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Neglect and Poverty in the shadow of the 2015 PanAm Stadium District: a photo essay

Text from an application to a photo competition:

I received a formal education in painting and drawing and have been teaching and exhibiting professionally ever since. I have also been involved with art magazine online publishing. However, I have since refocused my primary creative practice to photography based work. This motivation included experiencing life within economically depressed areas. This sparked an artistic interest in using this situation and time to critically approach the urban landscape around me. I admire the photography work of Canadian contemporary artists Lynn Cohen and Isabelle Hayeur. I am influenced by their painterly approach to the composition that values formal tension over traditional photographic concerns of realism. In this manner I addressed the scarcity of my own resources by examining the waste of our neoliberal, sprawling community models. I have the backdrop of the post-industrial landscape of the “rustbelt” city of Hamilton, Ontario for this narrative.

Waste and scarcity are often associated with logistical or environmental problems of physically accessing and distributing resources. My approach is based on social issues that are rooted in inequities and reflected in the state of resource-scarce communities that are embedded deep in otherwise affluent cities. Where I live now, Barton Village, is such a place. It is located in downtown Hamilton and is only a forty-five minute drive to downtown Toronto — one of the most expensive real estate markets anywhere in the entire North American continent. By contrast Barton Village is one of the least expensive real estate markets left in Canada that is in close proximity to a large city. Why? This community is clearly broken despite it’s prominent placement in the heart of Hamilton. There are wide roads, left over post-industrial infrastructure, that act as highways to bring people through and out of the area as quickly as possible. Storefronts, once prosperous half a century ago, are now shuttered or roughly transformed into illegal housing. The lack of care of the roads, the parks, the sidewalks is clearly evident and to me reflects a political and cultural attitude that condemns this area to toil in perpetually sub-standard conditions. The scarcity of affordable housing in this region is wasted here as no one wants to invest here. It is the catch basin for those who fall between the cracks of any semblance of a safety net left in a politically right leaning leadership. One of my insights here is that this destitute state is not the fault of the people here but of the attitudes towards this area of people who live elsewhere. As a result, my artistic approach was to frame the spaces and structures of this area in an effort to avoid exploiting the imagery of the local residents. Treating these compositions as a drawings, I hope to contrast the waste of the potential of this area with tensions built formally into the composition. I know gentrification will come here eventually and eventually no one will believe what it looked like here.

I would like to critically approach the rising problem of marginalized communities hidden and set within affluent cities across Canada. There is a lack of affordable urban areas and this is evident in these landscapes through the rise of condominium towers and suburban sprawl. Post-industrial areas are disappearing. As a result and vulnerable and working-class communities are being displaced and pushed out from the view of, and subsequently participation in, the public sphere. This is not a solution from poverty but an obliteration of opportunities in the face of unchecked and unbridled capitalism. I believe we are wasting the potential of these areas, these communities and these people by creating a crisis of scarcity of healthy, affordable communities. Our current marginalized spaces have a scarcity of healthy food, affordable transit, health care, walkability metrics such as local schools or places of employment. My commission idea is to document these spaces, in black and white, in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Not only are these areas that are typically ignored by most in this country, but the concerns of these fragile communities transcend borders to relay a cautionary tale to states across the world: there are people who need affordable neighbourhoods close to major urban centres. These are not ghettos but instead fertile cultural grounds of creativity, social justice and unique perspectives. Destroying the unique flavour of these areas through gentrification by currently depriving them of services and opportunities is counter productive to a fair and just society.

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B&W Photo walk through Hamilton’s Supercrawl 2014 Festival

 

I walked from my area, Barton Village, to the location of this festival on James Street North then back via King Street. I believe the context of what the area immediately east looks like is striking in its contrast.

I am interested right now in practising street style studying crowds, figures and faces with my new found world of a “real camera” – I am using a Sony Nex-6, and used to use my iPhone 4s as my main tool. I mostly held it at stomach level so I could down at the flipped out view display and take pictures from that less imposing angle. It’s a height I have not been at for a few decades.

As the evening wound on I had a couple of insights. One, when one walks through the crowd sometimes it parts momentarily because you and another person are walking towards each other on the same axis. This connection, which we all experience many times in a crowded place, seems promising as a compositional dynamic in which to frame a street portrait. The second insight was that people leaning and resting on the sides were interesting, formally, to me as they seemed to be already in a natural pose. Usually intent on activity such as eating, smoking, looking at a mobile device or just looking. It made for a thoughtful expression.

Anyways, I am sure there is really interesting stuff there this year but I’ve been out of the loop in this city during my studies. I don’t want to miss the chance to work with crowds so I’ll be back tonight. Fun exercise and I hope to it leads to new series of studio work.

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Lost in a Virtual Mouse Maze

Video of a project I collaborated on with Kyle Chihosky  & Ryan Stern for our first term new media studio class led by Dr. David Harris Smith (of hitchbot fame).

This was done on the MacGRID, which uses an open source version of the Second Life Platform. It was fun and interesting to work with a virtual world, but also somewhat glitchy. For example, we could not get video to stream properly through objects. Also, at one point I had a fleet of large white stapler clouds floating in one area and this caused the entire platform to crash. Eeessh – sorry everyone. (It looked really cool though!)

Still, I would love to keep working on art installations in there. It’s like a giant sandbox of the imagination.

This project was very rewarding for me conceptually and academically. It introduced me to some of the concepts in Negri and Hardt’s  book “Empire”, and got me thinking of the instances of what a maze is to our lives right now. It has definitely influenced my street photography and other artistic projects.

Hope you like it – Kyle did a great job putting this demo video together. I’ll be releasing more projects from my grad school experience over the next while.

 

 

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An opinion on Canada’s new email / spam law

I thought I would let the noise and chatter die down a bit before offering my take on the new anti-spam law passed by the current Conservative government of Canada.

As an arts and culture marketer, I did not participate in sending out emails asking for consent to keep on sending on emails. Nor did I answer these emails requesting permission to keep sending me emails I had already given permission for because it is, frankly, none of the government’s business who is communicating with me or with whom I am communicating with.

There is no difference between a hand written letter, a postcard, a messenger pigeon or a telephone call and an email. Though it may be the law, it is not moral to comply with this intrusive oversight of my relationship with other people. Period.

Most Canadians seem to interpret this law as curbing the annoying, unsolicited, commercial based emails that come to mind when you hear the word “spam”. Fair enough but what has that got to do with me as an artist, writer or with a gallery or charity sending me press releases? Most unsolicted email is not from reputable organizations, or even Canadian ones. They are, by nature, beyond accountability for their practices. So what that leaves are a handful of legitimate, Canadian based businesses that have real addresses and real people who are the only ones who will be left to be punished by this new law.

So what is really going on here? This law was apparently 10 years in the making and it certainly seems that much out of date. Anyone who knows anything about using email and the internet knows how to deal with real spam without any real effort or time so obviously there is not a technical limit which our government is attempting to address on our behalf. This law seems like it written by and for cranky senior citizens who are still using dial-up and are worried about the time it takes to read everything everyone sends them. From what I’ve heard and read, the majority of supporters are just such people who are frustrated with spam and think this will address their problem. It won’t. But that won’t stop people from trying to change the democratic world around them to adjust one minor irritation that could be fixed easily in many other ways.

This law is so ridiculous and limited in its purported purpose that I don’t think spam is the real purpose behind it. What I can tell you is that email is, bar none, the single best channel for communicating effectively with someone else. Better than social media, better that direct mail and oodles more affordable and manageable than traditional mass media such as radio or TV. This is a powerful tool for charities, activists and non-profits who want to deliver a message and spread information and our socially conservative government is infamous and well-documented in labelling opposition to their agenda as “radicals” or worse.

This new law will give the government real teeth in shutting down organizations they don’t like. All this complaint based process needs is one political patsy on an email list, along with the usual conservative base of well-meaning but angry and mis-informed citizens, to start the ball of punishment rolling over everyone else.

No more fundraising – it’s spam. No environmental news – it’s spam. No critical gathering of minds or art – it’s spam. No more dignity in the privacy of your communications – it’s spam. This reminds me of when I heard about a former dictator in a former east block communist regime who had only one photocopier in the country, in a government building, in order to stop the spread of information and stifle dissent.

Unfortunately in Canada there is a culture of uncritical complicity and this law will probably work well because we won’t be able to hear about how it is not working well. But the empty simulacrum of the government dealing with someone that annoyed you is now out there. Now go shopping and sign up for great deals by email at your local big box store. I promise you this law was never intended to interfere with that relationship.

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

A dissenting opinion about selling Detroit’s public art collection

My initial gut feeling and my enduring general position is that the City of Detroit should sell off its art collection.

Strictly speaking, what the City of Detroit decides to do with its public art collection is none of my business as I’m Canadian. However, the phenomenon of large and valuable public art collections is universal across much of the world. As such there are some common characteristics that I do feel comfortable commenting on.

The problem with large valuable art collections is that they are tombs for the collected works. You the public will ever only see the very tip of the iceberg, even if you attend every exhibit at one of these large institutions during your entire life. A public art institution buying your work is most likely a death sentence for that work, but a nice addition to your pedigree. The worth through this relationship is thus largely removed from reality — conceptual and abstract for the artist and the public. To me, this is the same kind of instability produced through the financial system on perceived worth of bonds, stocks and futures. At some point, for the institution, the physical cost of housing, maintaining and documenting a large amount of work increased the value of a few works and the others depreciate because no one has ever heard of these artists or seen their work.

What selling this collection would do is allow most of this work to see the light of day again. This work could be disseminated across the world, allowing people to see it who would never have been able to see it otherwise. This is great news for the work and the artist(s) who made the work. It is not such great news for the institution that was hoarding it but how does or how should that affect our opinion? I feel it does affect most people’s perspective on this situation but I also think most people do not realize they are associating the art with an institution. An organization’s ambitions are not the same thing as important art works, though I think they want to be and we want somebody to be taking collecting art works seriously on our behalf. That’s cool but if we believe in collecting works we would be disingenuous to deny the collection of collections.

Another benefit would be the absence created by selling off an entire collection as presumably the institution would need to start collecting again. This is a great opportunity for artists and a great opportunity for cultural institution workers. Imagine the activity and spending that would happen that could be spun into economic feel good indicators.

In principle I also like the idea of demonstrating the worth of collecting art by selling it and paying off the debts incurred by business-oriented ideology. I think the US, as with many countries, already gets this idea and accepts the worth of art in society. Sadly, this last point may be a more useful albeit basic lesson for Canadian arts funding models.

The Canada - U.S.A. Border.

Derelict country homes, police challenges & military helicopters; my tourist experience visiting North West New York State. [slideshow]

I have travelled through the U.S. last year in January and saw hints of what ails this country. Almost the entire trip through to Mexico I saw the vast ruins and hardscrabble towns interrupted at regular intervals by shiny McDonalds or WalMarts.  These poor states such as Oklahoma contrasted sharply with affluent neighbouring states such as Texas. Texas was surprisingly boring, bland and visually homogenous to travel through and thus reminded me the most of Ontario.

This trip though was to attend an academic conference in upstate New York, just a couple hours east of Buffalo. I love Buffalo – I really admire their arts community and the way they’ve preserved their heritage buildings. So I was eager to see some of the countryside and small towns on a road trip with friend and classmate Kyle Cihosky.

I’m always nervous going through customs. I’m sure that is nothing remarkable or unusual for most people passing through customs anywhere. No matter how many planes land safely I’ll always probably be a nervous flyer as well. Anyways, this U.S. Border Guard was not tall but muscly-bulky with a short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes. He was gruff, did not look at me as I talked to him and I could barely hear his grunted questions or instructions. Because I asked him to repeat himself I was afraid he would get annoyed and strip search us and tear my car apart. That is the nature of authority.

He waved us through and he turned out to be the nicest experience with an authority figure we had.

We arrived at the College at Brockport residences and met up with the conference coordinator. Our floor was men only for this event and he told me it was ok to use the women’s washroom – so I did! When I came back out there was Kyle, the coordinator and a not tall, muscly-bulky cop with short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes. He looked at me accusingly, evaluating who I was and what I was doing in the women’s washroom. He seemed to be standing in a defensive posture and one hand was resting on the mace on his belt. I know this because I looked to see what he was resting his hand on. Turns out there is a thing called campus police and their police station was on the first floor of this very building. This intrepid individual heard us talking and checking out our assigned rooms and patrolled up one flight of stairs to investigate.

He asked what we doing here.

The coordinator informed him there was actually a conference happening this weekend and lots of more people were coming to check in. I remember him saying softly over and over “no tensions, no problems” and giving us a slightly exasperated glance when this policeman finally relaxed and decided to end his investigation.

I got a sense that this is part of an overall cultural reality here.

Later, we went out for a beer and we were asked for ID. This pleased me as I’m over 40. Later, when we a bought a four pack of beer and twelve ciders at the local grocery store the cashier asked me for ID as well. I then realized there is no reflection, analysis or judgement allowed here – there is instructions to ask for ID no matter what is before your eyes. Our purchases were watched by male employees whose job it was to stand at each cash and watch purchases. They stood between us and the door.

Kyle and I played board games in our dorm room and sipped our drinks. When I went to bed, it was cold in the sparse dorm room with only a thin blanket and one flimsy pillow. There were stains on the hard carpeted floor. Kyle had it worse – his room had noisy pipes.

The next day the conference ended and we drove back. The video above is Kyle taking photos with my camera as I drove. You’ll get a sense of the many derelict business and homes that sit within sight of the road and almost every barn we saw was in an advanced state of disrepair. As we approached the border, no less than four black military helicopters flew overhead.

I chose the lane for our Canadian customs poorly. I noticed the guy kept directing cars over to the side for inspection. The other lanes were going more smoothly, more quickly.  Fuck. It was too late to switch lanes now. I’ve always found Canadian customs guards to be more challenging, more stern — more macho somehow than their American counterparts. Looks like we got the guy with something to prove.

You see, we were nervous because we had more booze in the car than we were supposed to for a less than a 48 hour visit. I had two cans of beer left and Kyle had 11 cans of cider left and now one bottle of red wine he just bought for a big date he had the next day. Apparently, it is up to the whim of the Border official if you will be allowed to keep your purchase or pay extra. We chatted briefly about NAFTA and how this doesn’t apply to us.

Our turn came and we pulled up to the kiosk. Our Canadian Border Services representative was a not tall, muscly-bulky man with short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes.

I gave him exact answers to where we were and how long we were there. I got the name of the college we were at wrong and Kyle corrected me. Oh shit. I told him we had exactly 2 beers, 11 ciders and 1 bottle of wine in the car. We had given him our passports already opened to our photos. I hoped this consideration to his work would help.

He asked us for our receipts for this alcohol. We both sprang into action and I found the receipt for the original 4 beers and 12 ciders in my wallet – I had absentmindedly stuffed it in there. Thankfully. Who knows what would have happened if my paperwork was not in order. Kyle found his duty free wine purchase documentation papers. The officer looked at them and then asked me to re-state exactly how many cans of alcoholic beverages we had left. 2 beers and 11 ciders. This man would now know we had only three drinks last night.

We answered his questions correctly. He waved us through. He handed us back our receipts. I actually felt grateful for a brief moment that my car is an ugly green 2010 Hatchback Hyundai Accent. I think no one worth investigating is attending academic conferences in cheap, ugly cars. I think it’s important in the face of security experts to have a vehicle that is less nice than they would drive.

We drove back and I dropped off Kyle at his house near our University. It was dark now and we parked at his house’s drive way while unloading his stuff and making sure he had not forgotten anything. I heard a car on the street behind me and I looked to see a police car stopped in front of us, with a not tall, muscly-bulky cop with short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes staring at us. We ignored him and continued to chat by the car.

The police car then pulled into Kyle’s driveway and drove up beside us.

“You guys students moving out?” He leaned slightly to talk out of his open window.

Huh? Was this cop actually entering private property and asking us questions?

I did not reply. I just stared at him. I was suddenly very tired and resentful of being kept safe. Kyle briefly talked to him, assuring him (much like the conference coordinator did) that we were allowed to be here.

“Ok. I am patrolling around here tonight looking for parties”,  he warned us, backing out and slowly patrolling down the residential street.

I have never experienced a police officer just entering my yard and demanding to know who I was and what I was doing. I wanted to confront him but it was Kyle’s place not mine. I did wait for awhile to get into my car and drive home because I was concerned this guy would pull me over if he spotted my car again.

That’s the way the law works.

Music from FMA: Johnny Ripper, Ego Death

 

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Unsafe Alighting into Audio / Visual Art [New Work]

Alighting: An audio visual textural exploration of the King Street bus lane in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

An Action-Research Collaboration between Christopher Healey & Ryan Price.

Running west on the north side from Mary Street to New St, the King Street dedicated bus lane is a pilot project for the City of Hamilton. Since it’s launch in October 2013 this project has proven to be a source of public debate among business owners, car drivers, transit riders and cyclists who depend on King Street to travel west.

We decided to research this sphere of public discourse through a series of investigations along the entire length of the bus lane. Our methodology consisted of walking the route with a sound recording device, identifying and collecting sounds that were specific to this routes space. Different sections of the route contained different audio environments: the ambient sounds of traffic near Dundurn Street could be defined as light (cars, mopeds, and motor bikes) and heavy traffic (trucks, buses, and tractor trailers), the audio space around Jackson Square was defined by community (sounds of pedestrians, street buskers, children and even a policeman on a horse), the space east of John, while less dense in terms of pedestrians, also contained less voracious audio characteristics in contrast to the Dundurn traffic (simply because it was only two lanes at that point).

After some reflection, our next cycle of research consisted of capturing visuals along the length of the route. What symbols, signs and textual objects could we identify that reflect public opinion and subsequent debate regarding the dedicated bus lane pilot project? To answer this, we captured visual elements of the bus lane itself: the buses, cyclists, vehicular traffic and pedestrians who all share this common space, the storefronts, both occupied and empty and in various states of upkeep, and bus lane propaganda. These images help support an overall narrative of the problematic nature of this street’s community history and uncertain future direction. For example, our research raised the question of who these businesses purporting to be suffering were actually serving — local communities or commuters from the surrounding suburbs?

Now that we had a soundscape and visual data to compare and contrast, we desired more layers to reveal greater insights into this dynamic space. We decided to seek out opinion from both those opposed to the bus lane project and those who support it.
We created another research cycle to repeat the last observation process with our sound recorder and camera while riding the bus along the dedicated transit lane. This resulted in a soundscape that we used as a baseline for the project. This research cycle acts as a constant throughout the entire work and defines the length and undergirds the textual fabric of the work.

Loosely keeping a narrative based on time, location and proximity to the bus lane we have layered our collected sets of audio and visual data into a holistic artwork that explores many of the dynamic and rich variables of this urban space. We observed from the whole of our work in the field and reflection of our collected resources that there are rhythms of traffic, conversations, and foot traffic. Using these elements of a busy urban street we reflected this repeated, familiar codes of traffic sounds and imagery into loops and staggered patterns. We also incorporated the two conversations (as well as some tertiary dialogue from ambient streetscape recordings) about two thirds into the work, giving each some prominent amplification and overlapping the two together to reflect the competing, noisy environment that this space reflects both physically and politically.

Next, we created an audio/visual work attempting to encapsulate many of the elements that define the community surrounding the bus lane, the inside of a bus, and the civic debate. The video displayed here was created as a real-time process, with both artists sharing the controls of a midi mixing controller, adjusting aspects of the source videos, such as speed, direction, zoom, contrast, saturation, and brightness, among other properties. Our manipulation of the video was done while listening to the soundtrack, making on-the-fly decisions based on the the actions of the the sound, the video, and each other’s actions.

The combination of layering and texturing gradually after establishing a normalized sound environment indicates for the audience a deliberate and composed work that leads to several perspectives which may be shared or not shared. Hopefully there are opportunities of discovery and familiarity embedded in the work for the audience. The artwork itself renders these perspectives in new ways allowing for unconsidered entry points into the issues of the dedicated bus lane pilot project. We’ve attempted to construct the work to peak in activity, noise and movement and eventually crescendo into a combination of all the elements, then concluding with the simple sounds of disembarking from the bus. Or, as the sign says, alighting safely.