03 May, 2013

TMFAD at SummerWorks.

Title of work: Tackle Me For A Dollar (“Tackle Me”).

Presented[1] by: Christopher Ryan Graham (“CRG”) and Ann Margaret Oberst (“AMO”).

Website: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eF60DVi8xZY. (This is a video of the first time we ran Tackle Me. We made $35.)

Project overview: Tackle Me is pretty much what it sounds like. CRG takes a big, homemade sign to an outdoor space, preferably a park, and gets people to pay a dollar for the chance to tackle him. The experience raises all sorts of interesting tensions, themes, issues, mores, social anxieties, and personal neuroses, some of which are easier to summarize than others. The former include:

Playfulness and violence as a continuum. Tackle Me is a clear instance of humans playing at hurting each other. Any sharp distinction between playfulness and violence—usually based on intention—is called into question[2] by, at least, the uncertainty involved in amateur tackling.[3]

Conceptual versus practical understanding. Everyone knows what a tackle is, but few people know how to do it. I’m not sure people appreciate this is a real difference; that these are different modes of understanding. Tackle Me forces people to reckon with this difference, usually at the moment they ready themselves to charge and think: Oh, shit…

Metaperception and interpersonal relations. Tackle Me is great at forcing people to think about how their actions in the world are mediated by what other people think.[4] The point’s so banal it’s actually profound: few people recognize their sense of self is radically integrated with various communities. (We always already are, type-thing.) Tackle Me brings this home in a few ways, the clearest being that we don’t give instructions about how to tackle. This forces tacklers to make (=recognize) all kinds of assumptions about how CRG’ll react to getting hit.

Length of work: Entirely dependent on the work’s content: the harder the tackles, the sooner CRG’ll get tired or sore and want to quit for the day. Although, it’s probably a good idea to set a maximum time, like two hours, with the proviso CRG may not last that long.

Interestingly, this feature of Tackle Me calls attention to the role of the audience as gatekeepers to artistic expression. This is one kind of audience participation that’s hard to see but very real; also, felt much more acutely during Tackle Me than, say, the audience having to show up at a stage production. This is all very If a tree falls in the woods... except that with Tackle Me it’s the audience that cuts down the tree.[5]

Stage of development: Ready, except that we’ll need to borrow someone’s video camera.

Artists involved: CRG and AMO. We’re debating whether AMO should offer to be tackled, whether anyone would go for that.

Intended audience: Everyone (in the park). Curiously, the last time we did this the participation rate for females was much higher than for males. (We have some theories about why this is the case.[6]) All ages and abilities are welcome. One limitation we imposed was that you have to tackle. Some people wanted to give me a hug, but we declined this as being a different sort of project altogether.

Venue: Outdoor space is best; we like parks. In addition to increasing the number of potential participants, the absence of any barriers to entry—like a theatre door, say—calls attention to the arbitrariness of distinctions between participant, audience, and passer-by. (Think of buskers and the onlookers that arc around at that ambiguous distance where spectation is both guilt- and contribution-free.)

Plans for further development: Video evidence.

[1] It’s unclear whether this matters, but we didn’t create Tackle Me. The idea came from a story that CRG heard at a storytelling show. What we’ll create is the instance of our performance, sort of like a musician performing a cover, I guess. 
Also, apologies if this kind of subtextual pedantry is redundant to the Live Art Series panel: neither CRG nor AMO has any real experience with this sort of thing—indeed, we’re keen to join what we imagine to be an interesting community of folks—so we don’t know what’s going to be obvious to you guys making the decision. (Although, we do think this kind of point is interesting as an instance of the ‘thinking about thinking’ we’re hoping that Tackle Me cultivates, as you’ll see if you keep reading beyond this FN.*)

*…which further reading AMO thinks is unlikely, while CRG—whom you’ve probably guessed is the one doing the typing—is hopeful the Live Art Series panel will see the FNs as a neat, textual representation of this very ‘thinking about thinking’, how humans actually makes sense of and in the world.

[2] The uptown term here is “problematized”, I think.

[3] A literal undercurrent here is the issue of trust: nothing prevents a person from trying to get their money’s worth, as it were—basically, tackling me really hard. The last time we ran Tackle Me there were two people with pro tackling experience (male and female rugby players), both of whom let that be known and intentionally curbed their enthusiasm. 
[4] More formally, it seems clear to us that, all else equal, what A thinks B is thinking about A in respect of X is at least as important to A’s conduct in respect of X as what A’s thinking about X directly. It’s maybe simpler to do a formula: [illegible].

[5] (er… sort of.)
[6] There are about six pages of discussion here that CRG wanted to append but AMO vetoed as, variously, sententious, prolix, otiose, lame, obvious, and “We’re not having any more fucking formulas”. This FN’s a kind of editorial compromise, then, wherein I’m allowed to say the difference in male/female participation rates suggests a kind of paradox, at least for the guys: the result of conflicting social norms of masculinity, on the one hand, and civility (as like a subset of masculinity—like chivalry), on the other: basically, that guys don’t participate for fear of, and of not, hurting me.

17 April, 2013

Men who straighten their hair.

See, the thing is, I'm not sure it's in your interest to give me a hard time about straightening my hair. You know what I'm talking about: to just assume that a person who straightens their hair is feminine, like that's some hallmark of femininity, hair-straightening.


I'm not saying you're saying that only girls who straighten their hair are girls. Why would you think I was saying that?


What I'm saying is that you're saying that the only people who straighten their hair are people who think they're female, so if I do it I must be less of a man than some other guy who doesn't straighten his hair.


Why would you think I would think you thought I thought that's what you were saying?


No, the first thing.


See, that's not helping either. I'm serious, you don't want to have all these people in the bar here thinking that a guy who straightens his hair is some sort of nancy.


It's a British term for "effete man".


It means I'm putting that bit in quotations.


I'm not saying that because you called me a nancy that you're also a nancy, like only a nancy would use the word "nancy".


It's not in your interest because now all these guys in the bar here are going to know you stepped outside with some hair-straightening nancy and had your life separated from your body. That's why. [End.]

27 March, 2013

Bangkok and other places.

Truer words were never spoken, in a Bangkok bathroom, at least.

Little bit of handmade yarn.

Little bit more.

Geez, I really liked this yarn.

Angkor Wat in the background, CRG in the foreground.
This is like an average temple.

Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious building, is covered with bas-reliefs. Covered.

Like all the Angkor temples, this is built by hand.

This temple is covered with the bas-relief detailed below.

This is over 1,000 years old.
I lived here for a week.

There are lot of dragon statues guarding temples in Thailand.

In Bangkok, this is the street that sells used engines.

In Laos, there are good places like this to read.

Also in Laos, sometimes you have to wait while construction crews finish the road you're driving along.
Once again, CRG in the foreground. (Back at Angkor, by Tha Prohm.)
Have that, 1,000-year-old Khmer temple. UN-believable.
In a Laos village.

A reasonable worldview.

22 March, 2013

Annals of curious legislation.

The Use of Animals to Shield Unlawful Activities Act (Manitoba).

No person who is committing an unlawful act on a property shall use an animal to protect that property.

Tanning Beds Act (Nova Scotia)

The purpose of this Act is to protect the health of Nova Scotians, and in particular young persons, by restricting their access to tanning equipment in tanning facilities in light of the risks associated with the use of tanning equipment.

Clothesline Act (Nova Scotia)

WHEREAS the use of clotheslines to dry clothes reduces energy consumption, greenhouse gas and mercury emissions; AND WHEREAS Nova Scotians should have the ability to utilize clotheslines outdoors.

Apology Act (most provinces)

An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter, (a) does not constitute an express or implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter [...] and (d) must not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter.

23 January, 2013

"A Gatsby among municipalities."

Edward Keenan's "Some Great Idea" (Coach House, 2012) is a highly readable, engaging and lucid primer to Toronto's post-amalgamation politics. Assembled from a decade of Keenan's writing about Toronto culture and politics, S.G.I. argues that the city's greatest political strength is its diversity, and the best way to exercise this strength is for all the city's voices to engage, engage, engage.

Keenan's currently a senior editor at The Grid and also writes/has written for Eye Weekly (what The Grid used to be called), Spacing, Yonge Street, and other city-based publications. If you follow Keenan then a lot of this book will be familiar; parts are lifted verbatim from stuff he's previously published, a corpus stitched together into four long-ish essays. The book offers a potted history of Toronto's self-identity and then maps this (loosely) onto the city's three post-amalgamation mayors: Mel Lastman, David Miller and Rob Ford. The map reads as follows:
Lastman blustered through the chaos of the post-amalgamation identity crisis; Miller began projecting a self-confident identity onto the new city; and Ford declined to accept that identity in favour of something scrappier and less ambitious.
The book's best line is clipped for this review's title, and fairly summarizes the problem - circumstances - Keenan's trying to decoct; viz, how Toronto manages to have any kind of civic identity given its history, especially recently, of extreme municipal narratives. Keenan's argument is that the city favours - and suffers - perpetual re-imagination, and that this is the only sensible way for so many different kinds of people to get along and prosper.

Keenan wears his politics on his sleeve: he's a Jane Jacobs disciple, loves David Miller and loathes Mike Harris (whom Keenan calls "a villain in the modern story of Toronto"). This matters, the obtrusiveness of his bias, because S.G.I.'s nowhere near long enough to be editorially balanced. (I read its 171 pages in an afternoon.) It also underlies the book's most and least compelling arguments.

The most interesting part of S.G.I. investigates the difference between Ford Nation and everyone else (the latter, basically, people who live downtown and struggle to understand Ford's popularity). Keenan's claim is that the relevant binary here isn't urban vs sub-, middle class vs upper, folks vs elites - or, more uncomfortably, immigrants vs nationals, minorities vs whites - even though each of these has some explanatory force. Rather, the critical opposition is taxpayer vs citizen, a shorthand for two very different stories of civic engagement. 

Whereas "citizens" view themselves as active participants in government, interacting with neighbors and local businesses, having a stake in their local community, "taxpayers" view themselves as isolated from the larger city. A taxpayer's major form of civic interaction is their property tax cheque, which they send far away, literally, then wait to see visible improvements back where they live. 

Keenan's primary example is Woburn, the community where he grew up, around the intersection of Markham Road and Lawrence Avenue. Woburn is one of Toronto's "inner suburbs", where roughly 70% of the city's residents live, and is best characterized as a non-community: Keenan notes, "if you ask people who live near Markham and Lawrence what life in Woburn is like, they will not recognize that you are talking about their home." Wide roadways, heavy traffic, strip malls with copious parking, bungalows and high-rise apartment towers. Keenan says his parents still live near Markham and Lawrence, but "near in the sense that people in Scarborough mean it", meaning 2km away. And so:
[I]f the city services in your area are thin on the ground, parks far away, transit inconvenient and unreliable, you might reasonably think the government is not working for you. If you live in a place like Woburn, where residents say a lack of any sense of 'community' or 'neighborhood' is one of its defining characteristics, talk of empowering residents... might just seem wacky and out of touch.
It's no coincidence that "wacky and out of touch" is also what a lot of people living downtown - outside Ford Nation - think about Rob Ford. Keenan's argument is that the best way to understand Ford's popularity, at least initially, is to understand his appeal to "taxpayers" as directly oppositely David Miller's appeal to "citizens"; a sort of retrenching of the city's entire identity, a very loud shout from the upper decks that We're still here. The challenge for Toronto's next mayor will be, as it's always been, to reconcile the extremes of post-amalgamation Toronto living.

Speaking of which, maybe the least compelling argument in S.G.I. is Keenan's take on Rob Ford's conflict of interest trial. Keenan's description of the proceedings is close to riveting: I was physically uncomfortable reading excerpts from Ford's testimony where he (=Ford) claims to have made  statements without understanding what he was saying at the time. While it's no surprise Keenan's pleased with Ford's subsequent removal from office (currently pending appeal), what is surprising is Keenan's view of this result as being a victory for citizenship: 
The court case began when a private citizen named Paul Magder found a pro-bono lawyer and filed a complaint about Ford's behaviour with the courts. A citizen was inspired to activism by the actions of a mayor. And that citizen changed the course of the city. If I were imagining the story, I could not have written a better ending.
At the level of first principles, Ford's removal from office via court process is terrible for democracy. Both the Mayor and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, have been relentless in pointing-up the court case as undemocratic, and they're right: everyone can vote, but not everyone can understand, let alone afford access to judicial process. (Keenan elides any real description of Madger's lawyer, Clayton Ruby, one of the city's wealthiest criminal attorneys, and elsewhere in S.G.I. states that both Madger and Ruby were recruited to the case by another complainant, Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler.) On a practical level, though, what's really strange is that Keenan totally fails to appreciate how conflict of interest lawsuits - and other kinds of legal action - are now an established tool in Toronto politics. Rest assured, the residents of Ford Nation are taking notes on this new approach to evicting the next incarnation of David Miller. Madger's victory, if upheld on appeal, is almost certainly and entirely Pyrrhic.

The reason many elected officials are immune from prosecution is that having to defend allegations is a major distraction for everyone: the official, other officeholders, the press, voters. And, again, it's a mode of civic engagement only available to a very small group of savvy, well-funded citizens, which is why most processes for removing elected officials are handled by other elected officials. (Like impeachment.) For someone exceptionally keen on the power of civic engagement, on bringing all of Toronto's diverse voices to the table, Keenan's view on the Ford trial is kind of incoherent.

Still, there's no doubt S.G.I. is useful and stimulating. It's also worth reiterating the book's readability, because that's not the first thing I think of when I hear "primer on Toronto's post-amalgamation politics". Keenan writes like the good journalist that he is, and if you disagree with him, at least you'll never wonder why.