Writing Samples

In addition to making art, I do a bit of writing.  Here are some recent writing samples-- essays, exhibition texts, articles, interviews, etc.

Born Losers: Three Viewings of Donald Shebib's Goin' Down the Road (2012)

     Last week, I picked up a book of criticism about an iconic Canadian movie at University of Toronto— a school with a long history of being immortalized on film.  While Goin’ Down the Road (1970) depicts a side of Toronto not far from said university, it couldn’t be further from the idyllic grounds of U of T’s downtown campus.  The film portrays two Maritimers who drive a run-down shitbox to Toronto in search of work, and instead drift from bad job to bad job, beer to beer and rooming house to rooming house.  A snapshot of internal migration in Canada, Road starkly depicts working-class life and cultures clashing in Toronto the Good.  Bracing for a weekend of bad weather and with the contents of the book about Road fresh in my mind, I rented the film with the intent of repeated viewings.

  Upon its release, Goin’ Down the Road held a mirror up to Toronto and its citizens— a rare thing for a city that was culturally just starting to come into its own.  Local breakthroughs in architecture and social life such as the burgeoning Yorkville hippie scene, Yonge Street nightlife and the building of the Mies Van der Rohe-designed TD Centre in 1968 marked a move away from Toronto’s reputation as a cultural backwater.  However, the reflection Road held up to the city did not match the image that Toronto was building for itself.  Made on a shoestring budget, the film viewed the city from the eyes of two outsiders from Cape Breton hoping to build a better life for themselves in Ontario’s booming capital city.  Donald Shebib, the film’s Scarborough-born director, claimed the film was inspired by his own family from Cape Breton, particularly a cousin who made the journey to Toronto in the 1960s on the (broken) promise of joining, as one 1976 film promoting Ontario industry boasted, “the most affluent people in the world.”   In an unflinching, cinema-verité style, Shebib revealed a divided Toronto of haves and have-nots through two tragicomic characters that repeatedly find themselves on the outside looking in.

     In a first viewing of Goin’ Down the Road, I am introduced to the film’s protagonists Pete and Joey as they sputter across the Trans-Canada Highway to the off-ramp of the Gardiner Expressway, where they howl: “Look out Toronno, here we come!  Hide your daughters, lock your doors, cause we’re about to drop our drawers!”  Moments later, Pete and Joey’s lusty limerick is quashed by the posh whisper of Pete’s aunt to his uncle as they peer from behind their lace curtain, pretending not to be home so they don’t have play host to the ragtag pair.  In a scene where Joey gazes up at two office towers while job hunting, the film’s use of urban architecture—and Joey and Pete’s position outside of it— symbolizes the pair’s lack of access to the economic bounty that cities colonized by the middle class promise.  A half hour into the film and after the characters spend a bleak night in a men’s hostel, Pete miraculously lands himself an interview at an advertising firm.  Pete’s claim that he thinks he is worthy of a job there because he enjoys watching television commercials is a heartbreaking indicator the cultural chasm between him and the man interviewing him.  As Pete leaves the job interview dejected, I drift off to sleep.

  In her 1972 book Survival, Margaret Atwood cites Goin’ Down the Road as an example of a Canadian literary preoccupation with survival.  Arguing that Canadians have a collective victim complex that relates to Canada’s former status as a British colony, Atwood specifically refers to Road to cap a list of examples of poetry and prose from across the country whose theme is the struggle and subsequent failure to survive:

"(T)wo English Canadian feature films (apart from Allan King's documentaries) to have had much         
success so far, Goin' Down the Road and The Rowdyman, are both dramatizations of failure. The                   heroes survive, but just barely; they are born losers, and their failure to do anything but keep alive has nothing to do with the Maritime Provinces or 'regionalism' it's pure Canadian, from sea to sea."

Atwood seals her claim with an inevitable comparison to our neighbours to the south, questioning whether “Canadians have a will to lose which is as strong and pervasive as the Americans will to win?” A year after the release of Survival, film theorist Robert Fothergill took Atwood’s theory a step further by applying it to Canadian filmmaking in an essay he titled “Coward, Bully, or Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother.”  The essay identifies the bumbling male subjects of many Canadian movies as a symptom of an underlying collective inadequacy.  According to Geoffrey Pevere’s recent critical review of Goin’ Down the Road, Atwood and Fothergill’s respective analyses of Canadian film and literature affected the film’s reception in the years following its release.  While the film earned glowing reviews both north and south of the border when it was released in 1970 (Pauline Kael famously said it contained “scarcely a false touch“ in The New Yorker), it was by and large forgotten about five years later.   Ironically, implicating Road into such a harsh interpretation of Canadian cultural production at a time when its filmmakers and authors were trying to find their collective and individual voices critiques comes across as itself an example of the Canadian penchant for self-sabotage.

     With Atwood’s claim about the Road’s protagonists in mind, I wonder if there are such things as born losers.  Are losers born or made?  During a second viewing of the film, I am struck by a scene shot outside of Allan Gardens where Joey, Pete and Joey’s pregnant girlfriend Bets congregate with a group of fellow outsiders after losing their apartment.  As a busker sings a melancholy song, I realize that everyone gathered around him looks like a relic from another time.  Though the film is set in the late 1960s, the group looks like a pack of tousled greasers in clothes ten years out of date as though their position in society was somehow measured by their place in time as well.  By this point in the film, the pompadored Pete and Joey have been relegated to the background of Toronto’s urban landscape, perched listlessly on park benches during the day and smoking cigarettes in the shadows after dark.  Their misfortunes build as the film plods forward.

  Pierre Bourdieu’s essay “Being Different” claims that “the only way to be is to be different, to ‘make one’s name,’ either personally or as a group.” This idea brings to mind a scene from Goin’ Down the Road that, even after a third viewing, had an aching resonance.  After a shift at the bottling plant where they work shortly after arriving in Toronto, Pete attempts to illustrate the existential nature of their job stacking crates to Joey.  Exasperated, Pete proclaims: “I just want to do something that matters, something to show for myself.  I want something to say that I was there— ‘Peter McGraw was there.’”  But for Pete, difference is a double-edged sword.  He wants to be different— from his family back home in Cape Breton, from the other men on the assembly line— by doing something that matters.  At the same time, he is different in the sense that he lacks academic credentials, looks and talks differently from native Torontonians and comes ‘from away.’  Pete’s dilemma betrays the reality that being different means being a winner for some and a loser for others.

The idea of difference is key to Pete and Joey’s string of so-called failures in Goin’ Down the Road, of which there are nearly too many to name.   In one memorable scene, Pete follows a comely, raven-haired girl to the classical section of a crowded record store.  Pete fumbles an introduction as she stops to listen to one of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies.  Peter Harcourt’s 1976 analysis of the film eloquently observes:

"While it is still the scent of sex that is driving him on, there is something in her style and in the style of the music that represents to Pete the world he is excluded from — the world of the cultivated, well-to-do middle-class. This is the world that allows for contemplation, that provides the leisure for us to find the words to define our feelings - a help towards determining our place in the world."

Shortly after Pete awkwardly purchases the Satie record in an attempt to capture a piece of the world his ethereal dream-girl inhabits, he is whisked away to a country and western bar patronized exclusively by Maritimers where a singer is performing a rousing rendition of Hank Snow’s “My Nova Scotia Home.”  This musical contrast as a metaphor for Pete’s internal struggle brings to mind Bourdieu’s theory of taste, in which he states “social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make.” It also illustrates a city divided by insiders and outsiders, the rough and the refined.  A similar scene later in the film shows a brooding Pete lounging on the grass with Joey and their two female companions on a day trip to Toronto Island.  As Pete gazes longingly at an icy blond reading under a tree, he becomes annoyed by their girlfriends who speak so much but say so little.  For Pete, the feelings of frustration that difference produces are beyond words; his moments of silence speak volumes.

     Goin’ Down the Road touches on many subjects related to post-industrial society-- class, internal migration in Canada and the rift between urban and rural.  Perhaps most of all, Road is a portrait of alienation particular to cities that are fueled by the labour of a voiceless underclass seen only peripherally.  It is a revealing story of both a city of broken promises, and two characters who are not born losers but arguably victims of, as one review of Road states, “their desolate homeland, and the varying character of Canada.”

(Sources Omitted)

Manufacturing Desire: Busby Berkeley’s Dance Routines For Film

In a 1998 documentary called “Going Through The Roof,” Busby Berkeley’s dance routines were described as the “Epitome of Broadway Modernity” (Roof).  Best known for his choreography in depression-era “talkies” such as Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933, Berkeley’s elaborate routines involving the synchronized movements of chorus girls and revolving stages were crowd-pleasing, ground breaking and highly influential-- echoes of them can be seen in everything from advertising to music videos of the late 20th Century.  These routines are imbued with content relating to a motion picture’s potential to manufacture desire in its spectator.

Providing some of the context that surrounded Berkeley’s choreography is important to a reading of his work.  Berkeley’s signature work can be seen in films made between the two world wars during the years of the Great Depression, and he was at his most prolific in 1933-- widely believed to be the worst economic year in US history.  Interestingly, despite the depression movie attendance was at a high, and depression-era audiences were most attracted to feel-good, codified genres (Mellencamp 65).  On a related note, central to the character of Berkeley’s choreography are synchronized, machine-like series of movements that feel rooted in Taylorist and Fordist principles of standardization and assembly line production such as harmony, anonymity and perfection.  A veteran of World War One, many of Berkeley’s ideas also came from military drill formations (Roof).  

In this essay, I concentrate on two of Berkeley’s dance routines-- By A Waterfall from 1933’s Footlight Parade and the title sequence of 1934’s Dames.  Dames’ introduction begins with the film’s male lead singing the following lyric to a group of men in a studio boardroom:

What do we go for, go see a show for, now tell the truth we go to see you beautiful dames.  We spend our dough for, okays that grow for all you cute and cunning, beautiful dames.   Dames are necessary to show business.  Without you there would be no business.  Your knees in action, that’s the attraction and what good’s a show without you beautiful dames. (Dames)

The dance routine that follows revolves around a day in the life of a chorus girl.  The first scene begins with a field of kinetic clock props rotating beneath the stage to reveal a chorus of girls waking in pairs from beds, with headboards shaped like mechanical gears.  The routine peaks with the small army of dames making their way to the studio, where they perform one of Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic dance routines.  A camera positioned in a god’s-eye view gazes down at the chorus, who with gossamer white blouses and black leggings form dynamic cog and wheel shapes with their bodies, fifty girls moving together and separating as one like a white poppy in bloom.  These formations evoke both mechanical patterns and emergent patterns found in nature.  Appearing to exist somewhere outside of time and space, the routine is spectacular and deeply satisfying to watch.

The 1933 routine By A Waterfall is atmospheric and steeped in eroticism.  It begins with the camera panning between silhouettes of trees and vines, peeking out voyeuristically at a chorus of nearly nude nymphs by a waterfall.  After the camera wanders over the girls bodies and faces, the girls swim in formation and execute a number of synchronized vignettes shot in a swimming pool from above-- among them a human zipper coming together and separating, spinning start-bursts, and a human chain slithering within the viewer’s field of vision.  This vignette in particular completely abstracts the bodies of the chorus girls, creating a moving image that is almost entirely unfamiliar.  It is later revealed that this sequence was dreamt by a male character that fell asleep on a patch of grass next to a creek.

Images are representations and producers of the ideologies of their time, and Berkeley’s images of chorus girls in motion are no exception.  His choreography could be related to theorist Sigfried Kracauer’s discussion of The Mass Ornament, in which “the hands of the factory correspond to the legs of chorus girls” which are emblematic of “the aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system” (qtd. in Wollen 54).  Berkeley’s dance routines are rooted in the ideology of modernism-- they embodied the glories of capitalist technique through use of repetition, line, and collective effort at a time when the capitalist model was failing.  There is also an air of machine romanticism in his work, as Berkeley uses the vocabulary of mass-production in his choreography intent on manufacturing desire in the viewer.  Dames in particular also makes explicit the exchange value of beauty-- beauty is enough in and of itself to warrant attention, even in the early 30s when there was little to exchange for the consumption of beauty.  

Berkeley’s aquatic By A Waterfall routine can be tied to the concept of the gaze as well as the Lacanian concepts of the mirror phase and the sublime.  At the beginning of the routine, the spectator is positioned as a voyeur.  Imagery in the routine is divided between the explicitly erotic and the abstract-- bodies merge to create a highly suggestive human zipper that zips up and down, while the routine’s climax positions girls on stacked rotating stages with streams of water ejaculating from between them into the pool below.  Such scenes are separated by others that abstract the bodies of the dancers, where they are either fragmented into moving parts, or shot from far above so that they are transformed into abstract patterns stripped of any erotic meaning.  Such patterns are hypnotic and sublime in their immateriality.  In By A Waterfall, the gaze oscillates between the erotic and Kracauer’s fragmented body as pure signifier with no erotic meaning (qtd. in Wollen 54), as well as between the unreturned and returned gaze.  This oscillation manufactures a sense of desire in the spectator and promises a type of completion through the other that ultimately cannot be achieved (Sturken and Cartwright 122).

Busby Berkeley’s choreography in Dames and Footlight Parade are texts encoded with messages that relate notions of beauty to both ideology and subconscious desire.  In the case of Dames, notions of feminine beauty are both implicitly and explicitly tied to modern western ideologies of progress, capitalism and technology.  By a Waterfall ignites erotic desire through the offering and withholding of the female body.  Berkeley’s choreography presents a vision of beauty that is a complex combination of ideological construction and spectatorial carrot on a stick. Essentially, it is presented to be a product, manufactured by the culture industry as a form of simultaneous aesthetic and economic stimulus.

(Sources Omitted)  

Hard Workin’ Pilgrims: Lumbee Indians in Baltimore City Industry at the Baltimore Museum of Industry

Flashback: America in the 1950s.  A time when cookie-cutter bungalows, dishwashers and shiny, candy apple red cars such as the Pontiac-- a brand named after an Ottawa Chief with an arrowhead as it logo-- were symbols of white, middle class comfort and consumerism.  Representations of Native Americans could be found in ethnographic museums across the country, where depictions of such people almost felt as though they could be prefaced with the words “once upon a time, in a land far away…” Indians could also be found as supporting and tertiary characters in spaghetti westerns and in comic books, or carved out of wood guarding the doors of cigar shops.  Ten years later, folk troubadours Joni Mitchell and Neil Young pioneered noble savage chic in beaded chokers and fringed suede jackets.  While Indian imagery was firmly engrained in American visual culture in the mid-20th Century, Native Americans were very rarely the ones in control of how they were being represented.

Such ideas have been discussed at length by the Comanche curator and theorist Paul Chaat Smith, who I heard speak at MICA’s Falvey Hall last week.  As the curator of the Permanent Collection at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C, the importance of making “the Native Voice” central to his curatorial work through collaborations with Indian community leaders is key in giving American Indians the agency within cultural institutions that historically they have rarely had.

The “Native Voice” takes center stage at an intimate exhibition called Hard Workin’ Pilgrims: Lumbee Indians in Baltimore City Industry at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, curated by Ashley Minner-- a recent graduate of Maryland College of Art’s Community Arts program who is herself of Lumbee descent.  Hard Workin’ Pilgrims uses photographs, ephemera, handmade objects and text to form an engrossing portrait of the Lumbee Indians of Baltimore, who migrated from North Carolina and contributed greatly to Baltimore industry during the post-war period.  While feeling as much like a family photo album or memoir as an exhibition, the show divides the den-like space which houses it into four aspects of Lumbee life in Baltimore: contributions to industry, family, community, and cultural expression.  Most importantly, it presents Lumbee life in Baltimore as a vital entity, which has played a significant part in shaping the civic life of Baltimore City, and whose legacy continues today.  As one walks around the room, a cast of characters emerges-- through photographs and captions we meet Howard Hunt, a WWII soldier who went on to work as an assembler for General Motors and his wife Jeanette, a forklift operator.  We also see a young girl named Linda Fox grow into a young woman with a family of her own.  In a poignant moment towards the end of the exhibition, it becomes evident through two handmade books made by Minner that several of the people pictured throughout the exhibition are members of her own family.

The central role of material lore to contemporary Native American life is made clear in Hard Workin’ Pilgrims with in the inclusion of several handmade objects in the exhibition, among them a well-worn double wedding ring quilt, a small, sturdy sage broom, and a piece of framed crewel work depicting a stone well and barn.  Two of the more loaded objects appeared at the back of room facing the entrance to the gallery space, flanking several photographs of Lumbee couples and parents with children, in both rural and urban settings.  On the right, a handmade, fringed doeskin girls dress constructed in 1974 hangs on a dress form in a glass case.  In stark contrast, a commercially made, youth-sized softball jersey emblazoned with the team name LUMBEE INDIANS is pinned into a shallow shadow box on the opposite side of the wall.  This object speaks volumes in that it turns the practice of appropriating Indian names and imagery for sports teams on its head.  The use of the Indian is no longer the stripped down, simplified idea of “Indianism” found on Atlanta Braves or Cleveland Indians jerseys, but rather a wry take on a stereotype, authored by Indians.  Not without humor, it serves as a deadpan reminder of both the breadth of Native identity across the continent and the regional specificity of tribes like the Lumbee.  Perhaps in 1973, it was also used as a neighborly introduction, as if to say: “We work in the same factory and play the same games.  Not only do we live in your neighborhood-- we helped build it.”

Still, while an intimate and informative portrait of a folk group rooted in local life and history, Hard Workin’ Pilgrims was not without its problems.  On the busy afternoon I attended the exhibition, the ambient audio track featuring Lumbee gospel hymns and stories told by Lumbee residents of Baltimore was missing.  The exhibition looked shabby, with several photos peeling from their matt-board backing and one piece of wall text mysteriously came to a dead stop mid-sentence.  However, the most glaring misstep of the exhibition had to do with the didactic materials in the curator’s voice which guided the exhibition thematically.  One piece of wall text begins: “Baltimore, like many big cities, is home to Indians of many tribes.  You may not recognize them because you may not expect them to blend in with the rest of society.  In fact, most Indians live in houses, drive cars, wear typical American clothing (and) speak English...” Another wall text starts by exclaiming, “You can’t believe everything you see on T.V!  Not all Indians have red skin and flowing hair.”  Like the theorist Smith, Minner points the finger at Hollywood for reducing Native identity to mere caricature.   However, the abrasive tone of the curatorial voice in such wall texts came across as patronizing and somewhat mismatched within the context of an exhibition that is otherwise imbued with such tenderness.  This made for an exhibition of jarringly varied character, where the exhibition’s objects and photos would have been done the most justice if they were allowed to speak their own histories.  

Odds and Entries
Tongue and Groove Collective at XPACE Cultural Centre
Exhibition Text

When I was eight years old, I had a friend named Sandra.  One day she came to my house to play.  Within minutes of arriving, she pulled a see-through plastic take-out container out of her pink shoulder bag.  “This is my kit,” she told me.  Inside the container were the following items:  a folded-up tissue, a length of green string, three maple keys, a black marble, a cut-out photograph of a overflowing basket of apples from a magazine, a tiny fabric doll and a Ritz cracker.  I remember being jealous of Sandra’s kit.  I tried to make one of my own, but it didn’t work out.  There was something about hers-- maybe the way the tissue was folded, creating the perfect little bed for the doll-- that made it better, and far more alive than mine.

When I was nineteen years old, I moved into my second apartment on Maynard Avenue in Parkdale.  It was an eight-story apartment building, and most of its tenants were over fifty.  After moving my things into the unit’s smaller bedroom on my first night there, I decided to start hanging my clothes in the closet.  As I was preparing to fold my freshly-purchased-and-unused towels (organized by the colours of the rainbow, of course) and put them on the top shelf of the closet, I noticed something red pushed to the very back corner of the shelf.  I jumped to grab for it, and upon realizing what it was, my heart jumped out of my chest.  I threw it back onto the shelf and slammed the door shut.  The object was a used, strappy red high heel shoe.  It may as well have been a dismembered limb.  Later that night, I got my boyfriend to retrieve the shoe and throw it away.

These stories attest to the potency of objects.  We connect with used and found everyday objects because of the traces of human life they contain.  While we consume images, facts, and pseudo-facts in abundance on a daily basis, the voiceless, tangible stuff of everyday life contains the real truth or our existence but lacks the means to tell it.  In an age of infinite information, are the secret lives of objects one of the last facets of our lives that have not been laid bare?  

In the exhibition Odds and Entries, objects of ambiguous origin are contained in a series of salvaged drawers.  Some of the interventions are as subtle as whispers—one drawer’s interior is adorned with a single spider web made of human hair, simultaneously evoking a sense of intimate human presence, desolation and loss.  Another drawer contains a surreal, illuminated campground dreamscape, and another a forest of rotating cocktail umbrellas.  While one drawer alludes to a pointedly domestic space, the others feel like strange and fantastical hybrids of space that is public and private, indoor and outdoor, sensual as well as mechanical.  Another drawer plays with the idea of bodily detritus, attraction and repulsion, but to a more absurd and suggestive end. 

Odds and Entries, like the closet with the red shoe and Sandra’s kit, involve containment as a way of isolating objects in order to give them new meaning. Situating work in repositories associated with the domestic realm-- as well as the exhibition’s emphasis on organic discovery-- defies conventions of gallery display and arrangement.  The fact that the installation is situated in a raw, subterranean space further defies such conventions, while hinting at the role of our subconscious as a guide through the objects we encounter.  Most importantly, the work presents us with objects and environments shrouded in ambiguity.  While we can never know the true histories of the objects we happen upon by chance, we can lose ourselves in their mystery and meditate on their impact. In doing so, we not only allow ourselves to see the hidden life in inanimate objects, but can gain insight into our own lives and the lives of others.