Art and the City


I recently had the pleasure of reading N. K. Jemisin short story, “The Great City Born”. In her world, cities go through a life cycle. Some cities may gestate for a very long time without being born, but when a city is ready to be birthed, it chooses an avatar, a kind of midwife. The avatar is a human being who can hear the city breathing and feel what the city feels. The person eventually becomes the city in a kind of multiple state of being that is well-conveyed by Jemisin’s poetic fiction.

The story was fascinating, and especially appealed to me as a fan of the WildStorm comic The Authority (created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, and elaborated upon by subsequent creative teams). The Authority was a group of unlikely superheroes led by Jenny Sparks, the human embodiment of “the spirit of the 20th century”, and is probably most famous for including the gay couple Apollo and Midnighter, who were analogues of Superman and Batman. One of the other team members, Jack Hawksmoor, had the ability to talk to cities, but it was not a natural superpower, nor was it one that he agreed to acquiring. As a child, Jack was weaponized by 70th century humans who subjected him to painful body modifications that gave him the ability to fight a future monster by harnessing cities’ power. Jack–whose namesake is the English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor–could communicate with cities, but they remained separate entities.

Jack Hawksmoor was built infrastructure, a human-engineered city utility meant to work with other human-engineered city utilities. In Jemisin’s world, cities and humans live  symbiotically in a natural ecosystem: humans build cities that contain humans; cities choose which humans can contain cities.

I like the way cities are presented in both works. They are technological and biological, engineered and natural. Cities are the work of humans and they work with humans. Cities and humans shape each other.

This is the type of work I want to explore in this blog. I’m  interested in the relationship between art and cities: how art portrays the city; how cities affect the making, presentation, and perception of art; and experiencing art and my city. Arts City is in its infancy. I’m looking forward to see what happens as we grow together.

“The City Born Great” is collected in Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Short Fiction. It can also be read online at or via Kindle.

Jack Hawksmoor starred in his own mini-series, Secret History of The Authority: Jack Hawksmoor, by writer Mike Costa and artist Fiona Staples. Here’s an interview I did with Fiona before Saga and soon after the Hawksmoor series wrapped up in 2009.


Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, siblings Sokka and Katara meet Aang and Momo.

Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender has been hugely influential on a generation of artists and audiences. I missed it the first time around, so it’s been on my list of shows to catch up on, particularly as some of its key creators are responsible for making Voltron: Legendary Defender and The Dragon Prince. I finally caved after reading that Netflix, Nickelodeon, and the original creators are teaming up to produce a live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (I have no desire to see the white-washed movie version.)

I binge-watched the first season last weekend. The animation in the first episode was rough compared to the animation in Voltron and The Dragon Prince, but the show hooked me. Something about the combination of a real kid voicing Aang, the folkloric backstory, the brother-sister dynamic, and the environmental theme clicked for me.

Since this was an old-school Nickelodeon show, it had a full 20 episodes to unfurl its first chapter, and it used the time well. Seemingly stereotypical enemies turned out to be much more complex, characters’ powers had time to develop, a dunce matures, all in good time. In comparison, The Dragon Prince, with nine episodes, felt like it was setting up for the real story to begin. I binged all 65 episodes of Voltron in a week, so the storylines were more fully developed; as a whole, it felt like a coherent, albeit long, movie.

The Dragon Prince, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Avatar: The Last Airbender have a lot in common. They are set in fantastical worlds. The Dragon Prince draws on fantasy, Voltron on science fiction, and Avatar on folklore. In all three, a once-peaceful, cooperative world was rent asunder by war and misunderstanding; it’s left to unlikely coalitions of young heroes to put it back together.

I was particularly fascinated by the parallels between Avatar and Voltron. In Voltron: Legendary Defender, all characters are obsessed with finding sources of power, often in the form of naturally occurring crystals. But a big difference between heroes an villains is that the heroes get that extra “kick” in finding the power within themselves, whereas the bad guys use slave labour to mine crystals, and also harvest quintessence non-consensually. Furthermore, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the heroes desperate seeking sources of knowledge, while the villains do whatever they can to stop knowledge from being shared.

While it will take me a while to complete the full series (and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, I can see why a live-action adaptation is timely. Live-action film and television are only now catching up to the environmental themes and multicultural world of Avatar: The Last Airbender.




Prairie Dance Circuit: Melanie Kloetzel and Gerry Morita

First time I’ve seen earplugs given out at a dance performance. Photo by Suzette Chan.

On Friday night, the Brian Webb Dance Company opened its 40th season with a presentation that was both new and nostalgic, as befitting a venerable company with a long history of presenting new work.

BWDC participates in the Prairie Dance Circuit, which chooses new work to tour the Prairie provinces. This year, the featured choreographers are Melanie Kloetzel and Gerry Morita.

Melanie Kloetzel: It Began with Watching

The evening began with Melanie Kloetzel’s “It Began with Watching”, a fun and timely piece that she wrote, choreographed and directed. The lights go up on eight female dancers, all wearing suits tailored for men. I had the impression that they were businessmen, emphasis on “busy” and “men”. They began by performing slow movements, like participants in a tai chi class, or cogs in a highly regimented, well-oiled—albeit slow—machine. Eventually, one dancer stopped and left the stage while the others carried on. Then, another one stopped and left, followed by another and another, until all but one had left the stage. The lone person on stage turned her back on us and appeared to hang herself. The lights on stage went down, but the house lights went up, and the dancers who had left the stage reappeared in the audience area, shaking hands and congratulating people with the kind of platitudes you hear at the end of a meeting.

They eventually return to the stage for what I felt was the highlight of the piece. The dancers re-assembled as a chorus, chirping catchphrases such as: “At the end of the day”, “Let me be clear”, and “It is what it is”, until they were essentially performing a sound poem. Their chatter morphed into nonsense musical phrases and back again, all conducted by the person who had remained on stage. The “conductor”, incidentally, set off her pinstripe suit with a Trudeau-red necktie. It becomes clear that these are meant to be government people, not captains (and lackeys) of capitalism as I had assumed, but perhaps this blurred line was intentional. It seemed integral to a major point of the piece: that the slow and steady work of the democratic process has been volubly and fatuously  hijacked.

Gerry Morita: Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City

The work that called my attention to this show was Morita’s “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City”. I had read that it had to do with Mr. Chi Pig, the former lead singer for legendary Edmonton punk rock band SNFU. I saw the band a couple of times back in the day, most memorably when they and two other punk bands opened for the Dead Kennedys at SportsWorld (no regular venues wanted to risk their soft seats for such a potentially destructive—and awesome—show, so they were booked into a concrete-floor roller rink).

I tried to avoid reading too much about the show beforehand, so I wondered if it would be simply a dance scored with SNFU music, or if it would be a jukebox musical like Twyla Thorpe’s Movin’ Out, in which a narrative was constructed from hit songs by Billy Joel. “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City” turned out to be neither.

The set looked like a rehearsal hall that had been plucked out of an old warehouse, such as the Great West Saddlery Building (which has rented space to bands) and dropped onto the Timms Centre stage. The set even had a ping-pong table, with two people actually playing ping-pong throughout the piece. Behind them was a drum kit, mic stands and guitars. These were eventually used by a live band to play a couple of SNFU songs very loudly (which was why earplugs were handed out as we entered the theatre). Performers playing other tech types hung around. Morita and another dancer, Stacey Murchison if I’ve read my program correctly, stood at the sides of the stage doing some exaggerated punk-dancing. Eventually, they moved to centre stage and transitioned to more intentional dance moves. Not satisfied with mimicking punk aesthetic, they incorporated punk ideas in their duet. They appeared to be two bodies in motion vying to occupy the same space at the same time. This, to me, brought home an essential element of punk: sights, sounds, and ideas that seemed contradictory were constantly being thrown into conflict. Bands like the Sex Pistols mocked the establishment record industry by being signed to one; the Clash (literally, it’s in their name) made different genres of music work together; the sweet voices and harsh music of the Slits; the new/old, tailored/torn, hard/soft, small/large contrasts in how punks dressed before a punk look was codified.

Mr. Chi Pig, whose real name is Ken Chinn, was not on stage, but he did perform, via a recently recorded black-and-white video that was projected on the wall. I remembered him as a gravity-defying, spiked mohawk-coiffed punk, but in the video, Chinn was in a sedate studio setting. He had a long, white beard looked far older than his 56 years; heck, he looked like an elderly Confucius.  (I should say that Chinn was one of the few Chinese-Canadian punks on the scene, and thus an inspiration to me personally. This is probably a subject for another dance, or at least, another day.)

Chinn’s voice has aged, too. In the video that closed the show, he sang Johnny Cash’s arrangement of  the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. Cash was 70 years old when he released that song. Chinn sounded older. Obviously, “Hurt” was not a song that SNFU performed in the old days. It’s a song Chinn could only really sing now, having survived a self-destructive period of life. Clearly, “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City” is just a dance set to SNFU music, nor is it a jukebox musical. It’s a different type of collaboration. Gerry Morita collaborated with not only the eight performers with whom she shared the stage, but also with Chinn, his music, and the audience’s memories or impressions of the Edmonton punk scene of the early 80s.

Time and Place

My thoughts were centered on time because of Brian Webb Dance Company’s 40th anniversary. However, equally important to both works is place. The red necktie and talk of parliament situates Calgarian Melanie Kloetzel’s “It Began with Watching” in Canada. Everything about Edmontonian Gerry Morita’s “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City” is about Edmonton, including the title (“crude” for punk, “crude” for a young, working class city, “crude” for oil).

Local stories in dance are another way for creators and audiences to see and remember how place affects us, and how we affect place. Thanks to BWDC, Melanie Kloetzel, Gerry Morita, and all the performers and technicians for making, sharing, and inspiring more memories this weekend.


BWDC video: Brian Webb interviewing Gerry Morita about creating independent work within a larger community.

BWDC: 40th Anniversary Season





Planet of the Apes (1968)

Charleston Heston, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Lou Wagner in Planet of the Apes (1968).

Last week, I attended Metro Cinema’s special event to preview their 2018/19 movie season. We were treated to a poster auction, trailers for upcoming movies, and a reminder/appeal about the Metro’s non-profit status and the need for donations to keep the programming going and the venerable Garneau Theatre operating. (Donate here!)

The night’s pièce de résistance was a free screening Planet of the Apes (1968), remastered to mark the movie’s 50th anniversary this year.

As a child, I watched the short-lived television series and possibly a cut-for-television version of the film. I didn’t remember the plots, but I have a strong memory of being fascinated by the make-up for the apes. They looked incredibly realistic at the time. The makers of the original film were impressed by their own work, too. As the opening credits rolled, I noticed that the credit for “creative make-up”, by John Chambers, who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on this film, comes up before the name of the director of photography (Leon Shamroy).

The fact that the movie opens with cast and crew credits reminded me that I was watching an old film made with the conventions of the day. Recent movies typically drop the viewers into the world in which the movie’s story takes place. You feel like a fly on the wall, or like an extra Avenger.

I wondered if movie-goers in 1968 felt that the opening credits distanced them from the action. That’s how I felt. The title cards seemed to announce that I was about to see a capital-F Film, and not that I was about to be immersed in an experience. I sat back in one of those weirdly comfortable bouncy seats at the Garneau and settled in for an evening of aloof meta-viewing. However, the music jarred me out of my comfort zone, and I became caught up in the movie’s stranger-in-a-strange-land story. I also took a lot notes.

  • The jarring, Oscar-nominated original score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith . It hinted at the orchestral sweep of his previous work on Star Trek, but for Planet of the Apes, he created a 12-tone composition that conveyed the sense of something highly structured breaking down. The violins hit some very high notes that prompted several audience members at the screening I attended to cover their ears. I grimaced through it, predicting Charlton Heston‘s acting style in the movie, but my eardrums felt like they’d been stabbed. The score prepared the audience to accept that this movie was not going to be like a sweet YouTube video about inter-species friendships!
  • I’ve seen the last scene of this movie many times, but I did not recall, or maybe I did not see, the beginning. The story begins with captain George Taylor (Heston) preparing to return to Earth after a six-month mission in deep space. Time would have passed more quickly on Earth due to relativity effects, but the ship is knocked off course. They’re displaced in time (2,000 years have gone by on Earth) and space (their instruments show that they’re not even in the same star system as Earth). They splash down onto a planet that’s half lakes and half hoodoos. The interruption of the ship’s trajectory and the impossible landscape answered a question I had long harboured about the movie: how did they not realize that they had landed on Earth?
  • Taylor and two other crew members, another white man, Landon (Robert Gunner), and an African-American man, Dodge (played by Jeff Burton), survive the crash-landing, only to be captured by the apes. Dodge dies in captivity. I don’t know if it’s the first instance of a black character in a science fiction film to be the first to die, but it’s got to be an early contender. Perhaps the filmmakers were dodging the prospect of showing an African-American man being enslaved. The film blithely treats slavery as a metaphor without having to deal with the actual history of American racism and slavery.
  • While Dodge is the first of the ship’s survivors to die on the planet run by apes, he is not the first of the space crew to die in the movie. That dubious honour went to Stewart, the only female crew member. She doesn’t utter a line; in fact, she is never shown to be conscious! Stewart was in a version of hypersleep when we first see her. When Taylor tries to wake her later, he finds her to be an aged corpse.  (Dianne Stanley, who played the young Stewart, wasn’t even given an on-screen credit, but at least we know who she is. No one knows the name of the 80-year-old woman who played the dead Stewart.) This is not the last mention of Stewart. Landon, the mild-mannered intellectual, mourns her death and even builds a pyre after they land. The tough-talking Taylor tells him to get over it. Stewart’s name is brought up again later in the film, when Taylor explains to another human captive that Stewart’s role on the mission “was to be the new Eve.”  So Stewart’s character trajectory  in the film went from sleeping womb to dead crone to an object of grief.
  • Stewart isn’t the only female human in Planet of the Apes. There are many women among the human slaves. Taylor takes a shine to one particular woman, Nova (Linda Harrison) who happens to be young and beautiful. Alas, like all the humans, she cannot speak, so never mind the Bechdel-Wallace Test: human women say nothing at all in this movie! To Taylor’s credit, he isn’t thrilled by that. He tells Nova: “You’re not as smart as Stewart, but you’re the only girl in town.” Apparently, all the other human females on the planet are too unattractive to even exist.
  • There is one remarkable female character in Planet of the Apes: Zira, played by Kim Hunter. She’s an outspoken behavioural scientist who believes that humans are intelligent beings, the Jane Goodall of the planet of the apes. Zira encourages her shy husband, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), who found evidence to support his theory that apes evolved from humans. I remembered McDowall because of his role as an ape called Galen in the television series, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a female character take the lead in the movie. However, since Planet of the Apes is a topsy-turvy world, there is a tacit message that seeing a woman taking a lead in science would be as remarkable as hearing an ape talk. However, Hunter’s performance sweeps suspicious about the writers’ intentions aside. She gets you on board with her personal and political struggles as quickly as you could relate to the humans and their more basic existential struggle.
  • Meanwhile, Heston doesn’t play Taylor as a sympathetic figure. He’s a disaffected hardass who speaks mainly by yelling through gritted teeth. The performance lacks all subtlety, but makes for some very memorable scenes (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”).
  • The movie managed to include a reference to the generation gap. Zira and Cornelius enlist their nephew, Lucius, to break Taylor out of jail and escape to Cornelius’s archeological dig. When Taylor tells Lucius to stay and guard the horses, the lad bristles: “Always giving orders, just like every other adult.”
  • I did not expect the astronaut skinny-dipping scene. Ah, the 60s!

Watching Planet of the Apes in its entirety led me to a new appreciation of the last scene. Knowing it was coming didn’t diminish its power. It was the culmination of an adventure which took the protagonists from a hopeful mission to a hopeless reality. The ruling ape regime practices segregation, enslaves workers, allows religion to override science, destroys knowledge, mongers war, and buries the past. In the end, the greatest symbol of American openness and liberation is broken and buried. No one is interested in making America great again. No one, except an anachronism, can even remember it.

Spoiler! This is the last scene of Planet of the Apes (1968).

Planet of the Apes (1968) was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who also directed some of the best-known films of the 1970s, including Papilion (which, like Planet of the Apes, is getting 21st century reboot). Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling adapted the story from Pierre Boulle‘s novel.


#scififri: Singularity

They started as machines, but grafted bioparts that were more efficient. As resources dwindled, meat replaced metal and learning replaced programming. With a full cycle of cell replacement, they were newly human.

#scififri #amwriting #amwritingscifi

PROMPT: Singularity via @SciFiPrompt