Not magic beans but cranberries, most of which were picked by Guatemalan labourers at one of this patriarch's Fraser Valley farms. Like those who paid too much to live in this man's many rundown urban buildings, these labourers endured deplorable conditions that were only recently brought to light. And now the Queen's representative has seen fit to reward this man with membership into the Order of Canada? For his "contributions to the economic sector as a business leader and for his donations to numerous charitable causes"? Cazzata!
Sunday, June 30, 2019
Not magic beans but cranberries, most of which were picked by Guatemalan labourers at one of this patriarch's Fraser Valley farms. Like those who paid too much to live in this man's many rundown urban buildings, these labourers endured deplorable conditions that were only recently brought to light. And now the Queen's representative has seen fit to reward this man with membership into the Order of Canada? For his "contributions to the economic sector as a business leader and for his donations to numerous charitable causes"? Cazzata!
Saturday, June 29, 2019
Friday, June 28, 2019
in which you may protest,
-- Colin Smith, "Stooge"
Last Sunday marked the launch of some magazine at Kino Cafe on Cambie. Edited by Rob Manery (he and Louis Cabri edited hole back in the 1990s), some features contributors familiar to those familiar with the now defunct Kootenay School of Writing membership and its guests.
About 2/3rds through the eight person reading, Steve Collis took the stage, looked around at the 80+ gathered and rejoiced that "all of Vancouver's avant garde is here!" When I looked around, all I saw, apart from Roy Miki and the ubiquitous Isabella Wang, was what anthropologist Eric Wolf saw in Victoria, B.C. in the early 1980s when he stepped before a packed lecture hall, shook his head and muttered into the microphone: "A sea of white faces."
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Monday, June 24, 2019
The building where Ron lives has a number of recognizable features. Everyone knows what the north side looks like, with its long approach and 19th century European rose gardens. Less distinguished are the south, east and west wall, which go to the limit of the property. The picture above is of the least adorned wall, the east wall.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
Last year the Baltimore Museum of Art auctioned off its Andy Warhol Oxidation Painting (1978) and its Franz Kline Green Cross (1956) to raise funds to purchase artworks that "fulfill our civic duty [to] amass the most significant and the most relevant collections we can for our public ," according to BMA director Christoper Bedford. Among the works purchased: Mary Lovelace O'Neal's Running Freed More Slaves Than Lincoln Ever Did (1995).
Saturday, June 22, 2019
On Wednesday I travelled to Unit 17 to visit Derya and catch up on the gallery, his studio, the kitchen and garden. As I was leaving I took a picture from the back door, facing south. Nothing in it to suggest things weren't as they were fifty-five years earlier when the Sound Gallery opened across the street (4th Avenue) at Bayswater.
Friday, June 21, 2019
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has indigenous critics as well as non-indigenous critics. Some, such as Métis artist and writer David Garneau, can't get past the word "reconciliation" ("When was there ever conciliation?" David has been known to ask.) For Byung-Chul-Han, that word is "can."
"We are living in a particular phase in history: freedom itself is bringing forth compulsion and constraint. The freedom of Can generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should, which issues commandments and prohibitions. Should has a limit. In contrast, Can has none. Thus, the compulsion entailed by Can is unlimited. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Technically, freedom means the opposite of coercion and compulsion. Being free means being free from constraint. But now freedom itself, which is supposed to be the opposite of constraint, is producing coercion. Psychic maladies such as depression and burnout express a profound crisis of freedom. They represent pathological signs that freedom is now switching over into manifold forms of compulsion." -- Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, 2017 (1-2)
The poster atop this post was created by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and carries a detail from a painting by Métis artist Christi Belcourt, entitled Wisdom of the Universe (2014).
Thursday, June 20, 2019
I tried reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was fifteen (three years after it was published), and again in my early 20s, but could never get into it. More recently, while assembling a bibliography of postwar "road" literature, I considered adding it, only to find a copy a week later at the YWCA Thrift Shop on Main Street.
Jinhan Koh was there and I asked him if he had read it.
"Oh yeah, when I was teenager. I tried reading it again, in my twenties, but -- you know."
Well, now that you mention it.
As of last night I am 76 pages into it and continue to cringe every time Pirsig lectures at the expense of his fellow travellers. Hopefully sooner than later I will learn something from this know-it-all biker -- not from what he tells us, but from how (if at all) he handles his humility.
"John nods affirmatively and I continue." (33)
"'And what that means,' I say before he can interrupt..." (35)
"John looks too much in thought to speak. But Sylvia is excited. 'Where do you get all these ideas?'" (36)
Another book at the YWCA Thrift Shop was Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism (1979), published five years later.
Time to read it, too, see if Pirsig makes an appearance.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
An exercise. When stuck or bored, go to what's known -- and get to work!
For Spilt 7" I took two Beatles songs written ten months apart --"Yesterday" (1965) and "Tomorrow Never Knows" (1966) -- and imagined them on either side of a vinyl single. But instead of their original selves, I did my best to reverse the lyric content of each.
I am a reader of Roland Barthes, particularly his posthumous book The Neutral (2002), which is comprised of his lecture notes from his 1977-78 College de France course. I drew on The Neutral for my MFA thesis, and to a lesser extent for this experiment.
Joy will stare you down
Joy will stare you down
Until it blinds you to its vacancies
You don’t believe in tomorrow
You don’t believe in tomorrow
You were all the gender you needed to be
You were all the gender you needed to be
Tomorrow went eventually
Tomorrow went eventually
He had to come, you know
He told you
He told you
You heard nothing right
Until you tired of tomorrow
Until you tired of tomorrow
Hate is a difficult operation
Until you forgot the time of your arrival
Hate is a difficult operation
Until you forgot the time of your arrival
You don’t believe in tomorrow
He had to come, you know
He told you
You heard nothing right
Until you tired of tomorrow
He told you
You heard nothing right
Until you tired of tomorrow
Hate is a difficult operation
Until you forgot the time of your arrival
Hate is a difficult operation
Until you forgot the time of your arrival
You don’t believe in tomorrow
Turn on your bod, tense up and jump in the bath
It is dying, it is dying
Pick up some actions, resist that which looks like spectacle
It is dull, it is dull
Forget that interiority means anything
It is nothingness, it is nothingness
Hate is nothing compared to the crow at 5am
It is ignorance, it is ignorance
Knowledge and love ignore the living
It is resisting, it is resisting
Speak to the form of my reality
It is leaving, it is leaving
Work the detail “Essence” to the beginning
Of the end, of the end
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
Monday, June 17, 2019
In Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Thomas Hardy anticipates Twitter:
"I'm thinking of sending round to all the old antiqueerians in this part of England," he said, "asking them to subscribe to a fund to maintain me. I'm sure they'd see it as a romantical, artistical, and proper thing to do. They spend lots o' money in keeping up old ruins, and finding the bones o' things, and such like; and living remains must be more interesting to 'em still, if they only knowed of me. Would that somebody would go round and tell 'em what there is living among 'em, and they thinking nothing of him! If Pa'son Tringham, who discovered me, had lived, he'd ha' done it, I'm sure." (428-9)
Sunday, June 16, 2019
Saturday, June 15, 2019
Friday, June 14, 2019
Presently, Vancouver's leading visual art institution -- the Vancouver Art Gallery -- has an interim director and an interim chief curator. The city's leading university art gallery -- the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery -- has been led for the past few years by an acting director/curator while its director/curator chairs a university department. The director of the Contemporary Art Gallery announced last month that he is returning to the UK to administer a prize. The city's oldest artist-run-centres -- VIVO and the Western Front -- are looking for new directors.
Thursday, June 13, 2019
The living (garden) wall of the Darrell J. Epp Architect Ltd-designed Semiahmoo library bears close inspection. Because I was early for my appointment, I pulled over and noticed not just ferns, mosses and sedums but a maturing rhododendron! I also noticed that the building has on its 152nd Street side a RCMP station. (The proper name is the Semiahmoo Library and RCMP Facility.) But now that Surrey is poised to have its own municipal police force, then what?
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
"Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to be regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and the movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood." (10)
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Monday, June 10, 2019
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Saturday, June 8, 2019
On November 19, 2004 a belligerent Pistons fan came onto the court and was struck by Pacer Jermaine O'Neal. Of course a lot went on before that, including some incredible lounging and headphone listening by Ron Artest, better known today as Metta World Peace.
Friday, June 7, 2019
Thursday, June 6, 2019
HOW THE READER IS ENCOURAGED TO COLLABORATE ON OUR SEMINAR AND PASS ME
B.A., UNIVERSITY OF VICTORIA, 1986
A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF
THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF FINE ARTS
The College of Graduate Studies
THE UNIVERSITY OF BRTISH COLUMBIA
© Michael Turner, 2018
The following individuals certify that they have read, and recommend to the College of Graduate Studies for acceptance, a thesis/dissertation entitled:
COURSE LANGUAGE: HOW THE READER IS ENCOURAGED TO COLLABORATE ON OUR SEMINAR AND PASS ME
submitted by Michael Turner in partial fulfillment of the requirements of
a degree of Master of Fine Arts
Dr. Ashok Mathur, Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies
Dr. Virginie Magnat, Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies
Supervisory Committee Member
Samuel Roy-Bois, Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies
Supervisory Committee Member
Dr. Robert Eggleston
Dr. Greg Younging, IKBSAS/Indigenous Studies
Course Language: How the Reader is Encouraged to Collaborate on Our Seminar and Pass Me is an attempt at formal innovation in literature and/as critical pedagogy set in the midst of a “post-colonial”, Truth and Reconciliation Canada. This two-part text-as-teaching-machine includes an “autoethnographic” road story through the Okanagan Valley (“Prologue”) followed by a series of fictive discussions undertaken within a thirteen-week course format (“Seminar”) that uses this road story, along with a reading list and an evaluation rubric (weekly sections based on Attendance, Participation, Assignment and Evaluation, and their subsections) to generate subsequent road stories by the seminar’s participants. Guiding this work are readings in French post-structuralism (Roland Barthes, Luce Irigaray, Chantal Mouffe), indigenous knowledge (Jeanette Armstrong, Richard Armstrong, Vine Deloria, Jr. and Shawn Wilson) and post-war popular culture (film, literature and music). Like the anthropologists Ray Barnhart and Oscar Kawagley, I am interested in the potential of an “emergent system” (Wilson) that draws on the formalities of eurowestern thought and indigenous knowledge systems toward the advancement of a relational subject positon from which to read and write, both alone and together. I should also add that this “I” belongs to that of a middle-aged white male immigrant/settler whose Russo-Japanese father came to Canada from post-war China, and whose Canadian-born mother is of Scottish and German descent.
Course Language: How the Reader is Encouraged to Collaborate on Our Seminar and Pass Me is a work of literary research and critical travelogue designed as a seminar and disguised as non-fiction.
Table of Contents
Abstract ............................................................................................................................... iii
Lay Summary ...................................................................................................................... iv
Table of Contents ................................................................................................................ v
Dedication ........................................................................................................................... vi
Introduction (As Support Paper) ......................................................................................... 1
Prologue .............................................................................................................................. 15
Seminar ............................................................................................................................... 59
Afterword ............................................................................................................................ 97
Bibliography ....................................................................................................................... 104
For Amy Kazymerchyk
Introduction (As Support Paper)
Thus, as a method, autoethnography is both process and product.
--Carolyn Ellis et al., “Autoethnography: An Overview” (273)
Course Language: How the Reader is Encouraged to Collaborate on Our Seminar and Pass Me is a text that consists of two main sections -- “Prologue” and “Seminar” -- bracketed by an “Introduction” (this support paper) and an “Afterword” (comprised of summarized comments from a first draft reading of the “Prologue” and the “Seminar” by my graduate committee). The text is inspired by a complex of questions that range from my subject position as a middle-aged, middle class white male author in a post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada to the instruction of writing in -- and as -- an interdisciplinary environment. In the pages that follow, I will discuss the genesis of this text, how it achieved its form and how it might be employed as a pedagogical tool. The central question that informs and, hopefully, will emerge from my project is: Can an educational course provide the basis for an interdisciplinary genre?
As mentioned at the outset, I am middle-aged. As such, I have benefitted from-- and suffered -- a range of experiences staged in space and seasoned with time. For much of that time (over half my life) I have worked as a writer of fiction, criticism and song. Because the origin of this text is rooted in my previous creative endeavours, it is important that I speak of them. But before I do, I will speak first of four non-fiction books that have, to varying degrees, informed the “Prologue” section of my text -- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek(1974), In Patagonia(1977), The White Album(1979) and Heart Berries: A Memoir(2018). Although these first words will be mindful of traditional eurowestern research design principles, they will, in the spirit of “autoethnography”, behave “closer to literature than physics...stories rather than theories,” and, with any luck, will appear “self-consciously value-centred rather than pretending to be value-free (Ellis et al., 274). Indeed, it is my hope that autoethnographic criteria such as the aforementioned can support, if not suggest, that a convergence (?) of eurowestern research design with research methodologies favored by indigenous and diasporic communities is possible.
The reader will note that the first three books mentioned were published in the mid- to late-1970s (when I was in my teens), while the last book, Heart Berries, was published in February of this year. Rather than see this almost forty-year gap as a hole in my knowledge of what might be called the “contemporary autoethnographic literature”, I would prefer instead that my list be seen not as a core sample that unevenly spans five decades but as a self-conscious attempt to highlight the influence of three books that I have journeyed with since my early-twenties and, as both nourishment and comfort food, have fueled my desire to one day write a similar book. As for this last and most recent book, I include it because it is, to my mind, an important work that has come at a time when, as Boris Groys asks, “everybody writes texts and posts images -- but who has time enough to see and read them?" (Groys). Everybody I know should be reading Heart Berries: A Memoir. But I will get to that too.
To review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creekby American author Annie Dillard is a non-fictive, first-person narrative divided into four sections based on the seasons, all of which are set in a small, isolated house near the author’s home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The narrator, who lives alone, is nameless; the writing, though focused on life’s big themes (nature, faith, transcendence), is aware of itself not simply as a product of the author’s field journals, but as a force not unrelated to the movements of the creek and the presence of the mountains that watch over it. “It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about,” writes Dillard (4), whose attention to detail is diminished only by her youthful tendency (she was 28 when the book was published) to accept and maintain binaries (“active” versus “passive”), rather than derive alternative models from nature, such as -- or for example -- the rhizome.
In Patagoniaby English author Bruce Chatwin is, like Tinker Creek, a non-fictive, first-person narrative. However, rather than a work set in relative isolation and divided by the seasons, In Patagoniais comprised of 97 short chapters that detail a six-month solo trip the author took by foot, bicycle, car, bus and train from Buenos Aires to the tip of South America in 1974. Moreover, whereas Tinker Creektakes root and communes with nature through the tempos and rhythms of a rural creek, In Patagonia’s meditations have its author in motion, moving from village to village as he writes in his Moleskins not of the sedentary life, as Dillard does, but of the lives of the nomadic peons, immigrants and disaffected hippies he meets along the way. Finally, rather than employ metaphors, as Dillard does, Chatwin’s trip is inspired by a family heirloom -- a small flap of Patagonian “brontosaurus” -- that he was introduced to as a child by his paternal grandmother. A metonym if ever there was one.
The White Albumby American author Joan Didion is, like Tinker Creekand Patagonia, a non-fictive first person narrative -- in this case, a book comprised of previously published essays for popular lifestyle magazines (Esquire, Life) that are organized in five sections (one of which is called “Sojourns”) and published under the name of a larger eponymous work (the sprawling “White Album” essay takes up the entire first section). Yet while Tinker Creekis essentially a house-bound journey-of-the-mind, and Patagoniaa meandering exploration by a haughty misanthrope, the White Albumis a little of both -- and more. Taken as a whole, it is the saga of a married Los Angeles-based journalist who travels throughout her state and country on assignment while at the same time keeping a home in which friends (and sometimes strangers) drop in; a husband is adored; and a baby is raised. Essays range from those focused on cultural figures (the Doors, the Manson Family, the Black Panthers) to lesser-known florists and lifeguards; from the interior fugue states exacerbated by mental health issues to civic paranoias based on manipulative news reports -- all of which are set at the end of the 1960s (U.S.A version) and of a Los Angeles that might never have existed.
Heart Berries: A Memoirby Sto:lo First Nation author Terese Marie Mailhot (b.1972) is a non-fictive first-person chronicle comprised of eleven chapters, an “Introduction” by Spokane-Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie and an interview-style “Afterword” between Mailhout and Inupiaq American poet Joan Naviyuk Kane. Of the three preceding books, Heart Berriesis closest to the White Albuminsofar as it is the “story” of a young married writer and mother who travels regularly and suffers from mental health issues (in Mailhot’s case, intergenerational trauma brought on by Canada’s residential school system). Like the White Album, the chapters that make up Mailhot’s highly lyrical book (which at times feels like a union of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down andWept and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son) were written discretely (some were first published as fiction), with the same event occurring in multiple, time-unspecific episodes, where emotional valences shift as they cross into new contexts. Whether this crossing is symptomatic of Mailhot’s trauma, an aesthetic decision (berries are, after all, rhizomatic) or a bit of both is a question for the reader to consider -- if not mentally prepare for.
I have thus far limited my discussion of these books to a relaxed, compare-and-contrast review, with attention given to who is speaking, where and when, and of what. As for the influence of these books on my “Prologue”, I would say that Tinker Creek’s gently flowing backyard exploration of the natural world appeals to me as a meditative space, a staging ground for thoughts both pure and refined, and might explain why my “Prologue” comes to rest at a creek. Like Tinker Creek’s author, I too require a space to recoup, to discover aspects of my “essential” self, and to process them, sometimes as art. At the same time, I am equally drawn to the fly-by-night, point form travels of Patagoniaand its author’s ability to make himself, like the traditional ethnographer, invisible to the various and sometimes troubling situations he finds himself in. Of course much of this invisibility comes as a result of the author’s privilege as a man moving through a world insulated by patriarchy -- to say nothing of what he and Tinker Creek’s author have in common as white, middle class eurowesterners. There is little evidence of the larger world outside of where Tinker Creek’s explorer and Patagonia’s traveler set their sights. The privilege of their position is, like Theodore Adorno’s notion of modern art, autonomous -- but an autonomy that borders on solipsism, narcissism and omnipotence.
What attracts me to the White Album, in particular the opening line of its titular opening essay (“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” ), is its recognition of “story” as a life-giving and perhaps relational force -- yet a recognition that the author, in the same paragraph, calls into question: how at some point between 1966 and 1971 “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I have ever told myself (11).” Although the author finds this “troubling” (to her class position? to her mental health?), I find moments like these integral to a creative and critical project such as the one I am, at this moment, writing in support of. What is more, and where I find the author somewhat disingenuous, is that “The White Album” essay actually benefits from this doubt, because in eschewing “the imposition of the narrative line upon disparate images (11),” these images, as writing, flash before us as if in a dream state, a collage or, as the author says herself, a “phantasmagoria.” In this respect, “The White Album” is the inverse of Heart Berries, whose author is coming not from a safe, white, middle-class, urban upbringing, but an at-risk, indigenous, impoverished, rural community ravaged by the largely invisible, scars-on-the-inside world of residential schools. If both authors have anything more than their gender, their relationship status and their motherhood in common, it is their crises. Yet while the crisis that shapes Heart Berriesis visible on every page (not just in content but in its lyric disregard for eurowestern rhetoric), the crisis that shapes the White Albumis, if not oblique, then kept from us as if it were, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
Crisis is common to autobiographical writing (Ellis et al. 275). Readers expect it, cherish it, and so the genre and its publishers, increasingly enslaved to spectacle, demand it of their authors --until enough of them, like myself, prefer not to. This is what I am interested in as a tinkerer in the literary and visual arts: a reading, writing, listening and looking culture that can appreciate the difference, the decision to not end a chapter on an emotional cliff-hanger, nor a piece of music on a soothing cadence, nor a film with a happy ending, but to treat such moments less as crisis-to-closure moments than as discontented hours -- rich with blank spaces, rests, edgelessness, endlessness. The first three books in my discussion err on the side of what is expected of them, while the final book forsakes emotional linearity for the palimpsestic splotch. That Heart Berries, in its first pressing, “opens” with an “Introduction” (by Alexie) and “closes” with an “Afterword” (Kane and Mailhot), makes it less a singular production of onethan a relational party of many. Am I not approximating something similar with my text, with this support paper acting as an “Introduction” to the “Prologue” and “Seminar” sections, followed by an “Afterword” based on comments by my committee?
At this point I would like to return to what I referred to earlier as my “previous creative endeavors” in an effort to show how I arrived at my own personal crisis as both a developing artist and a human being, and from there to begin again, towards a discussion of the “Seminar” section of my text.
Upon graduating from university in 1986 with a B.A. in anthropology, a burgeoning interest in the literary potential of the ethnographic genre and a theoretical world-view best described as a fusion of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, I co-founded with a group of ECUAD visual art students a band called Hard Rock Miners. Our instrumentation and buttoned-down theatrical presentation was that of the traditional American jugband (sans jug). I played banjo, guitar and harmonica, while another played a washtub bass, another a washboard, another a mandolin, another a fiddle, another a guitar, another a tambourine. All of us sang.
Our method, as it were, consisted of arranging old time folk songs to make them sound new; arranging current dance music to make it sound old; and writing topical song lyrics from the morning’s newspaper and applying those lyrics to familiar melodies, both new and old. In the latter sense, it could be said that we were working in the agit prop tradition, acting out the events of our time as both artist and critic, and doing so in our preferred milieu: the high streets of Vancouver. We were, at our finest, a comedic busking band disposed to a burlesque of what was then referred to as the “mainstream”, and though we experienced a measure of success (profitable tours, recording contracts and major label distribution deals), our best work came in our early days, when we were described by a Toronto Starmusic critic as a “postmodern jugband.”
Before leaving the Miners in 1993, I had published a couple of books with a state-sponsored literary publisher. Company Town(1991) and Hard Core Logo(1993) were, in some ways, related to the eccentric composition of the band (its repertoire and its performance strategies) insofar as the books combined various written and visual systems. A description of the written would include multiple genres -- poetry, prose, dramatic dialogue, ethnography. A description of the visual would include multiple image formats -- photos, drawings, aspects of the material culture in which these books were set.
Company Townis written to a reader as if the reader was hired on as a casual labourer at the last operating Skeena River salmon cannery on what might be its last day after a hundred years of continuous production. The main text form is the direct-address free verse poem (the “documentary poem,” as Dorothy Livesay referred to it), while the images include pictures of the cannery’s various work stations, supplemented with landing tallies, tote tags and other two-dimensional administrative devices used to make salmon products. Hard Core Logois similarly structured, though its focus is on a touring punk band that reunites -- only to realize why it broke up in the first place. The song lyrics in Hard Core Logohave since been set to music by a number of bands (cub, Fishbone, Kinnie Starr), with some songs having as many as three different musical compositions applied to the same set of lyrics.
The positive reception of these books, coupled with a desire to settle down, resulted in my leaving the band in the spring of 1993, after which I spent the bulk of my time writing and curating “live” cultural events in a Vancouver that was transitioning from the “British” resource port of my childhood to the international cosmopolitan resort it is today. The effect of this transition on my work cannot be understated. Looking back, it occurs to me that my increased use of transgressive subject matter (violence, psycho-sexuality) in subsequent and equally multi-generic works like American Whiskey Bar(1997), The Pornographer’s Poem(1999) and 8x10(2009) is not simply a critical response to the transition of a modern Canadian literature from an angular, open-ended experiment to a polite bourgeois celebration of story and its closures; it could also be seen in relation to Vancouver’s transition from a city with a distinct working-class culture to a conformist market city where power is brokered not by politics but by finance. Indeed, and somewhat paradoxically, as the city became further reconfigured, its neo-liberal governments (both “left” and “right”) began to promote “green” initiatives in concert with gender, sexual, ethnic and (dis)ability diversity. While these initiatives are consistent with my own values (I cheered for them as I cheered for Obama in 2008), more often than not they come off as lip service, designed more to attract foreign capital (through the illusion of social stability) than to promote a balanced and liveable city for its residents. It is an old trick, where marginalized communities are placated with symbolic power in place of political economic power. And as a trick, it only made me aware of my own (symbolic) tricks. It is here that I arrived at my crisis.
If middle-age has allowed me the years it took to build an artistic practice and accrue whatever wisdom and cultural capital I might now possess, my privilege as a middle class white man of moderate flamboyance allowed me access to places I might not otherwise think of as guarded (the very definition of privilege). This proposition has become something of a mantra for me over the past few years, and as good as it feels to have perspective on one’s life, it necessarily brings with it a humiliation. To be judged by that which I have described -- independent of my humiliation and self-reflexivity -- brings with it a further alienation that my judges have no doubt felt themselves but, in some instances, have no sympathy for when applied to someone of my description. This is the punitive nature of social relations as expressed via that Tolkienian ring known as social media (FaceBook, Twitter), and one that I will not pursue here. Instead, I would prefer to focus on my text and how it achieved its form.
When I began to think of a research project to pursue as part of my MFA program, I did so in the hope that I might produce an open and generative text that could be used in an interdisciplinary educational setting. The persistence of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing(1972) as an introductory visual arts course text has long been a source of fascination for me, yet the world has changed dramatically since this book and its companion TV series were first published and aired (respectively), particularly with the advent of the internet. As a result, many of today’s creative writing students are more visually literate than they are knowledgeable of literary history (classical/indigenous to modern/contemporary). Another change concerns a postmodernism that allowed for a multiplicity of voices and subject positions, with hegemonic, eurowestern notions of art and literature challenged, discarded or, in some instances, collaged or montaged into new forms. Another change is the prevalence of interactive modalities that have allowed participants to enter into dialogical situations that were once restricted to the unilateral producer/consumer binary. Still another change is the way in which the fine arts are taught, with a decreased emphasis on top-down authoritarianism in favour of a more horizontal orientation, where participants learn not froman instructor but with-- and amidst -- each other. All of which had me wondering if what I wanted to produce from my research is a book or indeed a method through which a range of artistic projects (like what I call my “Prologue”) could be made alone and/or collaboratively. For me, this method might best be found in the structure of the educational course program, specifically the seminar.
At the outset of my “Seminar” section I talk about two influential texts (one in linguistics, the other in cultural anthropology) that emerged not from the scholars who wrote and published them, but from their students who “received” their professor’s writings through lectures and wrote them up from their notes (Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, 1916) or collected their professor’s essays and addresses towards their publication as chapters in a book (A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s The Structure and Function of Primitive Society, 1952 ). This inversion, as it were, had me wondering if a similar process might be used as the basis for a course whose intention it is to produce an artwork (like my “Prologue”). But rather than a lecture format, where knowledge is “deposited” by the instructor into the student (what Paulo Friere refers to as the “banking” model of education), I chose the relative two-way intimacy of the seminar, which, like the lecture format, is reliant on that which both instructor and student have in common. I am speaking here of evaluation, which students are subjected to in the form of a rubric and which instructors are subjected to through university-mandated, end-of-term student assessments of their teaching. What I settled on was something closer to how students are evaluated, given that many more of us have been students than instructors -- but an evaluation rubric in its purest form, based on what I see as its most recurrent criteria: Attendance, Participation, Assignment and Examination.
Another text I drew on is Roland Barthes’s The Neutral (2002), which, like the earliest form of de Saussure’s book, began as lecture notes. Never intended for publication, Barthes’s lecture notes were prepared in advance of a series of thirteen lectures he gave at the College de France in 1977-78, which Rosalind Krauss co-translated and published with Columbia University Press more or less unabridged in 2002. Central to these lecture notes are a number of key words Barthes used, many of which stand in opposition to each other. It is from this arrangement that I decided that my course, like Barthes’s The Neutral lectures/book, would also run thirteen weeks, with each word in my evaluation criteria (Attendance, Participation, Assignment and Examination) standing in for a three-week mini-session, where 1) the key word is discussed amongst the seminar’s participants in the mini-session’s first week, 2) its antonym is divined and debated in its second week, and then, in its third week, 3) an exercise is suggested based on what was learned (an exercise that the facilitator would take part in as well). Four key words times three weekly meetings (each) would amount to twelve weeks, with the first week’s meeting consisting of an introductory lecture -- equalling a thirteen-week seminar course.
But rather than present a detailed syllabus in advance of my course, I thought instead to keep its bones bare and present its ideas and administrative information in the midst of the seminar’s opening lecture, pre-empted by a list of recommended and suggested readings that would act not as flesh to these bones but as clothing. And rather than “teach” this course right away as a special topics course (which I have devised, pitched and implemented at institutions like Capilano University, ECUAD and Simon Fraser University), I thought instead to act on what Barthes said at the outset of his course, when he introduced his lecture series as a “phantasm” (a la theWhite Album’s aforementioned “phantasmagoria”) -- only in my case I would begin and end the first fantastic journey of this seminar as an imagined seminar dialogue (the “Seminar” section), a fiction whereby participants (thirteen, including myself) would make from these words what an Iron Chef might make from a similarly limited set of ingredients: a seminar text preceded by yet another piece of fictive writing that, like the reading list, I would also make available to the class in advance of the opening lecture -- this one grounded in my weekly drive from the UBCO campus to the foothills at the north end of Lake Okanagan where I keep my trailer. And because the goal of this course is for its participants to produce a similar artistic text (be that as writing, film/video, performance, or combinations thereof), I thought that by assigning this second text I would provide both an example of the kind of text that is possible from a course like mine, but also a text that would carry with it -- and by extension enact -- elements of the recommended readings. It is this second text that I call the “Prologue”.
As mentioned, the “Prologue” is based on a drive I take once a week -- the same route every time -- departing from the UBCO campus northbound on 97, west towards Head of the Lake, south down the west side of Lake Okanagan, then west into the foothills. Without stopping, the drive is exactly an hour, which is a familiar time frame for someone my age, given that so much of the culture I came of age in was contained within it. For example, my public school classes were an hour. Same with the TV shows I watched growing up, from magazine-style news programs like CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days(1964-1966) to CBS’s 60 Minutes(1968-). Same too for dramatic programs, where North American viewers embodied hour-long episodes of Gunsmoke(1961-1975), TheRockford Files(1974-1980), Cagney & Lacey(1982-1988) and North of 60(1992-1997), programs that allowed us to be intellectually and emotionally conditioned not only by their narrative content, but also physiologically conditioned by their duration. An hour is also the approximate (maximum) length of a CD, which I still listen to while driving, particularly re-issued “concept” albums from the 1960s and 70s.
But in the digital era, where Netflix binging has done away with episodic constraints, and where we increasingly set our own time frames for our activities through 24/7 online participation and on-demand programming, an hour, like my CD jewel case, is something of a relic. Same for the book, where, with the advent of e-readers, we can carry with us dozens of books in the same way we once carried one. All these shifts in time and space -- all these recalibrations of a body conditioned by past forms. Normally I am adaptive to changes like these, but when in the presence of those who have not come of age under similar conditions, it is then that I notice the difference -- both as a maker of difference moments and as a receiver of them. Which is why in writing the “Prologue” I chose to stop and pick up a hitch-hiker, someone younger than me who, through difference, would make me self-conscious enough to reveal myself more carefully than I would if I were travelling alone. It is for this reason that the hitcher is a woman and, in an effort to confine the conversation to topics relevant to my interests, an artist. As for other attributes, her family life is matrifocal and she is economically impoverished. Because ethnicity is as problematic as it is complex, I chose to keep the hitcher’s ethnicity ambiguous (though some early readers of my text have assumed that she is indigenous).
I realize that in constructing a character to accompany me (to provide contrast, conflict and consensus), I am also entering the realm of representation, objectification, reduction and judgement -- this despite whatever care I take to allow this character -- this subject -- to project herself on her own terms, if such a thing is possible in a fiction written by a single author. But to that point I would add that in constructing this character I have tried as much as possible to present a figure composed (collaged? montaged?) from numerous direct and indirect personal interactions I have had over the past few years, not only to set up a contrasting situation between two travelers (like those film characters referred to in the buddy-driven road movies as discussed in the “Prologue”), but an allegory for a relational subjectivity based on what Luce Irigaray talks about in her essay “Approaching the Other As Other” (1999) and, to a similar extent, in Shawn Wilson’s evocation of “complexity theory” (in this instance, the potential for an “emergent” discourse drawn from systems of eurowestern thought and indigenous knowledge) in the work of Ray Bernhardt and Oscar Kawagley, as discussed in Wilson’s Research As Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods(2008). Although this relational subjectivity does not emerge in the “Prologue”, it informs the “fantasy” of the driver (me) as he makes his way north -- from where he picks up the hitcher just south of Vernon to where he drops her off at Head of the Lake. Further to that, this fantasy might also be said to inform the object revealed at the end of the “Prologue” -- an artwork made from the driver’s intentionally blank business card (as alluded to early in the “Prologue” through the use of blank space) which he had imposed on the hitcher, and which the hitcher fashioned with a knife and felt-pen into a small black box she left behind for the driver after he drops her off and resumes his trip.
Taken together, the “Prologue” and the “Seminar” are complementary texts; they exist in relation to each other, improve upon each other and hopefully make my thesis project greater than the sum of its parts. Another relationship is that of the reader of my project. This relationship is more complicated in that it desires both a reader as a collaborator in the production of text’s meaning and a reader as a potential participant in the seminar as it might one day be offered as a course. This, it could be said, is the fictive version of my fantasy or phantasm, the one that could only be offered to the reader of my project, as it is being offered here, in this support paper/Introduction. This is what I mean when I “explain” in my project’s subtitle How the Reader is Encouraged to Collaborate on Our Seminar and Pass Me, but also what I offer up at the end of my fictive “Seminar” when Participant #7 asks the seminar group to vote on how its members want to be represented in a transcript of the seminar as it has been recorded. If I am Participant #7, and the seminar members/collaborators pass what amounts to my resolution, might I pass this course, too?
As a potential seminar course, I am still uncertain whether I would include a text of my own as the Prologue, or a recommended reading list as extensive as the one I have supplied. But I see an advantage to a course such as this as part of a post-secondary interdisciplinary curriculum, or one offered through a gallery or museum’s Education and Engagement Department (or perhaps a combination of the two: a university accredited course devised in conjunction with a partnering museum or a related learning centre?).
What would be required to make this course credible would be its presentation in a format that conforms to criteria laid out by its host organization. This is, in itself, another journey I might be tempted to “make” one day, particularly one whose phantasm is to explore the university system and its various approving bodies -- a journey that, if recorded properly, could provide the basis for its own prologue thematic. But rather than attempt that myself -- rather than follow my Godardian bal[l]ade“Prologue” with a Kafkaian administrative nightmare -- I would prefer not to. Indeed, I would prefer instead that the potential for this course begin not with a neutral week-by-week syllabus in advance of the course its intends to describe, but allow itself to be drawn from its inline form (the introductory lecture) -- a body from which its skeleton is extracted and, depending on how that extraction is carried out (and who is doing the extracting), would allow its extractor a collaborative hand in how that outline invariably takes shape.
This, for me, is not a disingenuous gesture but a dialogical one, a relational phantasm towards that which I seek as a writer who has increasingly come to see authorship not as singular but as collaborative, not unlike how Barthes talks about the relationship between author(s) and reader(s), or Chantal Mouffe, who, in The Democratic Paradox(2000), laments the loss of discursive (political) space through the pragmatism of “progressive” (neo-liberal) “moderates” (Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder) and their desire for something as singular as a “third way” as a salve against the ostensible occlusions and inefficiencies of “left” and “right” politics. This is the basis for the course as a pedagogical tool -- its origin as a work of fiction that attempts to document a relational space, but also the means by which that fiction reaches its ends as a point of departure for learning what it is to make anythingout of everything. Part of this “anything” could be the course as a category, while part of this “everything” could be the genre through which the course provides the basis for a work of art.
A final word: this text was written as both a paper in support of my thesis project and an introduction to that project. As such, it draws on the contents of my project -- its “Prologue”, its “Seminar” and its recommended reading list/bibliography -- in support of itself. The final piece of writing for this project is an “Afterword” that addresses comments and questions raised by my committee through its notes on the thesis project after its submission to committee for a reading in February 2018. My reasons for including my committee’s notes at the end of my thesis project, rather than in the midst of my “Prologue” and “Seminar” sections, are three-fold: 1) to prevent the project from getting too meta; 2) to present these notes as an instance of re-writing-as reading; and, by extension, 3) to honour them as an example of collaborative activity. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my committee (Ashok Mathur, Samuel Roy-Bois and Virginie Magnat) for its commitment to -- and participation in -- my/our project thus far.
If this story doesn’t exist now, it will.
-- Clarice Lispector
I am driving north on British Columbia’s Highway 97, a journey that began at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus in Kelowna, where I will eventually submit this text as my MFA Interdisciplinary Studies thesis project and, if I do not stop, will end sixty minutes later in a narrow valley in the foothills a few miles southwest of the head of Okanagan Lake. This is a drive I have done maybe twenty times since I moved to the Okanagan two years ago, and it is only now that I have begun to write about it in earnest. But as I move forward, as this writing moves forward, a voice asks, What have I not written thus far about what I have done and what I am doing?
What is lacking? What could be subtracted?
Why have I allowed myself this distraction?
These are questions to which there are no complete answers. But if in reading this you can think of one, think of it as inhabiting the space borderedby this line...
... and the highway, as representedby this line.
(Imagine a car parked here, on the shoulder, its driver writing this down in a dollar store scribbler.)
The space I have cleared is a sincere space -- a space that might not, if ever, be filled. It is a space I believe in, one I have used in past works...
...as a way -- as a place -- to engage the reader.
I want these spaces to be active spaces, not just passages in a book; an occasion for more than just me and whoever is reading it (with me). A space to consider, a philosophical space I can enter into and/or exit from. A non-gendered space. A non-racialized space. A non-monetized space. Anything to get us out of this trick called the book.
To understand these spaces and their construction, it would help to be reading this. If you have read what I have written thus far, you will know what I mean. If you have listened to me read this text without visual support, you will not.
Here is another space...
...this one even simpler.
Like a sound (music), a mark (visual art) or a gesture (dance), writing starts, and in starting it defines its for(u)m and a position is established with an immediate past, in temporal terms, or in spatial terms, a place to move from. It can stop before the first word is completed (W-O-R) or it can be carried (on), as one carries a knapsack or a belief. It can be added to (W-O-R-D), just as it can be subtracted from (O-R). Sometimes the writer (and the reader) are carried by the writing, as one is carried by a river, like William Carlos Williams was carried by the Passaic, his muse. Sometimes the writer is there to receive the writing, as Annie Dillard was at Tinker Creek when she awoke one morning to find that her tom cat had written over her body with his blood-stained paws. Or what Marshall McLuhan suggests in his essay “Roads and Paper Routes”: “It was not until the advent of the telegraph that messages could travel faster than a messenger. Before this, roads and the written word were closely interrelated (90).”
Something I think about on the drive between UBCO and this narrow valley is the length of my life -- my relationships, my various endeavours, the places I have visited -- and how the times of my life -- its events -- the ones that mark time -- correspond spatially to the landscape I pass through. As I see it (as I thinkit), these spatial correlations approximate musical movements: the drive towardsVernon, the drive throughVernon, the drive fromVernon. A concerto.
The first movement is determined by the organization of Vernon (the only city I pass through between UBCO and that valley), with everything in advance of it, and after it, ellipses; not an integrated whole, in the way we think of a city as a contained and/or an interconnected system, but features of a city: a hotel, an airport, gas stations, a shopping mall, a campground, a military base... While some of these features are present in a city, all of them relate more specifically to travel and its rhythms of motion, rest, resumption, rest, motion, rest, resumption, rest...
Unlike some of my friends who grew up moving from place to place (children of university professors, soldiers, diplomats, seasonal workers) my earliest years were sedentary. What was in flux during those years -- what made me anxious and unsettled -- was a desire for independence, a completeness which I believed could only be achieved through self-sufficiency -- similar to how a city appears to be self-sufficient, with one’s home next door to a grocery store across the street from a clothing store next door to a music store. Never mind that bananas, Tyrolian hats and sheet music are produced elsewhere, that their production and distribution complicates the idea of the self-sufficient city -- this was how I made sense of my world as child among parents, peers, teachers and coaches.
For a brief moment one Sunday afternoon in October 1973 did I achieve this feeling of independence and completeness. I was eleven, staring out my bedroom window at a sloping park whose vast green lawn was blackened by starlings. Yet no sooner did this feeling enter me than it departed. That it departed in the same instant these starlings lifted up in the most exquisite murmuration was irrelevant, coincidental. I am not sure why this was, or why I think this was, though I suspect it had something to do with my inability to connect my inner self with the outer world, and vice versa. For me, these starlings simply came from somewhere and, in lifting off, went somewhere else, with me less a dependent variable to be determined by external forces than a witness to something -- a community -- independent of what was -- and was no longer -- going on inside me.
It did not occur to me until I began my drives up and down Highway 97 some forty-three years later that this feeling I longed for as a child was not about my desire to feel independent and complete, but my alienation from the world I was living in -- an alienation that had me thinking that what had entered and exited me that day -- what I longed to achieve again -- was not something that began within me, but something closer to those starlings and their own relational sense of being -- not the singularity of a starling amongst starlings, but the relationship between the flock and its landscapes.
Something else that occurred to me on my drives is a consideration of myself not as the driver of my car but as someone who came to identify that which I was passing -- a hotel, an airport, a gas station, a shopping mall... -- as removed from a larger or a complete system, when in fact these features, like the ellipses that “appear” in advance of and after the city, approximate the meansby which our lives operate as fluid, vital, non-literal systems -- not the quantification of these experiences as ends.
Shortly after moving to the Okanagan, during the first of those twenty or so trips between UBCO and this narrow valley, I picked up a hitch-hiker. I was approaching Vernon from the south when I saw her standing just before the first crosswalk, thumb out, looking tough and impatient. She couldn’t have been more than twenty.
Because she was hitching north, I assumed she wanted to pass through the city, so I stopped. As it turned out, she was travelling to her mother’s boyfriend’s place at the top of Westside Road. Because I would be travelling down that road, I offered her a lift.
It is always a treat to meet people who were born and raised in the Okanagan. Yet how I came to know this was not from any direct question, but from an observation based on her brown corduroy trouser, which were covered in multi-coloured splotches of paint.
“I hope that paint isn’t wet,” I tell her as she climbs into the passenger seat.
“Maybe just the knees,” she says matter-of-factly, aware that only those parts of her that come into contact with my upholstery would stain it. “Besides, it’s just latex. It’ll come out if you scrub it.”
I wait a beat before pulling out into traffic. Part of me is incredulous (I am giving someone a ride so I can scrub the seat of my car?), another part accustomed to responses like this based on my work as a UBCO teaching assistant.
“I just painted my grandmother’s hallway,” she says as we pull up at the next set of lights, the intersection just below the hospital, “but most of this paint is from my paintings.”
Because the class I am assisting is comprised largely of studio-based undergrads, I consider asking her if she is at UBCO, but she continues:
“My grandmother was born here. So was her mom, and my mom too. I was born here, right over there,” she says pointing a thumb over her shoulder at the hospital, “but I’m not staying here. I would if I could but it’s not...practical.”
I want to know what she means by “practical,” and I think about asking her, but again she continues, this time with a story whose development has everything to do with my staying out of it.
She tells me how Vernon is “ruined” for her because she knows too many people, most of whom “get in the way” of her doing what she wants to do, and that’s “hole up, make work.”
She asks me if I have read Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature. For fun I tell her that I haven’t.
“I just started it,” she says. “A guy at school gave it to me. It’s about this rich guy who quits partying and tries to clean himself up, make himself an artist.”
“Does he succeed?”
“Don’t know yet,” she shrugs. “Like I said, I just started it,” and with that she takes out her phone and starts scrolling.
It was not until my late-forties that I heard about Against Nature(1884) (or À rebours, from which it is imprecisely translated). I had always been interested in a Modern European writing that connects Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) to Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) -- writers for whom the city is both a book to read and a book to write -- but Huysman’s novel had eluded me. Was it because Huysman’s novel was antagonistic to city life, and therefore outside my go-to indices? For Baudelaire, it was Paris that fascinated him; for Benjamin, Berlin. As for Huysman (1848-1907), he falls somewhere in-between. Though the protagonist of Against Naturebegins in Paris, his story quickly shifts to the countryside.
My discovery of Against Naturecame at a time when I decided I enjoyed teaching and wanted to pursue it further. But rather than send my c.v. to schools and await those last minute sessional offers, I took my interest in interdisciplinary art practices and bundled them into a seminar course which I pitched to schools that I thought might be interested. The course I devised was focused on the relationship between image and text in 20thcentury art and, to my delight, it was received favorably by a dean at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, who offered me a Special Topics slot in the Fall 2011 term.
As one might expect when preparing a course on 20thcentury anything, the century does not begin in 1900 but, for my purposes, as far back as the French Revolution, which I introduced to my mostly studio-based students in the form of an opening lecture that sped through the 19thcentury to what is arguably the first artistic trend of the 20thcentury -- Expressionism. However, it was while researching that late 19thcentury movement known as Symbolism that I found myself face to face with a condition that spoke most personally to me, one that I would return to after the completion of my course.
Like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet(1881), Against Natureis both a story of retreat and intentional living. Yet while Bouvard and Pécuchetfollows the hi-jinks of two frivolous “bachelor brothers” who leave the city to pursue their follies in the countryside, Against Naturehas a darker if not morbid tone, with its protagonist, Jean des Esseintes, moving from project to project in an effort to refine himself, achieve the kind of spiritual transcendence one might expect from such concentration. Unfortunately for des Esseintes, the harder he tries to achieve his transcendence, the sicker he gets. It is only when he gives up his isolation and returns to the bourgeois city he loathes that his health improves. We do not know what becomes of Bouvard and Pécuchet because Flaubert passed away before he could finish his novel.
As much as Against Natureis a cautionary tale (namely, that retreat from the world is physically and spiritually unhealthy), its moral proposition was lost on me until recently, when I returned to the book after several unsuccessful starts. Why I had not done so sooner escapes me, particularly since I was engaged in a similar retreat throughout much of my late-forties and early-fifties, a retreat that, like des Esseintes’s retreat, had me picking up books, reading a few lines, then returning them to the shelf; or experimenting in my kitchen, concocting remedies -- everything short of doing what he did to that turtle. But eventually I came to my senses, and when I did, I decided to return to school to work on a new set of problems, one that had me asking not how to best retreat from this world but, a la Baudelaire, how to get anywhere out of it.
“Have you read Baudelaire?” I ask the hitcher.
“Who?” she says smiling at her phone.
“Charles Baudelaire. He was a nineteenth century poet, critic--”
“I hate critics,” she says texting furiously, her smile widening.
We are approaching 30thAvenue, a four block retail stretch that is the closest thing Vernon has to a downtown promenade.
The Vernon Public Art Gallery is a block north and to the immediate left. A month before I had accepted a commission to write a catalogue essay for one of its upcoming exhibitions. I thought maybe it was time I visit the gallery, find out where and how the work would be installed.
“I forgot,” I tell the hitcher -- “I have to stop at the art gallery.”
“I’ll wait in the car,” she says to her phone.
“I would prefer that you didn’t,” I say.
She throws me a panicked look. My stomach tightens.
“Sorry, what I mean is, I don’t know you that well and I would feel better if you didn’t stay in my car and we could look at the exhibition together, critically or otherwise.”
Her shoulders drop, she turns off her phone. “Sure,” she says tucking her device in her bag, her other hand firmly on the door handle.
The Vernon Public Art Gallery is located on the south side of 31st Avenue and occupies what amounts to two ground-level retail spaces at the bottom of a Brutalist three-storey parkade. That this should be the home of Vernon’s civic art gallery tells me where its residents place art in the cultural ecological spectrum. Or maybe not. For I have seen civic galleries occupy spaces like this before. Most times they are provisional, a pit-stop en route to something larger or purpose-built. A beginning, I think, not and end in itself.
We enter and the hitcher veers right, past a vacant reception desk into the gallery shop. To the left of me is a hall that ends with two offices, their doors open. I think about poking my head in to ask if Lubos is around (the curator who commissioned my essay and who I had only “spoken to” through email), but think it best to start with the exhibitions, which, from what I can see, are mounted in two rooms (one big, one smaller), as well as in an alcove and on the walls of the aforementioned hallway. I pick up an exhibition print-out at the reception desk and start reading.
The VPAG has mounted four exhibitions: Bio Diverse Ability by Cool Arts, a Kelowna-based support group for “variously abledindividuals whose primary focus is art education and art practice through process oriented and experiential activities;” The Big Bad by Kelowna-based installation and multi-media artist and recent UBCO grad Lucas Glenn; Object Affections by another recent UBCO graduate, Malcolm McCormick, whose work is based in painting and architecture; and Blue Tornado Redux by Vernon-based Julie Oakes, an artist and gallerist who was trained in drawing and painting in the 1960s and 70s, and now works in glass and ceramics.
The hitcher is reading over my shoulder. I look at her.
“Are you done?” she asks. “I’m hungry.”
“We just got here,” I tell her. “Let’s look at the shows.”
She walks into the McCormick exhibition. I follow.
The room is longer than it is wide. In the middle are two free-standing wall structures: one self-supporting -- two walls attached at a 90-degree angle -- and a single wall with two 45-degree angled rear supports. Inset into one of the walls of the free-standing structure is a grid of four small paintings, their backs exposed; on the other wall portion is a similarly inset work, this one a photograph about the same size as the grid of paintings, but framed. Leaning against the free-standing wall is a tall vertical photograph. As for the wall with the two 45-degree angled rear supports, it too has its back exposed, with a smaller painting inset within its face.
Against the gallery wall to my immediate right is a set of plywood shelves, the kind one might find hastily hammered together in an artist’s studio. On the top shelf, leaning against the gallery wall, are four small paintings. The paintings are successively larger as they move from left to right, with the final painting (the same size as the preceding painting) not a painting, per se, but a painting turned away from the viewer -- the back of a painting. On the shelf below are seven paintings leaning against each other like books with their spines out. The first six are the same size, the last one a couple inches taller. There is a double-photograph lying flat to the left of these paintings that features a young man in a towel. To the left of the shelving unit, on the gallery wall, is a painting approximately the same size as the largest painting on the bottom shelf.
At the far end of the room, near the corner formed from the gallery wall opposite the one with the shelves and the space’s rear wall, is the largest painting in the exhibition. This painting is placed horizontally on a solid free-standing platform. Leaning against the gallery wall between the horizontal painting and the single wall with two 45-degree angled rear supports is another painting. On the wall beyond it, nearer to the entrance, a photograph. On the corner walls behind the horizontal painting, two horizontal photographs on each.
“I don’t like these paintings,” says the hitcher.
“The exhibition is more than that -- it’s not just about the paintings.”
“I don’t like the photographs, either.”
Where to begin? Is this a teaching moment or is it a performance -- In Advance of a Condescension -- with myself as the mansplainer?
I draw a line in my mind, then a breath...
...before drawing a line of similar length.
I take from my coat pocket one of a number of 3.5” x 2” white cards I carry for such occasions. These cards are made of 16-point cardstock, with a 100 lbs. gloss finish and are materially similar to business cards, except my cards have nothing printed on them and are intended to represent what is possible; not an outcome, but a change in direction, a reorientation.
“What’s this?” she says turning the card over, then sideways, then over again.
“It’s a space,” I say. “An object. But there’s room on it -- it’s open.”
“What does this have to do with this show?”
“The show’s a space too. It occupies a space, but it’s also about the space -- the architecture, the artist’s studio -- beyond the objects the artist brought to it.”
She hands back the card. “I don’t like this kind of art. It’s not art to me.”
I don’t take the card.
“What?” she says, waving the card at me. “I don’t want it!”
“I can’t take it -- it’s yours. You’ve already made something of it.”
“What have I made of it,” she says, “other than not wanting it!”
“The way you handled it -- turning it over, then sideways, then over again.”
“But that’s not artto me!”
“Sure, but it’s art to me, and--” I hesitate here, as I always do at this point, never sure what I am going to say “-- it is important to me that you have it, that you keep it as a gift, from one artist to another.”
At this she looks at it again, turning it over, then sideways, then over again.
A multiple, I think.
“I need to eat something,” she says, tucking the card in her pocket. “I need to get out of here.”
“I don’t like this place,” says the hitcher from behind her menu.
I lower mine. “You picked it. You want to eat somewhere else?”
“No, the food’s okay; it’s the atmosphere I find annoying.”
I agree. The guy at the table beside us -- a real estate agent -- is talking too loudly about his latest conquest. But it’s not the guy the hitcher keeps staring at, it’s the woman across from him.
I look around. The restaurant is empty but for our table and the people next to us. Clearly we were seated next to the couple for the convenience of the server. I consider asking the server to move us.
The server arrives, introduces herself and asks if we would like to get “started on a beverage.”
“Can we sit over there?” says the hitcher, pointing to the wall opposite.
The real estate agent stops mid-sentence.
“John, don’t,” says the woman opposite him.
“What?” he says to me, smiling. “Am I too loud or something?”
“I think you’re too loud,” I say, but to the hitcher, not John.
“Well, c’mon dude,” he says with mock incredulity, turning to the woman opposite him. “I can’t help it if I got a big voice.”
“You don’t have a big voice,” says the hitcher, looking him up and down. “You have a small voice; that’s why you’re yelling.”
“I’m not yelling!” he yells.
“I can tell you’re yelling,” the hitcher yells back, “because that vein in your forehead is a yelling vein!”
At this the server withdraws. Seconds later the owner arrives and asks us to leave.
“I like the way you handled that, I tell her as we across the street to Nature’s Fare. Do you mind if I use it sometime?”
“What, are you writing a play?”
“I’m always writing. That’s what I do -- I’m a writer.”
After paying for our sandwiches the hitcher suggests we sit at the window facing the street. “I’m not done with them yet,” she says, settling in with a view directly opposite the restaurant we were just kicked out of.
“What do you have in mind?” I ask a little nervously.
“I’m interested in her more than I am in him.”
“What do you find interesting about her?”
“I’m interested in why she stays with him.”
“Do you know them?”
“Then how do you know they’re a couple? He did all the talking, and all he talked about were his sales.”
“They have matching wedding rings.”
Hmm, I hadn’t noticed. “What else did you notice?”
“That her feet are longer than his. That her clothes are older and cheaper than his. That she has an eating disorder--”
“Wait, how can you tell she has an eating disorder? She had a big plate of spaghetti in front of her.”
“That she will puke up in the washroom the next time he answers his phone.”
“How do you know that?”
“The two fingers next to her ring finger are her purging fingers. You can tell from the calluses and the discoloration,” she says, her eyes back on the door across the street
I glance at her fingers.
“I noticed that too,” she says. “And no, I don’t have an eating disorder -- I just notice things. Like you noticed things about that show -- everything except how bad those paintings and photographs are.”
As a writer I am fortunate to have a broad practice. While my initial attraction to writing came through reading, it expanded beyond note-taking and journaling to include writing as it is organized in established literary genres, such as poems, songs, stories, novels and plays, all of which I indulged in early on and, through a degree of success in some of them (either discretely or through my work in hybrid forms), allowed me to participate more broadly as a journalist, an event programmer, an editor and a publisher.
Until recently I had worked for the better part of the past fifteen years as an art critic who wrote reviews, essays, co-wrote scripts with artists who made films or who worked in text, and as a curator of exhibitions. However, although my immersion in the art world is indicative of a broadening practice, my critical focus within that milieu began to narrow, with an emphasis less on artists and artworks than on curation and exhibitions. I am not entirely sure why this is, though I have my suspicions, which I will get to.
(In the meantime, let it be said that this passage...
...was instigated by the hitcher’s comment and would not have been written the way it is written, nor appeared here independent of that fact. If I am to add more before returning to our travelogue, let me say that the hitcher and I have yet to exchange names, nor do either of us feel particularly close to each other, though this has shifted somewhat, at least for me, based on the hitcher’s exchange with the real estate agent, to say nothing of her powers of observation.)
Halfway through her sandwich the hitcher asks if I want “a juice or something.” On our way in I noticed some cans of grapefruit soda in a cooler by the door, and as she had noticed them too, offers to get me one. Before doing so she asks me to keep an eye on the restaurant across the street and to get her if I see the couple or the woman leaving. Before I can respond she is off.
I do not like where this is headed. I resolve that if I see the couple or the woman leaving I will not tell her; that if for some reason she insists on returning to the restaurant, I will openly surmise that they went out the back door. But then, as if to console myself, I think of artists who have made work about following people. I think of Vito Acconci’s Following Piece(1969) and Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne(1979), which she in turn elaborated on with The Detective(1980), in which she hired a detective to follow her. But I also think of writers like Paul Auster, whose novel City of Glass(1985) features a detective hired to follow someone whose walks take the shape of letters that eventually spell words that form sentences like THE TOWER OF BABEL. I shiver at this, as I am shivering now when I consider what the hitcher has in store.
She hands me my drink and for the first time looks me in the eye. I thank her, and her eyes widen. Without looking behind me I can tell that the couple or the woman are leaving the restaurant.
“Let’s not!” I say, but she is already out the door. I turn and see the couple leaving the restaurant; the man heading west, the woman heading east. The hitcher follows the woman, I follow the man.
Of his Following Piece, Acconci notes:
“- Each day a person is chosen at random, on the street, any location
- I follow him wherever he goes, no matter how long or how far he travels (I stop only when he enters a private place -- his home, his office.)”
Of the piece -- what occurs to Acconci during its performance -- he says, “I am almost not an ‘I’ anymore; I put myself in the service of this scheme.”
Now I am in the service of Acconci’s scheme. But am I? Acconci says he chooses his “subject” at random. But this man I am following, I did not choose him at random -- nor is he my choice, nor is he a mystery to me. I know him as John, a real estate agent, a loud talker, a braggart, whereas Acconci’s choice, though maybe based on aesthetics (nice shoes?), appears freer, closer to what he says at his artist talks when he recalls his beginnings as “a writer interested in the page as a field to travel over.” Is the page I am travelling over a similar page? Even if it is marked or creased by what I know of it in advance of my involvement?
Keeping to the opposite the side of the street, I watch as the man enters the Safeway parking lot and heads north. I cross the street, only to squat to tie my shoe when he does the same. But does he? I remember what the hitcher said about the couples’ feet, and when she did how I recalled his shoes, which were loafers --without laces. Now he is up again, moving at a more determined pace, this time towards a white, high-roof van with Alberta plates. Suddenly the van’s rear door opens and, without breaking stride, he steps into its darkness, the door closing behind him. I keep walking, glancing back as I turn east onto 31st, where I see him in the front passenger seat taking a picture of me with his phone.
At the far end of the street I see the hitcher talking to the woman. The hitcher is pointing at the woman, her arm bent at the elbow and the wrist, her hand like the bill of a goose, jabbing at the woman. The hitcher’s weight is over her front foot, the woman’s over her rear foot. I feel my own feet speeding up, and wonder how it is that my legs respond sometimes before I tell them to, that maybe, as an impulse, the response is closer to a random decision. Did Acconci rely on similar impulses? And what of the person who documented Acconci’s followings, both behind the “agent” (Acconci) and in front of the “subject” of his followings? How was this acceleration disguised?
As I enter their atmosphere I infer that the hitcher is defending herself against accusations from the woman that the hitcher is “stalking” her, that the hitcher’s movements are verging on assault. But instead of jumping between them I feel my body slow as I focus on the face of the hitcher, how convincing she looks, despite her lies, and that of the woman, whose circumflex brow is the closest I have ever come to a visual definition of guilt. If I step between them, to whom do I turn to first? And what do I say, and to what end, other than to keep them apart?
The woman looks at me, her eyes widen. There is a screech, and when I turn I see the van with the Alberta plates pull up, the rear door opening once more and this time the woman moving towards it. The hitcher follows, and I grab her. “Let’s not,” I say, and she looks at me like I am out of my mind.
The Vernon Lodge was built in 1974 by the Vollan Family of Edmonton and is distinct from other local hotels for its incorporation of a creek in the design of its garden atrium. According to the Lodge’s website, the atrium features over 1,000 plants that contribute to an “atmosphere ... both calm and inviting.” These words came to mind when I suggested to the hitcher that we have a drink and try to process what had happened. In the middle of the atrium is an “outdoor” tropical bar.
“I’ve never been here before,” the hitcher says looking around.
“Not exactly what I think of when I think of ‘calm and inviting,’” I say, referring to the two storeys of hotel rooms staring down at us, “but I like the idea of a hotel built in relation to a creek, as opposed to enclosing it in a culvert and pretending it isn’t there.”
“I wonder how many of these rooms are occupied?” she asks.
“Judging from how few cars there are in the parking lot, not many.”
She tells me about a Kelowna motel that her mother often talks about, the last of the low-rise motels on Highway 97, before the Highway turns into Harvey Street. “It’s not even poor people living there anymore,” she says, “it’s just crazies. You can tell by the junk out front. Poor people have useful stuff like snow blowers and tires and shit. Crazies have, like, monuments to their craziness. My mom said she drove by there once and saw someone building a pyramid out of old paint cans.
“Maybe it was an artist,” I offer.
“My mom says when she was younger it was mostly motels and gas stations along that strip. And before that my grandmother says it was farms and orchards.”
“Now it’s megamalls and big box stores. That’s your legacy -- the megamall generation.”
“Don’t pin that on me!”
I want to ask her if she knows what was there before the orchards, but our server arrives to take our order.
“So what happened after you started following that woman?”
The hitcher looks away, frowns. Behind her frown, I sense an acceleration, a mind aware of the forward sequence of events; a mind in reverse, working back from a perceived outcome; then, with the narrative re-arranged, forward again to a desired outcome. If I were to put these sensations into images, the frown is a dropped curtain and the acceleration is a sped-up film of a highway cloverleaf.
She opens her mouth, then hesitates. I decide that whatever comes out I am going to believe.
“I lied,” she says. “I know her.”
“Okay,” I say eventually, not knowing what else to say, but feeling the need to say something, the silence suddenly twice as long as the one I just broke.
I look away, and in doing so I feel her eyes on me, studying me. Is she still collecting her thoughts? Thoughts that include what I might be thinking? Because it burns to be looked at like this, I move our conversation sideways and tell her what I know of Acconci’s Following Piece, and after that, what I know of Sophie Calle’s The Detective, how the detective she hired to follow her as she visits those parts of Paris she felt emotionally connected to was asked to submit to her a report on her movements. Among the places Calle visited was Luxembourg Gardens, site of her first kiss. Yet in reading the detective’s report, all it says is, “The subject crosses the Jardin de Luxembourg. (131)” The difference between personal experience and “objective” reality is key to Calle’s practice.
The hitcher nods, takes a sip of her beer. I wait for her to say something, but she is waiting too.
“Okay, a confession,” I begin. “When I asked you what happened after you started following that woman, that same difference Calle talks about -- the difference between the personal and the objective -- occurred to me too: that there were different versions of what happened, and that maybe you might try to hide parts of one behind the other. What I didn’t expect to hear was not that you lied, but that you knew the woman. But now that you know the woman -- or that I believe that you know her -- that has stopped me, because I feel your relationship to this woman is none of my business. And if there is anything left to ask you -- and this just occurred to me, in this instant -- is if you are safe, and if not, is there anything I can do to help?”
“Why do you want to help me?”
“Because I feel part of what happened.”
“There was a confrontation. A confrontation between you and a woman who is involved with someone who was behaving strangely.”
“Like...” and I veer off again, “...like how your demeanor has changed on this topic.”
She flinches. The spell is broken -- I am released.
I get to my feet, excuse myself. My body has to go to the washroom, but my inclination is to keep walking -- past the washroom through the lobby to my car. Why am I feeling like this? I ask myself once, twice, three times. Then: Whatam I feeling? So I tell myself I am feeling confused, my mind racing in different directions, independent of my ability to control it, determine its direction. I am heating up, I am vaguely nauseous, I am tired and I want to lie down in the sun beside a slow moving creek, like I always do when I am confronted, uncertain, off-kilter.
Standing at the urinal, I replay our conversation -- from the moment she told me she knew the woman she followed to the moment I excused myself from the table. Then the reverse: to what she said before she said she knew the woman, when I asked her what happened after she started following the woman, a question she avoided, that remains unanswered, to when she dropped her bomb: that she had lied -- that she knew the woman.
I remind myself that we came here to talk about what had happened, our followings. But then, in admitting that she knew this woman, how the conversation shifted. Or more precisely, how it stopped it, and in stopping how this space presented itself, a temporal space that grew, and in its growing how I felt...considerate, respectful, guilty for looking at her as I wondered not what she was thinking, but how? In good faith, I went along with her -- her why, her what-- but when she asked “Like how,” I took the wheel, turned it, and now I am here, shaking myself at a urinal, wondering which conversation I will return to.
I go to the sink, wash my hands, splash water on my face. I think further back, to when I first picked her up, recalling our conversation, stringing it together like beads, though that is too affirmative, I think. More like chains, I decide, as I consider who we are, objectively: an older man and a younger woman. How suspect that is. Or at least how suspect that is perceived to bewhen the two are not blood. Not Nabakov’s Lolita(1955), nor Breillat’s 36 Fillette(1988) -- closer to Mamet’s Oleanna(1992), given our relationship to the academy (if indeed she is an art student)? And now, in our frenzied socially-media moment, when extra-curricular conversations between students and teachers are to North America what IEDs are to North American “peacekeepers”...
In the sexually corrected 1980s, feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin was believed to have said that all heterosexual intercourse is a rape, when what she meant was that it is the organization of heterosexual intercourse within a capitalist patriarchy -- a male conquest narrative -- that makes it such. Nevetheless, the proposition stuck and was brought forward and deployed by a new generation of feminists through Facebook and Twitter, to the point where one wonders if all conversations between a man and a woman can be situated on the assault spectrum; not the punch landed (battery), but the hand raised (assault) in advance of it. Never hit a girl, my mother once said to me, preemptively. Don’t talk to strangers, I remember her telling my sister.
In her poetry collection Power Politics (1971), Margaret Atwood reflects on the relationship of a heterosexual couple. In the poem “They Are Hostile Nations” she likens the couple to warring countries:
we should be kind, we should
take warning, we should forgive each other (Atwood 38)
In an earlier poem, “They travel by air”, the couple are divided by their corresponding pronouns:
I [her] want questions and you [him] want
only answers (11)
The hitcher and I are not a couple, of course. Not like Atwood’s “romantic” couple. Neither have we declared war on each other. Neither have our conversations necessarily divided us into Questioner and Answerer. With that in mind, not every question that occurs to me is submitted to the hitcher, mostly out of respect for her privacy. Indeed, it is no longer important to me that I know what happened after she followed the woman out of the restaurant -- not after admitting to me that she knows this woman (it is their relationship the hitcher is hostile to, nor ours). And yes, while I am curious to know why she lied about knowing this woman, and why a real estate agent surreptitiously stepped into the back of a high roofed panel van and, once inside, took my picture, I would prefer to know which artists she takes inspiration from and, to a lesser extent, what she meant when she said it was not “practical” for her to remain in the Okanagan.
I return to our table. The hitcher is chatting with our server. In the hitcher’s hand is a black felt pen and in her lap a sketch book open to a drawing of the ficus behind her. The server asks how long it took her to become an artist, and the hitcher says:
“I’ve always been an artist -- I was born that way. When my mother went out she would sit me at the kitchen table with a box of pencil crayons and a roll of paper and I would draw. Sometimes she would tell me a story while making my breakfast and I would draw what I saw in my head. But most times she didn’t and I just followed my hand, adding colours as they occurred to me. Sometimes the drawings didn’t look like anything, and those are the ones I remember best, but not the ones my mother kept.”
“Abstractions?” says the server enthusiastically.
“You could call them that,” says the hitcher, returning to her drawing, touching it up. “But I’ve never liked that word. Abstractions from what, right? Like they started from people or buildings or landscapes and turned into something that didn’t look like anything?”
A couple comes into the lounge and the server leaves to attend to them.
“What were some of the stories your mother told you?” I ask.
“Oh, you know,” says the hitcher to her sketchbook, “stories from storybooks. Stories she had read to me so many times she knew them by heart.”
I watch as she blacks out the spaces between the leaves of her ficus, bringing the plant closer to her, as if into focus. She blacks out a few leaves and it looks as though a wind is passing through it.
“I remember one story,” she begins, her voice slow with concentration, her ficus now shimmering. “A coyote story about the arrow-trail that the Lower Earth People -- the Animal People -- a chickadee -- made with its bow and arrows to link them to the Upper World Land; how the Grizzly Bear was the last to climb this long line of arrows and broke it; and how the Lower Earth People who were already up there found everything -- all the food -- guarded and then, after suffering many suns, made their way back to the arrow-trail, only to find it was no longer there.”
“How did they get back?” I ask.
“They jumped,” she says. “Sucker jumped first, thinking the blue part was water, but landed on the rocks beside it, smashing his bones into a million pieces.” She looks up. “That’s why suckers are inedible -- too many bones.” Returning to her drawing she tells me how Bat was next, but was so excited to jump that he forgot his wings and flattened out.
A moment passes. “And that’s why bats--?” I ask.
“That’s why bats are ugly,” she says quickly. “They used to be very handsome.”
Another moment passes before she holds up her drawing, moving it closer to her, then farther, turning it this way and that.
“What about Coyote?”
“Oh yeah,” she says, closing her eyes in concentration. “First Coyote turned himself into a pine needle, which fell fast. Then he became a leaf and floated gently to the ground. Then he returned to his own form.”
I recognize the passage. A recitation of the penultimate paragraph from Mourning Dove’s “The Arrow Trail”, which I read last week after I was introduced to Coyote Stories(1933) by a classmate, Mourning Dove’s great-granddaughter, Corinne Derrickson. “And after that?”
“After that,” the hitcher says closing her eyes again, “the Animal People were content to stay on earth, where they belonged. The breaking of their arrow-trail was the will of the spirit-chief. He did not want the Animal People bothering the people of the Upper World Land again.”
The first thing that occurred to me after reading “The Arrow Trail” was Genesis 11: 1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel. But in Genesis, God’s concern is not with those on Earth mingling with those in Heaven, but of a unified group whose tower would protect them not so much from another flood, but from another Act of God.
“6. Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
7. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8. So the dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”
In 2007, the theologian Theodore Hiebert offered a new interpretation of Genesis 11: 1-9, “arguing that the story ... is exclusively about the origins of cultural difference and not about pride and punishment at all.” I am not sure I buy that. Seems if cultural difference is valued, then why would it be predicated on the dissolution of something as positive as a group who came together to protect their families from floods and physically meet with the deity responsible for them. I share this with the hitcher.
“I don’t know,” she says. “The Bible was not a popular book in my house growing up.”
“We can go one of two ways,” I tell the hitcher. “Back onto 97 or take Old Kamloops Road.”
“OKR!” she says excitedly. “I have something to show you.”
I put the car in gear and turn right onto 39th Avenue, drive four blocks west, then another right north where Alexis Park Drive turns into OKR.
“Have you heard of meth?” the hitcher asks.
“Crystal meth? You’re taking me to a meth lab?” I say, half-tempted to pull over and let her out.
“No, not a meth lab. This is a place where people who’ve kicked meth go to turn their lives around.”
“Oh, like a work farm?” I ask, maybe a little too skeptically.
I feel her sigh.
“Sorry,” I say, meaning it.
“I can take you to a meth lab if you want,” she says, then just as quickly rephrases her offer in sarcastic tones: “I mean, I can take you somewhere if you want to be forced to give up your passwords, get shot in the head and your body thrown into a blast furnace.”
“I’d rather go to a meth lab,” I tell her, and a laugh fountains out of her, catching even her by surprise.
My history of illicit drug use began on the morning of September 8th, 1976. It was the second day of Grade Nine, just before the school bell, when I joined Mike Lilly and Don Flahiff for a walk down the railway tracks where we smoked in quick succession three joints of what Flahiff called “homegrown shake.” A month or so later, while kicking field goals at Quilchena Elementary with Ben Gerwing after school, a mouse poop-sized corner of Red Lebanese hash. Variations followed: Columbian Gold, Commercial, Blonde Leb, Black Affy, Hash Oil...
The following year I befriended a new kid at school named Pierre, who lived in a parent-less house and who invited me and two of my oldest friends over one Friday night to eat a palm-sized pyramid of what he called “magic mushrooms.” If the cannabinoids were a soft and slow eye-opener that allowed even the most banal objects to amuse us, mushrooms amounted to that eye turned inside out and grafted to whatever object was under study, turning everything into a glorious and unifying One.
Such were the drugs of my youth. But as the decade boogied on, new drugs arrived, introduced to us by older folks. Cocaine was one of these drugs, and for the longest time I did not understand it. Coke did not bring with it insights, only the means to stay up all night and await them. “Coke’s a working drug,” an older friend once told me (a music producer who spent most of his time eating Chinese food at a mixing console as he worked to turn the songs of dope smokers into soft rock hits). And while some of my friends followed this path, eventually free-basing cocaine before moving onto to meth and other drugs designed only to addict, I stuck with cannabinoids and psychedelics until eventually I could no longer afford the time it took to take them, follow on their trips.
“So what drugs did you take to get out of yourself?” the hitcher asks.
Nicely put, I think, but to the question of stimulants: “I think pot and mushrooms opened the lid just wide enough to allow me to question the box that lay beneath it.”
“You still seem pretty boxy,” says the hitcher.
Also nicely put. Because it is true -- I am interested in boxes. And I tell her as much. “A lot of what I am interested in -- the writing I have done -- is concerned with the way things are boxed or framed, the perceptions and expectations containers carry with them. Form as content. How the poem is not only what it is saying, as information, but how it says it; the shape it takes -- this skinny thing that runs down the margin of the page, or explodes all over it, like Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Dés’ or Charles Olson’s concept of ‘composition by field’. More like a painting or a picture than something recited.”
“So what does a poem say if there is nothing in it?”
“Well, that depends on how it plays out on the page. But if you look at the way poems have come to be seen over the past hundred or so years, how they are perceived, you might agree that there is something enchanted about them, something both sweet and difficult that isn’t expected to add up in the way an instruction manual is expected to add up, or a shareholders report. For example, the idea of applying the poem form to something as banal as a job at a salmon cannery -- the voices of cannery workers speaking to a reader hired for a first and last day of work -- was for me a way to get people to look at factory life differently, if not poetry.”
“You wrote a book of poems about that?”
“Did people like it?”
“I liked writing it.”
“So nobody liked it.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you like it.”
“I didn’t say that, either. I said, ‘I liked writing it.’”
We pass a farm house. In the driveway a middle-aged woman and a teenager play catch with a soft ball, while a middle-aged man and another teenager unload groceries from red Ford pick-up.
The hitcher sees this too. She turns to me and I feel her stare. “Where are you from?” she asks, and I am reminded of that scene in Easy Riderwhen Luke Askew, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are sitting around a campfire smoking pot and Hopper asks Askew, whom Fonda and Hopper had picked up hitch-hiking earlier that day, where he is from.
“It’s hard to say,” I tell her, like Askew told Hopper. Because it is true -- I am still trying to figure that out. Not so much whereI am from but whatI am from.
“What do you mean ‘It’s hard to say’?” she says patiently.
“It’s hard to say because,” as Askew told Hopper, “it’s a very long word.”
“A city,” I tell her.
“All cities are alike,” I tell her, as Askew told Hopper.
Unlike Hopper, she says, “No they’re not.”
And like Askew I tell her: “I’m from the city. A long way from the city. And that’s where I wanna be right now.”
She returns to the window. “Next left.”
We turn west onto a rising dirt road. I hit a pot hole and Swan Lake jiggles in the rear-view mirror. On one side of the road is a cherry orchard, on the other side, an oil-stained Quonset hut guarded by a dozen or so cars from the 1970s. Most of the cars are products of the American Motors Corporation. An orange Hornet, a green Gremlin, a yellow Matador...
“Hey that’s the Wayne’s Worldcar!” says the hitcher, pointing to that most chode-like of AMC’s designs -- the Pacer.
Sure enough, at the far end of the lot is a kicked-in replica of Garth Algar’s light blue Mirth Mobile, right down to the flames and the mismatched wheels.
“Have you seen Wayne’s World?” asks the hitcher, plugging her iPod into my dashboard.
“Yes, about twenty-five years ago, when it came out in theatres.”
“Then you’ll remember this,” she says, tapping her iPod.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality...
Oh my god! Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Suddenly a goat darts from a bush -- I hit the brakes -- and it holds the ground before us, it’s gyro eye burrowing through me. The hitcher steps from the car to shoo it.
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see...
What was Wayne’s World? I think to myself. What was that moment?
I recall another SNL skit that became a feature-film -- the Blues Brothers(1980) -- and consider the similarities.
Like the Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World(1992) is the story of two young, white heterosexual male musicians. Both films begin in the Chicago area: Wayne and Garth in the suburb of Aurora, where they live with their parents and co-host a cable access show in Wayne’s basement, and Jake and Elwood Blues in Chicago proper. In Wayne’s World, Wayne and Garth are wooed downtown by a producer who has sold their show to a corporate sponsor, while in the Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood set out to raise money for the orphanage that raised them. Wayne’s Worldhas the Mirth Mobile, the Blues Brothers the Bluesmobile (a former police car). In Wayne’s World, the music is heavy metal; in the Blues Brothers, rhythm and blues. Both films feature problem-causing ex-girlfriends -- Wayne’s ex- Stacy and Jake’s “ex-fiancée” the Mystery Woman -- but to what end? To advance the plot? To make the audience feel sorry for these young men who had (justifiably?) abandoned these women -- because they are crazy?
Although the principals in the Blues Brothersand Wayne’s Worldare constantly on the move, driving from place to place in their nicknamed cars, they rarely leave the Chicago area. Still, both films feel like road movies, and as such bring to mind Hollywood’s long history of road movies, from the “Road to...” films (1941-1962) of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby to the one I was thinking of earlier, a film located not in “exotic” faraway lands like Singapore, Rio, Zanzibar and Hong Kong, but in the United States itself -- Easy Rider(1969).
So now the question is one of contrasts: What had changed in the 23 years between the making of Easy Riderand the making of Wayne’s World?
Easy Riderbegins with two young men committing the crime of drug dealing (selling cocaine). The Blues Brothersbegins with one of the brothers released from jail (we are unsure of his crime). Wayne’s Worlddoes not begin with a crime, though near the end of the film Garth commits one when he hacks into a satellite feed to broadcast the musical performance of Wayne’s love interest to the limousine television of a record company mogul. In Easy Rider, the principals set out on a motorcycle trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans (for Mardi Gras). In the Blues Brothers, the principals set out to raise $5000 to pay off a Roman Catholic orphanage’s property taxes (“We’re on a mission from God”). In Wayne’s World, the principals set out to fulfill the terms of their contract (they were advanced $5000 each), which amounts to taping their TV show at a downtown studio -- with ‘live’ on-air ads featuring their greedy corporate sponsor.
As for endings, in Easy Riderthe principals are executed by truck-driving rednecks; in the Blue’s Brothers, the principals take the proceeds of their DIY promoted concert and, after a series of destructive car chases, pay off the orphanage’s tax bill within a millisecond of their arrest; finally, in Wayne’s World, we have not one but three endings: the first, where the record company mogul does not offer Wayne’s love-interest a recording contract, and all is lost (including the love-interest); the second (the “Scooby Doo ending”), where the shady TV producer is unmasked (literally) and blamed as the source of all that is lost; and the third, where the record company mogul offers Wayne’s love-interest a recording contract and all that was lost (in the first two endings) is achieved.
But these are mechanical differences, propositional differences concerned largely with beginnings, middles and endings. There are tonal differences. In Easy Riderthe principals provide the biggest contrasts, with the Apollonian Wyatt (Fonda) open and curious and the Dionysian Billy (Hopper) guarded and paranoid. In the Blues Brothers, the principals are uniform in their dress (black suit, hat, tie, shades and white shirt) and almost automatonic in their quest. In Wayne’s World, the principals, though at least 21 years-of-age, are infantile by comparison, yet each in their own way (Wayne’s manic asides, Garth’s quiet eye aversions) possess a preternatural understanding of irony, an understanding made all the more apparent through their direct address relationship to the camera and, by extension, the audience. They are also the most sexually-directed of the duos, motivated not by self-discovery (Easy Rider) or Christian giving (the Blues Brothers), but by genital stimulation (see Garth’s mating dance at the diner).
There is more. The principals in Easy Riderare explorers, inadvertent ethnographers whose travels through the American southwest highlight various notions of home, from a “traditional” family farm to a hippie commune, from a gangster’s utopia (Las Vegas) to a French Quarter brothel. In temporal terms their passage marks the end of an idealistic 1960s and the beginning of a me-first 1970s. The principals in the Blues Brothersare less explorers than existential renegades, nihilists who, despite their attempt to save a religious charity from a government tax collector, proceed as if their motive is little more than a means to an end. Their passage, with its frequent car crashes and explosions, is at turns a door-slam on the self-destructive 1970s and a free-fall into the deregulating 1980s. The principals in Wayne’s Worldare decorative post-modernists who, though suspicious of corporate co-option, are at their core libertarian hedonists who have emerged from the neoliberal 1980s as willing slaves to consumer goods (an “Excalibur” guitar for Wayne and a castle-sized drum kit for Garth) and show no signs of challenging their enslavement as they proceed like cartoon characters through a thoroughly privatized 1990s that, in addition to offering the illusion of multiple realities (like the film’s three endings) has forsaken ambiguity (politics) for bottom-line, ends over means certainty (finance).
“Helloooooooooooh!” says the hitcher, tapping her knuckles on an imaginary window between us.
“Sorry, I was--
“Lost in space, were we?”
“Did you ever see the Blues Brothersfilm?” I ask her. “The first one?”
“All the time growing up. It was my auntie’s favorite.”
“Do you have a favorite scene?”
“Oh yeah, lots of them. But can we go now? I texted them -- they’re expecting us.”
Any way the wind blows.
“Right,” says the hitcher, and like the previous right turn, the road is even worse than the one that preceded it.
“I keep expecting the next turn to open up into a great big field,” I tell her.
“Not quite,” she says, “but the porch has a nice view of the lake.”
A few more bumps and the hitcher asks me to turn left, only this time there is no discernable road.
“It’s just bush,” I tell her. “I’m not turning into bush.”
I stop the car and she gets out to check. I follow her.
“I am certain this is it,” she says, clearing away a low hanging branch. She takes another step then screams.
I look over her shoulder and see where the “road” ends. Literally. Beyond the edge of a cliff, a fifty foot drop into a flat meadow surrounded by trees. At the edge of the meadow, overlooking Lake Okanagan, a massive farm house built of red-stained logs.
Spallumcheen Place is one of those back woods, word-of-mouth affairs where people with money send their drug-addicted kids to detoxify and, ideally, “leave with a passion for making, not taking” anything that might interfere with their parents’ comfort. If I sound skeptical it is because after spending two minutes with its director, Duke, I feel I am listening less to a health care worker than a circus barker.
“Work,” says Duke motioning me towards a closed off four car garage, “sets you free. And yes, the Nazi’s said it first, but it’s true. Get up early, get a meal inside you -- andget to work!”
I follow reluctantly, uncomfortable with a man who stumbled from the house tucking in his shirt, a wet forelock plastered across his forehead. As we pass below the kitchen window I hear the hitcher’s voice. I cannot make out what she is saying, but she is speaking excitedly, interrupted by gales of laughter. “Duke, do you mind if I go inside and use the washroom first?”
“There’s a washroom in the workshop,” he says over his shoulder, not stopping.
A couple years after Columbia Pictures released Easy Rider, Warner Bros responded with its own counter-cultural film -- Billy Jack(1971). Though the story of Billy Jack’s distribution and subsequent re-purchase by its writers, producers and directors Tom Laughlin and Dolores Taylor is worthy of its own picture, Billy Jack, like Easy Riderbefore it, became a cult hit -- in no small part due to the promotional efforts of Laughin, who travelled from city to city presenting the film to communities supportive of the film’s ambitions, which, by all accounts, were many.
A sequel to Laughlin’s anti-biker film Born Losers(1968), Billy Jackis the story of a “halfbreed” (Navaho) Vietnam War veteran and hapkido master (Laughlin) who has turned his back on the mainstream to live in the Arizona hills, where he prepares for a Snake Ceremony that will make him brother to the snake and will allow him his vision: to discover his life’s mission. In the meantime, Jack, like his character in Born Losers, has made himself available to protect those unable to protect themselves.
Among those in need of Jack’s protection are students of the hippie-friendly, reservation-located Freedom School, a real life Montessori-inspired program for children of all walks -- from pregnant runaway teenagers (the deputy’s daughter) to members of the Navaho Nation-- who are routinely refused service, if not abused, when venturing into the nearby town of Prescott (which, incidentally, Wyatt and Billy pass through en route to New Orleans). Like the Montessori school program, the Freedom School emphasizes creativity and has three basic rules: “no drugs; everybody pulls their own weight; and everyone has to get turned on by creating something -- anything,” according to the school’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed director, Jean Roberts (Taylor). Some of the school’s activities include weaving, filmmaking, songwriting, painting, yoga and “psychodrama and role playing” -- all of which are on my mind as Duke squats down to lift up one of the garage’s four rolling doors.
“Ta-dah!” says Duke, waving his hand toward a table around which sit four bewildered twenty-somethings -- two men and two women. At the centre of the table, atop a stack of newspapers, is a clear plastic bowl full of large incandescent lightbulbs. At either end are slightly smaller bowls filled with flour and water. A young woman with red hair and a hyper-extended X-acto knife is cutting newspaper into narrow strips, while the rest are dipping the strips into the concoction and applying them smoothly to the bulbs. The last time I saw something like this was in Grade Three, when our art teacher had us making maracas.
“Maracas?” I ask.
“Yesssss!” says Duke. “Maracasssssssssss!” And with that he steps past the instrument-makers and retrieves a cardboard box from the shelf behind them. “Look,” he says tipping the box towards me. “Once the papier-mache dries, we paint the bulbs and tap them against the table, breaking the glass.” He extends the box towards me, his eyebrows high.
I take out an amber-coloured one with spiraling black stripes and roll it around in my hands. I am reminded of the goat’s eye.
“Give it a shake!” Duke says.
I shake it once, twice, then return it to the box. “It works,” I tell him.
“Nohhhhh!” sings Duke, setting down the box and removing two maracas in each hand. “Like this,” and he demonstrates. Shhh. Sh-shhh. Shhh. Sh-shhh... And over top of that, in a voice twenty years younger, he sings:
Isn’t he reading?
Just the same
The tune sounds familiar. But it isn’t until one of the women at the table gets up, goes over to a laptop and chimes in on organ samples that I recognize it as a 1968 Buffalo Springfield song.
Asia is breathing
Just the same
And it continues, with the red-haired woman picking up a trumpet and laconically laying down a mariachi riff over the organ shots, while one of the men, guitar in hand, offers up a more urgent fuzz-pedal solo. Everyone, including those spilling out of the house, join in on the chorus:
Just the same
I have wandered into a musical.
I think of the musicals I have seen over the years...
No me enganes[do not deceive me]
That have taken me out of myself
Somos equales[we are equals]
As I feel transformed in this moment
Porque lo ames[because you love it]
No longer suspicious of what I have entered into, and am seeing
But held within it, like those maracas are held
Just the same
I am in Godspell, I am in Hair, I am Jesus Christ Superstar, and this new thing that is none of the above, yet all of the above, at least energetically.
Am I speaking?
How I'm keeping?
Just the same
The hitcher before me
Her body is weaving
Her eyes are closed, smiling
Just the same
“Do you want to go now?” shouts the hitcher, showing no sign of wanting do anything other than dance the day away.
“I’m not sure,” I dance back, determined to do everything I can to hold onto the moment.
“You’re in a dream!” she says.
“Yes,” says Duke between uno mundos-- “A misanthrope’s nightmare.”
“Our billy goat spyware”
“As if you just don’t care.”
“Glad you came?”
I am not sure how long I lost consciousness, but as I come-to I am on my ass in the Safeway parking lot, a half dozen silhouettes in front of me, the sun behind them. Kneeling on either side of me are two older women, one of them with her hand on the back of my head, as if to keep it from falling off. I brush her hand away, only to feel a lump there.
“Do you know where you are?” the woman asks firmly, as if I am trespassing.
“Yes,” I tell her. “I am on the land of the Okanagan First Nations people.”
“Oh Christ,” she says getting to her feet -- “he’s fine!” while the woman on the other side of me laughs.
“Sometimes it takes a bump on the head to know what’s what!” says the laughing woman, still chuckling, getting to her feet, too, then helping me to mine.
The hitcher steps between two of the silhouettes. “You were out for a couple of minutes. I asked around; the only person who saw it says it was a white van, but he didn’t get the plate.”
I look to the north end of the lot for the van, but it is no longer there. If it ever was, that is.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” asks the hitcher. “I can drive your car.”
I touch the back of my head again. Already the bump feels smaller. I take a few steps and circle back. “No, I feel okay. I’ve had concussions; this isn’t one.”
“You sure?” she asks. “The guy who saw it said it didn’t look that bad. But he also seemed to think it was your fault, that you bent down to touch your shoe when the van was backing out, like you were staging something. He wasn’t very nice.”
I look around for the man, but everyone save the hitcher has moved on.
“What about the woman -- the one you followed?” I ask.
The hitcher shrugs. “Got in her car and drove away.”
I nod and suggest we do the same.
As before, we are driving up Old Kamloops Road, only this time the hitcher is driving.
“That woman who helped you up is from Westbank. I knew her grandson.”
“Westbank First Nation?”
“He’s a carpenter. He taught me how to frame my paintings.”
“You say you knew him. Is he no longer with us?”
“He’s no longer with me,” she says curtly.
Turning down the radio, the hitcher asks, “Why did you say you were on Okanagan First Nations land when that woman asked you if you knew where you were?”
I think about this. I think about it because when I said it, I said it without thinking, and I am curious to know what that means. I am also curious as to what motivated the hitcher’s question. Why does she want to know why I said what I said? Or rather, whatdoes she want to know? Has she already prepared her response? Will anything I say have bearing on what that response is? Will ours be a conversation, a debate, or will it be, a la Atwood, two people taking up arms, militarizing the space between them?
I recall Agnes Varda’s Vagabond(1985). Not the opening scene in the vineyard, where the camera leads us to Mona’s frozen body, but the scene that follows it, our introduction to Mona as a living being as she walks from the ocean to the highway, a re-birthed Venus, hitch-hiking and getting picked up by a truck driver who reminds her that “The camping season is over. No one’s here,” and Mona’s existential response, her first words: “I am.” Mona could have said “I am here” in response to the truck driver, or in resistance to his erasure of her (“No one’s here”), but, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), she preferred not to?
“I said I am on Okanagan First Nations land because I am. As much as I can, I want people to know this. I want people to know, if they don’t know it already, that this land is more than a landscape charted and divided into public and private property and administered under the laws of federal, provincial and municipal colonial governments. To say what I said has my existence contingent on the land on which I stand, in relation to it; that to know where I am -- to convince people that I am of sound mind and body, when asked -- is to identify that ‘where’ as specifically and as respectfully as possible.”
I glance at the hitcher. Her brow is knit. I glance again. This time it is not her gestures I see -- but her irritation.
“Do people tell you you think too much?” she says.
“Do you think I think too much?” I ask her.
More knitting. “I think you are trying to turn this into something else,” she says.
“What do you mean this? By this do you mean this conversation or do you mean my response to that woman in the parking lot? Because if you are referring to what happened in the parking lot, I wasn’t thinking at all -- I was literally coming to my senses.”
“But you’re not indigenous,” she says.
More an accusation than a question. At least in tone. But rather than address it as such -- the accusation -- I refuse the “not” and attempt instead a more generative response. “My father was born in Shanghai, China. His father’s father was a sailor from Wales and his father’s mother was from Japan. My father’s father married a Russian woman who gave birth to my father. When Imperial Japan invaded China during World War Two, the Japanese army interned my grandparents and my father in a civilian prisoner of war camp, where they lived until the remainder of the war. After that my father was sent to an English-style boarding school in Victoria, BC, and upon graduation, boarded in Vancouver where he attended university and where he met and married my mother, who is of Scottish-German descent, and shortly after that, had me.”
“So you’re not indigenous,” she says, again without asking.
“Yes, I am not,” I tell her, resisting the temptation to ask her if she is, fearful that the circumstances under which I might come to know her ancestry will only harden our relationship -- if it could be said that we even have one.
I glance at her again and this time meet her own.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou(1965) a depressed Ferdinand returns home early from a party and finds the babysitter asleep in a chair. Ferdinand offers to drive the sitter home, and it is on this drive -- a drive that ultimately takes them on a much longer drive -- where we learn that Ferdinand and the sitter were in a relationship prior to his marriage, and that the sitter’s name is Marianne.
The conversation begins with small talk before Marianne acknowledges their past. “Funny, our meeting like this again,” she says. In response, Ferdinand gets the years wrong since the last time they were together -- not “four years,” as he says, but “five-and-a-half,” according to Marianne. After that, Marianne asks if he is married, and Ferdinand says he is, but that he has “lost interest” in his wife. When Marianne asks why he doesn’t get a divorce, he replies that he is “too lazy.” Then Ferdinand utters the hinge line: “Like you pointed out once: To want something, you have to be alive.” More small talk, with Marianne providing a couple of lackluster responses, after which Ferdinand says, “You don’t feel like talking about yourself,” and Marianne says, “No.” Once Ferdinand establishes that Marianne is single, he shifts the conversation. “Mysterious as ever, I see,” and Marianne, though she never said it (Ferdinand did), replies, “Like I said, I just don’t like talking about myself.” Ferdinand says “Very well. Silence, then,” and Marianne turns on the radio.
I turn on the radio and, as in Pierre le fou, what comes out is a news report. But instead of a Viet Cong attack on a French garrison, it is a rolled over camper van on the Coquihalla.
“Awful, isn’t it? It’s so anonymous,” I say, like Marianne says to Ferdinand of the Viet Cong attack.
“What is?” says the hitcher, as Ferdinand says to Marianne.
“They say four passengers, and it means nothing to us,” I say, paraphrasing Marianne. “But each is a human being, and we don’t even know who they are. If it is parents and children, grandparents and children, a touring band or a carpool of cowboys. If they prefer books or video games. We know nothing about them. All they say is four people pulled from the wreckage.”
In Pierre le fou, Marianne follows her commentary with a discussion of photographs. “You see this frozen image of a guy with a caption underneath. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he was a nice guy. But at the moment it was taken, no one can say who he really was, what he was thinking about. His wife? His mistress? The past? The future? Basketball? No one will ever know.”
“That’s life for you,” says Ferdinand.
(It is here that we see Ferdinand coming to life again. Just as Mona came back to life when she stepped from the ocean and said to the truck driver who picked her up -- “I am”)
“That’s what makes me sad: Life is so different from books,” says Marianne. “I wish it were the same: clear, logical, organized. Only it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is. Much more than people think.”
“For the last time, my name’s Ferdinand.”
“I know, but you can’t sing ‘My Friend Ferdinand’,” sings Marianne.
“Yes, you can. You just have to want to, Marianne.”
At this point we hear the first notes of the song that introduces the transition to the next scene -- the daylight on Marianne’s face, and then her and Ferdinand/Pierrot’s lives as impoverished apartment-dwelling revolutionaries. But in the meantime, Ferdinand/Pierrot and Marianne remain in the car...
“I want to,” says Marianne in response to Ferdinand/Pierrot.
Like the song, Marianne’s “I want to” indicates the verbal transition, with Ferdinand/Pierrot’s return to life, replying “Me too, Marianne” to everything Marianne desires. Not Ferdinand/Pierrot’s return to life in the singular sense, but a life in relation (to another).
Of course no such transition is available to the hitcher and me. And it is in this recognition that my reference is no longer toPierre le fou, nor Vagabond, but the “No” that periodically punctuates Sophie Calle’s commentary in Double Blind (No Sex Last Night)(1992): the story of another driving trip, this time across the United States, with Calle seeking her own relational transition, which her younger travelling companion, Greg Shephard, continually denies her -- until one night he doesn’t, and the tone of the work, like the car’s transmission, shifts.
I want a similar shift with the hitcher, but without the eros of Pierre le fouandDouble Blind, and without the existential exasperation of Vagabond. Something closer to two artists moving through an art gallery, looking at the world through Art’s eyes, but who happen to be in a car driving up an old country road. “To want something, you have to be alive,” says Ferdinand, and I want to be alive right now, too, only it appears that in wanting to be alive I have to want something else, first, and that is a condition to which I have no control over, a condition that I alone cannot change.
Old Kamloops Road is six miles long and runs between 43rdAvenue in Vernon to the east-west portion of Highway 97. A right turn (east) onto 97 is relatively easy, but a left turn (west) requires attention to both lanes. The hitcher’s eye is on the lane closest to us, the east-bound lane, while mine is on the west-bound lane.
As there are no cars coming in my direction, my eye continues beyond the quarter-mile straightaway section, across the highway’s north-south section and up the rocky sage bluff to a grey, overcast sky, where I wait for something to emerge, on the chance that it might.
This is the only way to see a UFO, I think: to periodically stop what you are doing and look up. There is no other way to see one of these objects because usually when somebody says, “Look, up in the sky!” and we look, it is too late, the object is gone, and no one believes it was there in the first place.
In looking this time, I see a black speck that hovers like a cursor, but is in fact an eagle, given its pattern. A circling eagle, which means there is something below it that the eagle is watching. I imagine myself looking down from where the eagle is and see nothing but lake water, before looking up again. The eagle is no longer there, and what I see is no longer the colour of the sky but its texture.
I reach into my coat pocket and remove one of my white business cards, placing it against the front passenger side window. The contrast makes the sky greyer, the card whiter. I hold the card against the black vinyl dashboard as the hitcher turns left onto 97.
“You okay?” she asks.
“Just checking,” I begin, unsure of what I am checking for.
“That bump gone down any?”
I close my eyes and touch the back of the head. The grey sky returns, only this time it is inside me, a painted monochrome “composed” not of brushstrokes but of a criss-crossed rollers, more fog than sky, more horizontal than vertical. I think of those moments in my life when I am staring at the fog the moment it lifts, when I am driving over familiar territory, knowing where I am, but not exactly; what it feels like to be ahead of or behind where I think I am, to step into myself, or of those gift seconds where I allow myself to catch up.
In October 2012 I published a lengthy review of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography retrospective in Canadian Art. Those familiar with Wallace’s canvases will recall his “trademark” pairing of printed photograph and painted monochrome, a style that emerged from his interest in Piet Mondrian (the subject of Wallace’s Art History M.A. thesis), as well as the monochrome, the poetry of Mallarmé and the prose of Nathalie Sarraute, and cinema, particularly the films of Godard. More recently Wallace has produced a number of large-scale works of figures in the urban landscape, either moving from -- or towards -- a monochromatic space. For Wallace, these figures are flaneurs, the monochromes “representative” not of a destination or a point of departure, but of curiosity, imagination, that which attends the dérive.
In an earlier Wallace sequence, entitled Colours of the Afternoon(1978/79), a young woman wanders not through the city but along the pastoral shoreline of Hornby Island. Unlike the artist’s more recent urban works, the monochromes (muted reds, blues and yellows) do not abut the printed photograph, but absorb it.
In my Canadian Artreview, I wrote:
Here, “painted” monochromatic colour is applied evenly over discrete pictorial photo-panels, in the same way Jean-Luc Godard applied monochromatic colour to film sequences in Pierrot le Fou (1965), Weekend (1967) and Passion (1982). In his writings on Godard, Gilles Deleuze identifies the filmmaker’s use of monochromatic colour as “great, individuated genres in which the image is reflected,” while Deleuzian scholar Colin Raymond Gardner notes that the effect of Godard’s colour filtering creates “new conjunctions between and across genres, forming new categories in the interstices between series.”
Godard’s new conjunctions include the party scene early in Pierrot le fou, where the colour-filtered revelers speak to each other as if endorsing products in a television commercial, making the filtered spaces they occupy market spaces, the opposite of the imaginative or fugitive dérive spaces which Ferdinand/Pierrot seeks in life and ultimately allow him to escape it. A foreshadowing of Ferdinand/Pierrot’s sad end? The inescapabilty of the market and its effect on both the form and content of our daily lives? This is what I get from Godard’s use of the monochromatic filter in Pierre le fou, and what I feel in my own daily life as the weeks turn into years and as Time turns into Space.
We veer left and curl downhill along the northern end of the Spallumcheen Golf & Country Club, past the Historic O’Keefe Ranch, then up a small hill. “My Mom’s boyfriend lives over there,” says the hitcher, motioning with her jaw.
“That what it’s called?” she says indifferently.
“Coyote Crossing Villas. ‘Peaceful, relaxing and affordable countryside living in this modern manufactured home park’, according to the Countryside Developments website.”
“Manufactured is right,” scoffs the hitcher. “We never had a home like that when I was kid. Half the time nothing worked -- the oven, the furnace, the dryer. My Mom waited for us to move out before hooking up with someone who could give her those things.”
“Like a set designer’s version of a home?” I ask.
“Yeah, full of fake crafts and bullshit notions from Michael’s.”
We turn left onto Westside Road, a fifty-mile stretch along Lake Okanagan that, further south, includes some of the scariest cliff-side driving the province has to offer. To the immediate right is a scrapyard, followed by the right-angled geometry of Coyote Crossing Villas. The hitcher pulls up in front of a white double-wide with fake green shutters and a potted boxwood on an AstroTurf stoop. “You might as well come in,” she says, turning off the engine and handing me my keys. “See this dump in all its glory.”
Coyote Crossing Villas is one of a number of leasing agreements between the Okanagan Indian Band and private developers. Though more modest than some of the cliff-side estates south of it, the homes at Coyote Crossing share with them an almost militarized sparkle, where neatness competes with cleanliness. The relationship is not lost on the hitcher who, in pulling out her own set of keys accidentally pulls with them a piece of Kleenex. I reach down to pick it up and am told to “Leave it!”
As with most mobile homes, there is no foyer. Entering the hitcher’s mother’s boyfriend’s home is like entering a museum gallery space, the living room opening up to what amounts to a carefully considered installation, an environment designed less for occupancy than for viewing.
“What are you standing there for?” says the hitcher from the kitchen. “Shit, you’re just like my Mom. Every time she puts something new in that room she goes to the door to look at it.”
“I sense that,” I tell her, noting how the love seat is set up in opposition to a pair of overstuffed chairs, how it is in these chairs that the hitcher’s mother and her boyfriend likely spend most of their time, given that the wall-mounted TV is behind the love seat. I wonder if that arrangement follows into the bedroom, with two single beds in place of a queen or a king.
“I know what you’re doing,” the hitcher calls out.
“You’re right. I’m reading the room.”
“It’s not art, you know -- it’s just a room.”
“Maybe not art to you, but it is composed with the same care and attention.”
“It’s called design.”
“They’re not unrelated,” I tell her, anticipating her response.
“I hate design!” she says emphatically.
I sit down at the centre of the loveseat. It is this view, and not the view from the left or the right end of it that the composer arranged what is before it. I know this because it is from here that I can see directly between the chairs opposite -- what amounts to a two-foot space that could have been filled with a side table but is vacant. Instead, side tables sit on either side of the chairs.
The hitcher emerges from the other side of the kitchen, the side that leads to the hall. She has in her hands a black vinyl sketchbook covered in wrinkled paint smeared stickers. “Here,” she says handing it to me. “These are some drawings I did as a kid. Just don’t read the writing.” She sits in a chair opposite me, the chair closest to the kitchen, the one with the side table to the left of it.
“Is that the chair your mother sits in?” I ask.
“Your mother’s left-handed.”
She looks insulted, almost defensive. “Yeah, so?”
I open the book in the middle. Both pages are full of writing. The writing slopes to the left. Backhanded writing. “You’re left-handed, too.”
“What are you looking at?” she says bounding from the chair, craning her neck to look for herself. “You can’t tell from that.”
“No,” I say pulling the book closer, “I knew that from the way you handled your phone.”
Half of the hitcher’s sketchbook was filled with writing, the other half with drawings that began with pastel horseheads, the first ones signed and dated “2007” before ending five years later in 2012 with the emergence of undated pen-and-ink vampires in various states of undress.
“You can draw!” I say, closing the book.
A glimmer of satisfaction, followed by a frown. She looks away, on the verge of saying something, her right eye shining.
“It’s hard to be artist,” I say.
She nods and a tear falls. “I’m not an artist.”
“You’re an artist,” I tell her, meaning it.
She nods again, a little harder this time.
“I should go,” I say, slapping my hands against my knees.
She turns to me. It is a face I might never understand. On the wall over her shoulder, a black velvet painting of another young woman. Her eyes are shining too. But that is where the resemblance ends, because she is made of paint and the woman I have been travelling with is not.
The drive from 97 to the Little Kingdom Gas and Grocery Store is twelve gently winding minutes, most of it with a view of the lake. If someone is ahead of me, the drive can last as long as twenty minutes, but I never pass anyone on this stretch of road. As I see it, if a car is ahead of me, it is there for a reason: to help me take my time, consider my surroundings, which I do, noting in this instance the tule that grows along the lake and how my classmate, Mariel Belanger, who lives along this lake, uses tule in her multi-media installations.
It makes sense to involve the natural elements of a place when making a work that speaks to place. Or a work that encourages an understanding of the land as parent and teacher, as Syilx Knowledge Keeper Richard Armstrong reminded a group of us during a welcoming session the summer before. “Strategies” like this go a long way towards addressing the social-formal tension that has preoccupied modern art throughout most of the 20thcentury, as Dan Graham attempted with Homes for America(1966-67), a work that focuses on the relationship between suburban tract housing (social) and the serialism of Minimalist art (formal). But Graham did not directly implicate the material base of this work, only the repetitive Fordist system that, in addition to development of tract housing, enabled the makingof his camera, its film, the film’s processing, the slides he shows and the paper on which his images were subsequently printed. There is little or no comment on the mode of production in which that work is organized, nor the alienation of the worker to his or her labour.
Something Graham did achieve with Homes for Americawas not to present the piece in another ostensibly neutral system -- the white cube gallery -- but in a mass-produced magazine (he had intended to publish Homesin a lifestyle magazine like Esquire, but ultimately settled for Arts Magazine). Implicit in Graham’s decision to make his art available in a magazine and not in an art gallery is a form of institutional critique that, unlike artists from Michael Asher to Andrea Fraser, does not require the use of the gallery as a medium. A more recent project that responds to or resists the question of the gallery as a neutral space belongs to another of my classmates, Tania Willard.
Tania tells me that Bush Gallery is a reserve-based conceptual project that looks at ideas of how to create art spaces or possibilities that respond to indigenous concepts of land. Tania has said many times that there is no tradition of art galleries on reserves. But what if there was? she asks rhetorically. What would it look like? Thus Bush Gallery begins as an imagination of a gallery space that would be attentive to reserve life and would acknowledge, for example, the presence of children in the production and display of art, as well as our engagement with that art on land alive not just with plants and animals but with rocks and soil. Not a neutral white cube that displays autonomous objects that cannot be handled, but an open space, without walls, where objects exist in (collaborative) relationships beyond the modern protocols of white cube viewing.
Standing somewhat in contrast to the land as a dynamic force is a definition of culture I once embraced as an anthropology student the early 1980s. This definition, devised by physical anthropologist Ralph Holloway from his study of human brain evolution through impressions left in human skulls, is attuned to the emergence of tool use in hominid populations (homo habilis) and the production of material culture. However, as inventive as this definition seemed at the time, to say that “culture is the imposition of arbitrary form upon the [natural] environment” (47) is only half the story, as the other half, as it were, is based on the “environment” -- not as a tabula rasa but as a force with its own agency, a collaborator in the cultivation of crops, the holder of house poles, the experience and appreciation of art. At best, Holloway’s definition inspires a dialectical relationship with the land and those who poke at it; a relationship that, with stand-offs like those over oil pipelines at Standing Rock, is not unilateral and enabling of a modernity that is no longer sustainable.
More than anything, it is modernity that ails me. Not just modernity, but its literal and symbolic affiliates: modernization and modernism. Even its auto-critique -- postmodernism -- is suspect if one considers the word’s ubiquity as a descriptor for anything that appears to conflate materials or ideas in the service of art or architecture, particularly in their commodified forms. Indeed, it is conflation (more than the 2017 word of the year, complicit-y) that has contributed to one of the biggest events to emerge in the indigenous-settler/colonial conversation that followed the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report. That this event began with Canada’s leading writers’ advocacy organization (the Writers Union of Canada) is fitting, given that it is writing, more than driving, that has brought us to this point.
In the Spring 2017 “Indigenous” issue of the Writer’s Union of Canada’s Writemagazine, editor Hal Niedzviecki wrote an admittedly “glib” and uniformly insensitive editor’s note that opened with the phrase “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” followed by a petulant call for an “Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” As indigenous and non-indigenous writers took to social media to protest Niedzviecki’s note, certain senior members of Canada’s mainstream media (from the National Postto the CBC) responded with offers to fund such a prize (or if not fund the prize, then defend Niedzviecki, who resigned from Writeas a result of the protest). But this is not the event in question. The event in question is a subsequent May 13, 2017 CBC panel hosted by CBC’s Carol MacNeil that featured CBC film and pop culture critic Jesse Wente, who is Ojibway, and Jonathan Kay, who had resigned as editor of the Walrusmagazine shortly after tweeting “The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot. Sad & shameful.”
Although the particulars of this watershed moment in indigenous-settler relations exceeds the scope of this text, there are two issues worth highlighting that are key to the success or failure of a relational subject position based on a convergence of indigenous and settler/colonial modalities: appropriation and conflation. Rather than attempt to summarize this CBC panel, I have chosen instead to clear a space for my transcription of the panel’s first six minutes.
This is what Wente said when MacNeil asked him “What was wrong with Hal’s editorial?”:
“I think the main issue I had and I think many others did was not so much the notion that other writers can imagine or write or create other worlds -- in fact, I would say we should encourage it -- but that doesn’t mean you can create it without critique, and that also means that especially when in reference to indigenous people we have to remember that there is a history of appropriation -- that appropriation is institutionalized in Canada, not just cultural appropriation but appropriation of land, of our lives, that this is the very foundation of what Canada is based on, including laws that were written specifically to enforce cultural appropriation, that banned our ceremonies, banned our stories, enabled the stealing of our cultural artifacts to be positioned in museums, that silenced our voice...while we were being put into residential schools, where we were isolated from the larger communities, and this manifests itself now in a media that is woefully lacking in inclusion, that is ill-prepared to actually have these debates, that doesn’t have representatives especially at the highest levels as so pointed out. My issue ultimately with the original column is that it called for the over-class, for white writers to imagine; it didn’t actually call for the elevation of actual indigenous voices. That is actual inclusion, the other is appropriation.”
This is what Kay said when MacNeil asked “When you wrote that initial tweet, what were you reacting to?”:
“I was actually reacting to the statements that were made by the Writer’s Union itself and their Equity Task Force which I found completely over the top, an effort to shame the outgoing editor. If you look at their official statements, I really found it was excessively strident and they were trying to distance themselves from the outgoing editor in a way that it’s like they were trying to humiliate him -- that’s what I objected to. And what’s interesting is that the critiques I’ve seen of what the outgoing editor wrote by people like Jesse and others since then have actually been a lot more thoughtful. And I thought Jesse just put the case against appropriation in the best possible context.”
CMac: “But what did you mean when you said “The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot”? What does that mean?”
JK: “Well, if you read the report from the Equity Task Force of TWUC what they say is this is an example of racism, this is maligned behavior--“
CMac: “Yeah, they say there are barriers faced by indigenous and other racialized writers and that you -- meaning Hal Niedzviecki -- dismissed those barriers and they called for the article to be retracted.”
JK: “They went well beyond that -- they wanted three full issue of strictly indigenous material. Look, it was the laundry list that you often get in situations like this. What I objected to was the way it treated the outgoing editor as if he had said something that was akin to neo-Nazi propaganda. Personally, I actually didn’t like the column he wrote. I thought it was too flippant about a serious subject. And it is true that it was insulting, given that the issue itself was about indigenous writers; it was insulting to write that kind of flip column as an editor’s note and I acknowledge it as much in my National Postarticle today. I just didn’t think it was right to treat him as a hate criminal for defending the idea of universalism in writing.”
CMc: “Jesse, what’s your reaction -- that he was treated like a hate criminal?”
JW: “Well, I think that’s an absurd assertion and a conflation to win a rhetorical argument for Mr. Kay.”
With the panel at its halfway point it is clear that for Kay the issue is not with the extension of appropriation beyond art to include political-economic realities facing indigenous people in Canada (an extension that was, prior to the recommendations of the TRC, more often than not considered a conflation) but with the treatment of a colleague (Niedzviecki) with whom Kay shares the privilege of his gender and his class. In his colleague’s defense, Kay provides an extension of his own when he likens TWUC’s Equity Task Force to “neo-Nazi propaganda,” with Niedzviecki characterized as a “hate criminal.” At the same time Kay engages in hyperbole he understates or even trivializes the damage caused by his colleague’s editorial note when he refers to it as “flippant” and “insulting, given that the issue itself was about indigenous writers.”
Kay’s is an old trick deployed by politicians and their speechwriters, and Wente is right to call-out Kay as a conflator, a practitioner of a form that is appearing in the arts with increased frequency -- from Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer’s contribution to the Canadian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale this April (Farmer’s conflation of his own family’s “intergenerational trauma” with the residential school experience, as quoted in Border Crossings 141, was a hot social media topic among artists) to Sam Durant’s controversial Scaffold(2012-) at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis in May (a conflation of several historic U.S. federal government gallows that includes the one used to hang 38 Dakota Sioux men in 1862). Later in the panel, after the inevitable skirmish over language (“If we’re going to start correcting language,” says Wente to Kay, “let’s look at some of the historical language that continues to be used to position indigenous people”), Wente avoids the at-times equally conflationary cultural protectionism common on social media and instead accelerates his use of “we”, alternately speaking of indigenous and non-indigenous people to the point where these “we”s are reminiscent of the kind of “horizontal transcendence” Luce Irigaray discusses in her 1999 essay “Approaching the Other as Other,” where, if I understand her correctly, the potential for a “we” hinges on the “irreducibility of the ‘you’” when speaking of the Other.
“We need to get over the point where we are apologizing for continual behavior that was ongoing for decades,” Wente continues. “We need to get to the point where we are actually willing to change. So I would challenge all of the people that were a part of this on Twitter to look at themselves, at their organizations and challenge themselves to actually live up to what the TRC demanded for all of the media in this country. And I think we need to move on beyond conflating free speech debate in artistic expression with ongoing colonial appropriation.
“We’ve accepted a lot of apologies, and I think what we are asking now is for change, and we’re not going to stop asking. We are in a new paradigm, where indigenous voices are louder because of social media, because we don’t have to occupy chairs in mainstream news media to have our voices heard. We can do this in another way, and that is not going to change. So the reality is this is the new reality. When these issues come up, they will be called out repeatedly and vociferously. And if Canada and the people of Canada actually want to move and change in this debate they need to listen and consider their actions, and consider that the actions that we do now, Carole, will be the actions that our children and our grand-grand-grandchildren will be discussing and living with millennia from now.”
As for Kay’s concluding remarks, they include the requisite topical summation/conflation typical of the intransigent non-listening mansplainer, but also a condescending schoolmaster-style commendation of Wente, “who has conducted himself extremely graciously on social media. Not everybody has done so on both sides of the argument, and I think a little bit more civility would do everyone a lot of good because there is a valid debate to be had between the right of artists to conceive any culture and the right of those cultures to protect themselves from appropriation.”
Civility, I say to myself as I am passed by a yellow 1970 AMC Ambassador with California plates, as in polite, courteous, virtuous behaviours that Canadians are said to be known for, but also words bandied about with various degrees of self-loathing by iconic CBC national broadcasters from Peter Gzowski and Vicki Gabereau to Shelagh Rogers and Rex Murphy. That someone like Jonathan Kay, a Canadian who also has a national voice, and who has admitted to a frustration with “censoring myself more and more,” should evoke civility in response to the pain and outrage over his own “flippant” tweet feels disingenuous, more a means of social control than helping to shape a forum for discourse -- in all its forms. Indeed, the blame that many of us levy against social media as a reckless medium is a little like blaming our behavior not on our fears but on the alcohol that has allowed them to manifest; on the guns that kill people, not the people pulling their triggers. Kay’s entitlement has blinded him to such propositions, as I too have been blinded by propositions received in the name of the autonomous art work, regardless of the context in which these propositions have been applied.
Little Kingdom Gas and Grocery Store bills itself as a “wonderland of convenience.” The second part is obvious: apart from a small campsite store just north of it at Newport Beach and another at the La Casa development thirty miles south, it is the only gas station on Westside Road and the only place to buy groceries, hardware and clothing. As for the first part, that belongs less to what is on tap than what isn’t.
Although established in 1984, the idea for Little Kingdom took root before that, when its founder and current proprietor, Okanagan Indian Band member Robert Marchand, spent three days parked in his truck at the corner of Westside and Six Mile Creek Roads counting how many cars travelled north and how many travelled south, and at what times of day. For Marchand, the question was not whether the corner needed a gas station, but if it could sustain one. Like many area residents, Marchand was tired of spending five dollars in gas to drive to Swan Lake to fuel up before heading back into the hills to hunt. Same too for trips “over the line,” which required a drive in the opposite direction (adding an extra 45 minutes of travel time), rather than gassing up on Westside and heading south to the border, via Fintry.
Once Marchand had his tally, he did his calculations and determined that a gas station was indeed sustainable. Upon receiving band approval, he had a “Regular” gas tank installed and built a 10’x16’ shack from which he and a second employee sold cans of oil, pop, chocolate bars and cigarettes. Soon after, he embarked on his first expansion -- a 30’x50’ space for groceries. Following that, a 60’x80’space for meat, produce and a bakery. His third expansion -- a hardware store -- was even larger. After that, he expanded upstairs to include a Ladies Fashion Boutique. Larger sales meant larger inventories, so Marchand built a storage space of equal square footage in back. Today he sells all formats of gasoline, as well as propane, and has a staff of ten. A recent expansion includes a fifty-yard bank of solar panels. His most recent expansion is a marijuana dispensary.
So what is the nature of this “wonderland”? Like I said, it belongs less to what is on tap than what isn’t. Put another way, Little Kingdom is designed to emphasize not only the display of its goods but its open spaces, the ease with which bodies can move between its shelves, particularly in its grocery store. But I like the word belong, as it implies a kinship, a relation amongst those who appreciate a store that is not trying to shove something down your throat through a homogenous design geared at manipulation, a design favored by transnational gas stations like BP, Chevron, PetroCan and Shell, each of whom have their own version of the blow-moulded garbage can, with convenience stores laid out to “encourage” somnambulistic consumers.
If there is an overriding rule at Little Kingdom, it is carried in one of a number of handcrafted signs and sculptures remade from week to week that asks patrons not to park in front of the store’s main doors. Marchand could solve this problem once and for all if he painted a striped box onto the asphalt outside these doors, but he has chosen not to. Nor has he chosen a similar technique to demarcate parking stalls. To wonder why Marchand has not done this is of course to wonder, and that, to my mind, is what makes Little Kingdom a wonderland.
But there are other wonders in store at this inadvertent work of social sculpture, and to spend time on them would take all day. Once I had my bannock and my lemon meringue pie, I was off again, this time up a winding gravel road, at the end of which is that narrow valley in the foothills that I mentioned at the outset of this text.
Four years ago, as I began to wonder about my future in the city I was born and raised in, a city I have lived in for most of my adult life and have made the focus of much of my literary and critical work, a city that has over the course of my lifetime transitioned from a home for its residents to a resort for its visitors, I developed a preoccupation with trailers -- Airstreams in particular.
At first this preoccupation was based on the Airstream’s outward appearance. I was driving south from East Vancouver over the Knight Street Bridge when I saw in the oncoming lane a blue Ford truck pulling what turned out to be a 1970 Airstream Overlander trailer. Traffic on the bridge had slowed, so I had time to take in the trailer’s curved aluminum surface, its rounded windows, its various exterior light fixtures -- some orange, some red. As the trailer pulled up beside me, traffic stopped, and for a good two minutes I stared at this marvel as Ahab might have stared at his whale -- in awe.
I had noticed Airstreams as far back as my childhood, when I saw them more as artefacts of the past (1950s) than reflections of the present (1970s). Although there was a cultural nostalgia for the 1950s in the mid-1970s (particularly in music and film), Airstreams were not part of it, and it seemed odd that their design should remain intact while toasters, stereo systems, automobiles and rocket ships were changing with “the times”. Indeed, if my childhood self was to pass judgement on the Airstream, it would be based on that which I came to value at the end of the 1970s: resistance to a planned obsolescence that was turning us from public subjects into conspicuous consumers. Only it was not resistance that the Airstream company was “expressing” in the 1970s, it was simply the efficacy of its system. These trailers worked, and no, they did not heat up when the sun beat down on them; quite the opposite -- they stayed cool. Like they became “cool” in the early-1990s when grunge music heralded a fondness for the raw, the unadorned and the gritty, what some have romanticized as trailer park chic.
After returning home that evening I googled Airstream and read up on the company’s history, intrigued by the subtle evolution of their trailers’ exterior design, but also how the company spent as much time consulting with homemakers as it did with engineers. From there I turned my attention to YouTube videos that highlighted the interior design of these trailers, from their original factory features to equally innovative restorations and renovations by its many enthusiasts. A couple years later, after tracking the sales of Airstreams on Craigslist, eBay and other online sites, I saw a reasonably-priced 29-foot 1973 Overlander advertised in Kamloops and immediately contacted the owner. Forty-eight hours later we shook hands and a friend helped me move the trailer to his ranch, where it overlooks a creek in a narrow valley in the foothills near the head of Lake Okanagan.
“Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out gilt, and then shadow sweeps it away. You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet (Dillard 5).”
The words above are from the earliest pages of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek(1974), a memoir that details in poetic prose Dillard’s life in a small creek-side house in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Although my trailer allows me to live similarly, it is Dillard’s book that allowed me to imagine a place for it, to appreciate the creek as “an active mystery, fresh every minute (4).” Same too of the neighbouring mountains, which she describes as “giant, restful, absorbent (5). Taken together, the creek and the mountains provide a complementary system in which to “feel the planet’s roundness arc” (5) and to allow those feelings to inform new ones.
Sometimes I am the landscape Dillard describes, other times the sun. But it is always both, in relation, like the creek and the mountains; otherwise it is incomplete, imbalanced, with the sun and the earth independent of each other, determining the other. Simply put (I can think of no other way to put it, given my desire at this point for simplicity), this is the crux of everything that has pre-occupied me these past few years, where I have come to ask myself not what matters but how to ready myself in a way in which to experience these questions in a more fluid and grounded way.
My classmates Corinne and Mariel, who are of the Sylix Nation, and Tania, who is Secwepemc, were raised with an understanding of the land as a nurturing, pedagogical force, and this is something I am interested in. However, to understand this force as they do, I cannot do so as an indigenous person, nor am I comfortable doing so only with tools passed down to me from generations of colonial settlement/entitlement, but hopefully through an “emergent” relationship between indigenous knowledge and eurowestern thought, as Cree scholar Shawn Wilson notes in his evocation of “complexity theory” concerning the work of Ray Barnhardt and Oscar Kawagley (44). This is what I hope to achieve in coming to my trailer, where I bring not only what I am learning as a student at UBCO (and what happens along the way), but also a desire to rebalance a life whose relationships are at times nourished more on condiments (mediated images) than on whole foods (primary experiences).
It is here that I must conclude my Prologue and turn over the remainder of this text to the seminar it is intended to serve. But before doing so, I would like to share with you, the reader, something I found while unloading my gear, something the hitcher left behind for me on the dashboard, an object that threatens to anchor our time together: a small, black, flap-lid box made with my “business” card, a felt-tipped marker and a pair of scissors. Equally important is what she placed under the lid of this box: those left-over pieces she chose not to colour.
It’s not important what happens on a sheet of paper, the important thing is what happens within us.
-- Mirtha Dermisache
Meeting One: Introductory Lecture
Welcome to Course Language: How the Reader is Encouraged to Collaborate on Our Seminar and Pass Me. You will note that the course title is not in plain text but in italics. The reason it is in italics concerns its status as a text. But not just any text. If the title of this text was in quotation marks it could be mistaken for a short story, an essay, a sitcom episode or indeed the prologue you were assigned to read in advance of participating in this course. But it is not in quotations marks. Instead it is a book, and book titles are represented in italics.
And yes, this course is a book. An open book. Not because it has been cracked (a vernacular term for taking hold of a book cover’s left and right sides with one’s thumbs and pulling them apart to reveal a series of imbedded signatures made of softer paper glued into the cover’s middle section or spine), but because it is populated with readers and writers and, as such, will forever be the start of something from which other books or related works might emerge. Not literally, of course, but figuratively -- or let’s say generatively, in the way a course is supposed to
produceexcite something, however abstract, through knowledge gainedshared.
The notion of knowledge sharedin place of knowledge gainedspeaks to both my presence in and approach to the
teachingfacilitation of this course. The method I am interested in is based on a horizontal orientation, where studentparticipant and facilitator have agreed to meet formally over a period of time and, once we have agreed on the goals and outcomes of the course (as suggested in the course outline or syllabus), we can set out together -- respectfully -- on an even plain. Another way of expressing this can be found in my resistance to a market-oriented approach based on a vertical or hierarchal model -- what Paulo Freire refers to as the “banking model of education,” where the teacher deposits knowledge into the minds of his or her students for memorization and recitation. (Please keepbear in mind that this distinction between a horizontal and a vertical orientation will recur over the course of this courseseminar, and that in evoking the vertical, I am referring not specifically to graduate level courses at North American universities but to those made available outside universities and on other continents.)
Naturally a seminar is more amenable to a horizontal orientation than a lecture, for reasons many of you who have participated in both can appreciate. The advantage of the seminar is fairly straightforward, given some of what I have said thus far; but suffice it to say, rather than a lecture that concludes with questions, a seminar allows its participants to shape the course as they see fit, developing a shared grammar and vocabulary, helped along dialogically through the use of materials its participants have agreed to set out with -- to say nothing of those picked up along the way. As the instigator of this course -- as a graduate student who is offering it as both a place and a time of learning and as a thesis project upon which I will be evaluated not only by my committee but by my co-participants -- I have made myself increasingly susceptible to it.
Speaking of questions, Are there any?
Think about this for a minute.
Okay, I have a question: Who are my co-participants? To which I might say, Depends on who is hosting the seminar. A college, a university, a learning centre, a museum? Who you are as a reader of this text will have bearing on how you might imagine where we are, as co-participants.
I have another question. This one concerns the title of the course. As the person who wrote it, I am still not sure it makes sense. I am going to present it again, with the words that puzzle me most -- the words I am questioning -- in bold.
Course Language: How the Readeris Encouraged to Collaborate onOur Seminar and Pass Me.
Who is “the Reader”? Why the preposition “on,” not “with”? Who is “me”?
Think about this for a minute.
Another way to respond to these questions is to review the origin and intent of this course.
Course Language: How the Reader is Encouraged to Collaborate on Our Seminar and Pass Me was inspired by a history of influential books made from lectures recorded by listener/readers and attributed to the lecturers who “gave” them, as well as “occasional papers” by those who wrote them but who did not collect them in book form. The first “book” is A Course in General Linguistics(1916) by Ferdinand de Saussure, the second is The Structure and Function of Primitive Societies(1952) by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and the third is The Neutral(2002) by Roland Barthes. Only Radcliffe-Brown’s book was made from “occasional papers.”
That all three of these books belong to the Structuralist tradition is worth noting. A Course in General Linguisticsis said to have given us the modern science of linguistics and laid the groundwork for Structuralism, as refined by Claude Levi-Strauss, while The Structure and Function of Primitive Societywas concerned not simply with the importance of institutions in the social organization of societies but, most importantly, their relationships. In his essay “On Social Structure”, Radcliffe-Brown wrote:
to say we are studying social structures is not exactly the same thing as saying that we study social relations, which is how some sociologists define their subject. A particular social relation between two persons (unless they be Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) exists only as part of a wide network of social relations, involving many other persons, and it is this network which I regard as the object of our investigations (3).
Important to Racliffe-Brown’s work is his consideration of French scholar Emile Durkheim’s “body analogy” in relation to structural change, a static, functionalist perspective that seeks harmony, as opposed to a more evolutionary, dialectical perspective focused on conflict, a la Karl Marx. As for Barthes, he admits to a childhood fascination with structural binaries at the opening of The Neutral, but as his thinking evolved, he, like many Post-Structuralists, developed a critique of Structuralism that, in the case of scholars like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, saw the binary give way to a rhizomatic paradigm. Barthes, of course, has his own alternatives, his own terminologies, his own analogies.
Ah, I am lecturing! Not my intention. But as this is the first day of the course, I thought it important to lay out a few things. Barthes certainly did that with the thirteen-week lecture course he presented at the Collège de France in 1978, lectures whose notes were gathered by Rosalind Krauss, translated by Krauss and Denis Hollier, and published posthumously in “his” book The Neutral(2007). Barthes says at the outset that he does not intend to publish a book from his lecture notes, only to put them in the service of a “phantasmic teaching” focused on the “comings and goings of desire, which [the lecturer] endlessly presents and represents.” For Barthes, this form of “teaching” is rooted in the location of a “fantasy, which can vary from year to year.”
For me, the fantasy begins with the idea of the thirteen-week course as the basis for a literary genre.
What do I mean by genre?
By genre I am referring to category, like the difference between a lecture and a seminar, of which this course is supposed to be the latter. As there are many different genres (within the mediums of painting and writing, for example) and sub-genres (history painting, epic poetry), the genre I desire most would serve the interdisciplinarian, and would take the form of a reader-writer composition that could include text, images, movements, sounds, scents, tastes and touches. It would, like the thirteen-week course, have thirteen sections of variable lengths (if need be) and, for the purposes of this particular course, root itself in a bookwork. As for authorship, it could be the work of a single participant, if indeed that is desirable anymore in our increasingly interactive, difficult-to-monetize moment, or it could be a collaborative work, composed by more than one participant, or it could be composed by one participant through the inclusion of work(s) attributed to other “participants”, through collage or montage. Most importantly, it will involve the rubric categories used to evaluate those registered in courses such as this one: Attendance, Participation, Assignment and Examination.
The organization of Barthes’s The Neutralis based on 23 words, what he refers to variously as “figures,” “traits,” and “twinklings.” These words, which he believes carry the notion of The Neutral (“I define the Neutral as that which outplays the paradigm...everything that baffles the paradigm”) include “Sleep,” “Silence,” and “Tact,” and their ostensible antonyms “Anger,” “Arrogance,” and “Conflict.” For the purposes of our course, we will take the words Attendance, Participation, Assignment and Examination as section headings and, within each of one of them, meet three times to explore these words -- and their antonyms -- as figures, traits and twinklings. For example, in our next meeting, under the word Attendance, we will (1) explore the etymological and epistemological presence of this word in our day-to-day lives. In our second meeting (2) we will concern ourselves with its antonym, and in our third meeting (3) we will concern ourselves with their relationship, perhaps towards their potential for convergence or, as Thomas Kuhn might say, “synthesis.” After that, we will move on to the next word -- Participation. Four times three equals twelve -- plus this introductory lecture makes for thirteen meetings.
The notion of convergence is key here, for it concerns another goal of this course, and that is subjectivity: Who are we, not only as artists but as socially responsible human beings? This is a broad question, but an important one in light of a number of societal shifts that have occurred in the last ten years with the increased use of social media (websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). The findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concerning the imprisonment of indigenous people in residential schools and the call to rethink colonial/settler-indigenous relations (on an ecologically fragile planet) is another such shift. Yet another is the #metoo campaign that has shone a light not only on gender relations but on sexual relations within the patriarchal power structures that determine our institutions -- from public office to private business, from the academy to Hollywood. It is hoped that the work we undertake in this course, if not towards a convergent, emergent, relational or intersectional (subject) position from which to make and critique our work, will at least lead us to an understanding of why such a convergence or emergence is desired. This is the goal. It is also the fantasy -- a fantasy that, like the 1979 Chanel No. 5 ad campaign, declares:
I am made of blue sky and golden light, and I will feel this way forever.
Share the fantasy.
So, with respect to these questions about the Reader, the preposition “on” and the “me” that is subject to the success or failure of this course, let me respond through a koan form similar to the one Luis Camnitzer used in A Museum is a School(2009-), a text-based public art work made available to exhibition spaces. Camnitizer’s text reads:
The museum is a school.
The artist learns to communicate.
The public learns to make connections.
Ours might read:
The reader is a writer.
The collaborator is a co-author.
The text is produced through inclusion.
There is more, of course, but first we must leave this meeting and regroup, review the Prologue and the assigned readings in light of this lecture, and in light of the class outlines that follow.
As this is a non-credit seminar, there is no rubric and there are no grades. If there is an evaluation, it is of the seminar and its facilitator, and will take the form of an optional written text, of no particularly length or breadth, and an equally optional pass or fail designation.
At the end of this course it is hoped that the participant has the means by which to undertake, document and compose his or her own road story, as I have done in the form of a prologue.
We begin with a definition of that which, at the outset of any class, is “taken” -- and that is attendance. But before that, the verb taken.
Starting begins with a taking -- a taking of names. Thirteen people have signed up for this seminar, and thirteen names have been taken. Today’s attendance is thirteen.
(There are no absences.)
Let’s look at some definitions. For this seminar, we will be using the oxforddictionaries.com as our source.
As a mass noun:
1. The action or state of going regularly to or being present at a place or event.
my attendance at church was very patchy
Attendance is a mass noun, which means it is an “undifferentiated unit” and cannot be directly modified by a numeral.
As a count noun:
1.1. The number of people present at a particular place or event.
she is being blamed for the museum's low attendances
Attendance is also a count noun, as it can be pluralized. It can be used in its singular form with an indefinite article. Thus attendance can become attendances.
Examples using the count noun:
1. Present at a function or a place.
some 200 were in attendance at the fourteenth reunion
2. Accompanying a member of royalty or other important person as an assistant or servant.
Her Royal Highness travelled in an aircraft of The Queen's Flight, with Viscountess Campden in attendance
Late Middle English: from Old French, from atendre“give one’s attention to.”
While the definitions and examples above remind us of what we already know, the etymology of the word (atendre) is perhaps closer to our purposes. That said, to “give one’s attention to” anticipates the next section of this seminar (Participation), but since we might have a different sense of that word (too), let us take stock of what we know thus far -- what it means to be in attendance -- then move forward.
What does it mean to be in attendance?
Until recently, you were either in class or you were not in class. You could not be in two places at once, but now you can be, depending on your definition of “in”.
We have two people in class who are here through Skype. But are they really here? So long as our class concerns a discussion, then yes, I would say so. They can hear us, and when they speak, we can hear them. Recently, during one of my graduate colloquium classes, a participant included as part of her presentation a series of objects she had made, which she gave to the class to pass around while she talked about the importance of the land and her people’s relationship to it. But what if that happened in our class? Are those who are here through Skype still in attendance if they are not physically attending tothe objects that are part of another participant’s presentation? Although my classmate didn’t say so, I think that was a point she wanted to make, and a lesson I took from her presentation: that there is more to being somewhere than what is registered through our eyes and ears. The greater lesson, of course, concerned her and her people’s relationship to the land -- the land they attend to, as the children of that land, and the land that attends to them, as parents and teacher. (This was a lesson imparted to us by Syilx Knowledge Keeper Richard Armstrong during UBCO’s Summer Indigenous Intensives of 2016 and 2017.)
Those of us with children attend to our children’s needs. Some of these needs are conditioned, others are more direct, or more basic. Our children need food, clothing, shelter and protection -- the irreducible minimum -- and as parents we do our best to supply them with these things. They also need to get away from the computer, get some physical exercise, and to do this we develop ways to encourage them.
Participant #1: Years ago my then-thirteen-year-old son developed a video game addiction. Rather than set up an appointment with an addiction counsellor, I thought I would first attempt a treatment of my own. I rented a storage locker twenty minutes by foot from his school. Every day before work I went to the locker and placed inside it an envelope with a ten dollar gift certificate to a nearby health food restaurant. If my son wanted lunch, he had to walk twenty minutes to the storage locker and get the money he needed to buy something to eat, a habit he eventually submitted to. Not only he did he get his exercise, he ate well. An example of how, without being there to supervise him, I was able to attend to his needs.
Anybody care to comment on this?
Participant #2: I appreciate the inventiveness, but I wonder about the ethics of your treatment.
Participant #3: I agree. What if for some reason he had a broken leg and was unable to walk to the storage unit?
Participant #1: If he had a broken leg then I would have treated him the same as if he was an Olympian with a broken leg and packed him a lunch.
Participant #4: I don’t know -- it seems weird to me. Almost abusive. Or perceptually so. Like something you might hear about from Victorian times. Or in a behavioural modification laboratory.
Participant #5: It is very cause and effect. Almost mechanical. Are there similar motivational experiments like this being conducted in your home? If so, I would be worried that such experiments might have bearing on a child’s development, that he or she might come to see the world as a series of financial or quantifiable relationships based on rewards, not those based on the kinds of intangibles that make life meaningful, or less determined.
Participant #1: No, this was the only one. But I hear your concerns. It is important to understand that I was desperate, at the end of my rope. Plus I couldn’t afford to take him to a counsellor. I enquired at his school and was told that it did not have one on staff.
Participant #6: I am wondering how this might relate to the Prologue.
Participant #7: Well, in this instance, you could go through the Prologue asking, What was attended to? A good part of the Prologue is given over to a driver who attends to the needs of a hitch-hiker by giving her a ride in his car.
Participant #8: Another relationship might concern the question of addiction. The detox centre they visit, the one that happens in the driver’s head when he is knocked unconscious.
Participant #9: I thought that part of the Prologue was corny.
Participant #10: I see the relationship more to do with the question of motivation. You [#1] motivated your child by putting his lunch money in the storage locker, while the driver seemed obsessed with the hitch-hiker and her motivations.
Participant #11: I think it has more to do with the driver giving his attention to the hitcher. He is interested in her life, who she is and what she believes in, and he seems careful not to crowd her. That care, to my mind, could be seen as someone attentive to another’s sense of self, her needs, her privacy.
Participant: #12: Yeah, but he made it all up.
Participant #11: Did you [#7]?
Participant #7: Parts of it.
Participant #13: Which parts?
Participant #7: Does it matter?
Participant #12: Well, what percentage?
Participant #7: Is the question of percentage related to the notion of attendance. I am thinking of what it means to be Skyping into a class that has as part of its presentation an object that needs to be handled.
What comes to mind when we think of the opposite of attendance?
Participant #1: Absence.
Participant #2: That would be the administrative term. If we consider the origin of the word attendance -- atendre-- “give one’s attention to” -- we might consider an opposite based on what it means to not“give one’s attention to” someone or something. To me that would be indifference.
Participant #3: Like the hitcher was indifferent to the driver.
Participant #4: I don’t think the hitcher was entirely indifferent to him. Maybe at the beginning, but she seemed to change over the course of their trip.
Participant #5: Yes, but I don’t think it was theirtrip so much as histrip -- literally, in the hippie sense.
Participant #6: Indifference, to me, is too ambivalent. I am trying to think of something more active, or wilful, a word that might speak to undoing someone else’s sense comfort, the idea that you might “give one’s attention to” someone in a threatening way.
Participant #7: Well, if that’s the case, if the word has both a positive and a negative connotation, then its opposite might well be indifference, an ambivalence to either behavioural extremes.
Participant#8: I don’t think the driver is ever presented as an indifferent figure.
Participant #9: At first I thought his blank business cards were representative of his indifference to objects, even though these cards were objects themselves. But then I thought about them less as objects than as screens on which to project on, a space on which -- or withwhich -- to imagine something.
Participant #10: Yes, but nothing in art is neutral. We know with works like Rebecca Belmore’s The Named and the Unnamed(2002) that the projection screen is not neutral, nor is it made to be neutral. In that work, the screen upon which the video document of her Vigilperformance is projected is embedded with a grid of illuminated light bulbs that work against the reception, presentation and indeed the stability of the image.
Participant #7: Here’s a question: Is the course neutral? Is the structure of this seminar neutral?
Participant #11: I think that’s the point of your thesis project -- that the course isn’t neutral.
Participant #12: I read somewhere online -- an interview you [#7] did -- where you talked about genres like the Novel and Poetry and Drama as having preconceptions attached to them, that their formal structures in themselves are encoded, carry meaning, and that you worked with these preconceptions like a painter would work with pigment.
Participant #13: I think Samuel Beckett said something like that -- how form is content.
Participant #3: I want to return to the notion of indifference. For me, indifference is not neutral. The presentation of it might be, as in, I don’t care either way because I am not interested in the topic or the person; but that indifference, that position, is likely rooted in something else, an injury or a sense of privilege. Like how Switzerland was during World War II. We learn in school that it was neutral and did not take sides with the Allies or Axis powers, but we were never told why they did not take sides. Only later did we learn from scholars like Immanuel Wallerstein that Switzerland was neutral because they’re just this big bank willing -- and waiting -- to work with whoever wins the war and, as a result of winning, wins the right to control the world economy, as Britain had until the 1930s.
Participant #7: I am partial to that narrative, that history. I would also suggest that to look at something over time is to take it out of the structural -- the atemporal -- and into the dialectical.
Participant #2: Similar to the way the hitcher took the driver’s blank card -- the one she didn’t want -- and made it into a black box?
Participant #7: I’ll have to think about that. But in the meantime, Marcel Mauss’s The Gift(1925) comes to mind. Not the giving of the gift, nor the acknowledgement of the gift by giving a gift to the giver, but the obligation of the original giver to give again. In this case, the hitcher’s unwilling acceptance of the gift, her returning the gift through a creative and critical re-evaluation of it...
Participant #2: Which returns us again to the driver.
Participant #7: Yes, like I said, I’ll have to think about that.
For our next meeting -- the final meeting in the ATTENDANCE section -- I would like you to bring to class someone you know well enough to know how they are different from you and, perhaps, you to them. They can be a family member, a friend, someone you work with.
In advance of this I would like you to write a short description of the person based on what we might call objective facts -- where they were born, where they went to school, what they do for a living, what their interests are -- but without mentioning their name (200 words max).
Once written, I would like you to share the information with the person you are inviting and, if they are okay with what you have written, send me your texts and I will post them on the class blog.
What I would like us to do for that meeting is for the two of you to talk about how you know each other and how you -- but also each of you, as the case may be -- think you differ from each other.
If any of you don’t feel comfortable doing this, or if you cannot find such a person to bring to class, no problem. You can bring your powers of observation and your insights and apply them to the larger class discussion.
Okay, so only three people brought someone to class. And of those three, two brought the same person. That’s great, because any more would be unmanageable. More time for observations and insights from those who arrived solo.
Let’s start with Participant #1. But first, a review of what you wrote in advance of coming:
The person I am bringing to class was born in Los Angeles, California, of a German philosopher mother and an Argentinian set designer father. Primary schooling was Montessori, followed by five years at a private high school focused on the arts. After a year of travel, my guest obtained two degrees: a bachelor of education at UCLA, then a masters in public administration, also at UCLA. My guest works as a development officer at a local private school and, when not travelling the world recruiting students, likes to swim, ski and make birdhouses.
Okay, so apart from being different from you, why did you choose to bring this person to class?
Participant #1: That’s easy -- he’s my husband.
Husband: And I consented -- because if I didn’t I wouldn’t hear the end of it!
Participant #1: Okay, so right away you can see how different we are!
Husband: That’s right. She doesn’t like to swim, ski or make birdhouses.
Participant #1: No, I like to make birdhouses. I just don’t have the patience to make them.
Husband: You mean you don’t have the patience to make them with me.
Participant #1: No, I mean I don’t have the patience to make them with you hovering over me.
Husband: That’s because you keep trying to “improve” them with cornices and curlicues.
Participant #1: Yes, because you make the same birdhouse every time!
Husband: It’s the same structural design every time, but each one is painted differently.
Participant #2: This reminds me of the Irigaray reading [“Approaching the Other As Other”], where the Self’s attraction to the Other does not recognize the Other’s differences, but instead, consciously or otherwise, makes the Other over in the Self’s image, effectively smothering the Other.
Participant #3: Yes, but we’re talking about people here, not objects.
Participant #4: I assume the objects are standing in for people.
Participant #5: What we’re talking about might apply to the question of cultural appropriation, where the attraction to another culture’s art -- in borrowing from that culture to make a new work, in reducing cultural attributes that mean something specific to the culture from which they are borrowed to aesthetic motifs, decorations, design--
Participant #6: Can’t the Self’s respect for the Other’s culture be expressed through homage -- like respectfully adding its “motifs” to a new work made by the Self. Isn’t that the way the world is now, with everything up at once on the internet, there for the taking, in the spirit of collage?
Participant #7: Yes, but if this “taking” is unilateral, if something is taken without consent or permission or in the spirit of -- I don’t know -- conversation, dialogue, then how would that differ from me taking your phone because I need it to make my work?
Participant #6: Well, that’s different. That’s theft.
Participant #8: Like the unceded land that makes up most of this province -- that’s theft too, isn’t it?
Participant #6: Okay, so if she [Participant #1] wants to participate in her husband’s art, she should make it exactly the same as he does?
Participant #5: I’m not sure the question set forth by the Irigaray text is what does the Self do, but, because it works both ways, how do the Self and the Other establish a relationship that recognizes and respects difference towards a relational subjectivity, one that does not so much seek agreement within a singular position but considers a position that inhabits the space between?
Participant #9: That brings to mind the question in the Mouffe text [The Democratic Paradox], where she talks about “the third way” promoted by politicians like Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair -- a position that, in the quest to achieve a rational balance, collapses and potentially reifies the political space between “left” and “right” parties. For me, this third way is a neo-liberal space because it gives the illusions of working within a liberal tradition in an effort to achieve outcomes that ultimately limit freedoms through the determination of the free space in which political discoursed is, in a liberal democracy, said to flourish.
Participant #10: The culture is so extreme now. Anything that appears in the middle -- that expresses itself as moderate -- is seen as indecisive, wishy-washy, flip-floppy. That’s why the world leaders in the Mouffe text attempted to step outside the left and right binary to promote themselves not as a compromise between poles but as an alternative to a liberal democratic system that has brought them forward.
Participant #11: A way to critique the uniformity of the bird house structure, or complement it, or maybe a bit of both, could be through how you choose to paint these structures. There are all sorts of ways to create illusions of depth through perspective and shading, or even transparency, as in a trompe l’oeil, which brings to mind the context in which the bird house is placed.
Participant #12: I wonder if, through the painted treatment of the birdhouse, your husband might respond three-dimensionally to these birdhouses that incorporate the illusory nature of the painted house, make structural changes based on a conversation with the painted surface. I don’t know -- a more dialectical relationship?
Participant #13: Maybe we should be asking the husband if there are any painted treatments of his bird houses that he would find disrespectful to their design, or under what condition might he modify or further simplify the birdhouse design, if at all.
Husband: I think that’s it -- that’s the challenge! To allow something its own agency -- in this case, the three-dimensional design of the birdhouse -- but to proceed within the constraints of the “alien” medium -- in this instance, painting -- towards some effect. But as of yet I have not seen anything in the painting of these birdhouses that has moved me to think that way. So until that happens, let’s just say that I am, like the birdhouse, open to those hungry enough, or curious enough, to enter into a conversation with it.
As a mass noun:
The action of taking part in something.
participation in chapel activities
the scheme is based on employer participation
Late Middle English: from Old French, from Latin participatio(n-), from participat- (see participate).
If attendancemeans showing up for class, participationimplies a more active presence. But as we have seen from its verb form, to attendto something or someone’s needs implies an active presence. Indeed, we cannot attend to someone’s needs simply by showing up, especially if the person we are attending to cannot perform basic human tasks. In this instance, the word participation can be distinguished from attendance or attending to something through an emphasis on an equally interactive relationship amongst those gathered -- like what we arrived at the end of our last meeting when it was suggested that a relationship between the medium of paint and the medium of sculpture could potentially allow for changes in birdhouse architecture insofar as paint does not merely attend to the surface of a three-dimensional object but help to transform it by creating illusions of depth over flat surfaces out of scale within the total object or, conversely, flatness over angled surfaces that, after construction, appear severe. Differences can be respected and maintained, but relations between the two entities could grow outward, or horizontally transcend, as Irigaray says when speaking of the relationship between the Self and the Other.
The participatory art revival of the late-1990s (re-branded, as it were, as “relational aesthetics” or social practice) has, like collage at the beginning of the 20thcentury, played a leading role in shaping contemporary art in the 21stcentury. However, with this rise also comes a reaction, as we saw earlier in this century with Claire Bishop’s Octobermagazine response to Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of “relational aesthetics” through the work of four artists (Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn) whose work was considered both within and against that frame. But for our purposes, particularly now that we have familiarized ourselves with Bourriaud’s thesis and Bishop’s review through our assigned readings, and perhaps in light of how social media is playing a role in the production and distribution of writing and visual imagery, we might consider how the participatory has changed the way we both look at and make work at this moment in time.
Participant #1: I am old enough to remember taking to heart Evelyn Waugh’s response to the collaborative novel: “Two people writing a novel is like three people having a baby.”
Participant #2: The crazy thing is, with sperm and egg donors and surrogates and the like, three people having a baby these days is actually a lot more common than the collaborative novel.
Participant #3: Yeah, but as for the novel, the hard copy novel, a lot of writers are no longer thinking of it as a genre in which to house and distribute their writing. And if they still do, then they’re acting out something their parents or grandparents think of when they think of their kid or grandkid becoming a writer.
Participant #4: My grandfather always told me the bestselling book of all-time is the Bible. At a family dinner last month, I saw him asking my eleven-year-old niece if she knows what the best-selling book of all-time is, and she replied, “Facebook.”
Participant #5: It’s true!
Participant #6: Not for long -- I hear Twitter is catching up.
Participant #5: But it’s the same thing. All these people sitting down together writing a dialogue, adding images, sharing poems, stories. That’s partly why this whole #Canlit thing is so huge right now. Sure, it’s creepy old white guys taking up space, but it’s creepy old white guys who built their reputations before the availability of social media, before reading and writing behaviours changed and nobody had a chance to establish their careers because the writing and publishing industry, like the music industry and the film industry before it, collapsed.
Participant #5: It’s always about power. Who has it, who doesn’t, who is using it and who is get screwed by it.
Participant #7: I remember reading an interview with the composer Leonard Bernstein in the late 1980s, shortly before his death, when he was asked what he thought of compact discs, of digitally recorded music. He said it was great, but he missed the room sound, the sound of the concert halls, which is lost when sounds are recorded digitally. With the digital, there is no room, no floor -- the music just hangs there. The challenge, he said, is for musicians to compose with that in mind, take advantage of that absence and make a music that -- just hangs there. My point being that if there is no longer a traditional writing and publishing industry, if bookstores are no longer bricks and mortar buildings but online points-of-purchase, and if Facebook and Twitter have become the collaborative books all of us are writing and reading -- books where fiction and non-fiction is conflated -- then maybe that is our literary culture, and we should consider these “books” less as tools than as the medium in which many of us are already working in.
Participant #8: Yeah, but how do you make a living from it? Facebook and Twitter don’t pay us to write our life stories.
Participant #9: In another twenty years there will be no more work as we know it anyway. Everyone will be free to more or less do want they want and, I don’t know, government or corporations will provide us with guaranteed annual incomes. It’s gonna happen. I believe it.
Participant #10: So if that’s the case, maybe the emphasis will be on how we get on with each other, as socially mediated characters in our own stories, in this cascading anthological tidal wave of Facebook and Twitter story threads, since we’ll have all this free time on our hands.
Participant #4: I’m thinking of that part of the Prologue where the driver picks up the hitcher, and after a few perfunctory words, the hitcher pulls out her phone and starts texting.
Participant #9: Contributing to the ongoing story of her life, I would guess.
Participant #4: In contrast to the driver, who recalls the incident later as part of the ongoing story of his life. That’s what I find interesting: the hitcher is writing her life contemporaneously, in time with her breath, while the driver, though writing to us in the present tense, is reflecting back, at a remove from the events as they are occurring and, as such, governed by a narrative he imposes to make them more interesting to the reader?
Participant #3: Maybe this is related to what was said earlier in the Prologue, when the driver quotes McLuhan’s “Roads and Paper Routes” essay, about the telegraph being the first instance where the message arrives before the messenger, how before that roads and the written word were closely related.
Participant #1: It seems a shame that with the internet and the web and smart phones we are spending less time with each other in “real time” and more time on our phones with others in those moments.
Participant #7: Yet at the same time, our digital technologies are allowing us to participant in class through Skype, as three of us are doing today. Seems a shame to miss a meeting because the car wouldn’t start, or because the sitter didn’t show up, or because someone is coming down with the flu and didn’t want anyone to be exposed to it.
Participant #5: I’m just thinking about how the role the smart phone is playing in a lot of the novels and stories I have been reading of late, the kinds of things that happen in these novels and stories that could never happen before the smart phone. And in thinking about that I am thinking about how the phone plays a role in the Prologue. For example, early in the Prologue, when the hitcher is texting, I imagine her to be texting her friends at that detox centre, participating in the moment, and yet no details of that exchange are provided.
Participant #6: Yeah, because the detox centre was a “dream sequence”, and therefore didn’t exist.
Participant #5: I disagree. It existed until the point that it didn’t, but by then I had made the connection between her texting and her friends at the detox centre. You can’t undo a connection just because the author of the text decides that there is no one there -- or no therethere -- to connect to.
Participant #2: The thing that intrigued me about the detox centre in relation to our assigned readings on participatory art is its similarity to a community-based art project. In this instance, a project rooted in health issues, like that artist-run centre in Vancouver -- Gallery Gachet -- who are mindful and encouraging of participants with disabilities.
Participant #8: Sure, but what does it mean when the author of the Prologue takes it away from the reader by making it part of a dream sequence? Is the author suggesting it couldn’t happen, that it could never happen in reality? Is he cynical about the potential existence of such a centre as a place in which to organize, heal and express oneself artistically?
Participant #1: Well, this seminar is supposed to begin with a fantasy. So why can’t something fantastic participate in it?
An antonym for Participation?
Participant #1: Resistance.
Participant #2: What about refusal?
Participant #3: What’s the difference?
Participant #2: Refusal implies a greater degree of free will, whereas resistance implies that the subject is already caught up in something.
Participant #4: Like the difference between Switzerland, who refused to take sides during the Second World War, and the French partisans, who, in refusing to submit to the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, formed the French resistance to fight against it?
Participant #1: I think it’s safe to say, given the way the world is structured and the way it is going, that we are all caught up in something, and resistance, though futile, is all we have left. A fantasy, as it were.
Participant #5: What if that which is refused provides space and time for critical or dissenting voices? I am thinking of Meissen’s the Nightmare of Participation, which is critical of the affirmative or decorative aspects of a “pseudo-democratic” participatory art, though some participatory art formations are reflexive and, by their very nature, encouraging of critical input, discourse.
Participant #6: Yes, but what if that space and time is structured in a way to diminish, disarm and dispatch dissenting voices? Recall the common justification for not voting in government elections: a vote cast, even for a Marxist-Leninist party, is a vote in favour of the system that underwrites and glosses over the contradictions of capitalism. Recall how Marxist-Leninists loathe co-operatives -- an idea that ran parallel to the capitalist mode of production -- because co-ops distract from overthrowing capitalism and forming a more egalitarian dictatorship of the proletariat.
Participant #1: I keep thinking of Theodore Adorno’s line about how popular culture infects and destroys everything it touches. I remember when this proposition was raised in 1980, when a former radio and TV actor named Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. It is even more relevant today with Donald Trump who, unlike Reagan, never held public office.
Participant #7: I think that’s a fair question -- the degree to which we are implicated in that which we think we have a choice in. For me the reference here is Herman Melville’s Bartleby, who refuses to leave the law office where he works, and when asked why -- or when asked about anything, for that matter -- he replies, “I would prefer not to.”
Participant #8: The operative word here being “prefer.”
Participant #9: A word that implies choice.
Participant #10: That’s the word that trips up Bartleby’s boss, a lawyer who values choice more than anything, as it is the illusion of choice that underwrites everything of value in 19thcentury America. The essence of liberty is, as the trickle-down American economist Milton Friedman once said, the “freedom to choose.”
Participant #11: Yet when it came to women’s bodies, women had no choice about whether or not they wanted to have children. Not until 1973, when the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision allowed women the right to an abortion.
Participant #12: A decision that was brought on after much resistance to current federal laws.
Participant #13: A decision that could have only occurred through the participationof lawyers for the opposing parties in an American court of law. Together these parties are the author of the Roe vs Wade decision, regardless of whether or not Wade -- the loser in all this -- wants to be a part of that authorship.
Participant #7: So do we have a decision as to participation and its antonyms aligned dialectically to produce a positive critical outcome? Is it fair to say that someone who resists participation, who refuses it, cannot by those very gestures have a generative or positive influence on the intentions of those participating in something that the resister or refuser does not want to take part in? And vice versa?
Participant #6: I guess that dialectic is what Mouffe is interested in when she laments the collapse of Left and Right political parties in favour of those formations that claim to speak for the aspirations of both persuasions, the proverbial “third way,” but in fact are converting liberal democracies into neo-liberal killing fields, paving the way for monsters like Italy’s Berlusconi, the UK’s David Cameron and America’s Donald Trump.
Participant #2: I think I get that Groucho Marx line now, the one where he says, “I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”
Participant #8: That, and “Be careful what you wish for,” have gone from strangers to first-cousins.
Participant #4: We’ve talked a lot about relations between people, but what about relations between people and the land? And by land here I include animals, plants and rocks. Syilx knowledge-keeper Richard Armstrong, when talking about Syilx cosmology, talks about the land as parents to the Syilx people -- a teacher. The Four Kingdoms -- those that walk on legs, those with fins, those with wings and those with roots -- are there to convey these lessons. Secwepemc artist Tania Willard talks about land pedagogy when she asks us to consider Bush Gallery, a conceptual art gallery on land -- First Nations reserve land -- that doesn’t have a tradition of contemporary modern art galleries. In asking us what these galleries might look like, behave like, how they might, for example incorporate children and the handling of art works, she is asking us to engage in a fantasy, too, no? I mean, to imagine is to fantasize, right?
Participant #2: I think it’s more complicated than that. Or maybe I want to complicate it further than the land and what’s on it. For me, the relationship -- the gist of what I have learned from the Prologue and the readings -- is rooted in three texts: the first is the Mona character in Varda’s film Vagabond; the second is the Bartleby character in Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”; and the third is the relationship between Self and Other in Irigaray’s essay “Approaching the Other As Other”. Varda’s Mona moves through the world as a monad -- she just wants to be, as she said at the outset, when she told the driver who picked her up hitch-hiking, “I am.” But the Bartleby character -- he does not so much move through the world but retreats from it -- on the job site, no less. So two instances of refusal/resistance. As for Irigaray’s essay, the “I” is positioned in relation to the -- how shall I put it? -- problematic “You”, with the reader in the position of the “I”. So not so much two systems, here, like the land and what’s on it, but two perspectives -- trying to understand Mona and Bartleby, on the one hand, and, a la Irigaray, trying to understand ourselves as we negotiate the space between Self and Other?
For our next meeting -- the final meeting in the PARTICIPATION section -- I would like everybody to pair up. We can do this now -- pair up with the person next to you. Okay, so of the pairs formed, decide who among you will select and bring to the meeting an inanimate object, and let the person who does not bring the object speak as if they are that object when asked questions by the person who brought the object.
We will leave a little time at the beginning of the meeting for those who did not bring an object to acquaint themselves with the object before each pair will conduct its conversation. As for the length of these conversations, no more than five minutes, with maybe a few minutes after each conversation for those who would like to comment.
Okay, we have six pairs today. Who would like to go first?
Participant #1: I will. Here is my object.
Participant #1 sets before Participant #2 a small, black, flap-lid box made with card, a felt-tipped marker and a pair of scissors.
Participant #1: What’s inside you?
Participant #2: None of your business.
Participant #1: So it’s a secret.
Participant #2: No, it’s personal.
Participant #1: Does anyone else know what’s inside you? Have you shared it with anyone?
Participant #2: That too is personal.
Participant #1: I’m sorry for prying.
Participant #2: I accept your apology.
Participant #1: Might I tell you why I asked what is inside you?
Participant #2: I would prefer that you didn’t.
Participant #1: Can I ask why?
Participant #2: Because I think you think you know what is inside me. And whatever you think is inside me does not reflect who I am. That’s why I am denying you the opportunity to provide me -- and those among us -- your motivation for asking what is inside me.
Participant #1: Would you prefer that we end this conversation?
Participant #2: No, I am committed to seeing it through. We agreed to five minutes.
Participant #1: You are a box of your word.
Participant #2: Not always.
Participant #1: Um, okay -- I am feeling really uncomfortable right now. Are you feeling uncomfortable, too?
Participant #2: Yes.
Participant #1: Is there a way to make you feel more comfortable?
Participant #2: Yes.
Participant #1: Can I ask what that might be?
Participant #2: Yes, to able to ask questions.
Participant #1: Do you have questions for me?
Participant #2: Yes.
Participant #1: Okay, you can ask me.
Participant #2: Okay, without telling anyone around us what you put inside me, why did you put what you put inside me?
Participant #1: Do you want me to whisper to you what I put inside you?
Participant #2: No, I am only interested in your motivation. Why did you put what you put inside me?
Participant #1: But you don’t know what I put inside you.
Participant #2: Okay, I think our five minutes are up.
Participant #3: That was intense!
Participant #4: I was not expecting that. I feel a little triggered right now. I’m sorry everyone, but I have to leave.
Participation #5: Can I leave with you?
Participant #4: Thank you, yes.
Participant #6: I would feel better if I left too.
Participant #7: Is there anyone else who needs to leave? For those leaving, I have a number to call in the event you need to speak with someone about how you are feeling. The number is for a peer counselling hotline that appears on the [institution’s] website in the event of a trigger situation.
Participant #8: I would like to stay. Not as a seminar participant, but as someone who has experience in counselling those who have been exposed to trauma.
Participant #9: I’m not sure that’s something our group should enter into at this moment.
Participant #8: May I ask why?
Participant #9: As a lawyer experienced in personal injuries I am familiar enough with situations like this that you can’t just start up a counselling session and not make matters worse. It’s more a question of liability than anything else.
Participant #10: I agree. I think we should scrap it.
Participant #11: I am glad the seminar prepared an emergency hotline number in advance. I think we should leave it at that and regroup next week.
Participant #1: I’m so sorry everybody. I feel really bad about this.
Participant #2: Hey, I’m just as much at fault here as you are. I don’t think either of us knew where this was going to go.
Participant #12: I think it’s best to scrap it.
Participant #7: Okay, let’s conclude today’s seminar and meet up again next week.
A task or piece of work allotted to someone as part of a job or course of study.
a homework assignment
As a mass noun:
The allocation of someone or something as belonging to a particular group or category.
the assignment of individuals to particular social positons
An act of making a legal transfer of a right or liability.
an assignment of leasehold property
A document affecting a legal transfer of a right or liability.
Late Middle English: from Old French assignement, from medieval Latin assignementum, from Latin assign “allot” (see assign)
It is the synonyms that first stand out -- words like “allotted,” “allocation.” But of what? “A task or piece of work,” we are told. Later: “someone or something.” Also: “an act” concerning “a document.” Someone is in a position to assign something “as part of a job or course of study...as belonging to a particular group or category.” A “legal transfer” concerning “a right or liability.” It all sounds so formal, so official, something lawyers and politicians do -- or soldiers, plantation owners, clergy, parents. As an action and a form it is familiar to those who have gone to school, which is almost everyone born and raised in North America in the past half-century -- certainly all of us here. Maybe if we began to speak of this word and its derivations as children receiving and doing assignments in primary and secondary school it might appear normalized -- or neutered? -- by the time we apply it to situations later in life? Perhaps it would not seem so powerful, so unilateral, so authoritarian -- all of which are words or conditions that do not occur to us in childhood.
A poor woman does not assign a task or a piece of work to a rich man. But if she did, what might that look like? Anything, of course. But what would seem plausible as a piece of narrative fiction or cinema? An under-employed dominatrix is contacted by a wealthy businessman with a detailed list of punishments. Sure, but the doms I know have, at various points in their careers, received -- and rejected -- scripts from prospective clients detailing exactly want they done to/with them. So it is these scripts that are the real assignments. A similar instance involves the lowly federal bureaucrat who assigns the children of a prestigious chief to a residential school 150 miles from the family home. In the first instance, the assignment involves the desires of the client/sub; in the second, a desire to break the child’s relationship to the land and the language from which these children and their people are rooted.
As language speakers we assign meanings to that which we encounter in our daily life, particularly encounters that are symbolic. What happened at our last meeting -- where our discussion broke down -- concerned emergent meanings based on a familiar pattern of relationships. It is arguable that these relationships were not so much sexual in nature but had everything to do with the kind of inequity and subordination we associate with the exercising of power, whether consciously or otherwise. It is the responsibility of those in powerful positions to prevent situations such as what happened at last week’s meeting. As I am the facilitator of this seminar, the consequences of what happened are on my shoulders, and it is for this reason that I have asked a representative [of the host institution] to attend the second half of our seminar course. I should also add that we are now down to nine participants, and that the monitor will not be a direct participant.
The assignment outlined for this seminar is to produce a road story. Hence the inclusion of the Prologue to this course.
Participant #1: My first impressions from the Prologue arrived early on. I’m not sure if this is because I read a lot of spy novels, but it seemed to me that the more something was not happening in the early stages of the Prologue, the more I felt the need to assign a purpose to it, and it is for this reason that, in my discomfort with a lack of action or intent, I imagined the driver was on an assignment, that he was an assassin on his way to off someone.
Participant #2: That’s exactly what I was thinking! And it was re-enforced every time he started into a detailed description of something, like the various things you see along highways between towns.
Participant #1: For me it was the Vernon art exhibition. I kept thinking there was a clue in his description of the work, which seemed concerned less with what we were looking at as a sculpture or a painting or photograph than with the placement of materials and their relationships to each other. That’s when I became interested in the variables that made up these relationships, the way one variable assigns a value to another, depending on the nature of the dynamic. The variable that changes is a dependent variable, the variable that initiates that change is the independent variable. This is basic quantitative research design: a proposition is a statement of the relationship between variables. I bring this up, of course, with the knowledge that this seminar is qualitatively based.
Participant #3: I thought the tension between the driver and the hitcher might turn into something more than a road story, especially when she became interested in that couple at the restaurant. I like the way the hitcher kind of took over when she assigned the driver to keep an eye on the restaurant door while she went to get the drinks.
Participant #4: Yeah, that’s where things fell apart for me. I liked it that nothing was happening. I became used to it. The difference between traveling the lines in the faces of a portrait versus the roads in a landscape.
Participant #5: I thought the assignment was the one he gave himself -- and shared with the reader -- at the outset; the one he has done a number of times and would continue to do again and again: the drive from the campus to the valley where he keeps his trailer. The routine made it a ritual, one he assigned to himself, as if he was two people -- in a relationship with himself. It is for this reason that I can appreciate what happened when he banged his head and his unconscious-self took over.
Participant #6: I keep thinking of how easily -- or how coldly -- the driver “read” the hitcher’s mother’s place. In this respect I saw what he was doing as less a work of detection -- how the interior was arranged, the quality of the furnishings, who sat where -- than a reassignment. Sure, he might have been right about the layout of the home, but the ease with which he took it apart felt like judgement, imposing meanings on things that were not important to those who lived there. And then the coldness with which he got up and left.
Participant #7: What about Robert Marchand sitting at the corner of Westside and Six Mile Creek for three days counting cars? That sounds to me like an assignment taken on by the person who thought it up. That he took it on himself and not assigned it to someone to do it for him seems to me that it was more than cars he was counting, that he was noting the gender of those driving the cars, where the cars were from, how expensive they were -- all things that might have occurred to him while in the midst of simply counting cars.
Participation #8: I’m not sure I get your point.
Participation #7: Well, maybe I am assigning a greater value to what Robert has said of his car counting -- that he was not simply counting cars but engaged in a reading project similar to what some of you have assigned to the driver when he was sitting in the hitcher’s mother’s home.
Participant #9: The land on which the hitcher’s mother’s home sits is land assigned by the federal government to the Okanagan First Nations Band. Yet it is -- and always has been -- land that belongs to the Okanagan First Nations people, except in this instance it exists within the geometry of the state and is leased out by the band to those who are not members of the Okanagan First Nations Band. I guess where I am going with this concerns the various levels of assignment and how in their multiplicity they become categories with which to recollect certain histories and relationships based on their control or determination. Another assignment in the Prologue took the form of the song that the residents of the detox centre performed, joining in at various times, as if previously assigned their parts by the counsellor in charge, who likely oversaw the arrangement of the song, and how the written representation of the song came with its own assigned forms based on those five carriage return spaces that appear early in the text, the ones intended to denote a dérive space?
An antonym for assignmentbased on our previous discussion? A quick google search for assignmentantonyms shows a tendency towards losing one’s job or position. The language is harsh, with words like “blackball...dethronement...ejection...expulsion...ouster....” Just as definitions for assignmentlean towards those extending something to the subject, its antonyms suggest something taken away by those same external forces.
Much of our discussion last week concerned itself with an assignmentas something devised by persons willing to undertake such actions on their own, and we finished with the idea of an assignmentas a categorical distinction, with each containing a record of a particular kind of relationship, be it temporal or spatial. Is it possible to find an antonym that behaves similarly?
One word that comes to mind is resignment, which is noted in our Oxford source as a “rare” word and, as evidenced by the dotted red line underneath it, is not recognized by my software program.
The act of resigning; the quality or fact of being resigned; resignation.
Mid 16thcentury; earliest use found in The Chronicle of John Hardyng. From resign + ment, perhaps originally after Anglo-Norman resignement, resignement act of resigning, etc.
Is this resignementdifferent from resignation? Resignmentappears to be a condition -- while resignationis an action?
Participant #1: The driver in Prologue seemed in a state of resignment from the get-go!
Participant #2: Yet he accepted an assignment from the Vernon Public Art Gallery to write a catalogue essay.
Participant #3: Yes, but had it not been for the hitcher he would not have visited the gallery that day. Nor would he have mentioned that such an assignment existed.
Participant #4: His relationship to the hitcher inspired him to visit the gallery, to tell the reader of his writing assignment.
Participant #3: Yet another instance of something happening in relation.
Participant #5: I prefer to go to exhibitions with others. When I go alone my thoughts seem small; but when I go with others we build on each other’s observations.
Participant #4: Yet the hitcher didn’t have much to say about the exhibitions.
Participant #5: But imagine if she had -- if she herself wasn’t so resigned.
Participant #6: I wondered about that when I read through the driver’s painstaking, Donald Judd-like description of the work. It was as if he were building something for her, a structure to make something more of. I saw it as an invitation.
Participant #7: There were some instances where they talked about the exhibition, enough to indicate that her participation was generative -- small and diffident though it was.
Participant #8: I think resignment applies more to the hitcher than the driver. She doesn’t seem interested in much. Or at least she’s not letting on that she is interested. You would think two people with a passion for art would have more to talk about.
Participant #9: Both are melancholic, but in different ways. I wondered if the Prologue was written in the third person that we might know more about them, what makes each of them tick. As it stands, the Prologue is the driver’s story, not the hitcher’s.
Participant #6: I thought something might shift when she took over the wheel of the car, after his accident.
Participant #8: When she was literally in the driver’s seat.
Participant #9: Yes, but as long as the story is told by the driver, it is the driver, not the hitcher, who is driving the narrative.
Participant #2: A hallmark of postmodern fiction is that shift in point-of-view -- or providing multiple points of view.
Participant #1: Polyphony.
Participant #7: I agree. That would have been worth trying -- having the hitcher take over the “I” and thus the narrative. As it stands, I am unhappy with the hitcher’s character. Though the writer of the Prologue is closer to the driver in age and experience, for the writer to shift the point of view to that of the hitcher is an inhabitation some might find problematic, particularly since the text has yet to declare itself a work of fiction or non-fiction. I am wondering whether that ambiguity -- fiction or non-fiction -- is worth holding onto. Of course in saying this I am aware that, as the writer of the Prologue, I am already occupying these characters in ways that I have to account for.
Participant #2: Can you have polyphonic non-fiction?
Participant #7: I seem to recall Norman Mailer attempted it in The Executioner’sSong(1979).
Participant #2: Yes, but the book is referred to as a novel.
Participant #7: You’re right, it is. I keep forgetting. It is full of facts and testimonies, but in the end, a novel. At least marketed as such by its publisher.
Participant #3: So is resignment a condition that has its subject accepting things as they are? A reactive state as opposed to a proactive state? I am thinking of Bartleby. Is Bartleby in a state of resignment?
Participant #7: I would say so. I would also say that the subject of Mailer’s book -- the killer Gary Gilmore -- was also in a state of resignment after his murder convictions, preferring to be executed rather than have his death sentence stayed.
Participant #2: There’s that word again -- prefer, preferring, preferred.
Participant #5: The illusion of choice.
Participant #6: More like agency than choice.
Participant #5: Like I said -- an illusion.
For our next meeting -- the final meeting in the ASSIGNMENT section -- I would like everyone to reserve three hours of the day for an excursion. This does not have to be a purposeful trip, like the spatial trips the driver takes from the campus to his trailer, but a trip defined by time. It can be a walk, it can be a bicycle ride, it can be a drive -- it can, at various points, include all three -- but it has to involve some form of movement, and it would ideally involve some form of social interaction, be it actual or make-believe. Those of you who would like to do this in collaboration with other participants are welcome to do so.
Once completed, your excursion will result in a 750-word text that can be supplemented by audio and visual materials (sound and video recordings, photos, drawings, etc.). As for word length, I have based that on what I take to be the most effective of the 97 small chapters that comprise Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia(1977), a travelogue that details the English author’s six month trip from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego in 1975.
Next week’s slot falls on a holiday, so instead of meeting I would like to make that our submission deadline date (all works to be posted on our online forum), and to use the week that follows to read each other’s assignments towards a discussion at our next meeting, two weeks from today.
How fortunate we are to have such a range of works to draw on for today’s discussion. A solo text, a text by two participants, an audio recording without images, an audio recording with still images, an audio recording with moving images and an audio recording with moving images by three participants. No one project is alike in this respect. Of the nine of us remaining in this seminar, five of us chose to work collaboratively.
A couple of observations. The first concerns a presence, something common to all of the projects, while the second concerns an absence, something that did not occur to me until after I looked at and listened to the works gathered. Regarding the first observation, I noticed that all of us chose to base our works on walks. As for the second observation, none of us set out with a destination -- or indeed a purpose or question -- in mind. I would like to talk about this, but before doing so, are there any other observations that come to mind with respect to patterns common to these works?
Participant #1: The one thing I thought about before setting out was that I didn’t want to participate in anything resembling a financial transaction -- where I bought something or paid to enter something. It was also something I had in mind when I began to look at everyone else’s pieces. And because nobody else entered into in a financial interaction, I wonder if others might have set out with this in mind too.
Participant #2: I don’t think we did so consciously, apart from agreeing we would like to keep our excursion in the realm of public space.
Participant #3: Yes, when we were planning our excursion we thought the easiest way to interact was as consumers -- not so much buying something -- or into something -- but buying the interaction itself. We felt the greater challenge was to engage outside the parameters of the marketplace, which we felt was riskier, required more imagination.
Participant #4: That’s why we took our songs with us, or why we selected songs that we could sing well enough together, but also to or for people we saw walking towards us on the sidewalk, people who looked interested in what we were doing.
Participant #2: Or in one case, someone who didn’t seem interested, but who we -- or at least I -- thought we could cajole.
Participant #5: Yeah, that was kind of unsettling. I know you guys meant well, but the person didn’t know what to do. I don’t think it was that he wasn’t into what you were doing, your singing, and what you were singing about, more like what the camera was doing, it being so close to him, on top of the singing--
Participant #6: And on top of him, too. The two things together. It became too much. A spectacle.
Participant #7: You don’t really address or reflect on the encounter with that older man you were singing to in your piece -- not that you did anything that could be construed as illegal. But in looking back on it, do you have any regrets about it?
Institutional Representative: For the record, filming people without their informed consent is illegal, even for a class project.
Participant #2: I think we all felt that initial push back from him. But that he did so while smiling made it seem more like shyness or something, and that if we kept at it we might win him over.
Participant #3: Yeah, in looking at it now I am embarrassed to admit that it was one of those instances where a “no” could be a “maybe”, which could well be made into a “yes’, and then maybe a “thank you”, but no means no, right?
Participant #5: I don’t think you guys should feel bad about it. There is a lot in our culture -- in our popular narratives -- that supports this kind of persistence, often with fantasticresults.
Participant #6: I still think as artists it is incumbent upon us to take risks. If we can revel in the ambiguity we generate as makers of objects and gestures, we should be prepared for the consequences. If it is a mistake, we have only to learn from it.
Participant #5: Apologizing is part of that learning.
Participant #7: Yes, but do you think the culture is in a forgiving mood these days. Seems to me that in an age of extremes -- of an extreme culture -- the consequences are equally so. All but a couple of these assignments carry with them a degree of conflict, all of it benign of course but the potential is always there for things to digress quickly, unstoppably, like last summer’s forest fires.
Participant #8: But that’s the nature of a lot of narrative art. Conflict is required to raise the temperature, allow for certain things to be seen, otherwise its--
Participant #9: Existential. Camus’s novel L’Étranger.
Participant #8: Yeah, until The Stranger gets to the beach and kills that Arab man.
Participant #7: A killing brought on by the heat of the day, as I recall.
Participant #8: But a killing nonetheless. One whose background is that of French colonialism in Algeria, which is a historical reality.
Participant #6: The audio piece appealed to me because it put me in mind of Carmen Papalia’s Blind Field Shuttle(2015-). In fact, without saying as much, it seemed to have been designed as if the narrator was blind.
Participant #5: It was. Thank you for noticing. I didn’t want to say so, but yes, it was. A couple summers ago I took part in Carmen’s Shuttleand the experience stayed with me.
Participant #6: What was most impressive was the encounter with the cop, when you asked her how many blocks it was to the beach. By then I had already thought of you -- the narrator -- as a blind person and was wondering if the cop might tell you in a way that revealed to the listener your blindness, but she didn’t -- she just said, “Three blocks.”
Participant #4: That’s funny, because you would think if a cop was asked by a blind person about where something was the cop might have added additional information. My uncle’s a cop and he says a lot of the training a cop receives is in how best to deal with members of the public who are unable to see or hear or walk.
Participant #3: Yeah, but we wouldn’t have known it was a cop had her walkie-talkie not gone off.
Participant #5: Well, truth be told, I added that bit in post -- from an episode of Law & Order.
Participant #7: I enjoyed the image-text piece. A cine-poem in the spirit of La Jetée(1962). Have you seen it?
Participant #9: I have. Both the film and the book.
Participant #7: What I got from your treatment was of a figure moving from a very specific situation, with a very specific camera treatment -- extreme close-ups -- to a very generalized situation, as supported by ever widening shots -- until the figure all but disappears. Did you ever think to reverse it -- but rather than have the text return to specificity, have it continue to expand?
Participant #9: Oh I had all sorts of idea about how to turn it this way and that -- only I ran out of time!
Participant #7: Seems we are running out of time too.
1 A detailed inspection or study.
an examination of marketing behaviours
a medical examination is conducted without delay
1.1 [mass noun] The action or process of conducting an examination
the role of the planning system has come under increasingly critical examination
2 A formal text of a person’s knowledge or proficiency in a subject or skill
he scraped through the examinations at the end of his first year
The formal questioning of a defendant or witness in court.
Late Middle English (also in the sense “testing [one’s conscience] by a standard”): via Old French from Latin examination(n-), from examinare “weigh, test” (see examine)
The definitions are recognizable enough. As for their examples, they conspire towards something authoritarian, totalizing. Let’s consider them in order: “marketing” (economics), “medical” (the body), “planning system” (state bureaucracy), “first year” (education), “formal questioning” (law, logic). Political economy and civil society in relation to the body. No stone left unturned. The examination touches -- if not demands access to -- all aspects of our lives.
An examination is a manner of looking that we engage in daily, whether assessing the quality of the produce at the supermarket, the line items on our credit card bill, a work of sculpture or, a la Socrates, ourselves when he tells us “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Yet when applied to us by an external force we often feel discomfort, nervous that we might fail, or be seen to be lacking, indignant that we are being judged -- usually by someone or something we don’t care for or disrespect.
Once judged we find ourselves amongst others who have experienced similar treatment. Sometimes we share with each other the trauma of these judgements, look to each other for support, while for others, particularly those who fare well under such conditions (based on the privilege of gender, ethnicity, class position, etc.), these moments are relished insofar as they allow for a measure of one’s self based on the relative failure of another.
Foucault is always reminding us that the moment of difference is the moment of identity, and this is true in the figure-ground world of Self and Other, just as it is true that the enemy of a relational subject is a competitive market society built on a quantitative ranking system that is proudly impersonal (as in, it’s nothing personal); that is explained through deterministic notions of Nature (“red in tooth and claw”), a Nature that is continually evoked by advocates of a market economy when justifying a mode of production that is closest to Nature’s own system of checks and balances, as maintained by its own network of top dogs, second bananas and pecking orders -- capitalism.
In our last meeting we looked at each other’s work. It could be said that we examined each other’s work, but that sounds a little too formal. Indeed, the word that follows from “looked at” might more accurately be discussed-- as in, we discussed each other’s work. Were we critical of it, did we rank it based on mysterious criteria like excellence? No.
Perhaps the most generative aspect of our last meeting was our discussion of how our assignments were similar and how they were distinct. That and the ethics involved in working in public space, something I should have spent more time on prior to the assignment -- an assignment which, though marred by my failure to prepare the class, had us learning something more about ourselves through our relationships with others; how to proceed with care and respect. There is enough recklessness and cruelty in traditional and social media these days, and at various levels of government and industry. I am thinking now might be the time to consider art not only as a stick to shake at the world or a rock to throw at it, but as a conversation in which to both shield ourselves from aggressive governance and fashion for ourselves supportive, non-competitive relationships, communities...
Participant #1: I feel similarly. It took me years to understand what it was to be a modern artist, or a contemporary modern artist, but lately I just see that whole progressive or positivist modern project as a handmaiden to modernity and modernization -- window-dressing to an imperialism or a gangsterism whose lingua franca is capitalism and whose goal is accumulation, winning, the misery of others.
Participant #2: The Germans have a word for it -- schadenfreude.
Participant #3: What was it Oscar Wilde once said -- “It is not enough that I succeed, but all my friends have to fail”?
Participant #4: Honestly, I am so tired of this “dandyism” revival. Has anyone else noticed it? It seems to be everywhere in art these days.
Participant #2: Yes, and have you noticed that it usually taken up by white people?
Participation #4: That’s so true!
Participant #5: I am thinking of the driver and the hitcher in the Prologue, the two main instances of examination, where he provides a detailed examination of the Vernon exhibition and she does the same of the couple at the restaurant. But where his examination of the exhibition exists in the text to show her as unobservant, or to test her interest and understanding of art, her observations actually serve the plot, exciting the text in a way that he seems uninterested in.
Participant #6: Like she is trying to turn the text into a detective story, and he is content to keep it flat and diaristic?
Participant #5: Maybe.
Participant #6: The examination that haunts me is the driver’s reading of the hitcher’s mother’s boyfriend’s place, how he talks about the arrangement of the furniture in a way that feels, I don’t know, kind of all-knowing, or invasive, an examination that only contributes to the hitcher’s isolation, and then he just gets up and leaves.
Participant #3: Like an art critic.
Participant #1: Yeah, but an art critic from the 1980s. A connoisseur.
Participant #3: Like that grumpy dandy Robert Hughes.
Participant #1: Exactly -- Robert Hughes!
Participant #2: That whole relationship is a huge power struggle. As much as I don’t care for the driver, and to a slightly lesser extent the hitcher, I am satisfied that they do not form a lasting relationship, at least not in this version of the text.
Participant #4: I don’t know. Call me sentimental, but I was hoping they might work it out. That seemed to be what was happening when she took over the wheel -- a literal changing of the roles -- but then we end up at her mother’s boyfriend’s place. Yeah, that whole scene was so--
Participant #6: Aggravating!
Participant #4: Unsatisfying.
Participant #7: There are a number of instances where the driver mentions how he has put his own life on notice, or under scrutiny. I believe the hitcher says as much of her own life, too, after she first gets into the car, when she talks about the need leave Vernon -- or not stay in Vernon -- in order to make her work.
Participant #6: I got that, but I didn’t feel it.
Participant #2: I got it, but I refusedto feel it. In fact, I was glad the two didn’t form anything lasting -- it would have ruined it. In some ways, that’s where the Prologue ended for me.
Participant #6: It’s like the hitcher was a problem the driver wanted to solve. But for me -- and I speak as a parent of adult children -- the resistance of younger people will always trump the desires and expectations that their parents and their parent’s generation have for them. Resistance is hardly futile when you’re younger; in fact, it’s easier!
Participant #2: I’m your age, and when I see a plate of Krispy Kreme donuts, I lunge for them.
Participant #3: The unexamined life is not worth starving over.
Antonyms for examinationare as harsh as they were in the ASSIGNMENT section. The powerthesaurus.org provides 44 examples, six of them nouns. Here are the first ten:
Participant #1: I’d like to propose an exercise using the ten antonyms. Let’s each of us take a word in the order it appears [above] and use it to describe -- in a single sentence -- an aspect of the Prologue.
Participant #2: Okay, I’ll go first. The driver is curious about the life of the hitcher, but his “Ignorance” of the realities facing younger people today keep getting in his way, adding to his frustration -- a frustration that is most apparent in the way he left the hitcher’s mother’s boyfriend’s home.
Participant #3: While the driver did his best to get to know the hitcher, encourage her through what often felt like an uncomfortable interrogation, she maintained her guard not through direct resistance but through a less visible, time-worn form of feminine “Protection”.
Participant #4: A lost line of dialogue available to either the driver or the hitcher might read like this: I inhabitmy surroundings, while you “Scan” yours.
Participant #5: The driver did not so much read the Vernon exhibition, and the hitcher’s mother’s boyfriend’s place, but “Skim” it.
Participant #6: The hitcher’s description of her younger years drawing pictures in the kitchen resonated with this reader as a story of both care and “Neglect”.
Participant #7: “Negligence” appears to be an emergent word in the driver’s treatment of the hitcher.
Participant #8: If I could “Peek” deeper inside the mind of the driver or the hitcher, I think I would learn more about the intricacies of power from the hitcher.
Participant #9: A “Search” party has been formed to bring the driver to justice.
Participant #1: The hitcher would never consider the driver her “Peer”, but the same could not be said of the driver who, in his patronizing way, is trying to present himself as such.
Participant #2: The “Scorn” this group has for the driver is palpable.
Participant #7: Agreed. But is this a result of the time we have spent together in our seminar? Our ongoing references to the Prologue? Bringing things up, turning them this way and that?
Participant #3: I reread the Prologue during our break. But this time I did so with my own hitch-hiking experiences in mind, back when hitch-hiking up and down the valley was more common than it is today. Of the two dozen times I hitch-hiked, I never once had an experience like the one the hitcher in the Prologue had. My experiences were held more in silence than they were in conversation. In fact, the scariest times I had occurred when the driver was too talkative, too detailed. All I could think about was not so much what the driver was saying, but the jumps between what he just said and what he might say next -- the distances between things, the velocity in which the conversation sometimes moved. That was the scariest thing -- where the conversation, and maybe the car I was travelling in, was headed.
Participant #5: Would you describe your thought process -- how your mind was working during those rides -- as an examination of what you were experiencing?
Participant #3: Yes, it was. And it was work. I know it was work because I began to feel myself sweat.
Participant #2: That’s a pretty good example of what people today call emotional labour.
Participant #4: What about those times when you felt most comfortable in a stranger’s car?
Participant #3: Well, it wasn’t the opposite, like when nothing is said; more like casual observations based on what was going on around us. I remember one ride from Oliver to Peachland. It was a scorcher of a day, and there was this pick-up truck on the side of the road near Summerland -- a pick-up full of teenagers that had passed us about twenty minutes earlier -- and one of the guys was urinating in full sight of passing cars, and I got really nervous that the driver of the car I was in, who hadn’t said much and had a semi-creepy vibe about him, like he was looking for an opportunity to say something creepy, was going to do just that -- say something creepy, try to lure me into a particular kind of conversation. But he didn’t. In fact, he said what I took to be the most reassuring thing possible, which, now that I think about it, was a judgement. He just shook his head and said, “It’s behaviour like that that made me quit drinking.” Everything I needed to hear in that moment was carried in that line.
Participant #5: I think I know what you mean about casual observations rather than things designed to exact a response, that expect a response. One of my favorite hitch-hiking experiences came when I was travelling from Armstrong to Kelowna. The driver was a middle-aged guy, maybe a carpenter judging from what was in his truck; but he was like a reporter, pointing out things like a familiar building within view of the highway that was about to be torn down and what was going up in its place. And it’s funny, now that I think about it, because my response to his observation was not a comment of my own, but a recognition that I kept within me, like this building that was about to be torn down: a minimalist cinderblock structure that I did not so much examine or narrativize but, as Michael Fried gets at in his essay “Art & Objecthood”, one that I absorbed, took into myself, and me into it. The highway was like this long prose line and we were reading it together, stopping every now and then to verbally highlight -- or annotate -- a passage.
Participant #7: Sounds like an art gallery experience.
Participant #5: Sure, but the driver seemed like someone who had never been inside a gallery. Nor did he feel the need to tell me as much.
Participant #7: Do you think the driver in the Prologue felt the need to be acknowledged by the hitcher as someone who knew something about what she was interested in -- namely art?
Participant #5: Yes. And apropos of the Irigaray text, I think that, despite his intentions, he was unconsciously trying to absorb her, determine her in relation to himself.
Participant #6: Yes, but what’s the alternative?
Participant #2: I’m not sure it’s a question of alternatives as much as outcomes. To me the Prologue is fine as it is for bringing us to this point in the writing where we are having this discussion. As for outcomes, what just occurred to me in this discussion is what I got from Varda’s Vagabond, the scene where Mona ends up on this farm owned by a hippie philosopher who tries with all his philosophical might to get Mona to take on a task, a chore, get into his trip; and like Melville’s Bartley, she prefers not to. In his frustration, the farmer gives up and declares her a layabout and asks her to leave.
Participant #5: She leaves, but she leaves victorious, having defeated the philosopher at his own game.
Participant #4: The game of hischoosing, not hers.
Participant #7: Just like the Prologue is a game of sorts?
Participant #4: Only if it keeps being written.
Our next meeting is our final meeting. Please come prepared to share in an examination of the seminar -- its strengths and its weaknesses, but also how, if at all, it could be improved upon.
Participant #1: This past week I tried to come up with a single word that might best describe the seminar. It took me most of the week to realize that what keeps getting in the way of that word is my objective view of the seminar versus my subject view of it. Objectively, I think the seminar is inventive and worthwhile. I like its structure -- beginning with a piece of writing -- the Prologue -- that acts as both a text to critique in our rubric-based seminar sections and a genre for a kind of “road story” we might make of our own travels -- and I also appreciate the assigned readings and how they found their way in and out of the discussion -- but there were some things in the Prologue that, over time, have left me unsettled -- specifically, the dynamic between the driver and the hitcher. I am wondering if, rather than an older man and a younger woman, that the text might benefit from two people the same age and the same gender to maybe neutralize the relationship, make it less creepy.
Participant #2: I agree with most of that -- about the structure of the seminar -- but as disturbing as that dynamic is, it provided the tension necessarily to take us to places that were more -- how do I say this -- off-roadthan what we often get served up in an educational setting. Sure, I found the relationship between the driver and the hitcher creepy at times, but in rereading it again this past week I realized that a lot of the creepiness resulted in a) what I was bringing to it through my experiences and b) what we were bringing to it through our discussion, which had its own uncomfortable moments -- one of which we haven’t returned to, and I’m not sure we should. But overall, I wish the seminar well, and if it does anything it might want to at least attempt a different kind of prologue and keep adding readings to it that speak to our ever-changing times. And of those times, maybe the emphasis could be weighted less on eurowestern examples of art and theory, just as the words derived from evaluative rubrics could be drawn from different cultural backgrounds.
Participant #3: I would like to see a closer relationship between the evaluative rubric categories of ATTENDANCE, PARTICIPATION, ASSIGNMENT and EXAMINATION and their antonyms, and the content of the Prologue. In looking back over my notes I see that we were taking the seminar conversation to the Prologue, but with that said, I don’t think the Prologue was written with the knowledge that it would be read through the rubric categories. Some might say this is a good thing, that a text should be written closer to feeling than thought, lyricism to narrative, experience to theory, but if the Prologue was written with the rubric categories in mind, it might have a depth that some might argue is, as things stand, lacking.
Participant #4: I might be one of those who thinks the Prologue is lacking. Not because of how it is written, but that it is writing. Would it be possible to do this seminar not with a written prologue but with a series of pictures, whether still or moving? Or as a live performance, be it theatre or dance? To the seminar’s credit, this thought probably would not have occurred to me had we not been encouraged to explore and/or include other media in the composition of our assignment. And another thing: there were readings on our list that we never got to in the discussion. I would have liked to explore the topic of “critical regionalism” in relation to the Prologue, but it appeared the conversation had more to do with portraiture than landscape, and that has me wondering why, particularly in light of what promised to be a fruitful discussion based on the indigenous scholarship of the Jeanette Armstrong, Richard Armstrong and the visual art practices of Tania and Mariel.
Participant #5: I agree with a lot of what’s being said, including those things that did not occur to me until they were just brought up, such as a prologue written with the rubric categories in mind and, instead of a written prologue, a pictorial or performative one. I guess if I had anything to add it might concern the dynamic of the driver and the hitcher. As uncomfortable as it made me feel at times, I think the way it was discussed in our seminars was generative. My concern is with future seminar participants who might have difficulty with certain kinds of representations or situations, who might dig holes too big for anyone to climb out of. I wonder if the seminar could add, in place of an evaluative rubric, an ethical one?
Participant #6: I know we consented prior to taking this course that our discussion would be recorded towards its use in a mock-up first draft of the seminar, but what I would like to know is, if this discussion is to be transcribed, how will its participants be attributed?
Participant #7: The attributions will be numbered, but the numbers and their speakers will change with each meeting to reflect the order in which its speakers have spoken. In other words, whoever spoke first in the first meeting will, throughout the course of that meeting, be referred to as “Participant #1”. If in the second meeting the person who was the sixth person in the first meeting (“Participant #6” in the sixth meeting) spoke first, that person (“Participant #6” in the first meeting) would appear in the second meeting as “Participant #1”, and so on. The idea here is to privilege what is said over who is saying it.
Participant #8: In other words, to refuse the seminar participant an opportunity to emerge as a distinct, autonomous subject?
Participant #9: Or maybe, a la Roland Barthes, to privilege the text over the authors?
Participant #3: Or indeed to represent the participants not as singular but as group members -- towards a relational subject position?
Participant #1: A choral effect as opposed to a bunch of soloists?
Participant #4: I am fine with being represented as part of a group, but are we comfortable with that -- as group?
Participant #7: Shall we take it to a vote?
Institutional Representative: This should have been part of the discussion in the first meeting of the seminar.
Participant #4: I agree. But can we vote anyway?
Participant #6: Yes, but whatever decision we make, it has to be unanimous.
This “Afterword” was conceived, written and included at the suggestion of my graduate thesis committee after its February, 2018 first-draft reading of my thesis project. Same, too, of the “Introduction”, which doubles as my Support Paper but serves its purpose nonetheless: to provide a context for my project, to set forth my intentions, and to talk about the research I undertook, the methods I used, my findings and my conclusions.
I should add that I am ascribing what was recommended to me by my committee to my committee as a whole, not to any one person on my committee, nor to a numbered person like those in the “Seminar” section of my project. I have chosen to represent my committee as a single voice -- an “it” variously quoted as an “I” -- because, as an institutional body, my committee’s power over me defines them as such: a collective that acts as a single body who exercise its authority over me in one of two ways.
My committee’s relationship to me -- our relationship, as it were -- is to help me work through my ideas and to realize them in project form -- in this instance, a work of autoethnography, or a crita-fiction, a ficto-criticism, or an auto-fiction. [My relationship to the committee is quantified by the university as administrative work, which its members benefit from as its employees.] If I produce and maintain the project that my committee agreed to oversee, I pass. If I don’t, I don’t pass. And if I don’t do what is needed to take another run at passing, I remain in administrative limbo. The grading of the CCS 599 Thesis course is a pass/fail, but I am uncertain in what situations a failing grade is assigned, if ever.
Below is a comment that came earlier in my committee’s first-draft reading notes:
“...despite the moving agency of this piece, it can be a bit coy if left on its own with just these two sections [Prologue and Seminar]. But these two sections do work remarkably well, so I wouldn’t suggest shifting their energy or redacting in any way. Rather, I would suggest a sandwich mechanism of a pre-prologue and an afterword. This may seem too traditional/standard for the piece you are attempting, but not only will it resonate well, I think it will contextualize the piece and frame it so that the entire sense of it, well, makes sense!”
I think “coy” is the right word to describe the tone or behaviour of my thesis project. I appreciate that my committee use the word “coy” because it is not a word I like to be associated with, and if there is anything that motivates me more, it is my resistance to pinch-and-twist words like coy.
For fun, I went to thesaurus.com to look at its antonyms for “coy”. They appear in this order:
Unshy? Since when is coy shy? Coyness is a contrivedshyness. Antonyms for “contrived” include:
As much as I aspire to these qualities, I rarely achieve them (too).
My committee added:
“I’m thinking abridged versions of this — a reflection of perhaps ten pages that introduces the work and an afterword that looks back. This is dependent on whether you maintain the sections of ‘Prologue’ and ‘Seminar’ as you have them here, but if you do, I think this will charge the piece well.”
I maintained the sections, but I did so with revisions based on the recommendations of my committee. I say this as an example of “looking back” -- looking back on what I wrote and what needed to be changed to help my project succeed on its terms, which for me is the basis of all positive critique: the judgement of a work on the terms it sets out for itself. That’s when it occurred to me that the best way to make use of this “Afterword” is to build it on the advice of my committee. After all, much of what I am trying to get at in my project is a relationality, a way for me to be in the world not as a singular egoceptive subject, but in the midst of relationships, a proprioceptively positionalfigure that attempts to find itself not only in human form but in the form and style the writing takes -- an intertextual approach. Not unlike those blank cards the driver in the “Prologue” gives to those he meets, or the gap I leave in the early part of the “Prologue”’s text. These blanks and gaps are imaginative spaces, fantastic spaces where anything can happen -- based not on individual will but on contingency, serendipity, that overtonal quality that emanates from relations.
The committee employed track changes to point out/pick at details of my project, some of which involved my use or misuse of French words and their gender associations. Other identity-based associations were pointed out -- particularly ethical questions, like the trigger incident in the “Seminar”, or the facilitator’s recording of classroom discussions without first asking the participants’ consent. These are situations and issues that could have been addressed had I included information about trigger situations and the presence of a recording device in the “Seminar”’s introductory materials. But had I done so -- had I included these materials like I had included aspects of the material culture I referred to in my earlier books (Company Town, 1991 and Hard Core Logo, 1993) -- I would have forsaken the element of surprise, which, it occurs to me, is not so much an element but an absence of one. A gap? A blank?
This “element of surprise” is as dramatic technique, one I was not interested in pursuing in this project. Rather, I found myself interested more in a form that had less to do with linear narrative than the palimpsest. As such, the project became messy, at least by expository standards, with loose ends and spillage, where elements of what might traditionally be found in the Support Paper play out in critical and theoretical eddies carried in both the “Prologue” and the “Seminar”, much like life itself. Recall Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Conversation With a Tax Collector About Poetry” (1926), where narrative (administration) and lyricism (poem) engage.
In response to my project’s equally messy relationship between “reality” and “mediation”, my committee brought up Baudrillard’s theory of “hyper-reality”, followed by this comment:
“I perceived his struggle as emblematic of [...] post-modern thinking, where the appreciation of difference and the constant re-evaluation of one’s own position/perception/judgment, generates openness, but also self-doubt and anxiety[my italics]. Jameson talks about the pastiche as characteristic of postmodernism. This “road-essay” seems to work on that level, as it relies on an exhausted cinematographic form as a way to instantly provide the reader with a context. In that regard, the text is shying away from any type of dramatic curve, or resolution, but maintains its form with a succession of references and anecdotes more or less related to one another[my italics]. It can be difficult at times to know if the author is making a point that, as readers, we should argue, or if a given statement is made by the character, positioning [...] readers as observers of one’s fictional thoughts. As a reader, it remained difficult to adopt a consistent perspective, which I think is the point. Maybe this could be made clearer?”
The italicized passages are important recognitions of my condition (“self-doubt and anxiety”) and how I attempt to manage this condition -- through fleeting mo(ve)ments (the “road-essay”), but also through meditative stasis (that destination known as my creek-side trailer). My project is messy (leaking, spilling from one section into the next) because I am something of a mess myself, and I don’t think the answer is to be found in a positivism that Modern or Late-Modern (Post-Modern) Art assumes in its mission to advance its media or its forms, but in a reassessment of those ambitions and its tenets in light of its unsustainability. As to what this new or alternatively fashioned art will look like, it can only look messy by comparison (the critic Claire Bishop is an example of someone who does not see constructive relations in social practice, but, more often than not, a festival of expressive messes). Same applies to the discussion that accompanies and, at the same time, helps to construct this new or alternative art, as evidenced not by Octobermagazine or university-hosted art history conferences, but by what is coming at us daily through online platforms like e-flux and Twitter. As to what my committee says about making my position “clearer,” I am doing that here, in this “Afterword”, by lifting up what I can of my position and arranging it for display.
Recently, a friend who has spent his life in the academy had this to say about the graduate thesis project: “It is not a publishable work but a body from which the book is to be lifted from.” I think this is a fair assessment of how I feel about my thesis project. I would not, as Carlos Castenada did with his M.A. thesis Journey to Ixtlan(1972), attempt to publish my thesis project as is. Rather, I would prefer (as I suggested in my “Introduction”) to lift from its body the bones of my “Seminar” course and refine it, with either my “Prologue” acting as its guiding text (towards the production of a new text or texts undertaken by seminar participants), or another such text or texts drawn from the four books I discuss in my “Introduction”.
Another comment from the committee that stuck with me concerns my construction of the “Seminar”:
“Using the academic seminar as setting is an interesting way to propel a meta-reflection on a different text as it permits to revisit certain aspects of that previous work from angles that were not initially reachable. It also allows to comment, with a distance, on one’s own thoughts. If this really was the intention, it could go further, I believe. The polyphony here comes across as a monologue (very little distinguishes the different participants), but could easily be used to stress the different perspectives, perceptions, assumptions, cultures, etc. The tone felt too similar to the ‘Prologue’, with similar references, inflictions and tones. There is something Pirandelesque about the idea of having a group of participants taking over, through critique and analysis, the course of the project. Maybe this could be explored further.
The ‘Seminar’ also encourages interjections, rather than a more elaborated reflection. I also felt that the form imposed itself a little heavily at times, becoming redundant, and giving me the impression that I was simply witnessing a tentative discussion. It could be interesting to break from the format of the seminar in order to develop certain ideas pertinent to your project. I feel that the trajectory you’re on right now – the reflection on the reflection, the mise en abîme- allows for such liberty.”
I appreciate the comments about how “polyphony...comes across as monologue” and how the discussion appears “tentative.” My seminar experiences, both as a student and an instructor, have me sometimes behaving tentatively as I attempt to be respectful of those I am gathered with while trying to share my thoughts in a way that is generative, not alienating. And yes, I tried to convey this in my fictive dialogue. Something I did not set out to do but am pleased it was noted is based on another observation I have had of past seminars: a tendency to please the instructor, or a tendency that seeks to please the instructor based on what is perceived to be the instructor’s position on the topic at hand -- or indeed the way the instructor speaks on certain topics. Is this tendency of the participant motivated by the need to receive the best grade possible? Is it the academic equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, based on a seminar run by someone who is equal parts facilitator and kidnapper? Regardless, it could be that this tendency is enough to give the appearance that the participants are speaking in a uniform, singular voice; not so much through its shared ideas and content, but through the similarity of form (syntax, intonation, attitude) that seminar behaviour can take -- and shape.
As I approach the conclusion of my “Afterword”, this might be a good place to acknowledge the course seminar in relation to the title of my thesis project and the research question that I share at the beginning of my “Introduction”. What do I mean by Course Language: How the Reader is Encouraged to Collaborate on Our Seminar and Pass Me and what do I mean when I ask, “Can an educational course provide the basis for an interdisciplinary genre?”
To put it simply, the educational Course is a discursive space framed by -- and fashioned over -- time. It is built from Language and custom and deployed as a pedagogical tool in learning. How this plays out is particular to custom -- as it is adhered to, but also as it transgressed. Who plays this out is based on an enrollment of participants, with the Reader someone who both absorbs codes (texts) and produces them, as an author. Those facilitating a course Encourage its participants to learn something of its topic through demonstration, either individually or Collaboratively, but also, in certain instances, of the form that shapes this learning.
As a seminar facilitator, I am interested in turning the form an educational course takes (in this instance, its evaluative rhetoric) into elements constituent of a genre. If that most Canadian of literary genres is said to be the Short Story, which, as we were told in our high school English courses, is constituent of Setting, Mood, Character, Crisis and Resolution, then I see no reason why the course, with its evaluative armature of Attendance, Participation, Assignment and Examination (an armature common to the teaching of most eurowestern disciplines) cannot be similarly adhered to and transgressed. A case of form as content -- through both demonstration and interrogation.
As for the last portion of my thesis title (...andPass Me), this might be me being “coy” yet again-- and yet another instance of the Post-Modern! For implicit within these words is the Reader of my thesis project as a collaborative participant in my fictive “Seminar”, but also myself as a participant in that “Seminar” who, through his pedagogical position, has subjected himself to the judgements of its Reader/participant, as evidenced by the vote that concludes the “Seminar” section, a vote that will result in a pass/fail outcome. Included among this readership is of course my thesis committee, which, as collaborative participant, either by vote or by consensus, will proceed similarly.
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