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2017 RADIUS Fellows Retreat

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - group discussion

On February 4 my RADIUS 2017 Fellows cohort braved the blizzard to arrive at Camp Alexandra for our program’s opening retreat. This was a chance for us to unplug from our daily lives, get to know eachother and work on setting some personal goals for our time in the Fellows program.

Once we were assembled it didn’t take long for us to skip to the good stuff: who am I? How did I get here? What difficult decisions have I made in my life? Each exercise throughout the weekend was an opportunity to reflect on our experience by sharing it with others.

I really enjoyed getting to know people and appreciated how the tasks we were asked to do were very purposefully meant to get us to explore different ways of telling our stories than many of us are probably used to. The more conversations I had, the more I realized that there are a lot of similarities between us. It might be a bad breakup, or getting fired from a job, or something as random as having a crippled waterfowl as a childhood pet. So rarely in everyday life do we get the chance to focus on other people for long enough to discover the things we have in common.

I was surprised to learn that two thirds of our group identified as introverts. It definitely didn’t feel like it. The lodge was humming with energy and early on we were already having conversations about how well the group gelled and what kinds of wizardry must have taken place in the selection process to make that happen.

But perhaps this was just because we’d spent a long time at the outset coming to a consensus about community guidelines that would enable us to be an open and supportive group. The list we arrived at was rather extensive and emerged out of deep discussions about listening well, showing respect for others’ viewpoints, creating space, expressing radical candour, and hugging consentually.

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - walking outside at Crescent Beach

One of the hardest exercises for me during the retreat was the “super social vision portal” where you have to beam yourself one year into the future and then talk about all of the things that you have accomplished in that time. Being forced to articulate my goals in terms of tangible accomplishments was hard, but it was a good exercise because it forces you to work back from that point to start mapping out how to get there. And more importantly, voicing those goals to another person forces you to think seriously about committing to them.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the retreat was the creative talent in the room. The suggestion on Saturday evening that we should have a talent show was met with near universal awkward rejection, and many in our group opted to try out a rap workshop with Nigel instead. From there things morphed organically into a singalong and Pictionary. There are some seriously talented people in this group.

After the retreat I’m really looking forward to the rest of the program. I’m glad to be part of such a great group of people with so many exciting plans. The retreat was a reminder that though the world has a lot of huge problems that need to be fixed, none of us has the sole responsibility to fix everything. When we are isolated, it is so easy to feel defeated by the enormity of the task. But when you connect with others who are motivated and passionate about what they do, you realize that everyone is doing their bit to make things better. Creating allies lightens the load.

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - group singalong

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Lost Rivers

Lee Valley mill

I started writing this post before I left the UK and then abandoned it because I got busy and a lot of other things seemed more pressing. But the recent rediscovery of the HMS Terror and last year’s discovery of the HMS Erebus reminded me of it.

Shortly before I left the UK I was cycling down a road that I’d been down numerous times. I’m not entirely sure what tipped me off that day but suddenly I recognized that it was a canal. It made sense: the road’s location in a trough, the bridges that crossed it, the occasional bullwark here and there in locations that were nowhere near the river. All of the pieces just clicked together and I understood.

I googled it to find out more about the route and ended up at Paul Talling’s London’s Lost Rivers where I spent a few hours reading. There are many watercourses that feed into London, but they tend to disappear in urban areas, and over time many have been forgotten.

There are clues though. First off there is the shape of the city itself. The weird shapes of city blocks and routes that streets take is a product of people in the past working far more within the constraints of geography than we would do now. A river would have posed more of an obstacle to be built around rather than over. Rivers also form handy boundaries between different boroughs, so you find that some bits of the city are curiously less connected to adjacent bits.

This historic geography is also embedded in place names. The names of streets, ditches, drains, and pubs often give clues as to the former routes of waterways. Long after they’ve disappeared from view and long after the original industries such as mills or ferries are gone their names remain. Though many things have passed out of people’s memories and lived experience, the names of things are clues that can be traced back to help you discover hundreds of years of local history. The names are intimately connected to the places they describe.

In Canada we have a lot of places that are named after so many other places. The names are completely decontextualized and lack the relationships between one another that existed in the places where the names were first used. It’s not something that I really noticed before I travelled a bit around the UK but now those names seem strange. Not only that… but you will see the same set of names in Australia, South Africa and other Commonwealth countries, making just as much sense as they do anywhere else they don’t really belong. Every colony has a Victoria, a London, a Halifax. That’s colonialism for you.

It’s not merely the physical control of territory but also the control of history and narrative. By renaming everything in sight, colonists severed our connection to our land’s pre-colonial past. Naming things after the ‘old country’ says, as we’ve often said in so many narratives, that history starts now. History starts when we got here, when we ‘discovered’ this place, when we colonized it and gave it new names. Whatever happened before this happened is not merely irrelevant, by erasing names we try to make it so that history it never existed in the first place.

Reading through a fascinating account of rediscovering the routes of lost rivers made me sad to have grown up in a place that was colonized. No doubt the societies that were here first have names for everything, and those names hold a lot of knowledge. But that knowledge, and the cultural and language skills to decode it is not something I’ve ever really been exposed to.

Why am I thinking about this now? Because the recent rediscovery of the ships from the Franklin expedition happened thanks to indigenous knowledge. Inuit hunters knew where Terror was years before anyone else did because they spend a lot of time in the area and know it intimately. The Erebus was found in an area that was literally called by the Inuit “the boat sunk here” or “the big boat is here.” And sure, we laugh about it but it’s the sort of thing that should make people hang their heads in shame.

Just think of what else we might discover if we actually took the time to recognize these people as the owners and stewards of this land.

Horniman Museum

After the conference I really needed a brain break. I visited the Horniman Museum and found it delightful despite being filled with screaming children.

My visit reminded me that museum displays are really a lost art. I loved the natural history gallery, not so much for the content but for the authentically art deco way in which it was displayed: lots of 20’s typefaces, carefully handwritten labels and bold geometrical design. There was a lot of care taken to display the taxidermied animals in really beautifully decorative ways as well. I was so enamoured with the design that I found it really jarring when one of the display cases had labels that had obviously been computer-generated.

Along with the old displays they also had some of Polly Morgan’s art taxidermy. I found it interesting and creative but I feel really ambivalent about the use of taxidermy in non-traditional ways. It’s a weird, irrational set of feelings about death that I have yet to parse.

I loved how a bunch of the galleries preserved a slightly random, cluttered Victorian wunderkammer sort of feel to their displays. It really did make you feel like you were walking into someone’s personal collection of interesting stuff. However, there were many times where I felt like I really wanted to know more context about the objects I was looking at, where I felt like I was probably missing some important bit of information that prevented me from really understanding it.

Right now the Horniman has a temporary exhibit on about folk art from Romania, featuring a lot of textiles. I loved the opportunity to really study the patterns and textures, took a lot of pictures and notes.

There was also an exhibit of photos of women from Sierra Leone. The photos were taken around 2007 and included a bit of information about the women and where they were in their lives, conveying the resiliency of people living in poor conditions in the aftermath of civil war. I would be very interested in seeing a new set of photos documenting where they all are now and what’s happened in their lives in the time since the original photos were taken. What has been the impact of Ebola on the lives of all of these women, I wonder?

Textures and Repair at the British Museum

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I visited the British Museum over the weekend for a bit of inspiration. On this visit I spent a lot of time in the China, South Asia and Southeast Asia room, which has objects on display from the Paleolithic to the present.

Because so many historical periods are represented there’s a lot of variation in technique, colour and style, representing very many different influences over time. Far from being isolated, trade and repeated invasions have resulted in a rich and varied visual history, and a range of styles that go far beyond the styles we typically think of as “Chinese.” It’s more likely that our understanding the kinds of things we like to think of as Chinese style is more because of our familiarity with certain classes of manufactured goods created for export.

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On this visit I was drawn in particular to the different textures and designs of pottery and vessels. I thought these two animals from the Eastern Zhou period were interesting, becuase they’re covered in patterns that seem distinctly Celtic. The first contains a criss-crossed pattern of what appeared to be a series of interlocking animals like what you’d see sometimes in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. The second is covered with a complicated series of spiral and braid patterns that remind me of the sort of pattern you would see in Celtic metal and stonework that you would find in Northern Europe and the British Isles. They’re from the 4th to 3rd century BC and the 5th to 6th century BC, respectively.

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It was also fun to discover some quirky things, like these Chinese-made plates showing the crucifixion and the resurrection. They were obviously inspired by Western art while looking for subjects for their goods for export, made by some people who weren’t very familiar with the subjects they were trying to portray. Consequently you get these crucified people who inexplicably have quite well developed breasts, and a very feminine-looking bearded lady of a Jesus getting resurrected.

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There were also a few beautiful examples of repair on display. I wouldn’t have noticed this one before I became acquainted with Andrew Baseman’s Past Imperfect blog. This jug looks fine at first, but closer inspection reveals that the handle broke off some time previously and was reattached with metal staples.

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This one’s more obvious. The spout fell off and was replaced with a metal one. Someone obviously decided it would be a good idea to also attach the lid to a chain so that it would not get lost.

There’s also a lovely felted boot with beautiful scalloped stitching, patched with leather. I took a bad picture of it but there are many better photos of it on the British Museum website.

I love that these are on display at the museum, that the curators didn’t decide at some point that they were too damaged to be accessioned and put on display. The fact that some of these objects are quirky and broken only confirms to me that they were created and used by humans, which makes them far more interesting to me than things that for whatever reason were never used, and consequently survived to present in a pristine form.

Theremin

In the fall of 2011 I built a theremin from scratch at a workshop hosted by VIVO Media Arts. I subsequently joined the Vancouver Experimental Theremin Orchestra, with whom I have worked on a number of projects.

Selected Performances

epic-tom

EPIC-Tom, The Performance, Alberthau Mansion, July 17, 2014.
Reviewed by Vandocument
2000mielen

2000 Meilen Unter dem Meer, VIVO Media Arts, May 3, 2013
Performance in collaboration with thereminist Trautonia Capra

 

Transformative Possibilities: Humans, Technology and Nature – Celebrating the HTN triad, VIVO Media Arts, October 27, 2012

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Four hours at the Genius Bar

Early Saturday afternoon my computer froze and could not be revived. Many attempts to boot it in many different ways failed. It was suddenly seriously sick and none of the troubleshooting advice I found on the internet seemed to help.

Once I got through the requisite stages of panic and frustration there wasn’t much to do other than take a trip down to the local Apple store. The online reservation system wasn’t working so I headed over prepared to camp out for a long time.

Turns out it did take a long time. They were able to see me relatively quickly but unfortunately fixing my computer is a long and drawn out process.

It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see a tech go through all the same steps I took and get the same results, which were that nothing is apparently very wrong with my computer at all, except for the fact that for no particular reason, it won’t start. The boot files are probably out of order so it gets confused part way through the process. All that needs doing is wiping the entire thing and starting over.

Seems like a rather draconian solution to me. It makes me wonder if one day we will look back upon these times as the dark ages of computer care, in much the same way we think about medical practices such as leeching or bleeding.

Wiping a computer doesn’t take a very long time. What does take a long time is trying to salvage all of your files before they’re wiped. I had about 220 gigs worth. And with my computer working at substantially less than it’s top speed, it took a long time to transfer. I hung out at the Genius Bar with a book for a period of about four hours.

Whenever I’m stuck waiting in a place for an unavoidably long time I make a game of it in my head. I convince myself that I’m doing ethnographic research and spend a lot of time people watching, collecting notes in my head.

I’m sure that there are people out there who have for whatever reason, received poor service at the Apple store but from my vantage point I saw a lot of Apple employees dealing very calmly with some difficult customers.

Like the person who arrived with a badly thrashed computer and was unhappy to be acquainted with the clause in her warranty that stated that the warranty really only covered hardware defects, not misuse by the owner. She went through a lot of employees before she left the store.

I watched a technician spend two hours with an elderly lady who didn’t know what her password was, didn’t speak English well and didn’t really understand what the issue was. Each time they attempted to retrieve or reset a password it would lead them to another email address for which she didn’t have the password. Resetting that password would lead to another impregnable email address and so on and so on until the whole process of non-retrieval circled ouroboros-like back upon itself. But despite not knowing her email password, she was convinced that she couldn’t access her email because her phone was broken. He tried over and over to explain that that was not the case. Halfway through her appointment she forgot the password for her phone and locked herself out of it, which only confirmed to her that the device didn’t work.

After he’d finally got her sorted, he disappeared into the back for a long time. I wonder if the Apple store has a screaming closet in the back. I think I would need it if I worked there.

Because I was so close to the door for the back room I got to watch the staff disappear and then magically reappear as normal people through some sort of invisible process. There seemed to be a hand sanitizing station right behind the door because though I couldn’t see it I could see the staff gathering in groups of communal hand wringing and commiseration after touching particularly grotty iPhones.

Staff began to comment on how awesome my desktop image was (nerds!). I was on the receiving end of some playful ribbing about bringing a book along to my appointment. One of the managers stopped by to chat a little. I got a lot of reading done, though in retrospect The Rings of Saturn is a little too dense for Apple store reading, as there’s a little too much distraction for me to concentrate adequately on what I’m reading.

After four hours my blood sugar was dropping so I headed home. I was able to complete the remainder of what needed to be done at home, so now my computer is thankfully working again. I’ve lost some things, but hopefully nothing major.