I've Got Balls (Apparently)

I was chatting with my friend Adam last night. We haven't been in touch in a while, but he's had a chance to read some of my writings online and called to congratulate me on the venture. "I like what you're doing," he said. "It's really ballsy." "Really? How so?" I wondered. "Well, the fact that you're writing about artists who you one day may work with... I could be risky depending on what you have to say." Hmmm....When I decided to embark on this process, the thought that it might be detrimental to my career as an artist in the future hadn't occurred to me. Even though I've been having my work published in newspapers and magazines for the last yen years, I'm always just a little bit surprised when I hear someone has actually read it. Writing is indeed one of the most isolating creative practices and I think all writers at one point or another have the feeling of being a castaway, pitching message filled bottles into an ocean in the hopes that someone, somewhere will find their words and connect with them.

Certainly one of the most rewarding things about this whole exercise has been creating some kind of connection with the people who are reading my work, be they friends and collaborators I see all the time, or random strangers who stumble across it online. The format of blog writing, which allows readers to respond immediately, not only to what I've written but to each other, has shown me that, whether or not they agree with me, people are genuinely interested in what I have to say. The thought that putting my opinions about the work of my contemporaries into a public forum could possibly jeopardize my future working relationships hadn't crossed my mind until now, but since someone brought it up, I decided it was worth thinking about.

The artist-as-critic model is nothing new. For years, Toronto has been subject to the scribblings of Richard Ouzounian, the famed theatre director-cum-critic, whose writings (many people have suggested) are more about ingratiating himself to specific companies he hopes to work for than they are about giving an enlightened opinion to the public. When I first started writing for NOW Magazine in 2003, the thought that I might become another figure like that (a sort of Ouzounian for the indie performance scene) crossed my mind. It was something I wrestled with and eventually overcame. The big difference between someone like Richard Ouzounian and I is that I'm not interested in working with some of the artists I write about in this forum. I'm interested in working with all of them.

One of the challenges of writing for a publication is that you don't always have the choice of what you cover and what you don't. Essentially, your editor will send you a press release for something, with a word length and a deadline, and that's the end of the discussion. If you're a free lancer, you always have the option to say no to a specific story, but the simple fact is that writers will do just about anything for money and declining an assignment can mean you're without grocery money next month.

Fortunately for all of us, this blog is different. Because I'm not beholden to an editorial team, I can pick and choose exactly what artists and which pieces I want to talk about and I have no plans to write about anything or anyone I'm not completely interested in. I won't say that I absolutely love every thing about every piece of work that I see, however if I'm writing about something it's because I believe it's worth seeing and engaging in dialogue about and that the artist producing it is someone I think is interesting and would potentially want to collaborate with in the future.

When I was working with bluemouth inc. one of our common practices was to engage in discussion with the members of the audience in the space where we had performed after the show. Occasionally, this discussion would instead take place at a bar nearby, depending on the amount of rat shit and dead birds that happened to be in the particular space where we were working. The purpose of this discussion was not just to hear how great we were, but to get suggestions on things that could be done differently. Indeed, in most cases right up to the very last night of a run, we were adjusting and changing things, depending on feedback we got from our audiences and each other. Coming from a very traditional theatre program where the show is set as of opening night and nothing is changed, the notion of a piece of performance as a living breathing thing that evolves and changes over the course of a run was both refreshing and revolutionary for me, and is something I've maintained as part of my personal artistic mandate throughout my career.

I think we as artists have become terrified of hearing people's opinions of what we do, though I do believe this is in large part due to a review system that caters to bad reviews. Journalists love writing them as much the artistic community (though we loathe to admit it) love reading them. A few years back there was a blog called Review The Reviewer. Essentially the purpose of that site was to allow members of the artistic community to discuss and dissect things that journalists were saying about us. Topics of conversation consisted of how all the critics (except Jon Kaplan) were self-serving assholes, that no one in the public went to see shows that got less than four stars (or N's), and that the whole system was fucked up and needed to be changed. At one point, I posed the question to that community of how many of us will go and see a show that's gotten a less than stellar review. The response was sort of an online equivalent to everyone staring and the ground and shuffling their feet, though one respondent did mention that they were "too busy making One N shows" to have time to go and see other work that got less than excellent notices.

I suppose this long and tangential diatribe has been a way for me to say this; I want to change the way work is written about in Toronto. I want create writing about work, not to tell you whether or not to see it, but to engage in a discussion after you've already seen it. I will only cover artists whose work I'm interested in, not for selfish reasons, but because I believe that there's a lot of work out there that I'm simply not qualified to talk about. I have a specific aesthetic that I'm interested in and knowledgeable about and I'm going to reserve my opinions for that work, rather than blathering on about things that are outside my oeuvre.

As for whether or not the whole venture is "Ballsy", FreeDictionary.com defines "Ballsy" as:

"Very tough and courageous, often recklessly or presumptuously so."

In the case of what I'm doing here, I'm not sure that definition completely applies. I've decided to think of the whole venture as "Ovarian" as in:

"Very tough and courageous, but done rationally with much forethought."

I also like that definition because it implies the power to give birth to something new, which is what I'm trying to do here. I want to create a new way of thinking and talking about art. A new way for our community to engage. Maybe even a way for us to sidestep the hostile critical climate which which are unfortunately beholden to and allow artists to decide for ourselves what work we are interested in seeing and supporting. It's a big challenge, given where we're starting from, but I feel like I'm up for it. And if that takes balls, then I guess I have them.


Lisa PN said...

thanks for creating this blog.

it's pretty awesome and i would like let people know about it via the red letter.

you are great.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Congratulations for creating such an insightful blog. I really enjoy reading your entries and will spread the good word to my friends in the arts community here in Windsor.