It’s a big part of the Canadian condition to have to know what you want and where to find it. The climate makes it so. Still. Like Inuit taking that first midwinter peek out of the igloo to read the stars (and decide whether or not what it says about the hunt makes it worth getting up at all), or the man or woman in any number of our towns and suburbs who plots that first drive via the Tim Horton’s or espresso stop (mine, this morning at the Hotel Arts), the Calgarian who is at all interested in the arts needs to have a route and a destination in mind. Even more so if he or she is keen on the “alternative” scene—which, in a city (and a province) that is overwhelmingly politically consensual, is a predilection that makes the day even more difficult.
This is not to say that there is no arts scene in Calgary—not at all. Obviously there is, and festivals such as WordFest and, come January, the High Performance Rodeo, are a big part of it. But art in any alternative sense struggles in a city where graffiti and street art is considered vandalism if it is not controlled and electronic music noise and the prospect of youth listening to live bands even without booze raises the spectre for most of a Bacchanalian rave in which kids’ souls are lost to some demon God probably related to Pierre Trudeau. Eight months of cold streets and tough by-laws in a city so spread out it takes half a tank of gas to get most places have made of Calgary—a tremendous city, don’t get me wrong, did you see this morning’s dawn?— with its own quiet samizdat. Poets, as Shelley famously said, may be the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” but that is not at all to say that what they do, or even a city like Calgary, can be entirely legislated in the way it grows. Still, the city tries—with the CORE/ Devonian Gardens project, for instance, with its new three block indoor streetscape safely under glass, or the famous House of Blues soon to be transformed, if the money is found, into a splendid but nevertheless more anodyne place of music in what was until recently the last unruly, down and out part of the city (one that the photographer George Webber has chronicled in the photographs of his recently published book, Last Call, and that he spoke about on Friday at a fascinating WordFest event at the Glenbow).
Yesterday, wanting to learn a bit more of the city in which Anne Green’s Wordfest operates, I cajoled Jaime Cundy of Calgary’s non-partisan youth lobbying group Artsvote into showing me their version of the city. Tee shirts work. (I shall be ordering one of theirs.) I’d seen their table of four during breakfast at the Avenue Diner and asked what they were up to and they explained to me that their purpose was to enquire after and expose the arts platforms of, in this case, the political candidates in the city’s upcoming municipal election. Hours later, of course, Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with the day’s metro news sensation—candidate Barb Higgins having had a total hissy fit at a CityTV morning interview with the bunch and, so irritated by their inquisitiveness (entirely civil, they’re good polite folk) and the left turn her interview had taken with Mike McCourt, that she rudely exclaimed, “Who crapped in everybody’s cornflakes?”
But, as in any situation where there is a big urge but official channels are blocked, ingenuity will find a way. Jaime took me over to 17th Avenue, a neighbourhood that was once ‘Electric’ but is now more gentrified. It is fairly easy to see, here, that the prospect of seeing and being seen with a beer and a pad thai on a kerb-side patio is slowly transforming the district into a ‘borough of high rents and driving artists out, which is why it was pleasing to have discovered the efforts that a collective like ART CENTRAL is making by offering affordable shop and studio spaces to a bunch of artists and galleries in their small three-storey mall at Centre Street and Seventh Avenue. Still, there was evidently an “alternative” life on 17th Avenue yet, the two of us immediately greeted by a lean (well kempt) and handsome fella pinning up posters for a pop-up nightclub meet who told us to go see a bridge on Stoney Trail, the underside of which had been wholly and gloriously painted over, so it seemed there was.
“He’s a part of the electronic music scene,” said Jaime—intoning, i.e., that he was a thorn in the side of most councilors—and then she took me past a small, prettily painted ordinary house a mere block away where, she said, there were often art shows put on in the garage. By-laws, she explained, made it very hard for especially visual artists who cannot afford a separate studio space to work at home, and similarly prohibitive rules prevent even those who are so inclined from renting out basement suites rather than full-on apartments so that it is hard for artists starting out even to find a decent pad in the city. We knocked on the door of the house and Sean MacAllister, the young man who curates the shed gallery (with an exhibit by Marcel Bourre on this day) showed us in.
“So,” I asked him, “what’s your advice to someone trying to make it as an artist in Calgary?”
“Get a job,” he said. And then, apologizing, he locked up and went off to his bartending gig at The Coup.
– Noah Richler, WordFest’s Official Festival Blogger
Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for WordFest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.