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.

3 thoughts on “Why the arts and culture fail: Waterloo Syndrome

  1. I agree with you. However I think this area has a lot to offer. Even though Waterloo may call itself as the Sillicon Valley North, I have never viewed it as such. I see Waterloo Region as a place where technology and art clash and it’s awesome! I enjoy the Jazz Festival, Blues Festival, Buskers Fest, Open Streets Waterloo, local theatre and the myriad of other events happening on our streets and in our town. It’s absolutely wonderful and alive and I don’t think its boring at all. It fills me with energy and makes me want to add to its excitement! I think we are well on our way to beating the “Waterloo Syndrome” you speak of, but there’s definitely a lot more work to be done. 🙂

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