributed $6.5 billion in 2008, surpassing coal or coniferous lumber exports. The report, commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, found a correlation between increasing numbers of international students and growth in international trade as well as direct international investment in Canada.

But report results have stated that Canada is becoming a less desirable location even as international demand for education is growing. From 1998 to 2003, international student enrolment in universities grew by double digits each year. Since 2005, however, it has grown less quickly than the average enrolment for all students.

As a result, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is calling on DFAIT to increase spending on marketing Canada as a hot study destination, from $2 million to $20 million.

U of T has 6,563 international undergraduate students, accounting for more than 10 per cent of its undergraduates. The university’s long-term planning “affirms the importance of increasing its national and global presence by recruiting, respectively, more Canadian students from outside the Toronto region and more students from abroad,” according to the Towards 2030 framework document.

In 2002, there were 433 international students admitted to U of T’s arts and science faculty. In 2006, this number had nearly doubled to 860.

While domestic undergrads at U of T pay between $5,000 to $11,000 per year for tuition, international students pay between $19,000 and $25,000.

“When visiting [international] regions we visit high schools, schedule meetings with counsellors, and will at times participate in school fairs,” said David Zutautas, assistant director of student recruitment at U of T.

When asked if U of T has increased its recruitment, Zutautas said, “Not really. We have been active and consistent in our activities.”

What attracts international students to Canada, and U of T in particular, varies.

Miguel Irene, a fourth-year undergrad from Washington, D.C., heard about U of T from recruiters who came to his high school. In his experience, its reputation outside of Canada is nil. “No one has ever heard of U of T,” said Irene. “I mean quite literally, when I say U of T in the States, people think I go to Texas.”

Irene doesn’t mind paying roughly three times what a domestic student would, saying he saves around $4,000-$5,000 when total costs are taken into account. “Plus the exchange rate helps,” he said.

Keton Motta-Freeman, another undergrad, is a Canadian citizen born in England and raised in Italy. Though he chose U of T by a process of elimination—“I didn’t get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, or Oxford”—he maintains that U of T has a good reputation abroad. “Western Europe knows it, the States knows it, Canada knows it,” he said. “It’s known as the best school in Canada.”

Motta-Freeman, who has not experienced U of T recruiting or marketing efforts, thinks they are unnecessary. “It shouldn’t market itself. A university should be a university. It should teach and research, and if it does those things well, then its reputation will get out there.”

Province funds study abroad scholarships

If you want to go abroad but find it hard to make ends meet, Ontario will pay a portion of your expenses. The province is investing $3.5 million this year in study abroad scholarships, through the Ontario International Education Opportunity Scholarships.

OIEOS is a needs-based scholarship open to students participating in an international academic study, work-study, or co-op placement. Nearly 1,400 post-secondary students will receive scholarships this academic year, up from 272 in 2006-2007.

U of T will be giving out $2,500 scholarships for students in programs of two months or more, and $1,200 for programs of four weeks or more.

Scholarships are awarded based on financial need and academic merit. Special consideration is given to applicants from under-represented groups, including Aboriginal peoples, Francophones, students with disabilities, and those in the biotechnology sector. To receive a scholarship, students must be Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or protected persons.

Application forms are currently on U of T’s website. Winter applications are due Dec. 1, 2009. Students participating in other Ontario-sponsored exchange programs, such as the Ontario-Baden Wurttemberg, are not eligible.

In addition, the Student Refugee Program will give those from conflict-torn areas an opportunity to study at Ontario colleges and universities. To deliver the program, the province is investing $150,000 a year for three years in World University Service of Canada.

Green Gables, revisited

Last Wednesday, author Irene Gammel discussed perhaps the best-loved orphan girl in Canadian literature with two-dozen guests. Gammel, who published [Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery & Her Literary Classic]1 in 2008 appeared as part of the Hart House Alumni Committee’s dinner series.

Born and raised in Germany, Gammel studied at McMaster University on exchange in her second year of university. She researched Anne from 2002 to 2007, publishing Looking for Anne in time for the centenary celebrations of Montgomery’s novel. She is currently an English professor at Ryerson University.

Since it was first published in Boston in 1908, Anne of Green Gables has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, been translated into more than 35 languages, and generated a multi-million-dollar tourist industry. Anne is an orphan girl who is sent to two unmarried middle-aged siblings, who had requested a boy, but decide to keep her. Although Anne is ugly, she is smart, imaginative, and a chatterbox. She eventually wins over her adoptive parents and makes friends in the fictional town of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island.

Gammel’s talk explored several similarities between Lucy Maud Montgomery and her red-headed fictional character. Montgomery was born in Clifton, PEI in 1874. Raised by her maternal grandparents, she married Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, and had two sons. Some scholars argue that her death in 1942, of apparent heart failure, was actually a drug overdose due to her ongoing depression.

Anne of Green Gables became a depository for [Montgomery’s] own childhood,” said Gammel. Montgomery was raised by strict grandparents and suffered loneliness because of the age gap. “[Montgomery] gives Anne the ideal family. That age gap is magically bridged; in fiction the generations connect.” She added that the novel “celebrates that backward glance and is yet a distinct novel on the modern era.”

Phillip Khaiat, chair of the dinner series sub-committee, said he was a fan of the spirited Anne. “My wife convinced me to take her to visit the Cavendish shrine in PEI this summer, and I read every word of the panel describing Anne’s origins,” he said. “It was a great pleasure for me to meet the people [Irene Gammel and Jean-Claude] who had created and organized that exhibition.”

Said another attendee, “We found the images and magazines from the early 20th century that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery’s creation of the character of Anne to be particularly fascinating.”

To be or not to be shocked

The World Stage production of Necessary Angel’s Hamlet, directed and designed by Graham McLaren (artistic director of Scotland’s Theatre Babel and associate artist of Necessary Angel), is a radical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play.

Upon entering the theatre, the audience sees Hamlet sprawled on a chair onstage in the aftermath of what appears to have been a wild party. The room and table centre stage is littered with champagne bottles and red plastic beer cups. Five elegant golden chandeliers hang above, a reminder that the chaotic setting is a royal castle, not a fraternity. A radio in the corner emits sombre old hymns. As the lights fade, the play begins—Hamlet stands and switches off the radio, signalling that this will not be a traditional production of Shakespeare’s classic.

This Hamlet wears sneakers, a black suit, and a Sex Pistols T-shirt with the phrase “God Save the Queen” (soon to take on a darker, more ironic meaning). His first line, “that this too, too solid flesh would melt” sets the tone for a production characterized by raw sexuality and violence; the characters humiliate, hurt, deceive and debase themselves and each other. This tour-de-force significantly cuts text and characters. The result is 110 minutes of Shakespeare laid bare with sex, drugs, violence, and rock and roll.

These themes are accentuated by the intimate playing space. Audience members in the front row are involved in the action, either hit with beer cans kicked aside by characters or accidentally sitting all too close to a loaded gun. This proximity and the potential for violence creates a sense that anything can happen. The production also leaves nothing to the imagination—Claudius pushes Gertrude up against a table, preparing to fuck her from behind, while Ophelia’s muddy, half-naked dead body is brought onstage and exhibited.

Hamlet (Gord Rand) commands attention. He has a raspy voice that ranges from a whisper to a ragged yell. Initially he appears in control, playfully traversing the line between madness and sanity, but quickly this line becomes blurred. He switches from brooding to laughter, from passivity to extreme anger and violence. The most striking moment in the play is when he staggers onstage naked, wearing only one sock, a perfect picture of madness. When he reappears to deliver his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he is a bit more clothed, wearing blue underpants. In the middle of the speech, he grabs a plastic bag and pulls it over his head, sealing it with duct tape. The few minutes that follow are tense and audience members hold their breaths as he struggles to breathe and make his choice. Unable to follow through, he tears it off, exclaiming: “Aye there’s the rub!” and the audience exhales in relief.

The quality of the performances, however, was inconsistent. Although Eric Peterson captures the fuddy-duddy side to Polonius, he appears too old for this role. His physicality and delivery are stiff and unfocused, and in a Freudian, sexually charged moment with Ophelia, he seems unsure, awkward and unable to commit to the provocative moment McLaren has staged. Although he elicits some laughs, it is only in his role as a foil for Hamlet.

Benedict Campbell seems less like a king and more like a simple man lusting after power and Gertrude, and although his voice exudes authority, his performance does not. However, Gertrude (Laura De Carteret) is riveting to watch. It is clear she is performing a role for Claudius, compromising the dignity of her body and self because the stakes are her survival. Anxious tics reveal the conflict behind her smile, as do the little white pills that she downs. This production emphasizes that Gertrude knows how to play the patriarchal game, but Ophelia (Tara Nicodemo) does not know the rules. Nicodemo masters a variety of emotional registers, from pitiful crying to disconcerting screams, violent anger to gentle singing. At one point, she head bangs to rock music, expressing her inner turmoil. Horatio (Steven McCarthy), in his priestly garb, is Hamlet’s only true ally in a room full of deception. His acting is understated but he has a significant, steadfast moral presence in this atmosphere of amorality.

Evocative music and sound design by Alexander MacSween create an ominous mood and beautiful, discordant notes underscore Hamlet’s actions. McLaren and lighting designer Andrea Lundy play with light to great effect: quick blackouts and the use of flashlights and lanterns cast an eerie ghost-story glow with shadows that play along the walls.

This production makes radical changes, refocusing and revitalizing the classic play. However, despite developing a European aesthetic in interesting ways, McLaren has made some poor casting choices that undermine his presentation of a brutal, warped world.

Hamlet runs through Nov. 29 at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre. For more information, visit
necessaryangel.com
.

U of Waterloo radio goes off the air

The University of Waterloo radio station is off the air after students voted against paying $2.50 per term to support it. According to its website, CKMS 100.3 Sound FM started as a cable station at the university in the 1970s and is Ontario’s third campus FM station. In February 2008, students voted to remove the $5.50 per term fee that went to the station.

“There are 68 on-air programmers and seven [on the] board of directors,” said CKMS vice-president Selene MacLeod. “These reflect numbers of people who paid their membership fee and kept their volunteer cards up-to-date, which I don’t believe is an accurate refection of how many people support the station.”

The station has worked with local business owners and non-profits, supporting independent artists since its inception, added MacLeod.

The vote was close, with 2,005 students voting for the fee and 2,400 voting against. Although 19,000 students did not participate, the referendum had the highest voter turnout in the history of Waterloo’s student union.

“I believe that there are plenty of students that support campus radio and like the rest of us, can’t imagine a campus without a radio station,” said MacLeod. “Maybe the results would have been different if the question being asked was, ‘Is it worth it to you to support the arts, local music, Canadian culture and have opportunities in broadcasting, administration, and governance of a radio station, all for just $2.50 per term?’”

The station’s licence is valid until 2014, and it has been investigating alternative options.

“As long as there is the slightest hope that we can sort out our financial problems, attract advertisers and membership, and keep providing the best in quality, independent radio programming, we’re staying on in some incarnation,” said MacLeod. “I’m frustrated, heartbroken, and deeply disappointed that the students of UW won’t have this resource in future generations—I’m not losing anything, they’re losing a lot.”