Tag Archives: toronto

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.

bonfires and robots

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

At a bonfire on the weekend, and in rural Ontario this is a fairly normal occurrence – to be at a bonfire on the weekend, I was given a lovely little catalogue for an exhibition I did last year. The exhibition was themed around ideas of local and all the artists involved lived in my rural county. The essay in the catalogue deconstructed the idea of what it is to be local (or not) and was hilariously well written. It did make me think however that this whole concept of local isn’t so easy to define.

For a decade now, we in Ontario have been subject to an overwhelming amount of local-culture-promotion and that attending it, buying it, eating it and wearing it makes it the best solution to everything from right wing extremism to environmental catastrophe. I hadn’t been thinking about the idea of local when the shocking violent attack upon unsuspecting citizens in my former home Toronto happened last week. Suddenly the biggest city in Canada became a very ‘local’ place where people helped each other, cared about each other and said hello to each other (something that city has been unfairly accused of not doing). If you are familiar with the city you know that it is essentially a very large collection of neighbourhoods. People don’t just say, “I’m from Toronto” they also say, “I live on the Danforth” or “I live in Leaside”. The violent van attack that happened last week where people were killed by a very disturbed young man happened in Willowdale – a large area north on Yonge St. Even if you have never been to Willowdale, if you’re a Torontonian you know it because it is part of a larger idea of ‘local’.

Artists Chris Hanson & Hendrika Sonnenberg’s Booth Street exhibition showing local artists. The catalogue mentioned was for this lovely, local event.

That larger idea is perhaps a latent desire to be a part of something – a local place where you get to know the coffee shop people, the mechanic at the gas station, the guy behind the fish counter etc. People who live in Toronto love this about Toronto. I live in a very small place where everyone knows everybody and being ‘local’ becomes a different desire than in Toronto. Being local where I am simply means you are not just here for the weekend. The bonfire party had for the most part people who had moved into my area, not people born up here. In some ways this is another layer of local as there are the local who are born into a place and then those of us who choose where to live. Toronto is remarkable in that it is a place where people from every corner of the earth have chosen to live. Variations on the idea of local abound in a place like Ontario.

Which brings me to robots. If you are in an industry and think you will never be replaced by a robot you are wrong. Everyone can be replaced by a robot. However, if you are smart you will begin training yourself to be the human interface with your robot colleagues. Say you are a teacher, a robot will be taking over your curriculum however individual students who have problems interacting with the robot teacher will need a human being to help make the learning and connection smooth and productive. I continue to hear people say that robots can’t be artists – but they already are. There are many artists who are making machines their art work and using technology to remove themselves further and further from the process. This is fact, not science fiction.

One of my concerns is will robots know what being local is?

When people think robots they think this. Though dystopic T2 inspired my love affair with technology.

One would assume a robot will be Chinese made with an American interface like a Smartphone – you know, the robot in your pants. So, how to make that local? If your community doesn’t know how to interface or add a local app to the robots coming to your neighbourhood how do we negotiate what is local with them?

The Airbnb platform is essentially technology that assists you in finding and creating accommodations. They are slowly beginning to include local guides/experiences with their site (unless they get kicked out of all the countries they are in, but I think a good business decision for them would be to start playing by the rules which I bet they will do). Eventually they will have an AI aspect to their app that you can use so that you will know who the best barber is on Hunter Street in Peterborough or where is the best grilled cheese sandwich in Sudbury. And this app may also include the robots and the human interface employee’s (let’s call these people HIEs) names who work there. Suddenly you can be in Macau or Brampton and you’ll feel local because you will know all the robots and HIEs there. That world is coming. In many ways it is already here.

But what if something goes drastically wrong like it did in Toronto? Robocop would easily hunt the van down and perhaps take that screwed up guy peacefully like that amazing cop did but what about the stunning love and kindness showed toward the hurt by the local people and businesses? Can we count on robots to be thoughtful, and compassionate? The people in AI I know say that may never be a possibility. Are we then going to have Troy types from Next Gen empath-ing all over the place? Please, no.

When it comes to local, being in a place where you feel you belong, are known and know others makes you want to care. This is at the core of why this ‘local’ movement is still a very real thing. Being local perhaps is a state of mind – a human mind.