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Good Times Gone

Canadian Police and Peace Officers’ National Memorial Day, Alberta Legislature, 24 September 2023

I had occasion to be in Edmonton in September.

While there, I was fortunate to meet several members of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. The Alberta UCC President, Orysia Boychuk, had just returned from Ottawa to welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his second diplomatic address to Canadian Parliament. Another tireless UCC volunteer, Cynthia Fedor, whose son is an RCMP officer, invited me that Sunday afternoon to the police and peace officers’ memorial ceremony taking place at the Alberta Legislature grounds.

Normally, honouring cops is not in my purview. I’m more like Hunter S. Thompson at a cop conference than anything approaching Jack Webb. My personal experience has been more ducking and running from cops than saluting them. But as time passes, and as violent incidents increase, I have come around to the police. I certainly have always respected their sacrifice to apply some semblance of order to a chaotic society. Not all cops are bastards.

In Zelensky’s speech to Parliament, he noted several times the need for what’s being called a “rules-based order,” upon which the world must function. We need rules. We need order. Order produces peace, on a local and global scale.

There’s no peace in a world where violence is more or less legal in this or that country, or where it is fine to exploit children in this or that region, or where nobody really pays any attention to what’s going on for an entire portion of the planet.

It’s one planet, it’s one-of-a-kind, and we need to start recognizing it as such. We have to begin to behave as if planet Earth is the irreplicable and irreplaceable home of life as we know it. Still for now, that’s what it is.

Everly Lux, Is It True?

Justice is incommensurate with capitalism because justice is inherently monopolistic. If we lived under true capitalism, someone would have come along long ago to deliver a fairer form of justice. Cheaper, too.

Catherine Lamb, Curvo Totalitas (2016), La Sala Rossa 2 October 2023

I missed Pop Montreal in its entirety this year. Not by choice, but by necessity. I’m still kicking myself. Happily, I was able to attend No Hay Banda’s season premiere, a more niche poptimism.

Valérie Blass, This Is Not a Metaphor, Darling Foundry, 8 September – 22 October 2023

Valérie Blass, This Is Not a Metaphor, photographed for NicheMTL.

Doubtless, the West is decadent. We’ve been decaying since the Enlightenment. Whether this is a permanent decline or just the low end of a sine wave that will arch back upwards at some point remains to be seen. Probably not in our lifetimes.

But there is no political or cultural alternative to decadence; only corruption of a different order, exploitation under another name. Putin is sleazier than Trump. Xi Jinping is sleazier than Putin. Kim Jong Un is sleazier than Xi Jinping. And the eye in the sky is sleazier than them all.

In the film Superpower, Sean Penn’s documentary about Zelensky, someone — a Ukrainian — says something like, “so long as there is corruption, there is justice.” Nowhere is that truer than in this great city, a rhapsody of virtue and vice, depravity and integrity.

To decadence.

Wu-Tang Clan

A common axiom goes, don’t meet your heroes. The implication is that our heroes will inevitably disappoint us because they could never live up to our heroic expectations. But there are two ways to cheat this. 1: Don’t have any expectations of your heroes; and 2: try to meet them when you’re least expecting it. Surprise them, too; don’t meet them where they’re normally met.

On Tuesday morning, I was walking along Rue de la Montagne with a colleague after a press conference at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. We had passed the entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel in front of which was parked a long, black tour bus. A tattooed and bearded and good-natured dude stood in front of the door, waiting.

I asked him who the bus was for, and he said, mysteriously, “my boss.” So I gently pressed him on who his boss was, and he said, RZA. I paused and confirmed that this bus was for the Wu-Tang Clan and he nodded with pride and told me that he was the RZA’s tour bus driver. He also told me that he would be right down and I might be able to say hello.

Moments later, there he was — the RZA, standing right in front of me. He had on his signature Carreras and looked fresh in a black velour track suit. I had nothing for him to autograph, and I didn’t much think to take a photo. I just introduced myself and said, ‘Mr. RZA, thank you for your music, and thank you for the teachings, which have changed — and possibly saved — my life.’

Mr. RZA responded with kindness and grace, thanking me for sharing the sentiment. He looked me in the eyes and called me by my name and bumped my fist. I’ve met many movie stars and musicians and wealthy people before, but none whose greatness was so immediately palpable, whose energy was so generous, whose aura was so contagious. I felt greater in his presence.

I still can’t believe that I was just walking downtown in Montreal on a Tuesday morning and almost tripped over one of Hip-Hop’s most brilliant and influential artists. I wasn’t lying. The Wu might be bigger than The Beatles. And they were bigger than Jesus. You can do the math.

And just as quickly, the boys were piling onto the bus, shuffling off to Buffalo for their next tour stop. So I wished them Godspeed and waved goodbye — and I might have accidentally slapped a NicheMTL sticker onto the back of their trailer as they pulled out and beyond the black horizon.◼︎

All Dressed

Natural Born Curator: in conversation with Mary Dailey Desmarais

If collage was the defining artform of the 20th century, then curation surely must be the quintessential artistic mode proper to the 21st.

Festivals of music and film in the new millennium routinely invite celebrities to curate their annual programmes. Popular media services like Spotify and Letterboxd encourage everyday users to curate playlists and collections of their favourite songs and movies. Increasingly, people’s identities and values are defined and reflected in their collections of things more than by traditional doctrine or philosophy.

So, museum curation today may just be an essential kind of contemporary art: using works of art across genre, format, and history, as spectacular objects, as well as the medium of creation itself — painting with paintings, sculpting with sculpture, pushing the limits of exhibition through avant-garde technology and new media.

Still, Mary Dailey Desmarais, chief curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is not above (or below) sneaker collecting, a guilty-pleasure.

“I really don’t like wearing high heels, so I wear sneakers all the time,” Desmarais says of her funky blue and orange kicks as we chat in a quiet meeting room overlooking Sherbrooke Street on a bustling Tuesday afternoon. “I feel like I can go faster, get more stuff done.”

“Museums have always been a place where I’ve felt at peace.” Mary Dailey Desmarais, photographed for NicheMTL by Thomas Hawes.

Taking care of business is exactly what Desmarais has been doing since a rocky transition into her chief role in 2020, which the media widely reported. Without delay, a series of Desmarais’s triumphant shows, including “How long does it take for one voice to reach another?” in Autumn-Winter ‘21-‘22, and “Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music,” which ran from October, 2022, until February, 2023, returned the right kind of spotlight to the museum.

Now, there is an undeniable feeling of fresh optimism about the place. It’s clear that Desmarais not only hit the ground running, but did so with grace. And though she ultimately determines the museum’s direction, Desmarais is quick to share the credit when and where it’s due.

“I want the museum and the people here to feel that, collectively, we have been able to make this museum into a real hub of community and conversation that, through art, inspires new ideas — about humanity, about the world, about human creativity,” Desmarais says. “I really feel that that’s something that is achieved collectively.”

An exhibition of Pop Art culled from the museum’s permanent collection, entitled “The Pop of Life,” curated by Iris Amizlev, accompanies a major retrospective opening in October of Marisol Escobar, the Paris-born Venezuelan-American artist who was a singular and indefinable force working concurrent to the Pop movement in the United States. Marisol famously appeared in several of Andy Warhol’s films. But her diverse oeuvre owes as much to Pre-Columbian and even Classical Greek sculpture as to her contemporaries’ work, which embraced a particularly American brand of popular culture.

Desmarais speaks enthusiastically about the Marisol showcase, and a piece in particular that will serve as the entire exhibition’s anchor. “One of the great sculptures we have in the show is called ‘The Fishman,’ which is half-man, half-fish,” Desmarais reveals. “Marisol was very invested in exploring the relationship between humans and animals — particularly underwater sea creatures. In fact, she was more interested in the relationship between humans and animals, and humans and the environment, and the interconnectedness of all things. You can see that in her practice.”

The Fishman, wood, plaster, paint acrylic, and glass eyes, 68 1/4 x 28 x 33 1/4 inches. Collection of The Buffalo AKG Art Museum, photographed for NicheMTL.

Another collection of Marisol’s sculptures represents a group of larger-than-life-sized aquatic creatures, with a satirical suggestion that reflects on her contemporary moment, and particularly, on women’s roles in society, including herself. “Although she was this major star of her generation — people were lining up around the block to go see her shows, even in galleries,” Desmarais explains, “she has been somewhat overlooked by history.”

Overlooked no more, Montreal’s Marisol retrospective, presented in connection with the AKG Museum of Buffalo, NY, is by far the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work. “I’m so excited about this show,” Desmarais beams. “I think it will really be a discovery for people.”

There is always a delicate balance to be struck in curation, to challenge audiences with art they may never have seen — and to re-examine familiar artworks in new ways — yet still remain appealing to a museum’s core mass audience, some of whom may be dabblers and novices.

“It’s not always obvious,” says Desmarais, “between exhibitions that deal with known subjects — subjects that might be more familiar to people — and those exhibitions that are bringing something new to light. For me, an exhibition, regardless of how many people it brings in the door, which is not really the critical factor of success, is that people come away having learned something new, and being inspired to engage differently with the world around them.”

Coming of age in New York City in the 1990s, Desmarais, for lack of a better explanation, seems to have been born gratia artis. “Museums have always been a place where I’ve felt at peace,” Desmarais recalls of her foundational artistic encounters. “As a kid, I remember specifically walking through the Met and stopping in front of this painting by Claude Monet. It’s a snow scene — it’s one of his haystacks in the snow at sunset — and it is this beautiful, glowing, almost ghostly scene. And I remember just stopping dead in front of this thing. And I can say now, in retrospect, that that painting was a kind of signpost for me.”

Desmarais eventually pursued a doctorate in Art History at Yale, writing her thesis on those very Monets which strayed from the sunny Impressionist paradigm. “I’d always believed that there was something kind of darker in these paintings because I remember feeling quite moved and sad in front of this thing,” she explains. “It was a constant feeling that being in the presence of works of art could transport me to a different place.”

“In the same way that writing is an artform, when you’re curating an exhibition,” says Desmarais, “what you’re doing is telling a story.” Thomas Hawes for NicheMTL.

The path to becoming a curator is neither prescribed nor impossible, though, and Desmarais had to pay her dues, too. “You have to have rigorous training in the practice of looking at art when you’re looking from a professional standpoint,” Desmarais recommends. “I know it sounds silly, but internships are important — they really were to me. I interned at the MOMA. I worked at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Musée Rodin in Paris, and the New York Historical Society. Those can be very formative experiences,” Desmarais suggests, “and they help you understand what museum work is.”

I propose to Desmarais my theory of curation as the 21st century’s artistic zeitgeist. “In a way, it is an artform,” she agrees, “but I don’t think of myself as an artist. In the same way that writing is an artform, when you’re curating an exhibition, what you’re doing is telling a story. You need to put it together in the same way you’d be writing a text. You’re making it digestible for people and helping people to feel something, see something,” Desmarais says. “That’s important.”

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is fortunate to boast a chief curator with such admirable credentials, intuitive tastes, a sense of humility, and something everyone chez nous respects: an enviable sneaker collection.

Desmarais feels just as pleased to be an adopted Montrealer.

“Montreal is a niche city,” she observes, “but with this great admiration around the world. Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Oh, you live in Montreal, what an awesome city!’ And it is. That multiplicity of cultural richness in this city needs to be reflected in the museum.”◼︎

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Mrs. Desmarais interned at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Her internship was at Musée Rodin.

999 Words

Into The Wild: notes on Zelensky, Intertextuality, and Sean Penn’s “Superpower”

A benefit concert for Ukraine at the Notre-Dame Basilica was among the first post-covid public events I attended, in March, 2022. Abruptly, we went from not being able to leave our homes after 10 p.m., to gathering together in a cathedral with 600 others in support of a developing skirmish on the other side of the planet — a surreal twist for surreal times.

The event’s organizer, introducing the evening, spoke passionately about their fundraising efforts for the work ongoing inside Ukraine. She praised everyone for coming; she praised the musicians for offering their talents to perform; she praised the graphic designer for printing up the programmes so quickly, saying it was a “miracle” that they could get the job done in time.

I thought to myself: no, a “miracle” would be if Trudeau and other heads of state had instituted a crucial no-fly zone over Ukraine that the feisty young President, Volodymyr Zelensky, had requested the month prior; if the world had agreed to shut down to prevent actual deaths by war just as the world had shut down to prevent coronavirus deaths; if a madman megalomaniac didn’t need to prove to a small but influential group of Fletcher Memorial Homeowners that he was the most tyrannical leader the globe had ever seen. Ridding Russia of Rootin’ Tootin’ Vladimir Putin — now that would be a genuine miracle.

Just as we had emerged from an unprecedented pandemic, we found ourselves facing an unprecedented violent conflict the likes of which had not been witnessed since World War II. Yet, given all the combat metaphors that we had collectively endured in relation to covid — battle zones, front-lines, hidden enemies — all we had to do was tweak the rhetoric. Weapons were no longer vaccines; they were actual tanks and heavy artillery. Soldiers were no longer healthcare workers; they were real people in fatigues, with grenades and machine guns.

The dead, however, were still the dead.

At the time, newly elected American President Joe Biden had offered President Zelensky safe passage from Kiev to avoid engagement. As we now know, Zelensky replied defiantly with the most admirable ever riposte: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The West has been arming Zelensky ever since. And one of the West’s most powerful weapons is the screen.

Superpower Official Trailer

Volodymyr Zelensky was an immensely popular T.V. personality throughout the Post-Soviet world before he became Ukraine’s stoic wartime President. He even played the President on Servant of the People, a satirical television show in which Zelensky portrayed a Ukrainian everyman suddenly foisted into that role.

Then, like a Russian Doll emerging from another Russian Doll, Zelensky won voters over in a bonafide election by promising to fight the kleptomania and corruption that characterized Ukraine after gaining autonomy from the U.S.S.R. Following decades under Communist rule, Ukraine was finally moving westward, both culturally and politically.

Zelensky’s election attracted the producer Aaron Kaufman and the Oscar-winner Sean Penn to make a human interest documentary about his unlikely rise to power. But once again, the story pivoted. Just as Penn and Kaufman travelled to Kiev to interview this oddball sensation, Russia attacked, and Zelensky’s leadership priorities transformed in an instant from madcap to deadly serious.

Directed by Penn and Kaufman, known previously for producing Robert Rodriguez’s recent projects via Troublemaker Studios, Superpower is superficially conventional Vice Media-style fare, affording the material an extra layer of narrative urgency with rapid edits, accelerated pacing, and a constantly moving camera. The obvious comparison to make here is to Oliver Stone’s 2017 Putin Interviews, in which that venerable director travelled to Moscow to talk with Russia’s strongman autocrat, for whom Stone displayed a fanboy-like reverence. Stone played this same fawning role in the 2003 HBO film, Comandante, in which he interviews the late Fidel Castro in Havana, pitching the revolutionary Cuban leader one softball after another.

Viewed against Stone’s directorial prowess, Superpower is undoubtedly second-rate. However, Penn is a better director of attention than is Stone, who has yet to express a moral stand against this war. Whenever Penn is asked why he takes on subjects like Zelensky, he invariably gives the same answer: Penn wants to use his celebrity to attract good attention to just causes the globe over. It’s an admirable project. Plus, Penn’s Superpower seems less about displays of cinematic craftsmanship and more about producing an important record of an unparalleled time in modern human history.

After years of moral bankruptcy that saw the lad-era magazine publish edgy articles like “Can Vegan Bros Eat Pussy,” and photo shoots based on famous female authors’ suicides, Vice Media, the production company behind Superpower, is now financially bankrupt. I’ve had perennial problems with the Montreal-born Vice’s jokey approach to the news, as if the world were one big frat boy prank. And though Penn exudes that same devil-may-care ethos, films like Superpower represent significant turns towards adulthood for Vice. It is ironic that going broke might have been precisely what the company needed to transform itself from hipster doofus bible into the vanguard of underground broadcasting — a baptism by fire.

Before their untimely deaths, both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, America’s greatest critics, considered Sean Penn to be among America’s greatest actors, especially high praise from two rigorously smart and righteously opinionated men who seldom agreed on anything. Surely, an actor as convincing as Penn would gravitate towards another actor like Zelensky, whose Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko character must resurface regularly now in Ukrainians’ minds.

It is an intertextual trip following real-life Penn and real-life Zelensky through a war-torn nation, as the audience catches consecutive glimpses of Penn’s most memorable fictional roles: look, it’s First Sgt. Welsh of The Thin Red Line! Wait, now it’s Meserve from Casualties of War! And isn’t that Bobby Cooper of Oliver Stone’s U Turn?

Penn’s rehabilitation from naughty Hollywood celebrity into Vice’s most virtuous investigative journalist is nothing short of miraculous. Still, the real miracle would be peace for Ukraine.◼︎

Superpower is streaming now on Paramount+.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

The air conditioning broke. So Casa’s doors stood wide open to the smoky night.

Montreal is known as the ashtray of North America. It’s a fuming city. People mill about outside of drinking establishments and music venues huddled around cigarettes. There’s a way people stand when they’re smoking, as if searching for something to do while performing a perfectly acceptable task: smoking.

Cigarettes, much like the people who smoke them, are on a spectrum of pleasantness. Sometimes, cigarettes smell like the backseat ashtray in a taxicab, or of a 1976 department store cafeteria. Other times, cigarettes possess a luxurious warmth, deeper and unplaceable across history, a mossy autumn evening’s air spiced with Portuguese chicken and passersby’s musk. A smell you want to take your time with, get lost in, a smell that wraps its tendrils around you.

It depends on who’s smoking the cigarettes, though. You’ll have better memories than others of some smoking people, of the people as well as their cigarette smell. Bad cigarettes can have a way of grabbing you by the nostrils as would some ephemeral Three Stooges routine. The punch of hot smoke pumping through an air conditioner. Pleasant cigarettes, au contraire, gently caress the olfactory sense, an inviting scent. Addictive, even.

Nicotine is a stimulant, as long as it’s administered regularly. You can stay up all night smoking a pack of cigarettes. Or you can get that second-hand thrill and stay up all night watching someone else smoke their pack of cigarettes. In the olden days, when cigarettes were still allowed indoors as entertainment, we’d return home after a night out stinking of cigarettes and high as kites, not able to think of sleep until the new dawn’s first rays, whether we’d been smoking or not.

Live music is like audible smoke, wisping through the atmosphere, clearly discernible but ungraspable. Music, like smoke, is always moving, energetic when it appears (sounds) like it’s still. Layers of soundwaves accumulate like strata of smoke in a dusty old pool room. Recording is to music as film is to smoke, capturing but also subdividing the indivisible, preserving the beauty of fluid movement and losing something in its preservation.

Smoke is particularly cinematic as music is uniquely suited to audible reproduction in time. Music is a cigarette burning steadily in an ashtray, throwing off plumes and flares that always delight yet never entirely surprise, a comfortable unpredictability.

There is an undeniably sexy quality to smoke and smokers. They know something that others don’t. They can breathe fire. Smokers blow non-smokers away — literally — with the tough black leather air of hip rebellion, sneaking a puff behind the barn, or after a busy late shift. I love a smoking woman, like a Hitchcock glamour shot, glimpsed through gauze. It’s nothing if not romantic to watch a beautiful woman bring a cigarette tip to her lips.

We venerate smoking artists. There’s a rugged authenticity to copping wholeheartedly to addiction, to leaning in when logic and science say recoil. Leonard Cohen famously smoked, then gave it up, then rekindled his affection for cigarettes after age 80. George Orwell wrote a considered essay on his epic struggle between buying books and consuming cigarettes. The work was intended to defend reading as one of the cheapest and most rewarding forms of recreation. But today, George Orwell is just a number, and Leonard Cohen is a mailbox, transubstantiated in form as smoke — and capital — is: into the air, thick or thin.

A melancholy mood pervades the end of September, the gradual understanding that summer is as far away as it can be, with three full seasons between. As nights stretch out, cigarettes underscore the passage of time, and the inability to regain what is soon to be lost, spent, smoked. When the weather turns brisk, women tend to bend at the knees slightly and hurry through their cigarettes to rush back inside, to get elsewhere.

Because cigarettes aren’t the destination, they’re the journey, transient — what life’s about.

We can see the stub coming up ahead but can do nothing to slow its inevitable approach. There is no medium that faithfully recaptures sound and music and smoke.

Cigarette smoke is like the past haunting the present. There’s a reason that ghosts in the movies are always shrouded in clouds of billowing smoke.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But we are entering into the most haunted season, since smoke reveals the contours of what once was but can be no more. I do believe that smoke revives the dead, breathing life, if only briefly, into burning carbon and particulate matter. Our loved ones might return in spirit, marrying breath and body, reconstituting only to dissipate once more as clouds form and in an instant vanish above a fjord. It may be possible to conjure a memory sculpted in smoke.

Saint-Laurent Boulevard on any summer’s night late in the season is a choking vapour factory populated by scantily clad and curvaceous bodies that obstruct the sidewalk and divert the flow of pedestrian traffic out and into the street. The sidewalk smokers’ lives unfold as more lives glide by in cars with windows rolled down, trailing smoke behind them like a Cheech and Chong movie. Since marijuana was legalized, there is now the distinctive ubiquitous and pungent skunk aroma of weed that pervades the city’s moist and cool air, mixing with dead leaves and the burnt and earthy dust smell of baseboard heaters clicking on again for the first time of the year.

The smoke of a late summer’s night reminds us that we are simultaneously alive and dying, nudging us closer to home, closer to that biggest of sleeps.

And when we arrive, our sweaters will smell lightly of tobacco and vanilla, and maybe a hint of bourbon, and our memories as golden-age cinema and the wind-up recordings of yesteryear both preserve indelibly and sully our collective experience.

The Bible says from ash we’re born and to ash one day we shall return. In between, we smolder.◼︎

Cover image: Ky Brooks and Jessica Moss perform at Casa del popolo, 15 September 2023.

999 Words

Swimming With Sharks: notes on (not) missing the movies

Swimming With Sharks is a twisted black comedy film released in 1994, starring Kevin Spacey as Buddy Ackerman, the archetypal high-powered Hollywood movie mogul from hell, and Frank Whaley as Guy, Buddy’s long-suffering assistant. Guy increasingly bears the brunt of Buddy’s relentless abuse, only to rise ironically at the picture’s end to the role of abuser himself.

Michelle Forbes portrays Dawn Lockard, a tough-talking producer working at Buddy’s firm, and Guy’s eventual girlfriend. The veteran Lockard schools Guy on how to negotiate Buddy’s temperament and disturbingly winds up murdered herself. The movie plays this for laughs.

Early on in the story, Lockard asks Guy why in the world he would want to put up with Buddy’s unconscionable behaviour. Why such a desire to swim in Hollywood’s proverbial shark tank? To which Guy replies, “All my favourite memories have been of movies.”

It’s at this time of year that I, too, have frequently felt nostalgic for the last picture show. From 2005 to 2011, I worked every Labour Day long weekend in Colorado as a projectionist for the Telluride Film Festival  — alongside Venice, Toronto, Sundance, and Cannes, one of the world’s five foremost showcases for the cinematic arts.

I learned how to “string up” a projector there. I learned that those dots in the corner of the screen every 20 minutes are called “cues,” not “cigarette burns,” as Tyler Durden would’ve had us believe. I learned a complex skill — an artform, even — that for decades provided a career for thousands of people working in movie houses around the world.

Although after 2011, it no longer made financial sense for a Colorado film festival to fly me from Canada on a temporary work visa to run the projectors when projectors as we knew them were on their way out. With the arrival of digital cinematic projection, the Telluride Film Festival could more easily and economically hire a kid from Boulder to drive into town to push a button.

I’ll always remember the opening-night screening from my last year as a Telluride projectionist. The film was The Artist, the mainly silent black-and-white French-American co-production that would go on to win Best Picture at that year’s Oscars.

The plot concerned an ageing — and foreign-sounding — silent film star anxious about the fate of his career amidst the coming of the “talkies” in the late 1920s. It was impossible not to draw connections with the coming of sound to the nacency of digital cinema and its inevitable replacement of celluloid.

As a projectionist, I got the picture. My little gig, itinerant as it was, was about to disappear. Film was becoming history.

Phonetic sign on the wall of the projector booth, Mason’s Cinema, Telluride, CO, USA.

In the dozen or so years since, a number of analogous digital technological replacements have occurred. The internet has become the largest distribution network for motion pictures, supplanting theatres. Animation today is so realistic, and deep-fake technology so far advanced, that it’s possible for any actor to deliver any line in any movie that anyone could imagine. Not to mention A.I. programmes that can effectively replace roomfuls of writers.

These and other modern tech issues are at the root of the twin writers’ and actors’ strikes keeping many of the film industry’s most essential workers from meaningfully participating in a rewarding part of their jobs: attending film festivals, considering each other’s work, and socializing as humans around cinema.

The movie critic Roger Ebert was an avid Telluride attendee. And among Ebert’s favourite insults of films he didn’t like was that they could have been made by computers. He said it about dozens of Hollywood formula pictures throughout the ’80s and ’90s on TV with his partner, Gene Siskel. Ebert even declared it about Quentin Tarantino, characterizing Pulp Fiction in his initial review as “an explosion down at the old movie genre factory.”

This brand of aggregate self-awareness signalled some Barthes-esque death of the auteur kind of shit for cinema. Tarantino had already in the ’90s acted like some sort of proto-artificial intelligence, obsessively cataloguing and regurgitating movie history, novelty coming more through the assembly and sequence of generic cinematic elements than innovation within them.

Audiences as well began developing artificial tastes, relying more and more upon algorithms to recommend entertainment they might enjoy, based upon the habits of millions upon millions of media consumers.

Technology appears to be completing its own circuit, like some bionic ouroboros, both producing and consuming itself at once. It’s almost a Hollywood cliché — the classic Frankenstein monster theme: don’t fuck with the natural order of things, and the natural order of things won’t fuck with you.

Still, what are we really missing with Hollywood on hiatus? It’s conceivable with the amount of filmed entertainment that already exists out there that a longer-than-average human lifespan could be spent watching end-to-end TV and movies, and still, the library of content wouldn’t be exhausted.

That’s not to say that just because there are more books in the world than anyone could spend a lifetime reading, new books shouldn’t be written. It’s just that cinema is simply bankrupt right now of new ideas. Do we really need humans writing more Star Wars and Marvel sequels? Let the upstart A.I. software take a crack at that. The audience isn’t real, so why should their entertainment be?

In the 20th century, cinematography achieved the seventh and highest artform. But it has returned full-circle in the 21st to the nickelodeon, a cheap, automated peepshow. The novel had hundreds of years to develop as a cultural form before new technologies remediated books. Film is the youngest and most impressionable artform and may not survive its digital competition. To be sure, its stereotypical culture is nothing to preserve. Kevin Spacey’s real-life character is more suspect than Buddy’s, and Harvey Weinstein produced The Artist.

In my time in Telluride, I was privy to Swimming With Sharks-style antics. I saw temper tantrums at Spacey-level pitch. I saw doors slammed, assistants berated, and hamburgers thrown at walls. I witnessed misogynistic harassment that would have made working for Fallon seem like an afternoon at Disneyland. The only reason his staffers complained is probably because Jimmy’s hangovers interfered with their own.

Then there’s Rust. Maybe it’s time to take a pause when, in some perverse Yakov Smirnoff-like reversal, the actors start shooting the cinematographers. Is this the marketing campaign to resuscitate Hollywood’s inhumane image? Should real people die to produce such synthetic junk?

I haven’t been missing the artificial memory-making machine. The remembrance of screens past seems less relevant in retrospect. Anyway, why attempt to remake real life — the perfect film? Let’s not forget that the shark always looked fake.◼︎

Cover image: The director Werner Herzog and the author photographed at the Telluride Film Festival, 12 September 2009.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Le Temps Qui Passe: notes on The Pop of Life!

In February of 1969, then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reached out to the People’s Republic of China’s leadership in hopes of forging formal diplomatic relations.

There was a general forbidden sense about the East at that time. Aside from the Soviet Union, China’s was the world’s most opaque Communist national government, shrouded in mythology and mystery. The United States, our closest neighbour and ideological ally, was still operating under the Formosan policy formulated during the mid-1950s by the Eisenhower Administration to protect independent Taiwan’s sovereignty against Red Chinese encroachment.

Taiwan had continued to function under the aegis of the American-allied Republic of China after the Chinese Communist Party triumphed in 1949, putting an end to the Chinese Civil War. Communist China’s price for friendship was the condition that Canada endorse its intention to imminently take Taiwan back — by force, if necessary. On October 10th, 1970, Ottawa issued a statement reaffirming the PRC’s Taiwan position, and diplomacy with Beijing was established that very day.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Mao, 1972. MMFA purchase, William Gillman Cheney Bequest. ©️ The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / ARS/ CARCC 2023. Photographed for NicheMTL.

Trudeau Sr.’s cavalier approach to countries the West viewed as potentially perilous rankled conservatives who questioned the Canadian leader’s allegiances. The Prime Minister was a noted friend of the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, too, and would entertain the rock-and-roll stars/anti-war activists John Lennon and Yoko Ono on Parliament Hill that December.

During the 1960s, Trudeau’s home province was undergoing its most total shift in generations. Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party upset the 1960 provincial election and initiated the overarching societal changes associated with the Quiet Revolution, in which Quebec moved further away from the Roman Catholic Church’s influence and towards a more secular, Americanized model.

Just as Castro was kicking out the Yanks, Quebec was flirting simultaneously with a form of economic socialism borrowed from the Pinkos, and an increasingly consumerist capitalism taken from America’s playbook. In Havana, Coca-Cola was on its way out. In Quebec, Coke was it.

Consumer products’ arbitrary placement in media — a barrage of ads sitting right next to the day’s news on TV and in print — reflected Pop culture’s ambivalence as both low culture and high art. In a proto-culture-jamming gesture, American contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann in the 1960s and ‘70s incorporated these apparently absurd industrial-age incongruities directly into their works. Reproducing images that were themselves mass-produced seemed to serve as an ironic and radically post-modern artistic critique of mass-reproduction. Capitalist touchstones like Coca-Cola suddenly became iconic and iconoclastic in equal measure.

Michel Leclair (born in 1948), Fries with Gravy, and a Coke! 1974. MMFA purchase, Saidye and Samuel Bronfman Collection of Canadian Art. Photographed for NicheMTL.

The Quebec artist Edmund Alleyn rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, receiving a grant from The Royal Society and Quebec’s prestigious Grand Prix aux Concours artistiques for his early Abstract Expressionist paintings. Alleyn relocated to France in 1955, representing Canada’s art scene from abroad, and came home to Quebec in 1970 to experience the cacophonous transformations abruptly wrought by the so-called Quiet Revolution. Those experiences shocked Alleyn into producing some of his most profound and popular works.

Immediately, Alleyn altered his style and media and created a striking cycle of photorealistic installations on Plexiglass that depict a culture foreign to its own land, bewildered tourists, as if returning home after a war. These monumental works in retrospect revealed the artist himself as a tourist, remastering his command of genre and artistic form while acquainting himself with a new Quebecois culture that had rapidly turned more American. If there was one thing France in the ‘60s was not, it was American.

Pop Art produced by the kaleidoscopic Quebec lens refracts American capitalist realism through the residual shards of traditional French-Canadian culture. Artists like Alleyn — and Pierre Ayot, whose prints and sculptures of the 1970s indicated capitalism’s sly colonization of the quotidian — were also showing their audiences the broken promise of consumerism as an organizing social force. Objects, regardless of their symbolic value, are void of any spiritual essence and ultimately leave their owners bereft of meaning. These artists adeptly anticipated today’s ennui.

Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004), Étude photographique pour Iceberg Blues, MMFA Collection, gift of Jennifer Alleyn, inv. 2016.399.

Quebec in the 21st century continues to cling to some of the cruellest aspects of our patriarchal French Catholic history while having embraced enthusiastically and unconditionally a specifically American brand of hyper-capitalism. Quebec, for instance, seeks culturally to shore up the mother tongue in part by remaking bad American reality TV in French. We enjoy the dual pleasure of conformist homogeneity and the smug superiority of singularity — a distinctly mimetic culture.

Pop Art works on the subconscious, whereas memes work on affect. So the Quebec of the new millennium offers a whole nother order of Pop sardonicism, more Jung than Freud.

It’s cliché to say that history repeats itself. Nevertheless, Taiwan is once again among the sovereign nations under threat of armed invasion by old foes; we have another Trudeau in Ottawa who appears to conservatives to be soft on Chinese capital; we have advanced secularism, and linguistic nationalism; and we have an art world awash in copies of copies of copies of artworks that were never intended to convey originality.

Pierre Ayot (1943-1995), Madame Blancheville Rides Again, 1974. MMFA Collection, gift of Madeline Forcier. ©️ Estate of Pierre Ayot / CARCC 2023. Photographed for NicheMTL.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts possesses a curatorial team capable of conjuring the complexity and also the unique curiosity of a Pop Art chez nous, recreating in fine detail the historical period in which Quebec was not-so-quietly redefining itself in wonderful and horrible ways, a revolution reverberating for decades.

The Pop of Life! reactivates a collection of artworks by unexpectedly juxtaposing them against each other, as well as opposite this moment in time. Warhol’s Mao portrait means so much more today than it did in 1972.

Another sort of patina has accumulated upon these alternately groovy, vulgar, plastic, and timeless masterpieces of Pop Art: a patina of meaning, laid on thick like layers of forever chemicals. We may see the works for what they are, or we might step further back and see ourselves seeing them.

Like Edmund Alleyn, we can journey to another place in time with a touristic fascination of discovery, tasting something familiar yet strange, Coca-Cola from another country, or Moscow’s McDonalds, a franchise still pulsing with semiotic vitality.◼︎

The Pop of Life!: Pop Art in the Collection of the MMFA continues through 24 March 2024 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Cover image: Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004), Iceberg Blues, 1973-1975, MMFA Collection, photographed for NicheMTL.

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Escape This Desire

Les lumineuses Vêpres de la Vierge de Monteverdi, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, 20 August 2023

Antoine Saito for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal

After their tremendous performance on the truncated stage at a reconfigured Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, conductor Eric Milnes shouted out to an enthusiastic audience, “Want some more?”

Everyone did. But I wonder if all the musicians wanted to give more. Or if the audience might have liked a moment to soak in the experience before the encore. Of course no one said no.

Nonetheless, Mr. Milnes is hardly the most scandalous maestro of Monteverdi in recent weeks. The acclaimed English conductor John Eliot Gardiner slapped a bass soloist in the face after he reportedly stepped in the wrong direction off the podium at a festival in La Côte-Saint-André, in the south of France. There were no serious injuries, only bruised egos. And a flurry of apologies. However, Gardiner, who is 80, has withdrawn from his remaining European tour dates, and this incident will doubtless shade the twilight of his career.

Who would have imagined that the void of Hollywood plot twists left by the tandem writers’ and actors’ strikes might be filled with the Baroque classical music world’s high melodrama?

Jake Bowen, No Rhyme or Reason, Atelier Galerie 2112, 24-28 August 2023

Jake Bowen photographed for NicheMTL

I hope I’m not telling tales out of school.

But the bright young artist Jake Bowen confessed to me at his recent vernissage that he was leaving Montreal to return to his native Toronto. Citing a number of valid reasons, chiefly among them language, rising costs, and the difficulty of making a living under the first two conditions, Bowen painted a picture of Montreal as a city that can seem especially cruel to sensitive types like him.

This was not the city I moved to.

Montreal was once a metropolitan magnet to aspiring artists. Cheap rent, a laissez-faire way of life, and diverse and expanding creative communities used to draw people like Bowen from Toronto and beyond.

Not anymore.

Inflated property values mean inflated rents, putting Montreal on par with other Canadian cities for affordability. And living and working as an Anglophone painter under an increasingly hostile Francophone government is no longer such a romantic sacrifice.

It’s a shame that we can’t retain Bowen and others like him who leave. He didn’t fail to make it here; Montreal failed to make it for him — and it is our loss.

They call it the brain drain. Still, that term has a double meaning: not only is Montreal being drained of our brains, but enduring the absurdity in Quebec’s minutiae of language-based political bureaucracy literally drains the brain.

Ensamble de Cámara Orquesta Experimental de Instrumentos Nativos, La Sala Rossa, 15 August 2023

ECOEIN photographed for NicheMTL

Ten years ago, I travelled to Peru to participate in the sacred ritual ingestion of ayahuasca. Motivated by the romanticized stories of telepathy and time travel alluded to in correspondence between William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and published as The Yage Letters, I was certain that ayahuasca would somehow benefit me immensely. It would offer me profound insight into the human condition. It would open up my third eye. I’d be at one with the universe. Or whatever.

It didn’t do those things — and that’s not to say that it wasn’t worth doing. The trip alone was instructive. I gained new perspective on completely different ways of living. I reconsidered travel and tourism, labour and leisure. I awoke, ate, and slept in the jungle. My experience of time changed. But it didn’t take ayahuasca for that.

The psychedelic trip was only a fraction of the whole trip, broadly speaking. It may have facilitated learning, but the medicine itself didn’t teach me anything new.

Psychedelics are more akin to diagnostic tools, like a finely tuned machine that tests a car’s horsepower. It’s a close look under the hood. It doesn’t make the old clunker go any faster. It just gives a general indication of what shape it’s in — if you need wheel alignment, say. Or brakes, or shocks. But if your vehicle is running smoothly, there’s no need for diagnostics. And probably no need for psychedelics, either, if you already have a sense of perspective.

What Burroughs and Ginsberg didn’t say, perhaps what they never considered, is the simple age-old wisdom: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Lives of Documents — Photography as Project, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Until 3 March 2024


Notions of beauty have changed significantly during my lifetime. What we consider beautiful is not universal, much less timeless. And it’s a pity that beauty graces our senses unevenly — that is, what is beautiful to the touch is not necessarily beautiful to the eye, or the nose, or the ear.

A new hierarchy of beauty has emerged, though: the beauty of reality. It doesn’t matter how attractive a beautiful woman is in a photograph. The photograph isn’t the thing with the beauty; she is. Ugliness, out there in the real world, possesses more beauty than the prettiest pictures.

A happy medium exists when photographs of beautiful objects are themselves presented as a collection of beautiful objects. Let’s call it happy mediumicity.

Nennen, La Sotterenea, 31 July 2023

Buddhists believe that desire is the source of all suffering. If we could only somehow sublimate our constant cravings and yearnings for that which we yearn and crave, the theory goes, then those old familiar achy breaky feelings of unsatiated longing would subside and we’d attain enlightenment — Nirvana.

But Buddhism is dumb. Buddhist philosophy doesn’t want to admit that desire is the very essence of life, the primordial stuff of which it’s comprised. Desire is what makes things happen. It’s our most basic element, our most essential ingredient. If there were a cookbook for all that ever was and all that ever will be, every recipe would end with: “a dash of desire.”

When we cease to desire — things, people; to be loved, to love in turn — then the ride ends. The fire inside burns out and we might as well expire.

Desire is to humans as constant movement is to sharks. Cheat death: stay hungry.◼︎

Cover image: Bowen, Jake. Ball of Energy (2022), detail, 30×24″, acrylic, oil, and spray paint on canvas.