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Archive for March, 2009

One of the drawbacks to being raised on stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood is that seeing abuses of authority make me want to leap to the defence of their victims.

For instance, I was waiting on the Skytrain platform today when I saw a man hauling a bicycle up the escalator. As he got to the top, I saw that it was a woman’s bike, and that he had several garbage bags bulging with cans and bottles strapped to the handlebars. The man himself was dressed in threadbare clothing that was not too clean, and had a bearded face that look as though he had lived roughly. As he came closer, I smelled beer on his breath. If he wasn’t actually homeless, he was near to that state.

A Skytrain attendant at the other end of the platform saw him at once. Immediately, she started walking towards him.. As she got closer, she seemed to stand straighter and to affect a bully’s swagger – but that could just be my jaundiced eye.

Still, I was completely unsurpised when she started lecturing him about not taking a bicycle up the escalator.

Technically, she was right – not because that’s the regulation, but because handling something the length of the bicycle can block the escalator, and it can easily slip. But she hadn’t said anything to the woman who took an equally-barred baby carriage up the escalator, and she had passed someone eating – something else you’re not supposed to do – on the way to the man. Clearly, she had profiled him as someone who needed admonishing on general principles, someone she could exert her authority over.

The man responded with the assumed cheeriness of someone who has been dumped on many times, but who has told himself that he will be damned if he will let the situation get to him. “That’ll be easier than taking the stairs,” he said when the attendant pointed out the platform elevator.

His cheeriness must have bothered the attendant, because, when he walked away, she followed him. He had to be careful, she said, of not taking more than two bags on the Skytrain. He said he was only going to the next stop, to the liquor store, but that didn’t stop her from lecturing him for another three minutes about this non-existent regulation.

At this point, I was standing about a meter away from the man, and seriously debating whether I should tell the attendant to leave the man alone. After all, he hadn’t done anything. In fact, he had remained polite, despite her unwarranted bullying.

But, perhaps his politeness was what made her so intent on going after him. She stood beside him for a moment, and I imagined that she was debating asking to see his ticket. But she had no reason for doing so. Besides, about then she noticed me watching her. She frowned, and slowly walked away.

The man laughed and made a joke to me about how she didn’t say how big the two bags could be. Next time, he added, he would board with two giant ones.

I shook my head. “Man, she was really on your case.”

He did a double-take, surprised that anyone else had noticed. We exchanged a couple more sentences, then went our own ways when a Skytrain arrived.

Sitting down in a car, I regretted not intervening at this petty bit of tyranny. But maybe my interference would have made the attendant worse. At least I had treated the man the same as anyone else.

I suppose I am as much to blame for my discomfort as anyone else. After all, small abuses of authority are common enough. The only reason I don’t see more of them is that I work from home. All the same, the attendant’s behavior grated, and I resented her intrusion on to my day.

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Six weeks ago, Haisla artist John Wilson sent me pictures from the Freda Diesing School’s mid-term show. Since then, I’ve been trying to contact the artists whose work impressed me. Eventually, I hope to buy work from three or four of them. But, so far, the only one whose work has found its way into our house is Todd Stephens.

I’ve exchanged a few emails with Stephens, but I know very little about him besides the fact that he is Nisga’a, a young father, and one of last years’ recipients of the YVR Art Foundation Awards at the school. But I do know that he is an artist with a studied simplicity of form and enough understanding of the traditional northern style that he is already showing a strong signs of a personal style.

todd-stephens-red-warrior2

You can see Stephen’s simplicity of form in “Red Warrior,” the first piece of his work that attracted my attention. This small acrylic on canvas uses the barest minimum of lines to suggest a traditional maskin a non-traditional style. The thickest parts on the face – the eye and brow, the nostril, and the mouth – ate the parts most likely to be painted on a mask. On the outside, the columns of three lines, with irregular spaces between them help to break up the thickness of the line. The black background and the use of red as a primary color add a touch of innovation to a piece that otherwise is effective largely because of its simplicity. That Stephens should have reisisted the urge to elaborate is very much to his credit – generally, only a much more experienced artist would have trusted so much to simplicity.

Todd Stephens, "Industry"

In “Industry,” Stephens paints a traditional beaver in a traditional pose. He takes considerable care to avoid the thickening of formlines, mostly by tapering them and arching them where they meet.

At first, his major innovation in “Industry” seems to be in having the tail down, rather than held up parallel in front of the body. But, if you compare it to other versions of the beaver in this position (like the Richard Hunt print below), you notice thta it is a rectangular form, rather than the usual squae one. This change makes the body much leaner than in other artists’ versions, especially in relation to the head and hands, resulting in a much less-stolid figure than usual.

Richard Hunt, "Kwa-quilth Beaver"

Even more importantly, the thinner body leaves less room for secondary designs than in other people’s versions. As a result, the arms, legs, and body are decorated simply with only one or two elements apiece, which further emphasizes the outsized hands and feet – an exaggeration that fits in with the title of the piece. And, because so much of the beaver is rendered simply, the head and the tail are, too. The result is a boldness that makes “Industry” far more effective than most Northwest Coast Beavers.

Another of Stephen’s pieces that we have agreed to buy but not yet paid for is “Jorga and I,” a depiction of Stephens and his young daughter with the heads of the animals of their tribes (since the Nisga’a are matrilineal, of course, his daughter belongs to her mother’s tribe). The fact that the mythological heads are black, the traditional primary color in northern works, and the human bodies are red, the traditional secondary color makes the piece a statement of identity, saying clearly, “We are Nisga’a first” — and, because the hands are also black, perhaps “and artists” should be added to the statement.

Todd Stephens, "Jorga and I"

The protective hunching of the figure of Stephens, and the placement of his hands over his daughter’s eyes gives a modern and gently moving touch to the piece. Another modern touch is given by the overlapping of the artists’ hands and his daughter’s eyes, an element I do not recall seeing anywhere else. However, like “Industry,” much of the design of “Jorga and I” is traditional yet distinctive, with close attention paid to formlines, and the use of the distinctively Nisga’a T-shape inside forms to help further reduce their thickness.

This ability to combine a modern sensibility with a mastery of traditional design is the main reason that I think Stephens has a career in art if he wants one and is willing to work hard enough. Stephens still has things to learn, such as trusting to the power of white space enough to give wider margins on his designs, but the fundamentals are so obviously there, especially in the more complicated “Jorga and I,” that he seems likely to learn them – and fairly quickly, too.

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A story told to me this afternoon at the local parrot and exotic birds supply shop:

A customer comes into the store. She’s about fifty, well-dressed, and articulate enough that she’s probably well-educated.

She wants to buy a Moloccan cockatoo, so the woman who owns the store starts talking about the pros and cons of buying male and female birds.

“Of course you’ll need to know what to do when she starts laying eggs,” the owner says.

“I’m not going to buy a male,” the customer says. “So I won’t have that worry.”

“Umm – hens can lay eggs without a cock.”

“Nooo! No way!”

“Where do you think the eggs that you buy in a store comes from?”

“The hens need a rooster to lay eggs.”

“No they don’t.”

“Are you lying to me?” The woman seems to be trying to come to terms with a difficult concept.

The store owner tries to speak quietly. “You release eggs every month, or used to, depending on how old you are. Why would you assume that birds are any different?”

“I didn’t. You must think I’m stupid.”

Aware that several other customers are laughing in the background and not wanting to humiliate the woman, the owner tries to disengage from the conversation. But, convinced that she is right, the woman persists until the owner turns to help another customer. After a moment, the woman leaves, shaking her head and every bit as ignorant as when she entered.

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March 19, Prince Rupert, British Columbia – The Museum of Northern British Columbia is prolonging a dispute over the carving shed, an artist’s work space on museum grounds, by refusing to negotiate, says Tsimshian master carver Henry Green. In fact, the attitudes of curator Susan Marsden and the museum directors has outraged local First Nations residents to such a degree that some are talking about reclaiming artifacts currently held by the museum.

The behavior of museum officials may also be in violation of British Columbia human rights, labour, and commercial tenancy statutes.

Over the thirty-nine years of its existence, the carving shed has provided work space for many prominent First Nations artists. However, in the last year, relations between the artists using the shed and the museum have deteriorated, due to a concerted attempt by the museum to exert greater control. A carved sign directing visitors to the carving shed was confiscated by the museum and not returned for eight months, a phone was removed from the shed, and members of Green’s family have been harassed and barred by Marsden and her staff.

Once, when the locks on the shed were changed without warning, Green was forced to wait four hours to retrieve his personal belongings, including his unique set of carving tools. “During this time I was berated and talked down to,” Green says.

Matters came to a head in late January, when the museum gave the carvers one week to vacate the premises, despite the fact that moving several large carvings was impossible on such short notice. The museum claimed that it wished to renovate the dilapidated carving shed, although no plans had been filed at Prince Rupert city hall. Museum officials also claimed they wished to use the shed as a teaching tool for local students, although Green and other users of the shed have taught and given demonstrations for years.

Museum employee Sampson Bryant implies that another motive was to collect rent from those using the shed. However, since the shed is owned by the City of Prince Rupert, the museum’s right to rent the space is questionable. Even if that right is upheld, the behavior of museum officials may violate commercial tenancy law in British Columbia.

Green and other artists have repeatedly requested to talk to museum officials, but with little success, since meetings of the museum’s board of directors are not publicized — nor, for that matter the names of the directors.

A meeting brokered by Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussalem and John Helin, an official representative of the allied Tsimshian tribes, broke down when Wes Baker, chairman of the museum board, refused to cooperate or compromise. Mussalem did promise to find alternate work space for the artists, but, meanwhile, the museum has insisted that the artist vacate — before the time in which the city had promised to find accommodation, and before the board meeting at which the artists have finally been given time to discuss the situation before the board.

“This behavior is completely against the spirit with which users of the shed and museum officials have always interacted,” Green says. “We have never had an official arrangement, but the relationship has always been to the benefit of everyone. The museum gives artists a place to work, and the artists attract tourists to the museum.”

A separate web page for the carving shed that includes a photo of Green (http://www.museumofnorthernbc.com/pages/06carving/06index.html) suggests that, until recently, the museum shared this attitude.

Also at issue is the question of whether the museum is guilty of violating labour laws and human rights statutes. Section B5 of the Ethics Guidelines of the Canadian Museums’ Association states that museum workers are defined as “individuals responsible for any aspect of museum operation….paid or volunteer,…occasional or contract,” as well as “privately or self employed persons practicing one of the related museological fields.” In other words, if the museum has control over the carving shed, then it has certain obligations to the artists, and could be guilty of wrongful termination and dismissal without cause as defined under B.C. labour law.

While these events have unfolded, support for the carvers has quickly spread, thanks largely to a Facebook group called “Expression, not Oppression” started by Morgan Green, Henry Green’s daughter and apprentice. The group now has almost a thousand members, including such prominent First Nations artists as Lyle Campbell and Ya’Ya; local Tsimshians, and art lovers from across the country.

The group has been used by Bryant to denounce and threaten Green and the other artists. However, most members of the Facebook group have expressed the conviction that the behavior of museum officials shows a disrespect for local First Nations, particularly in the treatment of a prominent artist like Henry Green.

“I am quite disgusted with the Museum for their lack of cooperation in this matter,” Breena Bolton writes. “[They are] all adults, yet they have to hide information, and try portray the artists in such a negative manner.”

Similarly, Christine Parnell writes, “I think that the museum has to remember it is our Artifacts that bring in the money to that museum. I think if they continue to not only disrespect the carvers but our Allied Tribes voice that we, as Tsimshians should look at repatriating our artifacts back to their rightful owners.”

In response to the situation, supporters of the artists have scheduled a peaceful protest at the carving shed today at noon in order to express support for the artists.

“I don’t know why the situation had to come to this,” Green says. “Carvers in the shed have had differences with the museum before, but they were resolved by discussion and negotiation. But, for some reason, now museum officials have a win-at-all-costs mentality. They seem to have forgotten that the museum’s mandate is to form respectful relationships with the Tsimshian nation.”

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Everywhere I go, I hear what’s going on,
And the more I hear, the less I know.

-Oysterband

Why newspapers are failing is probably not of much interest to their readers. However, to journalists, the subject is understandably of absorbing interest, and they write about it endlessly. They have reason to be nervous, of course, with most newspapers declining in readership, and well-established ones like The Rocky Mountain News stopping publication and others like the San Francisco Chronicle making cuts. Mostly, they blame the Internet, but I have yet to read a journalist who blames the current trends in newspapers for the decline.

By analogy, the Internet and trends such as blogging and citizens’ journalism do not automatically threaten the traditional newspaper. Photography did not mean the end of painting, nor – more to the point – did television completely replace movies or radios.

However, just as television news meant the end of the news reel in theaters, so aspects of the Internet mean that newspapers have to rethink some of their features.

Specifically, in an age where millions of blogs are posted daily, how many are going to pay to read the average columnist? Unless columnists are blazingly original stylists (think maybe Dorothy Parker) or are experts in a particular subject, they are not going to be worth the effort. Yet, although many columnists pride themselves on their styles, very few are among the first ranks of writers, and, if anything, newspaper columnists pride themselves on their lack of expertise – they are writers, they insist, not some sort of hack.

But the truth is, although some columnists love to attack blogging by pointing out the faults of the worst bloggers, I can hardly think of any columnists who are as absorbing as several bloggers I read regularly who have a specialized subject. You might read the average newspaper columnist over breakfast or on coffee break, but if you are interrupted and never finish, you hardly care. In this respect, the average columnist is neither better nor worse than the average blogger, and why should you make special efforts to obtain a few specimens of mediocre writing when you can get thousands online whenever you want?

The same is true of the newspaper stories rewritten from news releases or from the weekend police blotter. When you can often read the original online, who is going to bother with the regurgitations?

Yet columnists without subject matter and rewrites are exactly what newspapers are turning to to find ways to save money. Instead of increasing the diversity of opinions, newspaper chains are reducing it by having more copy distributed by the central office; for instance, when I was looking for reviews of the movie made from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline last month, I could find only two different reviews listed in the major papers in Canada.

Instead of offering more news, newspapers offer long articles under the pretense of doing readers a favor – although, since writing one long story is easier and quicker, and therefore cheaper than writing several short ones, the only people really receiving a favor are the editors and writers. A long story, newspapers hope that readers won’t notice, is not necessarily an in-depth one.

What newspapers can offer that the Internet has trouble matching is investigative reporting. After all, the majority of Internet news sites are portals – collections of links. Portals are cheaper to gather than original stories are to write, so Internet sites are naturally fond of them, since they usually have far smaller budgets than newspapers.

Yet investigative reporting – even correspondents from other parts of the world – is exactly what newspapers are cutting back on in favor of the much cheaper opinion opinions, rewrites, and overly long stories. In the short term, the budget necessities behind such moves are understandable. But, in the long run, such tactics send newspapers into a downward spiral, making them the purveyors of exactly the sort of content that the Internet can provide more plentifully. Is it any wonder, then, that newspapers are faltering?

Instead of concentrating on their strengths, they are trying to match the Internet’s – and that is a game in which newspapers cannot compete. They are like hardcover book publishers trying to match the popular appeal of paperbacks, or painters try to outdo the realism of photographers. Occasionally, they can claim a success, but in the long run, their tactics are against them, and only make their situation more desperate.

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When I was four, going to the kindergarten two blocks from home seemed an enormous expansion of my horizons. Even then, I had a vision of my horizons becoming vaster as I grew up – a vision that I still have, although now I wonder if a time will come when they contract as I grow old and infirm. But the largest single expansion of my horizons was when I moved away from the neighborhood in which I grew up and finally discovered the rest of greater Vancouver.

I grew up in West Vancouver, a suburban community on the other side of the inlet from Vancouver. Physically, my parents’ house is less than half an hour from the intersection of Georgia and Granville, one of the main intersections in downtown Vancouver, but, psychologically, it might as well have been several days away.

Perhaps the intervening water had something to do with this attitude, or perhaps my family was unusual. But, as a child, I had no other point of comparison. All I knew was that West Vancouver was mostly self-contained. My family might venture occasionally into next door North Vancouver, but a trip to Vancouver was a major event because of its rarity. As for remoter cities, like Richmond and Surrey, they were visited only when passing through on the way to the border or the interior. When a girl moved from Surrey the summer before I entered Grade 8, she might as well have come from one of the moons of Pluto, her origin seemed so remote to me.

Having a bicycle and a sense of adventure, by Grade 5, I had started to expand my horizons on my own (although, hobbit-like, I always took care to be home for dinner). I started by exploring West Vancouver, but in a couple of years, I was riding with my friends over to Stanley Park, or even downtown. A few times, I even rode out to the University of British Columbia and back.

But somehow, my horizons never expanded further. Eric Hamber Secondary at 41st and Oak, where I trained once a week with the Vancouver Olympic Club, seemed impossibly far. And when, in high school, my soccer team went out to Vancouver Technical School near Broadway and Renfrew, I was frankly lost; it looked like a tough part of town where I would be instantly mugged for the middle class kid that I was if I strayed too far from the rest of the team.

True liberation from my psychological restrictions didn’t happen until I started commuting to Simon Fraser University when I was eighteen. Catching the Hastings Express downtown and transferring at the Kootenay Loop for the final trip up Burnaby Mountain to the university, I was fascinated by the street scenes and people I saw. Once or twice, when a ride let me off at Main and Hastings, I was apprehensive, but mostly my chief fear came from my uncertainty about just how to get to the familiar downtown area around The Bay (these were less brutal times, and the population of the downtown east side was smaller and considerably less desperate than now).

Leaving my parents’ home accelerated my growing sense of geography, and, by the time I was 21, I was familiar with much of greater Vancouver, and had lived in several parts of it. Gradually, I realized that I grew up isolated by privilege (or semi-privilege, my family being middle class in a primarily upper middle class municipality), with assumptions about personal safety and other people that weren’t nearly as universal as I thought.

This challenge to my assumptions often dimly disturbed me, but I never really doubted that it had to be faced if I were to become an adult. I still believe that, which is why I was surprised when I went to a high school reunion three years ago, how many of those with whom I went to school had never moved out of West Vancouver. I had had a contented enough childhood there, but I wasn’t a child, and I had long ago moved on, as they apparently never had.

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If I want a day of bird-watching, I don’t have to leave the living room. With four Nanday conures – a type of small South American parrot – in residence, I can even do my bird-watching from the comfort of a chair. And, since three of the four Nandays are male, much of what I watch is territorial posturing.

The dominant cock is Ning. He has several advantages over the rest: He has been here the longest, he is the only one with a mate (Sophy), and he fathered one of the other males and has always lorded it over him. His disadvantage is that he is perhaps a little complacent and starting to get on in years, so he is no longer as aggressive as in his youth.

Of the other cocks, Ram is little competition. Not only is he Ning’s son, but he has a bad leg and is reluctant most of the time to compete – although he can surprise everyone at times with unexpected outbursts of ferocity.

Beau is the third cock, and the relative newcomer. However, he is younger, larger, and feistier than Ning, and probably the most cunning of the three. At first, Ning used to dive bomb him with impunity, threatening him without actually making contact. However, after about six months, he started dive bombing Ning in return, and now he gives as good as he gets.

This is how the living room is divided: Ning and Sophy have a cage on the right side of the room, and Beau’s cage is on the left. Ram’s cage is in the kitchen, but he uses the back of a chair and an arm of the couch by Beau’s cage with impunity, either because Beau doesn’t regard him as a threat, or on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Occasionally, though, Beau will chase Ram away from his cage, especially if Ning isn’t there to vent his anger upon.

The dining room table between the two cages is contested ground. However, the futon by the window is definitely Ning’s, although Ram will brave it if Ning and Sophy are in their cage. Beau doesn’t quite dare, although he will pace to the end of the couch and sit as close to the futon as he can without actually being on it.

That is one of the main characteristics of the territorial posturing: Like kids in the backseat of a car who have been told to keep to their side of an imaginary line, Ning and Beau will come as close to the border of the other bird’s territory as they dare, apparently with the sole purpose of taunting each other. Just as Beau crowds the futon, so Ning will often see that his foraging on the carpet brings him close to Beau’s cage, apparently just to have the pleasure of disconcerting him. From their actions, the boundary couldn’t be clearer if it was painted on the carpet.

When not crowding each other, all the males will sometimes shriek at each other, so loudly that we have to pause the DVD we’re watching until we can hear it again. Sometimes, Beau will ambush Ning in mid-flight, too.
Apparently, the urge to defend his nest is strong in the typical Nanday cock. However, what is interesting is that the defense never seems to go beyond posturing, even in what must be the rather limited space in the living room. Not only is there never any real violence, but at times, as they call back and forth, the males seem almost friendly – as though their aggressiveness is only intramural, and, on some level, mutual identification as members of the same flock is as important as claiming territory.

And what does Sophy do in all of this? Mostly, she ignores it. Although sometimes she will loyally give one scream for every dozen of Ning’s, mostly she pretends it’s not going on. But, then, from Sophy’s frequent look of strained tolerance, I suspect she views the cocks — and the local humans as well – as slightly addled fledglings. Somehow, in the middle of all the male battles, she manages to look as though she is humoring all of us in the manner of a benevolent dictator. Her attitude suggests it would be beneath her dignity to notice the feuding in any way.

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