Kids of Kensington

Breaking into Toronto’s well-established arts scene can present a huge challenge for even the gutsiest BFA graduate. There’s the intimidation that comes from approaching well-known artists and galleries, the fight to get noticed in a competitive field, and rents that rise whenever the New York Times declares your once-affordable neighbourhood “the next big thing.”

So, what’s a twentysomething artist to do? Band together with others in the same predicament, of course. Three new collective-run artist spaces in Kensington Market prove that they can tough it out with a little help from their friends.

The venue: Double Double Land (209 Augusta Ave.)

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“Did I mention I can bring big propane burners?” Julia makes notes to her sketchbook using a thick marker.

“Yeah, that would be great,” Dan replies.

“Good, because I want to cook with them in the back room.”

Julia Kennedy is planning a barbeque soirée, the first in a series of themed culinary events that Double Double Land is hosting this year. She’s discussing her proposal in the kitchen of the combined performance space/apartment with residents Jon McCurley, Daniel Vila, Rob Gordon, and Steve Thomas. The room’s industrial appliances and vents, relics of a past life, are softened in the presence of tattered cookbooks and Craigslist lamps.

The loft space atop La Rosa Bakery used to be an office, then an after-hours club. It was Vila who discovered it after being kicked out of Jamie’s Area, a multidisciplinary Kensington space he had co-founded with Bonny Poon last spring. At first, Vila had been interested in an apartment a few doors north of their current location, but the rent turned out to be exorbitant. The real estate agent there recommended 209 Augusta instead.

“The place was in awful shape,” laments Vila. “There was garbage everywhere.”

“We say we’ve been here since September 1, but that’s only when we were legally allowed to move in,” explains Thomas. “It was roach-infested, and we had to paint every surface, so it took longer.”

“So far, the renovations have all been over-budget, so we haven’t been able to put space money to rent as of yet,” Vila says. “But once everything is paid off, we’ll be fine. Really.”
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Double Double Land itself is no more than a big room: 780 square feet cluttered with amps, church-basement chairs, and costumes from McCurley’s past projects. They named the space for a performance McCurley wrote and directed at Gallery TPW last year, but the group isn’t sure whether the moniker will stick for very long.

“It’s just a malleable, empty space,” says Gordon. “It’s not a legit venue or anything like that, so we can really transform it from one week to the next.”

The rest of the apartment space has literally been carved out—Vila’s room, for instance, was once part of the hallway, but a friend helped to put up walls and create a fourth bedroom.

“Living where I work is pretty important to me because it inspires me to put a lot of effort into doing events,” he explains. “Having a space you live in frees you from a lot of money issues. You can be more adventurous with programming. The idea is that we’ll have insane things happening in the back room. Ideally, there would be a complete division between that and where we live.”

Still, the model presents just as many challenges as it does benefits. As Thompson notes, “There have been three separate incidents of graffiti, and somebody broke our bathroom mirror.”

“Plus,” adds Gordon, “I walked into Jon’s bedroom, and someone had their penis out, about to piss on his desk.”

“It’s hard because it doesn’t pay for our lives,” McCurley says. “Everyone has a shitty job, and then you come home to work someone’s birthday party, and then someone writes ‘fuck you’ on your wall. But there’s a good side, too. It’s great to have this enormous room.”

Vila adds, “When you have a big room that you have complete control over, it’s pretty good in terms of generating ideas.”

What does the group make of the other artist spaces cropping up around them in Kensington?

“It’s an old standby neighbourhood,” says Gordon. “Unlike the Junction, there aren’t a lot of preconceptions.”

“And unlike Queen West,” Vila continues, “you couldn’t just graft Kensington onto another neighbourhood if it were to get too gentrified. All the artists would have to move elsewhere.”

What’s next:

The aforementioned food series begins on January 31. As well, Double Double Land will be hosting a Zeesy Powers film screening on the 23rd and an ArtStars party on the 27th. The quartet may or may not have a website at press time (depending on whether they’ve changed the name of the venue).

The store: Good Blood Bad Blood (13 Kensington Ave.)

Alicia Nauta and Joele Walinga have just polished off an entire pizza and are energetically changing the prints on display in their store-gallery Good Blood Bad Blood. It’s been a typical day in terms of street traffic: “We get lots of people just stopping in,” Alicia explains. “Even families, and high school kids who are coming here for the first time—to Kensington Market! It’s funny, their reactions to this place.”

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Perhaps it’s because the collective opened shop last May on a strip of Kensington Avenue often referred to as “vintage alley.” In a sea of neon t-shirts and vibrantly patterned saris, their simple white store is an oasis of calm. Sitting inside on a plush red couch, we watch passersby on the sidewalk taking snapshots of the boutique, beckoned by its outward simplicity.

It hadn’t always been so pristine—in its previous reincarnation as clothing store The Rage, the whole place had been painted hot pink. Good Blood Bad Blood founders Reid Jenkins and Jesse Labreche had lived on the second floor of the shop, and when they heard The Rage was moving, they snapped up the lower level. Their goal was to create a shop where young artists could sell their wares without being intimidated by the gallery scene.

“It can be really hard starting out in Toronto,” Nauta explains, “especially going down Queen Street, thinking, ‘How am I ever going to get my stuff in this gallery?’ We’re just trying to create opportunities for young artists.”

“It’s very easy to feel like you don’t have a place in the arts scene,” she continues. “You’re too young, you’re too inexperienced, you don’t have enough schooling. But I think it’s important to try things anyway, to fight those things.”

No member of the collective, which also includes Zoe Fox and Sarah D’Angelo, had any business experience before opening shop. “We’re all young, in our early twenties, for the most part,” Nauta says. “For all of us, it was a totally new thing.”

“We’ve gone through so many trials running a business,” Walinga adds. “But being together has helped us overcome our inexperience.”

As it turns out, their struggles have had less to do with finances and more to do with personal differences. As Walinga explains, “I think they were so desperate for members initially that they took anyone, so it didn’t quite balance out. It’s hard to bring a collective together when you’ve never even met five of the members before.”

“It’s so hard to reconcile different views on what art should look like, or what a space should be,” Nauta agrees.
“Clashing of ideas just seems to happen, but I think we’ve come out of it. There have been yelling meetings, but that could happen anywhere.”

After initial struggles, though, Walinga feels that the group has come together. “We’re entirely supportive of each other. Being able to have your friends care about your things, and being able to trust that there’ll be a lot of respect between us—it’s great.”

After hours, the store also holds exhibitions, concerts, and reading series. “It’s really not pretentious,” says Walinga. “People just sit on the floor, nobody dresses up. It’s just community.”

Ultimately, though, the artists feel the greatest reward is being able to run their own practice.

“It’s not like a job where you can phone in sick and not feel guilty about it,” Nauta says. “It’s your own effort, so you’d be letting yourself down.”

“I like that we’ve done this,” Walinga adds. “For me, it’s especially reassuring because I dropped out of high school, so this is like a nice pat on the back from God! This is like our baby.”

What’s next:

Good Blood Bad Blood hosts Stop Talking, a reading night, on Jan. 29, and an installation in their back room in February. Find them online at goodbloodbadblood.blogspot.com

The studio: The White House (277 Augusta Ave.)

The White House isn’t the easiest place to locate—ask even the artiest people hanging around on Augusta, and they’ll look at you quizzically, guessing, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?” The airy loft is actually situated in a converted karate school, with a main door offering a phone number to sign up for lessons.

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Unlike the other collectives, the White House isn’t indigenous to Kensington Market—the group actually got started renting out affordable studio space in a house down at College and Landsdowne.

“Originally, [co-founders] Xenia Benivolski, Christy Kunitzky, and Jon McCurley were looking to cheap studio space in the city, but they couldn’t find any good solutions,” explains resident artist and U of T student Adam Cowan. “They got a bunch of friends to all go in together on a lease. It’s hard finding a place capable of putting even three or four people in every room and working out to $150 a month for each person, but they did it, and we’re able to do it here.”

Soon enough, though, a move was in order.

“We wanted to be in Kensington first and foremost,” Cowan says. “We were also jumping on an opportunity, though—it’s hard to find giant warehouse spaces like this where it won’t be completely out of the way. I found this one posted on Craigslist at midnight, and I emailed [the landlord] at 12:15 a.m.”

Spaciousness is probably one of the greatest advantages of the White House’s new location, along with a woodshop and silk-screening room in the works, there’s ample workspace for the collective’s 25 practicing artists. Not all of the artists participate in the studio’s operations, however.

“We realized a lot of people just wanted studio space as opposed to doing community outreach and all that sort of stuff,” says Cowan. “Our board of directors really helps to streamline getting things done.” They also help to boost the collective’s credibility with their landlord.

“He did want to make sure we weren’t crazy. Imagine, you go to one and say, ‘Hey, we want to run a non-profit studio! It’ll work out!” without a business model or anything. We had to get to know each other first, but he likes what’s we’re doing here.”

One thing they have yet to figure out, though, is how to hold events in the space.

“At our old place, it almost turned into a house party every time. We’ll probably hold our crazy party shows at other venues—Double Double Land is sort of meant for that—while having our exhibitions here.”

So far, though, Cowan has loved his time at the White House. “The biggest thing I’ve gotten out of this is the networking, getting to know so many people. Kensington is just more open [to collectives]. Even galleries like F13 and Hotshot are doing something different—this place isn’t typical at all.”

What’s next:

The White House is aiming to host its first exhibition in their new space in mid-March. Stay tuned at theotherwhitehouse.ca.

All photos by Dan Epstein

Choose your own adventure

WARNING!!!

We all make choices. And the choices we make have consequences. Should you have gone out for drinks with your friends last Thursday night instead of staying in? Should you have chosen to attend York instead of the University of Toronto? Have you ever found it unsettling to think that you’ll never know if you’ve made the right choices until years down the line? And sometimes you will never know.

I’ve made many choices, some for the better, some for the worse. And I spend a lot of time wishing that my life could be defined by a series of checkpoints. Then I would be able to go back to each checkpoint and take the road not traveled, just to see what would have happened next. Such was the nature of my involvement with Robert K. Logan, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and chief scientist of the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD, and with drafting a creative and interactive work for Wooden Rocket Press, an small press started this year by a would-be author and U of T alum.

Dr. Logan and I worked on an independent study this year considering the future of media. The Strategic Innovation Lab is a dynamic research facility that offers a graduate program in “design thinking,” a catchword for using interdisciplinary approaches to issues of sustainability and business models. The Smart Book project we have been working on is a proposed way to save the traditional book in our e-book buying, Web 2.0, ADHD-driven culture. The project hyperlinks a codex (read “normal”) book to the net. This fall, I attempted to draft an interactive and multi-media short story for publication in what would be an experimental foray into hyperlinked fiction, an anthology with the working title Art Meets Science.

Follow my choices, and see if you can make the right ones—or even good ones. I present an interactive fictional narrative of creative choices I’ve had to make in the last three months, reconstructing conversations and instances that have defined my successes and failures to the best of my ability. Some names have been omitted, some encounters have been completely fabricated—but both of the projects are ongoing. Think carefully before you make a choice, because you never know which one is going to lead you to an innovative idea, or a drunken stupor of writer’s block. So, be forewarned that you won’t always like the endings you’re led to, but at least, here, you can always try again.
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A.

You’re hustling. Your feet are pounding, one in front of the other, making imprints in the damp leaves that coat the sidewalk. It’s October in Toronto, and you can feel the chill. You’ve wrapped a scarf around your neck to keep it away, but you can taste it in every haggard breath you take. You’re late. But, then again, that’s to be expected as the would-be-artist turned philosophy student that you are.

Dr. Robert K. Logan is waiting to discuss your independent study project on the third floor of the physics department, in a steely office that faces skyscrapers. If you crane your neck, you can catch a glimpse of the CN Tower. Dr. Logan has the kind of eyes that make you feel like you are free-falling from a drop-zone tower, but the kind of smile that makes you want to tell him every mundane detail about your life—like you haven’t done laundry in a month and you’re vaguely wondering how long you can live off of Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese and Mr. Noodles before you have to learn how to cook. The office is decorated with posters for seminars on media ecology, awards for sustainability research, and the bookshelves are packed with copies of his book, The Sixth Language, and stacks of typewritten manuscripts. Dr. Logan has credentials and life experience as an innovator in the field of media research, having co-authored papers with Marshall McLuhan, and worked to establish the field of future studies. More credentials and life experience than you prefer to remember.

“So, the Smart Book project,” he begins, pausing to fiddle with his laptop, which is coated in post-it notes.

Continue to B.
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B.

“Media ecology is the study of how each medium affects the next, just as each factor of the environment affects the ecology that evolves,” he explains. “The first things caught on video were staged plays, because people simply began to dump the old medium of stage acting into the new medium of the television. But eventually television evolved to better suit the new opportunities of the medium and developed into what we see today. Online e-books are a similar effort. We’re dumping the old medium into the new medium. Simply putting books online is like making television broadcasts nothing more than a pale imitation of live plays.”

You nod, not sure if you understand, because your head’s a little bit fuzzy, but you’re starting to think, what if? What if a piece of fiction could also host a YouTube video? What if you could hyperlink part of a great novel to a Wikipedia page explaining the implications of an allusion that would otherwise be over your head? Would that destroy fiction—or enhance it?

“At OCAD, we’re working with several publishers in the area to create Smart Books: regular books which would be able to hook up to the Internet. Books that would attempt to take advantage of our new medium, and to become more than a pale representation of the real thing,” he pauses. “I’m actually headed to a meeting now with Tightrope books. Would you like to join me?”

So, you have your first choice to make. You have plans to go out for drinks with a burgeoning writer friend of yours who’s wanted to talk your ear off about a new project he’s working on, or you can blow him off to check out this small press.

If you decide to go out for drinks with your friend, continue to C.

If you blow off your friend and continue to Tightrope Books, continue to D.
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C.

“Well, you remember how I started Wooden Rocket Press to publish my own book,” he explains, sipping a Stella in the warm front room of The Bedford. “I want to turn it into something more, and I think it will get to the heart of what fiction is all about. I thought that Choose Your Own Adventure Books are really at the heart of interactive fiction. I’d like to blend the interactive element with literary journal element. It will make more personal the experience you have with a writer; you’ll be more involved.

“So the idea is that you’re an ex-con stranded in the desert with your social worker and her boyfriend,” he continues. “And then, I just let the writers take it from there. The idea is to create a huge, out of control Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but in literary journal format. Or actually,” he pauses with a smile, “We’ll call it An Adventure of Your Own Choosing to avoid copyright issues. Hopefully, the anthology will come together in the editing process, but I think that the discontinuity will sort of add to the project. It’s ambitious, yeah, but just ambitious enough, I think.”

Just like you, you think, laughing because the guy who’s crafting an opus on post-apocalyptic Toronto would create a project about being quite literally stranded in the desert. But you start thinking that while this fiction is print only, it’s still interactive in the same way that a World of Warcraft role-playing game would be, or a multi-genre piece that requires user participation. It’s almost a new kind of reading; it calls for an active reading where the reader calls the shots and has to continually think about where the narrative is going. And the challenge is to create something worthy of that effort on the part of the reader. Maybe this is looking at a medium of the past, but maybe now’s the time for our culture to really embrace it.

You leave the pub early, determined to create your own submission. How does a person craft suspense? How do you take a story that’s been set up for you, and take it in a new and creative way? And once it’s submitted, is anybody actually going to read it?

You get back to your apartment and start to write. Something about an ex-con with a heart of gold and a dark past, you think to yourself as you stare at a blank Word document.

THE END
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D.

“We’re still waiting for approval on our grant proposal,” Dr. Logan explains. “That’s going to have to decide how much further we get with our project.”

You’re sitting in the offices of Tightrope Books, a small office nestled underneath a Vintage Shop on Markham Street. The place is buzzing with a few editors and interns, who are working to organize the small press’s latest launch.

“We’re calling the book Art Meets Science for now,” one of the editors explains briefly. “We envision it as a book of short fiction which takes advantage of the capabilities of the Smart Book to enhance each piece of fiction, which will have some kind of scientific element—be it science fiction or somehow concerning science. We think that’s the best way to get the writers thinking. Imagine if you could somehow involve special effects into your story, or if there’s some element that requires the reader’s participation. It’s almost a future of entertainment. You don’t consume. Instead, you’re forced to create.”

You pipe up hesitantly, “The problem with that is that the narrative has to be compelling enough to get the reader to engage. Active reading requires something worth discovering. It requires suspense, and it requires the reader to sacrifice. Not every narrative will be able to achieve that.”

“Well, there’s always that chance.”

You leave Tightrope Books twitching with creative energy, into a bright day on Markham Street. You feel as though you’re ready to create the next great suspense novel, except for this time around, readers will be forced to create their own ending. So what is it? Will you go back to your solitary apartment and scribble in a Moleskine for a while? Or will you consult the creative energies of your friends on this project?

Go it alone: read on to E.

Get by with a little help from your friends: continue to F.
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E.

You go home and write a short story. It isn’t exactly what you’d imagined, but it’s a piece you’ve been meaning to write for a while, and you’re proud of your pretty imagery and fine word choice. You aren’t sure what the multimedia elements are going to be yet, but at least you have the basis for something that you think could be good. Really good.

The next day you’re in OCAD visiting the Strategic Innovation Lab with Dr. Logan. The Lab is a minimalist, modern, and clean space, perched at the top of OCAD. With circular windows and large desks with huge Macs, this seems like the perfect place to discuss innovation.

You take a seat at the windowsill as Dr. Logan looks over your manuscript. You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck prickling, and you feel as though you’re letting your little brother read your diary from Grade 7.

“It’s good,” he finally says after a long pause. “You’re a good writer. But what elements are you going to incorporate into this in order to take advantage of the new medium?”

You look back at him with an empty stare, and your mind goes a little bit blank. You’re frantically thinking about fanfiction, online content, and html code. What are the elements going to be?

Continue to G.
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F.

Your friends are sitting on the floor of your store-top apartment in the Annex listening to your account of the day.

“You know, I really don’t get this project,” says one. “Why mess with a good thing?”

You try to respond, but that half-bottle of wine you’ve had has dulled your mind a bit, and you can’t think of responses to their questions of schematics. Okay, so maybe you don’t have computer skills. Maybe you don’t have a digital camera, or painting skills. You can still do this. Right?

Completely despondent and sapped of any confidence in your creative abilities, you send your friends home and call it a night. Maybe tomorrow will bring better tidings.

THE END
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G.

You’ve put up a blogspot and you’re frantically looking over your copy of HTML for Dummies. You’re on your third cup of coffee, and you’re vaguely considering the fact that you missed your best friend’s birthday. And that your relationship seems to be crumbling. You’re not sure if that’s because you’ve been spending all of your time with a short story about a shrinking lake in western Saskatchewan, or whether it’s the inevitable progression of things. You shake it off and take a long sip, wishing that you could afford coffee a little bit better than that huge tub of Maxwell House you’ve been dipping into recently. You’ve made a website which should, ultimately, illustrate the landscape of your story. Each tree in the picture either has a back-story, or has the capacity for the user to write their own. In your vision, the place is filled with stories, both yours and others, and the place has the pulse of user-driven content.

It’s not much, but at least it’s something to show for months of work. You head back to the physics department, your head held high, this time punctual and caffeinated, only to meet a despondent Dr. Logan. The grant wasn’t approved. The project you’ve been working for has been indefinitely put on hold. The Smart Book project is stalled. You sit for a moment, staring at Dr. Logan’s posters. Media Ecology, they say. Innovation, they purport.

And for a moment, you can’t help but think that your efforts have been in vain. Your heart sinks to the bottom of your chest, and you think of hours at the library, and the excitement and exhilaration of starting the project. But then you realize things couldn’t have gone any differently. Your actions seem inevitable in retrospect, and when you’re innovating, failure is the gamble that you take. You’ve made all the right choices, or at least, that’s how it would seem, but things still didn’t work out the way you’d planned.

Maybe that’s the way the creative process works; you throw yourself into things. Sometimes you sink, sometimes you swim, and sometimes the lake just dries up. The landscape is changing, media is evolving, and you’re pretty sure that you’re going to evolve with it. And try to make the right choices all over again.

THE END

Reflections on a literary mashup

Lessons learned with scissors and glue

You learn things while cutting up other people’s babies.

For one thing, Coach House books are very well made. Laying the scalpel to the inside backbone of their stiff, pebbly-textured pages, right against where the paper meets glue to form the spine, I panicked.

Anyone who belongs to this strange army known as “readers” understands the powerful totemic aura that extends from the words to their vessel, from the story to the book.

We may scuff their jackets as we stuff them rudely into bags and hurry off the streetcar. We may leave them face-down, butterflied on the couch while we wander off to make dinner. We may use all sorts of strange and inappropriate objects as bookmarks. We may even leave them in the bathroom, after which their pages look like they’ve had a bad perm (and let’s admit it, they were dog-eared anyway). But by god, we would never—never—intentionally do harm to a book. The above-mentioned abuses are merely the rough-and-tumble signs of our love. This is the wall that proponents of e-book readers find themselves still butting their heads against in the age of the iPod: nowhere on a Kindle is there an app for tearing off the corner of your favourite pages, putting them in your mouth, and swallowing. Such was the love that the Young Adult author Kit Pearson had for her favourite stories as a child: she needed to ingest them. Irrational, maybe, but ritual has never claimed its immense power from the rational world. Anyone who has ever performed the Eucharist should understand this.

LOLA LANDEKIC/THE VARSITY

This was the river of thought moving miasmic through my mind as I placed the snappy Coach House terriers on the operating table and viewed them there with increasing dread. I am a reader. Since being infected somewhere near the age of six, I have daily fought to control a sometimes overwhelming appetite for text. “What the hell am I doing?” I thought, as I held the knife to Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Toronto Book Award. I looked into its eyes, knowing that someone just a block away had put love and care into this thing and trusted me to treat it as a friend. And now I was about to cut it to shreds.

“This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you,” I promised, which may have in fact been true.

How did I get to this point? A psychological profile of this mass murderer might note that balancing opposite my love of books is a life-long status as a collector, beginning with bottle caps, stamps, coins, then extending to records, books, and images, and then on to more esoteric collections, such as my collection of strange experiences. The thing about collectors is, they aren’t healthy people. They are obsessives who stress the wrong syllable; they love, but that love might be misplaced. Knowing this as a reformed collector, I can recognize that, while no doubt there are things that are precious to us, I distrust preciousness. I prefer, instead, the wisdom of contemporary forest preservation. If you want the forest to live, sometimes you have to let it burn.

The first cut was the hardest. But after that, the rest of the slaughter was easy.

This adventure began innocently enough last October. The leaves were still on the trees, there was light for a good part of the day, and I was in my office, editing stories for the last issue of The Varsity Magazine, when I was struck by a paragraph in Chris Berube’s article on copyright reform, “The Death of the Artist?

“This type of artistic thievery has a rich history,” I read, as U of T instructor Martin Zeilinger explained to Chris how “copying someone’s work was the highest level of homage or respect that you could pay to a venerable author.”

Dada collage in the early 20th century, for example, was one of the first instances where artists would actually physically rearrange their influences into a new work of art. Last year, the copyright documentary RiP: a Remix Manifesto pointed out that this ethos has been especially present in music, which has its own language of borrowing.

This wasn’t entirely news to me, though something about the historical aesthetic assumption—copying as a form of homage—placed in relief against our contemporary discussion of the mashup—which often deals more with legalities than it does with aesthetics—clicked.

I assume you are already familiar with the overwrought discussion plaguing the media and entertainment industries at the moment on whether technology is destroying culture and the trustworthy production of information. Here, “technology” is often defined as that which is new, as opposed to the old, inherited tools that were revolutionary at the time of their inception, yet on which whole industries now base their livelihoods. Cue Gutenberg. One very loud and obnoxious side of this discussion yells over the voice of others that it’s fine that change has defined our cultural development for the past several millennia, but as of 2010, that evolution should come to a stand-still for the benefit of a very few.

While reading Chris’s article, I was struck by how differently the cultural industries have moved through this discussion, each at their own different pace, with book publishing probably the slowest. And while digital books and e-book readers are becoming more popular, consumers do not have the technology, as they do with sounds and images, to effortlessly and speedily digitize a book for themselves. Thus, while e-book readers (essentially iPods for books) are now available, any change in the publishing industry still seems centered on retail considerations, whether in-store or online, as opposed to the aesthetic, monetary, and legal ramifications of a mashup artist such as Girl Talk.

Arguably, all that Girl Talk is doing with music is highlighting the initial creative act and treating it as a finished work, employing what Thomas Mann called “higher cribbing.” In his essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism,” novelist Jonatham Letham writes, “Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses.” A good part of my initial excitement for this project sprang from the sense garnered from years as a reader, from essay upon academic essay, and from learning how editors do their work that books are made from other books; literature is a cleaned-up text collage that has—and here’s the effort—been developed into whole new piece of art after years of work drawing out a source of inspiration to its logical conclusion.

What Girl Talk has done is remind us of our debt to the history of high-cribbing, aided by digital technology that allows him to create and disseminate his sound collages with ease. “What if we did that with text?” I asked myself.

Click for large version

Fast-forward to two weeks ago. It was Saturday around noon and I was preparing for the second day of our weekend-long cut-and-paste party by taping the fruits of the past night’s endeavors to the wall when I realized that this is what it must feel like to be a kindergarten teacher. The day before, I had bought all the materials and lugged into the office a laundry bag full of story confetti I had pre-cut over the course of the week.

Twelve books—a dash of Margaret Atwood for dry wit, a pinch of Dionne Brand to evoke the demographics of Toronto today, some gee-whiz stories about the city’s history to provide historiographic material (the full list of books is here)—reduced to three-line units to be further sliced and diced as the writers (meaning anyone who cared to take part) saw fit.

The choice to cut the pages down to three lines had been difficult. I realized fairly soon after selecting the books (oh-so-scientifically at the UC and Trin book sales based on what I thought would work well together) that the major difficulty with the project would be to provide enough chaos to ensure participants would be forced to be creative, but to also rein it in to the extent that participants would not feel paralyzed with choice. Breaking down the books word by word would not only be painstaking, it would also remove the inspirational element. Sure, I like “legerdemain” as much as the next word nerd, but it’s nothing compared to the mashup sentence “I’m fucked in every kind of way, not least of which was legerdemain.” Equally, a full page of text uninterrupted leaves few opportunities for the imagination to jump in. I was aiming for suggestibility: just enough meaning to tell a story, but not too much.

I was reminded of kindergarten for another reason, and not because I had to remind people to put the caps back on the glue when they were done. I was taping the artworks to the wall for all to see, partly out of wanting to share the beautiful things people created (a full slideshow is included at the end of this article), partly as bulwark against the inevitable question I knew was coming as soon as we sat down to a table covered in what looked like slips from giant fortune cookies.

“So how do we do this?”

The only honest response to which was “I don’t really know?”

With that, we began.

Common knowledge would have it that there are some people in this world who are creative, whereas the rest of us lack the ability. Watching the writers—normal people—hunker down into the quiet of concentration as we reached for narrative, a story—any story—did a lot to dispel this myth for me.

As Lethem noted in his article, collage is a process by which the surrealists attempted to reanimate objects whose intensity had been dulled by everyday use, “an expression of the belief that simply placing objects in an unexpected context reinvigorates their mysterious qualities.” We saw this again and again in the Varsity cut-and-paste project.

I don’t know, said the girl, I pickpocket. I mostly concentrate on the downtown but everywhere I can get to, really.

 

‘That’s good, that’s great. Keep it up.’

 

‘But I’m on cleaning systems now. It’s a lot better.

 

And without much thought he leaned down and kissed her forehead. She looked down and shook her head, and didn’t speak for a while. ‘I guess I should go,’ she said at last.

 

They looked for all the world as if they were engrossed in some very important conversation.

 

But let’s be fair, rarely would they cross the path of the public world. They don’t think they had anything at all in common of their own lives.

 

‘Thank you,’ said the woman, her eyes filling again with tears. ‘It’s very kind of you to come to talk to me. God bless you. Good luck!’

———

Elizabeth Wood shared her husband’s love of the Canadian northland in Don Mills with shaved skulls hooked up to electrodes, rabbits with their eyes mutilated in cosmetics product tests—or slaughtered seals, beluga whales dying in the CANADIAN SPACE PROGRAM on King Street.

———

The pencil was not very sharp, but he outlined a bra of meaning, secretly connected at some deep level he could almost, almost grasp.

The question “How do we do this?” is a lot like the question you may have received from a pre-schooler: “How do you draw a person?” There are some good stand-bys you can use in such an instance—“Well, your person might want a second leg”—but when it comes down to it, you can’t draw a person without taking a stab at it. We’ve all been through this. “Human beings are creative by nature,” Margaret Atwood wrote in September 2008 in response to the Harper government’s slashing federal arts funding. “To be creative is ‘ordinary.’ It is an age-long and normal human characteristic: All children are born creative.” Somewhere along the line, though, someone tells us this is an innate human capacity we don’t have. We should start calling people out on this lie.

There is an alternative ideal to the professional creator, an alternative that may find its epoch in the digital age, with which we may arm ourselves: the amateur. As the novelist Michael Chabon, author of such books as Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, explained in his essay “The Amateur Family” (originally published in Details, since reprinted in his new book, Manhood for Amateurs):

Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be: a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner—through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational riffing and Talmudic debate—the world of the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art.

When I started in on this project, I knew that there were some questions I’d be able to answer and some I couldn’t. I tried to prepare for both. Nevertheless, I was completely unprepared for the final question as the artists gathered their coats to leave: “Can I take it home?”

Thanks
Tom Bugajski, Jessica Denyer, The Gargoyle, Emily Kellogg, Lola Landekic

Participants
Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy, Tom Cardoso, Jade Colbert, Joey Coleman, Jessica Denyer, Cristina Diaz-Borda, Helene Goderis, Alix Gould, Joe Howell, Daniel Kaell, Lola Landekic, Blerta Meraj, Bora Meraj, Ben Nieuwland, Alex Nursall, Sara Quinn, Dan Rios, Esq., Gentleman Will Sloan, Emily Sommers, Erene Stergiopoulos, Diego Laserbeam Valderrama, Shoshana Wasser

 

Q & A with Lee Ranaldo

It would be easy for Lee Ranaldo to become complacent or fall into a creative holding pattern, especially since he has been party to some of the biggest changes in popular music in the last 20 years. For example, Sonic Youth’s decision to release their 1988 album Daydream Nation on Capitol (they signed with Geffen for their next release, and stayed there for almost 20 years) inspired many counter-culture rock bands to make the switch too, including, most prominently, Nirvana, who directly acknowledged the influence. And yet, the group seems to be constantly refreshing their ethos. Last year’s The Eternal was the band’s first record on Matador, the indie distributor known for being a loving home to Belle and Sebastian, Kurt Vile, and the late Jay Reatard. Many critics commented that being on the new label helped contribute to the band’s reinvigorated sound; The Eternal sounds like it should have been written by performers half their age. Ranaldo talked to The Varsity about the music industry, who he likes, and new beginnings.
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Chris Berube: There’s been a lot of talk about moving from a major back to a smaller label (Matador), and the idea that the band has been rejuvenated in some way by this. Do you make anything of that?

Lee Ranaldo: I think we kind of rejuvenate ourselves. We’ve been doing it long enough that it’s not really about the label. But I will say that it’s been exciting to move back on to a label where people are actually interested in music, and where we’re excited about music that’s being made for the label. This was an exciting record to make, and we were happy to be making it for a label like Matador. The reception both within the label and the public has been great. And it’s cemented the fact that we’re in a good place right now in that respect. We had a good run at Geffen, and there isn’t too much bad we can say about them, but as our relationship there went on, it just became less and less interesting. There were less and less people we were interested in talking to about our music. With Matador, that’s certainly a change from that.

CB: When you joined Geffen, it was an epochal shift in music in a lot of ways. But today, the landscape has changed enough that it makes sense for bands to join these smaller labels.

LR: Yeah, I mean, when we moved to Geffen we moved there for distribution reasons. They were saying they could get our records in stores when our records weren’t in stores with the labels we were on. We would travel to cities and people would say “we love you guys, and we can’t get your records in our stores.” And the climate now is so different. First of all, you don’t need a store any more to get your records, which is a crazy thing, but a label like Matador has just as good a shot at selling music right now as a major. The majors are floundering while smaller labels like Matador know their core audience and how to sell to them.

CB: You’d mentioned that you’re now on a label with a lot of bands you’re excited about, or possibly admire. At this point in the progression of Sonic Youth, do you ever wish that you were starting out as a new band today? Or do you still feel pretty liberated as an artist?

LR: Certainly we feel very liberated in terms of what we do. We can still go in any different direction we want. I don’t know if I would want to be starting out today. The landscape has changed so much, there’s so much more music available and it almost seems like it’s harder for a new band to rise above the general glut of what is out there, both good and bad. It’s always daunting when you’re brand new to figure out how to break into the business, but when [the band] was starting [it] was the perfect time for a band like us to sneak in behind the lines in a way.

CB: Given that Sonic Youth has been around for so long as a project, it’s interesting how you’ve stuck with the same layout of instruments that you’ve had. You’re certainly known as a great guitar player, but has there been the consideration of moving to less orthodox instrumentation?

LR: We’ve considered it, but we haven’t. We got into this out of the enthusiasm of being a rock band, and to us a rock band is two guitars, bass, and drums. And certainly that’s our main interest. We’ve gotten very good at playing the kind of music that we do, but I don’t think any of us would profess to be good players. We’re certainly good players, but we’re also not trained multi-instrumentalists or anything like that. There was a point where Thurston and I were advocating for doing a record that was two pianos, bass, and drums. But the idea got nixed by the rhythm section. But we were half-serious about it at one point, we thought it would be a cool alternative and it would still sort of pick up the same sort of tonalities on the piano that we get on the guitar. But our main interests are still being guitarists and being in a rock band.

CB: Do you feel like to some extent that’s so definitional to the band that you couldn’t shake off that aesthetic while still being Sonic Youth?

LR: I guess so. It’s much more about certain sensibilities and an outlook that the four of us have in terms of what we’re after and what we’re trying for. It’s obvious after all this time that we’re not out for fame and fortune. We’re dedicated to being a band that’s dedicated, that’s making new music, and staying interested in what we’re doing. I think our outlook in terms of the way we deal with younger bands, this inclusive outlook that we have, I think is mostly what defines the group.

CB: Are there any bands today you admire?

LR: Yeah, the list is broad in terms of new bands. We tend to be turned on by all kinds of music, from stuff that’s been made this year for the first time to stuff that’s been made by people who have been in the business way longer than we have. As for music that’s kind of come on this year, there’s a group Thurston has been working with called Hush Arbours that I really like a lot. I love their new record. There’s this guy that’s been around a long time, Bill Callahan, he’s been putting stuff out as Smog for a long time.

CB: He had a terrific record this year!

LR: That record has been knocking me out, I love that record. Groups like Times New Viking, there seems to be so much new stuff happening right now. Our impression is that there’s great new music everywhere you look, and it’s just a matter of finding it. Whether it’s people writing songs or people doing more noisy compositional kind of stuff, it’s all over the place.

CB: I read that your band has been taking more of an interest in relationships and how relationships develop between people in your storytelling. What has been the impetus for moving on to that focus?

LR: Not sure where that quote comes from or who said it, but it sounds like something I might have said about my particular lyric-writing. I don’t know if I would say that in general about the band, though I don’t know who said it. [It was Ranaldo.] That’s always interested me to some degree to write about people and things close to your heart, in whatever form it’s couched in. I could go in for straightforward singer-songwriter stuff, but I could also go in for stuff that’s more cryptically written, that is still somehow very personal seeming. It’s always been something that interests me about artists I’ve been drawn very close to: how you get a sense of who they are through what you hear. I like that idea. I like it to be less abstract, more personal in some way.

CB: I would not get the sense of you as someone who would get into singer-songwritery stuff that much.

LR: Really? We get into all kinds of that stuff, from Joni Mitchell to Neil Young. We love all kinds of that stuff, younger singer-songwriters, older singer-songwriters. I mean, Chan Marshall, it’s all over the place.

When you can’t quit your day job

“You can have a full time job and enough money to pay all bills, but no time to spend working in the studio. Or you can have a part time job, no money, and enough time for studio work. The first option leads to either exhaustion or a lack of artistic productivity. The second option leads to either stress or … eviction.”


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Istoica is comprised of Christopher Altorf and Jessica Hayes. They use the portmanteau word they came up with at 16 for the freelance photography business they run at night and during weekends. During the work week, though, both Altorf and Hayes work for Hayes’ mom at Engage, an e-learning company that creates videos for corporate internal marketing.

While an artist or a fashion designer might have a hard time selling homemade haute couture or found object art, photography is arguably a more market-friendly trade.

But the fact that there are photo shoots to be done and creative faculty to be spun can still be taxing, as they’re in the studio nearly every evening after a full day at work. “After 9 to 5, there is simply not enough time. So even when someone approaches us with the perfect project, sometimes, because we are not organized, we fuck up.”

“We are just lucky not to have multiple jobs,” Altorf says. Hayes adds that it helps being employed in a technology-based industry—when Engage buys any new equipment, Istoica also benefits.


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Luke Correia-Damude is a musician-cum-gallery-owner-cum-waiter who has combined a part-time job with full-time unpaid volunteer work for the past five years. “I am almost unemployable because I have music and also the gallery,” he jokes.

Correia-Damude co-founded the Whippersnapper (which will be relocating this May) with three friends in 2005. As artists themselves, they recognized a lack of space for emerging creators to work outside of the commercial realm. Instead of charging commission on sales, artists pay at-cost fees. Combined with a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, it’s just enough to pay for the rent and the bills. The space itself is run by an army of volunteers who all moonlight as artists.

Correia-Damude also serves as guitarist and vocalist for his band, Boys Who Say No. “Music is an industry where, if you’re lucky, you make nothing,” he explains. “If you’re unlucky, you lose money.” He supports himself by working at the Rosedale Diner, but his hours vary. “After a [band] tour, for instance, I work more … basically, I’m always broke,” he says.

This year, the Whippersnapper applied for an artist run centre grant, which provides funding for spaces that exhibit work by young, emerging artists who lack a huge body of work.


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Adam Scott faces a lot of pressure as a member of a touring band—he’s the drummer for Guelph dance party outfit Green Go, whose record from last year, Borders, caught the ears of many tastemakers.

While Adam plays with the band and finishes his degree in environmental geography at the University of Guelph, he is also an active campaigner for ecological causes. Adam has worked for the Georgian Bay Environmental Association for five years, overseeing volunteer projects to monitor the health of watersheds, forests, and air quality in the region. He was most recently a Canadian youth delegate at the Copenhagen 15 Climate Conference in December 2009. Green Go is releasing a remix CD later this year.


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Jonathan O’Callaghan proves that juggling two gigs need not be a terrible and thankless affair. He claims that his day job as a chef at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Food Studio and C5 is just as fulfilling as time with his DJ duo Real Talk, which spins at Wrongbar and The Social.

O’Callaghan, who graduated culinary school in Vancouver, moved back to Toronto, working at numerous restaurants throughout the downtown core while performing with several touring hardcore bands. Recently, he was recruied to join the ROM team, and has been cooking by day and DJing by night ever since.

Real Talk has been gaining success, and O’Callaghan is preparing for a month-long Asian tour in June. How will he balance it with his commitments at the ROM? He mentions that everyone at work is incredibly understanding and that he is “super lucky” to have his job.

Slightly irritated by his zen approach, I pressure him for confessions of bottled-up discontent towards cooking and/or DJing—arguably two of the most competitive and stressful professions out there.

“I’ve never had a moment when I was really upset playing music. Even at work, when there is music involved, it’s so much better. I enjoy always having something I can tap my foot to. And sometimes, when a song comes on the radio that everyone knows, we all sing together.”


Photos by David Pike

Public exposure: a short history of public art in Toronto

Embracing modernity

Michael Awad is interested in the city of Toronto as a machine and as a system, and public art plays a part in how he pursues that interest. For someone who has worked with city officials and as an artist in the city, he does not seem jaded. Awad believes there is genuine public good being served by City Hall’s art policy.

He fondly recalls hanging out at Eglinton Station, watching people interact with his work. Of course, part of the appeal of having art displayed publicly is what he calls “the numbers game”: 50, 60, 70,000 people walking by the work every day and having it becoming part of the fabric of their lives.

For the piece in Eglinton Station, Awad designed subject to meet space. His installation, a panoramic photograph of Yonge Street from Union Station to Finch, celebrates the Yonge line.

Michael Awad has thought a lot about public art in the city. In his career he has been both a jurist selecting artwork and commissioned for his own. His work is often technical, largely focused on multimedia, and often includes the camera he built for documenting streetscapes as long filmstrips. (He uses analogue film, as his method predated Google’s popular Street View camera.) Awad discusses the trajectory of public art such as the move from the civic to the more individualistic pieces—like his own—that are more common today.

Public art sometimes conjures the image of great historical and civic moments. The statues that encircle the Ontario Legislature—lauding the work of firefighters, volunteers in the North-West Rebellion, and Sir John A. Macdonald—come to mind. In the last 40 years, however, public art in Toronto has become an important part of the debate about the city’s self-image—particularly in its adoption of a modern, international profile.

Henry Moore

“It started in particular with one sculpture, The Archer, in front of New City Hall,” Awad recalls. The Archer’s creator, British artist Henry Moore, was one of the most prominent sculptors of the 1960s, known for his abstract, polished granite monoliths. When The Archer arrived in Toronto, it was not met with universal affection. Councillors in City Hall deemed it ugly and a waste of taxpayer money, and there was even a movement to get rid of the sculpture.
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“Around this time, there was a huge public groundswell of activity,” Awad says. Citizens became engaged in a dialogue about aesthetics and modernity: “The entire city came out, thousands and thousands of people, to support this piece of public art because it was considered modern and contemporary and optimistic,” he recalls. The Moore sculpture symbolized the dawning of a new era for Toronto, one where the city embraced modernity and accomplished world-class works of art. Thousands of people signed petitions in support of the sculpture, which was, in what became a heartening tale, ultimately saved by the voice of the people.

The Archer remains in front of City Hall to this day, and Henry Moore was so flattered by the popular defence of his work that he listed Toronto in his will as the recipient of all the statues in his studio at the time of his death. These are now housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Toronto still hosts the world’s largest collection of works by Moore.

Canoe Landing Park

“Ever since then,” explains Awad, “the city has had a policy that governs how public art is commissioned, how artists are selected, and where works are placed.” When the former Metropolitan Toronto amalgamated in 1998, for instance, the city inherited the art collections of its constituent parts, and the Toronto Public Art Program released policy statements ensuring that the tradition would continue.

One of these policies was the Percent for Public Art Program. PPA aimed at tying the accumulation of public art to the development of neighbourhoods. For buildings requiring several million dollars to build, developers are obliged to put aside one per cent of gross construction costs to installing a component of public art. If the percentage doesn’t add up to enough to construct a worthy piece, funds can be pooled with those of other developments to invest in more expensive pieces.

One art project that emerged from the policy is Canoe Landing Park. Commonly known for its designer, Douglas Coupland, the Canoe Landing was scheduled to open in 2009 and is receiving its finishing touches, including a hydro hook-up. The 3.2-hectare public park, situated between Spadina and Bathurst just south of Front, was built over the course of three years. Its most prominent feature, a giant red canoe, can be seen from the Gardiner Expressway. The designers of the park used land excavated during the construction of the new Concord CityPlace waterfront condominiums. Concord Adex also contributed funds for the $8-million park as part of Section 37 of the Planning Act, which allows developers to negotiate the zoning of their projects in exchange for community benefits. In essence, Concord Adex was allowed to build higher and denser condos in exchange for a public park.

Adam Vaughan, councillor for Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) where Canoe Landing is located, said the developer saw Section 37 as an opportunity. Rather than contributing to the proliferation of “plop art”—to use Vaughan’s expression—that exists because of the city’s PPA policy, Concord wanted to contribute something genuinely useful to the ward.

Museum Station

The renovation of Museum Station, meanwhile, grew out of the Toronto Community Foundation’s Arts on Track initiative. The old station design was replaced with a bold (and well-received) design that reflects the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. The TCF hired its own architects and raised approximately $2 million from its stakeholders, with the TTC and the provincial government each chipping in.
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Awad, who has worked with the TTC as a jurist and a contributor to their public art initiatives, sees the Museum station makeover as a break with the TTC’s active public art program.

“While the public has really taken to the station,” he concedes, “that, in the purest sense, isn’t really public art. It is much more of a telegraphing of what’s above down below. What’s strong about the TTC’s public art policy is that they are pushing public art into not the high profile stations, but all of their stations and it serves the public good more.”

What’s next: a beautiful city?

In December 2009, the Beautiful City Alliance—a loose collection of arts organizations, urban affairs groups, artists, and private citizens—campaigned to secure arts funding from the recently passed Billboard Tax. It was only recently, with the additional revenue tools granted by the provincial government in the new City of Toronto Act, that this became possible.

While the Billboard Tax passed successfully and the city directed revenue towards improving enforcement of its signage bylaws, the arts funding has not been secured. Councillor Rob Ford called activists and artists who supported the tax “freeloaders,” while Councillor Denizil Minnan-Wong has said the tax should not go towards artists but “real people.”

The Beautiful City campaign will continue into 2010 as the funds from the billboard tax are allocated. While the debate over the value of arts spending continues, Toronto’s public art history demonstrates something about the way Toronto’s citizens see themselves. For artists like Michael Awad, it gives them a chance to reflect the city back to its citizens. Public art is something he sees as inherently valuable, as people go about their everyday lives—

“Especially when they stop.”

All photos by Tom Cardoso

Campus Art Attack

Preaching art

Every Saturday afternoon for the past thirty years Dan Donovan scours local galleries for the latest in contemporary art.

The 73-year-old priest has a penchant for contemporary Canadian art and a personal collection of over 300 pieces.

But the best ones of all are hanging on walls across St. Michael’s campus. The hand picked artwork is in hallways, study spaces, and offices. And every piece was selected by Donovan.

“This is what art was meant for. The whole point of art is not to go to a museum, or above all to go into some great storage room; it’s meant to be lived with,” he says.
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I really should, by Kelly Mark (Hart House)

What began in 1980 as a seemingly one-off donation of a Kosso Eloul sculpture, Zen West, has flourished into a lifelong passion for the priest and theologian who now teaches in the Christianity and Culture program at St. Michael’s.

“It wasn’t particularly religious or spiritual,” Donovan says of Eloul’s glinting sculpture of stainless steel rectangles that now sits on the college campus. “I just thought it looked great and it looked good at St. Mike’s and so I bought it and donated it. That’s when I started going to the Toronto galleries.”

Donovan’s zeal for the contemporary style has steered the St. Mike’s collection in a decidedly different direction from other colleges at the university. “I’ve very self-consciously tried to get things that would be appropriate for certain areas and what’s going in those areas, and what students are doing,” he explains.

The Donovan Collection, as it is now known, spans the corridors of nine buildings at St. Mike’s, and has swelled the college’s holdings from a handful of outdoor sculptures to some 338 works.

In Kelly Library the recent installation of pieces by contemporary artists like Barbara Steinman and Harold Klunder break the monotony of stacks, while black and white photographs by Larry Towell and Dianne Bos hang outside of classrooms in Carr Hall.

“I’ve never bought anything because I should have a name,” Donovan emphasizes in an interview. “Every piece that’s in the collection has spoken to me. And because it’s spoken to me, I hope that it will speak to other people.”

The college experience

Such a deliberate, not to mention modern, focus is an anomaly among colleges at U of T. Only steps across campus, Trinity College is a world apart in its approach to art acquisition. “It’s not a question of divvying up funds for purchase,” explains archivist Sylvia Lassam, who adds, “we didn’t really set out to acquire things.”

Instead, the growth of Trinity’s art collection, which is dominated by a who’s who of 20th century Canadian artists, is largely a product of some serendipitous donations.

In fact, Trinity’s most prolific donor never even attended the college. George Larkin built a fortune as the longtime head of the Salada Tea Company, and reinvested much of it into the bricks and mortar of the college.

For Lassam, Gerald Larkin played a unique role in amassing what are now considered to be some of the jewels of the Trinity collection. “There’s nobody who could touch him,” she says, pointing out that “he really had a huge impact on the way things look around here.”

With nearly 650 pieces, almost all of it on display, Trinity’s collection is more like an anthology of 20th century Canadian art. A landscape by A.Y. Jackson hangs over the fireplace in a residence common room; Aba Bayefsky’s Tastemakers brightens a faculty meeting room; a luminous portrait by Fred Varley stares out from the hall of the Provost’s lodge.

Clearly, this haphazard approach to collecting has paid off.

Such serendipitous acquisitions are nothing new at Victoria College, where archivist Gillian Pearson continues to uncover paintings and objects around campus and the quirky stories that accompany them.

This past November, Pearson discovered an antique sword and tapestry in a residence house on campus, objects that were likely brought back from Asia in the 1930s or 1940s by a college faculty member.

“Sometimes you find treasures – things you don’t really know about or think aren’t real and then all of a sudden they’re actually genuine,” she muses. “For me, and probably for Vic, the stories behind it [the art] are really important.”

Pearson explains that when she took on the archivist position over two years ago, much of Vic’s art collection, now numbering some 950 pieces, was in disarray. “We spent the entire summer going through nooks, crannies, closets, you name it, and found a lot of things that we didn’t have on the list.”

At one point, the ongoing search even uncovered a work by a member of the Group of Seven. Pearson recounts how a painting by group member Frank Johnston was discovered amongst the leftover belongings of a retired professor.

Like Trinity, Victoria’s generous donors have allowed the college to compile a prolific collection of Canadian art and so-called objets d’art.

While St. Mike’s also relies on patronage, the donor pool is on a much smaller scale. In effect, the college’s newfound wealth in contemporary art is funded entirely out of the pocket of Dan Donovan.

“Because I’m a priest I don’t have a family, I don’t have a home; I’m paid by the university but I don’t really need the money to any great extent. So what I’ve basically done is given everything back to St. Michael’s in the form of the art,” Donovan explains.

Despite these different approaches, the purpose of each college art collection remains much the same.

“Not having a gallery here means the entire campus is our gallery,” says Pearson. “I think if you took 10 people and said what does this art mean to you, half of them would say ‘What art?’—it’s just on the walls.” And yet, she concludes: “but many others can be inspired by it.”
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Untitled, by Guido Molinari (Hart House)

Lassam is equally aware of the limited reach of art collections in a university setting. “It’s the usual stratification of things. There’s always going to be a certain percentage of people who are keenly aware of their visual surroundings,” she says.

Even so, the enriched learning environment is a payoff in itself. “Even if you can have some kind of an impact on 10 per cent of the people who come through it’s significant, it’s worth doing.”

For Donovan, art and learning are inseparable. “Art, including and perhaps especially contemporary art, belongs in a university setting,” he reflects. “Contemporary Canadian art provides a window into our culture and into the personal and societal preoccupations that animate and give direction to it.”

A bunch of art for a bunch of students

Over at Hart House, there’s the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, located in the north end of the building. The gallery has hosted a number of critically acclaimed shows, including Mark Lewis’s In a City, Shuvinai Ashoona and Shary Boyle’s Noise Ghost, and most recently, Will Kwan’s Multi-Lateral (some of which is still up in the Great Hall.) But for those looking to interact with the art in a more casual setting, the walls of Hart House are themselves a constantly fluctuating gallery, each room hosting works from across Canada. Each year, the students that make up the Hart House Art Committee carefully add pieces to the expanding collection.

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Hart House’s constantly fluctuating assemblage can only accommodate about 400 pieces. “We try to change art maybe every few weeks, maybe one piece at a time, so the House gets renewed,” says Christopher Regimbal, Curatorial Assistant for the Barnicke Gallery. “We’re switching all the time. We switch one room at a time, and even if I have a long-term plan, I may only do one or two pieces at a time.”

Regimbal notes, that although the collection consists predominantly of traditional media, “we’ve been trying in recent years to fill it out with things other than paintings. We’ve been trying to add multimedia installations, and we’ve purchased some video and photographic works.”

It should also be noted that while most institutions centralize the best of their collections, several rooms in Hart House are themed. Two of the standouts here are the Music Room (lyrical abstraction), and the Debates Room (geometric abstraction).

With the tones of a grand piano constantly resonating through the Music Room, its bright and fluid artwork lies in stark contrast to the more formal room across the hall. “This room and the Debates Room are kind of in conversation with each other because they both have abstract works throughout,” Regimbal explains.

While most of its art is cared for by the HHAC, Regimbal is quick to point out that there is a difference between how students should interact with art in Hart House than in a conventional gallery. “We’re not a museum—we’re a house, and we have a bunch of art that belongs to a bunch of students.”

All photos by Alex Nursall

The Watchers: A Canadian Iliad

At the corner of Queen Street and Victoria stands a quintet of eight-foot-high iron sculptures bleeding rust. Nestled in the bustling metropolis of downtown Toronto since 2002, these sentinels have been a part of a myriad of Canadian landscapes from the Northwest Passage to the cliffs of Flatrock, Newfoundland, a 37,000 kilometre Canadian journey that left cracks and sores on the marked bodies of The Watchers.

Molded after the original wooden statues, The Watchers have immortalized the scars, scabs, and stories of their Canadian Iliad.

In 1997, Stride Gallery’s Diana Sherlock approached Peter von Tiesenhausen, a renowned artist with a nature-based aesthetic, to create a piece. Initially titled Forest Figures, the once-upon-a-time doodle was brought to life when the Albertan artist, with the help of a chainsaw, sculpted “the five guys” from homegrown spruce and pine.
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In a christening ceremony documented by the CBC series Adrienne Clarkson Presents, von Tiesenhausen arranged the figures around a willow-woven basket and set it ablaze 25 kilometres outside of Calgary.

As both an environmentalist and artist in the small hamlet of Demmitt, von Tiesenhausen decided to install the sculptures on the roof of Calgary’s Louise Block Building as a reminder to oil companies that “there were other things going on” besides resource extraction.

Living in Northern Alberta for the past 45 years, von Tiesenhausen has used both words and art to articulate his views on the effect of oil and timber industries on the community. In 1997, he copyrighted his land as art so as to divert a planned pipeline away from his property.

After six weeks on display, von Tiesenhausen hoisted the figures onto his ’84 Ford pick-up and made sure that they would always stand erect in transport.

“Just on a lark, we actually stood them up in the back of the truck. They were ridiculously tall and … their effect on other people was across the board from double over laughter to horror, so I became very conscious all of a sudden of where I was,” he explains.

For the next several years, von Tiesenhausen toured across Canada with The Watchers as unsuspecting Canadians witnessed and added to the narrative of the piece.

“Every time it was getting more and more profound. You go through First Nations reservations and you go through religious communities and it became very evident that it had a completely different meaning depending on where you were. It became embedded in my mind that I [was] going to make a longer trip with these guys.”

It was a profound moment for von Tiesenhausen when on his journey he ran into a man from the Haida Gwaii region of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The man said to him, “You’re bringing your sculptures, your spirits to meet our spirits.”

In the Spring of 2001 at the behest of friend Richard Kroeker, von Tiesenhausen hesitantly visited Murdena Marshall, a Mi’Kmaq elder of the Eskasoni Reserve in Nova Scotia, to have his pieces named.

“They had been known as The Forest Figures … and I [didn’t] want them named. The convincing factor was when [Richard] said the price of gas on the reservation was way cheaper and I said, ‘okay, I’ll stop at the reserve.’”

Upon first sight, Marshall simply said, “Oh, The Watchers are here,” a name that ended up sticking.

By September 9, 2001, The Watchers had spent several months in Newfoundland as well as traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T, on the Henry Larsen, a coast guard icebreaker. Weathered down and beaten by sleet, snow and rain, the imprint of the bolts used to repair a missing leg can be seen on Queen Street.

By the spring of the next year, von Tiesenhausen had driven to Tuktoyaktuk and brought the sculptures home to Demmitt where he received a call from Karen Mills, a public art consultant who worked with the developers of The Maritime Life Tower in Toronto. As part of the City’s Percent for Public Art program, the developers were required to spend one per cent of the gross cost of the construction on public art pieces. The Watchers was chosen as the outdoor piece while the other two pieces, an anchor by Colette Whiten and Paul Kipps and a photo series by Barbara Steinman, were displayed inside.

“I think [art that is integrated into the architecture] is both wonderful and deplorable because sometimes it gets lost,” explains Steve Smart, a member of The Maritime Life Tower’s art selection jury. “First of all, [The Watchers] has a presence. Number two, it’s people, which is great because figurative art is not a big thing…so it brought into the corner the idea of a congregation, of people gathering in a place.”

Using melted iron from several Ford engine blocks, von Tiesenhausen created an exact mold of The Watchers and created a boat-shaped pedestal out of granite from the Canadian Shield.

Seven years later, The Watchers have slowly rusted away as a result of being untreated, a deliberate decision on the part of von Tiesenhausen.

“I want them to slowly escape down the drain. You can see the rust stains go all the way to the manhole. No matter how permanent something is, it’ll slowly escape. I think in our society, we’re so convinced that we’re permanent, [but] actually we’re just so transient.”

Von Tiesenhausen concludes by explaining how his initial wariness of bringing The Watchers into an urban centre changed after they passed through Tuktoyaktuk and the Northwest Passageway.

“I thought, ‘Holy shit, this is all about Canada.’ The journey was something I couldn’t have predicted and I couldn’t have forced it. It was very evident that the piece was a Canadian piece. It’s all about belonging to the psyche of Canada and that’s how it had to be,” he describes over a decade later.

“Every knothole and every bolt seen there has an epic Iliad behind the journey. It’s related to all kinds of stories in Canadian history.”