Ari Barnes is one of the most thoughtful and generous spirits I’ve encountered among classical performers. And as someone recently called “the best Canadian cellist of his generation” by Bramwell Tovey it would be understandable if he was more guarded with his time. Ari left Vancouver for the Bavarian city of Nuremberg in Germany in March 2017 and has been firing on all cylinders pursuing all manner of ambitious musical projects.
But despite a schedule that includes frequent and diverse performing duties, catching up with colleagues, and even some skateboarding, Ari is always ready to act as an ambassador for the appreciation of classical and new music, and the idea of a broadly engaged citizenry that can participate at every level of cultural life with an appreciation of music near its core.
I met with Ari to do an interview while he was here to perform with the Turning Point Ensemble and with Heidi Krutzen as half of the harp/cello duo Couloir. On Remembrance Day, under a pressing grey sky, we alighted to Green College at UBC for an improvised portrait session and followed up with coffee for a chat.
MM: How have things changed for you since the move to Nuremburg?
AB: I’ve felt an immense inner growth in the last couple of years, absorbing and learning a new language and acclimatizing to the new cultural environment there. It’s raised my awareness of the idiosyncrasies of musical styles as they developed through the ages. I’m more attuned to the differences between baroque music, classic, romantic, post-romantic, expressionistic, impressionistic and so on right up to 21st century art music. It’s all become more clearly delineated for me somehow. For example if you go to a museum and you’re looking at a survey exhibit, you need to pay attention to really small details from era to era to understand what transpired from moment to moment in history. That obviously applies to things like sculpture and painting but music is more abstract and it’s not as easy to observe those nuances and shifts in approach. So I’m starting to understand more clearly what they are and how the approaches shifted from Haydn to Beethoven for example.
MM: I just heard the St. Lawrence String Quartet do a late Beethoven piece at a Friends of Chamber Music concert last night. I know it’s a common observation but I’m always amazed at how contemporary those late pieces can sound.
AB: Of course, but Haydn can sound modern too. If you’re listening to Boccherini, then Haydn sounds really modern. It’s all relative. But some of Beethoven’s late compositions easily sound as if they could have been sculpted in the late 20th century.
MM: Let’s talk about the contemporary work you’ve been performing. You’re involved with new music in several capacities.
AB: One of my great passions is to create new music alongside contemporary composers, to work with composers, ensembles or by myself to develop works and/or to interpret them, express them, record them. I find working through that fresh lens really invigorating.
I recently had the opportunity to play and record (Canadian-German composer) Michael Oesterle’s Cello Concerto with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. It was originally written for a larger ensemble but he rearranged the work for us, a smaller, more tightly knit group. It then works better for touring and also pairs really well with the Haydn C major cello concerto which we were also performing on that program.
One of the things I love about 21st century art music is the range of narratives people deal with now which makes the music more relevant to us. Something that Michael was dealing with was the influence of iron during the development of industrialization. How the development of iron changed humankind in many ways and how those changes are still resonating. He makes interesting references throughout the work to various figures who brought the process forward, like the Darby family. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully scored and his rearrangement is fabulous. It’s one of the best works of contemporary cello literature that I’ve heard and then had the pleasure to play.
MM: What about contemporary solo cello pieces?
AB: Yes! A work that I absolutely love is Vez, a seven-minute work by (Montreal-based composer) Ana Sokolovic which was written in 2005, the same year as the Michael Oesterle concerto.
I learned it here in Vancouver and had the pleasure of recording it with Ana present. She’s a magnificent artist and I’ve played that piece in many places since. I took it to the 24th International Johannes Brahms competition in Austria and used it as my contemporary work, using it to share Canadian music with an international panel and audience. It was received extremely well and I was successful at that competition and owe a great portion of that to Anna’s work and my connection to it. So that’s one example of contemporary solo cello work that’s worked its way into my literature and which I love.
MM: And Canadian!
AB: I’ve come across a lot of Canadian composing talent just by way of being Canadian and frequently being asked to play Canadian music and having an interest in that. A couple of pieces I play are by my father, Milton Barnes, although these are based in a more traditional language, a Sephardic Jewish folk language, very tonal, very listenable. Then we head into territory like Farshid Samandari’s Memoirs Untold or Elizabeth Knudson’s Yarilo which are either deeply personal accounts of living with political oppression or that simply revel in the cycle of the seasons based on loosely referenced mythology.
MM: What would you like to tackle in the future?
AB: There’s a wealth of literature that I haven’t yet explored. I’d love to get into some mid and late 20th Century stuff like Ligeti’s Solo Sonata, or Penderecki’s Solo Sonata. I can happily say these are works I have yet to truly discover. I’ve heard them a number of times but haven’t spent the time getting inside of them and really absorbing the language.
And while commissioning solo works is something that’s of great interest, I have a project with harpist Heidi Krutzen as Couloir, and we’ve commissioned many duo works largely due to the fact that not much is written for that combination before we started making music together. It’s a natural byproduct of enjoying each other’s musicianship, creating new literature. We’ve created a good nine works now and that’s a lot of my commissioning focus. That and cello concerti.
Ari rehearsing the Elgar Cello Concerto at The Orpheum
MM: The last time I saw you perform was with the VSO performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. I love that this is something that’s now being formed around you, that people are writing with you in mind.
I’ve had a few cello concerti written for me and there are more in the mix. It’s exciting work for me. What I like is that one gets to reach a much larger audience. As much as I love more intimate formats, I ultimately like playing for large rooms of people and bringing the contemporary language into the traditional concert hall. But that’s always been a thing. It’s nothing new, but I find it exciting.
MM: Your Instagram feed recently featured a video clip of you playing Bach in a church. I loved that because it absolutely stopped my mindlessl scrolling and made me wish to seek out the intimacy of live performance.
AB: That was in Limburger Dom (a gothic cathedral) in Limburg near the venue I was scheduled to play that evening. But it could have been just outside on the street in an unbelievably intimate little plaza with tables and restaurants and people flowing through. I could have just sat down there and offered a similar experience to those around me.
I think the urban surroundings overseas inspire that for a couple of reasons… one, because there seem to be so many places that invite you to play whether it be a church, cathedral, open plaza etc. Europe is full of places that make you curious about the acoustic properties of public spaces. I often wonder “What would my instrument sound like here?”. And the other is that people in general have such a deep appreciation for music as an art form that improves their quality of life. They really value it and they understand where it comes from. It’s an inherent part of the culture. Public spaces there are designed to encourage people to come together.
Overall, I’m excited to be in a place where I’m meeting new colleagues and I have the opportunity to play in many different countries and in different cultural contexts. I find it validating and refreshing to feel that the music we make in North America, which is a relatively new culture generally unhindered in it’s absorbtion of ideas from elsewhere, is music that people are happy to listen to in Europe, or in Asia, or anywhere else. This brings the idea that music is an international language into reality for me, and I love actually communicating in this language directly to live audiences around the globe.
At long last we bring you Coming Soon! which tells the story behind those beautiful, mysterious handmade prints you may have seen festooning local construction site hoardings as the city endlessly turns over its built surroundings!
It’s been a pleasure to create this as Diyan Achjadi is one of our favourite artists and we’ve enjoyed watching her work evolve over the years. Diyan previously worked with Vancouver Review in its print days to offer her work in the Centrefold feature.
And that brings us to another topic; Diyan’s beautiful prints from Coming Soon! are not for sale. But she did do a specific work called “Tottery” inspired by the project and available through VR Media’s Hi Def print series.
You can get a beautiful signed print by contacting us via our Art Editions page here on the site. They are printed by Fidelis and are limited to a run of only 20. They are $250 each. You can also e-mail direct:
In the meantime, please enjoy the video!
I first saw Lee’s work in the window of the late, lamented Dunn & Rundle Camera store on Granville Street in 2004. His detailed, highly personal photographs focused on the detritus of working life and urban surroundings. He had a rare and sensitive eye and a particular fondness for subtle greys. I subsequently tracked him down and ended up commissioning him for much delightful editorial work for the print version of Vancouver Review (2004 – 2011). He worked quickly, intuitively and always delivered something perfectly out of left field to illustrate a piece.
He is also a musician and the driving force behind an entity known as Dixie’s Death Pool which began life in Calgary in 1991. Now it’s impossible to keep track of the genres and musical configurations that bear the Hutzulak imprint.
To this day I am always taken with his posters. Originally designed to promote DDP gigs they’ve since become key to announcing exhibitions of his paintings and drawings under the “Leisure Thief” brand.
As a collector and designer of concert posters, I always keep an eye out for distinctive, consistent and effective work. Lee’s posters differ from most in that they feel like they are straining to contain some sort of colourful spirit just long enough to get your attention, make you seek out the essential information, then invite you to stand back and luxuriate in the texture, atmosphere and delicious oddness. Mostly he uses his own highly distinctive drawings and paintings but he also very effectively uses found materials and, lesser frequently, photography.
Lee is also obscenely prolific. He’s always painting, drawing and gigging and by the time you read this there will be another entire body of work floating around. But let’s at least focus some attention on some of Lee’s rather randomly selected “greatest hits” of the last 20 years! They aren’t produced in quantity and are snapped up quickly. We sat down last summer to talk posters … and I made sure I scored a few remaining copies of some favourites for the collection!
LH: “When I was in high school in Calgary I would take the train down to Stampede Station and get off walk up 17th Ave. It had a kind of vibe like Main Street. There were record stores and clubs like The Republic and The Ship and Anchor. I’d walk along to my high school and collect the coolest posters made by this theatre company called One Yellow Rabbit (coincidentally a group I’d done some video work for in the early 90s – ed.) and my room was wallpapered top to bottom with gig posters. I’d never heard the bands but most of the cool stuff did come from Vancouver. I had posters for Animal Slaves gigs long before I’d even been to a live show. I used to carefully remove the posters stapled on the wooden poles.”
MM: Ah yes, the poles. I recently had to pry some posters for a Luna gig in Seattle off a sodden pole that was encrusted with staples through layers of poster paper. And it was pouring out. Fun times! There are only a few areas left in Seattle where you can poster and the south end of Capitol Hill is one of them. But there’s been a postering renaissance in Vancouver fueled in part by the proliferation of city-managed pole display, construction boom hoarding supply and a general willingness of businesses to allow on-premises postering. It also helps that design standards have improved over the years. However, unlike, say, Germany or Holland our still largely design-illiterate coastal culture ensures that a smart, well designed poster will easily stand out. Lee’s posters work because there is a rare blend of whimsy, perverse humour and a clever design strategy. It helps that that there are no labels or PR types to interfere. But still, you need to get these things seen by the right people.
LH: “The poles in Vancouver are controlled by “the poster machine”. And if you’re doing a run of 20 you’re not going to waste them on poles anyway. You’ve gotta find windows and prime spots where there are no other posters.”
MM: Your own paintings and illustrations aside, what are some design influences?
LH: “It’s pretty all over the place as you can see! In terms of posters and graphic design? Why not Russian Constructivism (laughs)! It’s probably gotten less experimental as I’ve gone on. I usually start with a painting, find a font that suits the band so its probably influenced more by the software. There’s a formula in there somewhere.”
“What inspired me to start making posters again was getting Dixie’s Death Pool together again and needing to find something that suits the sound of the band. The Lido pub down the street here and the China Cloud are the places I play so I also design to reinforce a sense of community around those places as well. It’s important. And it all goes back to what I like about music; playing live, making a poster, a t-shirt and recording and doing a cover for an album. The whole creative world of music encompasses graphic design.”
MM: Postering strategy is important. We use Silver Fox for the Friends of Chamber Music posters I design but I’ve done my time street postering for my own projects as well. What’s your favoured route?
LH: “I poster a lot around Main Street so places like Our Town, Gene, and Budgie’s. Budgie’s displays posters using clothes pegs and wire so if you collect posters you can get them after the show in perfect shape. And also Cartem’s Donuts where I’m a regular customer. They’ve also hosted a show of my paintings. There’s also a nice big poster board at SFU Woodward’s. But Emily Carr is the BEST because there are all these white walls and there are no rules! It’s like the wild west at this point. You can put them wherever you want and they look awesome! Being close to an art college has been a real inspiration and since it’s opened nearby I’ve started really getting into making posters again and hand silk screening some of them.”
MM: You also seem to use a fairly consistent branding system across all your work.
“It’s been important for me to develop logos. I’ve developed a sort of code. Mozart used a K followed by a number to denote many of his pieces. I’m going with NGC for “New General Catalogue”. So on my posters you first see the business logo featuring an elephant (Leisure Thief), then a crown, then followed by NGC and the date. I just like putting logos on things. It makes them look official…and then there’s the micro type that you’re not even meant to read!”
Lee’s posters can be found in unlikely places around town at unpredictable intervals … but you can check out his site here:
and a piece I did on his recent Cartem’s Donuts show here:
A performance of “forever after” Hope Lee’s stunning work for solo flute as performed by Mark Takeshi McGregor. In this longer version of the video for the piece, Mark introduces the work and provides some great insight and speaks to some technical points!
Our doc on Vancouver painter Val Nelson’s foray into self-portraiture is finally done. It grew in length after life threw a few curve balls our way but it is, we think, more interesting for it.
At long last we bring you The Victoria Guitar Trio performing composer Scott Edward Godin’s exquisite re-imagining of a classic Blind Willie Johnson blues tune made semi-famous by Ry Cooder for the soundtrack of Wim Wenders’ 1984 classic film, Paris, Texas.
The full title of the piece is: Melos (melody); Dianoia (thought) and is a deliciously playful and beautiful work of new music while seeming like the product of a hazy afternoon jam on the porch of a small town shack. We interviewed the members of the group to set up the origins and intent of the piece before getting into the music video proper. Enjoy!
We recently sat down with Timothy Taylor on the occasion of the publication of his new novel “The Rule of Stephens” to talk about how one’s world can sometimes seem to oscillate between being governed by the cosmology of Stephen Hawking…or that of Stephen King.
Back in 2004 we had no idea how long the Vancouver Review (v2.0) would survive. As it happens, we published 28 issues and went on to great critical success in the liminal field of magazine publishing that thought smart essays for a generally interested public might actually be…a thing. I was of the opinion, then, that even if we only managed to squeak one issue past the local gatekeepers, this should be the cover story we were remembered for. I thought Vancouver might like to look back and see what was evident then (and long before) and try squaring it with our present nightmare. While I was nominated for a Western Magazine Award for the cover, I still maintain the article should have been the nominee, and the winner. I’m grateful to Paul for his permission to republish this and am excited by his interest in potentially writing a follow-up.
GRAVEYARD OF AMBITION: DOES VANCOUVER MURDER DREAMS by Paul Delany (published in VR #1, Spring, 2004)
“Ah, Vancouver,” my friend Christine used to say, “The graveyard of ambition.” What answer was there to that? I had arrived in Vancouver long before, from New York; should I admit that my ambitions had dwindled as the years went by? Christine came from a wealthy and powerful English family; a few years ago she went back to England. I don’t know if her ambition has revived there, but at least she now lives in a place that respects it. In Vancouver, many sparks of ambition surely have fizzled out, including some of my own. We can always blame the rain.
People must grow up in Vancouver with the usual eagerness for wealth or fame, and newcomers presumably bring their ambition with them. How is it that Vancouver murders ambition? For some, enjoying the milder pleasures of life by the Pacific may be ambition enough. Why strive for more than that, once you have joined the lotus-eaters? Why leave for Calgary, and more money; or Toronto, and corporate promotion; or Ottawa, and the meagre fame of being an MP? Many Vancouverites settle for a less brilliant career in exchange for an easier life away from the workplace.
Vancouver, let’s face it, does have fewer glittering prizes for the ambitious than most cities of its size. Prizes are measured in money or power. The big money in our society is created in cities that are financial centres; Vancouver has never been one, and it is the largest city in North America that doesn’t have a locally controlled bank. It doesn’t have a single federal politician who counts, and its three biggest employers (the University of British Columbia, Vancouver General Hospital, and the airport) have little influence outside the city. If those who live here gradually pull in their horizons, they may be adjusting to what they reasonably can expect. People who have become famous in the outside world, like Jeff Wall, William Gibson or Doug Coupland, can be considered a special case. They prefer to live here, and sometimes to find their material here; yet in a sense they have become too big to play for the home team. That may be the best way to beat the “Vancouver syndrome.” But most people have to cut their cloth according to what is on offer west of Hope.
Perhaps we should just accept that Vancouver is defined by pleasure rather than power. The whole of Canada is disempowered, to begin with; we live next door to the world’s most assertive country, which only a maniac would try to challenge head-on. One of our few contributions to world English is the phrase “You can’t win.” Within Canada, BC is in a similar position. Under the present system, it can never have fair representation in parliament. The population of BC should entitle it to 41 seats; currently it has 34 (out of 301), rising to 36 (out of 309) after the next redistribution. More important, there is no prospect of federal power shifting outside the Ontario/Quebec axis, regardless of soothing noises from Paul Martin. For many years the West has embraced the politics of protest rather than of ambition for power. Even there, it is Alberta that produces the leaders and the ideas, not BC, and certainly not Vancouver.
Things are very different in the us, where California has a smaller share of the national population than bc does, but a much bigger share of respect. It is by far the biggest state, and has 53 seats in congress (out of 435). Three US presidents—Hoover, Nixon and Reagan—have been Californians. BC’s only prime minister, Kim Campbell, was appointed rather than elected and lasted four months in office. Paul Martin may give BC a bit more attention than Chrétien did; but he’s from Québec, like every significant prime minister for the past 35 years, and he will always have to put the interests of Central Canada first.
If Vancouverites have to lower their ambitions in federal politics, how about the provincial arena? The capital isn’t here, which immediately drains away much of Vancouver’s political vitality. And until recently, BC elections have been won or lost in the Interior, not the Lower Mainland (which also is underrepresented in the provincial legislature). Political parties of both the right and the left have been populist rather than metropolitan. The Bennetts, hardware and real-estate millionaires in Kelowna, represented one style of political power; Glen Clark, the self-styled “East Vancouver kid,” represented the other. Both sides were anti-intellectual and suspicious of urban sophisticates. For the Socreds, Bill Bennett Jr. regularly chose cabinets in which no one had graduated from university. The NDP did have a sprinkling of intellectuals but its real decisions were made inside the trade-union movement, where thinking for yourself has never been welcome. Power and ambition were certainly taken seriously in the union world, but they did their work in the back room where no one could see. When the NDP regained power in the ’90s, the Glen Clark wing of the party soon pushed aside Mike Harcourt and his West Side allies like Tom Perry or Darlene Marzari.
There was a real shift in BC politics in 2001, when the Gordon Campbell Liberals swept into office. For the first time in provincial history, political power shifted to the urban middle class, putting the West Side of Vancouver into the driver’s seat. The provincial government is now socially liberal but economically conservative, a novel combination. Such a regime is possible because organized religion is weaker in BC than anywhere else in North America, and because the Lower Mainland has grown to dominate the province. The values of the provincial Liberals are those of Vancouver, rather than of more socially conservative or fundamentalist regions. As the old economic base in natural resources continues its decline, the province’s future seems to lie in encouraging what author Richard Florida has called the “creative class” to develop technology, tourism and service industries based in Vancouver. The recently elected civic government under Larry Campbell is nominally of the left, but is not fundamentally opposed to the provincial Liberals’ view of the city’s future: this is why they campaigned together to win the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The “creative class” vision assumes that you cannot separate the social from the economic. It’s precisely Vancouver’s cultural diversity and agreeable lifestyle that will attract new kinds of soft industries. They will be productive because the ferment of city life will provide the raw materials for invention and entertainment. Instead of forestry, fishing or mining, the new wealth of the province will be generated in the forest of highrises around False Creek and Coal Harbour. The Shaw Tower, under construction at the foot of Burrard, points the way: it is a live/work building with offices on the lower floors and living space above. Architect Bing Thom’s new tower next to the Georgia Hotel, and James Cheng’s proposed one for Georgia and Thurlow, are going to be live/work/shop. It is taken for granted that having more people living in downtown apartments will be good for the city, by reducing commuting and making the streets more lively. As the new condo towers fill up, Vancouver will become as vital as Manhattan or San Francisco. Ambition will arrive too, with creative people landing here from all over the globe.
One trouble with such sunny forecasts is that as densification becomes more obvious, criticism is getting louder—and not just from condo dwellers who want development to stop now in order to preserve their views. More people are not walking to work downtown. Resident population in the area has nearly doubled in the past decade, but employment in the central business core has increased very little. Many national corporations have merged or moved their head offices out of the city, and those that remain employ fewer people than ten years ago. New residents are often reverse commuters, to jobs in Burnaby or Richmond. Others don’t work at all, and Bing Thom worries about the downtown peninsula becoming “a rich enclave of retirees and foreigners.” In the extreme version of this idea, Vancouver becomes like 18thcentury Venice, a city that has lost its hinterland and is given over to the corrupt pursuit of pleasure.
Yet complaints like this have been heard from the city’s first founding. Vancouver was cursed as a parasite on the Interior, where the real work was done; it was the place where loggers, miners and fishermen came to get drunk, get laid, and be cheated. Now downtown office people are seen as the “real” workers whose jobs are disappearing. When they are gone, the argument goes, downtown will offer only recreation and shopping, provided by waiters or store clerks who can’t afford to live here. The town will then have lost all its substance: Las Vegas or Miami, with rain.
This idea of Vancouver as a corrupt, hollowed-out casino city is the pessimistic side of the argument that the most successful cities of the 21st century will be those most attractive to the “creative class.” In fact, the clustering of shops, restaurants and condo towers need not crowd out new economic enterprises in areas like software, entertainment and pharmaceuticals. Live/work/shop buildings are only one of many signs of the merger of production and consumption in the postmodern economy. The city’s dramatic new skyline just happens to make visible a consumerist lifestyle that, elsewhere in North America, is hidden in estates and gated suburbs.
How did this present building boom in downtown Vancouver come about? Shanghai used to be the New York of China; in 1949 its financial class fled the communists and set up shop in Hong Kong. The absorption of Hong Kong by the mainland in 1997 was an anticlimax, and the dream that Vancouver might become the principal link between China and North America has ended in disappointment. But patient Hong Kong money did move into Vancouver real estate, in the Concord Pacific lands and other projects. Now the north shore of False Creek has acquired its own momentum, independent of strategic shifts across the Pacific. Many of the original Hong Kong owners of downtown condos have sold out, but local residents have been happy to take their place. The opening of the Urban Fare supermarket at the foot of Davie in 1999 was the turning point in building a community in Yaletown, downtown South, and north False Creek (Granville Market played a similar role on the south side of the creek). In this decade the community will consolidate and expand around the east end of False Creek, to meet the Olympic village on the south shore.
But what kind of community will it be? The new downtown is not as sociable as it looks. Two kinds of space are emerging: the lively streets, but also apartment towers that are like medieval castles, rising above the peasants in the village square below. These are gated communities in the sky, with ever more ingenious barriers to keep out intruders. There is an arms race going on, between more people living downtown and more criminals preying on them to get money for drugs. The novelist J. G. Ballard is the prophet of this new world:
Town-scapes are changing. The open-plan city belongs to the past—no more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. . . . We’re building prisons all over the world and calling them luxury condos. The amazing thing is that the keys are all on the inside.
Without going so far, we can recognize that the upper floors of these towers are the literal commanding heights of Vancouver’s new urbanism. From them, the people in the street look like insects, not members of a common civic space. You don’t exactly live in a neighborhood, you live over it: welcome to my gondola!
The city now has a third, vertical dimension that influences housing values. People don’t just live in more or less desirable neighbourhoods; they also live higher or lower, and in more or less protected spaces. Even so, the idea of the skyscraper as a visible index of ambition doesn’t present itself as starkly in Vancouver as in Chicago or New York. For more than 30 years, Vancouver has enforced a maximum building height of 140 metres, and has also established corridors that preserve views of the mountains for people south of False Creek. The city has tried to square the circle with this policy of egalitarian highrises, which has produced a flat-topped skyline where no building sticks out too noticeably from its surroundings. And it’s not just height: as local critics have said, the architectural quality of the highrise boom is mediocre at best.
Yet the height compromise may be breaking down. The Wall Centre, the city’s highest building at 150 metres, already stands alone with its radical design. New buildings by Bing Thom and James Cheng, going higher, also aim to break the consensus about a decent height or shape for local buildings. There is still time for a landmark tower to be built before the 2010 Olympics, something well over 200 metres. It will be interesting to see who might step up to propose it, and whether the city will give permission. Regardless of whether the height limit is broken, downtown Vancouver is surely shifting into a higher gear from the cumulative effect of so many new buildings and so many new residents on the peninsula. We are building it, and they are coming. But, to return to the question of ambition, coming to do what?
More than any city I know, Vancouver encourages people to direct their fantasies and desires into a transformed future. The dream of the journey to the furthest West survives, even if its fulfillment always recedes, incomplete or unsatisfied. Yet no one seems troubled that futures they used to imagine never arrived, or arrived in disappointment. Who cares, so long as there are other things still to look forward to? What certainly has arrived, and kept the whole culture of hope going, is the ever-expanding system of consumption: new shops and restaurants, better fashions, gadgets and diversions of every kind. More people arrive to enjoy them, from the rest of Canada and all over the world; and this growing, cheerful crowd seems to confirm that, yes, we are in the right place and will soon be granted our revelation. It is like the buzz of conversation in a theatre before the curtain goes up.
Meanwhile, are the foundations of social life in Vancouver actually getting better? Is there steady improvement in transit, schools, universities, museums,health care? Are our politicians, our newspapers, our writers and artists, better than they used to be? Are crime, poverty and addiction receding? Is BC richer, more respected, more powerful within the Canadian federation? Where is all this optimism coming from?
The city needs a more mature sense both of its own history, and of what remains to be built. Starting from respect for the city’s great endowment of ocean, mountain and forest, we should cherish the continuities between current developments and earlier phases of growth. Fortunately, Vancouver is still a city where there has been relatively little demolition (except in the West End), and where few buildings are out of scale or isolated from their context. Sometimes that context is an instant creation, as in the latest Concord Pacific development east of the Granville Street Bridge. Along with the towers there is new park space, plazas, shoreline walks, and connection with other kinds of city life nearby. The challenge, here and elsewhere, will be to make such developments helpful to less favoured parts of the city, and especially the desperate problems of the Downtown Eastside.
For the rest, laments about the “graveyard of ambition” need to distinguish between substantial hopes and mere opportunism. Ambition is not just a hunger for the new, or seizing money while it’s hot. It also depends on the existence of older buildings or institutions, of things that people hope to own or inherit. True possession of the future requires a deeper appreciation of the past, even in this young city (which is not so young in the sense that it has escaped the 20th century devastations inflicted on cities in continental Europe). Vancouver needs more charitable endowments, more complex local skills, and respected traditions. Sometimes these complexities emerge from decline, as when Boeing’s troubles in the 1970s helped the rise of software and biotechnology in Seattle. Because diversification is by its nature unpredictable, it cannot be willed into existence by governments. Recently, neither the NDP nor the Liberals have had any real cultural policy for Vancouver; and it may be for the better that they haven’t even tried to create one.
To a great degree, success for any city now depends on creating attractive public spaces, helping people get access to them, and awaiting results. Vancouver could do much more to facilitate short-range transit in the city centre to complement those billion-dollar lines into the suburbs. Where are the proposed streetcars linking Granville Market to the CN station, the Roundhouse in Yaletown and the Seabus terminal downtown? Why is there no decent train service to Seattle and Portland, when these three cities have everything to gain by pooling their strengths? Why have there been no real flagship public buildings since Moshe Safdie’s public library? International architects have effectively been shut out of Vancouver for a long time, and no one seems to notice what Santiago Calatrava has done for Milwaukee or Frank Gehry for Bilbao.
A parochial architectural scene is unfortunate when the greatest advantage of Vancouver, apart from its natural attractions, may simply be its openness to the world, the ease with which it has absorbed aspiring newcomers and made itself into a champion of postmodern diversity. Couldn’t we follow British policy, which grants residence to any writers, composers or artists who can make a living from their talent? We may lack ambition, yet there are still many people whose ambition is to come and live here. The shortage of power that I have described might even turn to the city’s advantage, as the dangers of having power become more evident in this new century. In a recent article in The Washington Monthly, Richard Florida argues that us dynamism is threatened by fear of terrorism and the doctrine of preemptive wars:
Vancouver and Toronto are set to take off: Both city-regions have a higher concentration of immigrants than New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. So too are Sydney and Melbourne. As creative centers, they would rank alongside Washington, D.C. and New York City. Many of these places also offer such further inducements as spectacular waterfronts, beautiful countryside, and great outdoor life. They’re safe. They’re rarely at war. These cities are becoming the global equivalents of Boston or San Francisco, transforming themselves from small, obscure places to creative hotbeds that draw talent from all over—including your city and mine.
Cities like Zurich or Stockholm have benefited by their traditions of neutrality and peace, inglorious as their prosperity may have been. British Columbia, which is bigger than France and Germany combined, has no army base and is probably the least militarized place in North America. In coming years, there will be more freedom to travel and emigrate to Vancouver than to a us that is becoming much more fearful of strangers. Perhaps that will be the limit of Vancouver’s ambition, to be clean, prosperous and safe. Should that be enough, in a time when darker passions seem to be in the saddle everywhere else? Or should we get off that lotus-root diet and start to move faster, look further, and build higher?
Republished with permission
This is a new video connected to the Sphaerae project, a series of photos I made for exhibition and for which loscil (Scott Morgan) created eight new pieces. Eventually I made a video for VR Media using #8. You can see the first production on our homepage.
In the fall of 2016 I revisited the tracks Scott had made and felt a renewed interest and thought it worthwhile to create a new video using #1 as a soundtrack. In it I use an image of Sphaerae #1 and then let it dissolve into a blend of new footage and remixed elements from the first video. If time and imagination permits, I’ll do more of these.
Etienne Zack is suddenly in unfamiliar territory. The Montreal born artist has just landed in a curious little outpost most of us think of (if at all) as a place to buy cheap gas or pick up duty free parcels. It’s a place borne of a 19th century border dispute between England and America, an island really, only recently joined (in geological terms) to our lower mainland. I’m referring, of course, to “The Home of The Breakers”: Point Roberts, Washington. USA.
After spending some time in Vancouver in the early noughts (We featured one of his paintings, Comers and Goers in our Centrefold feature in VR#11, Fall, 2006) Etienne spent the Obama years in LA as his career reached critical mass. But since the fall of 2016, he’s settled with his young family into this quiet rural setting to our south just as we enter the era of The Great Orange Mussolini.
Etiennes’ more recent work has frequently consisted of dream-like structures made of books or bound and/or redacted documents often supported by truncheons or bare fluorescent tubes. They are like the interiors of rooms built by a delirious prisoner out of the detritus of a mysterious book repository incident.
Settings oil on canvas 77” x 60” 2016
The effect of seeing the larger canvases reminds me of The Comb, a dream-like, stop-frame animated short by The Brothers Quay in that the film frequently conveys that dream sense of shifting rapidly from one familiar place into another, unrelated space where the exact point of transition is blurred by the mind to the point of being seamless. But The Brothers Quay used a time-based medium (film) and shifting mirror boxes to achieve the effect. Etienne does it with paint.
There are also echoes of French artist Christian Boltanski’s installations which evoke the scale of loss during the holocaust via dangling, dimmed bulbs, and rows of out-of-focus portraits suggesting a dark, bureaucratic organization. Threads of Gerhard Richter’s soft B&W portraits and his scuffed, layered abstraction also hang in the air. Phllip Guston once said ”When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you – your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics… and one by one, if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.” It seems to me that Etienne has walked out of the studio and what remains is truly unique.
MM: How are you feeling about the move ?
EZ: It’s been a very intense experience for me because we moved here in November and as soon as I started painting, I sensed a break in the work. We’ve spent so much time going through the process of the nomination and then the actual election (of Trump).
I’ve moved around a lot and since 2011 and my studio was more in my head than physically in a space. So working spaces kept changing because I was always moving around a lot. I think many artists can relate to this because real estate is always a very real problem in terms of securing studio space. I took a month and a half to just to establish a solid foundation for myself.
But then came January and there’s a shift in the work. Trump is in power, Brexit has happened and it’s now like a different world. But the situation here in Point Roberts is very strange. In a way it exists on its own terms. It’s not even illustrated on US maps! It looks like an island! And it is, because Canada doesn’t exist for the US and neither does Point Roberts! But it’s an interesting place to be because of its detachment from so many things. I’m trying to figure out what it means to live here. It’s not charged politically. It’s a weird, neutral space. Americans here rely on another people’s economy to make it run, which is unusual for most Americans.
MM: What’s been your response to all this on the canvas?
EZ: I think what’s happening is that there’s more of a “covering” so with the “architectural” structures I usually paint, there’s something covering it. And the writing and text is becoming more present but not legibly integrated into the painting. But there’s still space there for integrating text and really juicy painting!
MM: But you’re in a rural setting now. That’s surely going to make itself known through the work.
EZ: Yeah. I’ve never been close to nature before. I grew up in cities so this is all new. I can spend days not even going outside. I was operating like that in LA where the sun is so brutal you just stay inside and create your own little cinema. I’m still in that mode, in an artificial reality so nature might be good for me. It’s something I’ve wanted to explore more, trying to understand the patterns of nature. The work is just opening up to me so I’m not sure where it’s going. Usually I come into the studio with a pretty good idea. There are some paintings where the rags I’m using or covers that are folded pieces of cloth end up becoming “mountains”. And all of a sudden it’s interesting because there’s text on top of these materials. It might be my way to tap into Canadian landscape painting. I’m not sure what direction things will go.
MM: You’ll have Emily Carr and the Group of Seven “in the room” with you now!
EZ: But what a different reality they were in. They were so close to the landscape with a deep level of understanding. And you need that to make successful paintings so I’m not sure I can even properly look at their paintings right now. Maybe this new local landscape might help me with that.
MM: I love the idea of projecting outwards from an interior setting, to imagine landscapes and make them with disparate elements. You’re now here with fewer distractions.
EZ: There’s a lot more coming at us while we are making things. What does it mean to be connected to the entire world in a studio now? If you look at a Rembrandt painting of his studio it’s got maps, carpets and things from all over the world in it. It’s a representation of that time, of an outside world. Now you have millions of heads poking into your studio from your phone/computer. There are different moments in my production that I’m open to receiving information through podcasts, music and things like that. There’s a lot of time spent alone so I’m always trying to find the right recipe.
MM: It’s like you can reconstruct these images in dreams and they’ll become endlessly unfolding. The paint seems encouraged to leave the canvas in the mind of the viewer.
EZ: It’s important for me that the paintings seem to unfold and duplicate beyond their borders, basically beyond the frame where I’ve “edited” them. With the previous series, the canvas was first stretched on the wall and then on the frame afterwards so the edges actually continue around the piece. It was another way of indicating that the paintings should continue perpetually up, down and everywhere. Scale has something to do with it as well. When I first started the series about documents and books, the stacks of books were a lot bigger. I liked that because I could imagine looking into the content of each page but when I reduced the size of the books and enlarged the paintings then you get more of a landscape feeling so it enables the painting to go further at its edges.
MM: Our minds create structures on the fly during dreams with unfamiliar places coming into being and merging with familiar places. You represent this in two dimensional form and create it over time, consciously. It seems they can then get into peoples minds and seed a new dream space.
EZ: The paintings come from reading and imagining structures in my head where they slowly resolve into images that are still blurry but there’s real structure. And then I paint them. And when I do that I let go more and more of the first imagined architecture and bring them into the painted world. Maybe it’s because they’re completely imagined. Maybe that’s why they stay in the realm of the unfamiliar, yet familiar, where you want to know “where is this place”?
MM: So the architectural aspects, the structures, are derived from literature?
EZ: Most of the time, yes. The way I structure things is very idiosyncratic and it has to do with what I’ve been reading and how I compile information. Sometimes there’s writing on the paintings and even though I obscure it, I’m still thinking about how to place it in the structure of the painting. Everything comes together through a certain logic that’s my own but with the help of notes I’ve taken. It’s very abstract. In the end, it’s just a way of making paintings! (Laughs)
MM: There is some connection in your work to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel, where there is a world of rooms and books and characters that seemingly make up every permutation of everything ever written. But it’s a strange world where it is also a random jumble and there is always a quest for ordering.
EZ: I like the idea that a world in literature can be an actual world. The fascinating thing about that story is the idea that every possible thing has already been written. And he’s incredible in terms of stretching and collapsing time. He’ll bring you into a different century with amazing images. He does this by blending fact and fiction and it’s so compelling that he brings you along on these amazing travels and you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not, but you end up believing in the whole thing. So I feel quite close to his work and maybe my paintings try to function in that way too. I try to take on a lot and my interests are quite diverse. So there’s a convergence there that is rendered into an image.
The paintings are also about themselves and about their own structure. Maybe the viewer is compelled to figure out what these structures are. They’re systematic. Synesthesia is also a big part of it. I’m interested in how a two dimensional image can trigger so many other senses within a person.
As I’m painting I’m projecting myself constantly into these spaces. So they’re very evolved from the head but also through gesture. I’m very much there in every corner of these paintings. They’re quite crafted, very involved in terms of me figuring out every square inch of these spaces. They’re the most involved paintings I’ve done and they’re done quite traditionally by applying thin layers of paint. That’s so the light is very considered and there is an effect of transparency so the lighting effects seem plausible yet still artificial. And the human hand is very palpable in the work too. I try to be quite generous in that way in terms of keeping a human sensibility so the senses can go beyond what you’re looking at.
MM: So when my eyes first hit the painting, what process do you imagine happens then?
EZ: Human beings are built for survival, right? So the biggest thing that we want to find is…pattern recognition. If you look at studies of people who’ve been through trauma, in severe cases they can only function in very organized cell or prison-like structures, extreme structures. What they’re really good at is discerning patterns and often you’ll see that they’ll be really good at things involving technology, that demand a certain way of organizing and decoding things. Human beings are good at pattern recognition because in nature things are chaotic and that’s what you need to do, so that when X happens then Y happens and you get food …or have to run! Artists are quite good at that, at finding patterns.
MM: We come from similar cultural backgrounds. We both admire similar painters and writers. We come to these already having puzzled out Borges. What does someone without that roughly similar education make of these?
EZ: That’s why it’s important to exhibit in different places as I’ve done with this series over the last three years. Everything is open to interpretation and I think there are a lot of entry points to the work. I think somebody with no background in anything would enter these spaces quite easily. I’ll always remember the experience I had (when I knew pretty much nothing about art) being in front of a Rothko painting when I was 17 or 18. It was the deepest experience with an artwork I ever had. I keep thinking about that because it was so deep and yet having learned through doing it myself, how do I tap into that again? I can’t maybe.
MM: You’re making it possible for others then.
EZ: Yeah, hopefully, but it’s always the problem with knowing. It cuts you off from other things. We don’t purely see anything after a point. It’s always mediated by our own personal histories, by our understanding of what it is before we even see it. So knowing about art and everything else I’m interested in, can I capture that time again, when I was open to an experience like that, a purely sensorial experience? I don’t know.
MM: I’m fascinated by the instabilities, the precariousness, the rickety, Byzantine, house-of-cards feel to some of your large paintings.
EZ: In painting you can invent your own laws of physics. So you can completely change the plausibility of how structures should function. So how does that work, that the mind projects itself into a painting to convince you a certain kind of physics are operating? Old painting was often about creating the illusion that physics actually exist.
MM: Did you see (sci-fi blockbuster) Interstellar, where a black hole is represented by an endlessly refracted library where the lead character reaches through time and space?
EZ: I didn’t know that scene was tied into the idea of a black hole and voyage through time. My interest is in history and literature and processes of understanding through texts and reading. But now how do we represent the internet, or data in general? That’s what I’m really interested in.
MM: I was reading in EYE magazine about the function and design of the status bar and folders on computers. It was about the ways in which we access data that tie in with our basic needs for simple representations of complex, technological data ordering systems. So with all that randomized, fragmented data in our lives, we still need to see representations of folders to contain it all and proceed! And the status bar ties us to our need for a sense of time, as though someone is running around in your computer doing all these tasks and will be with you shortly!
EZ: We still live in a physical world and the physicality of things has always interested me. But I like twisting that a bit where you can have different senses going. I’m reading “The Art of Memory” by Frances A Yates (1966). She explains how people used these mnemonic systems in the past. There are stories where people who are really good at memory will invent whole architectures in their minds. They walk into rooms and there will be all these objects and each object will relate to a certain memory or certain words. So they memorize incredible amounts all by visualizing these architectural spaces and objects within them. I think it’s an ancient Greek technique. There are also many rules governing it. It was used by lawyers to remember certain facts, and by orators for speeches.
It was lost for a long time but revived during the Middle Ages, though in a different way because the first rules were lost. For example you had to choose a certain kind of architecture with rooms that are not too lit, but lit enough. They have to not have too many columns so there could be more rooms and so on. It’s meant to create all this form for memory to work within. And it’s all done in your head! What‘s fascinating about this is that it’s almost describing virtual reality; visualizing things outside of our own minds. Memory was highly valued in certain professions. But now we’ve subcontracted it all to our devices. Our processes of recall are constantly mediated.
There’s a flattening of our lives in this society and we need to deepen our lives, to make them three dimensional again. Flat is much faster for capital to flow over. Distribution is flat. When something’s been flattened it’s been reduced to a lower, functional medium and there’s a history and reason for that. We need to make everything a shape, and now we need to re-introduce depth instead of all these facades.
Sitter oil on canvas 48″ x 42″ 2017