The Fantastics

11 March 2007

This Goodreads is in part of confession of ignorance, and how wonderful things can be when you don’t have the full picture. Which is to say, they’re fantastic when not dulled by the acquired cynicism of ‘an inside story’. And perhaps it is by coming to the experience initially ignorant, having that wonderful first impression, that the further nuance associated with it doesn’t diminish its glow.

Two of the items discussed here refer to art exhibitions on in Toronto presently, which is to encourage any of you for whom it is possible to visit them.

These four fantastics are presented in the order in which I experienced them.

I. Fantastic One | Darren O’Donnell at CCL1

Darren O’Donnell’s work over the past couple of years has been fantastic. His Suicide Site Guide to the City wowed me when I saw it in 2005, and apparently this was because of the ignorance mentioned above, as Kamal Al-Solaylee wrote in his review at the time ‘…only audiences who haven’t been to the theatre in say, a few decades, are expected to be dazzled by the presentation’. I admitted in my review that I was one of such an audience. Yet, how could we not appreciate Haircuts by Children or Ballroom Dancing for Nuit Blanche?

In an arts scene riven by competition and jealousies, Darren’s work is something that we all seem to appreciate without such pettiness. I recently attended the latest production from his theatre company, Diplomatic Immunities: THE END and was genuinely touched: Ulysses Castellanos singing Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’ at the end of the show almost made me cry. This was the song voted on by children at a local school to be that which they wanted to hear at the End of the World. (My vote at the present time is either The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ or ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’ and as I listen to them nowadays I imagine it playing over the footage of this video.)

But what is it about Darren’s work along these lines that is so generally fantastic? For me it highlights what is perhaps a greater shift in our culture, which is a movement toward an interest in ‘real life’ (and to that end, reality-tv represents this transition, by using non-actors but still tying them to some sort of narrative structure). The work of Darren’s theatre troupe, Mammalian Diving Reflex, forgoes an explicit narrative structure and seemingly let’s that emerge on it’s own.

Here, I’m most inspired by a snippet of dialogue from a Star Trek show. In the Enterprise episode ‘Dear Doctor’ which first aired in January 2002, there’s a scene depicting movie-night on the starship; while watching For Whom the Bell Tolls the 1943 film being shown in that time-frame of 209 years from its creation, the character Ensign Cutler asks the alien Doctor Phlox:

Cutler: They don’t have movies where you come from do they?
Phlox: We had something similar a few hundred years ago, but they lost their appeal when people discovered their real lives were more interesting.

Now, imagine living on Phlox’s planet during that time of transition, when people were discovering their own lives were more interesting. Wouldn’t that time resemble our own, with diminishing box office returns, reality-tv programing undermining celebrity culture, a global communications network allowing for unedited dialogue within varying degrees of privacy, and the rise of the documentary genre in popularity?

This statement was typed out initially by a scriptwriter in Los Angeles at the beginning of this decade and perhaps was meant both as an inside joke to Star Trek’s fanbase (Shatner’s ‘Get a Life‘ skit from his 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live) and reflecting the concern of Hollywood that they would lose their market. Three years later, Enterprise was cancelled, the only franchise since its resurrection twenty years ago to not last through seven seasons.

Leaving Diplomatic Immunities: The End four weeks ago I was convinced that our own lives were definitely more interesting. The performance incorporated an element of chance in its selection of two audience members during the course of the evening for interviews by the cast and attendees; on the night I was there, I was stunned by the answers given by the second girl chosen, who told us of saving the life of one of her friends during a climbing accident years before. Also, when asked a question along the lines of ‘why are we here’ she gave such an unexpectedly Buddhist/Eastern Tradition answer that I found myself saying ‘wow’.

The point made for me was that this girl, who had simply been someone sitting in the aisle in front of me, had a much more dramatic world inside her than anything I’m ever offered by fictional constructions, and I took this knowledge onto the street, walking with my companion who was someone new in my life and hence still full of mystery, and saw everyone around me with a new appreciation for our variety, our potential, and of the unknown masterpieces of real life.

This past Thursday, I attended Darren’s opening at The Centre of Leisure and Culture No. 1, Video Show for the People of Pakistan and India which consists of an approximately twenty-minute video and chapbooks of the blog Darren kept while on tour in Pakistan and India late last year. I’ve prompted Darren to place this video online eventually, and if and when that happens I’ll follow through with the link.

At the time of Darren’s trip, I was moved to contact CBC’s The Current because I’d recently heard an interview (begins at 7:45min) with the 24 year old Afghani woman Mehria Azizi who was doing a tour through Canada showing a documentary she’d made about women’s lives in her homeland. This had been one of the more insightful things I’d been exposed to with regard to this part of the world. I imagined Anna Maria Tremonti asking Darren about his conversation with Mike the soldier on the plane, or asking for stories from Darren’s experience with the humanity of these people. I figured it would have fit into The Current’s mandate as I understood it: to educate, to inform, to bring us perspective. Darren’s work deserved this national audience. There was a bit of a followup from someone who was going to forward the info to a producer but in the end nothing came of it. Meanwhile, due to the unreliableness of the CBC’s internet stream, and what I see as too much focus on Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan, I’ve avoided listening to The Current at work for the past couple of months, preferring instead France Culture or the BBC. I did catch the broadcast the other day of their self-flagellation on under and mis-reporting the story of Global Warming. Anna Maria was somewhat bothered by a statement of one of the scientists: ‘never underestimate the illiteracy of reporters’.

The following morning, (that of March 9th) the CBC included in its news roundup the visit by Canada’s Governor General to the troops in Afghanistan, and there was something said about ‘putting a human face’ on the story (mov and realmedia). What’s unfortunate is that Michaëlle Jean, who in the past has seemed an intelligent, well informed woman, was responsible for the stupidest statements in the report. ‘There’s no future without women …’. No shit. But perhaps the real fault lies with the editors of the video, or the fact that she used to be a reporter.

The evening before I’d been to Darren’s show to see the Pakistan video, the talk of putting a human face struck me as more this meaningless political rhetoric. Why are all these human faces those from Canada? Where do we ever see the human faces of the people we’re supposedly helping? How is their humanity ever brought to our attention? The fact that Darren could undermine the agenda of Canada’s national broadcaster with a 20 minute video perhaps suggests just how under-served we are by photo-ops, predictable rhetoric, focus on soldiers, and all the other regular bullshit. My understanding of the situation and of the people involved has been greatly enhanced by Darren’s first-person and personal reporting and the fact that the CBC found him fit only for their hipster-oriented Definitely Not the Opera kind of suggests how little they take his work seriously … something silly for the kids right?

II. Fantastic Two | Monks in the lab

I watched/listened to this video on Friday at work, and it was fantastic. I especially liked the idea that the effect of mediation was to practice (and thus grow new neurons) paying attention to autonomic processes, which allows us to have greater awareness of our emotions and perceptions, so that we do not need to find ourselves ‘out of control’ or ’swept away’ by strong impulses. In my dream of the future, I want children to be taught meditation in kindergarten, as an essential life skill, just as much as doing your physical exercises and learning your maths.

III. Fantastic Three | Zin Taylor at YYZ

As I’ve noted about Darren’s work, that it seems to miraculously inspire more admiration than jealousy, the work of Zin Taylor could be accused of inspiring more jealousy than admiration. Consider the facts as they appear: part of the Guelph university educated elite clique, he gets to be in show after show in prestigious galleries with work that is sometimes weak (the piece at The Power Plant in 2005 for example) and Taylor’s continual presence in the Toronto art scene PR seems to be attempting to break the record established by Derek Sullivan. Both artists appear to have been elevated to that collection of what seems like the less than ten artists who are overexposed in Toronto and who are continually asked to ‘represent’ this city of millions to others and to itself.

And so it was with ambivalence that I went down to the YYZ opening on Friday night; a chance to drink beer, be social, see some people I like to talk to and consider friends, and be ignored by those who used to say hi to me but now just think I’m an asshole or something. I wasn’t at all expecting Taylor’s video to win me over as it did, and it is now on my highly recommended list.

And yet, my appreciation for this work was based on my ignorance of its subject matter. I recall seeing years ago the call for submissions from the Yukon asking for artists to come on up and be inspired. I also recall hearing that Allyson and Zin, two artists I’d recently met through a friend, had been chosen to go. And so I knew over the past few years that Allyson and Zin had a connection to the Yukon and that they were making work about it.

With Put your eye in your mouth (which a friend suggested meant ‘digest what you see’) Zin has made a sort of fake documentary on a fake thing: Martin Kippenberger’s metro-net station in Dawson City. Now, my ignorance here was based on being familiar with Kippenberger’s name but not his work, so when watching the video, I thought Zin had seen this structure and made up an elaborate history for it, tying it to some art-star’s name in order to get in the trendy props to the masters. Turns out the Metro-Net was legit (also here), and yet this only diminishes by a bit the overall video, which is still fantastic. It is this type of elaborated imagination that I want to experience with art, and in as much that conceptual art usually goes for obscure one-liner cleverness, I hate it for its denial of the imagination. Now, considering Taylor’s background from Canada’s new conceptual It-School, I suppose I can say he’s showing that you can be both conceptual and imaginative, and the product is better for it.

IV. Fantastic Four | Kuchma’s Thrush Holmes reviews

The suspicions I had of Zin Taylor’s elaborate imagining of what could have been ‘the mine-shaft entrance’ follows on January’s suspicions that the opening of Thrush Holmes Empire was part of an elaborate joke.

There’s been talk in the scene of it being some kind of hoax, and personally I thought this was the case. I was trying to keep my mouth shut about it all, not wanting to ruin it, but now that I’ve been assured that this is not a masterpiece-parody on the art world constructed by Jade Rude and Andrew Harwood (the co-directors of the Empire space) (’they’re not that clever’ I was told), I guess I share my disappointment that this really is the work of a presumptuous and pretentious young man who makes terrible work. As I said at the opening in January, ‘if this work is a parody, it’s a masterpiece, but if it’s legit I feel sorry for the guy’. In other words, in my ignorance, I imagined a fantastic scenario in which Jade and Andrew had collaborated on making quick, easy, and lazy work to fill up wall space in time for the opening, and hired an actor to play Thrush Holmes (which plays too close to the great 90’s indie-rock band Thrush Hermit). No mother names their son Thrush, so whoever this guy is, his wallet certainly doesn’t contain ID linking him closely with Joel Plaskett’s ’90s project.

A Thrush Hermit Aside

Seeing Ian McGettigan cover The Wire’s ‘I am the Fly’ in 1999 was part of the reason I gave up watching live music once I moved to Toronto – nothing would ever top that, and I prefer to have my indie-music memories packaged around my experience in Halifax rather than have continued on with the ringing ears of today’s stuff. Even though that meant I missed out on seeing the shit like this live.

The only person who seems to be addressing this Thrush Holmes issue is Michael Kuchma.

As I mentioned in the last Goodreads, I was part of a panel discussion at Toronto’s Gallery 1313 on art criticism. I had a good time and it was well attended despite being both a Monday and the weather being less than conducive to a social gathering. (The event was recorded and will potentially be made available as a podcast, and if/when that happens I’ll send out a link). During the Q&A, I was asked a question from a fellow in the audience who later identified himself via a comment on the BlogTo blurb writen by fellow panelist Carrie Young the day after.

Michael Kuchma is trying to write some thoughtful criticism about the Toronto scene and I glad that I was able to learn about it through these circumstances. I appreciate his take not only on the Thrush Holmes stuff but also on the Toronto scene in general, and I also appreciate seeing the influence of the panel talk in his writing: I guess it was worth something in in the end.

In the second link (’why we Should…’) make note of point number 3:

Perhaps some fear that Holmes is orchestrating a brilliant art-stunt, and that passing judgment right now puts one in the vulnerable position of looking stoooopid and hasty on the day when Holmes comes clean with his Machiavellian master plan.

This is pretty much why I’ve kept quiet for this long, not wanting to ruin for everybody, and wanting to see Garry Michael Dault embarrassed for ‘falling for it’ as he had a positive review in the Globe & Mail on the day after the opening. (Why would I like to see Dault with egg on his face? Because Dault’s work as a critic is worthless – his reviews are almost always positive, unless he dares insinuate that someone has skills, at which point they are dismissed as being ‘illustrative’). A hoax or not, Kuchma’s thoughts on the whole matter are the most substantial I’ve come across and I’m glad he’s putting them out there.

Update Sept 2015 • In Memoriam Micheal Kuchma

I met Michael Kuchma for a drink the following spring, and I was shocked to learn that a year after this was published that he’ died of suicide. I learned about it by seeing a spike in his name in my webstats related to this piece, and around the moment of learning this, also saw that he deleted the blog that this originally linked to.

My Journal entry for that day:

Wednesday 19 March 2008
Checking my webstats I saw that Michael Kuchma’s named had been Googled 73 times, and there were other variations including ‘Michael Kuchma suicide’. When I first saw the 73 number, my instinct was to contact him and ask what he’d done to spike the interest: I looked for him in Facebook but he had disappeared. I Googled his name myself and found his obituary. Within it, a link to the funeral home website, where I noted a condolence.

Condolence from: Timothy Comeau
I learned about Michael’s death through a spike of his name in my webstats – I linked to something he wrote last year which I was very impressed by. I’m saddened to learn that he has passed. I met him once last spring for beer and would have liked to have gotten to know him better. My deepest sympathies,

Timothy Comeau, Toronto

Just last weekend I’d re-read his email in my March 18th ’07 entry, so this news I found ‘weird’. That’s how I talked about it when I told Mom, that somebody I knew had died. I looked for his t-dawt-seenster blog and found it deleted, which saddened me as well, because that’s like a double-suicide. If I’d been asked, I would have expected to hear more from Kuchma in the future, but now this will never be.

I still have Kuchma listed in my Facebook friends list, and I think of him often, as someone I only ever briefly interacted with, but someone I looked forward to knowing more of. His death also coincided with a certain level of disgust I'd developed with the art scene in Toronto, as expressed in this Journal entry of 20 March 2008, the day after I'd learn of his death from the web stats:

I was telling xxxxx about Michael Kuchma, and how (if it is a case of suicide) that it made me think of how viscous our society is, that it kills people: that Kuchma probably looked around and thought he had no place within it and exited the scene. I didn’t get a chance to know him really – all I knew were the intellectual snippets he put up on the internet, and our conversation on the Future Bakery patio last April. But I saw a boy who’d come to Toronto from Montreal, who wanted to be successful, and tried to interact with the art community here. He picked a fight with Thrush Holmes and this got him alienated from xxxx and xxxxxx, who saw him as an obsessive stalker-type, which may be fair from their perspective, I don’t know. But it seems a case of someone who just didn’t fit in, and who didn’t get the chance, nor was patient enough to wait it out. He didn’t even survive his twenties.
Document History
  1. Published on 11 March 2007 as a Goodreads intro (07w11:1)
  2. 2007-2015: archived on my blog
  3. Sept 2015: this version produced with minor copy edits;
    In Memoriam section added