Released in 1956, Rythmetic by Evelyn Lambert & Norman McLaren is frequently misinterpreted as a one-dimensional educational film with a bit of humour to keep things entertaining. Numerals and mathematical shapes move in controlled, lyric gestures upon a crisp blue background. Spreading across the screen in geometric patterns, the numbers bump and chafe, spawn anew, and add and subtract themselves in the dance of arithmetic operations. Writing in 1976 for the Canadian Film Institute, Maynard Collins described the film thusly:
“Following the heels of a teaching assignment in India for UNESCO, this amusing non-verbal lecture on the subject of mathematics reveals…feelings about the inadequacies of communication between peoples of different cultures and languages. After toying with several ideas for making a truly international film, [McLaren & Lambert] settled on Arabic numerals as probably the most understood method of communication, far more so than any other alphabet.”
It may be comforting to a viewer grasping at meaning to place such autobiographical motives at the heart of the film, but a serious question arises: would two visionary animators put their talents toward an aim so plain, so didactic?
To attempt to answer the question, we must discard the impulse to place such importance on the life of the artist as source of inspiration, for there are many ways of reading this film. One possible avenue is found in the work of another often misinterpreted Canadian artist, the poet bpNichol.
To scholar Kit Dobson, “the best thing about reading bpNichol is the impossibility of reading bpNichol,” arguing that attempting to read his poems through the lens of personality and personal relationships has “limited how his work might be understood.”
When I first watched Rythmetic, I was instantly struck by the similarity to Nichol’s series of poems “probable systems” that uses cryptarithms (mathematical games with arithmetical operations where numbers are substituted for letters or other symbols) in an attempt to quantify the ephemeral. Take this example from 1974:
probable systems 4
this one’s for james joyce in his worst bummer
= 6 + 1 + 9 + 20 + 8
= 8 + 15 + 16 + 5
We are shown the work of his process and gain access to what Paul Dutton has described as the satisfaction we get from watching someone else’s original thinking. Having proved faith equals hope (literally and not by metaphor), Nichol cleverly illustrates the expressiveness of mathematics for speaking directly to the human experience.
The same emotion is at the heart of Rythmetic. The shapes don’t always follow the rules: they jump, bounce, dart across the screen, and, only after significant effort, settle. At one point, a mutating zero explodes the arithmetic attempting to contain its energy. The symbols police the numerals while the numerals bristle against the strict control.
This is no artless arithmetic. This is the lyric struggle of a life: to define yourself against the rules of a society that you could not help being born into, sometimes with success and sometimes not. Like Nichol’s “probable systems,” Rythmetic “analyses and expresses the unfolding of its own creative process” and invites the viewer to participate in meaning.
Really, though, when has math (or life) ever been simple?
J. A. Brown, T. Trowbridge and J. Szabó, "The poetic metrics of bpNichol," 2009 IEEE Toronto International Conference Science and Technology for Humanity (TIC-STH), Toronto, ON, 2009, pg. 933-938.
Dobson, Kit, "Openings: bpNichol's Ephemera," Open Letter 13, No.8, Ed. Lori Emerson, 2009, pg 9-18.
Nichol, bp, a book of variations: love-zygal-art facts, ed by Stephen Voyce, Coach House Books, Toronto, ON, 2013, pg 176.
Utako, Kurihara, “Norman McLaren’s Animated Film Rythmetic as Temporal Art,” Bigaku (Aesthetics), No. 15, The Japanese Society for Aesthetics, Tokyo, 2011, pg 116-124.
Listen to the subtle melodies of assonance, the call and response of slant rhyme feeding the reader through to the turn. Notice the repetition of single syllable words, an insistent rhythm. Owen uses sound like a lure, seduces the reader with music.
The poems of Somatic are inspired by the life and work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Published twenty years ago, this was Owen’s first book (the author gifted me a copy at a reading we did together) and the verse is grounded in the themes she continues to explore: art, love, death, desire, and the nature of the muse.
An interesting polyphony develops as the poems accrue. Subtle shifts in voice help the poems differentiate themselves, but have the effect on this reader of too much too soon. I wanted to dwell for longer with some sounds, rhythms, rather than following “their fine disturbances.” (42) Maybe it’s just the collection is short and no dominant voice develops fully. Still, if there is a through line, it is of distance, the poet-observer, Owen conscious of the humanity of the artist and of his subjects, the viewer and viewed, “the white brushed so lightly / around the brown / was done to suggest spirit, / the body’s other skin.” (34)
Owen’s interpretation of Schiele urges a drawing close of the dark, sexual, and for whatever reason ‘forbidden’ by society: “to take the darkness and draw / it ever deeper.” (41) The sexuality in the poems reflects Schiele's art, the times, and the character, but it also points to empowerment through sexual liberation and the freedom of living outside societal norms. Schiele paid a steep price when he was jailed for public immorality. He was never the same after:
With twenty-four days, your self-portraits
changed, the eyes no longer flaunted
a haughty pose of youth but become pools,
disturbed by stones so huge that ripples
bellied out over the surface, blind and unceasing.
“Prison, Neulengbach, 1912” (46)
There’s that music again, delivering the tragedy of Schiele’s life and the intense beauty of his art in equal measure. The narrative is black but the buoyancy of the language ensures accessibility to darkness. Somatic stands as a testament to the dangers of the rebel life and of non-conformity, and at the same time, prophets the necessity of following one’s truth, whatever the consequence.
Excited to announce that my chapbook, We Have To Watch, has been selected for presentation as part of the 30th Annual Two Days of Canada Conference on "The Concept of Vancouver" that will take place on 13-14 October 2016 at The Centre for Canadian Studies at Brock University.
There will plenary presentations by Rita Wong, Richard Cavell, Michael Turner, Lisa Robertson, and Roy Miki — and a special keynote public address by George Bowering, Canada's first Poet Laureate and two-time Governor-General's Literary Award winner. The conference will involve a rich melange of artists, activists, and academics. There will be papers, discussion forums, music performances, poetry readings, visual art, and public lectures.
The 30th annual "Two Days of Canada" conference at Brock University, the oldest Canadian Studies conference of its kind in Canada, invites scholars, artists, writers, and activists to broadly think through the conceptualizations of the histories, presents, and futures of the city. Papers and panels will consider the conceptualization of the arts, literatures, and politics of Vancouver, and the interconnections these concepts have with other scales of engagement, including the national and planetary issues in which Vancouver participates.
I had a wonderful experience last weekend exhibiting my text based artwork for the 2015 New West Cultural Crawl. My piece was part of
Cut #2: On the Road (2015), is from a sequence of found-text poems sampled from canonical works of literature, formed through procedural constraints in the lineage of Oulipo poetics. Each poem is created from the text of one randomly selected book page. The text may be quoted, cut, mixed, or re-arranged in any way. Each poem explores the social and political legacies of literary canon, acting as a conversation in mutual language between the original writer and the poet. The juxtaposition of the cutout book page and the re-ordered text comments on the translation of language by a reader in the subjective creation of meaning and the destruction of the physical work is a literal dismantling of literary canon.
Thank you to Sixth Street Popup & Gallery for putting on the show and for showcasing the great breadth of local New Westminster art. a small group show at Sixth Street Popup & Gallery in New Westminster, BC.
A new book review of Niki Koulouris's poetry collection The sea with no one in it just went online at Pulp.
'While most of text brings an intellectual investigation of myth and art, it is not until the end that the reader sees the speaker’s gaze turn inward onto the poet. “It’s always midnight / in the river / between two poems” (58) it begins and the reader experiences the darkness that envelops the artist between work, the black void without ideas and without creation, like a ship at sea rolling on swells, with no land in sight. From this darkness The sea with no one in it radiates out, looking and looking again, knowing that midnight is simply a few short hours from the light.'
Read the whole review on Pulp's website here.
PRISM international recently published my review of Placeholder by Charmaine Cadeau from London, Ontario's Brick Books.
"The future is elusive and uncertain. The past is exact, a known experience that marks like “road salt from the side of the car / sticks to your jacket, tells where you’ve been.” (49) Placeholder, the second book of poems from Charmaine Cadeau, takes residence in the moments between these opposing abstracts of time."
To read the entire review, please visit the PRISM website.
Most people know Douglas Coupland for his language. The Vancouver based writer and artist is the author of over twenty books of fiction and non-fiction, his first and possibly most well known, Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture, defined a generation of slacker youth engrossed with pop-culture and meaningless McJobs.
It was fitting then that Coupland dedicated one claustrophobic nook in his new solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything, to his books. His work is acutely aware of history while defiantly looking toward the future.
Collecting artworks from the past fourteen years with over 100 on display in a variety of mediums including installation, painting, photography, prints, sculpture, and furniture, the exhibition explores themes around technology, cultural identity, and how we live in the 21st century. Coupland uses his talent for accessibility by meshing big ideas and a healthy dose of humour.
In an interview with CBC, Coupland said about his artistic work, that he is “living in both time and space. Writing exists in time and art exists in space.” Approaching middle age with a greying yet full beard, Coupland still effortlessly embodies theoretical futurism with a wink and smirk.
The sheer number of objects in the show is immediately apparent and overwhelming. Greeted by a wall of more than 300 pieces from plastic building kits arranged in horizontal lines, the first few rooms are overflowing with items, from a small pile of Hawkins Cheezies on a plywood shelf, to debris from the Fukushima nuclear disaster that washed ashore in Haida Gwaii.
“Douglas Coupland’s work sheds light on subjects as varied as the distinct nature of Canadian identity, the rise of utopian ideas, the power of words, the presence of digital technologies, the significance of the everyday, and the unshakeable nature of one’s own constitution—ideas that Coupland examines with both optimism and some trepidation.” said Daina Augaitis, Vancouver Art Gallery’s Chief Curator/Associate Director.
Slogans for the 21st Century, 172 brightly coloured meme-like aphorisms that speak in the irreverent zeitgeist of Internet language, surrounds viewers on all sides, the panels covering the walls from floor to ceiling. “The future feels like homework,” one says. “Real time often feels like neither,” says another. One becomes caught in the bluntness of it all, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
What is most surprising (yet shouldn’t be to those who have read his books) is the diversity of the material in everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. While the funny and charismatic Coupland is a large part of the show, there is a darker vision of the present and future that is also expressed throughout. The twisted steel form of a high voltage tower in The Ice Storm and the paint-obscured faces of Brilliant Information Overload Pop Head express a chaos that runs through the heart of modern life.
“Marking the first solo museum exhibition dedicated to the art of one of the most thought-provoking artists working today, everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything reflects the Gallery’s strong commitment to provide a global platform for local artists,” said Kathleen S. Bartels, Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery. “We are thrilled to be the first museum to present this survey of Coupland’s work and hope this exhibition will inspire audiences of all backgrounds and generations to consider what defines contemporary Canadian culture.”
Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything and Gumhead run until September 1, 2014 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
An unlikely combination of future-pop and fuzzed out rock comes through the commodore in less than 2 weeks and I couldn't be more excited.