by Marie-Hélène Tessier
We walked in zigzags all day, mostly in lanes. These days, I am teaching him to be less polite. It is not working very well. We heard there was a tree house on Cambie street – who is Mr. Cambie? – the names of the streets in this city do not succeed in capturing my imagination – so many missed opportunities to give names to things, passages, impasses, bridges, half bridges – a tree house, possibly in one of the giant pine trees, in the middle of the green zone dividing the traffic; right above King Edward -who is King Edward- like Henrys, Edwards comes by VIII. The latter, after his abdication, was named The Duke of Windsor and lost his higher royal titles because he married outside nobility. Privately accused during WW2 of Nazi sympathies, he moved to the Bahamas. After the war, he was never given another official appointment and spent the remainder of his life in retirement in France, until his death in the early '70s. I wonder what he did with his time in exile. I imagine him getting a lot of thinking done; reading, writing, learning thirty different languages. What else do we do in exile, shunned from Family. At least he was in love. It is also possible that his penchant for Hitler was in the hope to later regain his regal status. Not sure which Edward gave his name to this street but perhaps it is best called 25th avenue after all. Numbers keep things more abstract; neutral, so we do not have to remember anything good or bad, every walk on a clean slate, without memory of the steps taken before us. In France, the name King Edward is attributed to a species of potato of British origin. There are several King Edward avenues in the commonwealth. South of King Potato Avenue, there is a large and long green space dividing the traffic. There is a peculiar experience of physical and inward instability when walking in the middle of the road, with a flow of cars going up, on the right side of your body, with another flow going down on your left. Kundalini breathing. We were walking in the nose of a giant, right in between his two nostrils. The ethmoid bone separates the nasal cavity from the brain. It is said to have a role in magnetoception. Some birds and other migratory animals have deposits of biological magnetite in their ethmoid bone which allows them to sense the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Humans have a similar magnetite deposit, but it is believed to be vestigial, which means that we have lost this function through evolution, which means that we used to know where we were heading. Magnetoception, was first referred to in 1972 (the same year the last King Edward died), as the sense which allows animals to perceive direction, altitude or location. This extra sense has been proposed to explain the navigational abilities of several species and has been postulated as a method for animals to develop regional maps. We started to walk aimlessly, going with the flow of successive discoveries, striding that green patch at rush hour so as to provide some entertainment for the cars; we looked like a collage, a minimal ambulant circus; no one ever walks there, it is a kind of shady zone, between park and turnabout, slightly uncomfortable. Walking in a public space not truly meant for strolling reminds us that the earth is round, on which such surface we never stand completely straight; condemned to perpetual tilting. To stand up straight, physically, emotionally and mentally, is central to the human condition. Every step we take is salvaging us from falling. While the leisure walks are very developed in this city; sea walls, beach paths, nature walks of all sizes; a simple itinerary from point A to point B can be as painful as crossing a mine field. I saw a video from a French artist who really succeeded in portraying this deep malaise. I think it was filmed in Marseille and people without a car, with bags of groceries in their hands, or a stroller, are walking through impossible terrain; under viaducts and motorways, through labyrinths of trash and odd steel structures to step over; trekking under billboards in order to reach their homes. The kind of pathway that is not a pathway at all, a makeshift road, like the ones you find in the forest made by the passage of deer over time; one ceases to exist until one reaches over the other side of hell. The sound is deafening, akin to unsolicited drone music, preventing conversation; the kind of space where humanity becomes truly pedestrian, cars zooming by, over and under, dominating with speed and indifference; a place of non-belonging, the earth’s purgatory; the kind of non-place that makes it into contemporary photography. That video was sculptural. Construction in this city provides us with extraordinary sound walls. I actually enjoy going through a sound corridor. On the other side there seems to be a new way to look at things. The extreme noise creates an interior space. Not only mental but physical. It makes you feel the space between your organs, a trance of sorts. At some point in the recent past, our entire life was a construction site. Outside our house, there was a giant black hole dug for a subway. On top of our primary school, work was being done to build a coextensive high school . At the radio where I worked, they were erecting condo towers in the parking lot for years, and near my husband’s studio, the demolition/construction motif is still going on. The jackhammer became a familiar relative that never leaves. This city seems to be racing towards civilization; constantly building and deleting itself towards a novel and glassy identity. Despite the new subway line, the strip of trees was preserved. Every tree we approached to sneak under had someone living in it, which prevented us to enter the premise of wonders. As much as this is supposed to be a public space, homeless people seem to privatize it by night. Provincial parks house a lot of night wanderers. As we sympathized with the issue, it was frustrating to be afraid of waking drunken gnomes. It looked very nice underneath the huge pines. We never found the tree house, instead, a clearing at the top of the nose, around thirty-something-street, another major crossing, right before the entrance of Queen Elizabeth Park. We know Queen Elizabeth. The park received its name from an official visit from the Windsor family in 1939; King George VI and his consort, the late Queen Mother, as King and Queen of Canada. It was during the same visit that the Royal Family inaugurated the Lions Gates bridge. Before that, the area was a large basalt quarry supplying the construction of roads, owned by CP Rail, who sold it to the Civic Water Committee for a reservoir. In 1911, the premise was closed and the abandoned work left a raw wound on the landscape. The excavated hill sat there for decades in a limbo state, to all except the children who inhabited its hills, hollows and caves, picking wild blackberries. It is only after the war that the city undertook the task of transforming the space. A very dedicated self-taught horticulturist and Deputy Superintendent, William Livingstone, supervised on site, the ambitious project stemming from his personal vision, using the gullies left from the quarry as support. There is a Queen Elizabeth Park in Uganda too; a Safari reserve. It is often called the Switzerland of Africa. It used to be called Ruwenzori National Park and reclaimed its name in 1991; nearly thirty years after Independence. My brother loves to fly over there and land in the desert, to ultimately force feed me with images of giraffes-hippos-elephants-zebras-and-rhinos for which I care very little unless I find them in rugs, abstract patterns, chess pieces, Babar stories and piano keys. I have a friend who has a fantastic side table made out of an elephant foot. It is both disgusting and beautiful. They say that since the banishment of tusk hunting, there are now too many elephants entering the park from Congo. It is hard to grasp the fine balance between extinction and over population. I wonder about the elephant’s ethmoid bone, since their nose is so developed, but it is hard to imagine them flying over a magnetic field, unless they are pink. Magnetic Fields is a novel written in 1920 by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, using automatic writing. Elephants are a symbol of wisdom in Asian cultures, for their intelligence and memory. Aristotle mentioned that the elephant was the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind. Their trunk serves them to locate food, friends and enemies.
At the end of a long path of majestic pine trees we could not penetrate, there was the perfect log for the classroom of our new school which we called the No School, the Unschool, or was it the Jaywalking-school, the No-Name-School, the school of chaos, the anti-school, School of Mixed Apples and Oranges. On the log, he sat in the position of Rodin’s thinker; I was standing up in front of him with my little red notebook. In my black cape, I looked like an alternative private tutor giving a botany lesson, but in fact I was taking notes from the knowledge coming out of his little mouth. That afternoon, the ambiguous relationship between master and apprentice became very clear. I asked him to describe to me the characters in Star Wars. I do not know how I did it, but I succeeded in having never seen Star Wars. Nor have I seen E.T., yet both films are part of my consciousness. Not only are we all oedipized, having internalized Freud, but also Hitchcock and Terminator. We are all conditional psycho-analyzed and beautiful perfect crimes. Hollywoodians. We are all terrorists. Serial killers. Universal junkies. Luke Skywalkers. Luke comes from Luce, meaning light; lux in latin, and Leucos in Greek, means white. Light walking on the sky. White Man Walking in Divine Truth. He told me about Darth Vader, father of Luke, the Jedi who fell into the forces of darkness; and Yoda, the Jedi Grand Master. Yoda said “Do, or, do not…there is no try”. He also says that fear is the path to the dark side and leads to anger and hatred, leading in turn to suffering. He also mentions something about feeling the force around us, the force created by life that makes it grow; forces between people, between the trees, the rocks, forces everywhere. He explained to me that Jedi use a power called the Force, and weapons called Lightsabers, which emit a controlled energy flow in the shape of a sword, in order to serve and protect the Galactic Republic and the Galaxy at large, from conflict or governmental instability. We chatted about good and evil and made fun of the Axis of Evil as well as American President Bush’s unprecedented idea of Shock and Awe. Then he asked me what kind of paper he would have to write at the School of Chance, so I told him perhaps a poem about risk taking. He liked the idea about risking not writing it. I always thought of home schooling as a distasteful idea from silly parents with sick egos having no other purpose in life than producing serial killers. I still think that. But I was enjoying this going-with-the-flow feeling; seeing where it was taking us. I get very irritated by pedagogical parents who speak to their children like a nurse would speak to a retarded patient. Parents who speak like teachers are atrocious. We can see them at the Art Gallery wrongly analyzing art pieces from the pamphlet, or on every steps of a nature walk, naming every mushroom and every tree. Teachers should learn to be anti-pedagogical, but that would make them more expensive. Although, I did feel stupid not to know the name of the trees, like I feel bad when I meet people several times without ever registering their names. I always have to feel bad about one thing or another. I am in the process of shedding that habit right now. Everyone’s soul needs a haircut. Perhaps I should take him out of school every now and then, which I do anyway, every now and then, taking that specific time for him to teach me what he knows about the flow, the flow of energy, the flow of going from one place to another without a plan; the flow of the cosmos, the flow between him and me. The flow, the force.
On a restaurant napkin, he drew me a picture depicting a heart inside a cloud, with three-dimensional crystals growing out in every direction, outwards and upwards, inside a head. He also made sure to tell me that it had nothing to do with me, or us, or now, but that it was plain random. Random and Epic and Sad are the three most commonly used words by ten years olds these days. He hates when I put poetic meaning into everything. I hate it too. But it is in my critical-paranoid nature, a built-in reflex to abstract every line to a point and every point to a curve, in graded shades of black and white. It is like a built-in mechanic, an internal prism, a rotating checkerboard in my eye; it drives me crazy to the point of being dysfunctional. The classroom was suddenly transformed into a gym with an obstacle course. We learned how to keep balance through focus of the mind and ran in figure eights, imitating the flight of seagulls. When we left the plein air makeshift classroom to enter Queen Elizabeth Park, we naturally switched to a French lesson; French Royalty marching on England. Nature in mid February, just before spring, is at its very best, especially in Vancouver where nothing truly dies. We could see only up close, that every tree had the very first forming of buds, hidden in what appears to be dead. At a distance, it is too subtle to see the dark bark hiding zingy colours; like gems in rocks. This was the season where life is still enclosed in death which is giving birth. The season of Subtlety. The Third Movement of Winter.
Vivaldi. Antonio. Born in Venice, he died in Vienna. A whole life in the letter V. Virtuosos of Violion. V for vitesse…he prided himself on composing faster than the transcriber could follow. We rediscovered him through Bach, who was a big fan, and through Ezra Pound (whom I am rediscovering through Charles Olson, whom I am discovering through the notion of proprioception, which I discovered through a critique of my writing as being egoceptive). Everything leans towards the speed of Primavera and the Presto of Summer. He wrote the four seasons from four sonnets exacting details of the sort of dogs barking, names of birds; it took over two hundred years for the singing of his birds to reach the general public. Now we have a vague nausea when it plays in an elevator, or on CBC radio. The concerto was originally titled: The Contest between harmony and Invention.
In the park, Queen Elizabeth’s dress was magnificent in dark tones of English greens, encrusted with ochre and golden browns over warm blacks. The sky was perfectly overcast, with a hint of white light coming through, in a solemn way, as to reveal all possible shades of purple jades and golden maroons. When nature is that elegant, it is obscene to even try depicting it. The landscape was looking at us rather than us looking into it. The same happens when we read important books; the words, the letters and the white spaces in-between, are jumping off the page, in mocking evidences. I was delighted to read of this experienced phenomenon in Maurice Blanchot's L’espace littéraire. The whole scene was very British indeed, while the Columbian aspect of the city was to be found in the lanes; strange arrangements of faded pastels and metal works, especially in East Van, where it is more derelict, exotic quaint; fences with pink pineapple shapes carved onto them, a hint of Brazil – I’ve never been to Brazil – or only through Lispector’s fragments and Camus’s diaries. Maybe I have been to Brazil. Front gardens with tomato plants leaning on Italian stucco. Here a turquoise and brown Vancouver Special with a yellow rose garden right on the boulevard. The southern feel found in this northern west coast climate, is a total fiction, yet it is completely real. Vancouver even has a Riviera with white, yellow and pink buildings surrounded by palm trees. Palm trees. The vegetation here is a fabrication, with topiaries in perverse shapes bulging out of front yards like a Freudian slip, I love it. A shack can look regal with a row of triangular bushes and monkey trees, or an entire strip covered in tender pink blossom becomes a Japanese paradise. Even Portland, which is more south and has a lot in common with Vancouver’s layout, does not have this desired mirage for southern lushness and lotus land tropicalia. The West End is a unique enclave by-the-sea. You can cross the entire twentieth century, with architecture of every decade represented in a complex mosaic, each building having an exotic name; the Del Mare, The Donna Maria, now in Florida, now in L.A., yet totally in Vancouver. Fiction is about a desire to recreate an elsewhere, right here. Outside the West End we witness a vast patchwork with a countryside/small town suburban feel. Moving here from New York City, it took me years to tame my surroundings and understand that Vancouver makes suburbia so cool that picturesque urbanity is pushed out of style. That happened at the same time important art in the world was coming out of the peripheries, turning its back on the usual suspects of urban centres such as of Berlin, London and New York. While one can enjoy the West End’s senior gay resort feel, with well maintained tennis courts, fountains, illuminated trees and modest hotel-like swimming pools, it is the barbarity of suburbia that made it into the texture of visual art as a new context, following Baudelaire’s research in framing an unseen beauty in the strange spatial alienation of the forgotten outskirts. It seems obvious and natural now to understand that kind of beauty, but then, it was revolutionary in the business of seeing. Suburban sensibilities captured in contemporary art succeeded in making high density urban life style, along with industrial chic, a complete nostalgic cliché. Paris is a museum where French artists seem to be out of breath, rowing double speed trying to catch up with America. New York is locked in the twentieth century. Vancouver is all about becomings; with mattresses in the garbage, derelict backyards, uncomfortable waste lands with storytelling under overpasses…so much of Vancouver art is about understanding this place we occupy in an ad hoc way. Vancouver’s charm, while very overt in natural settings, takes time to reveal itself in its Wild West idiosyncrasies. Like art, one has to study it in order to understand it.
Experiencing the play of light throughout the seasons is part of understanding this hyper-realism in a lyrical fashion. The bright white light coming out at the end of a rainy day, making impossible blinding whites on porous surfaces; the same light emitted by slides in art history classes, coupled with the light box effect of billboards, rendering the surroundings sharp and crisp; hyper real; there is a language at play here, which is from and about this place, without the agenda of creating a monolithic regionalism, but then again visibly contributing to a national identity. It is particular to this place that in order to actually get to galleries where important art is shown, we have to make the extra effort in crossing difficult terrains, and this journey to go and see an exhibition becomes a pilgrimage onto itself. In order to reach the Belkin, one has to drive or bus for miles in a single straight line. The absence of curves makes me carsick. The gallery sits at the end of an infinite golf course which used to be Native land, I presume; on the edge of the New World inhabited by Pacific Spirits. In order to reach Presentation House Gallery, we have to take a ferry and climb a mountain. The Burnaby Art Gallery demands to take confusing highways and enter another municipality’s park. One night, lost in serial mall land, I gave up in trying finding Richmond Art Gallery and opted for Chinese food. Last weekend I ruined my Fluevogs by literally walking in a vast swamp in order to see a road movie encapsulated in a hip Le Corbusier-inspired domino pavilion which was starting to rot two days after the opening. Tomorrow there is an important literary lecture given in Surrey, but I am not sure I have the energy for the treck. Surrey seems to be the Monterrey of BC. I cannot wash away the images I saw on the news last night; decapitated heads on the sidewalk; mexican magic realism pushed to the descent into dark dark darkness. The preventive access to art and the idea of an art excursion taking up an entire day is for me a considerable irritant. Then again, perhaps there is something about having to go out of your way to see art; the promise of a breathtaking view at the end of a hike. It takes true love to get use to this and accept the whole journey perhaps towards not very much, perhaps for an entire shift in perception. Sometimes the art is the reward, but there is always the risk of finding an empty summit with the bad excuse written in the program, commenting on the expectations of the viewer and the suspension of disbelief. However, regardless of the relevance of what you are going to find, fashionable rubber boots are a must.
Coming back into town, I was in a pizza joint on Granville Street, lined with posters of Turkey and Greece. Leonida Pizzeria. Under New Management. Now Also Serving Chinese Cuisine. It is contemporary art that made me understand Vancouver, and vice versa. There is no general consensus here. It is more about disensus. Rancière just came out with a new book edited by La Fabrique, La leçon d'Althusser. It is not translated yet. I have to special order all of my French books. It is very different to navigate through the Amazon than it is to browse through piles of new fresh titles in several bookstores naturally furnishing an improvised Tuesday morning stroll. It Can’t happen here. Frank Zappa is Italian. Of course Frank Zappa is Italian. It made so much sense when I learned that he spent his youth in the Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert close to Edwards Air Force Base. Putting landscapes behind people's work help to comprehend the oeuvre. With all of its misgivings, the Wild West can be whatever you want it to be; a lot of freedom to design an original existence and produce newness outside usual conventions. Coming up against the functionalism of Le Corbusier, Heidegger, says that to inhabit is to Be. In a text entitled Building, Dwelling, Thinking, an excerpt from Poetry, Language, Thought, he emphasizes the link to “place” and suggests that building relates to dwelling, by involving a sense of continuity and community, relating to the notion of home. Heidegger argues that as human beings, we cannot fail to dwell, for dwelling, ultimately, is the essential existential core of human being-in-the-world from which there is no escape. To inhabit is for him the human condition of mortals between earth and sky; letting the stars accomplish their work by meeting one’s destiny, hoping to hear from the divinities who give sense to existence, while also accepting the absence of given sense. In a sequential conference he reads a poem by Hoberlin and declares that humans dwell like poets. Decades earlier, Wittgenstein was more succinct in describing a similar concept by stating: The limits of my world are the limits of my language: From Wittgenstein to Wendys’, from Starbucks to Starbucks to Starbucks to Costco to Canadian Tire. From Best Buy to Safeway to Future Shop, Staples, Home Depot, Starbucks, 7/11, Starbucks, 7/11, Safeway, Sushi, Starbucks, SuperStore, Dollarama, Pizza, Sushi, MoneyMart, Starbucks, Home Depot, Sushi, Staples, Shoppers, 7/-11, Shoppers, Starbucks…Architecturally, a dietary regime allowing only canned food. Neighbourhoods made out of shoeboxes are a disgrace. And we are all property of Jamie Pattison. On a daily basis, I am trying to Rize above it all and hope for the best, thinking that perhaps, at the end, everything will be all right.