After a ten-year absence, legendary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo returns with a multi-city international tour, starting at Vancouver’s own PuSh Festival. Alongside Montreal post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the company will perform monumental, its fifth and final work, on January 28 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. In anticipation of what promises to be an incredible one-night-only performance, SAD Mag spoke with renowned choreographer and Holy Body Tattoo co-founder Noam Gagnon about what to expect from monumental.
SAD Mag: What’s the story behind the name “Holy Body Tattoo”?
Noam Gagnon: It’s a play on words. Powerful experiences leave traces on the body, they become almost like tattoos. We wanted, as choreographers, to think about experiences that change—or force you to change—your point of view or to make choices.
SM: How is this idea reflected in your work?
NG: We’re thinking about the impact of some of those experiences, those moments in someone’s life that…leave traces. There’s so many things in our lives that we don’t have a choice [about], or we don’t have the opportunity to express. So we wanted to create a setting where we could speak about those things.
SM: Why is dance such an important form of expression for you?
NG: The body doesn’t lie. You can see that as we get older. You look at a child or at a woman who’s 90 years old. What is going on in someone’s life has an impact not only on their physical body but also on the markings of their face [and] your ability to perform your daily tasks. Even after plastic surgery, you look at someone’s spine, their hands, and there will always be something that will betray their history.
SM: Tell me more about monumental. What’s the piece about?
NG: The first part is based on the view of the individual being betrayed by work; it’s really this idea of the hyper-structured place where everyone has to be the same, and the strain of having to fall into the same beat at the same time. You realize at some point [that] something’s going to break. The beauty of it is realizing when it’s gone too far, picking up the pieces and realizing what we’re left with. This is part of our humanity, part of our growth.
SM: HBT is known for going almost “too far”—for pushing dancers to their limits. Can you explain the rationale behind this?
NG: The places of change and the places of growth in our lives [occur] when we push through our comfort zone, and push beyond our level of ability…The things that actually are powerful, that have the ability to create an impact in our lives are the things that require an incredible amount of effort. What I find at the end of the day is beautiful is watching people push their bodies to this extreme. The more we are challenged, the more we have a possibility of acknowledging what is really going on. And the effort to continue, to adapt in order to go on—it’s a beautiful thing. That’s what’s fascinating, because we will survive—we’ve survived everything.
SM: Is it strange to be doing monumental again, a decade after its premier?
NG: Well it’s a bit sad, because I think that as a society [today], we’re more alienated from each other, and we have less understanding of how we function within one another. History just keeps repeating itself.
[But also] I think it’s actually quite exciting that we we were able to tap into something that still has resonance. This new incarnation is infinitely better. I can’t tell you how much more powerful it is with Godspeed [You! Black Emperor]. It really is an experience of a lifetime. It’s crazy, crazy, crazy powerful—disturbingly beautiful.
SM: What do you hope to achieve with monumental?
NG: The mandate of Holy Body Tattoo is to create powerful experiences and to leave traces. We’re just leaving powerful images for people to reckon with in a setting that speaks about the world we live in.
[monumental] speaks about the best and also the worst of people. We’re not trying to make a story that it’s linear—saying people are good or people or bad—we’re trying to create a window where people can actually make their own choices.
Holy Body Tattoo performs monumental on January 28 at 8pm at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Tickets are available at ticketfly.com. This interview has been edited and condensed.
During its two week run at the Cinematheque, the European Union Film Festival (EUFF) dazzled cinema-goers with a variety of international films. There were some absolute gems in the mix and some unfortunate flops, but the festival was a success, overall.
Poland’s official submission to the festival was Gods, a feature from director Lukasz Palkowski. The film was a fictionalized version of events which took place in Poland in the 1980s, following a young cardiovascular surgeon at a time when heart transplants were considered entirely too risky and taboo to perform. Tomasz Kot plays Zbigniew Religa, the first surgeon to successfully perform a heart transplant in Poland. The film is dramatic in its delivery, and gripping in its subject matter. Tension between Religa and his staunch older colleagues is clearly at the heart of the film’s story, reflected in the cinematography and sound design. However, I found the camerawork to be distracting at times, due to its wildly changing approach. Long takes and shaky, hand-held shots were sometimes used in the same scene, which might have been a technique to reflect the film’s conflict but was mostly a disruption to my viewing experience. My other qualm with this particular flick was its climax and ending. We watch as Religa descends into a disastrous fit of professional pressure and personal disgrace, as each heart transplant fails and the public loses whatever support they had for him and his work. All of the drunken anger and self-loathing unfolds unceremoniously on screen, until finally and suddenly, a successful operation is performed. However, this transition from catastrophe to triumph is so abrupt, and is followed so quickly by the rolling credits, that I nearly missed it. It took me a moment to realize that he had achieved his lofty goal after all. Ultimately, this film was a hopeful drama with an intriguing subject, but lacked consistency and final gravitas.
The feature from Estonia was a much more subtle and skilled take on historical events. The Fencer, directed by Klaus Haro, was a delight to watch and felt authentic on all accounts. It tells the story of a former professional fencer, Endel Nelis, who, during Soviet occupation, hides away in a small Estonian town to avoid capture by Stalin’s secret police. He takes on the role of gym teacher to the town’s school children, and fosters a earnest relationship with them through the teaching of his old sport, despite the objections of the school’s rule-following principle. This film was a quiet and steady account of life during a time fraught with political suspicion. I felt a sincerity in the film’s delivery, both in the actors’ performances and in the visual vocabulary. I felt privy to the struggle of living with the burden of war and political transgression, and was very much taken by the subtleties between the children and their teacher. The cinematography was understated, conveying the intimate relationships between characters through close-up and static shots. However, during the film’s screening there was a short interruption, due to a few moments of disc trouble. One of the scenes in the last quarter of the film was skipped through and the theatre lights came on for a quick minute while the problem was addressed, but nothing of critical importance was missed and the screening carried on without error afterwards. Despite that slight snag, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and its affectionate portrayal of a very difficult period in European history. It was an intimate account of the values of patience and steady resolve during a time of oppression.
When I walked into the Cultch, the greeter immediately warned that the show would be between 100-120 minutes without intermission. I beelined for the bathroom, then to the bar. Not only do they serve beer (and wine) at the Cultch, but they’ll even let you bring it to your seat inside the theatre. This evening was off to a great start.
When the lights dimmed we made our way to our seats and were pleasantly surprised at both the set up and the size. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. When Ronnie Burkett emerged, dressed in all black, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. It seemed everybody knew and loved Burkett already. In his introduction he talked of his past work, which again, the audience seemed to know all about, then explained his objective with the Daisy Theatre. He wanted to create a puppet show for adults that was fun; a departure from his past work, which was decidedly darker.
As far as marionettes go, I’ve only ever seen Pinocchio and Gepetto at work. This was a change of pace for me. The opening number starred Dolly Wiggler, who would dance to music and peel off her clothing one item at a time, burlesque style. I didn’t know marionettes could move like that. I was laughing and in shock, looking over to my friend to confirm that she was seeing this. Her rhythm, as created by Burkett’s hands, which moved quickly without distracting him from the song he was singing, was incredible.
Funny for the most part and provocative throughout, Burkett had the audience laughing and cheering from start to finish. I laughed a lot, but I also cringed some. Especially when Franz was on stage talking too much–at least for my liking–of inviting starry-eyed audience members backstage and humping them from behind while they were distracted by smaller cuter puppet named Schnitzel.
From the applause, to the coos, to the shouts of encouragement everybody seemed to know from the moment the show began that this was a participatory event. The length, I would learn, varies because Burkett invites the audience to hoot, holler and applaud as a way of voting for which puppets or songs they would like to see performed. This was something I quite liked. Quickly it became clear that many of the audience members had seen this play before and were keen to see some of their favourite puppets return to the stage. At one point the lights came on and he looked into the audience for a volunteer. Burkett would settle on a man named Gavin, who would learn how to make a puppet play the piano while bobbing his head to the music–“he” being the puppet. Gavin would also go on to sing on cue and even take off his shirt.
It was a while before I was able to find the connection between these puppets, all telling stories or singing songs that had nothing to do with the others. In a way, it felt disjointed. I’d been in a gambling mood when I decided to see the show without first doing any research about Burkett or the Daisy Theatre, which I would realize part way through was a variety show. Even still, I struggled to make sense of why some of them were performers, while others were just there to tell stories.
In addition to Gavin, the highlights for me were without a doubt Jesus (yes, Christ) and Edna Rural. Neither sang or danced, but rather they talked to the audience. Jesus, who may actually have been performing stand-up routine, was dreading the holidays with his parents Mary and Joseph. His birthday is a tense time and his parents don’t approve of his girlfriend, he explained while weaving clever jokes, with even more clever biblical references into his story. Edna, a widow from a small town in Alberta, is an expert baker, and talks endlessly because she fears that if she’s quiet somebody will give her bad news. Everybody had a good laugh when Edna told the story of her pie crust made with dill, which of course was referred to as dill dough (read: dildo). I’m not a big fan of sex jokes. They’re popular and funny making me a minority on this one, but I can’t help but find them boring and a little too easy.
While I thought two hours was a little too long and the sexual references a little too frequent, I quite liked this play. It was smart, topical and funny. It was also sad, heartwarming and relatable. Burkett is quick-witted and truly a master of his craft. He brought each puppet to life with his voice and movement and that alone makes for twenty dollars well spent. The fact that no two nights are the same, has me curious as to who will grace the stage of the Daisy Theatre in the nights to come. In this regard, it makes sense that this is a show people come back for.
The Daisy Theatre runs until December 20 at The Cultch (1895 Venables Street). Tickets are available by phone at 604.251.1363, or online at thecultch.com.
CATCHING UP WITH ANGELA GROSSMANN AND DREW SHAFFER – SEPTEMBER 2015
An artist interview by Sunshine Frère
It is a stunning September afternoon at the Thierry Cafe on Alberni Street in Vancouver. The melancholy music that Yan Tiersen created for the French film Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulin is wistfully resonating throughout the sunny patio where I have just sat down with artist Angela Grossmann. Her longtime friend and fellow artist, Drew Shaffer, has arrived from inside the cafe. Shaffer gently places a beautiful piece of cake, with luscious raspberries adorning the top, on the table for us all to share, and off we go, tumbling into the jiggery pokery world of Angela and Drew.
Angela Grossmann and Drew Schaffer recently exhited their work together in a duo exhibition called Jiggery Pokery at Winsor Gallery. The exhibition ran from October 15 – November 14th. This interview was conducted a couple of weeks prior to the exhibition opening. Grossman, who is represented by Winsor, was very much looking forward to showing alongside her longtime friend. The joining of these two sets of works in the same space, provided Grossmann and Shaffer an opportunity for their ever evolving conversation about art, language, game-play, memory and life to be experienced anew.
Angela: How I met Drew was that I rented my studio, which I am still in–it was above the Salmagundy shop store on Cordova. I would go by and it’s a friendly neighbourhood, but its really changed. Drew was the proprietor of the shop and we got to chatting. Though, we were never never allowed to just chat were we?
A: I’d walk by and I’d see a face through the window and he’d give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down if the owner was in.
D: So Ang would come in looking for photos instead.
A: And you!
D: Yes, she was looking for me, and images of stuff to do her work with. When I was first at Emily Carr we would do one of those class field trip type things, and once we went to Diane Farris Gallery and I saw her work there and was just amazed. So it was quite exciting because I knew who she was. She would come up and buy photos and things like that, and I thought, oh yeah, this is really cool! I don’t just have a shitty job right? It was a very interesting place in those days. Those types of shops are great places for people like us to find the raw materials to make the work that we make.
A: It was.
D: So, yeah, we both start from a similar place, we go and find something that inspires us that already exists and then talk to it, bringing it into being somehow. For me, generally it will become a 3D object and nine times out of ten for Angela its going to be something two dimensional. We use these found objects as a starting place, to start the dialogue. And sometimes it’ll be something very humble, I ask myself, why does this grab me the way that it does, and what is it about this particular object that is so inspiring? Is it the functionality of it? What is it saying to me?
Sunshine: Do you decide instantly always what you are going to do with the found object or do you sometimes hold onto it not knowing what it will be for?
D: Yes, sometimes its instantaneous, but more often than not things have to stick around for a while. I have this massive collection of old suitcases full of things like that…. I have this recall memory in my head of what all the suitcases hold. Suitcase encyclopedias.
A: You know, when I was in school, it was a going thing, you had to have an image bank. A bank of things, photos and images things you liked, images that made you think of things, whatever it was. And there used to be this incredible image bank at the Vancouver art gallery, that had been kept over a hundred years, but they got rid of it–I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, I’ve got my own image bank, but its not just images. It is full of things that I like, things that I respond to, my materials. But I don’t like to collect things for the sake of collection, I only collect to use them. Because I don’t like stuff hanging around. Sorry, I just thought I’d differentiate myself there. (chuckles)
D: I on the other hand do have a lot of stuff hanging around that I may or may not use at one point.
A: Exactly, I get very anxious about things hanging around…
D: Yeah, you’re more purist than me.
S: Do you purge more often Angela?
A: Yes, but not of things you would think, for example, I’d never throw out my old buttons, but I would throw out a pair of old gucci loafers, no problem. But my old buttons, bits and swatches of materials are all stuff I keep, but only for collage purposes. Because I think materials make me associate and associate is what I do. It’s the very nub of what I do as an artist. I’m an associate. (chuckles) When something is happening for me it is because I am able to make to make associations that day or in that work and can clearly see when it’s a great one or when it’s a forced one. You really learn how to associate. When you’re trying to go down those paths but it’s forced, you can tell when it is good or no good or when it’s great.
D: And, I as well as Angela do that with language. I’ll phone her up and say, I’ve got a pun, it seems to be a current that runs through my work and everything in my life. Like I call my brother up on Fridays and we trade spoonerisms back and forth. Sometimes their just sonorous, and they don’t really mean anything. But the best ones are the ones that can be read both ways and mean something, like the The Taming of the Shrew or The Shaming of the Trew. You know like that kinda stuff. And I see objects very much the same way.
A: Turn them upside down, turn them inside out, put them back to front, see what happens, see where it goes.
D: Yeah, because there is something there. Whenever you pick something up, there’s something there–you know, you know that it’s loaded somehow. You know that, that object or image has something for you. It’s the weirdest thing.
A: I love that. It’s loaded with possibilities.
D: It’s loaded with possibilities, you see that thing and you know right away that you gotta have that because there is something there for you.
A: I think that’s true for everybody that ever collects anything, not just with art.
D: Oh yes!
S: But all the potentials that are and were there for the object disappear once you connect with it as you are taking it in one particular direction.
D: Yes, its a fork in the road I think.
A: As visual artists all we do is associate and make these connections. Poets also, because all they do is use language to open stuff up and make connections and refer to things, its always referring to things, it’s never as it is.
D: Ang and I are not exchanging images and seeing each other’s work until we install the exhibition. We’ve been wanting to do something together for quite some time and now we are.
A: We first thought of doing something together that was theme based. Where we would both do work on the same subject. But this show has morphed and it is us both doing work at the same time instead. I’m not looking at Drew’s work and he isn’t looking at mine.
D: Those are the rules, that is the game plan.
A: That was the game because, I can’t do work about you, and you can’t do work about me. We’re just going to hope that in the show there is some kind of relationship there, as there is with us.
D: I am sure there will be.
S: How did the title for the exhibition, Jiggery Pokery, come about?
D: Ang came up with this name…
A: It’s not a word that I came up with, it exists…it’s sort of a bit higgledypiggledy, hocus pocus, jiggery pokery. I mean it’s all word play. The reason why I think it’s nice wordplay besides the fact that it actually means something, but also because it’s also associating sound with what we like. We like these associations… and that the sound, it …it tumbles out.
D: Yeah, it feels good on the mouth to say it. It’s really interesting because it dates back to the mid to late nineteenth century and it was a word initially used for subterfuge.
A: Like, “he’s up to some jiggery pokery over there!”
D: Yeah, its a little bit sneaky, I think it is a great word. But then that’s the first meaning and then there’s a secondary meaning that they started using in around nineteen twenty, where it started meaning to cobble things together. Like, it’s a bit of jiggerypokery that got the engine started. And you can also spoonerize it piggeryjokery. It was also really interesting, I discovered this American poet who used these archaic words and phrases and wrote these really cool poems, purely for the fact that they had great rhyming capabilities and their sonorousness. Once again, yet another level of what we are doing. I discovered this poet Anthony Hecht who uses phrases like jiggery pokery, he did some work with another guy called John Hollander. I was pretty happy when I discovered him. Anyways, one of the lines in one of his poems describes what jiggery pokery is and he explains it as: “using whatever you’ve got around to get the job done.”
A: Absolutely! We could quote that!
D: Yeah, its great stuff! A lot of the stuff that I’m dealing with is the seduction and abandonment of inanimate objects. I find that really interesting. You come across these things and they look so helpless and you can see a vestige of what they were to somebody at one time, but they’re no longer that anymore. In the fact that they’ve been discarded, they become, to me at least, so much more interesting.
D: I’m also really interested in how we choose to define ourselves by what we own. The general view of the object when desired is that it is hip. My general view is that it becomes more interesting when its not hip anymore or when its discarded. It’s not trying to prove itself anymore. I often turn the use of a functional object into more of a narrative or metaphor rather than a practical perspective. It’s a different kind of practicality I would say.
A: If I may interject here for everything that you’ve just said, I would reiterate that my own work uses likenesses of people who are long gone. So, they’ve got that echo of being familiar, but at the same time not existing anymore. I think I like to play between that which is still current and that which is gone, but what is it, that remains, that we have a connection to. What is the humanity that crosses over from then to now. So it’s all about that bridge.
S: The way you’re approaching the installation of the work is very much attached to the notion of game play, just like how you two approach your friendship. Drew’s objects will arrive at the gallery, Angela’s will arrive at the gallery and then the two of you will connect the dots on site.
A: It will be very fun, the thing is I have absolute respect for what Drew does, so I have total trust in whatever he does. I’m excited to show with Drew.
D: This is a great opportunity, and I’m excited too.
A: Drew and I have a lot of echoing in what we talk about and what we think about.
D: Both Ang and I are interested in fashion, people’s clothes and the items that they choose to wear to express their identities. On a small scale from a personal perspective and on a large scale. Because fashion moves at such a fast pace, the whole seduction and abandonment rate happens so much quicker. Things that are beautiful become almost instantly ugly. Because art has this hallowed niche, people are like ‘oh it’s art, its sitting on a plinth hanging on a wall and blah blah blah’, you give yourself more time to contemplate it, or to reflect on your relationship with it in a much more sort of hallowed way. Because that process happens much more quickly in fashion it doesn’t have that chance to be self-reflexive and because of that it is very interesting in retrospect. Certainly with Angela’s work when you look at the old photographs of people and the types of clothing that they’re wearing what they thought was really great at the time and of course these things come full circle and they become great again.
A: Yes, we’re interested in that sort of stuff. But who isn’t!?
S: Who isn’t indeed!
Special Thanks to Angela and Drew for the interview. The exhibition was a great one!
If you would like to see works in person, you can visit Winsor Gallery, they can pull out any remaining works from the show.
Bizarre Love Triangle is an arts and literary festival happening November 27th and 28th at 552 Clark in Vancouver. The festival is a collaborative effort between Sad Mag, Real Vancouver, and Obscurior, and is shaping up to be the year end party we’ve been dreaming of. The festival is 100% totally free, but capacity is limited, so reserve your tickets here in advance to ensure you get through the door and in on the fun.
On the 27th, the festival is kicking off with Obscurior x Sad’s Point of Inflection exhibition–thirteen writers created short pieces prompted by a Point of Inflection, and Obscurior created cinemagraphs and original music to accompany each piece. There’ll be live readings, and live performances, and a DJ set by City of Glass, so bring your eyeballs and your ears for 13 generally spooky takes on a tipping point. See the trailer here.
The 28th is an open gallery for you to peruse, plus artist talks throughout the day. Then, that evening, is THAT FINAL MOMENT–Sad’s and Real Vancouver’s Year End Party to end all Year End Parties! We’ve got Beer by Driftwood and Phillips, and live performances by Gay Sha and Vixen Von Flex (the beauty our Movement issue cover)!
Hosted by the lovely Sean Cranbury and Dina Del Bucchia, an evening of cheesy jokes, live readings, live performance, sweet music, and boozy drinks. Celebrate a year well destroyed, issues created, and art dispersed. This is our bizarre love triangle send-off. Party with us.
We are thick into November and the cold, dark weather has already begun to take its toll. As the temperature drops, and the urge to cozy up inside skyrockets, many of us are watching our social lives wither and die at the mercy of our Netflix accounts.
Luckily, November also happens to be European Union Film Festival month—the perfect excuse to bundle up with friends, munch on popcorn,watch phenomenal international cinema…and actually leave bed doing it. From November 27 to December 9, the Cinematheque will be showing films from every one of the EU countries, the largest and most diverse festival roster to date. For those who can’t make it to all twenty-eight showings, SAD Mag read through the entire EUFF program, binge-watched a bunch of unsubtitled foreign trailers, and selected our five favourite picks for this year’s festival:
SAD Mag's Must-Sees for EUFF2015
By Sad Mag
Love Building (Romania)
By Sad Mag
Fourteen couples, seven days, one camp designed to fix their “broken” relationships. This low-budget indie hit takes romantic mayhem to the next level.
The Sinking of the Sozopol (Bulgaria)
By Sad Mag
A dark, brooding stranger appears in the historic town of Sozopol with ten bottles of vodka, a heart full of painful memories, and the conviction his problems will be solved as soon as he finishes the liquor. Don't lie, you've been there too.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Sweden)
By Sad Mag
Sweden's submission to next year's Oscars, _A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence _is an award-winning collection of comic vignettes by renowned director Roy Andersson. But, honestly, we're just curious what they mean by that title.
By Sad Mag
The first ever entry from Malta at Vancouver EUFF: an intense and dramatic take on southern Europe's illegal migrant crisis. Inspired by true events.
The Keeper of Lost Causes (Denmark)
By Sad Mag
Detectives, police raids, a mysterious disappearance—_The Keeper of Lost Causes _is about as Nordic Noir as it gets. Special bonus: this film features work by Nikolaj Arcel, the writer who adapted _The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo _for screen.
I sat down with local artist Pax North on a very chilly November evening. Before meeting, I had taken a peek at the collection of paintings displayed on his website titled “Art for the Human Condition”. The abstract portraits, painted on both canvas and cardstock, were intensely immersive, and I came to the interview eager to know more about how they came to be. North’s show (curated by Shallom Johnson) opens on Tuesday, November 10th, at Skylight Gallery. After our conversation, I am convinced it will be a rare artistic experience.
What initially drew you to the practice of painting?
Wonder. Awe. I can remember as a child in preschool, discovering the whole idea of colour in the form of either yellow or green tempura paints using vegetable prints (you know, where you cut up apples or vegetables for kids and dip them in paint and then press them onto paper). It seemed so astonishing that there could be ‘pure’ colour, divorced from an object other than the colour itself, and that one could use this to create.
Over the years I have practiced in many mediums, but painting seems to bring the most joy to people and to help them feel less alone. I try to show the vast cinema which plays across the human face, to collapse and conflate moments in life. We do this all the time, both via media imagery, which map for us an idea of what a person is supposed to be like based on their appearance, and in relationships when we commune with others.
There is also a longevity factor. We live in both a golden age and a nightmare. There are a million acts of kindness, courage, sacrifice, and horror that will be unrecorded; as Roy Batty, in Bladerunner, states, they “will be lost like tears in the rain.” I am aiming to give some record of this period in human history. A painting might be a document of such kind.
And so do you feel that painting is the best medium through which to express the spectrum of human emotion and connectivity?
Actually, I feel that crown goes to music, and to television. Right now, television is at a cultural peak: Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Better Call Saul, Enlightened (a highly underrated show), The Comeback (also highly underrated), and Deadwood. Even Vancouver’s own Battlestar Galactica—they really are great art.
I often use screen grabs from TV and movies as models or inspiration. I also obsessively study people’s faces, both strangers and friends. I’m sure I’ve creeped a few people out, but each human face is such a testament to some kind of profound struggle. Wendy Mass said it best: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
I get a very mixed media or collage effect from your work. Do those elements factor in organically during the painting process?
I’ve always had this desire to have a formulaic approach to my process, but it is idiosyncratic. [My process] is purely based on what my piece demands.
I find that interesting, considering your work is consistent not only in theme but in presentation. I see your specific painting style in all of the works.
I have wanted to make a coherent body of work for a long time. That’s why I’ve taken so long to start showing the work, because I wanted a coherent style.
Who inspires you?
The whole canon of modernism and postmodernism. It’s an endless catalogue.
You mention in your artist statement that you use several cartography techniques in your work. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I’ve done an amateur study of cartography and cartographic theory. I think that [cartography] is a very significant, cognitive, rather analytical tool that we employ while viewing the world. That fascinates me, how you have this very specialized knowledge, so much of which is cartographic or diagrammatic in nature. I also tend to think cartographically, imagining people moving through the city; I find it to be a very powerful technique for visualizing the world.
I also see references to photography, specifically time-lapse photography, in your work. Is that an influence at all?
Totally. I do think about that idea a lot, a time-lapse. Who is this person, over time and space? You walk down the street and you see so much drama on people’s faces. There’s this whole film, a micro-drama, based on all of these expressions. And it shifts so rapidly.
How does abstraction manifest in your process?
Well of course, you know, modernism. You’re competing so often against a camera for visual mimesis, and the camera wins every time, right? Jack Shadbolt had a quote about how you need to let the viewer ‘fill in’ parts of a work. At times I try and stretch it. How far can I abstract while still [portraying] a ‘face’, and one that conveys some feeling or meaning?
Do you see your works as a continuing series, or simply a collection of works functioning under one thematic umbrella?
I’m going to say both. There isn’t necessarily a defined series. I’d like to start to do more of that. But right now I would say they are more a collection of idiosyncratic works in a family. [They] riff off of each other, or are influenced by each other.
Would you consider your paintings to be optimistic about the human condition? Pessimistic? Indifferent and observational?
Fundamentally, for me, they’re optimistic. I think that no matter how dark things get, there is this light that shines, that never goes out. You don’t necessarily have to be theistic to have this view. You see it in people, in the million acts of courage that occur everyday. So maybe I’m depicting what could be seen as a dark aesthetic, but within myself, I have an optimism.
What do you find most interesting about your own work?
Well, this exhibition will only present one part of my practice. I mean, I am kind of a cliché, an artist who has been working on their practice for about twenty years in relative seclusion. Painting is a serious thing. You’re dealing with a conversation that has been going on for at least fifty thousand years. So, I wanted to take my time before I started promoting it in any kind of serious fashion. I wanted to be on solid ground. Certainly I want “success,” but for me it has always been more important to find success in making work that I feel might still be relevant two hundred years from now–wherever people are in two hundred years.
We are excited to present this show in collaboration with Hayo Magazine. Origin Stories: A Solo Exhibition by Pax North opens Tuesday, November 10th, at Skylight Gallery. Read more about it here and RSVP here.
Wade Comer presents “Time Passages”, a continuing series of long-exposure photos split into two series: “Mountains” and “Cities”. Taken from the decks of passenger ferries in motion as they pass along their routes, Comer essentially paints with the camera. “Mountains” is a series compiled from over two years of travelling aboard the various BC Ferries; contrastingly, “Cities” is a series that includes images from Istanbul, New York, Toronto, and Vancouver. I caught up with Comer to discuss his photographic practise and how he was able to express the emotive quality in his works.
How did you get involved with photography?
Finding my ‘definitive’ creative outlet was a long process, and one that I don’t think I was actually looking for until my early twenties. I went to broadcasting school, and had been an announcer, copywriter, and producer at a radio station called ‘Coast 1040’ from 1990 to 1993. I spent a lot of that time working with music, making huge tape loop experiments in the production suite after hours. Somewhere in there, I realised that my preferred way of expressing myself was via photography. I never considered myself a musician – even though I spent a decade in the music industry – but from that point of recognition onward, I have always considered myself a photographer. I owe a debt of gratitude to an old friend, Steve, who upon hearing about my desire to take up photography, loaned me his dad’s Nikon ‘F’ until I could buy my own camera. Soon afterward, I purchased a Canon ‘Ftb’, and then taught myself how to process my own film, and within a couple of months I was off trying to get a gig as a photographer’s assistant. I managed to get a job working for John Douglas Kenney, a commercial and portrait photographer, who had worked with Irving Penn, in New York. Working for John I learned a lot, and had the luxury of lots of time to myself in the studio and darkroom, which was invaluable.
What inspired “Time Passages” and using long-exposure?
I had been working with the technique of long-exposure photography for about a year, trying different scenes and landscapes, even taking workshops to see if there was something more I could get out of the technique. For all of its spontaneity, photography involves a lot of planning, and I wanted to add the element of chance into the equation. Ultimately, I found my interest in the long-exposure technique waning, as I felt that there were several good photographers out there using the process, and the subject matter seemed limited (there are only so many old docks to shoot). It was on a ferry ride to Galiano Island that I realised I could use the long-exposure technique to both ‘capture time’, and insert the chance element I was looking for. By focusing on the actions of the boat – moving, changing course, speeding up and slowing down – I could capture an image of the feeling of being in these places. From then on I was a walk-on passenger on BC Ferries for over two years, Tsawwassen to Schwartz Bay, Duke Point to Tsawwassen, Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, Bowen Island, Nanaimo… then New York ‘Circle Line’ tours, and Istanbul commuter ferries, and London water taxis.
“Light and colour, like memory, are details often fuzzy”
The effects of long-exposure create a painterly feel, it is interesting how photography and painting then become mixed in your works. Was this your intention?
I wanted to create a painterly feel in the images – to use the camera as a paintbrush. I do not personally have the patience for painting, but I found I could create the simulacra of a painting using the camera and photography, but would never have to spend all that time cleaning brushes.
Thinking of a single image as film, can you expand on this concept?
Film – a movie – is a series of thousands of frames of stills, hundreds of feet and minutes long,that are then played back to give the clear impression of movement, or transition… and time. “An image as film”, is the opposite effect: a single frame that captures the movement of a thousand frames of stills. Not by superimposition, but supercompression. All that time in one frame.
In this sense, your works make time a tangible entity that the audience can see. Do you think this quality enhances the theme of loss and/or death in photography? Why?
I don’t see it as about loss or death, for me, it’s more about memory. The images in ‘Time Passages’ are literal – they are of a place, or location – but it is that feeling of being there that I think is most evocative. You don’t have to know exactly where an image was taken, but it brings you to that place in your mind… especially if you have been there before. The blurring and softening reduces the place down to its basics: Light and colour, like memory, are details often fuzzy.
What is the importance of water in your works? The majority of your works contain bodies of water, you are also travelling across bodies of water in order to document your work.
Growing up on Vancouver, water is just an integral part of the city, whether it’s the view of Burrard Inlet I had from my home in Burnaby Heights, or torrential rain. My apartment looks at Lost Lagoon, and my office looks out at Burrard Inlet and all the ships, moored and moving. I have been working on another project over the summer, photographing Vancouver’s parks, and you‘d be hard pressed not to find water nearby, or a stream, or pond. Water in Vancouver is omnipresent. Our commerce and much of our food and culture come from our relationship with the Pacific Ocean and the Fraser River. I grew up on the coast, and it has just become a part of who I am. I mean, I really love the desert too, but a desert near the ocean is even better.
What has been the your most memorable experience aboard a BC Ferry?
As dry as it sounds, I think it has been the interest people have in my camera. Using a 4×5 camera is not something most people are familiar with these days, so I get a lot of questions like, “Is that a video camera?”, or “Seen any whales?” I’ve shown people how the camera works, and described what I’m trying to do with the photos, and it has been interesting engaging with people ranging from island locals to tourists from around the world. I usually let them, or their child, look through the back of the camera to get an idea of how the camera works and how its just like your eye… except your brain does a lot of processing to turn the image back right side up. And no, I didn’t see one whale the whole time I was out there.
How does the theme of human impact on the environment and the contrast of urban existence with nature underlie the works in the series?
Many of my previous projects speak to the relationship between nature and humanity and our use of it. Projects like ‘Pyres’, where piles of flotsam from the Fraser River – remnants of BC’s logging resource industry – are piled up to await the wood chipper, represent a conversation about how we treat and interact with our world. ‘Carnage/Garages’ examines, in an abstract and literal way, our love of the car and how that has physically shaped and scarred our environment. ‘Time Passages’ is about the application of a technique, or process, and the insertion of chance. The concepts of memory and time compression came from within the work itself. If anything, “Time Passages” negates the effects we have made on our environment by blurring, or obscuring the clearcuts and highway overpasses, and by softening the hard shapes of buildings and cities. Ultimately, I have this Mark Rothko affinity, I like striations. I just wanted to create something visually appealing.
What’s your favourite “secret” spot in Vancouver?
It’s not really secret, but my living room window. I like the view. There are a couple of secret spots in Stanley Park… soon after the big wind storm in 2006, the Parks Board commissioned artists to make works out of the windfall in Stanley Park. There is a piece, now decomposed, that was off the South Creek Trail where an artist had created a ‘healing blanket’, out of medallions of a cedar tree limb, and sewed them together using cedar bark. It was placed over top of a stump of a very old tree; a beautiful piece. The other is on Squirrel Trail, where an artist has cut the fallen tree into sections, including a sphere out of cedar. The tree/void is a neat impression as you approach it from the top of the trail. On a more urban note, I like going to Iona Island and Sea Island, or roaming around Railtown and along the waterfront, underneath the Shaw tower and convention centre – lots of good urban waste and curious corners down there.
What’s next for Wade? Would you ever dabble in filmmaking? Painting?
I have several filmmaker friends and a few painter friends, and I think I’ll leave it all to them. I have dabbled, as many creative people do, but I keep coming back to photography. I have a few multimedia pieces and a large sculpture or two in my ideas book, but my next projects are kind of long-term, involving homage to Hokusai, and a series on Vancouver parks that has been a precursor to a larger project. I would also love to spend my days making money recycling beer cans I collect off the bottom of the ocean while living on a small Greek island.
When Helena Marie’s masterful short film CRAZY LOVE (2013) debuted last February at the VISFF it took the festival by storm. Marie’s tense, unflinching dramatization of domestic abuse and revenge stunned audiences and wowed judges, winning every major award, including Best Film, Best Performance, Best Writing, and Best Technical. Since sweeping the VISFF, CRAZY LOVE has been touring other festivals in Canada and even won the Best Short award at the 2015 ACTRA festival in Montreal. VISFF recently caught up with Helena Marie in her current hometown of Vancouver and talked to the actor/writer/producer about domestic violence, friendship, filmmaking, and the importance of dreams in her creative life.
SAD Mag: You started your artistic career as an actress. How did you transition to filmmaking?
Helena Marie: About three years ago I started auditioning and getting little parts here and there and having fun with that. But I realized that even though it was really exciting to get a part on a TV show, sometimes my part would only be for a few minutes or even seconds and that I wasn’t getting enough storytelling time. I wanted to tell stories and actually contribute to these projects. When you’re an actor you don’t always get to choose what you get to tell and what part of it you get to be. So I decided it was time to make my own film.
SM: What inspired you to write the script?
HM: I haphazardly have been a writer for the last six or seven years. Never publishing anything. It was sort of an outlet for me, mostly a result of crazy dreams. I wake up and remember these epic dreams and if I’m diligent enough, I take a pen and paper near me and write it all out. But I’d never go back to it as a story; these are just things I need to let out right at that moment not to forget about them. I have pages and pages of halfwritten stories, halfwritten dreams—
SM:Are they dark?
HM: No, they are epic.
SM: Did you base your CRAZY LOVE story on one of these dreams?
HM: No, but it was a story that I as an actor always wanted to tell. The main concept of the film is spousal abuse. When you’re an actor, people always ask you “why?” “Why choose this ridiculously hard, draining career path?” And the concept that always came to me was, if I could tell a story, for example of an abused woman who decides to fight back, and if there’s one person up there who is in a similar situation, sees that and gets encouraged to fight back and get out of it—then that’s the ideal outcome. You’ve touched someone, affected them. I watch movies and TV, I listen to music because I want to be affected, I want it to make me think and feel something. So when I started this journey making my own project, there were a few ideas floating around. I’m a big scifi fan, so I started with that, but realized it was quickly turning into a feature, and I wanted to start with a short film for my first time, so I decided to scale back and focus on an intimate story. So I chose to write about spousal abuse, because it was always something I wanted to do as an actor.
SM: Do you have any experience with that issue?
HM: Not personally. I’ve never been in that sort of relationship. But I have friends who have. In the first few minutes of the movie, there’s this girls’ poker night scene. It was really important to me to show the dynamic of different kinds of friendship that can exist around somebody in that situation. One of the girls is totally aloof and has no concept of what’s going on. Another one hints that she kind of has an awareness, but when there are questions being asked about Sam’s injured foot, she doesn’t want to rock the boat and get into talking about it. And the third one is “that” friend who’s like “What is going on? What are you going to do about it?” I came at it from the position of somebody who’s seen friends in these kinds of situations and I’ve felt like all three kinds of characters at some point. I’ve felt like the friend who is clueless and when I find out I’m in total shock. I’ve felt like the one who knows but doesn’t know how to talk about it, and I’ve felt like that person who is like “I’m taking you out of this right now.”
SM: Is this how you’ve progressed as a person or did it reflect the different kind of relationships you’ve had with people?
HM: I’d say it’s a combination of both. My first reaction would be to say that’s my progression as I grow up and become more aware of what’s going around me, but the truth is that I don’t. I like to think I do, but I don’t always know what is happening with somebody else. And at the end of the day, it’s not always my business. Not to say that when someone is in a bad situation it is not my place to try to help them, but we don’t always know the whole story and what kind of help they need. I might assume that I need to get them out of that situation and be there for them emotionally, but maybe what they actually need is financial support. And I might not be the best person to help them. They may need someone else and me getting involved isn’t what they want. You can’t always be a mind reader unfortunately.
SM: What do you think Sam (your character) wants from her friends? What is her perspective?
HM: I think she has gone totally numb after what happened earlier that day. She’s out of it and doesn’t know what she’s done. They’re literally playing this poker game as her boyfriend is lying in the backyard and she thinks he’s dead. When she finds out he’s not, it’s a big shock to her.
SM: There must have been years of tension building up in the relationship. What do you imagine your character’s background is?
HM: I think the abuse started off subtly and it got to a point for her where it was easier to pretend. If she had broken the teacup two years ago, there would have been a fight with yelling and hitting, but at this point, it’s easier for her to turn around and do what he says. Then it’s done and she can carry on with her day. It’s really creepy when you think about it.
SM: So she’s not looking for help or someone to get involved?
HM: It’s scary. You might have to look up the exact numbers, but statistically, if there’s going to be a murder committed in an abusive relationship, the majority of the time it’s going to happen on the abused partner after the abused partner leaves. That’s terrifying. When you’ve gotten to that point when staying seems more feasible. I wouldn’t know what to do. You can call the cops, you ask your friends and family, everyone is going to help you…but it’s still scary. What do you do? There’s not one answer for anybody. Everyone’s different, everyone needs a different fix. And with abusive people, you never know how far they’re going to go. I’m sure she does want help – but at this point she’s so far into the abuse she has no clue how to escape – it all seems so impossible.
SM: How did the characters develop over the time of writing the script and shooting?
HM: The script went through so many revisions. At one point, the character of Alan had a much bigger part. There was even a reverse torture scene where she holds him captive and repeats all the violent acts onto him that he has done to her. There were a lot of reasons we didn’t go that way, but mostly because we didn’t want the focus to be on him. I didn’t want the abuser to get much screen time. Even if he was portrayed as a horrible person, I felt that the more time he’d get, the more glorified the character would be.
SM: Funny that the character of the abusive partner is played by your real life fiancé. Did that have any impact on your relationship?
HM: Not at all! It’s funny. I needed somebody who could go through a whole range of emotions, especially in the original script where there was a stronger focus on his character. And Jason is just really talented and could do that. I also needed someone who could be charming and not come across as an aggressor. Someone you’d see walking down the street or hanging out with friends and say, oh, there’s a dude, he’s hot, he seems nice. We didn’t want a muscular mean face with a shaved head or whatever the typical image of an abusive person is. And Jason did a great job, but it didn’t affect our relationship at all, in fact it made it stronger. I once said at a party that Jason was perfect for the role, and everybody went “Um, what do you mean?” I meant that he killed it!
SM: You said you “aim to create films which address mature subject matters and ask [audiences] to question their stance on the definitions of right and wrong.” Wouldn’t almost killing a person be considered wrong?
HM: Going back to the concept of the friends—it could be anything trivial or anything serious a person could be talking about, but some people would go: “Oh, I’d kill him, let’s find him and do it.” And I think, “Okay, but really? You’d really do it? Because that’s pretty serious.” Just hearing stuff on the news, you go “I’d do this, or I wouldn’t do this.” It’s so easy to say. I wanted to see at what point the audience is still okay with what’s happening. First, we see this woman, and her boyfriend is an abusive jerk. He’s making her walk on a broken teacup. And there’s a history, there’s gotta be a reason why she’s doing that. People don’t like what they’re seeing but they are not at the point where they’d say “kill him.” But by the time we get to the end of the movie, the guy is a vegetable. Now, where’s that line? Where do you still say, “Okay I’m supporting this, or maybe this is getting a little weird, and now it’s too much.” I want to have people to go through the transition and think about it afterwards. And most importantly we wanted the audiences to actually talk about spousal abuse, have it enter into our everyday conversations so they can understand a tiny amount of the difficulty that these people are going through and not be afraid to address it if they think there’s something going on with their friends or loved ones.
SM: Is there room for worrying about Sam not as the victim but as the aggressor who will have to face the consequences of her violent action?
HM: Who knows? Obviously, the law is there to try to protect people. But it doesn’t always. People get hurt, murdered, raped, kidnapped…The law doesn’t always help. My point isn’t to tell people to go out and take a baseball bat to the person who’s hurting them. That’s more of a metaphor for standing up for yourself. But the way our lives work now we don’t know what’s going on with people. It used to be that when somebody was an asshole in the community, they just took him out. Now we have all these nice little homes and nice little cars, we all do our thing and don’t know our neighbours’ names. We hear yelling sometimes outside the window and think, “Is it just a little fight or…?” We don’t know our community, and the people around us anymore. It would be nice to think that the law would be on her side, but again, that’s up to the audience to see how difficult the verdict would be to make in that situation.
SM: When did you realize you had passion for acting?
HM: I went to theatre school after high school. I was very shy; public speaking was the worst. But in theatre, I was able to express myself, because it wasn’t Helena—it was a character. These characters can say things in front of people and not be embarrassed.
SM: What is the most important part of preparing to get into a character?
HM: It took me a long time—and I’m still kinda learning it—to realize that even if you have a natural ability and you’re comfortable doing certain things, that it’s all about practice and being prepared.
SM: Did you always know you want to follow this career path?
HM: I had a real life after I left theatre school—a typical nine-to-five life for a couple of years and I stopped acting, dancing and singing. I had a great time, but at some point I realized I wasn’t dreaming anymore. Literally; I wasn’t waking up with any memory of having dreamt, which for me is not normal. I often wake up remembering two or three very vivid, very long and detailed dreams from that night. So that made me realize I was stifling my creativity; a part of me, that creative person, had gone dormant. So within a few years I was back to acting and being creative. Also, before I discovered acting, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I was interested in how the brain works in terms of emotions and how it makes us feel things. And around the same time I was deciding to pursue acting, I realized that being an actor was a study of human behavior. It wasn’t just show, it’s expressing of how we all feel. We have been storytellers since the beginning of time. We relate to people through stories; we want to connect and know what they feel, and understand why different people feel different things, and know that we are not alone.
SM: How do you treat a character that requires a more emotional background?
HM: I’m pretty open in terms of emotional availability. I cry at radio commercials if they put the right music with it. I’m a total sucker. So I identity with sensitive characters easily. When the character is tough, and doesn’t show a lot of emotions, that’s been a challenge for me. But I like a good challenge!
SM: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
HM: Work with people you want to work with. Don’t work with jerks just because they’re the “best” at what they do. If they’re mean and belittle other people on set, don’t give them another chance. As you get into bigger and bigger productions, there are a lot of people that are always getting rehired just because they were part of a successful film, but maybe on set they’re sexist or rude. You can still make a film without them. You’re going to be able to find other great people. Because at the end of the day, working on set is really stressful and there’s a lot of money in the production, so you should surround yourself with people who are professional and team players.
SM: How did you come to work with Mathieu Charest (director of CRAZY LOVE)?
HM: I was introduced to Mathieu by our cinematographer Benoit Charest. Mathieu had already read the script and was so so excited that he started right in explaining their relationship (Alan and Sam) and just got absolutely everything I was going for. It was like he was in my brain. He also has decades of experience behind the camera. So it was a no brainer to work with him. I think he and I share a love of the weird and dark. Like, for me, there’s that part of CRAZY LOVE where, after she hits him, she tears up a stack of porn magazines and urinates on them as a symbol of her marking her territory and dominating him. And I personally enjoyed the fact that I got to pretend to urinate on a porno and people gave me an award for it (laughs).
SM: What experience from VISFF are you taking to the next festival?
HM: If it’s a festival where there are are awards—and I recommend this to everyone—always know what you want to say if you do the speech. Mine was the worst; I went up there and was, like, “Hey! Let’s party!” I’m not good under pressure (laughs). Be prepared, because you have every right to be proud.
You can submit a film to VISFF until November 1st, and the festival will be held in February of 2016. Visit their website for more details, and their socials for updates: @visff.
Cole Nowicki is, among other things, just some random guy standing in line with you at a coffee shop. What makes Nowicki different than all the other people waiting for their medium drip is that, supposing he sees you do something ridiculous or weird, he will write about you, and definitely publish it on the Internet.
Nowicki began creating his Portraits of Brief Encounters as a writing exercise, eventually making small drawings to accompany them. Along with his personal Instagram, which is the original site of POBE, SAD Mag has been featuring his work online since February of 2014. “They are all based in fact,” says Nowicki of his micro-nonfiction portraits,“they all have to have some sort of jump-off point: whether it’s an interaction with someone, or just an idea I’ve had. The story comes first and then [I create] the visual.”
In the portraits, Nowicki combines his love of writing with his comedic sensibility. The portraits can be simultaneously emotionally provocative and laugh-out-loud funny. His humourous, quotidian take on the human condition attracted the attention of Yashar Nijati, founder of thisopenspace. “[Nijati] commented on one of my Instagram portraits a couple years back, asking if I wanted to be friends,” recalls Nowicki. “Eventually we met up, and we talked about doing a show based on POBE.” The two developed a kind of gallery game in which a few local artists would take each of Nowicki’s stories and create an image based on one of them. Visitors to the gallery would have to match each image to the story it was inspired by, with the chance to win a discount on any of the pieces in the show.
The first show was a success, and so was Nowicki’s practice of creating the portraits. This lead thisopenspace to show his written portraits once again at the gallery, in game format, but this time paired with visuals created by eleven different Vancouver artists. “I like the collaborative aspect, I like seeing what pieces [the artists] pick out of the story and deem worthy to put their creative energy [into],” says Nowicki, who chose the artists (some of whom are friends) by scouring Instagram and artist listings he found in the online archives of Hot Art Wet City.
“If you come to the show,” says Nowicki, “it will be the most fun you have ever had in your life. And if you’re not already in love with someone, you will find someone that you will fall in love with…You’re not going to get your money back if it doesn’t happen, because it’s gonna happen.”
While Nowicki can’t guarantee that your newfound love will be requited, the show promises to be a great way to see a bunch of talented Vancouver under one roof. At the very least, it might make a good story.