Tag Archives: Adam Curtis

plague diary: life is nuts

Victoria Ward

A few years ago someone posted on Facebook a photo and text about the Spanish Flu 1918-20.  They wrote in disbelief that this pandemic may have killed up to 50 million people worldwide – had anyone else heard of it?  It isn’t possible to read literature from the early part of the 20th century without reading about the Spanish Flu. However the fact that to a lot of people it seems to reside somewhere between a Jeopardy answer and some mentions on period dramas on Netflix means that for whatever reason, its impact doesn’t match other life altering events like the first and second world war.  And yet as we all know now, a pandemic totally does alter everyone’s life – rapidly and completely.  

We may not have a Guernica or King Lear yet to define COVID19 but we do have the casualties and the misery.   This year I will not have seen my family in over twelve months. I have not been within 100 km of Toronto in a year. I feel like I am purgatory.  Permanent weird purgatory. With snacks. And the internet. 

I haven’t gotten sick but I now know a lot of people who have. Both have recovered however the experience left them shaken and vigilant.  I’ve also known two people who left this world during the virus perhaps being so deeply triggered by it, they felt it was a sign.  I have family members who work in healthcare. Several with children in school. I have a sister overseas.  Like most people I know a bit about every experience there is during the plague. 

And yet, I am ever so removed from the plague as well.  I have no neighbours so I rarely see anyone on a daily basis. Our trips to town or to social distance socialize are the same as they used to be albeit with masks and hand sanitizing.  For me, the pandemic reaches us only through media; the internet or talking on the phone with people. Yeah, we still do that. In fact my partner called every person he knows over the holidays. Alphabetically. Covid19 is both real and not real for me.  Because of this I am at a bigger distance from it than my city friends – psychologically and physically.  

Why did the Spanish Flu not inspire vast works of art and genius?  Was it that day to day dealing with it meant that the last thing anybody wanted to do was write or draw anything about it? Or was it that,  much like the circumstances I find myself in, it’s a deeply odd psychological experience – that being “together apart” as the phrase is used is troubling but not troubling enough.  Hard to tell.  All I can do is muster some sensitivity to others, keep a lid on my own anxiety and reckon with an isolation akin and yet totally different than I’ve been used to these last twenty years. 

My road last January just before the virus. It looks exactly the same right now with a ton more snow. Nature’s indifference and all that…

The virus has changed everything and yet, we’ve tried to keep being the same. It’s a crazy existential place to be. I lie awake at night and think about why I haven’t just given up; why am I not just drinking my way through this thing? Why do I wake up every day and want to make it a great day regardless. Where the hell does that come from? It’s hard to know if I am delusional, in heightened self preservation mode or just waiting. Endlessly waiting.

Vaccines are here! But I still feel like I am in a production of Waiting for Godot. Speaking of which, as a side note, I really feel like we are being bullied into pivoting to digital while we wait to attend things like in the before times. I have stood fast against this tide and resisted the stampede to put everything online. I get it, people are scrambling to keep their doors open, keep their jobs. But digital is NOT a one-fix-all solution. Plus, the monetizing model that presently exists is nasty. But I digress…

During all this contemplation one of my favourite artists Adam Curtis released Can’t Get You Out of My Head. A seven hour rambling, mesmerizing video opus on ‘why the world is so darn complicated’. It was like crawling under a big blanket and forgetting about the world while totally being immersed in it. His films, a barrage of ideas and archival footage are trippy, fun, dark and yet hopeful.

People, he suggests, are not completely sure what being human is so we tend to cling to all sorts of things to get through life. We feel and think one way but the world around us is something else again. Complex systems are now our only shared experience because we can’t agree on any kind of reality – and this has gotten worse. It was a remarkable thing to view whilst in a quandary about the state of things.

Oddly the film made me feel so much better about the pandemic. As a devout absurdist who down deep doesn’t think anything really matters except love, I felt relieved. It was like getting permission to remember existence is weird. Finally a reason to live! Life is nuts, get on with it.

Fakin’ it

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

“We look back at past ages and see how things people deeply believed in at the time were actually a rigid conformity that prevented them from seeing important changes that were happening elsewhere. And I sometimes wonder whether the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is, that have little to do with our present day fetishization of the self. The problem with today’s art is that far from revealing those new ideas to us, it may be actually stopping us from seeing them.”

Adam Curtis in conversation w Arspace Magazine

I have been a fairly devoted social media user for quite some time now. I have spent much time engaging with my local arts community on issues regarding fair payment for artists, maddening obfuscation by the Canada Council, wondering when any mainstream arts media was going to begin to discuss things like… how digital was taking over culture and how no one wants to pay for things anymore and also how using platforms like Instagram and Facebook were changing how we speak and relate to each other.

Social media has helped me connect and retool my profile and practice of being an artist. I had my own guidelines (always choose dignity, never share anything suspect, and never denigrate) and used Twitter et al to build a little world of interesting and thoughtful people who just wanted to make art or support art.

With the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency I have now felt bereft of once believing I was building something positive for my career and mostly my life. His use of Twitter has turned my gentle turns of sharing and supporting into a gutter. Some would argue it already was but not for me. Being on social media was a positive, forward reaching endeavour that introduced me to a whole world of potential. Now I must contend with endless Facebook posts and Twitter feeds about Donald Trump and everything he touches. Why so many of my friends share news about him to the point of obsession is really bizarre. I’ve always been told be the change you want to see. Or, if you don’t like the way something is do something about it. Endless posting on Facebook isn’t going to change reality… or is it.

What if all the ranting against Trump and all the sharing about how awful he is has in fact led to him being in power? If you follow documentary film maker/art/philosopher Adam Curtis’ way of thinking, particularly in such works as Hypernormalisation, you would see a very strong line between heightened reality or ‘fake’ –ness being consumed and its manifestation in life. What I think he may mean (and I am still figuring this all out) is the more we share things we didn’t really make or didn’t really experience the more we create a world that isn’t really ours. The more we opt for replacing action with ‘media’ or ‘culture’ or even ‘art’ the more we allow this lack of reality to dominate our social and political space. Everyone calls for Trump to be honest, not lie and be transparent but that isn’t what he is; in fact he is exactly the chimera or mythological figure that we have summoned.

Courbet saw the Vendome Column as an expression of war, conquest & imperial dynasty. His destruction of it cost him his career.
Courbet saw the Vendome Column as an expression of war, conquest & imperial dynasty. His destruction of it cost him his career.

Unfortunately his presidency will have very real consequences for many people who are not buffeted by money or privilege. Not all Gods are going to dole out salvation; many of them can be vengeful and bring great havoc to the worshippers. Not that I think the president is a God but if you listen to some Americans they might as well be. The US is a deeply religious place.

As a Canadian I am luckily removed from the worst of this coming epoch. But as an artist and someone who works in the world of interpretation and illumination I feel somewhat involved. I make my living creating things, objects, but my work is also about the space, or relationship between my object and the viewer. I try my best to make that space a unique experience, an intimate voyage of emotional presence and context. However when Curtis makes the claim that perhaps self expression and the need for individualism in art has backfired in our culture, making our lives vulnerable to the machinations of dark money and inhumane power brokers and that we’ve kind of taken our hands off the wheel of civil society negating common good for celebrity status I have to admit to feeling a bit of shame.

I was raised Catholic so my go to feeling will always be shame. I feel shame when something I am eating tastes amazing, so, you know, it’s just how I am.

But then I think about Gustave Courbet and Dimitri Shostakovich. Both artists who lived and died in violent political eras. Both were subject to the whim of oppressive political forces, Courbet in 1870s France, specifically the Paris Commune and Shostakovich in Stalin’s Russia and both made their outstanding contributions regardless of what these forces were taking from them. Courbet’s life ruined by protest, Shostakovich’s ruined by obedience. But then, they didn’t have Facebook. If they did they might have given up their fight and gotten stuck on endless threads debating the very merits of what they were doing in the first place. Instead they took action, some of it effective, some of it not. At least they DID something. They seemed to know why they were artists and able to take such risks.

If we do now live in what Curtis calls Hypernormalisation, where there is no reality just ongoing facades that allude to it, then you would think artists might be the perfect people to hit the refresh button. But that would entail us grappling with the question of what we really want from our art careers. If we are to put our objects on display then what are we doing exactly? Do we want to change the world? If you do, sometimes it might make sense to leave the studio and go and do just that.

Image from Wikipedia