Saturday, May 06, 2006

Type Cast 16

I first met playwright-novelist-essayist-activist-filmmaker-madman Darren O’Donnell over a decade ago at one of Sky Gilbert’s raucous, determinedly theatrical parties (yes, I am a namedropper, but, trust me, the context is important here).

Standing out at one of Gilbert’s parties is no mean feat. On one side of the room you’ve got flamboyant sex workers, on the other side gorgeous trannies in festive array, and scattered throughout the house, like bowls of chips and dip, are some of Canada’s loudest actors and artists.

Nevertheless, O’Donnell, who, on the surface at least, looks like an absent minded archivist, caught everyone’s attention with his very serious plans for reviving the (then, and arguably still) moribund Toronto theatre scene. The quickest remedy, he told us, was to blow up Canadian Stage (at the time, a bastion of middle-of-the-road theatre specializing in Broadway and West End imports), preferably during an opening night. We all laughed, of course, until we realized he meant it.

Since then, O’Donnell has written a string of provocative, award-winning plays and one acclaimed novel, acted and toured in many international productions (his own and others), and continued to work in small Canadian films – in other words, he’s now a bona fide part of the very establishment he once considered obliterating.

And yet, he remains apart. For all his success, he’ll never be an Albert Schultz or a Sarah Polly, or even the next Michael Healey; primarily because O’Donnell remains committed to the kinds of activist causes most people, those who stick out their lean, beginners’ years in the arts, give up by their mid-30s, when the real money starts rolling in. At the tenderized age of 40, Darren O’Donnell still wants to change the world.

And, he’s got a plan. O’Donnell’s eye-opening new book, Social Acupuncture (Coach House Books, $17.95), began as a straight forward printing of his hit play A Suicide-Site Guide to the City - itself a rambling treatise about everything from 9/11 to dream therapy to the inherent artificiality of theatre - but grew into a collection of related essays and a how-to on the re-invigoration of the arts via “social engagement”.

O’Donnell’s core argument, that art must save itself from becoming an irrelevant academic pursuit by finding new ways to connect with larger issues and social justice concerns, stems from a puzzling paradox he discovered while doing research on the rise of the so-called “creative class”. Since the late 1990s, urban planners and civic revitalization experts have argued that cities need a healthy amount of “creatives” to fully bloom, and that artists, designers, writers, etc create an urban climate conducive to economic and social well being.

Why then, O’Donnell wonders, are artists completely left out of any real political loops? If we’re so valuable, why aren’t we more powerful?

As he notes in his essay “My Life is a Conference”, “making everyday life creative … has played directly into capital’s slippery ability to sweep things up and put them to work. The city becomes a place of constant culture, where the cultural workers are only barely compensated for their labour … in the civic-boosterism talk of the creative city, the grateful participation of the artist is taken for granted … Artistic production for the sake of one’s own career is initially exciting, until one begins to understand that all this work tends to benefit others who are higher up on the economic scale.”

Higher up than O’Donnell, for sure. In the kitchen of his ramshackle, book-strewn apartment at Lansdowne and College, O’Donnell puts his frustrations on the table.

“If I’m this great maker of cities, I want in on the decision making. I want in on the ground level - in on discussions about immigration, transit, public spaces, urban growth, etc. Otherwise, I’m just decoration for the tourists.”

Social Acupuncture takes its name from O’Donnell’s belief that, like medicinal acupuncture, art can create “small interventions at key junctures (that will) affect larger (social) organs.” Because, he argues, artists are unlikely ever to be let into the real spheres of power, artists interested in social change must reconfigure their work to act as a kind of “healing needle” on the public body. As he puts it during our conversation, it’s not enough anymore to be worried about, for instance, beached whales and then create a painting of a beached whale or make a play about a whale who loses her way. Simply representing a problem no longer solves the problem, if it ever did. What one must do is make art with the people who coax the whales back into the water.

“Artists,” O’Donnell explains in his usual feverish pitch, “have gone from mirrors of society to hammers smashing society to nothing at all. We’ve become irrelevant, and it’s mostly our fault. A small way to re-start the process of making art socially engaged is to redefine what is art. I’m not talking about creating more “community art” initiatives, because those are always regarded as second class, or at best kind of cute – you know, painting murals with kids in gangs, that sort of thing – but about creating a kind of art that is just as rigorous as “serious art” but is also fully engaged socially.”

And how do you do that?

“By using the problem you’re addressing in the art work. Identify who benefits from an inequality and who holds the power, then find a creative way to call attention to that imbalance and correct it – even if you only fix the problem for an hour.”

This all sounds good, but the sceptic in me wonders how this formula differs from the misguided, traditional liberal view of art as a vehicle for social and moral improvement?

“I’m not advocating do-goodery, because do-goodery is ultimately charity, and charity replicates and re-articulates power imbalances. I want to find out instead if there are ways to engage communities and materials in a way that’s useful for them and interesting to me. If I do something that benefits us both, I’m not replacing one power imbalance with another. It’s not about artists making sacrifices for the greater good, it’s about artists making work that satisfies them too.”

“What I’m advocating is an aesthetic of and for civic engagement, something that people might not readily, at first, be even able to identify as art – socially engaged art that is just as rigorous, considered and well-crafted as abstracted, personal art.”

I conclude our talk by reminding O’Donnell of his blow-‘em-up years, and suggest that maybe he’s a more considered and well-crafted piece of work himself these days. He scoffs, sits back, and shrugs.

“I don’t fool myself that I have any means to effect anything. What I’m advocating here is a very nascent practice, an exploration. But even if it fails, at least I’ve tried to do something more than provide a distraction. I mean, I hope I have.”