Running into a New Decade

Last Sunday I got to see my city in a new way. I ran it. Along with about 40 000 other people, I took over downtown streets and bridges, was cheered on by perfect strangers and their cardboard signs, felt the city come together in a rare moment outside of hockey.

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I did my first Vancouver Sun Run and I liked it. It also happened to be on my birthday, which marked the start of a new decade.

There are a number of reasons why I wanted to do the Sun Run, but the biggest one was to show to myself—particularly my younger self—that I could.

I did club track and field in my youth, specializing in sprint hurdles and field events. The longest I ever ran on the track (and it was pulling teeth for me to do this) was an 800m (2 laps). I felt like I was going to die of exhaustion. Watching my teammates run 1500m or 3000m felt unfathomably long and I had no desire to try it.

The Vancouver Sun Run is 10K, which is 25 laps of a track. I trained on my own leading up to it and my goal was to run the whole thing without stopping (mission accomplished, and I even got a time I’m really pleased with!) My glory days of jumping beyond 4 meters in long jump are over, but last Sunday’s run proved to myself there are things my body can do now that I never thought I could do then, didn’t even attempt to.

I like surprising myself.

And I think there’s a wonderful metaphor in this about getting older. Maybe it’s not about higher or faster or stronger, but about lasting longer, building endurance, taking things slow and steady and, though it may sound like a given, finishing.

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Are there things you’re doing now that you never dreamed about doing then?

Ivory Tower Meets the Mainstreeters

On Saturday, I had the chance to participate in a 3-for-1 in terms of the downtown Vancouver art scene. The Contemporary Art Gallery, Audain Gallery, and Satellite Gallery teamed up to provide 3 tours within 3 hours, all walking distance within one another. I love it when galleries join forces like this and you get an afternoon of taking in a wide variety of art.

The schedule was as follows:

1pm: Audain Gallery, 149 W Hastings Street. Join a tour of Geometry of Knowing Part 2 led by curators Amy Kazymerchyk and Melanie O’Brian.

2pm: Satellite Gallery, 560 Seymour Street, 2nd floor. Join a tour of Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage, 1972-1982 led by curators Allison Collins and Michael Turner.

3pm: Contemporary Art Gallery, 555 Nelson Street. Join a tour of the current exhibitions by Grace Schwindt and Krista Belle Stewart led by CAG Director Nigel Prince.

It was a fabulous turnout—I would say at least 150 people, and it just seemed to grow from one tour to the next. I did the first 2 tours as those were the ones I was particularly interested in and had never visited those galleries.

Audain Gallery

The Audain Gallery is a bright, spacious gallery in SFU Woodward’s location. Simon Fraser University follows a decentralized university model with 3 campus: the original Burnaby mountain location (the “ivory tower” setting) and then 2 more on-the-ground, in-the-city sites at Surrey City Centre and downtown Vancouver, which coincides with the university’s vision to be Canada’s leading community-engaged research university.

The Geometry of Knowing exhibition asks the question, “What does it mean for a gallery to exist within a university? What is our role in shaping how we come to know ourselves and the world we live in?” A visual theme in the exhibit was the presence of triangles that echo the shape of Burnaby Mountain and the connotation of a university as an ivory tower of learning, situated high up and far away from everybody else and the conversations happening on the ground.

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SFU Burnaby Mountain

Untitled by Brent Wadden.

Untitled by Brent Wadden

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You have that idea paired with a video like Smashing where Jimmie Durham sits at a bureaucratic desk in a suit, smashing objects with a large stone brought to him by his art students who are taking part in an artist residency. You see Durham smashing/”deconstructing” coffee beans, a bag of flour, shaving cream, & countless other objects as a statement about how art is made and the role of critique. And then Durham stamps a piece of paper and gives it to the students as their official “pass.” The tour guide also talked about the idea of a stone being this ancient and simple material that still has so much weight in our digitized 21st century world, whether to build or to destroy. Smashing is a 90-minute video but here’s a 4-minute version I found on YouTube:

Satellite Gallery

The Satellite Gallery is a little harder to spot if you don’t know where you’re going. On the second floor of a slightly run-down building on Seymour Street, it is noticeably darker and smaller-feeling with low ceilings and less light which is a little unexpected in modern art galleries these days.

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Satellite Gallery. Image from their website.

Nevertheless, I was really excited to see their Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage exhibit, partly because I love Main Street myself, but also because I like learning about the local Vancouver art scene back in the days when I wasn’t alive. The exhibit spans the decade 1972-1982 and yes, the Mainstreeters were actually a self-titled “art gang”.

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This is what the description on their website reads:

The Mainstreeters—Kenneth Fletcher, Deborah Fong, Carol Hackett, Marlene MacGregor, Annastacia McDonald, Charles Rea, Jeanette Reinhardt and Paul Wong—were an “art gang” who took advantage of the times, a new medium (video), and each other. Emerging from the end-stage hippie era, the gang drew from glam, punk and a thriving gay scene to become an important node in the local art scene. Their activities connect the influential interdisciplinary salon of Vancouver’s Roy Kiyooka in the early 1960s with the collective-oriented social practices that have emerged worldwide in the early years of the 21st century. Like the current “digital natives” generation, the Mainstreeters were the first generation to grow up with video cameras. The resulting documents focus on a decade of their lives, including forays into sex, love, drugs and art.

Check out this introductory panel to the exhibit that discusses how they’re all connected (if you can read it, that is! I apologize for the bad picture):

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Clear as mud, right? Doesn’t it have the makings of a soap opera? And I guess that’s the impression I was left with after viewing the exhibit. Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage is primarily archival photographs of the group—where they lived, hung out, and partied. I saw more about them than I did their art, which was a little disappointing. The curators were very upfront about this, stating that it was more a documentary-style exhibit on the group, but that that was also part of the point—that their art & their lives (socially, politically, etc) all bled together and informed one another.

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The art that was on view was their homemade videos, which was interesting insofar as the video camera was new technology back then and they used it like people first used facebook or twitter when it came out (& maybe some people still do!): documenting absolutely everything about their lives, even the not-so-interesting-to-everybody-else bits. The 70s-style grainy look to their videos is now back in fashion with all the old-school instagram filters available, so it’s funny how things have come around to that again with our modern technology.

My favourite part of the exhibit was reading the notes they left one another. I felt I got to know the Mainstreeters as much through their words as their images.

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All in all, what a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and what a contrast—going from the academia-infused Geometry of Knowing to the hippie drug & love era of Mainstreeters; Taking Advantage, 1972-1982! I hope these galleries offer more joint events in the future. It’s nice to explore the smaller and lesser-known downtown galleries in addition to the behemoth of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Proposal

In the heart of the city
amidst the lights and sparkle and magic of Christmas,
Adam holds my hand and skates beside me
drops on one knee, pulls out a ring
and asks, “Charlene Kwiatkowski, will you marry me?”
I give him my “Yes!” embrace him, fall on my knees
mitts off, he slips the most beautiful ring onto my finger
and holds my hands again.

The world is blurring by us
yet our worlds have stopped—
lost in utter delight
oh, the way his eyes shine when they’re looking at mine!
We stand back up on wobbly legs
and I am still wobbling with joy,
(4 days later),
for what was, what is, and what is to come
with the man my heart so loves.

-written in the wee hours of the morning after my engagement on Dec 13, 2014. What a beautiful, surprising, and altogether perfect night!

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The Neon Parade

When I was at the Museum of Vancouver in January checking out their Playhouse exhibit, I toured one of the other exhibits they have currently on display: Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver.

To say it was eye-catching would be an understatement. Fluorescent blues, pinks, yellows, reds, and greens met my eyes. A constant humming sound made it a space you wouldn’t want to spend more than half an hour in.

I walked around from sign to sign, trying to picture these now-vintage signs hanging in their heyday on Granville Street in the 1950s-60s, Vancouver’s “theatre row.”

There are still a few remaining neon signs on Granville Street, but this “visual pollution”, as the City’s Environmental Committee put it in 1974, had to be reduced. So a sign by-law was enacted in 1974 to control the amount of neon cropping up over the city. It was apparently a very polarizing issue. Here are what some opponents said:

I walk into spaces like this and feel nostalgic for the past—to experience coming downtown Vancouver to be greeted with such fanfare—lights, colour, action—reminding me of the city as spectacle, the city as stage. Coming downtown was an adventure. There is something appealing about the signs’ audacity, drama, even grittiness. But then I try and picture what it would be like to have lived in that era where these signs were everywhere, building after building, and perhaps it was more nauseating than nostalgic, more contrived than genuine. A part of me then sympathizes with the naysayers, although some of their rhetoric sounds a touch extreme:

You can have civilization, or you can have neon.

You can have happiness, or you can have neon.

This anecdote is rather humorous:

An urban legend grew up that the most dangerous intersection in Vancouver was along Kingsway where a flashing neon woman swung back and forth, mesmerizing drivers.

As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his famous essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) the growth of the modern city in the early twentieth century impacted city dwellers psychologically in a new way than ever before. Cities bombarded us with stimuli of all shapes and sizes, contributing to the feeling Simmel identified as the blasé. The blasé is an attitude of indifference caused by the over-stimulation of the nerves because of the rapidly changing sights and sounds in the city. Blasé becomes an item of clothing we wear when stepping out into the streets: it’s a protective shield from the 24-7 advertising assault on our senses. It’s not hard to see how neon signs play a role in this urban armour.

So, what’s your reaction to neon signs? Love ’em or leave ’em?

Who’s Reading Who?

My interest in text and the city started by walking around downtown Vancouver and noticing poems on buildings—words on a space different than what we’re used to. I still stop for words (like Here Comes, A Window Story) and this building seen while roaming around the East Side Culture Crawl:

So when I heard the Contemporary Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver was featuring a window exhibit by Turkish artist Meriç Algün Ringborg called Metatext, I went to check it out, to read it.

The exhibit is literally written into the front façade of the building (as shown above), on several different window panels. You read it from left to right, like you would a novel. And as you read it, you feel you are reading something like a novel.

And then you feel you really have no idea what you’re reading. A string of words—or definitions—is closer to what it is. Here’s the description from the CAG:

The new work at the Contemporary Art Gallery takes the English dictionary as its starting point. Using only selected definitions of specific words, this ambitious commission appears as a series of inter-related sentences notionally composing mini-narratives and realized in a way that seems to incorporate different voices and characters. As such the work evolves out of the dictionary akin to a fragmentary novel or short story, a series of episodes branching out into a loose meta-narrative concerning writing as a creative act as implied through the use of this ‘found’ language.

It is a strange experience reading the text(s) because each line relates slightly to what’s around it, but also completely interrupts it with something new. Metatext plays with the idea of being a novel and yet lacks any of the cohesiveness we look for in novels. It is terribly self-conscious and long-winded about what it is doing—writing about writing, and a little pompous about it too: “the book that I’ve just written. considering the conditions, it’s very good” . . . “the book is a thoroughly entertaining read. it’s the best novel I’ve ever read”. The whole thing reads very ironically because by the end, we realize we have just read the novel being talked about (this metatext on the windows) and it isn’t very good but the author(s) thinks it is, and do we feel pity for the deluded writer, or sympathy because no doubt we’ve been there too, or annoyance for having spent twenty minutes reading this text that makes no sense, and what kind of dictionary is she using anyway?

IMG_6626Since the text is embedded into a building in downtown Vancouver, it makes us consider narratives of the city and the people who inhabit its space. How do our narratives of private and public overlap? The picture below showing my reflection, along with the buildings in the background, speak to this confluence of private and public. The act of writing a novel is typically a solitary activity, done in the privacy of a home, with typewriter/computer and one’s own thoughts late at night or early in the morning. What happens when it is exposed in a public space, a city space where we use words and construct narratives on a daily basis? How do our inner and outer words interact, especially in Vancouver, a city that never lets you escape your reflection as you’re walking to the office, walking to the grocery store, walking to and from home? We see ourselves in the window and wonder, who’s reading who?

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