Tag Archives: toronto

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 has 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.

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Successionists

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Succession planning is something I don’t think anyone thinks about until they are at a certain age or at a certain place in their lives when they realize that they can’t keep doing this (whatever this is) forever. After my parents dying succession was all I cared about – what happens to my work and all my stuff? I was somewhat obsessed and dragged my partner into creating a will with lawyers and everything. This came upon me from realizing in a very real way that once your parents die, you are next.

I am not a parent so I have no idea whether this is a big issue or not if you have kids. I’ve heard a variety of things over the years from parents who are uncertain about their legacies both materially and emotionally. It’s just not anything I know about.

But I do believe that when it comes to art succession is actually extremely important for many, many reasons. Art disappears without some kind of forward thinking and caring just like certain species or tracks of wilderness. We have art galleries that hold our collections of art and books on the lives of artists and they are supposed to be there for future generations. However that is kind of hard to do when your gallery’s collection is routinely on the chopping block or your gallery is not considered worthy of funding or there are no art books stores left. Succession however on a more earthy and present level seems to come in to play when either a greatly admired admin or an artistic visionary gets burned out or dies. At a recent meeting with contemporary artists in Peterborough a participant told an inspiring story about running an art organization that he let die so that it could be reborn with some new blood and ideas. Someone else at the table echoed this and added that they wished a lot of organizations would just die instead of becoming zombies and soaking up funding regardless of their relevance.

Passing the torch or letting something die – it makes for an uncomfotable conversation in the arts sector.  What I keep hearing endlessly is that “we are burned out” “there is no money” “working in the arts today is insane” “our system is broken” etc. etc. I hear a lot of negativity or fake optimism. I rarely hear an honest assessment in the public of the progress people are making – with the exception of some very brave American/European artist friends I know on Facebook who have no trouble mixing things up. It seems to me that we would do well to face our troubles head on; art making and surviving today cannot be sustained through the granting process or through traditional modes of arts support.

Remember this place? I spent hours here discovering Sheile & Cy Twombly. David Mirvish Books RIP
Remember this place? I spent hours here discovering Shiele & Cy Twombly. David Mirvish Books RIP

At this meeting an elder statesman who taught cultural studies for decades reiterated again what I keep hearing (and having been raked over the coals by my own community when I was quoted in a blog by RM Vaughan on arts administration I am loathe to bring it up again, but I will)  is that money in the arts is stuck in a trickle down paradigm helping no one but those at the top level – namely those who work in Canadian Heritage and The Canada Council for the Arts (provincial counterparts are just a lower tier on the fountain of funding). These people do help lots of artists, lots of them, but they do not spread the money far and wide enough and while they continue to receive inflation rated raises our grant money amounts stay static. This is all supposed to change this year and next as both are undertaking sweeping consultations and funding model changes. We’ll see.

More importantly and urgently though is that the way art is being experienced, consumed and viewed is being altered in a mind spinning, myriad of ways. Most arts organizations, institutions and the not-for-profit model are not set up to deal with any of these changes. Take as one example: space. At one time artists could find space but now accelerated gentrification and the ever expanding real estate market here in Canada is making this almost impossible. Artists are moving everywhere to find places they can work, or they are joining collectives or they are just changing the way they work in order to adapt. What would be helpful is if one of these top down government ministries or agencies would kindly step in between artists and developers to help create spaces that work for them. I know there are models out there of this like Artscape & the amazing Cobalt Connects (these guys deserve way more support and recognition) in Hamilton but this isn’t just happening in and around Toronto, its happening everywhere. And this is but one example.

Arts groups, institutions and organizations that can’t adapt to the new normal must really look at themselves in the mirror as I can’t see these challenges stopping or changing any time soon. Perhaps they need to completely redo their mandates or change the way they work or, and I say this with great sympathy, die a dignified death and give someone or something else a shot at helping.

Image via stylenorth.ca