I shouldn’t have binged all 52 seasons of Supernatural after the captain died. Today, I dreamt his ghost told me to look out the window. Freaked, I went to see the new captain, just as Proxima b finally came into view. She said, “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
Oxygen was at zero. She knew she’d never make it back to the ship. Fine. No one to see her freeze, bloat, and die. Floating in vast, dark space would be the second-worst of it. As she prayed for sleep, she thought, “I wonder if I left the stove on.”
A couple of weeks ago, I attend the opening reception for Biomythology, a visual art show at the FAB Gallery at the University of Alberta. FAB openings are great, by the way. They’re free, there’s food, and the artists are often in attendance because the gallery most often shows work from current students and faculty members.
The featured artists in Biomythography are Keith Harder and Julian Forrest, both Fine Arts professors at the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus. Both presented fascinating work.
Keith Harder: ILL Winds and Anamnesis
FAB Gallery describes Harder’s work thusly: “In Keith Harder’s interconnected series, ILL Winds and Anamnesis, he examines the breakdown of materials and paints metaphorical images that speak to trauma and resilience.” Harder’s work is on the first floor of the gallery, which means that it occupies five or six (depending on how you’re counting) exhibition bays. There isn’t really a proscribed order to the show, but as I walked through the spaces, I felt the show had a strong narrative, as if each bay were a page of a comic, and each painting a panel.
Admittedly, I started with the corner immediately after the hors d’oeurves table. In my defense, this was also the corner where you could watch a video of how Harder salvaged old World War II planes and turned them into art. I actually went back to FAB Gallery yesterday to watch the video in full, and with the headphones. The video is actually a seven-minute short film called Gravitas, by Harder in collaboration with director Christopher Markowsky. Gravitas is the name of a work of land art that Harder has made. He landscaped the outline of 12 planes, some filled with surviving parts, arranging them in a circle like a clock. In the video, Harder talks about how these pieces act as memento mori, of the type found in vanitas paintings that contained reminders of mortality. The work obviously could not be moved, so it is represented on the walls of FAB by an aerial photo.
Harder’s studies and paintings inspired by these plane carcases appear to have formed the basis of a group of paintings and large-scale sketches in the adjacent bay and smaller, photorealistic paintings near the gallery entrance. The central bay of the gallery is triangular; each of its three walls is adorned with a massive painting of a storm, the type through which one could easily imagine the warcraft flying. In the corner of this triangular bay is a video showing how Harder painted one of them, ILL Winds: West (2016). What looks from a distance to be a “simple” monochromatic painting is actually the result of several layers of paints, washes, and finely detailed painting technique. If you view the other work in the exhibit as Harder using art breaking down material visually, then this was a display of how Harder used painting material to build up a visual.
Julian Forrest: False Dilemma
Upstairs at FAB Gallery was a show of paintings by Julian Forrest, collectively called False Dilemma. Here’s FAB’s short description of the show: “Julian Forrest’s series, False Dilemma, examines instances of personal and historical migration and conquest, and ponders the loss of masculine archetypes.”
At the opening, a mutual friend introduced me to Forrest, who was gracious enough to chat with me about his work for a few minutes. I thought I had recognized some of the figures in his paintings. Forrest said he has used historical photos in the past, but decided to hire actors for this series. He said he had a narrative in mind, but let the actors play. The actors’ energy and personas really come across in the paintings, especially in Torshlusspank (or, The Death of Kurtz), which featured Edmonton actors Chris Bullough, Troy O’Donnell, and Michael Peng at its centre. Several of these paintings could have been set during the heyday of vaudeville, when Edmonton experienced an economic boom and blossomed into a cosmopolitan.
This suggested past contrasted with the mood of a diptych, Fugue State #1 and Fugue State #2, which shows mirror images of a man sitting in the wreckage of what might have been his home (perhaps the victim of a tornado), being approached by an older man in a bear suit, as if life could be any more surreal for the distraught man. It’s a complicated moment, both private and public, worthy of Shakespeare.
Compare and Contrast
I really appreciate thoughtful pairings of artists and work in shows like this, which present a yin and yang of a subject.
Harder depicted the past with monumental, dark hues, emphasizing things, such as weather and warcraft. Forrest painted people with sketch-like gestures, almost as if he had torn pages out of (a fairly giant) plein air watercolour sketchbook. With these paintings, Harder immortalizes pieces of public history; Forrest brings moments of private history to life.
Both series were beautiful, grand, and thought-provoking. Biomythography is at FAB Gallery at the University of Alberta campus until October 27, 2018.
It was used, had 3.5 light years on the odometer, and was asteroid-dinged, but it was her first space ship and she loved it. She didn’t even mind dropping off friends of friends at their places on Mars, Europa, Titan, or even New Jersey.
While updating my Bullet Journal, I realized that I had taken notes about three film screenings that I haven’t posted about!
Edmonton has had several different film festivals, but the current big one is the Edmonton International Film Festival, which takes place in late September. (EIFF recently became an Oscar-qualifying event: the winners of the short and live film categories at EIFF are now eligible to apply to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to have their films considered for an Oscar award.)
I made it to a couple of screenings at this year’s EIFF. Not only that, but the week before the festival, I had attended another film premiere. At the end of September, Festival City was looking a lot like Film City.
I’ll start with the project that I’ve been following the longest, Necessary Evil, directed by Chris Donaldson and written by its lead actor, Randy Brososky. I first met Randy back when I was co-hosting an arts and culture show on CJSR radio. Randy was one of our guests, promoting a comedy theatre show. Fast forward a “few” years, and Randy was working in a new medium: he was making a webseries.
Randy and his team campaigned for TELUS Storyhive funding, which is determined by a public vote, so the project always had a prominent place in my Facebook timeline. The premise of Necessary Evil resonated with anyone who has worked in an office from Hell: in Necessary Evil, the office is actually Hell. The project succeeded in securing Storyhive funding based on the quality of the work and the popularity of the premise via online voting. It also has a great tag line: “If Joss Whedon combined Supernatural with The Office“. I’m biased, but I thought the pilot was fun. Randy plays Azmodeus, a seemingly average demon working a dead-end bureaucratic job in Hell. Bullied by his co-workers, he is emboldened to stand up to his supervisor, which earns him a call to visit the head office—that is, Lucifer’s office. Prepared for the worst, he discovers that Lucifer has abandoned Hell, and left it to Azmodeus to run. There are a lot of great jokes about working in Hell, and a few fresh surprises, such as Persephone (played by Kimberly Philpott), the angelic worker who has been seconded from Heaven. She’s very helpful to Asmodeus in his new role as boss, but there is a complication: he’s sweet on her. The office is populated by various other demons, including Aaron Talbot’s comically meek Xaphan, and Mark Meer’s ingeniously efficient Mephistopheles, who barely breaks a sweat when bargaining for a human’s soul. He tells Azmodeus, “The amount of effort required to enable humans to be terrible to each other is remarkably small.”
It was wonderful to see the show on the big screen, in a real cinema, with so many of the people involved in the production and success of the show. Randy’s team wants to make more episodes, so check out the the Necessary Evil website here: http://www.necessaryevilseries.com/
Until First Light
To back up about a week before EIFF, I was at another independent film premiere, this time at the Garneau Theatre, which is programmed by the Metro Cinema film society.
The film was Until First Light, written and directed by Kyle Armstrong. The movie is about a city man who must wind down the family farm after his brother, who operated it, committed suicide. It’s an atmospheric film that’s focused on the surviving brother’s emotional response. I was reminded of the subjective lens and non-linear narrative of Terance Malik’s Tree of Life. In the question-and-answer session after the screening, Armstrong noted that there was a lot of improv and that the film evolved as they worked in it: “It revealed itself,” he said.
Armstrong likes to work with non-actors, including the film’s star, Darren Frank, who had never acted before. My friend Blair Brennan, a visual artist, was cast in a small role as a neighbouring farmer. Going to the premiere with Blair and his family, and other friends who were supporting their friends, was a blast.
Although I turned to congratulate Blair after his scene, I don’t think I was distracted from the film’s main point, which was the hardship of dealing with major losses: of a loved one, of a family home, of a legacy business, of a way of life.
One of the topics that came up in the Q&A afterwards was funding. I didn’t fully realize how ironic this was until I began to write this post. Funding is a huge issue in both the arts and in agriculture. Family farm revenue is from selling crops and other products, but there are also subsidies and other modes of funding, which are constantly being debated, tweaked, enacted, or repealed. A couple of weeks after seeing this film, which includes footage of a dairy farm, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was renegotiated and re-branded, unpoetically, as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). One of the major concessions made by Canada was to allow U.S. vendors more access to the Canadian dairy market. Dairy prices are expected to drop. It was the kind of decision that might have made it easier for the protagonist of Until First Light to make a decision about the fate of the farm.
Exactly one week after seeing Until First Light, I saw ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch at the Edmonton International Film Festival. This, too, was a film that revealed itself. Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier were not in attendance, but explained in an end-credit note that they had worked without a script. They essentially pointed a camera and let the world reveal a story to them. (Editing and narration came later.) Their philosophy is that the visual is visceral.
Before this screening, I’d only seen their first film, Manufactured Landscapes, which primarily focuses on Burtynsky’s work as a large-format photographer of the largest human endeavours: quarries, mines, dams, and factories among them. ANTHROPOCENE picks up on the terraforming theme. As explained in the voiceover by actor Alicia Vikander, the Anthropocene is the current era, in which the biggest geological changes are made by humans.
This film is beautiful and terrifying, like many of Burtynsky’s best-known images. In a segment which bookends the film, Kenyan activists against elephant poaching arrange to burn stocks of illegal tusks that were confiscated by the authorities. They wanted to publically show that there is no market for elephant ivory, so they piled 10,000 elephant tusks into structures that resembled huts and set them afire. Watching the fire burn, I cheered the anti-poaching actions, but became sombre as it dawned on me that these 10,000 husks represented 5,000 senselessly murdered elephants.
During the course of the movie, we visit several huge projects, including:
Nigeria’s Olusosun landfill, the largest garbage dump in Africa, where there are 1,000 homes and at least as many people who scavenge the site for a living;
a massive marble quarry in Italy, where a handful of workers use machines to extract in less than a day what 1960s workers would have taken 15 or 20 days to extract (in a clever bit of wordless commentary, the film shows the fate of all that newly machine-quarried marble by cutting to a workshop where sculptors make hundreds of hand-crafted reproductions of Michaelangelo’s “David”); and
the world’s largest potash mine in Russia, where massive boring equipment leaves psychedelic patterns in the rock.
Baichwal, Burtynsky, and de Pencier work on the philosophy that seeing is believing. However, while some of the scenarios were given full explanations during the course of the film, others were not. For example, one of the most stunning sequences shows massive excavators on unfamiliar terrain, with mist all around. It looks like something out of one of the Alien movies. We are told that the machines are being used to turn farmland into some other industrial use. One of the locals tells us that four towns have been destroyed for this expansion. But expansion of what? Why was it allowed to happen? How did people feel about having their entire town moved? I would have liked to know more.
As stunning visual after stunning visual is presented, segments are shorter and aren’t really followed through as much as, say, the Italian marble story. By the time we got to the time-lapse scene where coral dies before our eyes in a process called coral bleaching, I felt overwhelmed and distressed. I had the impression that the filmmakers did not want audiences to leave the film feeling that way. They gave Vikander some reassuring lines to deliver in her Oscar-award winning, plummy tones. She said that we still have time to turn this all around. However, because the film had not given us enough to go on, the words sounded sincere, but untrustable.
When I had to get a handle on particle physics, I read The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question, by American physicist Leon Lederman (with Dick Teresi). It opened with an anecdote about the failed effort to have a particle collider built in the United States. Clearly, this book was not going to be limited to descriptions of the mechanics of particle interactions. It was also about how research has been done, and why it is sometimes not done. Lederman wrote:
“This is a book about a string of infinitely sweet moments that scientists have had over the past 2,500 years. These sweet moments add up to our present knowledge about what the universe is and how it works. The pain and depression are part of the story, too. Often it is the obstinacy, the stubbornness, the pure orneriness of nature that gets in the way of the ‘Eureka’ moment.”
From The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question by Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi (1993)
By 2015, Lederman had severe dementia. His family sold his Nobel Prize to pay for his treatment and care. This was a heartbreak Lederman could not have predicted. I could not help but think of how his country’s failure to fund medicare infrastructure was akin to its failure to support scientific infrastructure. Both seem resulted from a shortsightedness that is keeping the country from nurturing, developing, and just plain valuing, its human resources.
One of Lederman’s colleagues, Michael Turner, said to Carol Off on As It Happens, that Lederman man probably won’t—and shouldn’t—be remembered primarily for the difficulties he faced at the end of his life. Lederman should be remembered for his scientific research and for inspiring generations of physicists and the physics-curious.
Last Tuesday, I realized that being caught in freeway traffic was a science fiction experience.
Let me back up, so to speak. That afternoon, instead of going straight home, I took a bus to West Edmonton Mall to run an errand. On the way back, we hit the tail end of rush hour. The ride home takes about 45 minutes, so I like to settle in and read, write, tweet, and/or listen to an audiobook. Time passes quickly when your mind is focused on another world.
The driver on the ride back had a heavy foot, so we were speeding up Whitemud Drive. However, at around 149th Street, the driver suddenly decelerated. The bus was still moving, but very slowly. I could hear a siren closing the distance from behind us. By now, cars had edged of if the emergency vehicle’s way as best they could, pulling over to the right. Some squeezed in front of the bus; others came in tight alongside it.
I looked up from reading N. K. Jemisin’s “The Great City Born”, and saw a fire engine come into view and, slowly but steadily, pass us. The moment induced a bit of vertigo: it felt like the fire engine was passing while the bus was still, but both vehicles were moving at a disconcertingly almost-synchronized pace. Finally, there was a crossover moment when the fire engine slowed to a stop and the bus continued, speeding past as firefighters disembarked from the truck and walked up to three cars which had clearly crashed into each other. An ambulance was already at the other end of this chain of vehicles, with paramedics checking out one of the vehicles or walking in the opposite direction to meet up with the firefighters. It was this moment that felt so science fiction to me.
Why? There were no aliens or futuristic technology or anything out of the ordinary for a mid-week rush hour. That was the thing. This all felt normal. We were on a curvy stretch of a freeway bordered by landscaped embankments, trimmed with Jersey barriers, and spanned by an overpass. No houses were in sight. Neither were there bikes or pedestrians (other than the emergency responders), let alone bike paths or sidewalks. But there was the bus I was on, and all the surrounding vehicles which may as well have been operating on a single track, like a monorail, or like automated vehicles programmed to drive in an orderly fashion.
It felt like being in a closed experimental system. The three vehicles in the accident were like pathogens, and the emergency vehicles were deployed like antigens. (After all, the Whitemud is considered an “arterial” road.) Despite these biological metaphors, we humans were essentially encapsulated in machines made of metal, fiberglass, and concrete. We made those materials, and we built systems that use them. We’ve created machines made of metal, and other human-made material, that run on concrete tracks. The science of roadway construction enables the fiction that humans live in a machine world.
I only get this feeling on the freeway. More recently, I was in a bus on Whyte Avenue that passed an accident which also brought out a fire engine and an ambulance. However, things felt more like a part of life, not fiction. There was a lot of traffic, but it was stop-and-go, and the bus stopped at each of its scheduled stops to let people on and off. I could have gotten off at any point and walked to my destination, joining the hundreds of pedestrians strolling along the avenue.
The freeway eliminates that choice. If you’re on the freeway, you’re most likely inside a vehicle. If you’re a driver, you’re steering a ship within a known system, but with the potential for being knocked off the path by unknowns, like you’re piloting the Proteus in The Fantastic Voyage.
If you’re on a bus, like I was, you just board at the transit station, turn on your phone, that gateway to other realities, and let the vehicle convey you from one location to another. You might lose the sense of time and get caught up in a far-away world, and you might find yourself in your own neighbourhood in the present time. It’s not a time machine, but it can sure feel like it.