999 Words

New Saturday Night

On any given weekend, there are seemingly limitless things going on in Montreal. Springtime is the beginning of a lively festival season, and since the pandemic formally ended, cultural events are rushing back to auditoriums — and audiences are returning, too. In unexpected places and in well-established venues, something for anyone awaits everyone.

I love finding two very different things to do at weekends, to maximize the variety of experience that this great metropolis has to offer. Dichotomy characterizes Montreal more than most cities. There are the French and the English Montreals, of course. But there are also the disreputable and respectable Montreals, the underground and the established, the vicious and virtuous.

Take nighttime and daytime Montreal. There’s Saturday night Montreal, which shamelessly sniffs questionable substances in graffitied bathrooms, and then there’s Sunday afternoon Montreal that sings in the church choir and serves soup afterwards. Respectable Montreal likes to prance around pretending that Montreal of ill repute isn’t lurking just beneath its surface, waiting to emerge like a werewolf in Paris-lite, beneath the gleam of a silvery moon. But it’s there. These two Montreals need each other, they feed off of each other, they benefit from this delicate cultural dance.

Last weekend began on the decadent side, with a bloodbath. Not an actual bloodbath, mind you; rather, a daylong event called Cyber Market organized by Bloodbath Montreal, the local promoter. A gritty loft space on Saint-Laurent boulevard provided the location for the day’s festivities, which featured a creator’s marketplace and pop-up tattoo parlour. Throughout the day, about a dozen musicians and DJs graced a transient squad of attendees, and the evening culminated in a performance by the rapper and artist, Emma Rose.

Emma Rose performs at Cyber Market, 27 May 2023.

I was certain that I was the oldest person there, until a man in his mid-50s approached me and introduced himself as Rose’s father. I told him it was cool of him to come, to wade through the sea of early twentysomethings drinking vodka and cranberry juice and vaping. “You’ve got to support your kids,” he stated. He asked me for a business card and I mentioned I was thinking of having some made. “Cards, stickers, get ‘em, put ‘em everywhere!” he said, slapping nearby surfaces, offering sound advice, as dads are wont to do.

Bloodbaths, or “Taurobolium,” were common in the Roman Empire between the second and fourth centuries and were connected to the cult of “Magna Mater,” the Great Mother, known to the Greeks as Cybele, the Goddess of Phrygia, located in present-day Asian Turkey. The Christian poet Prudentius detailed the bloodbath ritual in unflattering and hyperbolic terms, describing a brutal baptism — technically more of a blood shower — in which a pagan priest was drenched in the plasma of a sacrificial bull.

Despite transubstantiation being a core tenet of communion, blood rituals came to symbolize paganism and were rejected by an increasingly Christianizing Rome. But their influence still exists — in Marina Abramović’s works of art, for instance, or Red Bull’s corporate mythology, the energy drink whose key ingredient is the stimulant, Taurine.

One might imagine that an organ concert at Maison Symphonique the following Sunday afternoon would be the heavenly flipside to this Montreal weekend of extreme duality, the redemption after the massacre. The Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna performed rotating pieces composed by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass, spanning centuries in moments with the angelic sound of the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique.

This music was nothing like the DJs and rappers of the evening prior. It was stunningly beautiful, technically perfect, like a holy waterfall washing away all the froth and grime of the night before. Yet virtuousness is mere veneer, dependent upon historical context and perspective.

Early Christendom didn’t approve of organs, either. No bloodbaths in the second to fourth centuries, but definitely no Bach or Philip Glass. Musical instruments of every kind were considered too tempting, in fact, too sensuous, potentially leading to the commission of all manner of sin. If one wanted to sing God’s praises, the voice had to suffice. A recent tabloid article suggesting that the L.A. Philharmonic produced a patron’s climax seems to support the rationale that any form of music is indeed the devil’s music.

As I was leaving the crusty loft on Saint-Laurent the night before, I ran into Rose’s dad. He ducked out and into the night, turned and waved and shouted, “I love you, man!” It might have been the cranberry juice talking, but those were words I had not heard for years from my own father, accompanied by a sentiment so offhanded for him and yet so meaningful to me. That emotion carried itself into the subsequent afternoon as I sat staring at the ceiling trying to keep the tears welling in my eyes from spilling over whilst listening to Apkalna alternate between Bach and Glass on the Maison Symphonique’s unholy musical instrument.

After the OSM concert, I fortuitously bumped into Iveta Apkalna, the organist, who was walking hurriedly through the Complex Desjardins. She evidently left the building faster than Elvis Presley, but absent of any security detail. Not even a valet, just a pair of precious hands and the woman to whom they belong, and crystal blue eyes still high on performance, a white whale swimming upstream, clutching her own garment bag. All the unions in Quebec and yet no one to escort this starlet from the auditorium, to keep at bay those of us who’d bathed in blood the previous evening. Apparently, her father did not come to the show.

I pondered back to the Cyber Market and wondered what Apkalna would have thought of the kids’ music, and what the kids might think of an organ recital. How to resolve these two realities? They each have their virtues. And they’re not all that different. They both concurrently glorify creation, and are sexy as bloody hell.

Again, it’s all about perspective. In a Montreal that often seems split down the middle, one person’s Sunday afternoon is another one’s new Saturday night.◼︎

999 Words

Eternalize the Drive: notes on orchestras and orgasms

A story in The New York Post about a woman apparently having what patrons seated nearby at the Los Angeles symphony described as an orgasm senza sordino pricked up my ears for obvious reasons.

Lifted from an L.A. Times article, it’s just the sort of spicy content the Post adores. Titillating tabloid clickbait. Yet I paid particular attention to this story because I, too, recently attended an otherwise pleasing orchestral concert, entitled Rafael Payare: from Andalusia to the Plains of Venezuela, at the OSM. I won’t embarrass the woman who was sitting with me, only to say that she did not achieve screaming climax. The orchestra did all they could. I also offered.

But seriously, folks.

The invasion of gratuitous extreme sexuality into public space really should sound more worrying. This is not, as it superficially may appear, a cathartic expression of creative sexual liberation, or some Reichian reclamation of the repressed libidinal order; this is the sudden erosion of social mores that evolved over centuries and are the foundation of civil society.

An orgasm at the symphony is not a beautiful expression of passion; it is a public sexual assault, full-stop. Even if there was consent involved in the act, none was granted in its publicity. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for coming to the orchestra. Just not cumming at the orchestra.

In October, 2022, as Ukraine was preparing for the foreboding winter ahead, amidst the threat of nuclear annihilation, a group formed in Kiev to organize an orgy in which hundreds of participants enlisted to have every kind of public sex. One partaker characterized the event as “the opposite of despair.”

Radio Free Europe covered the story. Then Vice. Predictably, The Post picked up on it, ‘orgy’ being one of the publication’s top ten keywords. Next, Žižek wrote an op-ed applauding the sexual revelers, employing the argument that a pleasurable orgy was justified in the face of more horrific uses of sex and sexuality — namely, the evidence of genocidal rape.

Žižek might know. Members of the Bosnian Serb Army were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for using sexual violence as part of an ethnic cleansing policy during the Bosnian War. The public nature of those terrifying crimes and their seeming routineness shocked their victims and the world.

Russian soldiers are using the same tactics. To the victims of these kinds of sexual violence and others that remember, a public orgy would function as another trigger as effective as a land mine in inflicting trauma. An orgy in Kiev in a time of war is arguably another form of sexuality weaponized against its own people.

In the West, we have been shedding our supposed sexual inhibitions at an alarming rate over the past century or so. This is one of the key differences between classically capitalist and communist societies: attitudes toward sex. For Westerners, embracing every new niche identity and accompanying sexual practice was a sure sign of the freedom of liberal democracies. To Russia, it became the ultimate confirmation of our bourgeois decadence. Fighting fire with proverbial fire, Russia paradoxically utilizes genocidal rape as a strategy to combat that moral decay. Yet the West seems less shocked now than we were during the 1990s Bosnian conflict.

One reason is precisely the fascination that a woman having a screaming full-body orgasm at the symphony arouses. A culture obsessed with absorbing the cultural shock of public sexuality is one which has eternalized the drive and made desire itself the object of desire. No longer is the goal to pursue when pursuit becomes the ultimate goal, when fixation on sexuality is itself the new form of sexuality. The libidinal drive is furthermore displaced fully away from both its natural procreative and symbolic revolutionary potential. An orgasm at the orchestra renders the most explicit the most quotidian. Just another boring dystopia. Social decay porn.

Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, Western liberal society has been preoccupied with defanging the old Foucauldian disciplinary enclosures — school, hospital, prison, institution. But Deleuzian Control societies replaced them, as protocol usurped discipline, and digital technologies more and more began to organize and regulate modern life. The private and public spheres became disputed terrain, too, as social networks over the past two decades increasingly encouraged the publicizing of our once-private lives. No Baby Boomer ever accidentally encountered boudoir photos of their friends — or worse, relatives — on Facebook.

But we’re still subjects. And as subjects, we’re still subject to being subjected to Control. We just lived through extreme enclosure in which our own homes were transformed into prisons from which we were granted conditional and fluctuating release. And now that we’re back out, we’re all the way out.

In an effort to release ourselves from our restrictive disciplinary enclosures, we in the West have eradicated discipline, but not the enclosure. So we are instead left enclosed with the undisciplined.

Sexual exhibitionism is shocking because it should be shocking. When it ceases to be, then other forms of violence — like an attack on a sovereign nation — appear all the more acceptable, too. We must resist the creeping acceptance of every form of violence: sexual, physical, psychological, economic — all of it.

A common English-language phrase when everything seems to be going wrong, is: ‘fuck it all.’ That saying has taken on a grim literality, as it appears more and more people nowadays are choosing to say fuck everything, in every way, including being properly fucked. But what differentiates us as moral creatures is our ability to choose not to fuck it all. Even though we could, we don’t. It’s what separates us from animals. It’s what makes us human.

There must be some places in which we are not bombarded with casual sex of varying degrees of disturbance. But most of all, I don’t want to wonder if something is wrong every time my date doesn’t have a screaming full-body orgasm at the symphony.◼︎

Photo: Antoine Saito

999 Words

Bonjour High Drama: in conversation with Michael Martini

In 1985, “Running Up That Hill” was an obscure synthpop single by Kate Bush, an artist relatively unknown outside of a certain very artsy and very English crowd.

Cut to 2022 when the popular series Stranger Things included the song in its soundtrack and catapulted it past Harry Styles to become the most streamed track on Spotify, introducing Bush to an entirely new generation of global fans. It’s what might be described as the ‘new normal’ of popular culture, in which a new context breathes new life into a work of art.

“I felt like I was fighting a battle or something, but now because of that TV show, everyone’s into her,” says the Montreal playwright, Michael Martini — whose latest work entitled Landscape Grindr premieres this week at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines — of his own Kate Bush obsession. “I feel finally very redeemed. She’s not a terribly well-kept secret, but I’m glad that the baton is being passed, in a way.”

Although Martini is among the last group of graduates of Concordia’s now-discontinued Playwriting programme, he draws creatively more from cinema and music. “I don’t really enjoy reading too many plays,” Martini admits. “I’m not into what I would call ‘TV theatre,’ with lots of dialogue and really psychological characters.”

Still, Kate Bush was one of his earliest inspirations: “I just fell in love with her taste for cacophony,” Martini says, “and key changes, and time signature changes, and narratives that weren’t about falling in love at the club, which seemed to be so ubiquitous, otherwise. That’s when I started writing — little songs and stories at first, and eventually, plays. I also had an ‘aha’ moment with the films of Robert Altman. Like Nashville, where characters are more or less improvising, and Altman is creating layers out of those improvisations, and then suddenly somehow everything comes to a boiling point.”

Montreal’s hottest new production, Landscape Grindr is an interdisciplinary piece and Martini’s most ambitious work, incorporating aspects of video and dance and expanding upon conventional notions of drama.

“The language of the show is not strictly the codes of theatre,” Martini explains. “We’re aware of how different artistic audiences are encountering this work. It is a longer show — it’s about two hours long — and it’s carried forward by a text that I’ve written and that people are enacting. The show is about connections between environmental justice, the #metoo movement, and personal questions of sexuality. Those three different aspects all hinge on questions of: What is nature? What is violence? What is change?”

Martini has been steadily carving out a niche in Montreal for his singular style of satirical yet poignant theatre. Though Martini originates from west of the Quebec border, where he developed a love for a certain absurdist humour.

“My family is from Pickering Village,” says Martini, “the historical part of Ajax, Ontario. It’s quite bizarre. It looks like a ski village made out of cardboard. But it is directly beside a farming community called Greenwood, where they have lots of little pioneer villages and old historical churches and homes. When I first started as a teenager, I was doing English pantomime. There were these plays put on by our community in kind of a Monty Python spirit. Lots of puns, lots of audience interaction, and very DIY. And I think when I look back, that’s really stuck with me. These little plays that were done in pioneer villages around Christmastime. That spirit is still with me.”

Although Martini has enjoyed the support of MAI’s Alliance program and of the Playwrights Workshop Montreal, staging Landscape Grindr has required patience and persistence.

“The timeline of theatre is very tricky,” explains Martini. “It’s very rare that it’s very fast that things happen. In the case of this show, I started writing it in 2017. I did little things here and there with it, trying things out, reading things aloud. But I didn’t have a real full-length script until 2019. And finally, by 2021, I was able to get a technical residency to explore the show. Through all that, it was booked for 2023. So that is a huge challenge, not just logistically. It’s fine when things run at a slow pace. But artistically, I find it a huge challenge to connect to material that starts to collect age, to remain interested in the same things, to honour the ideas you had.”

“I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” says Michael Martini. Photos: Félix Bonnevie

Nonetheless, honouring ideas is what brings them to fruition, and Martini is determined to share his vision with the Montreal community that has supported him through thick and thin.

In 2021, Martini lost nearly everything to a devastating apartment fire. Fortunately, he and his two roommates escaped unharmed, but the majority of Martini’s belongings, including years of writing, were destroyed. In response, the city’s theatre community rallied around him, starting a Gofundme campaign that exceeded its fundraising goal, and assisting with the enormous monetary and emotional toll. This feeling of camaraderie buoys Martini and keeps him excited to share his latest piece with an audience. “I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” he says. “It’s a pretty DIY atmosphere. Everyone’s welcome.”

Landscape Grindr is the culmination of nearly five years of work, and catapults Martini into a completely new context. “You can feel that energy when you are waiting to do something and share something you’re proud of,” he says. “It takes up real estate in your head. And it’s a huge release to share something. I love the community that you build when you’re working on a show — with the people who are in it, but also the people who are interested to come and see it. There’s a really unique sense of conviviality. I love that feeling of a little huddle before a show. I think it’s really beautiful. That certainly carries me forward.”◼︎

Landscape Grindr runs April 11th, 13th, 14th, and 15th at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines, 3700 Saint-Dominique Street.

999 Words

Engine of Survival: notes on Nicolas Grenier’s future visions

The future was undoubtedly Leonard Cohen’s purview.

Montreal’s perpetual poet laureate seemed to possess an uncanny ability to diagnose and prognosticate what was to come. His 1992 song entitled “The Future,” from the album of the same name, is a blunt indictment of the tortuous human path Cohen foresaw. “Things are going to slide,” he growls ominously in the chorus; “slide in all directions.” The filmmaker Oliver Stone used this song to superb effect in his 1993 film, Natural Born Killers, a sendup of serial-killer celebrities and the American media’s creed, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Stone’s satire of murder and media was an attempt to hold up a funhouse mirror to the geopolitics and popular culture of the not-too-distant day, as if to say, behold what you shall become. There was a sense at that time that over-the-top satire would be enough, that the public would inevitably decode this cinematic harbinger, this prolonged Saturday Night Live skit, anticipate the dangerous future toward which we were tumbling, and change course. But that didn’t happen. The film instead encouraged the sardonic acceptance of death and destruction as tabloid entertainment. And Cohen was right: the future was murder.

Nicolas Grenier’s outstanding new works of sculpture, drawing, and painting, now on exhibition at Bradley Ertaskiran, echo Cohen’s dire futuristic warnings. Charcoal drawings on paper depict chessboard scenes of toppled deities; abstract op-art paintings pop out into three-dimensional space; two prominent statues placed on pedestals in the gallery’s center fuse famous figures: the Statue of Liberty melds with Vladimir Lenin, and Siddhartha with Jesus Christ in extremis. Surely, some form of Cohen-esque poetry is at work in conventional artistic traditions being deployed in the service of subverting cultural conventions.

There is an undercurrent throughout Grenier’s oeuvre that all bets are off. The old yardsticks of human civilization are being uprooted and the twin columns of ideology and religion — those once-permanent measures of human progress — are irrevocably transitioning into hybrid, mutant forms. They are unrecognizable, and yet still indispensable. A fundamental theme of the show, entitled Esquisses d’un inventaire, is the sense that the winds of change themselves have changed. An alternate title for this collection could have been the Cohen lyric: “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul.”

Although they are technically excellent, even nearing perfection, Grenier’s illusionistic paintings, in particular, hint at a devolutionary impulse in operation in the historical record. Seemingly clean lines upon closer inspection reveal the jagged imperfections of the painting process — and of the media themselves. The canvas’s flat surfaces are enlisted to do more than simply represent images; the two-dimensional plane does triple duty here, transcending its function as a purveyor of paint and jumping valence into the realm of performance. What the paintings mean is a matter of interpretation. What they do is not.

It is noteworthy that Azza El Siddique’s enormous and slowly corroding two-headed cobra is on display in the gallery’s basement bunker space, as if symbolically manipulating the inner workings of the underworld just beneath Grenier’s superficial interface. In its repose, the snake evokes a majestic ferocity, poised just as easily to kill its prey or turn on itself. The opposite of Ouroboros, the fabled serpent devouring its own tail, this creature of revisionist mythology has no tail to devour, and no orifice from which to expel its own venomousness. It is pure appetite, the world serpent now eating for two.

Throughout the twentieth century, and every century before it, there was a broad cultural assumption that the future would be an improvement upon the past, that each generation would be better than its ancestors, that technology would aid humanity, and that the word ‘progress’ possessed some intrinsic, universal consequence. In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the first iteration of a new, millennial generation in which progress is synonymous with stagnation and retrogression, in which technologies reflect human failures, and in which the monolithic future has shattered into shards of potential futurity.

This new-normal, doomed-future mentality is a result of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher described as “consciousness deflation” or: the systematic and deliberate destruction of individual and collective social agency. The ability to imagine better futures has been replaced with the inability to imagine such things, and with the assumption that time is but a slow march towards oblivion. Of course, capitalists are among the first to advance this assumption, because nothing is as profitable as despair. Keeping large populations of people in ignorance, with some hint of remembrance for a time when the future seemed bright, is a tenet of Control.

One of the biggest challenges of foretelling the future is effectively communicating a prophetic vision. And one of the biggest curses of the psychic mind is not having an answer. How to tell the others? Nostradamus predicted the future in cryptic metaphors. Leonard Cohen wrote poetry and recorded them as songs. Oliver Stone set them to ironic, brutal images. And Nicolas Grenier paints, draws, and sculpts complex concepts simultaneously into aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking works of art. Creation, not destruction, will save our future. And the best modes of communication are also the oldest.

Although Leonard Cohen is championed by today’s wokest, he was hardly of that ilk, decrying the rise of drug use, frivolous sex, and abortion, and pointing to a perversion of more traditional morals as the culprit for humanity’s imminent descent. Yet, there is a crack in Cohen’s crusty façade, and that is how the optimism gets in. If we are to survive as a species, Cohen suggests, we need to love without conditions, without borders, and without prejudice. There is no roadmap for that future. It is unprecedented. It is literally off-the-grid. That is what I see Grenier’s works signalling as well: where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

Verily, the only path to the future is back.◼︎

Esquisses d’un inventaire continues at Bradley Ertaskiran through 22 April 2023.

999 Words

And All Things Nice: notes on Parall(elles): a history of women and design

Men like me love women.

There is a group of people, however, who love women even more than men like me, and that group is women. Women love women, man. Women love to celebrate all things by and for and about women. And why not? To me, at least, there is nothing lovelier in this world than that indefinable yet unmistakable assemblage of characteristics that constitutes essential femininity.

These days, asserting the existence of such a monolithic thing — womanhood — is a controversial pursuit; when even the word “women” is contested terrain, it is an implicitly political statement to drop it right into the title of a museum exhibition. Nonetheless, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts saw fit to go there, and for one of the stuffier of the city’s artistic institutions, it is a radically feminist rhetorical move.

Parall(elles): a history of women and design, which runs February 18th through May 28th in the museum’s Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, collects 250 objects that (genetic) women either created or contributed to significantly, focussing a spotlight specifically on achievements hitherto attributed to men — Denise Scott Brown, for example, the partner of the Pritzker Prize-winning American architect Robert Venturi, and the General Motors designer Ruth Glennie, whose reinvention of the ‘Fancy Free’ Corvette functions as the exhibition’s centrepiece.

The assumption in art history has always been that men created capital ‘A’ art, probably, when we started painting the Lascaux caves. But a 2013 scholarly study published in the journal American Antiquity suggests that more women than men might have been responsible for producing parietal art. The anatomical difference in men’s and women’s hands serves as the basis for these claims which, if true, indicate that women may have in fact made between 75 and 90 percent of Euro-American Upper Paleolithic hand stencils, widely considered to be humankind’s first acts of artistic creation.

Ironically, many of the pieces in this collection gesture towards more traditional notions of the economy of femininity and domesticity. Clara Driscoll’s Tiffany stained glass lamp, for instance, or Ray Eames’s iconic pieces of office furniture reveal the discursive sites that historically served as women’s points of entry into the arts. Eva Zeisel’s Museum Coffee Service, a minimal set of elegant ceramic carafes, cups, and saucers, and Molly Hatch’s monumental terracotta installation, which the MMFA commissioned especially for this exhibition, discreetly signal towards interiors as women’s purview. The home, the office, the kitchen, the bedroom, the passenger seat of a sports car — these were women’s places, spaces created by women’s work.

Parall(elles) cleverly sidesteps gender trouble to focus instead upon design trouble, calling into question the circumscriptions around craft, fine art, and industry, while leaving the notion of what represents womanhood to the spectator. In doing so, this collection also suggests a sort of Montréalaise coda to a centuries-old dance between two complementary and corresponding partners, XX and XY. It is almost as if the 251st piece in this collection is woman herself.

As recently as the 1990s, it was still radical to be a woman. From the Spice Girls to Ellen DeGeneres, from Girl Power to the Riot Grrrls Manifesto, from Anna Nicole Smith to Kim Campbell, women were leaning into traditionally masculine pursuits. The future seemed decidedly female. In the 90s, the theorist Judith Butler critiqued the notion of womanhood as a socially constructed and economically reinforced category that ultimately served a patriarchal power structure. Women were the negative space that shaped masculinity, a binary dialectic allowing men to rule the world. The parallel nature of this dichotomy has disintegrated as gender identities proliferate and their acknowledgment becomes evermore contentious. Will there be an exhibition in twenty or thirty or forty years celebrating the underrepresented contributions of trans people to the design world? Is all this inclusivity necessarily exclusionary?

To the spectators of this exhibition, and me, it should simply be a question of aesthetics. Identity is an extension of intention, and every good art historian knows that intention is a fallacy. It may be interesting at best to know what an artist intended by this work or that, just as it may be interesting to know the gender or sexuality or politics of the artist. But it is only paratextual evidence, one rung above gossip. There is a kind of windmill-tilting, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better notion to a show that makes women’s design its focus — a Rosie the Riveter rolled-up sleeves we can do it sense of spirit. But is that really necessary? Would this exhibition be any less spectacular if women’s work — so to speak — wasn’t brought to the fore? Can the works themselves stand on their own? I believe the answer is yes. Nonetheless, it is their assembly under the aegis of underrepresentation that makes Parall(elles) at once nostalgic and radical.

The Cleveland-born comedian and misogynist Drew Carey once had a joke in his routine about the common axiom that if the fairer sex ruled the world, there would have never been a war. Punctuated by Carey’s sarcastic Coke bottle-magnified eye roll, he retorts, “yeah right, like no woman has ever started a fight for no reason.” In this joke lies men’s fundamental ambivalence toward women. Men tend to attend women’s proud roar as vaguely hostile, somewhat hypocritical, tinged with a smug sense of self-superiority, but also paradoxically attractive. Conflict is sexy. It drives the story.

Parall(elles) seems anachronistic in this era when personal pronouns are beginning to outnumber the people they designate, when even abortion rights groups are banning the term “woman,” and when digital technology has curiously cultivated a less binary world. But to men like me, and to women like those represented in this exhibition, there is a certain strength in reasserting traditions and recognizing historical struggles that should be amplified, not muted, by the allied marginalia.

If there exists an implicit argument about womanhood in Parall(elles), it is a characteristically female one: make the fight about something else.◼︎

Parall(elles): a history of women and design runs February 18th through May 28th at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

999 Words

Blow Up the Spot: notes on Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music





This city is crawling with uptight middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Status symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritually, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming for people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.

—Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1978

There is a morbid but reliable joke which hinges on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The joke is that the dead rock star would have likely killed himself all over again were he alive today. The humour rests on the assumption that whatever circumstances which might have driven Cobain to take his life have surely worsened.

At the end of 1978, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a member of a New York graffiti collective operating under the name SAMO©. Seventeen-year-old Basquiat, along with the young artists Shannon Dawson, Al Diaz, and other revolving participants, were astute observers of post-modern life, scrawling axioms upon Manhattan’s windows, doors, tunnels, trains, producing pointed commentary on the city’s new “neon fantasies,” “micro-wave existence,” and what they labelled “hypercool.” For the latter they reserved their most merciless salvos — the fine art world, which in their view was as fickle as fleeting fashion, was profoundly lacking in some palpable sense of authenticity. SAMO© rejected the artifice of the gallery walls for the urban wall’s credibility.

One particular scene in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, Basquiat, depicts a wealthy Yuppie couple, the sort that Jean-Michel Basquiat despised, on a patron’s visit to the artist’s studio. At the encouragement of New York art dealer Annina Nosei, they have come to purchase a Basquiat painting. After some gentle quarrelling over the colour of the work in question, the woman turns to her husband, gesturing toward the canvas, and says, “I like it, I’m just not sure about the green.” To which Basquiat replies, “You want me to paint it a nice shit brown for you?” Jean-Michel Basquiat craved acceptance, but he wanted it on his own terms.

The MMFA show provokes awe, wonder, and sadness — awe at the sheer volume of works Basquiat churned out in such a short creative lifetime; wonder at the meaning, the method, the madness of it all; and sadness, finally, with the tragedy of addiction befalling a generation’s best and brightest hope for a powerful and prominent Black American voice in art.

And yet there is an absurd Metterling-ish impression that every scrap of paper that Basquiat ever made a shopping list with or spilt coffee on or tore up and tossed in the trash was recovered and reassembled and preserved as if it contained some profound truth embedded in its banality. It evokes melancholy to walk among the ephemeral printed matter that once composed the entirety of an ingenious imagination before the advent of digital media. Would Basquiat’s lists be as interesting or important if they were typed out and posted online and not scribbled onto bits of looseleaf and framed under plexiglass?

Schnabel’s film is among the most star-studded movies of the 1990s. Each actor — Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, Courtney Love, Jeffrey Wright — is deserving of their own biopic. In addition to contemporary songs by Public Image Ltd., Joy Division, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, its soundtrack includes a re-recording of Bowie’s “A Small Plot of Land,” and an unreleased version of Keith Richards performing the Hoagy Carmichael standard, “The Nearness of You.”

The association of Basquiat with rock music royalty introduced him to the next generation of musicians including Jay-Z, Bun B, Yasiin Bey, and the Strokes, who graced the cover of their 2020 album with the painting, Birds on Money.

Schnabel, who mentored Basquiat, understood the ambivalence at his art’s core — the romantic love and righteous wrath simultaneously present in every stroke of Basquiat’s brush, evident in every fleck of spray paint, that would have remained only paint in a can had Basquiat not transferred it onto objects and transformed it into something timeless.

Art history is comprised of legends, and Basquiat has officially achieved legendary status. He might have been the first American artist to do so algorithmically, which is what makes him relatable to today’s youth. Basquiat learnt by absorbing, by surfing, curating, and funnelling more of what audiences liked back into his works. His favourite catchphrase being “boom for real,” Basquiat made his name bombing walls; he was always keenly aware of whatever was on the cusp of blowing up. But Basquiat could neither foresee his own fate, nor change it.

Basquiat would only be 62 today. He could have been a beacon for artists like himself. Instead he exists in spirit to reinforce the myth of the solitary savant, stupid as an animal and just as wild, falling ass-backwards into genius.

Basquiat achieved the immortality he so desperately desired, but he is no longer among the living. He was robbed of the opportunity to mature as an artist and as a man, and so he has kept American art itself in a perpetual adolescent state of arrested development, conserved for the masses like a mosquito in amber hawked at a tourist trap. The Holy Grail to the Cultural Industrial Complex. Infinitely replicable youth. The sad truth is that the world against which Basquiat fought, won. Basquiat is worth more dead than alive. Had he lived, he might, like Cobain, have only further tarnished his own legacy. But what is sure, he would have aged. Nobody’s teen spirit lasts forever.

For Kurt Cobain, heroin and sudden celebrity led him to swallow the wrong end of a shotgun. And though Jean-Michel Basquiat didn’t blow his brains out, junk and fame’s pressures took his life, too. What would Basquiat do today if he could see his sprawling exhibition right now at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts? I wonder: would he just die?◼︎

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music continues until 19 February 2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Cover image: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Beat Bop, 1983. Collection Emmanuelle et Jérôme de Noirmont. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Video: Extract from MTV’s “Art Break” : Jean-Michel Basquiat (1985) used with permission. © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved. MTV, all related titles, characters and logos are trademarks owned by Viacom International Inc.

Photo credits: Henry Flynt.

999 Words

At the Last Trumpet: Handel’s Messiah

The secret things belong unto the Lord our God:
but those things which are revealed belong
to us and to our children for ever,
that we may do all the words of this law

—Deuteronomy 29:29

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it

—Isaiah 40:5

A new philosophy of the future is needed. I believe it should be curiosity about the Universe – expand humanity to become a multiplanet, then interstellar, species to see what’s out there. This is compatible with existing religions – surely God would want us to see Creation?
—Elon Musk

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re going to have to serve somebody

—Bob Dylan

What would Jesus do?

This clichéd old question often comes to mind, but more recently in the past few years. It comes to mind on a personal level: What would Jesus do if the dry cleaners shrunk His favourite trousers, or His metro station was closed for a month for COP-15? It comes to mind on a global level: What would Jesus do if He had to live through a pandemic, a world war, climate change, the destruction of Creation, and then try to reach His followers, like the flock that had clearly gone astray, far more interested in watching a little black-and-white ball kicked about, or the taxes of a former US president? And it comes to mind on a more practical level: What would Jesus do to get the word out — y’know, the word of God?

What would Jesus do if Jesus Christ Himself returned as per prophecy and had to let the world know He was back to kick some ass? Surely, He would take to Twitter.

Today, Twitter has achieved an almost prophetic position in digital communication. We assign figures who amass significant Twitter followings nearly messianic status, regardless — in spite of, in some cases — expertise or good intentions. Their follower numbers are equivalent to authority. With impressions visible, we can now account precisely how much they impress us.

In earlier times, other social networks emerged over common interests and various modes of communication. Music is one example. Putting ideas into song is among the most enduringly powerful and universal ways to interact with large-scale audiences. From Pythagoras to the Pied Piper, Beethoven to Boards of Canada to the Wu-Tang Clan, music has always been for the children.

In Georg Friedrich Handel’s day, it was enough to just write Baroque operas. By the mid-1730s, the German composer’s music had garnered a significant and influential European audience. After settling in London in 1712, Handel made an even bigger name for himself churning out compositions at a feverish pace, founding three opera companies, and presenting more than 40 operas in London’s theatres. Handel wrote the score to one of his most beloved oratorios, The Messiah, in a little over three weeks in late August and early September, 1741. It was like a tweet he tossed off in the middle of the night, in that hazy hypnagogic state between degrees of consciousness.

Some people believed that Handel composed the score in a fit of divine inspiration. Others thought that it was a bit rushed and sloppy, and that he probably squeezed it in between jobs like any journeyman of any trade might do, paying little attention to quality or craft. According to historians, the score was riddled with mistakes — ink blots, scratched-out notes, unfinished passages. Was Handel himself a kind of fake messiah for potentially duping his followers into believing in his genius, when it was likely just another gig for some guy in a powdered wig?

The Libretto to The Messiah is largely comprised of Biblical passages and has none of the earmarks of narrative opera: there is no dramatization of the action, and no characters in elaborate costumes. Soloists approach the stage and address the audience directly as if giving a sermon. The choir and a relatively small orchestra accompany these Acts, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, perhaps the most recognizable piece of Western music ever written.

Insofar as communication goes, it is impossible to calculate how many impressions Handel’s score has accumulated. If it were a tweet, it went viral and continues to do so every Christmas season around the globe. In Montreal, for instance, The Messiah is performed annually at St. Joseph’s Oratory, under the world’s 20th tallest dome.

The Messiah is a Jewish concept for an anointed leader conferred with Holy powers. Those powers are to reveal God’s Word. The twelve disciples who followed Jesus, His Apostles, believed that Jesus was a strong messianic title contender, and they tried to tell as many people about Him as possible.

Matthew, a tax collector, was one of these Apostles. Matthew was different than the other Apostles. He hung out with unrepentant sinners; he collaborated with the Romans. But he was highly educated, literate, and the first person to write down Jesus’s teachings. Having a scribe on staff meant access to social networks Jesus might not have reached.

Messianic language surrounds no one today more than tech-bro billionaire Elon Musk. His supporters regard Musk as some sort of saviour who will lead Earthlings two hundred eighty characters by two hundred eighty characters towards a mythical Martian future. His detractors view him as a petulant child and false idol subject to base carnal desires and flights of megalomaniacal fancy.

Musk sees himself as a visionary savant with a hair-trigger Twitter finger, hellbent upon success, whatever that means. What success means today is not what it meant to Jesus, or even to Handel, who did not conceive of his works as messianic, but rather as calls to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah, as God’s anointed emissary. Jesus might have turned Twitter upside down, whereas Elon bought it.

No Messiah exists today, and if one did, it would be a bitch competing with Musk for followers.◼︎