Posts tagged: public space
Image credit: Jem Cohen, year unknown. From: This Long Century
I watched a selection of films by Brooklyn-based film artist Jem Cohen on Monday night. As part of DIM Cinema curated by Amy Kazymerchyk, the films selected included Lost Book Found (1996), which evoked Walter Benjamin in spirit and in action and reminded me of a curiosity for the city landscape that I haven’t felt or seen in sometime.
Cohen’s imagery sparks off an insatiable appetite for the city he inhabits, absorbing the passing congregation of the gritty and the light. There is no difference between the sacred and the profane, not in a Cohen film, and his awe of the city’s tics and vibrations captured a city that wasn’t afraid of its own underbelly.
The city in Cohen’s films is a city that no longer exists. His portrait of Patti Smith, Long For The City (2008), could read as a self-portrait of Cohen. Public congregations are a rare sight today, seen mostly in my mind as part of sanctioned and quartered off outdoor festivals, or lately, through mass protests notably within Canada through the streets of Montreal. Cohen’s latest film is a series of observations taken during Occupy Wall Street’s stance in Liberty/Zuccotti Park. That work carried a different tone, one that was not fueled by curiosity, but of urgency.
Public filming has slid into a rare privilege as laws have taken away the rights (and footage) of many who are trying to engage with their surroundings. There is a decline in public space to gather; there is also a decline in the right to participate, let alone document, the experience of a public space. As a result, there will be a decline in voices such as Jem Cohen and the City as we know it will be a structure antagonistic to our freedom.
I don’t recall which city we were in at the time, but Kristine was telling the story of how she grew up walking to and from school with one hand in her bag like she was holding a knife so she wouldn’t get hassled as a kid. I also believe this is when she first learned to mime, and that her time in the North End of Winnipeg was truly formative.
Gerry has said that East Hastings exists in every city, but spread out more. We were definitely talking about Edmonton. Maybe Lloydminster. Same holds true for Winnipeg. Maybe more so. My cab driver gave me a friendly warning that I shouldn’t go out after dark. Not where I was staying. Sure there’s lots of restaurants, but there’s also lots of bars. I remember my first night ever in Winnipeg. I was walking down Osborne after dinner. There was a large pool of blood outside the record store. It was during Fringe and a boy dressed up like a Friar with a wooden sword rode by on his bicycle.
I had lunch with Freya and then shared some office time in her studio above Parlour. Their coffee is just okay. The Sun Burger was great though. She says she’s been held up at knife point, but only once. Those are pretty good odds for this part of Winnipeg. She obviously wasn’t miming. There’s random day time violence from the hotel down the street. That guy who chopped up the body there and then turned himself in is an anomaly. The chopping or the apologizing is an anomaly? A chopped up body was also found in a nearby dumpster. Apparently it’s happened more than once. Pickton is supposedly still a mystery. Who was he covering for? The Greyhound bus madness is more of a faded memory. That bus was coming from Edmonton to Winnipeg. He worked at the McDonald’s by my house near Kingsway. The beheading happened on the stretch of the Highway near Brandon where lighting has been known to strike. Divya and I are going to be on that highway in a few days.
I walk up Main into the North End for a studio visit with Sarah. I walk past one fight though it didn’t look like a fair fight. Are you going to stay down the guy was saying with his fists clenched and arms flexed. The other guy was sitting flat on his ass on the pavement. First warning. Last warning. I wonder where he learned that warning system. Under the overpass I take my first right. I once helped move drywall into this warehouse space. An entire floor of spacious low rent high ceiling studios are not a rare thing in this city. The exchange is full of them. Every space has natural light. I leave from the back door down the alley and back under the overpass. I get yelled at just once. There’s two foot patrols on the south side of the tracks. A man collapses in front of them moaning and rolling around. Everyone moves slowly as if going through the motions. The radio blaring out of the social services centre is scratchy and distorted. Katy Perry sounds better this way.
Shawna and I wait for the bus on Main after cocktails at the Cookery and the opening at Urban Shaman. There was a lineup at the new restaurant down the street. We each have a fistful of change. Two forty five to be exact. These pennies have to go somewhere. A man with a black eye asks us for change. For a coffee. Sorry man. I usually don’t deny. I usually give change if I have it. But cabs are impossible to flag down in this city. The girl on the bus had a black eye too. She paid the fare for her self, her friend, and all the kids.
I was walking down West Pender on Monday and a guy dropped a five dollar bill. He was in a hurry. By the time I bent over and picked it up, he was already crossing Howe. I dropped off the bill the next block down on Granville. A man with a cardboard sign strapped to his head held out his hands. I didn’t read the sign. I know it contained the word FOOD written in black felt pen.
But there’s crime there, is the response I get every time I rave aloud about how much I love Winnipeg. I hear you can’t walk down the street. Of course you can walk down the street. You just have to share the street. Besides, there’s crime everywhere. Oh, she waves with her hand and with a lilt in her voice, it’s not everywhere, just in certain areas on certain streets.
Sitting between the opposing bleachers Instant Coffee have built, I am confident this is as good a function as these risers will ever have. Faces are stacked from floor to ceiling and more keeping creeping in as opinions and distractions are volleyed back and forth.
The topic of rezoning Mount Pleasant has been on the periphery of almost every conversation shared recently. I don’t live in the area, though I did consider it, but when I officially moved here three months ago the area around Broadway and Kingsway had become the most expensive rental zone in the city for what I was looking for. I’m not looking for much; I mainly wished to live within walking distance to fresh produce. I have spent too much of my life getting in and out of cars to buy papaya. However, within this basic priority there lies a number of social prerequisites including an inherent globalized market, a climate to support walking year round, and a density of population who know and support businesses on their street.
If I had to offer a definition for what makes a city livable, one answer would be that it is walkable, and the other is that there are spaces along the way to discover. But what exists in those spaces is just as important as having them there. I may prefer one business over another based on the simplicity of a smile. I apply the same guideline to art spaces when sometimes the level of aloofness is so overt that I wonder why these spaces are public at all. So when these same spaces are under threat in neighborhoods where they have no visibility and have built no connections on the ground, when nearby residents don’t even feel welcome to enter, I am torn as to how I feel about their fate. This may appear antagonistic within my own community, as while I will defend the importance of art with every breath I have, I defend through scrutiny and examination of how art remains vital. Otherwise, we have empty storefronts filled with reified objects and their value as assets take precedence as their primary value.
If we glance back at the rise of contemporary art, we find ourselves at the feet of Duchamp, who blasted art out of the retinal arena only to find it hurried back in with a “Do Not Touch” label next to a didactic panel. The emergence of Artist Run Spaces began as spaces to play, but they too have gone the way of becoming fortresses rather than fields (at least in Canada anyways). So what is there to do? I have no conclusions, but I am interested in rolling back the situation to see how this has come to be. To understand a situation is to look at its roots, because while reactionary responses offer band-aid solutions, it is likely that surgery is actually required.
Back on the bleachers, idioms are being tossed around like a game of hot potato. “Developers” and “City” are held up momentarily but their weights are not considered. An “us vs them” perpetuates the power struggle and comes out as an internalized cultural hegemony. Creating alliances is important, but it’s also important to remember that power is never given. Not even shared. Power is taken, historically, consistently, and effectively by those who really want it. But maybe the hunger for power is the biggest distraction of all, as at the end of the day, people just need to be aware of one another on an interpersonal level. So if the conversation keeps bending towards forging a relationship with the city, then isn’t it natural to create a civic arts council? I was confounded to learn by the end of the night that Vancouver doesn’t have an arts council and that nobody was clear on whether there ever used to be one or not. This posting by Tom Durrie is the closest thing I have found to an explanation, but what needs to be further stressed is that an independent arts council would represent both sides and advises on behalf of the city’s artistic community to government and other agencies while channeling viable city-based opportunities for artists.
All I knew before arriving is that if I had to hear the word “neoliberalism” as an answer one more time I was going to lose it. But Other Sights implied that this was going to be a new type of conversation, one without predetermined agendas in order to open up the discussion rather than offer conclusions. No conclusions were made, though agendas are hard to check at the door. The sugar rush from the root beer float and the lack of oxygen in the room were definite factors, but I did leave that night feeling genuinely buzzed. It was a sensation of being all worked up with no where to go, spinning from an energy with no certain direction. The Future is Floating and that in itself is inspiring and a continuum.