Category Archives: events

Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Matana Roberts, live in 2011… for the Bow River

by Carl Wilson

The Chicago-rooted, New York-resident, Montreal-affiliated, beautiful-music-making Matana Roberts was in Toronto at the Music Gallery last weekend, playing solo alto saxophone. She chatted with the crowd about a lot of things (“I’m a talker,” she warned early on), but at one point spoke of how her heart was with the people of Calgary, especially after experiencing how devastating a flood can be after last year’s hurricane in NY. Later in the show she repeated, “Sound heals. Sound heals. Sound heals.” So with that in mind, listen to the torrents of incredible tones she generates in this video made in Kensington Gardens in London a couple of years ago, and think about inundation, immersion, and recovery.

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Filed under carl wilson, events, music, Tuesday Musics

Can We All Get Along!? (By Steve Kado)

Margaux Williamson: Steve Kado is one of my favourite artist people in town – who is sometimes not in town. He has startled and delighted me while standing on stage with a microphone and he is also very fun to talk to while not on stage.  He doesn’t write often and I asked if he would write something for Back to the World. He sent a post from L.A.

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By Steve Kado

My friends and I were driving from Los Angeles to Tijuana to go to an art opening. Everyone in the car was involved in art to different degrees. One of our number was actually in the show we were going down to see. Three were from Australia and New Zealand; I was/am from Toronto. In San Diego we picked up Scott, a genuine American, who was in town visiting his mom – normally he lives in the desert where he builds his own house and designs books. At the same time, that weekend, there was a massive manhunt on for Christopher Dorner, the disgruntled victim of discrimination and racism within the LAPD who had had enough and gone on a cop-killing shooting spree. Confusingly, he did not exclusively kill cops, but also family members of cops.

Being that everyone in the car was from the arts, news-awareness was not always a strong point. Also, some people were travelling in America, not residents or even one-time-residents, and we all know how hard it is to keep up with the news when you’re on vacation. Unable, somehow, to bear listening to any news on the radio, we heard no broadcasts or music and tried to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. Earlier I had read that manifesto Dorner wrote. I would say that it was very easy to be sympathetic to him until he got to the killing part, and especially when he broadened the killing part to include family members of cops.

We were fuzzy on the excesses of the LAPD reaction. We had all heard something to the effect that they had shot up several (one? two? three?) different trucks, all because they feared Dorner was inside. In every case they had been wrong – Dorner was not in either of the vehicles they did in fact shoot at, neither vehicle was the make, model or colour of Dorner’s, and in one case the occupants were not even the right gender or number, being instead two Latina women doing a paper route. The asymmetrical and seemingly random armed response by the police force towards “trucks” as a category did, regrettably, seem to support aspects of Dorner’s manifesto.

Reflecting on it all now, one must also say that the silence about what happened to the police officers who reacted so excessively towards widely varying vehicles and people (at least in the news I’m getting) leads one to believe that perhaps nothing has really changed since the Rodney King and Rampart division scandals that Dorner mentions in his screed.

The mantra-like repetition of the phrase “cop killer” by others in conversation, before the car trip and during, led to the first attempt to hear music – Amy put John Maus’ Cop Killer on her phone. Playing out of the tinny speakers, all we could hear over road noise was the incessant repetition of the phrase “cop killer.” Scott put on the Body Count song of the same title but somehow it didn’t stick, despite arguably being more relevant to the specific situation and police force in question. All that night and the next day we would gloomily intone, a la John Maus, those two words.

After the opening we went to a very democratic dancing area. All types, ages and sizes were out there, giving it to the parquet flooring. We got very drunk. Then, around 2 am, a group of men with camouflage balaclavas, assault rifles and (perversely) GoPro cameras strapped to their heads trooped in. Taking one look at our half-antipodean gang the armed men (who seemed to be police) decided that we were of no consequence to them. They proceeded to ignore us while many of the other patrons in the bar were spread out against the walls, searched, forced to empty their pockets and line everything they owned up in neat lines on the ground and other such things. Finding nothing of interest, the armed men left, the music came on again a bit louder than before and things continued as if nothing had happened.

Back in LA, days later, Travis and I are walking from the Gold Line up to his house on a hill in Lincoln Heights. Every yard on the street he lives on is fenced in and contains between 2-4 dogs. These dogs are never walked, vary widely in size and do nothing but run in their yards and bark. The first day I arrived and woke up at Travis’, the first living animal I saw was the chihuahua across the street vigorously humping the terrier across the street. Choral waves of barking follow the passage of anything human or mechanical up or down the street. Acoustically, it is close, for me, to hell. Tonight, however, the dogs are quiet. “Cop killer,” we confide to each other, awed by the night’s silence. Almost immediately, a slow moving police car cruises by, checking us out with its search light. Neither of us match the profile of Christopher Dorner: Travis is a six-foot-something white beanpole and I am a less tall half-Asian person wearing a large backpack with huge glasses. Neither of us is an ex-reservist, neither of us seems interested in killing cops. The cops drive off but then circle back a minute later, just to make sure that we haven’t somehow merged Voltron-style into a cop-killing ex-reservist.

Later that week, the entire saga came to an end. Dorner was killed in a fire started by incendiary smoke grenades lobbed into the mountain cabin that he was hiding out in. He shot at and killed some more police before the fire got him. This was, more or less, how we all expected this to end. Watching CNN’s coverage of the minute details of one of Dorner’s police victims’ funerals in a Vietnamese restaurant, Travis and I try and make sense of a military ritual where a horse is led around with a pair of boots lodged backwards in the stirrups. It looks like someone had been riding a horse backwards and then vanished, leaving their boots behind. Neither of us can hear the CNN anchors explaining this over the din of noodles and slurping that fill the air. Everything from the emergence of a disgruntled ex-cop on a killing spree to the excessive reaction of the police once threatened and the inevitable Waco-like showdown felt grimly pre-recorded. But no one told us about the boot-thing that would happen at the end.

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Filed under events, guest post, music, other, TV/video, visual art

Žižek, The End of the World, The Clock and some other things at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche

by Margaux Williamson

photo of “Glow in the Park” from Jaclyn Blumas and Robert Cram of Heretical Objects

I saw Christian Marclay’s The Clock this weekend at 5 am. The Clock is a 24 hour video work. It’s made up of thousands of scenes from movies and some television shows. The scenes all contain evidence, like clocks and watches, of the time represented in the specific movies and television shows. That time corresponds to the real time where the work is being screened.

It was playing during Toronto’s all night arts festival Nuit Blanche, an event that takes place between 7 pm and 7 am. Picturing the line-up at The Clock, I hadn’t planned to go. I had seen a few good things earlier in the night. I had thought to go to Slavoj Žižek’s talk in Toronto’s City Hall Council Chambers, but figured it would be too crowded and went home. My fellow blogger Carl was there at City Hall, he was part of the overflow from the Council Chambers that moved up to the roof and, in the cold, listened to Žižek talk about “The End of the World”  through loudspeakers. That might sound even more special than sitting in the audience in the Council Chambers, though I have to say –  arriving home, a few miles down the road but still in the center of festivities, making my way through the moving crowd that included a lot of children and drunk people, to get to my covered-in-tiny-bits-of-smashed-beer-bottles front stoop – to at  that moment, receive a text message about how your fiends are standing on the roof of City Hall listening to Žižek talk about “The End of the World” through loudspeakers might have been the most special.

I had planned, at that point, to go to sleep,  but a rogue DJ was parked on a flatbed truck outside my window. In addition to music, he had a microphone and a lot to say. Hours went by. I watched television shows I had never thought to watch: Gossip Girl, Lost, Wilfred.

When the police on bicycles put an end to the DJ, it was 4:30 Am and I was wide awake. I got on my bicycle and made my way across town to the Power Plant Gallery where The Clock was. It was pretty out, bits of garbage floating around and the highways empty.

When I arrived, there were no line-ups but the couches were all taken, a few with gently snoring people, and others on the floor, leaning against the wall. I saw my other fellow blogger Chris in one of the sofas. Later, I found out he had been sitting there for 6 hours. I went to the floor at the front and made a pillow with my sweater.

Though The Clock is a 24 hour video that has no continuous narrative apart for what time it is, it’s still made up of some of the most compelling narrative movies of all time. Movies that are meant to take you out of the place where you are and bring you entirely into the world where they are – an aspect of storytelling that our culture has become masterful at.

It was funny to come to it after having watched so much television just before, television that is meant to eat your time and make you forget about where you are.  It was strange, in that room at the Power Plant Gallery, to have that very familiar feeling of being taken away from your world combined with continuous reminders of what time it is in your world. Every few moments, when you remember what time it is in your world,  you inevitably remember where in your world you are, lying on the floor at the Power Plant at 6.18 am, 6.19 am 6.20 am. It’s like being at home watching television but the television isn’t lying to you. It was as though the fundamental elements of being in someone else’s world and then being in your own world were being tied together, a rhythmic loop that feels both impossible and also completely natural. Nothing felt forced or awkward about this tie, it felt like something that could be easily tied together and finally was.

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Filed under events, lectures, margaux williamson, movies, visual art

On the Genre of “In Conversation”: David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Sept. 19, 2012

(Picture swiped from Hazlitt.)

by Carl Wilson

There were some high points to the staged discussion this week in Toronto between musician/much-else David Byrne and author/Internet activist Cory Doctorow, on the occasion of Byrne’s tour for his terrific-sounding book How Music Works. But they didn’t stop the feeling that this conversation shouldn’t have taken place in this form  at all.

For example, Byrne recounted a conversation with his 22-year-old daughter about copyright, in which he said that under current rules his work would go on supporting her financially long after he was ­dead, and that he thought this was kind of a bad thing, both for the art (which would not join the public domain as it should) and (he implied) for her own autonomy. Sorry, honey!

For his part, Doctorow passionately made a case that the business model that evolved in the 20th century for musical cover versions – the original creators can’t prevent anyone from covering their songs as long as they’re paid a royalty – should in fact be a model for how all copyright, especially online, works. He elegantly argued that music as a human practice long predates the existence of commercial markets for it, and that the only sane way to develop systems of regulation is to make them true to the spirit of the historical norms that surround it, such as that anyone ought to be able to sing any song, in public, and that any reasonable definition of public in the 21st century includes, for example, YouTube.

But there were assymetries in their conversational style that made for an uncomfortable evening, and not in a particularly enlightening way. Byrne is an artist whose social awkwardness (although much mellowed by age) is part of his essential makeup, as is his logical but lateral thinking, and his kind of savant-ish gift for deriving abstract proposition from experience via free-associative rumination. (It’s how he finds himself a city, picks a building that he wants to live in – it’s over there – water flowing underground, into the blue again.) And while he’s a very savvy user of technology for someone of his generation, I don’t think he has immensely much to tell us about the Internet that any intelligent person who’s been paying attention doesn’t also know.

Doctorow, meanwhile, is a professional opinion-giver, a whip-smart advocate for strong positions on contemporary technology and society. Where Byrne conversates a bit like a chickadee lighting from twig to palm with a beakful of seed, Doctorow expounds like an eloquent atheist preacher at the digital pulpit.

Guess which one took up most of the verbal space? Not the person most of the audience was there to hear. As I joked afterwards, when a lot of the audience heard the publicity for a conversation between David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, they heard, “David Byrne and Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah.” (Insert Peanuts teacher voice/Far Side “Ginger” cartoon here.)

That’s no slight against Doctorow. The situation did him the greater disservice, making much of the audience turn against him, frustrated they weren’t hearing more from the better-known personality (at least in the demographic that is likely to attend a $25-ticketed literary conversation). No one was going to hold it against David Byrne.

Much beyond the specific miscasting of these two as conversational partners for an audience (I’m sure as conversational partners on their own they’d have a great time), there are general lessons here.

A while ago, I was very kindly brought out to Portland to do a presentation about my work to a university audience. Even more kindly, the organizers thought that since I’d come all that way, we should put on another public event in town. Who else should be on the bill? Portland has a lot of interesting personalities, and to my surprise after some casting about, Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis of the Pixies) agreed to participate.

Come that night, even though the themes of our conversation were organized around my book, of course most people who came to the show were there to see Frank Black (in the Q&A they kept trying to get him to sing songs). I was the “Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah” on that bill. The only real option for the relatively obscure critic-author on stage with the famous musician was to fall into the role of his interviewer. Charles was extremely gracious and I really enjoyed the experience on many levels, but ultimately, as an event purportedly about my book, it didn’t make much sense.

Let’s derive a few rules of thumb from these stories. (I’m indebted to post-show conversation partners, Misha Glouberman, Chris Frey, Rebecca Payne, Emily Keeler and Charles Yao.) They may even apply to life beyond staged events.

a) When two people are going to be “in conversation,” in public, they ideally should be about equally familiar to the audience. Or something about the situation might mean that they each attract half a crowd, to whom one is familiar and the other is obscure and vice-versa, and your goal might be to introduce these two publics to one another.

b) The subject matter should be something in which they’re both fluent, though hopefully from different angles. (It also should be neither unhelpfully general nor smotheringly specific. A pointed question is a good starting point. The Harbourfront event’s question was “Wassup Internet?” Enough said.)

c) When that’s not possible or desirable for some reason, don’t play the less-well-known person for a patsy. The simplest thing might be to say upfront that they’re interviewing the better-known person. Bonus points: A very good trick can be to have the better-known person be billed as interviewing the less-known person. This can bestow a glow of generosity to the whole proceeding.

d) If that’s not what you want, there is a solution: a moderator, who relieves the speakers of visible responsibility (and blame) for guiding the conversation. A good moderator will help keep the share of time in balance. A really good moderator can also lend shape to a conversation that might otherwise ramble on endless tangents. A great moderator can do all that while seeming invisible.

e) If all else fails, you can alleviate a great many sins by bringing the audience into the conversation. At heart why should a question-and-answer period be so much shorter than the period speakers spend deciding the subject matter? The crowd is often much more dynamic. Obviously, again, a moderator needs to keep the Q&A on track, but I’d be as happy to go to a show that was all Q&A and zero meandering speaker as vice-versa.

In fact, the nicest moment the whole night was when a very young man came up and asked Byrne if he could repeat the name of the song he’d said he heard as a young man himself, whose sound “let him know there was something else out there.” Byrne paused for a moment, confused, and then answered, “Oh, you mean by the Byrds?” I think so, the young man said. And then very carefully copied in pen on his notepad, syllable by syllable, echoing Byrne’s answer out loud: “Mis-ter… Tam … bour… ine… Man?” In case we needed reminding that you can never assume worlds overlap. (People laughed, but it was just amazingly sweet.)

Ultimately, any form of entertainment that solely consists of somebody or somebodies speaking, if they are not just telling jokes, is dicey. It is only so much fun to listen to people talk and not to talk back, unless it’s very lively and engaging. There are a million ways for it to go wrong and the only way for it to go right is for someone to think through, carefully and conscientiously, “Just what is this going to be like?” Otherwise it is dubious that it should be done at all.

And this is worth talking about right now because these kinds of staged conversations and lectures and such have retaken a central place in our culture – the decline of print and rise of the digital-virtual somehow combining to generate a keener hunger for physical presence and non-fiction discourse than previously in my lifetime, like a return to the days of the chalk talk and Mark Twain. And, as it was then, it’s becoming one of the few ways writers can make a living. If that’s how it’s going to be, it should itself be a kind of art, not an afterthought.

PS: If you’re interested in this general subject, this series of video chats between Misha Glouberman and speakers’ agent David Lavin might be worth watching.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, events, lectures, music

(Belated) Tuesday Musics: Iva Bittova, “Proudem mleka” (“Milk Flow”)

The Czech-Moravian marvel Iva Bittova plays Thursday night at the Rivoli in Toronto, and on Saturday at the Jazz Festival in Ottawa. Seeing her has been scientifically proven to add extra days to your life.

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Lynn Crosbie – Life Is About Losing Everything

by Margaux Williamson

I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with the writer/academic/cultural critic Lynn Crosbie in the past few years; I have been a fan for much longer. Though she is famous for many things, there was something about her weekly column in the Globe & Mail that I needed and have always paid close attention to. In retrospect, I think, in some ways, her column was teaching me how to talk.

I remember, when I first started reading it years ago, I was living in a gloomy basement by the Leslie Spit and finishing George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch. Middlemarch has an unsual narrator – a narrator that is sometimes omniscient, sometimes addressing you directly, and sometimes trapped within the knowledge limitations that a typical literary character (or human) often has. The confidently wandering nature of the voice, to where it needed to go, was both thrilling and strangely subtle, both reckless and completely masterful. It was a hilarious voice to have in a novel where the main story arc involves an earnest and intelligent young woman, Dorothea, who wants to use her limited powers on this earth to aid the middle-aged Edward in finishing his great work The-Objective-History-of-Everything.

*SPOILER* (Edward turns out to be not-such-a-big-genius.)

I felt an actual sadness in letting this strange voice of Middlemarch go when I finished the 1000 pages. I’m a slow learner and sometimes 1000 pages isn’t enough to understand  a new thing. I remember feeling grateful that Lynn Crosbie’s column came every week – her deeply human and masterful voice was just as thrilling to me as George Elliot’s had been. I think Lynn Crosbie’s column helped me to learn, slowly and in my bones, that speaking clearly, from where ever you happen to be standing, with the information you happen to have, accepting of flexibility and imperfection, can be a thousand times deeper and more useful than the boring tomb of carefully constructed cliches that Middlemarch’s Edward hoarded and handed down with shaky authority from that fancy desk he had in his study.

In Lynn Crosbie’s column,  there are no qualifiers, there is no fear, there is no condescension, there is no sense that the topics or subjects aren’t heavy enough or in the proper location for the world’s spotlight and respect (or respectful wrath!). She is always just getting down to business, starting or participating honestly and earnestly and humorously in a conversation that she is invariably an asset to.

I was thinking about Crosbie’s work recently (and its effect on me) because, in April, I read her new book of poetic prose Life Is About Losing Everything. Though is about that, about losing everything, when you look up from the book while riding on Toronto’s Dufferin bus, everyone and everything looks so much more valuable.

Though I know her work very well, I was still kind of amazed at both the depth and the strange brightness of this book. Her heavy talent and heavy intelligence somehow makes her genius seem so light and natural. Maybe in a way it is, and it’s the living that’s so hard. It’s written in short chapters, and involves my always-favourite art project: how to take the bones of loss and meaninglessness and make meaning.

It is my favourite book of hers so far. I’ll be co-hosting the book’s launch, under The Production Front, along with House of Anansi Press at The Mascot on May 10th.

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March 10, 3 pm-midnight: Reality Art TV Marathon. Back to the World @ the AGO

It’s been almost a year since our last live event, our 100,000th Word Party in March, 2011. So let’s do it again: As part of Margaux’s stint as Artist in Residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario, we’re holding a Daytime-Evening TV Slumber Party in the Education Commons on the west side of the AGO.

The date will be March 10. The time will be 3 pm until about midnight.

We’ll be screening videos of a show (you might know it, but be discreet) that turns art into a ruthless Elimination Dance in a whole other way than the professional art world does. Making and judging art on reality TV makes for strange and strangely refreshing stabs at more clear ways to talk about it.

Mostly this’ll be a lot like sitting at home on the couch vacuuming up consecutive episodes of a TV show on the Internet or DVD, except with friends you might not know yet, in a public place. And with somebody else ordering the pizza. Bring your own well-concealed beverages and snacks, and any other comfort-inducing devices (sleeping bags welcome!). There will be time for discussion and perhaps some unexpected interventions.

After, we’ll go out for drinks and talk more about who we think should have won and which one we would have sex with.

We’d love any readers to come out and join us.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, events, margaux williamson, TV/video, visual art