Waterloo Region Needs to Break Down Walls to Build Innovation In the Arts #gatekeeping #newcomers #WRArts #WRAwesome

I have a dear friend who has made it to the top, has done great and unusual things like play Massey Hall. When they moved to Waterloo Region one of the the things they noticed is that it isn’t just the politics or the cultural climate. If you aren’t in a certain group in Waterloo Region, you will constantly struggle to get ahead, no matter how accomplished you are.

Something about Waterloo Region arts wants artists who are already beyond accomplished. There is almost no wiggle room to grow, test new ideas, or learn how to be an artist here. There is no room for innovation. No way to cut new teeth. If it isn’t the replication of a current western culture (blues, jazz, classical, paintings, Shakespeare, even though I love many of these things, they are not the bleeding edge) in the most stringent and academic of ways, it must be already perfect or bust. When I say arts, I definitely mean the large streams and not art as strictly a visual thing (which is a silo that needs to stop…. really stop). I mean music (new music, but also trying to get a band started as an “outsider”), theatre (for all the plays done by the various companies here, theatre by women or PoC, or Indigenous is pathetically low), visual, inter arts, multimedia, media, film, literature, poetry, performance, dance (where the heck is dance in WR? Where?)…

I think the downfall (I refuse to call it failure – it wasn’t a failure… Waterloo region failed Night\Shift) of a placehacking festival here is a real point where a white techie geek festival of trying new and innovative things can’t work is real a litmus test for the geek culture not even able to push their own beyond the gatekeepers..

My partner brought up that there are very rigid gatekeepers here, and I myself have butted up against them. I imagine many have, especially those that transgress colonial Germanic or white narrative. I imagine that this goes further as well with a lot of women, and PoC, but then also many folk who have even expressed an opinion about the issues I am trying to address have likely found themselves feeling blacklisted. There are lot of us who have invested our lives, homes and careers in Waterloo Region who do not fit the old guard. Who exactly is this old guard? (Really no names in the comments, I will delete it as soon as I see it.) What do they value? Who do they fund and why?

These questions likely have real targeted answers, but I also think there are deeper forces at play with this sort of thing. One person can say “so and so” is the one who holds the money. But then there are relationships that work to outcomes beyond a single name, a single instance or org, a single entity. Mostly, it is really hostile here to newcomers, to those who do not fit some kind of mould or model. And I do think this influence starts with certain aspects of misunderstanding of the process and practice of making art itself, but ranges deeper into an almost “who owns whom” chain of allegiance. The problem with this is that culture does not survive by chain linking, but instead thrives by the powerful multiverse matrix of a rhizome.

I want to research this somehow. I am not even sure how to proceed. It is cliquish and insular here, and I would love to find a way to find out what this is, how many people feel it, and how to address it.

I am posting mostly to learn if anyone else would be interested in looking into this. I know it isn’t just me as I have talked to a many other artists about this. Does this sort of research project ring with anyone else? I would like to work through this in an artist process as much as reveal sentiment about here. I love living here and would love to see it become a better place. Message me. I really do want to hear from people who find it hard to practice here, but also I want to hear from people who have left.

I would love to hear from you. If you are ok with your comments in the open, please leave them on this post. But also, if you would like a greater discretion, I can be reached at terre@mycontention.com

How marketing ate our culture – implication for Waterloo Region

Target Scream

I am reading a book on how marketing culture has supplanted our past culture. It is sparking a lot of thought. I wrote yesterday, musing on if it matters and then today I woke up somewhat resolute on a particular aspect – marketing as it pertains to creating an authentic and vibrant arts and culture scene.


I am more and more convinced that we fail so miserably at retaining artists, building arts and culture scenes because we use the building of these scenes as a marketing device. There is barely a market in the city for the most commercialisable arts (paintings and take home items that you can purchase), never mind a market or even an appropriate case built for creating, building and maintaining artists, an arts scene or culture beyond the most banal. There is a place for marketing an arts scene, and we are in desperate need. However, using a non-existent culture as a centre point for attracting talent is really not wise, and creating a scene for this purpose is desperately misguided.

Somehow I think the arbiters of taste (those who make financial decisions on culture) either don’t understand their constituents, or don’t understand the implications of supporting mostly banality – it’s quite likely both.

I am not criticising the amazing festivals we do have. I am particularly fond of the Tapestry festivals (Multicultural, Latitudes, Tri Pride, the festivals that celebrate diversity) and the arts/music oriented festivals (Blues Fest and the like). I can even get a buzz off of the irresponsible nostalgia of Cruising on King. But these are one weekend per year and they treat usually the most commercialisable end of culture – or the most typical. The ones that reflect excellence in art (I mean real and true excellence: the stuff that is built on wonder, innovation and won’t likely fit on a wall in your house, or on a television, or work well on radio but require presence to experience) ail, underfunded. I like to muse on how these could flourish into something amazing if they were well supported. We are one of the only cities I can reckon that has outstanding festivals in three arts disciplines (visual, performance, and sound and music).

Snoopy Woodstock best friend

If Waterloo Region is so concerned with excellence, why are they not seeing the excellence that is here, and work to build it?

We are really good in the business-tech sector at recognising the accomplishments of our clever innovators. And yet in the arts, we have some people who have developed extraordinary innovation right here in the Region: the stuff that the rest of world celebrates FOR us. They win lots of grant money, draw international audiences, build downtown economy with their audiences and work, but aren’t hired to speak about making a living as an artist over Toronto professional fundraisers by our own agencies – whereas in other industry, support comes from the homegrown makers of success. (Look to Communitech and their amazing top-down supported, but bottom-up built home grown mentoring networks: the question is that if there is a successful formula in existence, why aren’t the arts and culture support agencies following that lead? And even more important, why aren’t we demanding that they do?) They have propagated success in the community – but also into far reaching places by recognising those who have done the impossible and built new and amazing things out of our post-industrial Region.

Our appreciation shows in the lack audience, in the stubborn inability to recognise excellence and innovation in the arts and support it, demand it.

Thomas Kinkade

It’s pretty, and I would love living there, but all his art looks like this. And none of it is the stuff that drops you jaw in wonder.

Art is not a tool for recruitment. It is not an ad campaign. Oddly, when done well, it serves as both- but not when this is an imposed case for the making and building of culture and cultural product.

The Creative Class experiment has utterly failed

Even though this is recognised in more and more places, we are still somehow hoodwinked by Richard Florida’s bells and whistles approach to building culture. Using this approach as motive means that we become a city of Thomas Kinkades – the most marketable art on the planet – which unsurprisingly lines up more with the banality of some of our most funded cultural pursuits (ironically, these are currently diminishing as we grow and recruit more young professionals which should indicate a clear lack of interest, yet they somehow maintain the most monetary support despite their decline).

Vibrant culture can’t be a here today/gone tomorrow transient thing. It requires a constant push towards excellence, and if talented painters can’t make a go of it here, then the really exciting stuff, the stuff that breeds wonder but requires a grown-up, well supported arts scene will never maintain a space in this city, and we will be left with the detritus of marketing Thomas Kinkade art over and over again. We will bleed excellence to other communities who are all too happy to get our hard working innovators, and our advertisement campaign style culture will ultimately continue to fail on the levels of wonder and authenticity.

#Meshcon messed up: regression instead of innovation in lack of women speakers

I usually like Mesh. I like the energy, the passion… This year, I am completely and utterly disappointed by their total lack of female gender representation in keynotes, never mind the pathetic 17% representation in speakership in general.

Let’s put it this way: women have had a really tough year online in the politics of being born without a penis. When it wasn’t a woman being beat up by trolls both figuratively and literally (in game form – link to Google search), it was women being harassed at conferences, on Twitter, on Reddit, suicides from social sharing of rape images… and they were all high profile regular, non-tech news worthy cases.

Let’s look at tech… take Google as one of the ubercompanies that have built an empire of innovation, rulers in the fail-fast-fail-often-to-succeed prototyping model. They focus deeply on diversity, with huge campaigns, grants and public oriented funding to ensure that their industry remains bleeding edge. If you aren’t thinking this way, you aren’t thinking about your future in innovation… or maybe even in the consumer market at all.

So Mesh… What gives? In tech, women are well known to be underrepresented in the STEM side (where your 17% lines up with industry representation), but happen to be extremely well represented in the social/marketing/production/art side. Dominant in fact. And you can’t seem to pull more than a piddly 17% of speakers to represent the breadth and depth of women doing great things?

As mentioned by Karen SD from MaRSyou can’t be what you can’t see, it isn’t that that we aren’t out there, but your message isn’t reaching us… your 50% of the market. I, for one, will no longer attend conferences that do not support diversity and innovation. I may be one small person, but I am not alone. I am joining an increasing group of women and men who have decided enough’s enough.

The problem with conferences maintaining this record, is that every conference organiser likes to think that their’s sets an agenda. Canada 3.0 sets the agenda for digital media in Canada, the countless gamer cons set the agenda for gaming, etc. I am troubled that Mesh organisers think this representation is agenda setting for the web. And if they don’t think that they are setting an agenda, then what is the purpose of their con? Is their future projection devoid of women in social/web/art/startup/tech? Very troubling.

Forward thinking and innovation depends on thinking the impossible, and pushing the boundaries to build out a dream that represents better things for us all… men, women, children, everyone included. Single gender dominated speaker lists in industry conferences reinforce the most regressive and mean parts of the tech world that better represent the likes of Nixon governance than the Cpt Jean Luc Picard world we all kinda strive for. I know Utopias aren’t possible but it doesn’t mean we don’t strive for a better world.

This reinforcement of a shameful track record is now officially in line with the most regressive and punitive times in the last 60 years after hellish year in tech for the largest group that engages in the social side of it. You should be better than this, Mesh.

On women tech speakers – Learn more.

Huge enormous list of female speakers.

Women who tech

Why the arts and culture fail: Waterloo Syndrome


What is the term for people who copy others, constantly, expecting similar results? I mean, not just implementing a good idea, but word for word lifting everyone else’s good ideas… there must be a term for it.

In this case, I am going to call it Waterloo Syndrome. 

Here’s what I mean:

So the tech sector wants us here in Waterloo Region to be the response to Silicon Valley… Instead of relying on our own specific identity and culture, we have been monikered by ourselves (well, our tech sector) as Silicon Valley North. We will NEVER be a second Silicon Valley. In fact, I hope we aren’t. My last experiences in the Valley included not only the requisite geek parties around MacWorld Dev Con, but also lots of horrific sprawl, racism, classism, little arts, little culture… Really, you had to go to San Francisco for anything in the way of what makes life worth living, and what makes making all of those silicon bucks worth having. Quantum Valley – now that is a thing: we are the Grand River valley, and we have lots of facilities that study quantum things. Why do we want to copy Silicon Valley when we have this home-grown, amazingly cool angle?

The other thing I see, in response to the surprising, latest and greatest announcement from the tech sector, is that they finally realise that the worst thing about an underdeveloped community is the lack of culture. But wait. They said “nightlife”. What is meant by this? Nightlife isn’t what’s missing in Waterloo Region… what’s missing is a culture that celebrates its own. (Edit: we are missing a nightlife. Let me clarify: if we had a culture that represents our city, we would have a nightlife. You can’t open a bar or club and expect it to just automagically fill with amazing people. It requires curation and programming. Check out the Boathouse for a successful nightlife – music scene. The programming is excellent, and it represents our music scene in a delightful way. Even there, we see a highly vulnerable arts institution that the city was all too ready to nix – kinda the proof-in-the-pudding of some of my arguments here. Also proof that with the homegrown cultural element, the nightlife is appropriate and really quite good all on its own. The Boathouse isn’t just a bar, as was shown in 2011. It’s a cultural institution.) We don’t celebrate our own developments, innovation, arts, culture, or the things we build, with the exception of some very monied but volatile market products. Why does Paris continue to be a city where people flock for inspiration, relaxation, and all matters of joie de vivre? It isn’t some industry – it is an ungrounded esoteric culture that celebrates Paris, Parisians and what it means to be Parisian in all of its diversity. Kitchener is no longer a German city. Hasn’t been for a long time. And even if it was, Germans have amazing cultural investment programmes in developing arts that represent them, in the moment, in all of their diversity.

So, we aren’t German. We aren’t Silicon Valley. What are we?

We are one of the few cities in North America that have outrageously innovative contemporary arts, in three disciplines, and to the point where there are three festivals that celebrate these very advanced disciplines and their pursuit in Waterloo Region. Why isn’t this known or celebrated? Simple answer: support and capacity. We have the intellectual and financial capacity, but we don’t have a region that supports these pursuits. They would rather bring in expensive and transient things from the outside than build up these amazing festivals and artists who have chosen to make this awkward geographic location their home. Even our home media doesn’t cover our outstanding arts scene. And when they do, it is to celebrate that they have left to make art elsewhere.

Now we have an initiative that supports the creation of new artists in the region (this is good!!) but with no funding, we are building even more talent that can’t possibly stay here.

Now let’s clearly define things. I love photography, painting and 2D visual arts. I love that creative people can make a living and that they exist here. I am not talking about them when I talk about a vibrant arts and culture scene. People do not flock to another town for individual photographers, the painters (unless they are wildly famous). They flock to a town for a lot of painters, photographers, potters, artisan crafters (like Elora). They flock to a town for something they can’t get back home. They leave their houses for an experience they can’t have on the Internet. So what does this mean? Unless we are building capacity around things like Nuit Blanche (but there again, we would be copying), or Stratford Festival (again, there is already a Stratford), or other similar things, we are not going to build capacity around the arts, and our region will remain the boring place that it is. Now here is where it gets really frustrating. We have festivals that attract international talent, talent from here that has left, and those who are still based here:

  • IMPACT – an international theatre festival showcasing contemporary creations. IMPACT is a great name.
  • CAFKA – a contemporary visual arts festival featuring installations from outstanding artists
  • Open Ears – a festival of contemporary music and sound. Esoteric and amazing.
  • Guelph Jazz Festival – this one blows me away every year. Contemporary jazz…
  • Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival – contemporary dance, again, outstanding. Punching above its weight.

You see that? When we include Guelph (20 minute drive), we have the entire gamut of arts covered, and all in their most innovative, expressive and interesting forms. Why are we accepting our streets rolling up at 6 pm (with the exception of obnoxious student pub culture and under-age clubs) when we have this? Why aren’t we looking at our own, funding our own? Much like the moniker Silicon Valley North, we are desperate to have something great unto ourselves, but again in the same vein of the name Silicon Valley North never taking off, our arts and culture suffer desperately from this top-down imposition.

You’ve got it wrong: How to beat Waterloo Syndrome

Biggest point is that you’ve got it wrong. You can’t use the arts solely as a talent recruitment device… cause then you fund the wrong things. You build the wrong things. You focus on arts that you think make sense. What you aren’t seeing is that the artists who live here moved here for the same reasons why anyone else does. They are also in love with the vibrant and crazy stuff in the water that makes Waterloo Region shimmer and pulsate and their arts reflect this. Pulling in one-off acts and shows may be good for a night, but they do not celebrate that common thread that we all possess that only this geography can lay claim to. They are not the bread and butter, or the culture development that we need.

What I propose is to support the festivals we have. Build them so that our artists can keep living here and keep representing our culture back to us (look at the NFB and its mandate: telling the story of canadians by canadians to canadians). Support their work, and recognise its genius. Also recognise that no amount of foreign greatness replaces the daily beat of people in love with their city. If you treat the arts as a talent recruitment device, even the tech people won’t appreciate it. We can all smell inauthenticity from a mile away.

Temples to dead things: Galleries, Warhol and Audio Guides

Art galleries… public art galleries.

Mausoleum or art gallery? It's an art gallery.

Mausoleum or art gallery? It’s a mausoleum.

How can I justify saying something like this? Well, beyond the easy comparison between an art gallery, a mausoleum and empty churches, it is the way they treat the viewing of art itself.

Camille Paglia claimed that Andy Warhol and pop art killed the avant-garde. She may be right. Certainly our total lack of spiritual connection to art died before the 60s and the agnosticism that surfaced as time went on managed to detach most art from anything meaningful (Walter Benjamin identified this in 1935 in Art in the age of mechanical reproduction). Its hard to dispute that things that had the power and meaning as politics and religion prior to the 60s has become a pastel wash of qu’est-ce-que-fuck. I am not a fan of Paglia, but here is an interesting article (How capitalism can save art) written by her that touches on some aspects of these thoughts. I disagree with a tonne of stuff she says, but she echoes Arthur C. Danto and the Situationists on the death of the avant-garde and how art has detached from anything meaningful.  Her arguments on how art is generated from craft is Bauhausian and has some real merit in the discussion on how we are disadvantaged with our removal from manufacturing (manufacturing quite literally meaning: made by hand… or hand-making). This is painfully obvious in the radical nature of the DIY (Do It Yourself) movement. DIY didn’t used to be a movement, it just was. However, the angle of her arguments championing technology and industry as the only viable economy for art teeters very close to the fascism expressed in the Futurist movement. Art has a more important place than how it builds capitalism.

But this is the long boring eulogy: God is dead, art is dead. We have been saying it for so long that the mourning of the avant-garde has become as boring as the attempts to revitalise it.

Enough art fagging and onto a story…

(Change to sarcasm font) These things just scream a good time, don’t they? (/sarcasmfont)


The Art Gallery of Ontario had an Andy Warhol exhibit years ago and a dear old friend and I decided to have a whirl through the heart wrenching postmodernism of our cultural artifacts exhibitised. I didn’t grow up with Warhol, but none of his pop-culture-as-art-as-pop-culture bullshitting was lost on anyone my age.

We were confronted immediately, even before seeing a single soup can, Marilyn or Elvis with the clever digital docent… the audio guides. Despite being passed out for free, my companion and I decided that we just really wanted to see pop art artifacts and enjoy our day as if we were accompanied by Candy Darling herself.

Candy Darling - one of the 60s most famous drag queens... and Warhol

Candy Darling –  the 60s most famous transgender art figures… and Warhol

So think of it: Warhol… the Factory… the “No Drugs” but “Yes Drugs” amphetamine days… the 60s… pop culture iconography built up to the importance of Michelangelo… mass production… and the removal of meaning.

Digital docent

The curatorial statements on the wall promise film, prints, original photographs from the Factory, and more 60s debauchery than you could shake a stick at. We even dressed the part: I in a black cat suit and beret, with requisite china flats, and my companion in head to black with a jaunty red scarf, we made our entrance into the gallery.

Move over Factory. Move over mass production line symbolism. Enter a factory of non-celebratory assembly line-move-one-step-to-your-right as various Factory and 60s celebs on prerecorded audio guide mobile phone looking devices carried by ex-revolutionary Roschdale artists aged to the ripe yuppy wine of dullness – as regular as a morning with bran. They were finely tuned into their digital docent, frowning at smiles, growling at laughter as if Warhol and his antics were as austere as the Shakers. This. Is. Art. Dead as the Catholic church after a red light Saturday in Montreal.

Where it got really funny (to the point of my companion and I having to leave the temple to compose ourselves) was when we approached a particular Warhol video called Blow Job. Imagine it:

A large group of not-real-fur dressed in black with thick plastic framed glasses and hair done to look not done but done enough to be stylised in its undonness with digital docent cum mobile phone type devices watching this…

… completely devoid of reaction. Not a smile, not a glance, nor a shift of discomfort. I mean, the video may or may not be an actual blow job. That is a good part of the joke – that you watch this with an assumption based on the title. Without the title, the performance can be constructed as many different things. Call it “junkie” and then you have someone desperately waiting for a hit.

The result was perfectly postmodern with the art not being that which was hung on the wall or being displayed, but the performance of the ultimate assembly line viewing of art reduced to its most base pompousness. It wasn’t a be there to be seen more than see experience either. It was a religious experience for those who remembered that art was once something more – it was the echo of a dead avant-garde.

A really good question may be, how can galleries shift from this? How can they move away from the lot of religion (alienation) in our increasingly secular world? Danto claimed that art in the western world in its genesis was an “era of imitation, followed by an era of ideology, followed by our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes… In our narrative, at first only mimesis [imitation] was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be… It is the end of the story.” – How can we give meaning to that which is an imitation of an imitation that has become so alienated from anything meaningful that everyone except the artworld and art fags are the only ones who care an ounce for its existence?

So I ask you: what breeds innovation (novelty)? I am not asking in the glittering generalisation sense that has been attached to the tech world, but truly, the essence of Paris in the late 19th century…


“Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul”

– Leonard Cohen

Art Fag

n. term invented in Dead Milkmen song “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything)”  popularised to describe the black clothing and beret wearing, art loving, coffee house sitting, navel gazing, intellectualising, name dropping, middle class, and usually left-leaning person. Meant to indicate a deeper knowledge of the lesser known emerging artists as well as popular artists.  Not to be confused with hipster. Not a pejorative associated with sexual orientation.