Sunday, June 28, 2009

Phantom Phèdre

Dominic Cooper and Helen Mirren in the National Theatre production of Jean Racine's Phèdre

Richard and I, together with our friend Joanna, did something slightly unusual this past Thursday: we went to the movies to watch theatre. And not just any theatre. We went to see Dame Helen Mirren starring as Racine’s tragic heroine, Phèdre, in the acclaimed National Theatre production of Ted Hughes’ English prose translation, directed by Nicolas Hytner, and currently receiving raves in London. Rather than us flying to London to see Mirren, she deigned to come to us. It was all courtesy of satellite technology, the National’s first experiment in using the live simulcast model pioneered by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The Met’s idea was as simple as it was brilliant: hire an experienced camera crew to film successive Saturday afternoon matinees of its current seasonal repertoire, and beam the images live to audiences across North America, who will have gathered in their local multiplexes (here on the west coast before breakfast, which only adds to the novelty) to experience, for example, the thrill of Marcello Giordani and Susan Graham in Robert Lepage’s visually stunning production of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust for a fraction of the cost (tickets for Phèdre were a mere $20.95 CDN), and in stereo surround sound and high definition video.

The Met broadcasts happen at the Scotiabank Movie Theatre in downtown Vancouver, the newest and most luxurious of the raked ampitheatre-style cinemas in the city. While I have yet to attend one of those events (I’m not, I admit, the biggest opera fan), when I heard that the same venue would be participating in the Phèdre broadcast, I immediately jumped at the chance to buy tickets. I had seen advertisements for the production when we were in London this past May, and regretted that the show was scheduled to open only after we left. I regretted this even more when I began hearing, via various other blogs and RSS feeds I follow, that the production was receiving uniformly excellent reviews. Having now seen the play, I concur with these assessments, albeit with one minor qualification. On the whole, I likewise enjoyed immensely the experience of watching Mirren and company battle futilely against their own desires and the even more inexorable will of the gods in glorious technicolour on a giant movie screen, although here I have some more significant quibbles.

The overall excellence of the production owes much, I think, to the success of Hughes’ translation, which adapts Racine’s notoriously difficult Alexandrine verse into a contemporary English idiom that is especially visceral in its animal imagery, particularly when describing human sexual appetite and the thrall into which those appetites often place us. Hytner and his production team have matched the contemporariness of Hughes’ prose with a simple, spare set carved out of the white limestone of the play’s Troezen setting, and modern-dress costuming in mostly Armani-like monochromes (with the notable exception of Queen Pèhdre) and modern tailoring that nevertheless succinctly alludes to more ancient themes of martial masculinity and quiescent femininity. Against this “blank” backdrop, Hytner allows his cast to give full vent to their deeply hued and intricately embroidered passions. Most of the cast is up to this task, especially Mirren, who gives a master class in tragic acting (which, even in Racine’s “updated” 17th-century neo-classical baroque style, can look impossibly antiquated and alienating to a contemporary audience raised—via movies, no less—on the North American “method”).

It is particularly transfixing to watch how Mirren’s body physically recoils from the unspeakability of the words that she is yet powerless to prevent herself from uttering to her nurse Oenone early on in the play, and that consequently set the tragic plot in motion—namely, that she is in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Again, those who primarily know Mirren from her buttoned-down Oscar-winning movie role as Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen will have forgotten what a sensuous, embodied, and physically present actress she has always been (from the increasingly frazzled and blousy Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series to her sexually magnetic turns in movies ranging from Michael Powell’s The Age of Consent to Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers). Here, as an older woman abandoned by her self-important and womanizing husband, Theseus (those who remember their Greek mythology will know he had similarly abandoned her sister, Ariadne), and all too aware, moreover, of the curse that hangs over her family when it comes to love (her other sister is Medea, after all), Mirren registers her character’s forbidden, incestuous desire as a series of wounds sustained upon her body. She enters the stage crippled over by the weight of her secret, and on or near the floor of the stage is where she lingers for most of the play, literally bent double by the quicksilver rush of uncontrollable emotions engulfing her. Watch, for example, how she supplicates herself abjectly at the feet of Hippolytus after confessing to him her love, and then in a flash grabs his sword and places it upon her breast when it is clear he has only contempt and disgust for her. And, near the end of the play, when she discovers that Hippolytus is secretly in love with Aricia, the princess imprisoned by his father Theseus because of her rival claim to the throne of Athens, the new emotion that suddenly overtakes her—jealously—first registers as a pain beneath her ribs, with Mirren using her fingers to crawl down the left side of her body to indicate the exact spot where she has been ensnared by the poisonous flipside of Cupid’s arrow. Mirren conveys with such gestures how vainly and futilely characters like Phèdre strain against the inevitability of the narrative as it has been written for them (by the gods, as by a Sophocles or a Racine), and it is a marvel to watch such a fine actress slowly succumb, limb by limb, vertebra by vertebra, to the destiny that will literally consume her.

As Hippolytus, Dominic Cooper (whom the three of us had all seen, albeit on different sides of the Atlantic, in the National’s excellent production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys of a few years ago) matches Mirren’s outsized passion with his controlled performance of a man who has spent a lifetime keeping his own emotions in check: his contempt for his father, who sired him through rape (ironically, the very charge that will be brought against him by Phèdre when she realizes, belatedly, that her husband is still alive); his disdain for his stepmother; and his own secret and forbidden passion for Aricia. Cooper is an intensely charismatic performer and, here, clad in army fatigues and a black wifebeater, with bulging biceps and a sexy growth of beard, it is easy to understand how both Phèdre and Aricia fall under his spell. When, falsely accused by his father, he finally lets loose with the full fury of his emotion, the effect is electrifying. And the love scenes with Aricia (a very fine Ruth Negga) are equally affecting in their tenderness. John Shrapnel and Margaret Tyzack offer strong support in the key roles of Théramène, confidante to Hippolytus, and Oenone, nurse to Phèdre. Both are properly solicitous of the confidence of their respective charges, though the counsel Oenone gives in return (she is the one who, upon false news that Theseus is dead, convinces Phèdre, to confess her love to Hippolytus, and then, when it turns out Theseus is in fact still alive, to accuse her stepson of rape) is perhaps not so wise as that of Théramène. These supporting roles also indicate something of Racine’s innovation regarding the classic Greek chorus, with Oenone and Théramène separately taking on aspects of this dramatic function, but in so doing also turning the chorus into a fallible individual conscience/unconscious (a check on Hippolytus’ ego in the case of Théramène, not enough of a check on Phèdre’s id in the case of Oenone) rather than an abstract collective consciousness with which the audience is meant to identify.

Only Stanley Townsend as Theseus truly disappoints. He is a commanding physical presence, and has a booming voice, but his performance is noticeably wooden alongside the others, and he does not seem able to invest Hughes’ prose with the same emotional depth or poetic rhythm as the other actors. The return of Theseus (absent for the first half of the play, but a powerful looming presence nonetheless) is the key moment of the play, what sends everyone hurtling towards their denouement, and unfortunately Townsend just doesn’t convince as a man equal to Hercules in heroic labours but tragically blind to his own domestic dysfunction.

It was pleasing to see such a strong turnout on a warm summer night for all of this high tragedy, though one wonders why audiences don’t seem to exist in the same numbers for live local theatre? As it turns out, the event was somewhat misadvertised. It was not actually a live simulcast (which, as it started at 7 pm local time, would have meant the London performance was taking place at 3 or 4 am), but rather involved filming a live performance to tape for subsequent rebroadcast around the world. Which makes it all the harder to explain why the people in charge at the Scotiabank felt compelled to start rolling the tape before all of us forced to queue outside the cinema entrance had found some seats. Richard and I came in just as Hippolytus and Théramène were engaged in their opening expository conversation at the top of the play. Joanna arrived just a few minutes later, and had to take a neck cramp-inducing seat near the front.

Then, too, as much as I enjoyed seeing Mirren and Cooper et al emote in extreme close-up, and as much as I admired the skill with which the director of the film crew cut between actors, I did chafe against the cinematic apparatus’ imperative of where to look. One of the pleasures of going to the theatre is, by and large, having an unobstructed view of the entire stage and the full range of action played out upon it. In the theatre, we can choose where to look; in the cinema, the camera makes that decision for us, and in this context I deeply regretted on more than one occasion not being able to see and assess various reactions of the non-speaking actors on stage.

There was also something missing in terms of atmosphere, and not just because of the strange disjunction of seeing people carrying big bags of popcorn and jumbo softdrinks to their seats. Notwithstanding the ongoing debates in performance studies regarding liveness and mediation, I admit to being a sucker for the “eventness” and sense of intimacy created by live theatre. I do think the audience feels differently (which is to say, in a way that is potentially more collective) in the theatre than in the cinema. And I think this has something to do with the difference between seeing live bodies on stage versus virtual bodies on screen. A case in point: while there were the odd scattered laughs and gasps throughout the course of the broadcast of Phèdre on Thursday night, it was telling that the one time the audience came together in a noticeable way to express a felt reaction was one that was expressly mediated by technology, that is, when the broadcast signal appeared to wobble and the screen images momentarily started to break up.

A final note to readers: the blog is going on hiatus for a few weeks, as I will be traveling (to Australia, where, before running a marathon on the Gold Coast and traveling with my sister and brother and his family to the Great Barrier Reef, I plan to catch some theatre in Sydney). I’ll be back in mid-July to report on the Dancing on the Edge Festival and much else.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Intelligent Homosexuals

An article in the Arts section of the New York Times yesterday referencing the premiere of a new Tony Kushner play at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis that I remember hearing was in the offing some time ago. The premiere is part of a larger Kushner festival being mounted by the Guthrie which also features revivals of both parts of Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul, and Caroline, or, Change. The new play—given, like Angels’ subtitle, a suitably Shavian moniker (by way of Mary Baker Eddy)—is called The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.

Pretty much sums up Kushner’s main concerns, I’d say. All wrapped up in the requisite Kushnerian family psychodrama, in which, as reporter Andrea Stevens astutely points out, history is likewise a main character. Except that the family is Italian-American this time, which is a twist. Throw Kushner acting veterans Kathleen Chalfant, Linda Emond, and Stephen Spinella into the mix in prominent roles, and it adds up to what sounds like yet another trenchant theatrical socio-diagnosis of these strange times in which we labour—times which have already in fact announced the end of labour. No doubt this is something dear Tony picks apart in the play. Would that I could jet to Minneapolis tomorrow to see it. The article does mention that a Broadway transfer down the road is a distinct possibility (preceded, of course, by Kushner’s equally requisite rewriting process and a likely workshop at the Public), so hopefully it will remain within my sightlines.

Speaking of intelligent homosexuals, Richard and I attended the memorial service of renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson yesterday, appropriately held at SFU, one of Erickson’s first important commissions (with his then design partner Geoffrey Massey), and my own place of employment since 2002. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the campus (which, as much as I admire it, can look depressingly foreboding in bad weather) showed itself off to stunning effect, emblematically reflecting Erickson’s prime architectural credo of integrating buildings with their natural and environmental settings. It was indeed an elegant and eclectic service, as the write-up in today’s Globe and Mail described it, not to mention perfectly structured, clocking in at exactly one and a half hours.

Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of reference to Erickson’s queerness and how this might have contributed to his architectural worldview, although Abe Rogatnick, in a wonderful eulogy, did hint at the type of bacchanals that were wont to take place around Erickson’s fabled garden oasis in Point Grey. Rogatnick also movingly mentioned the deaths of loved ones that had preceded Erickson’s—a reference I took to apply in particular to those of Erickson’s two long-term lovers (for more on Erickson’s “gay life,” see the reminiscence published by Hugh Brewster in a recent issue of Xtra! West). But surely how Erickson saw the world and built space—which is to say, decidely aslant—owes much to his sexual identity. How else to explain taking what was originally proposed for the Law Courts of British Columbia—an office highrise—and literally turning it on its side, laying it horizontally across two full city blocks? (Or, for that matter, that SFU gets used so frequently in sci-fi television series?)

We owe the miracle that is Robson Square—and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, and the Canadian Chancery in Washington, DC, and my own quirkily “alien” academic institution—in large measure to the queer eye of Arthur Erickson.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What's Happening Here?

The Bid, Plan and Reality Workshop on the 2010 Winter Olympics organized by my colleagues in Urban Studies at SFU took place this past Monday at Harbour Centre, and certainly yielded some interesting conversations. If I was a little disappointed by the unexamined boosterism and general rewriting of civic history by Gordon Price (former city councilor) and Brent Toderian (current Director of Planning at City Hall), I was nevertheless convinced that the members of the first panel—Frances Bula (former Vancouver Sun reporter and freelance urban affairs critic), Nathan Edelson (former city planner), and Jim Green (former city councilor and consultant to the Millennium Group, who are overseeing the construction of the Athletes’ Village)—were sincere (if, perhaps, somewhat naïve) in stating that their support of the Games stemmed from their belief that the event could bring about an end to homelessness in the city. At the very least, as they pointed out, the agreements established between various stakeholders regarding this issue during the bid process (the Vancouver Agreement and the Inner-City Inclusivity Statement, in particular) did at least get the three levels of government (federal, provincial, an municipal) on side on this issue for the first time.

On the subject of how the Olympics do or do not help cities prioritize issues of concern that they are already facing, Professor Andy Thornley, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Visiting Fellow in Urban Sustainability and Development in SFU’s Urban Studies Program this week, made an interesting point: mega-events such as these can be ways for municipal governments to jump-start planning projects—and, as importantly, attract appropriate investment from the private and public sectors alike—that might otherwise get bogged down in years of bickering and bureaucracy. While I’m not sure this was the case regarding homelessness in Vancouver, and while it seems to me that for every victory on that front as a result of the Olympics (SROs saved, low-barrier shelters opened) there continue to be opportunities wasted or eroded, it is sobering to consider how the development imperative has been absorbed into urban governance as a way of advancing at times competing or contrasting social agendas. (In this regard, Dr. Thornley made a point that “Red” Ken Livingstone was on side from the beginning with London’s 2012 bid as a way of advancing his plan for redeveloping the Lower Lea Valley area of the city.)

As for myself and my fellow speakers on the arts and culture panel, Duncan Low (former executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and current graduate student in Urban Studies at SFU) and Irwin Oostindie (Executive Director of W2), we were far lass sanguine about the benefits of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad as they might contribute to any possible arts legacies for the city. Duncan and Irwin put things much better than I did, but for what it’s worth I include my remarks here. I’d also like to draw readers’ attention to the fact that the SFU Urban Studies Olympics Outcomes Project will be holding another symposium on the 2010 Games this October 22-24, also at Harbour Centre. This time, the urban impacts of the Vancouver Games will be placed in a more comparative global framework, while still paying attention to local legacies. Check out the Urban Studies website for more details. And now for what I said on Monday:

As most here likely recall, Vancouver’s original Olympic bid promised five years of Olympics-related cultural programming beginning in 2006 and leading up to a five-week Arts Festival beginning in mid-January 2010 and running through the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Soon after Robert Kerr was finally appointed as the program director for Vancouver and Whistler’s Cultural Olympiad, in mid July 2006 (with most arts programming in the city already set and prime venues booked), it was announced that this ambitious 5-year plan was being scaled back to three, with the Cultural Olympiad officially beginning in February 2008. Even here, however, the liaison between VANOC and arts and culture groups in the city was less than ideal, and in the confusion surrounding application procedures and deadlines that first Olympiad mostly ended up piggy-backing on previously programmed events. In other words, between the bold goals announced in Vancouver’s bid regarding Olympics-related culture and the struggle to implement a plan to achieve—however modestly—at least some of those goals, a sobering reality emerged to most cultural workers in the city: they could expect a temporary—and, to be sure, much-welcomed—increase in funding in the short term, but on the question of possible longer term cultural legacies and strategies for putting in place more sustainable sources of funding for local artists and arts and culture industries, VANOC has been deafeningly silent.

For me, this question of temporality is key, especially for the ways in which arts and culture are integrated within and/or coopted by the Olympic Movement. As Raymond T. Grant, the artistic director for the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival in Salt Lake City, put it to a meeting of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce in 2005, the organizing committee of an Olympics Games is solely focused on planning for the two-week event itself; in fact, nowhere in the IOC’s charter does it state that an organizing committee has any responsibility to deliver any legacy from an Olympic Games. Now that is not to say that, in formulating its bid, said committee doesn’t trumpet a rhetoric of social, environmental, and cultural legacy; but the reality is that such a future-oriented temporality de facto becomes the primary responsibility of the host city. Which is why we perhaps see a disconnect between how VANOC and members of Vancouver’s arts and culture community approach the “eventness” of the Cultural Olympiad, which we might frame in terms of a (globally) productivist vs. a (locally) sustainable model. That is, whereas the performance model of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad as it has been conceived by VANOC seems to be all about producing or subventing specifically sanctioned events that are confined to the temporal and spatial logic, or governmentality, of the larger mega-event and its influx of tourists they are ostensibly serving, local cultural groups and producers are, I would argue, more concerned about forging more durable associations between producers and audiences joined in mutual endeavor and creative experimentation about what the arts can or should do to stimulate and reinvigorate public debate about how the arts should be funded and managed civically, provincially, and nationally. As Grant put it to his Whistler audience, “the legacy of the Games in Salt Lake City was little more than a photo album to offer to our world visitors. And this despite a $101 million dollar surplus!”

While Pierre de Coubertin, in founding the modern Olympics in 1894, declared culture to be “the second pillar of the Olympic Movement—equal to sport,” it has mostly played the role of second fiddle. This has much to do with questions of visibility and profile, as well as both the expansive definition and unformalized structure given to questions of cultural presentation by the IOC. For example, the budget for culture—as outlined in Vancouver’s own bid book—is meant to cover not just arts festival programming leading up to and during the Games, but also educational programming, the torch relay, and the opening and closing ceremonies. Additionally, the IOC mandates no specific requirements in terms of cultural programming beyond a broadly multi-disciplinary mix of national and international artistic representation of “the highest calibre.” The rest is up to individual organizing committees, and in Vancouver’s case that seems to have translated into a rather ad-hoc approach, one that has for the most part followed Sydney’s lead in closely linking cultural representation and inclusion to First Nations participation and visibility, but that arguably has failed to emulate Sydney in terms of liaising with and soliciting the participation of local performing arts producers and administrators, whether as VANOC board members or as members of the creative team charged with bringing off what, in terms of a media spectacle that, at least since Rome in 1960, is specifically designed for television broadcast, the most important moments of artistic and cultural display: the opening and closing ceremonies.

The Vancouver ceremonies’ executive director is the Australian David Atkins, who produced Sydney’s 2000 Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Leaving aside the grumbling in many quarters about the marginalization of high-profile Quebec talent like Cirque de Soleil, lemieux.pilon 4d art, and Robert Lepage (all of whom were involved in talks with VANOC at one stage or another, and all of whom eventually walked away as a result of creative differences), what struck me when Atkins’ creative team was announced in April of this year was the distinct under-representation of local Vancouver talent. The Choreographic Director, Jean-Grand Maître, is from Alberta (by way of Quebec); the Design Director, Douglas Paraschuk, has spent 21 seasons at Stratford; the Music Director, David Pierce, is from Calgary; the Costume Designers, Dean and Dan Caten, are from Toronto; the Lighting Designer, Bob Dickinson (no relation), and the Sound Designer, Bruce Jackson, are both American. Then again, given that the $20 million the federal government has promised towards the opening and closing ceremonies is apparently contingent on their message “adequately reflect[ing] the priorities of the Government and help[ing] to achieve its domestic and international branding goals” (there is much talk about the ceremonies playing up Canada’s current combat role in Afghanistan), perhaps a Crystal Pite or a Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald or an Owen Underhill is glad to be out of the mix.

It is worth noting in terms of visibility and profile, that starting with the first Olympic Arts Festival, in 1912, and continuing until the Melbourne Games in 1956, the cultural programming was actually competitive—artists, like athletes, competed for medals in various categories of the plastic and performing arts. However, as Beatriz Garcia and Andy Miah note, an expanding international base of artists and disciplines, along with routine problems relating to the comparison and judgment of different artworks and styles (the cultural equivalent of figure skating scandals in the Winter Olympics), led to the decision to substitute the competition structure with an exhibitionary and festival one. This led to a consequent diminishment of the status and relevance of the Games’ cultural programming, a problem that has only been steadily exacerbated by the lack of media coverage given to this programming; with accredited journalists and licensed television broadcast networks totally focused on the athletes and sports events, they rely on pre-recorded segments relating to the arts or local urban colour (in our case expect the requisite exposés of the DTES—already inaugurated by Dan Rather) rather than engaging with the actual cultural amenities and atmosphere of the city itself. This, in turn, creates problems in terms of attracting additional sponsorship funding for arts and culture related events—whether for the temporary “live sites” around the city during the Olympics themselves, which are still well short of their targeted sponsorship goals, of for longer term endowments for financially and socially sustainable legacy projects. Consequently, as Garcia and Miah also note, the Cultural Olympiad has always occupied an historically awkward position in the Olympics organizing committees’ corporate management structures. Organizing committees know they are mandated to address culture in some way, but generally prefer expedient, media-friendly event solutions that broadcast well globally rather than the more difficult, time-consuming, and costly planning and prioritizing of cultural policy and a vision of the place and role of the arts in the city that accounts for the very different needs and expectations of local audiences. Which is why, since Salt Lake in 2002, so much money has been spent on programming around medal ceremonies—this is what will play well on TV.

The idea of the Cultural Olympiad, first introduced in Barcelona in 1992, as a multi-year showcase where art and performance can take centre stage, and where local audiences especially can partake of and benefit from unique programming opportunities, is thus always already compensatory, an understanding of culture and performance as something that needs to be compressed and packaged for quick and easy consumption within a delimited period of time, rather than as a valuable resource that, among other things, is involved in documenting and commenting on the transformation of the social space in which it is produced (including the transformations wrought by a mega-event like the Olympics). To that end, I think it is important to talk about some of the actual performances and exhibitions that constitute the archive of Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad in the lead up to 2010. It is very likely that all the world (and all that we) will remember of 2010 are those images we see on TV of the opening and closing ceremonies and the medal presentations; but several local visual artists have already begun intervening in this project of civic memorialization to remind us, from a present anterior position, of what, in the future, and what from the past, we may be in danger of forgetting.

To this end, let me very briefly reference a material encounter with the recent urban development history of Vancouver that is, I believe, on display in the year-long poster project undertaken by artist Jeremy Shaw as part of Presentation House Gallery’s contribution to the 2009 Cultural Olympiad. Called Something’s Happening Here, the project sees Shaw employing a similar appropriative aesthetic to an artist like Alex Morrison (whom I talk about at greater length in my forthcoming book). Specifically, Shaw takes promotional materials and souvenir ephemera, along with news articles and archival photographs, associated with Expo 86 to create street-style posters that have been distributed across the city of Vancouver since late February 2009, and that will continue to appear through to the beginning of the 2010 Olympic Games. Something’s Happening Here (the title is taken from an Expo-era poster, but also deliberately recalls the first line of the iconic Buffalo Springfield protest song, "For What It's Worth") is, at the PHG website explains, “intended to open a discussion on how global events like Expo and the Olympics impact on the creation of civic space through an architectural legacy of buildings and monuments, and significantly, how such events live on through a collective civic memory. In redeploying images that invoke a recently bygone era, Something’s Happening Here affects a momentary, recuperative snapshot of Vancouver’s history on the cusp of a new moment.”

As markers of past actions that also serve as announcements of a forthcoming event, Shaw’s posters return us to the question of temporality by materializing time as a span that can be re-enacted. The question then becomes, in this context of mega-events and civic memorialization (where time and space get collapsed, often unthinkingly, through a “once in a lifetime” mentality), whether we want things re-enacted in precisely the same way. And here, I would argue, that Shaw’s posters perform an action akin to the temporal documentation of video art. In other words, they function as evidence, in this case linking, through their very materiality (mounted on construction site walls and street lamps, they will be successively ripped down or plastered over), one showcase event to another by, among other things, asking us to consider what of our city we might in the interim have likewise torn down, or covered up. Or even failed to build.

And here I will use the example of Shaw as a largely photo-conceptual artist to leave you to ponder the deepening quagmire around the future site of an expanded Vancouver Art Gallery. You will recall that Gordon Campbell stunned many in the city when he announced, in May of last year, that in addition to BC Place getting a new roof post-Olympics, the VAG would be relocated to North False Creek, on the site of the current Plaza of Nations. This despite the Gallery’s own stated preference for the former Greyhound bus depot at Georgia and Beatty, across from Queen Elizabeth Theatre; the new site’s lack of proximity to downtown and the consequent public transportation difficulties; and the wisdom of locating an art gallery next to two sports facilities, a casino, a Costco, and several residential towers. Not to mention, as Frances Bula has recently noted in her blog, that Campbell, despite having long ceased to be Mayor of Vancouver, seemed to have vaulted over the city in making a side deal with the development company that owned the property. Flash forward to last week, when it was announced in the news that the Gallery, having done a feasibility study, would likely take a pass on the site, owing to all of the reasons cited above, plus the added costs that would come with building on landfill. Campbell’s original announcement, as so many of his do, made for a great photo-op: look what cultural opportunities we’re creating as a result of the Olympics!

In reality, however, there was no legacy planning or foresight involved here. Had there been, Vancouver would have, from the very beginning, followed the example of Turin, which consciously identified arts and culture as the most significant legacy that would be provided from the Olympics in helping it to make a transition from a post-industrial car manufacturing city to a service-based and creative economy. And they did so not by resting on the laurels of their historical cultural patrimony (something that Vancouver, in any case, could not do), but by consciously rebranding themselves as a contemporary art destination. Vancouver, as a globally recognized centre of photoconceptual production, and as the largest city in a province whose own traditional resource economy has long since collapsed, had the same opportunity. And incorporating a discussion of where and when to re-site the VAG (with its collection of Jeff Walls, and its current exhibitions showcasing the work of Andreas Gursky and Stan Douglas) into the bid discussion from the very beginning would arguably have been a catalyst for the creation and revitalization of an artistic corridor that could have (and could still) take as its starting point the west, rather than the east, side of the Queen E. Indeed, the postal sorting plant at Georgia and Cambie, as many have noted, offers a stunning modernist space that would be able to accommodate, unlike the VAG’s current location, not just a far more sizeable chunk of the gallery’s permanent collection, but also the original large-scale formats of Gursky’s best-known photographs (which have been controversially re-sized for the current VAG show). What’s more, with its relative proximity to the DTES, a new VAG on this site would arguably, in combination with the new Woodward’s development, be a major force in helping to regenerate this area outside of the constraints of a boom or bust, have or have-not real estate market.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Remembering Tiananmen

Students protesting in Tiananmen Square, May 1989 (the photo accompanies the account by Elizabeth Pisani in Granta 105 discussed below).

Tourists and citizens strolling through Tiananmen Square, June 2008 (from my trip to Beijing last year in advance of the Summer Olympics).

Amid the decidedly low-volume reporting on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre yesterday, I was struck by Elizabeth Pisani's reflections on her witnessing of the events of June 3-4, 1989 in a recent issue of Granta ("Chinese Whispers," Granta 105 [Lost and Found]). Pisani was a young reporter for Reuters, who together with her colleague Graham Earnshaw, filed some of the first dispatches on the tanks (or Armoured Personnel Carriers, as she quickly learned to distinguish them) rolling into the square--and over the bodies of the students occupying it.

What makes Pisani's account so interesting is her attempt to come to grips with the differences between her personal recollections of the events (and her participating in them) twenty years hence, those posted to the Internet by Earnshaw in his own published memoir in 2001, and the record Pisani committed to paper in 1989 partly as an exorcism and partly as a guard against memorial contradiction (the whole issue is devoted to memory). The "Early Record," as Pisani labels it, by and large accords with her subsequent dinner-table retellings of the events (the "Late Record"), but with some noticeable discrepancies regarding where she had thought she and Graham were when the tanks rolled in, and what she felt when she saw those tanks. To the Late Record, it soon becomes clear to her, she has added embellishments that she can only have acquired from elsewhere (other published reports and images, etc.). As Pisani notes, "my presence in Tiananmen Square when the troops started moving across it is fundamental to my identity" (86). But, as she also goes on to ask, "Can I claim as my own the feelings, images, thoughts that I have sucked back in from the collective memory? Do I become a different person as my memory changes, or do I change my memories because I am becoming a different person?" (87).

In the 20 years since June 4, 1989, when not just China but also Western countries clamouring to do business with its booming economy have done their best to erase from the historical record the events of that night, Pisani's questions take on added urgency. Indeed, there is a way in which we would be better served in claiming more of the collective memory of Tiananmen as our own.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Judith Thompson Turns Up the Volume on Iraq

Interesting—and chilling—to note how, in the eight years since 9/11, the ongoing “war on terror” has steadily moved from front-line news to Orwellian background noise, sometimes louder (as when another roadside bomb explodes), but mostly a mid-range hum. As in 1984, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply been absorbed as part of the daily fabric of our lives, their “urgency” and “priority” having long since been supplanted by more pressing (and proximate) concerns—most recently, the economy. Most Canadians, I bet, would be hard pressed to come up with the current figure of our combat casualties in Kandahar (118 at last count, the most recent being Major Michelle Mendes’ apparent suicide).

As Barack Obama prepares to implement his plan for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Judith Thompson brilliantly reminds us in her most recent play, Palace of the End (shortlisted for the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Drama and winner of the 2007 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize), of the sedimented layers of history, ethnic and religious conflict, national self-interest and personal exculpation, that accrued between the first Gulf War and the invasion of 2003. The play, which is running at the Performing Arts Lodge on Cardero Street until Sunday in a Touchstone, Felix Culpa, and Horseshoes and Hand Grenades co-production, is structured as three monologues that move backwards in time, and that are delivered by fictionalized versions of three real-life “casualties” (albeit in very different senses) of the Iraqi conflict, people whom we might now consider “bit players” in the larger scheme of things, more collateral damage, but that for a moment at any rate were the very real face of war’s grievous atrocities, and multiple victims. Though they are not explicitly named as such, the monologues are spoken in turn by stand-ins for Private Lynndie England (Alexa Divine), the most public fall-person for the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib (she of the smiling, thumbs-up pose standing over the pile of naked Iraqi prisoners); David Kelley (Russell Roberts), the British weapons inspector who amid the publicity surrounding the leaking by the media of his report finding no evidence of WMDs in Iraq, and the suggestions of a government cover-up, committed suicide; and Nehrjas al-Saffarh (a terrific Laara Sadiq), a Communist dissident in Iraq, who along with members of her family, was tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Regime in the lead-up to the First Gulf War.

Thompson is careful not to make too-simple political and personal connections between the three characters and their stories (though each does remain on stage during the others’ monologues), nor to sit in judgment of one or over-empathize with another. Rather, in imagining inner lives for three individuals who have been, to borrow from one astute commentator on the play, abstracted as “documentary ciphers” in the larger narrative of the Iraq War, Thompson is challenging us in the audience to make those difficult connections, to ask why we should care about these individuals and what they have lost, to turn up the volume a little on Iraq.

I am reminded, in this regard, of a recent article by Laura Levin that I read on Thompson’s “environmental aesthetic” (in Theatre Research in Canada 24.1-2 [2003]). Levin notes that in the heightened, or poetic, naturalism of Thompson’s best-known plays—Sled, I Am Yours, The Crackwalker, Lion in the Streets—a hyper-localism, or over-saturation, of place-based detail creates a porousness between the bodies of her characters and their external worlds (be they natural, commercial, or social). This “spatial dependency,” as Levin calls it, in turn opens up, by reversing figure and ground, the possibility for a radical ethics of contingent connection, in which individuals do not exist separately from or in “antagonistic relation” to each other, but rather as “sensuously linked to the bodies of [their] neighbours.” Structurally and formally, Palace of the End is something of a departure from Thompson’s earlier work. However, in that key detail of keeping each monologuist on stage throughout the play, and in her characteristically rich embroiderings of place in those monologues (even places as notoriously dark as those of Abu Ghraib and the torture “palace” of Saddam that gives the play its title), Thompson likewise shows us the ethical claims that Iraq—no matter how physically or politically distant it may seem—continues to make upon us.