Vue Weekly highlights our Writers in Residence
Do you know any drug addicts with hobbies?
By Blair Brennan
This is my last post as Latitude 53 Writer in Residence. I reveal personal information that some of you will know and many of you may have suspected. In general, I write here as I have throughout this appointment. That is, I have written about myself and pretended that it is about art. I thank Todd Janes and Latitude 53 for the opportunity to do this for the last six months.
One other person requires special thanks and that is my wife Simone Gareau. I thank her not just for enduring my prolonged absence while I was on some writing jag but for her frequent and consistent editorial assistance.
Please be as kind to the next Writer in Residence as you have been to me. Read and comment often. Your feedback here on the blog, by direct email, and in person have been of great importance to me. Throughout this appointment, I have tried to understand what it means to write about art in Edmonton, weighed out digital vs. paper publishing and wrestled with what it means to be an artist writing. Your input has helped put much of this and other related issues into perspective.
"Poppies" by Celine Gareau-Brennan (hand coloured by Sophie Gareau-Brennan), July 2004, ink on paper
All I wanted, for a good part of my life, was a pocket full of pills and a prescription for 100 more. I was most content (I hesitate to use the word “happy”) when I took a handful of pills and fell asleep. Numb – 23 hours of sleep some days and no rest. In my active addiction I regularly took more codeine and morphine than most terminal cancer patients. It started as a method of pain management and quickly became all that I cared about. The fact that I had a prescription only made it more difficult to spot as an addiction and near impossible to connect with an earlier alcohol problem.
I cared about morphine more than I cared about my relationship with my wife, the welfare of my children, my family and friends, my art and my job. Well, I cared about my job to the extent that it enabled this lifestyle. Like many alcoholics and addicts I saved my best face for work. My worst self was reserved for my wife and children. When I came out of that self-induced coma, I was surprised to find these things still in my life: a great job; a viable art practice that had survived a lengthy period of dormancy; a wife whose compassion surpasses my understanding; funny, intelligent and talented daughters; parents that still loved me and some true friends.
I mention all of this for two reasons. I do not believe that the truth will set us free but I know that our secrets will kill us. These may seem like the same thing but they are not. Further, I see some parallel between art and addiction. I do not mean art about drugs or addiction. I mean some similar brain chemistry is at work in art making and drug taking.
This is not a bio-chemical analysis. These are merely observations from personal experience. In recovery, I have encountered a number of people who describe their addiction as the need to “scratch” a seemingly irrational “itch” in their brain. With more poetic aplomb, William S. Burroughs describes a character, Mr. Hart (Mr. Hart Couldn’t Hear the Word Death), who is “addicted to a certain brain frequency a little high and blue, don’t feel so good, and feeling you could swing in it forever and ever.”
- I feel better when I do it
- I am difficult to be around when I don’t do it
- I will go out of my way (do things I would not ordinarily do) to do it
- I will suffer other hardship (physical, mental, financial, etc.) so that I can do it
- It makes things better, my life is better with it
- I deserve it
- I can’t live without it
- I am the person I am because of it
- I don’t care if relationships and other obligations suffer because of it
- I have to do it (and I can’t explain it to those who do not have to do it)
I recognize addictive behaviour when I see “it”. It is where that “cool blue frequency” lives. It is in morphine and it is in art.
When I say this, I do not intend to diminish the devastating effects of alcoholism and drug addiction. I bristle when I hear people say their ardour for chocolate or golf is an “addiction”. I have met alcoholics and drug addicts who have been in prison and mental hospitals. They have been closer to death than any one I know. They have lost their wives, husbands, common-law partners and friends. They have lost their homes, jobs, their license to drive, practice medicine or law. They have taken all their possessions, everything sell-able, to the pawn shop. They have had their children taken away by social services. They have killed people with their car and driven away, only to be caught later. They have served time for driving the car while their friend robbed convenience stores at gunpoint. They have stabbed friends and loved ones in arguments over drugs or for nothing. They have been identified by the police as a “person of interest” in a murder investigation because the prostitute they were smoking crack with, was found murdered. Chocolate, golf and art do not, generally, lead to bad choices of the same severity.
In her song The Jungle Line, Joni Mitchell provides the tersest assessment of the temptations available to performing artists. “There’s a poppy snake in the dressing room,” she says. Are singers, performers, writers and artists more prone that snake’s bite? Some days, armed with William Burroughs and Jimi Hendrix, I am tempted to argue “yes”. My more rational self observes that we are a culture so fully saturated with addictive enticements that creative types are no more at risk than the general population. In general, this discussion of addiction and creativity is a bigger animal that I want to confront right now. I will, however, make this observation. Many creative people know that the only hope for art to continue in their own life (and perhaps society in general) is for that art-making to become habitual. As others make time for the gym, artists must make time for the studio. In a culture that offers many distractions, habit (and whatever biochemical pathways that word carves in our brain) may be our only hope. So, we give in to that habit.
I would like to end by citing some neurological research. Something like this: “Through analysis of brain scans, top government scientists have found significant similarities in the prefrontal cortex area of the brains of both drug addicts and artists…” Alas, I have no such evidence (and I’m not looking very hard for it). I can only leave you with my intuition that art is made by those who have had their brain chemistry altered (often by the art school experience) so that the necessity of making art (no matter how irrational it seems) is imprinted in their neurons. Consider one final question: do you know any artists with hobbies?
Dr. Bruce Banner, Writer in Residence
By Blair Brennan
I am approaching the end of the Latitude 53 writer in residence (WIR) appointment and this has encouraged me to reflect on the last six months. Just prior to accepting this appointment, I was asked to write a short essay on the work of Catherine Burgess for a printed brochure that would accompany her recent Art Gallery of Alberta exhibition. This isn’t my full-time job. Once I’ve decided I can and want to write something, I’m usually balancing the proposed deadline against my other obligations. Everything about this writing project was great—the opportunity to write about an artist doing wonderful work that I’ve admired for a long time and, on top of this, a decent word count, a tolerable deadline and a fee.
In spite of all that was good about this gig, I confessed to Catherine that I was always angry when I wrote. This generated a fascinating discussion with Catherine that wove through her experiences and mine. The evidence of this conversation in the finished essay would be visible only to me. I wrote about Catherine’s importance locally and nationally, why her work is significant to me as an artist, where this work came from and where it is now in relation to this. I wrote about a few of the many possible reactions that this restrained and sublime work could inspire in receptive viewers. I hoped that readers of my essay would become such viewers if they were not already.
The anger was hidden but I’m certain that some turn of phrase revealed my rage. Catherine Burgess has maintained a studio in Edmonton, exhibited her work here and afar since 1975 and yet, like many of my artist friends, she has difficulty supporting herself with her art alone. Catherine has been making and showing art and surviving in this city for almost four decades, however, I believe that Catherine and her art are virtually unknown to most Edmontonians. The lack of attention to art in our society concerns me even as I accept that most people have little interest in visual art. As one astute blogger recently wrote: “The public is not willing to work at understanding a piece of art, and artists are not willing to explain themselves. We find ourselves at a tragic impasse.” I’m not casting blame on the audience or the artists but this seems a good summary of the problem.
Art is “where I live”. I have made art and made my living working in the arts for thirty-five years. Visual art (my own and others) is the context through which I most frequently view and understand the world around me. Art is the way that I understand bigger ideas about being human but I should be generous enough to accept that other people have other ways of understanding some of those same issues. They may approach life’s challenges through religion, anthropology, philosophy, physics, fashion, local politics, reality TV, or the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs. As it is with me and art, they will be more at ease when they are around others who “speak the same language”. I recognize that I have some difficulty accepting this and that much of my writing starts from that terrible “how can you people not know this!” place.
My anger is, I think, a sort of misplaced anxiety about the relevance of contemporary art to contemporary life. Many writers and thinkers have discussed the importance of visual art. A Globe and Mail review of Camile Paglia’s recent book Glittering Images reveals her as one of the most recent to tread this path. “Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization,” she asserts. “(I)t is a necessity without which creative intelligence will wither and die.” The a priori idea should be that visual art matters. However so much art writing (not just my own) must discus the art in question and simultaneously defend the need for art. At present, this situation is exacerbated by economic circumstances and an all-encompassing dread that marketing has truly triumphed over substance. It has never been financially easy for visual art in Alberta but now, more than ever, the arts must pay their own way. Many people believe that the services delivered by art galleries, libraries, museums and schools/post-secondary education institutions (not to mention hospitals) are desirable. As the priorities of a society change (or appear to change through mass marketing), desirability is weighed against the cost of delivery. These institutions are still thought to be relevant, so politicians and pundits focus on the delivery methods with an emphasis on economic viability. Increasingly this looks like a society that does not need (or will not pay for) visual art in its traditional form.
The WIR post has helped me put much of this in perspective and yet the anger that I had when I started writing is still with me. That anger and frustration that people do not know, and therefore do not care about visual art was an essential motivation to write and it has kept me writing. I vaguely remember reading Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to young writers. Find a “soap box” and write about something you believe passionately. I took this advice when I started writing about art in about 1995. My first pieces were about what I thought were the injustices in the local arts scene. Did writing right those wrongs? That, of course, is the attraction and the pen-is-mightier promise of the written word. Whether you write about local or national politics, international affairs, sports, movie or art reviews; your dilemma is this: if you don’t say “this is great” then the good things might not be supported and therefore may not continue. If you don’t say “this is bullshit” then the bad stuff might continue. The dark side would win and no one wants to be personally responsible for that (though their victory seems assured).
Much local conversation and controversy about art comes from a—to be generous—less than informed position. “What will I write about next?”, I’d wonder, but never for very long because some dink would decide to shut down an art show, press charges against a graffiti artist or try to tell me that the art they were showing was all edgy and “in your face” when it was really about as provocative as wearing white after labour day. I am too comfortably middle class to think myself credibly anti-establishment. And yet, so often, I have found myself the “dissident” when I merely think I’m applying common sense to an art (or social) situation.
I always liked American poet Kenneth Patchen’s line “I have but a bullet left / And there are so many things to kill”, but I did not think I would apply it so fully during this writing residency. Every post was that bullet. I would polish it, inspect it to make sure it would mushroom nicely upon impact, put that refined little piece of metal it the gun and… still, “so many things to kill”. I’m really trying that “live and let live” thing (life and the visual arts offer many opportunities) but my attempt to be as honest as I can in my writing has often trumped “live and let live”. Every time someone said or did something stupid or tried to sell me the sizzle from a steak that never existed or when we seemed about to enter yet another cycle of artistic banality, it was as though a new box of hollow-point bullets had been left in my mail box.
By Blair Brennan
Edmonton artist Blair Brennan shares his thoughts on the death of Canadian spiritual pop artist and sacred trickster ManWoman. ManWoman and his art were an important part of Edmonton’s nascent contemporary art scene in the 1960’s and 70’s. He continued to exhibit his art and to influence and provoke until his recent death. Brennan is currently the writer in residence for Latitude 53 Contemporary Visual Culture.
This article will also be published in the SNAP Newsletter and Vue Weekly
ManWoman died on November 13, 2012. “Died’ hardly seems the right word for someone who believed that our lives might be God’s dream and that he himself might wake up somewhere after death and think, of his own life, “Boy, that was an interesting dream.” ManWoman wasn’t always ManWoman. Patrick Charles Kemball was born in 1938. He had a series of religious visions that started in the mid-1960s and ManWoman was born with a sacred mission that involved his own personal enlightenment, the return of spirituality to art and, perhaps his most controversial undertaking, to re-sanctify the swastika.
Centuries before Germany’s National Socialists, the swastika existed cross-culturally as a sacred symbol (it was a sort of sacred symbol to the Nazis too but, well, we know how that turned out). ManWoman incorporated swastika imagery in his art work and tattooed his body with over 200 swastikas. “Manny”, as his friends called him, was a resident of Cranbrook B.C., however he lived and worked in Edmonton from 1964 to 1975 where he was involved with Edmonton’s premier artist-run center, Latitude 53. Latitude 53 presented a ManWoman retrospective, “Spiritual Schmiritual” in 1998. In the same year, while Latitude 53 and Edmonton’s other seminal artist-run center, SNAP (Society of Northern Alberta Print Artists) shared the Great West Saddlery Building on 104th street, ManWoman created a commemorative print for Latitude 53’s 25th anniversary making use of SNAP’s print shop facilities.
Humans are, of course, the product of their experiences but we are equally the sum of our influences. This is not more true of artists. It is just more visible as our art often reveals those influences. ManWoman is there as an example and influence for any of us who believe there is a place for the spiritual in art, especially those who believe that we can have some fun with this idea at the same time. I had met ManWoman several times but I did not know him well. From these brief meetings, some of his lectures and, certainly, his art work; I have constructed an idea of his character. If we could dissect human brains post mortem and find therein people’s last thoughts, I believe a disproportionately large number of brains would contain this phrase: “This isn’t a good time for me!” and a list of ridiculously petty reasons that this person’s death was poorly scheduled. If we could open ManWoman’s brain, I believe that it would expel a hearty laugh. As difficult as this time may be for ManWoman’s loved ones, family and friends, I think we should laugh along with ManWoman.
Some related links:
GIG CITY: ManWoman sticks to sacred vision 48 years after drugless trips, March 31, 2012, By Mike Ross
VICE: ManWoman Is Taking Back the Swastika, By Val Gore
BME: Body Modification Ezine /News Presents ModBlog RIP ManWoman, November 13, 2012, by Shannon Larratt
SOME I RIP
By Blair Brennan
Blair Brennan, “Some I Rip (J’s Promise)”, 2012. Branded drywall, welded and forged steel branding irons, propane bottle and torch, gloves and striker, Dimensions variable (branding irons 48″ in length).
Writing, especially with a computer, seems like work but it is not. No matter what personal details are revealed, nothing is really risked. Not blood and bone which, American writer Harry Crews points out, are the only currency acceptable when payment is due for “the miracle of the world, the miracle of a rebirth of the senses, the miracle of an accepting heart…”1 I write and I make art that incorporates words and language. I’m not naïve enough to believe that my conventional writing is less vague than the text based art work. I exploit the slipperiness of language in both.
Words are things to me and this compliments (or even allows) my use of language as magical charm or spell.
Read more →
Gilbert Bouchard memorial art show
23 Signs That the World is Doomed
By Blair Brennan and Siona Gareau-Brennan*
“It’s Only a Lie if No One Believes You”, 2010 Mixed media installation (DETAIL) by Kris Lindskoog and Blair Brennan
I found an old shovel and 30 feet of nylon rope in a dumpster
Extended periods of orgiastic destabilization
The smell of rubber burning
The air is getting colder
93 % of the radio stations are owned by 4 entertainment conglomerates
My nails are always dirty
Addiction specialists are designing on-line gaming
I don’t have any salt in the house
People are stealing things
He told me someone told him it was going to happen
psychologists are casting reality shows
I fantasize about it
I didn’t say thank you
The water tastes like lead in the morning
My damaged internal time construction system
Her hands are bruised
Hardly anything I do is worth the effort of doing it
The airports are empty
The evil male star of death and the evil female star of death
We burned everything we found
With all the exotic and adventure-filled possibilities available to me, I dream about washing the dishes and putting them away in the proper place
Human lives pass in discomfort and anxiety about meaning
* I write here with my middle daughter, Siona. Her older sister, Céline, and her younger sister, Sophie, have made brief appearances in these posts as well. Many of you will know that my daughters have been frequent collaborators in my drawings as well. Often, in the drawing and writing that they share with me, I have seen my own frustration and anxiety. It could be that I look for this specifically, that I force my daughters into these “corners” or the bible may be right – the sins of the father are visited upon the children (Exodus 20:5). — BB