Capitalism and catastrophe: an interview with Naomi Klein

Photo by Ed Kashi

Photo by Ed Kashi

Let’s start with a question. What seems like a bigger challenge: fixing a flawed economic system, or dealing with the catastrophic consequences of uncontrolled climate change? How about another one: would you rather hand over billions to bail out a bank, or to help ensure the our planet remains liveable?

Extreme, right? No. We’re in the position where our world is collapsing around us, our governments are doing absolutely nothing to stop it and we’re throwing away almost a trillion dollars a year in global subsidies to the companies that are ostensibly killing us. It’s absurd.

Naomi Klein, who always causes a stir with her books, argues in her latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, that the time of small fixes to avoid catastrophic climate change has long since come and gone and that we need to radically rethink the way we live and structure our societies in order to affect positive change.

Needless to say, the book is daunting, but it still manages to convey a sense of hope that it is possible to overcome the hurdles and to fix our world.

“I think that I believe it’s still possible. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s likely. I mean, I’ve been meeting people on the road who have really given up all hope, and just feel like we are in hospice and should just enjoy the scenery on the way down. I’m not at that point. I think being hopeful against these odds is a choice,” says Klein over the phone.

“I both don’t want to be in despair and I also believe that even if the chances are slim, that there is a moral responsibility to fight to better those chances.”

Her book is an elegant argument against the unbridled capitalism unleashed on the world in this era of global free trade, and its effects on the climate. As Klein describes it, our timing was terrible, with climate conferences starting work on treaties at the same time as international trade deals reshaped governance, regulations and the economy. Unsurprisingly, the trade deals rushed forward with strong monitoring and punishments for transgressors, while climate deals faltered and were ignored. Our global emissions in 2013 were 61 per cent higher than 1990, when the first climate treaty talks began.

“It’s a two-pronged issue. One is… we can’t regulate and that’s why we have failed to respond to this crisis, and then there’s the growth issue that I think cuts beyond deregulated capitalism,” say Klein, addressing the need of our current economy to constantly expand.

A longtime critic of international trade and the sort of unrestricted pillaging that comes with it, even Klein wasn’t prepared for what she found while working on this book.

“When I started the book, I did understand this clash between the sort of extreme free-market fundamentalism and what we need to do to respond to climate change, but I didn’t have my head wrapped around those numbers, those sort of terrifying numbers around how quickly we need to cut our emissions and what a challenge that represents to economic growth,” she says.

This Changes Everything isn’t just a screed against capitalism, though. Klein argues effectively for new ways forward and highlights the kind of resistance that is springing up around the world to fight extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration — particularly heavy oil and fracking operations. We meet Alberta’s Beaver Lake Cree, as well as protestors in Greece and beyond, all joined by an opposition to building infrastructure that will lock us in dependence on these destructive industries for years. She calls this loose gathering of pockets of resistance Blockadia, and lauds the role of indigenous communities in driving and aiding the fight.

Klein’s solutions lie in the need to rein in the economic system, allowing for public, small-scale control of utilities to force green solutions, funding green developments in the developing world and increasing taxation on consumption and death-dealing industries. We need job training in low-income communities and countries to help lead to a new world where those left behind today can survive and grow in a new economy that respects the environment. As she puts it, we need equitable sacrifice, with industry and the wealthy taking just as much, or more, of a hit than those lower down the line.

She even outlines ways to pay for all of this, with a large chunk coming from existing oil and gas subsidies.

Needless to say, Alberta doesn’t come out looking all that good in this book, and for good reason. Not only is this province home to one of the more destructive enterprises on the planet, it’s also home to the gilded towers where decisions are made on Canada’s oil and gas industry and its planned pipelines.

So how does she feel about reading here?

“You know, the last time I went to Calgary with The Shock Doctrine, I thought it was going to be really controversial, and I found that it was one of my most receptive audiences,” says Klein. “I think progressives in Calgary are some of the most progressive people in Canada, because it just takes such fortitude to stand up to such a powerful…. You have to be such a powerful counter-culture.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Rewriting the narrative: Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country


It’s difficult to know where to start on a review of Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. The book is a thing apart. It’s a unique entity without direct comparison, although maybe a collaboration between Jose Saramago, Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka would come close. Islam’s tale breaks every rule you can think of, in terms of grammar, syntax and storytelling structure — not to mention the bounds of reality — and produces something that can draw gasps from a reader. It is, in short, a wholly remarkable and beautiful book.

The story is set in a fictional land marked by intrigue and revolution and dictatorships and war. It starts in the past, when spider silk fields covered the land and there was relative peace. In time, surveillance descended onto every corner of the country and there were no more secrets. Something called the The Mirror, a sort of Hollywood surveillance/reality television system, fights with the state for snooping dominance in a world devoid of privacy. In this land we follow Hedayat, the central character, as he navigates the hidden corridors of the country — working as a smuggler and a caretaker of ghosts — falling in love and recounting his family’s history. It’s a sometimes confusing timeline, going back to the founding of the unnameable country, and made even more so by the surreal happenings within this surreal land.

It’s a land where Hedayat’s father worked in the bowels of the bureaucracy, dealing with thoughtreels, which contain the minds of the country’s inhabitants. A land where Americans invade to destroy the spider silk fields which can weave armour. Where Hedayat, and his father before him, use glossolalia as a weapon and a means of influence.

Both the story and the writing are challenging, and the initial pages pass slowly as your mind adjusts to Islam’s structure and cadence. Once fully immersed in the tale, however, this is a captivating read. Belief is suspeneded as you’re taken on a fantastic ride of flying carpets and rebels and giants and underground caverns and neverending bureaucracy. Islam’s writing is so incredible you will occassionally find yourself breathless.

It’s all made even more remarkable by the fact that this is Islam’s first published novel. First-time novelists are not supposed to come out of the gate with such a forceful challenge to the status quo. This isn’t simply a new kind of story, but a new kind of storytelling that would be almost impossible to duplicate. It layers metaphor upon metaphor and ideally should be revisited more than once to catch all the nuance. It’s the kind of book that leaves you wondering just how much of it you missed at the end, or whether the author was simply messing with you for half of it. Your own theories on certain aspects of the book would likely fill pages.

Hidden amongst the magic and the scattered words and phrases, however, are real world messages about torture, abuse, dictatorship, colonialism and war. This is a magic land beset by the horrors of the contemporary world and Islam doesn’t hold back, letting his poetic writing batter the inequities.

This is a staggering work by a writer that it sure to one day loom large in our consciousness. If you’re up for a challenge, this is a must-read.

Fire in the Unnameable Country, by Ghalib Islam, Hamish Hamilton, 448 pp.

An outsider’s view of outsiders: an interview with Joseph Boyden


Joseph Boyden’s novels are all about place. They are anchored not only in the wilds of Canada (for the most part), but they are tied to the First Nations consciousness of a homeland. So it’s funny that Boyden, who lives in New Orleans, stays away from these places in order to better understand and write about them. For his latest novel, The Orenda , which has been nominated for a Governor General’s literary award, he took that notion to another level.

“The novel began in an airplane,” he says from yet another hotel room on his book tour. “I wrote the first number of chapters while travelling. Airplanes — I don’t know what it was, but something clicked. It might have been the lack of oxygen or something.

“Writing in this incredibly contemporary situation this kind of ancient tale was fascinating to me in a way.”

The Orenda tells the story of long, arduous canoe trips through enemy territory, of punishment and pride, of survival in a harsh climate and of the clash of cultures. It is the story of the Huron before they were essentially decimated in 1649, as told through the experiences of three characters: Bird, a respected Huron war leader; Snow Falls, his adopted/kidnapped Iroquois daughter; and Christophe, a determined Jesuit.

Like Boyden’s two other novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce , The Orendaweaves different narratives together. In this case, we see death from three sides, we see fear and hunger from three sides, and we see how three cultures forced together will have difficulty seeing eye to eye.

Unlike his two other novels, this one is not directly linked to the Bird Family Trilogy. While they focus on a member of that family, The Orenda stands apart, sort of.

“Somebody at the National Post called it a spiritual precursor to the other novels, which I thought was a nice way to put it,” says Boyden.

“All of my books, I think, are stand-alone — that’s the plan anyways — but if you read them all, you’ll get a bigger perspective of this imaginary world.”

If there’s another thing that ties his novels together, it’s the focus on outsiders as central characters. In this case there’s Bird, whose status sets him apart in his village, his Iroquois daughter, whose culture and character mark her as different, and, of course, Christophe, the bearded white man with his strange ways and strange religion. Boyden says he doesn’t focus on the outsiders on purpose, but it’s also a part of his own character.

“I sometimes feel like a bit of an outsider, you know, with my living in New Orleans. I purposefully live in New Orleans to get a better view of my country. Much of the year I’m down there,” he says, before pausing.

“Huh, I never really thought of it, but I’m not status [Indian], but it is a really important part of who I am,” he continues. “Sometimes you can’t help but feel like a bit of an outsider.”

In The Orenda , this outsider status is either due to status in the tribe, as in the case of Bird, or it bestows a sort of strength, as in the case of Snow Falls and Christophe. At one point Snow Falls ruminates on the power that comes from causing strangers to step back and stare, but the novel seems unconcerned with whether that awe comes from oddness or status.

The outsiders that Boyden focuses on in The Orenda are distinct, plucked from a moment in history, but not a part of it. They are creations of Boyden’s own mind, but with a strong historical backing.

“You’re almost shackling yourself by basing a character on a real-life person,” he says. “I didn’t want to be shackled that way. I wanted the freedom to be able to do things, or to have him [Christophe] do things that wouldn’t have really happened to [Jean de] Brébeuf, for example, or to Isaac Jogues or to any of the Jesuits that were martyred, as the Catholics call it.”

Boyden, as with his previous work, jumped into the writing process without getting bogged down in research, reaching out to experts who could give him guidance and perspective when it came to historical accounts.

As with his literary license in terms of historical characters, the underlying theme of The Orendahas the ability to shift between a sort of fact and fiction as well. Orenda refers to the spirit that natives of the Great Lakes region believe infuse all things, living and otherwise — from rocks and tools, to animals and people. When the French and the Jesuits arrive with their belief only in the soul of man and the power of only one god, the lines are drawn in a spiritual battle with real world consequences.

That struggle is intended, and will be read by most, as metaphor — as the destruction of the First Nations way of life by the European newcomers — but for many it is just as grounded in reality as the novel’s historical accounts. “How I view the world is very much as the native characters in the novel do, that not just humans have soul, that everything has orenda, everything has life force,” says Boyden, who was raised Catholic. “The Ojibwa call it Manitou. I’m a strong believer in that.”

He’s also a strong believer in pacing himself when it comes to his writing, ensuring that his well is full when he decides to sit back in front of a keyboard. His experience of working with three editors to finish this book likely drained a great deal of his reserves, but he says the experience was positive, including an exhaustive line-by-line edit by Cormac McCarthy’s editor, Gary Fisketjon.

“He said, ‘you’ve got it all done, but I’ve got a few line-by-line comments,’ and every page of my manuscript was covered in his famous green ink,” says Boyden. “I found out I’m not the only one, he does this with everyone. So that was huge. It was a lot of work in a very short time from when I finished the draft to it coming out in September.”

Despite that, Boyden intends to get back to work as soon as possible, likely working on the next and potentially last tale in the Bird family lineage — a finale to his incredibly successful first two novels — although to say definitively that the next Bird family book will be the end might be a little too concrete — after all, Boyden never really intended to pursue this fictional family in the first place.

“It’s not something I planned when I first started writing Three Day Road at all, but I realized soon after that there was a lot more this family had to say. And it’s almost like they’re telling me I have to do it. I don’t have control anymore. It’s more that they control me.”

Wordfest presents Joseph Boyden as part of the Banff Distinguished Author Series on Saturday, October 19 at the Eric Harvie Theatre at The Banff Centre.

Incarceration and freedom with Kent Monkman


For those of us who live here, the Calgary Stampede can be many things — beer-soaked debauchery, greasy food, the midway, the rodeo, or simply a time to get the hell out of the city. For artist Kent Monkman, however, the Stampede represents something else entirely.

Commissioned by the Glenbow to create an installation based on 100 years of the Stampede, Monkman, who’s half-Irish and half-Cree, walked around the grounds last year and spoke with First Nations elders in the Indian Village. His work focuses heavily on First Nations issues, toying with representation and veering into questions of queer identity. The result of his meditations on the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth is The Big Four , his largest installation to date.

The exhibition consists of four vignettes, each centred on a beat-up car. On four walls, video projections show different views from cars travelling the prairie landscape.

Central to the exhibition is the notion of freedom and incarceration. When Monkman explored the history of the Stampede, he was struck by the insistence of the founders that the local First Nations be involved in the celebration. At the time, that meant convincing the political masters of the day to draft passes so that the Blackfoot people could leave the reservation and come to town. Essentially jailed on their land, the Stampede provided a reason to travel, to escape and to engage in the broader world.

Monkman, in a typically playful way, takes this notion and mashes it up with contemporary issues and iconography. The beat up “rez cars” act as symbols of freedom and movement, something relevant to First Nations today, where these cars can provide transportation, shelter and spare parts. The videos show the view from cars travelling down the highway, or fleeing prairie jails — the new symbols of First Nations incarceration. On the dashboard of each car is a replica of an old Indian Affairs travel pass, specifying the reason for leaving the reservation and what each person will spend their money on (Miss Chief is going to buy a Louis Vuitton bag).

But it’s not just the idea of incarceration and freedom that’s being explored — Monkman has also taken the opportunity to poke a little fun at institutions that explore history, including the Glenbow. Each section of the installation is its own take on a historical museum’s vignette. The cars act as display cases for objects, some of which come straight from the Glenbow collection. The mannequins in each scene bear Monkman’s face in a direct repudiation of institutions using one model for different genders and for diverse cultures.

Gone are the tranquil scenes of natives going about their chores, or chasing down buffalo. In Monkman’s representations there’s a woman selling traditional clothing out of a minivan, a native cowboy loading gear into his truck (but with glittery jewelry poking out from his masculine getup), a spectator watching a TV in the trunk of his economy car, and one man, bereft of most possessions, fleeing in a nondescript sedan.

In typical Monkman fashion, he turns history on its end, giving us a contemporary insight into both past and present issues. And, as always, the work is presented with a smirk, encouraging us to laugh while contemplating the serious issues he confronts.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Wreck City artists run amok in Sunnyside


Artist Jack Bride in his Wreck City room. Photo by Drew Anderson

Wherever there is cheap space, you’ll find artists. Detroit is a great example. As the city empties and houses are abandoned, property is bottom-barrel cheap and artists move in. There are blocks of decorated houses because, well, what else is anybody going to do with them. Calgary? Not so cheap.

Yet, if you wander along an isolated little stretch of Fifth Avenue in Sunnyside, you’ll discover a bustle of activity. Here a man digs up the roots of a small tree, spraying black paint on the bark. There another artist is attaching an old plastic Burger King slide to the outside of a grand old house. Wander into any of eight houses on this block and you’ll see people covered in paint, wrestling with crochet work, cutting cloud shapes into drywall and on and on.

This is Wreck City, a temporary exhibition involving a horde of artists, musicians, performers, cake decorators and more taking over the inside of eight houses and the outside of one, and transforming one eclectic old greenhouse. From April 19 to 27, these old houses will become impromptu galleries, with performances and events scheduled throughout the week, including bands on the first night and the last Friday.

The project is a tribute of sorts to 809, a garage gallery space behind one of the old houses. Brandon Dalmer and Shawn Mankowske, the two men behind 809, wanted to celebrate the demolition of the underground creative space. They soon teamed up with Caitlind Brown, the artist behind the House Project and Cloud (with partner in crime Wayne Garrett), and John Frosst of Frosst Books and the Arbour Lake Sghool artist collective.

There are eight curators on the project: Matthew Bourree from Haight Gallery, Jennifer Crighton, Andrew Frosst, Ryan Scott and the four previously mentioned. Each was selected because of their involvement in the arts community and each is taking over a house and transforming it before the wrecking ball arrives to clear room for a new condo development.

“We tried to make something that would surprise us too,” says Brown. “And if it can delight us also, that would be an excellent bonus.”

Wandering through the houses a week before it opens finds them in varying states of creation. Jack Bride has finished his house of painted madness — a swirling blend of sex and violence complete with a bloody tribute to The Shining in the bathroom. Lane Shordee’s “forest” in the abandoned greenhouse is coming along, and Hye-Seung Jung is busy cluttering up a dining room with an elaborate wooden lattice installation. In some of the other houses it’s still difficult to imagine what the finished product will look like.

“Every kind of art you can even qualify as art is around,” says Brown. She says the intent was to create a showpiece for the possibilities of art in alternative spaces in Calgary, and to appeal to this city’s particular audience.

“We’re just learning how to walk and play, so our citizens are so — I don’t know, there’s something about Calgarians that, once you convince them to come out, if they’re stoked about what you’re doing…. People are less apprehensive here because they don’t know the rules yet. That’s a magical thing.”

The whole thing is loosely curated. There’s no overarching theme between the houses, though there are themes within. The goal is simply a creative chaos along a street about to be destroyed and re-created — a rare opportunity in a city where the focus is on tearing ’em down, building ’em up and reaping the profit as quickly as possible.

It’s a celebration of the past, a prelude to the future and one giant, fun experiment the likes of which we need a hell of a lot more of.

For details, go to

Neil Turok on the quantum (r)evolution


To say that Neil Turok’s book, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos , is a little disconcerting is an understatement. Fear of change is a constant in humans, but what Turok is proposing is a mind-blowing transformation of what it means to be human and what lies beyond our conceptual grasp of the universe.

The world-class physicist (his name is on a theory with Stephen Hawking) and head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, however, prefers to focus on the positives when it comes to upending our current technological state: it’s coming and we better start talking about it.

“I think the first thing I would say is that it’s kind of unstoppable,” says Turok over the phone from Vancouver. “It’s like trying to stop time, we don’t know how to stop time. And yes, we could all relax if we all knew that absolutely nothing was ever going to happen again, but we’re marching forward into the future, we can’t stop it, the universe is expanding and we can’t stop that either. There’s not much we can do but try to, I think, appreciate the capacities we have for benefiting from that progress.”

To be specific, Turok is talking about the coming quantum revolution, where quantum computers will be able to shed light on the most hidden aspects of our universe and change the way we think, operate and evolve.

Trying to explain quantum theory, or quantum computers, is difficult. Turok, who admits it’s a challenge to bring these ideas to a broad audience, says to think of the comparison between a digital bit, and the quantum equivalent — a qubit. Whereas a bit is either a zero or a one, and hammers through equations in a mechanical way, a qubit is both a zero and a one. It is essentially taking a piece of the universe and using its natural function to tackle the largest of puzzles. The spin of an electron, for example, contains an almost limitless amount of information compared to our traditional view.

“An example I gave in the book is on your laptop, in 10 years, or at most 20 years, if Moore’s law (the theory which predicts increasing capacity in chip technology) continues, we’ll be able to put every book that has ever been written on a laptop. On a quantum laptop, one will be able to store every book that ever could be written.”

Here’s the best analogy I’ve heard for understanding the power of quantum computing. Picture the computer as a hotel with a thousand doors. In a digital computer, if you ask it to search for information, one bellhop goes to each door and opens it, one at a time. In a quantum computer, there is one bellhop for each door and, when given the command, they open all the doors simultaneously.

Turok argues that this will not only change our view of the universe and open previously closed avenues of exploration, it will change the way we evolve as humans — a sort of symbiosis between the power of quantum machines and humans. We ask the questions and the machines guide us to the answers.

To make matters more interesting, each quantum computer will be unique.

“They can be the same,” says Turok of copying quantum computers. “But you cannot make multiple copies. If you have a quantum computer in a certain state, you could actually transfer that state to another computer, but then losing the initial state in the original computer. You can’t make multiple copies. Again with digital information it’s easy to just replicate; quantum information doesn’t work like that.”

Of course, this raises the spectre of a quantum divide unlike anything the digital world could produce. If we gain quantum knowledge, how do we fit into our natural world?

“If humans form this sort of partnership with quantum computers and are able to experience the universe on a different level, what’s going to happen to the rest of life?” says Turok. “I think it’s a great question. I love nature, I love living beings and I don’t want to leave anything behind, but I think this is going to happen. Something like this is going to happen and it’s better for us now to think about it and try to plan for it as best as possible and as non-destructively as possible. I think we’re only just beginning to think about it; what it will mean.”

When it comes to the more traditional concept of a divide — within human society — quantum computing offers a way out. “The wonderful thing about quantum computers is that they’re just doing what nature does all the time,” he says. “So, this is how atoms work. In principle you can make a quantum computer out of anything and there’s nothing inherently expensive. It’s just the universe and any piece of the universe works this way.”

The Universe Within , however, doesn’t spend all its time in the ether. Turok also talks about the need for society and science to better understand one another, to break down the wall between them — a wall first erected in ancient Greece.

“The split between the arts and humanities and science is a very destructive thing. It means, unfortunately, that scientists think much too little about what the implications are of what they’re doing, positive as well as negative,” says Turok.

“They end up being, in some cases, used as sort of technicians, for purposes for which they would not necessarily want to support.”

Turok believes that we urgently need a new Renaissance or Enlightenment to guide us through the coming storm, and he thinks Canada is the best place for this to happen. Diplomatically dodging the assertion that there is a war on science in this country, led by the Conservatives, Turok is firm in his belief that Canada is a sort of promised land for scientific study.

“Canada has somehow established a society that is extremely respectful of diversity,” says Turok, who grew up in Africa and the U.K. before moving to the U.S. and, finally, Canada. “I think that’s probably the key, because if you want great advances in science or in arts, or music or whatever, the key is to allow the oddballs space to do something unexpected. And I think Canada really has that.

“I’m extremely positive about Canada… if only it can be a little more ambitious.”

Questioning Calgary’s arts party


Design by Josh Naud

The federal government kicked in $1.6 million, the city one-upped them with $2 million and the province gave $250,000, with another $500,000 set aside to match corporate donations. It’s a tidy sum of money, all earmarked for arts and culture after Calgary was named the cultural capital of Canada (okay, one of the cultural capitals; we’re sharing it with Niagara because they hosted a war in 1812). So, what are we doing with it?

It’s an important and complicated question. The celebration will channel funds to artists and cultural organizations for projects throughout the year, but the intent of the festivities is to involve all Calgarians. How do you run a year of arts and culture activities and celebrations without watering down the creative spirit? Who is 2012 for? The artists and organizations that create culture? The audience? And what of our aboriginal heritage?

Local artist Eric Moschopedis does have good things to say about the organization and the idea of a year focused on arts and culture, but he worries that the ideological underpinnings of the event, namely the theory of creative cities, is flawed.

“Essentially it sets up, it commodifies what artists have been doing for ages anyhow,” says Moschopedis. “It finds a way to exploit, basically, what we’re doing for the purposes of market gain as opposed to cultural development and those sorts of things.”

The premise of the creative cities movement is that creative industries and the arts are an economic engine and help to improve quality of life in a city, thereby attracting business. Moschopedis worries that during 2012, artists will be used as a tool in “branding the city as a place to do business,” and promoting a quality of life that artists are rarely privy to.

He thinks there is a moral imperative to creating art and that it exists outside any economic arguments, so to focus on the economic aspect of arts and culture is a mistake.

Karen Ball, the executive director of Calgary 2012, the non-profit organization tasked with programming and funding the year’s celebrations, understands the misgivings but says that the nature of the cultural capital bid and ensuing events means reaching out to a broad audience and trying to balance the dichotomy between practitioner and ordinary Calgarian. “The farther you go out from that (arts) community, the more difference you see in how people interpret culture and how they want to celebrate it,” says Ball.

This tension between artist and audience, between differing views on what it means to celebrate arts and culture, also raises the question of dissent. In a city and a province where that word has long been viewed with suspicion, it remains a fundamental part of the creative process.

Some are concerned that the year-long celebration might focus on pure boosterism, thereby ignoring important questions and work. Moschopedis thinks that if it’s to be successful, there has to be room for criticism of the city, of the event itself and maybe even of some of the organizations that are celebrating 100 years in Calgary. “I think that there’s still room to critique these things, and by critique I don’t necessarily mean ‘say things are shit,’ but I mean to ask questions of them. I think that’s really important,” he says.

Ball insists there will be room for critical engagement. To that end, the organization has been designed as a two-pronged beast. Ball takes care of the administrative side of things, while curator and artistic director Michael Green, probably best known for his role as curator of the High Performance Rodeo, handles the creative side. “There’s zero influence from us around which project gets funded in terms of how it reflects that dialogue,” she says.

The projects will be chosen by a jury of peers in an arm’s-length process, with larger events overseen by Green. The details of those large projects aren’t clear at this time. There will be an opening ceremony of sorts, a large “mass participation” event (rumour has it that it might involve the song “Sweet City Woman”), an artist-in-residence program, a cultural exchange program, the creation of a municipal cultural plan, and a closing symposium. But some worry that it’s all party, without any thought to the hangover.

“My fear is that I can’t see any legacy,” says local artist Sharon Stevens, who worked briefly for Calgary 2012 in a clerical role. “I can’t see how the arts community is going to be stronger and healthier and more productive because of being declared a cultural capital.”

Stevens would have liked to see more thought put into improving the lives of those who suffer for their art, examining efforts by groups like Elephant Artist Relief, which works to provide health benefits and a better quality of life for artists.

There will be some small, tangible leftovers from 2012, including a micro-financing portal that allows anyone to help donate to artists through Calgary Arts Development, but for Ball it’s more about the intangible benefits. She hopes to see an increase in the number of people taking in shows and exhibitions. “What I would like to see come out of this year is when you ask anybody from Calgary to list the Top 5 things about their city, culture, or some definition of culture, is in there.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates with Terrance Houle, though he’d like to see the cultural focus shifted a touch. “In our present, I always feel like First Nations and Treaty 7 and stuff like that have always been sort of put on the back burner, or it’s always sort of the Indian Village, or things like that,” he says.

Canadian Heritage stipulates engaging four groups throughout a cultural capital year, including youth, francophone, culturally diverse communities, and First Nations.

“When the bid came up, I was going to these events and they were talking about arts and culture, and for me it’s like ‘well, why can’t you start at the beginning and move through it?’”

Houle, of Blackfoot descent, was on the 2012 aboriginal advisory committee for a time, but dropped off due to his busy schedule. It was the first committee struck by 2012 and, according to Ball, is the most active and engaged.

“I think that we talk a lot about 100-year anniversaries and we probably don’t talk as much about the 400 years before the last 100 years of Calgary, and when you look at the 600-year history of this area, you can see pretty clearly that our aboriginal heritage and roots are a really important part of how we need to reflect as a community at this point in time,” says Ball.

But it isn’t all criticism, not even from Houle, Moschopedis and Stevens, who all believe that critical discourse around Calgary 2012 is important, and who alternate between cautious optimism and dismay with the organization and events.

Simon Mallet, the artistic director of Downstage, a local theatre company that produces socially and politically engaged work, thinks of Calgary 2012 as a beginning. “I don’t think that what happens in 2012 is going to be the cumulative impact of Calgary 2012,” he says.

He’s hopeful that the year’s festivities will bring more attention to Calgary’s arts and culture — locally, provincially and nationally. Downstage applied for a grant to bring its production (B)ust— a show that examines the role of personal behaviour and the accumulation of societal debt — to neighbourhoods around the city, and hopefully engage a new audience. It’s not the easiest of topics, but Mallet isn’t worried about being shut out of funding because of that.

“Our position and our history with granting in this city has been one that has very much encouraged artistic risk and engaging with topics that might be challenging,” he says.

And maybe that’s the point. Calgary 2012 isn’t the be-all and end-all, it’s a multimillion-dollar initiative that, if anything, is meant to challenge us and to start raising questions that are long overdue. It’s not going to solve anything, it’s certainly not going to make everyone happy, but it is going to help shape our cultural future for years to come, making it an important issue.

“We want this city to be the city that we want to live in,” says Moschopedis. “I think the only way to make it that city is to be vocal. If we’re not then we’ll just be hand delivered something that isn’t necessarily what we wanted.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Broken brand or new beginning at the AGC?

Some members of Calgary’s arts community say the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC) is a dysfunctional space, where art is physically compromised, working relationships are difficult and corporate events and fundraisers are considered more important than the work on the walls. The gallery counters that fundraising is a necessary exercise, accounting for 79 per cent of its budget, and denies allegations that art has been damaged or compromised. It is a serious rift in Calgary’s art community that artists say threatens the city’s reputation on the national arts scene.


A number of artists openly complain about problems they have experienced at the gallery. When Naomi London’s textile installation piece One Gargantuan Optimistic Metaphor was shipped back to her after an exhibition at the AGC last year, she says it arrived in Montreal without appropriate packing and was badly soiled as a result. Local media artist Joe Kelley is one of several artists who tried to protect his works during a large annual fundraising event. Kelley was worried that his work could be damaged by the steam and heat from the four temporary kitchens set up in the gallery for AGC Cooks, and covered his work with plastic sheeting. Then there is the splash of soda pop that conservators found on a painting featured in Alex Janvier’s 30-year retrospective at the gallery. Amidst rumours of damaged works, the AGC eventually paid to have all the paintings in the Janvier show professionally cleaned.

Sitting in the middle of Calgary’s historic Stephen Avenue, surrounded by chic restaurants and nestled within two old sandstone storefronts, the AGC, with its four levels and newly installed environmental controls, is a well-polished poster child for contemporary art galleries in the city. However, below its clean facade, white walls, and the Jugo Juice that rents a lower portion of the building, lurks a lingering art fight that is preventing the organization from working with many in the community it purports to serve.

Many artists who have exhibited at the AGC since 2004 as well as several former staff members are highly critical of gallery operations. One called their treatment by the gallery “unprofessional” and “disappointing.” They complain of breached contracts, late payments, unreturned and damaged work as well as a lack of communication between gallery administration, curators, exhibiting artists and the arts community at large. There is also the perception that fundraising and corporate gallery rentals are more important to the AGC than the art it exhibits.

One former employee describes working conditions as “Machiavellian” and “excruciating,” and past chief curators Alexandra Keim and Donna Wawzonek are involved in separate legal battles with the AGC. Both former curators were advised by their lawyers not to comment for this article, and the AGC declined to comment on the legal proceedings. However, artists critical of the gallery are careful to note their gratitude for the good work of departed curatorial staff. They are also cautiously optimistic about the new senior curator, Marianne Elder. However, as one artist laments “There’s something really at the core that is preventing good people from functioning.”

The AGC is trying to distance itself from its troubled past, recently rebranding itself by launching a new website and a new curatorial direction. At a private event on October 9, a small group of AGC supporters and press were greeted with mimosas and cupcakes as AGC president and CEO Valerie Cooper publicly announced her renewed five-year contract and Elder’s appointment as the gallery’s third new senior curator in as many years. Cooper also addressed the gallery’s challenges: “There have been naysayers along the way that have doubted the credibility and role of the organization in the community, and I feel bad about that,” she said. “Because really what is happening is that they are missing out on an organization that is becoming a stellar organization nationally and internationally. And hopefully we will be able to do that in our own backyard in a way that people want us to be.” After four challenging years, “We are now at ground zero,” Cooper told Fast Forward in an interview one week after the launch. The AGC, she claims, is ready to put the past behind it and “lift off.”


The gallery has deep roots in Calgary’s artistic community. In 1977, the Muttart Art Gallery was opened in the old Memorial Park Library, the result of 14 artist associations coming together to provide a space for contemporary exhibitions in the heart of the city. Twenty years later, the growth in staff, exhibitions and community support led the gallery to purchase its two buildings on Stephen Avenue. It opened its doors in 2000 under a new name, the Art Gallery of Calgary.

By the time Cooper took over in 2004, the organization was well respected for its forward-looking contemporary art exhibitions, yet it was literally on the brink of financial collapse. Hearing of the gallery’s dire financial situation, its hired contractors abandoned their work in the midst of its multimillion-dollar renovation. It was an ugly time for the fledgling space. Cooper says the key challenge when she was hired was simply paying employees on time. She arrived to find 11 bank accounts with about $50 between them and two weeks to make payroll. “And there was over $1 million worth of debt that had been accrued by the previous two directors,” she says. The AGC’s troubles, however, were more than financial. The gallery’s detractors contend that while working to keep the building open and attempting to keep up with salary payments, lease payments, artist fees and promotion, its top decision-makers lost sight of the art they were supposed to focus on.

Some of these problems started before Cooper was hired, a distinction she is careful to highlight. Some incidents, however, occurred after she established a new board of directors and was entrenched in her current position. Regardless, the gallery must overcome a mountain of distrust. As one Alberta artist suggested: “If you don’t have the support of the artists that you’re showing, that’s a bad sign.”


Naomi London exhibited at the AGC in 2006, and says her work was damaged and compromised to make way for private functions. London’s installation consisted of large, upholstered letters that spell out the word “hope” in four languages. She was shocked when she received a request from Keim, the chief curator at the time, to write a letter to the gallery, asking that her work not be misused during fundraising events. The letters that make up her installation were allegedly rearranged without her permission to spell out corporate names, threatening the safety and integrity of the work. “I assumed that all the artwork would be treated with due respect, and I thought it a bit odd at the time that I needed to write a letter,” she says. “I was surprised this was even an issue for such a gallery. The letter stated that I wanted the work to be off limits during corporate events.” A former staff member says the e-mailed letter was read out loud by Keim during a general staff meeting when Cooper was in attendance, and Kein was “reprimanded for defending the integrity of the work.” Cooper says she was not aware that the letter was written, and that it is not normal for a curator to take this step.

“So, obviously, the curator was operating on her own accord,” says Cooper. “When you mention the year (2006), it’s probably part of what has piled up against those curators as inappropriate professional practice with artists,” she says.

Cooper also denies that there was a valid concern about compromising the work. “That might have been the way that the curator positioned it,” she says. “I would say that is something that that particular curator decided to do, for what reason, I have no idea.”

After the show was complete, the work was shipped back to the artist in Montreal. “The artwork was not [emphasis London’s] properly wrapped for the return trip, so the works were soiled upon their return,” says London. “The work was stained, soiled, they needed to be cleaned and repacked.” She adds that she had to pay approximately $400 to remove the stains. Cooper says she is unaware the work was damaged.

While London’s work was damaged in transport, another artist who showed at the gallery in 2006-07 faced another kind of shipping issue — her work wasn’t returned for over a year. Linda Duvall, a video installation artist who lives in Saskatchewan, says she tried several times to recover her lost work, Tea and Gossip , and made numerous phone calls. “There was some problem — it did finally get returned, and it was because of a particular staff [member]. They just took it on and did it,” she says.

Elder — who was not at the gallery for the Duvall installation — and Cooper were not aware of this problem. In fact, the pair were not aware that Duvall had even shown at the gallery. “No, that’s impossible,” says Elder, “because I’m not even familiar with that title.” The AGC lists the exhibition on its own website, in annual reports and in archived press releases.

Being missed appears to be a common thread in Duvall’s experience. In addition to the problem she had recovering her work, she also dealt with three AGC curators from inception to completion of her exhibition, something she describes as “very unusual.” “Because [my] show was organized three years ahead, I actually didn’t know that the first curator had left,” says Duvall. “The next curator knew nothing about it, so I actually had to send her the correspondence.”

Elder admits that “every time a curator left, our scheduling went into the pit,” and acknowledges that the community has been supportive of her predecessors. “They did the hard work to make my life easier.”

Still, Duvall holds no hard feelings for the gallery, and says she would show there again. She enjoyed her well-attended opening and working alongside the “hands-on staff.”

Elliot Mealia and Dayna Van Harten, artists who now live in Toronto, showed their work at the gallery in 2004 when its finances and organization were in chaos. “The gallery was closed by the city during this time due to construction permit violations and ended up pushing our show back,” says Mealia. Like most standard exhibition agreements, “the terms of the contract included artist fees, documentation of the show and invitations for the show.” When the artist fee was not received on time, he was told that the gallery’s accountant was out of town.

“After a week, I contacted her (Cooper) again in regards to the artist fees and she said that we were in breach of the contract, as we did not have the show installed on the date specified on the contract,” says Mealia. “This made me quite upset, as the gallery had been locked by the city and the show postponed due to the gallery’s actions.”

Mealia says he would exhibit at the AGC again, but would be more cautious. “I have learned from my experience there, and it is unfortunate that artists have to go through such experiences to learn how to protect themselves.”

Many artist complaints have arisen from the gallery’s fundraising efforts — gallery rentals, which pack partiers into the space, and AGC Cooks, where some of Calgary’s best chefs prepare food in the gallery. A former staff member who was responsible for facility management and curatorial work backs up many of the rumours circulating in the art community about dangers to art works. “During the first AGC cooks, there was open food and, yes some of the works got damaged. During the second one… stoves started coming in through the door,” he says, “and all of a sudden, half of the show had to come down because a catering company wanted [to use] that space.” Moving work compromises its safety and breaches the trust artists put in an institution to respect the integrity of the work.

Four years later, AGC Cooks is no longer held in the gallery while work is present. Cooper is quick to point out “we have stanchions (stands with ropes), security cameras, trained gallery staff that come in. We’ve got policies and procedures and processes that happen, it is all in the client… contracts.”

Elder says she “would love nothing more than to never have to hold another event in the space,” but they are a necessary function of the gallery’s fundraising activities. She says that fundraising events are now either held offsite or scheduled to take place when the gallery is between exhibitions without work in the space, and that the stanchions the gallery invested in after the Janvier incident are now used to protect artwork during rental events.


Timely payment of artist fees and negotiation of fair payment has been another sticking point for artists. All organizations that receive public funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and other levels of government are required to pay artists, but one current staff member says, “there was a time, to be perfectly honest, when they didn’t know they should be paying artist fees.” Cooper says the AGC has paid artist fees as long as she’s been with the gallery, adding “I sign every cheque here.”

Four artists interviewed by Fast Forward, however, claim they were not paid in a timely fashion. Like Mealia, two of them claim they were told the accountant was “away” or “out of town,” when they asked about their fees. One says, “I had to literally hound them on a weekly basis for four months to get paid.” Another artist, who exhibited in 2008, says, “[My] dealings with the directors of the gallery were unpleasant and involved a complicated negotiation process to get artist fees which were somewhere close to acceptable.” Elder now confirms that AGC is meeting the national standards for payment of artist fees outlined by Canadian Artists’ Representation, an organization that sets professional guidelines for artists and the organizations that exhibit their work.


When Cooper addressed the “naysayers” in her October 9 speech, she says she was referring to the gallery’s financial critics. Many thought the gallery should sell its space and try to salvage what it could of the organization. She is cautiously optimistic that those critics have been proven wrong.

She also acknowledges that there are critics in the arts community. “I think there was concern about the type of exhibitions that were being curated, and some of it tied to exhibition scheduling regarding… how many artists we showed here, those kinds of things primarily,” she says. While Cooper says she heard most of these complaints “through the grapevine,” the gallery’s 2006 annual report also stated that it undertook “a strategic assessment of the AGC’s position within the visual arts community.” The document was never made public, and Elder admits “I’ve never seen a full copy of that report.”

However, this report, compiled from direct consultations with prominent artists, curators, commercial art dealers, collectors and colleagues in other arts institutions, may have, at least temporarily, hit home. The gallery responded to it by appointing artist Brian Flynn to its board of directors, but he didn’t last long. He was later replaced by representational painter Janine Hall, who also left after a brief stint. No professional artist has been elected to the board of directors since. A past staff member who saw a copy of the report says that, like many of the recommendations it contains, “the information was absorbed by their administration to appear as though they were actually doing something to develop a working relationship with the community at large, but in reality, they were only paying lip service to this effort.” Elder says she “believes in transparency” and urges artists who have concerns to speak with her. “I cannot right past wrongs, but I can look and see what we can do going forward.”


Not all the artists who exhibit at the gallery, nor all the artists who spoke with Fast Forwardbegrudge the institution or had bad experiences while exhibiting there. Many commended the gallery’s curatorial staff for their dedication and for the great experiences they had there. Unfortunately, many feel the AGC is not living up to its potential.

Is the gallery’s rebranding a spin job that lacks substance? Or does it represent an important step in the evolution of the AGC? Artists express hope that the gallery will succeed in establishing itself as a significant local, national and international institution and truly incorporate itself into the community. A prominent Albertan artist who exhibited at the gallery in 2003 concludes, “…there’s some kind of internal problem there, whether that problem originates with the board or the mandate of the gallery even, with some sort of discrepancy between what their funding is and what their aspirations are, I don’t know. I hope that they can make something of it.”

Anthea Black is an artist, writer and cultural worker based in Alberta. She has served on the board of directors of several artist-run organizations and worked as the director of Stride Gallery.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.