Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Big Picture 08

Whenever you read the words “Canada Council for the Arts” and “outrage” in the same sentence, it’s usually because some backbencher in Ottawa has decided to make political hay over the Council’s decision to fund a work of art too offensive to be replicated on a book tote or souvenir coaster - which is exactly why the Council is so vital to our national culture.

Lately, however, the outrage is coming from the artists themselves, even the inoffensive ones.
To go into detail over the contretemps between the Council and artists (i.e. the folks without whom the Council would not exist in the first place) would take more ink than I care to spill. My life is simply too precious to waste parsing the Kremlin-like doublespeak of Council bureaucrats, and you’d all stop reading by about the second sentence.

So, the crux of the controversy is this: the Council is proposing to radically alter how it funds artists by changing the core purpose of funding from sponsoring creativity to sponsoring the making of sellable products. Under this proposal, grants to artists will be tied to the artist’s ability to prove that he or she already has an agreement with an established commercial or publicly-funded gallery to show the work in question.

This bizarre idea - akin to asking novelists to produce contracts with publishers before they write chapter one, or telling athletes that they must already be part of the Olympic team before they can begin pole vaulting - goes against everything even a kindergarten finger painter knows about the vagaries of the creative process. Binding the artistic impulse to a cash nexus will create a nation of hacks, not innovators. As one open letter puts it, the proposed change “marks a fundamental and disturbing shift towards supporting product over practice.”

Why the Council is entertaining this pay-to-play scheme is the source of much speculation in the community. I polled several artists from across the country (all of whom only agreed to speak undercover, fearing a black mark in the Council’s legendary doomsday book), and the theories offered ranged from the probable to the conspiratorial.

On the likely side is the theory that the Council wants to get out of the business of peer assessment (juries of artists deciding which artists get funding), and that this pre-screening process, which allows gallery directors to act as ad hoc jury members, is just the first step. Bureaucrats, after all, protect their power, and juries of artists are notoriously difficult to control.

The wildest theory is that the Council is trying to make itself politically fireproof in an increasingly conservative Ottawa. If the Council funds a project that is later deemed offensive, the theory goes, they can always cover their Obusforme-propped backsides with the assertion that the offending work was pre-commissioned by a commercial gallery. What conservative politician would argue against the mighty free market?

In its defence, the Council has said that no final decisions will be made until the consultation process is complete (and yet, so far, they’ve ignored all the valid concerns brought up during recent public sessions in the west). The Council also claims that the changes are in response to funding shortages - but how altering the raison d’etre of funding will save any money has not been made clear. Funny how whenever the Council pleads poverty, they never get around to capping their own salaries or administration costs. Even the lowest clerk at the council lives like royalty compared to the artists I write about.

Full disclosure: I recently applied for Council funding to complete a book. If my paranoid friends are right, come Monday morning my humble application will be crammed behind a photocopier (again).

Multimedia artist Nina Levitt’s wonderful new exhibition, Little Breeze, is a potent reminder of how much women sacrificed in WWII and how much of that sacrifice still remains unheralded.
Taking as her cue the stories of Allied female spies, the majority of whom faced torture and execution at the hands of the Nazis, Levitt has created a quiet but unnerving film and sound spectacle that evokes both the shrouded world of the “lady spy” and the subsequent, unjust enshrouding of their brave deeds.

As you enter the darkened gallery, you’re confronted by a large screen projecting a haunting series of obscured snapshots from the 1940’s. The young female faces on the screen continually disappear and reform inside streams of confounding code, behind seemingly random chains of words and numbers. Who are these women?

Once inside the gallery, you are instructed to pick up a battered suitcase, which triggers a sound clip from a Hollywood spy film, and, when opened, causes the screen to play a clip from the film. As you move from suitcase to suitcase, you gradually learn the history of Violette Szabo, a British spy who began working against the Nazis at the age of 23 and was later the subject of a popular 1958 film.

In a second room, facts about Szabo and her colleagues (all but one of whom was executed), are assembled in chillingly blunt strips of plain type.

By mixing archival materials with glamorous Hollywood treatments (let’s face it, most of us get our history lessons from Hollywood), and then burying all the assembled materials in layers of opaque code, Levitt invites us to play historian with (spy on?) Violette’s underplayed story. On a deeper level, Levitt also demonstrates how the daring works of women during wartime only grab mass attention when romanticized under Klieg lights.

A thoughtful and provocative work, Little Breeze deserves a larger audience. National War Museum, are you listening?


Luft Gallery, the hole in the wall that started the Ossington Avenue revival, is closing shop. I would be sad if I wasn’t so distracted by the fantastic last show, a collection of strange drawings and installations by the young artist Adele Chong.

Looking like a cross between a toddler’s crayon attack and a sci-fi graphic novel, Chong’s pencil, ink, masking tape and collage monstrosities (and I mean that in a good way) are the painterly equivalent of a creeping, prickly fungus – you feel like touching the fuzzy tendrils, but wonder if it’s safe.

If a gallery has to close, it’s best to go out with a Blob.

Nina Levitt
Little Breeze
Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto at Scarborough
1265 Military Trail Until December 19

Adele Chong
The Scenic Route
Luft Gallery 63 Ossington Ave Until December 18
$225 - $800