Culture talks

by Chris Creighton-Kelly, November 2012

Do the arts in Victoria need a kick in the butt?

I am sitting across from them—a woman and a man. We are eating lunch and we have now reached a point past the small talk. We are, after all, trying to cut a deal. 

I tell them that I would like to write for Focus magazine. They tell me that they would like that too. We talk briefly about details such as deadlines, contracts, money, copyright. But then, they—editor Leslie Campbell and publisher David Broadland—launch into a spirited explanation of why they create and publish Focus month after month: For the critical issues, for their writers to speak, for the arts in the CRD, for a kind of “disappearing” local, investigative reporting. And for the intelligence and curiosity of their readers.

And so, they ask, “In that frame, Chris, what would you write about?” I am excited to respond. I love their passion and commitment. It seems like the column I have in mind would be a great fit. 

I believe there are lots of art issues that do not get talked about in the local cultural scene. Questions like who makes art and who decides? What gets written about and valorized? What does not? What about interdisciplinary art? What do emerging technologies mean for art research? Or art creation? Or distribution? Have all creative economy workers now become “artists”? Is any creative somebody, somewhere, who is posting to YouTube, an artist?

Do artists still need buildings and arts organizations for their work? Are they able to create artists’ institutions? Should they want to? And on and on. What does all of this mean for arts policy? Not to mention the bleak public funding horizon.

I tell them that I want to write about all this and more because the arts in Victoria need a kick in the butt. Our population contains more artists per capita than anywhere in Canada, yet it seems our culture conversations are bland, rarely provocative. Plus, talk about a literate audience! Educated gallery goers; media aficionados; bookish, yet voracious, readers; dedicated theatre lovers. One would think we would be ripe for arguments, debates and dissension in the arts. 

Victoria harbours a culture of complacency and comfort. A lot of folks come here to retire, to rest, to reflect. They are not looking for contention in their creativity. Our demographic skews older; artists that are bolder leave for the big cities of Canada and beyond. They are looking for new challenges. 

And I proudly state that I want to bring those kind of arts challenges to the Focus audience. Whew, I finally get it out, on the table.

An uncomfortable pause lingers. Leslie explains that she has no problem with provocative or challenging. In fact, she welcomes that aspect. For her, it is the critical question of the local. She does not want “imported” issues in the pages. The specificity of this place is paramount to her and, she insists, to her readers.

David embellishes. National and international discussions are a mouse click away, instantly available. It is the local angle(s) that make the magazine relevant and useful.

Of course, they are both correct and I find myself agreeing. But this realization is undermining my own observations.

Leslie continues. They want Focus to be a voice—heard nowhere else—for local issues. She wants citizens in our region to be engaged, if necessary enraged, about stuff that matters to them. That is why Focus has held community forums, giving a chance for new utterance, new input, new champions. It is hard to argue with that.

Finally David asks, “And what does it say about someone who lives here and does not see her or his own provocative issues in a local way?” Yikes, talk about a kick in the butt! Of course, he is right. I take his incisive remark not as an insult, but as a challenge.

The lunch is over. I leave with a few—and new—things to think about. Can I rise to this challenge?

 

Six weeks later, I am sitting across from another woman and man. We are having lunch and we, too, are trying to cut a deal. 

I am in a fresh-air-leaves-turning-streaked-with-colours-winter-still-waiting town in northern Ontario. We are part of a group of artists, both Aboriginal and not, who have been asked to consider the role of art and artists in the process of reconciliation, as in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, the commission created as a response to the horrors of the Indian Residential School system.

He, an Aboriginal artist who lives on a reserve in the prairies and she, an author of colour from the metropolis, naturally have different takes on this. But they share a suspicion that reconciliation may not be possible, or even desirable. Certainly not in this historic moment.

And, in any case, what can art realistically contribute? We bounce around concepts like Aboriginal worldview and how this relates to Aboriginal art practice; like how other TRC’s around the world insisted that those who perpetrated violence, not just suffered it, also tell their truth; like how decolonizing our thinking is difficult given our history; like Indigenizing art spaces, art methodologies and ultimately the whole art system in Canada. A lot of heady, theoretical talk. Easy to talk revolution outdoors, on a crisp, but sun-drenched, autumn afternoon. But what do these ideas mean in a practical sense?

Hmmmm…

Then it hits me. This is an example of what is absent in Victoria. Maybe I was right, after all? But I do not want to think this. I felt humbled by my Focus lunch, knocked off my arrogant perch. I do not want to get back on it. 

Then it hits me, this time gently, again. Peter Morin, a Tahltan Nation artist and curator, has been working out some of those ideas in a very practical sense for the last couple of years. He has been trying to place Aboriginal art, in an Aboriginal way, inside a mostly white and white-walled gallery space. And despite a few glitches, this arts organization has welcomed him in doing this. Rather than making Peter and his curatorial impulses, actually his whole curatorial imperative, fit their Western art-influenced ways of doing things, they have attempted to flex their space, adapting to his invited Aboriginal artists, rather than the other way around. 

Throughout this time, Peter has asked two vital questions. First: When you meet me on the land, how will we share our stories? And, secondly: When you meet me on the land, how will time give space for our stories?

This profound project, this “changing the way we do things” process of Indigenization has been going on at Open Space, on Fort Street, in Victoria—on unceded Coast Salish territory. It is a process that folks in the arts are watching all across Canada. It is provocative, fresh and culturally, spiritually and politically necessary. Possibly, it is transformative.

Apparently I was wrong about our local arts scene, after all.

Artist and writer Chris Creighton-Kelly will be writing about all kinds of art and cultural issues in these pages (input welcome!). He has just co-completed, along with France Trépanier, the first Audain Aboriginal Curatorial Fellowship at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Together, they are authors of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.