Our civic centre the Block forgot

Death of cultureDuring the January 15 council meeting, there was a lengthy presentation of a strategic planning exercise (a real one, not the bogus one The Block call our “community-based strategic plan,” which was neither community-driven nor strategic) for the Parks, Recreation and Culture department (read more about it here). The presenter asked council to answer three questions. The third of which (starting at around 1:17:30) was about what Collingwood is missing or needed in its PRC facilities or services.

Skip past the self-aggrandizing yatter of Councillor Madigan, past the insulting comments and architectural ignorance of Councillor Jeffrey, the vapid blather of Councillor Edwards and stop at 1:23:30. That’s when Deputy Mayor Saunderson says one of the “huge gaps is the lack of a community centre.” He then meanders into a blather about operating costs. Of course, this is meant to drive home his one-size-fits-all $35 million Taj Mahal dream (well, a nightmare for taxpayers…)  he proposed last term.*

We already have a community centre: our public library. It runs programs for all ages, hosts talks, events, concerts, activities, clubs, chess matches, it’s an art gallery, a computer lab, and more. I know, I know: you’re going to remind me The Block don’t like to read so it’s unlikely that most of them have been in the building aside from the committee meetings on the third floor. Like you, I have a hard time imagining them using a library or even opening a book – much less actually reading one.

And, ironically, we have a council rep on the library board: Councillor Ecclestone. Alright, stop laughing now. Maybe he didn’t come to the library’s defence because it was his nap time.

The library is and has always been the community’s cultural centre. If The Block paid attention to their role as elected officials, they’d know this. Yes, there are private cultural facilities too, especially on Simcoe Street. These complement, rather than compete with, the library.

The library was, at least a few years ago, the town’s most-frequented municipal facility. I suspect it still is. But not by The Block. All those books, those words closing in on them, the seep of knowledge from between the pages – it’s a scary place for our council non-readers: they stay away.
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Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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Boris Godunov

Boris GodunovI’m not sure why Boris Godunov, moves me like it does, but it has a curious, emotional effect on me. It’s a sprawling tragedy mixed with politics and betrayal, weighted down by brooding and scheming characters, a fickle mob, a holy fool, a ghost, an imposter as pretender to the throne, and the overthrow of a ruler – very Shakespearean. Or perhaps Machiavellian, in the negative sense of the word.

I’ve been listening to it, again, as background music while I work at home these past few days. And every now and then I stop to listen, and marvel at the boldness, the richness of the music,the strangeness of it.

I’ve actually been listening to both versions – the original from 1869 and the version revised by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1872. I’m at a loss to say which version I prefer. The original is shorter and darker, and feels dense and moody, but the revision was the first version I encountered and still holds a special place for me. Besides, it’s not exactly light itself. But I think I lean more to the revision simply for the extra material.

I can’t recall when I first heard it, but I think it was sometime in the early 1980s, around the time I was studying the history of the Soviet Union and its institutions. I may even have discovered Pushkin’s play – on which the opera is based – first, but that may be the chicken-and-egg question. Somewhere in my library, I still have that book, just as I have the CDs of the opera in my music collection. Pushkin’s 1831 work was apparently inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV. But I cannot help but think of it as the Russian King Lear.

I recall driving down the road from work, in the ’80s, windows open on a summer afternoon, the opera blaring from the car in competition to the pop and rock blasting from the other drivers. I used to do that with the 1812 Overture, too. What a rebel, eh?

In general, I like opera, as I do most classical music, even if I’m the musical equivalent of a patzer when it comes to truly appreciating it. But Boris is somehow different from other operas.
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Loteria de Camacho

LoteriaEver since I first visited Mexico, more than 30 years ago, I’ve been fascinated by its culture. It’s beautiful, exotic, alien, yet also comfortable and attractive.

One of the things that have intrigued me since the start is the lottery game: loteria de camacho.

I’ve seen it for sale in many stores, and played at street vendors and booths at local fiestas. from boxed games to plastic pouches, it can be found in almost every Mexican store. It’s more than a simple game: the set is used to teach literacy, history and writing, too.

From the first time I saw these pictures, my curiosity was aroused. They struck me as symbols of a Jungian nature, or something from Joseph Campbell: icons of the collective, mythologic unconscious. You can see the whole set on may sites, including this one.

Over the decades, I’ve brought back several versions of the game, the latest being from our recent trip to Mazatlan (bought in a small farmacia near the hotel).*

While all of the images in the decks are similar, the artwork can be quite different, and very compelling, depending on the deck. There is a new (nuevo) deck that I have not found, but will search for in my next visits.

Sets usually include a deck of cards, several playing mats as per the image above (10 mats is common, but I’ve seen sets with fewer and more), plus a sheet for tracking what’s been played (sometimes just a blank grid with numbers).

In play it’s similar to bingo, although the winning patterns aren’t all identical. What continues to captivate me is the images.

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The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

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Strat Plan Part 6: Culture and the Arts

DilbertThe fifth and final objective in Collingwood’s developing strategic plan (the woo-hoo plan) is culture and the arts. For something so important to the community, with such a huge potential, it encompasses a mere two goals. Disappointingly, neither of them relate to its huge economic potential, which everyone else seems to understand except this committee and its council.

“The rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce. The arts and its related businesses are responsible for billions of dollars in cultural exports for this country. It is imperative that we continue to support the arts and arts education both on the national and local levels. The strength of every democracy is measured by its commitment to the arts.” Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation

Only two goals are suggested for our burgeoning creative/cultural economy, what may easily be the most important sector in our local economy over the next decade or two. There are more items in the first section about using the plan’s logos than there are goals here. At least there are several action items, albeit typically lame, vague ones. I suppose it’s like what La Rochefoucauld wrote:

Fertility of mind does not furnish us with so many resources on the same matter, as the lack of intelligence makes us hesitate at each thing our imagination presents, and hinders us from at first discerning which is the best. Maxim 287.

So little does this group (and by extension, this council) regard arts and culture than they are not even mentioned in the proposed vision statements!

Goal: Promote arts and cultural programs

Duh. Aside from the complete face-palm-plant obviousness of this, it doesn’t say how one promotes programs. Newsletters are obviously out since many of those at the table criticized the previous council’s use of newsletters for public communication. Semaphore? Smoke signals? Tweets?

Nor does it identify whose programs it promotes. Or even who does the promoting. There’s no indication this is even local. Is the town supposed to support, say, the Stratford Festival’s theatrical programs?

And what arts? A male friend of mine will argue seriously pole dancing is an art. Are we going to bring back the Georgian Grill as the new arts centre? I’m not sure if there are programs for pole dancing, however, and this goal clearly states the town should support programs, not the arts and culture themselves.

Goal: Support and expand the diversity of community events and festivals

Another head banger. Who isn’t going to isn’t going to support events and festivals? Well, all those people who hate Elvis, of course.And those downtown merchants who whine and grumble every time the main street is closed or has activity. But there are always people who hate everything.

Does this sentence mean ‘support the diversity and expand the diversity’? Or ‘support community events and expand the diversity’? Improper punctuation makes it unclear.

One wonders how you can expand diversity, since the word means a range of different things which suggests it is already expanded. If it’s already diverse – i.e. varied – does it need to be expanded and if so – how?

Do they mean make single events more diverse? And if so what events? Do they want to make the Elvis Festival into Elvis, Blues and Brews? or the Jazz at the Station into Jazz and Polka music at the Station? How about Local Live Lunch and Sudoku Contest?

Let me reiterate a point I made earlier: a good strategic plan talks in practical terms and specifics: a woo-hoo plan talks in generalities and fuzzy terms. Welcome to woo-hoo.

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