The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 26



A  few years back I visited a filmmaker friend whose home is decorated with artwork from Port-au-Prince. The semi-abstract masks hammered from oil drums impressed me. In spite of the Haiti’s perpetual troubles — or perhaps because of them — street artists were producing work that radiated a comic, defiant spirit.

My friend’s partner had bought these eye-catching works — from artists off the international gallery grid — for a few hundred dollars total. In contrast, a Francis Bacon triptych depicting artist Lucian Freud netted $159 million CAD in November 2013, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. Then this February, another portrait by Francis Bacon sold for $78 million CAD at a Christie’s auction in London, well over it’s pre-sale estimate price of $52 million CAD.

At the same auction, a big reflective sculpture  of a cracked egg by American artist Jeff Koons fetched $26 million CAD.

Ironically, as institutional, big-money art has become more juvenile over time, the lingo around it has become, if anything, more pompous and complicated. (Anyone who’s stood in a gallery puzzling over the text accompanying a piece of art will know what I mean.) Artspeak may be exhausting bafflegab to the casual museum-goer, but for posers and scenesters it’s the write stuff.

As an experiment for this column, I picked a copy of the voguish journal Art Forum from the local newsstand. I opened it to a random page and found this:

“This limbo, I argue, constitutes non art. But for this limbo to acquire theoretical consistency, a fourth factor is needed: the explicit denial of all artistic qualities — and I mean denial in a quasi-Freudian sense, that is, an involuntary admission of a truth in the guise of its negation. The word no must be uttered, and its true, unacknowledged meaning must be ‘yes.’”

The context doesn’t really matter (a study of the late nineteenth century art scene). What’s important is that this passage communicates exactly nothing. Either I’m a dimwit or language of this kind is a sophisticated fraud.

The speculative art game of high-end auction houses has long been one of the favoured recreations of the hyper-wealthy. And it’s the job of the fine arts managerial class — curators, critics, academics and public relations gnomes — to clothe the works of art emperors like Jeff Koons in clever jargon. The occasional child or adult who shouts out ‘he’s naked!’ can safely be ignored. They don’t have Artspeak decoder rings.

Of course, this kind of lingo goes back a long way. In author Tom Wolfe’s slim 1975 book The Painted Word, the author describes an a-ha moment that came to him while reading The New York Times arts section in his bathtub. The ‘text’ — that is, the word from on high by art critics, publicists and curators — was required to properly interpret any given piece of art. “In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting,” he wrote.

Then as now, art theorizing demands run-on sentences thick with pseudo-profound paradoxes and radical posturing, punctuated with enough obscure terms to stump a Scrabble champion.

In the epilogue to his short book, Wolfe imagined twenty five years in the future, when paintings by the big names of his time — Pollock, de Kooning and Jasper Johns — would be reduced to small reproductions on gallery walls, dwarfed by “huge copy blocks, eight and a half by eleven feet each, presenting the protean passages of the period,” from the East Coast’s three reigning art critics: Greenberg, Rosenberg and Steinberg.

“Every art student will marvel over the fact that a whole generation of artists devoted their careers to getting the Word (and to internalizing it) and to the extraordinary task of divesting themselves of whatever there was in their imagination and technical ability that did not fit the Word.”

Wolfe overshot the mark for comic effect, but not by much.  I think back to those Haitian masks in my friend’s apartment, and I wonder why I find them so immediate and vibrant, yet often find the institutional art scene here and other North American cities dull as dishwater. Could it be partly because people living in the margins of the developed world don’t labour under the painted word, unlike many graduates of expensive art schools?


Climate change. Resource wars. GMO foods. Fracking, hacking, government secrecy and surveillance. You name it – in the list of news-making things to kvetch about, the institutional art scene hardly warrants mention, it seems.

Yet art is one of the main ways we make sense of the world – or cloak it with meaning or beauty it sometimes seems to lack. In theory. In practice and in person, I’m rarely moved by giant cibachromes or text-based installation art. Most of Vancouver’s outdoor installation art resembles elephantine paperweights to me.

Often it’s not so much the art itself that disappoints as the pompous, esoteric lingo attached to it. Four years ago, David Levine, a 42-year old American artist joined forces with Alix Rule, a 29-year old critic and sociology student. The pair combed through gallery press releases from around the world for examples of what they deemed “International Art English.”

“We spent hours just printing them out and reading them to each other,” Levine told the Guardian in 2013. “We’d find some super-outrageous sentence and crack up about it.”

The duo took thousands of exhibition announcements and ran them through language-analyzing software, trying find a signal in the noise. Levine’s conclusion: this “unique language” has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. [It] is oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.” (Common IAE terms include transgressive, hermeneutic, metonymy and narrativisation).

In last week’s column I mentioned some eye-catching Haitian masks made from oil drums, hanging on the walls of a filmmaker friend’s home.  How did the street artists of Port-au-Prince ever figure out what they were doing – or even do it, for that matter – without years of instruction in IAE?

Perhaps there’s a clue in anthropologist David Graeber’s 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In an aside, the author parallels the societies of Central Africa and Bali. Historically, both “saw a magnificent outburst of artistic creativity…. that took the form, above all, of an efflorescence of theatrical performance, replete with intricate music, splendid costumes, and stylized dance….at the exact moment that ordinary life became a game of constant peril in which any misstep might lead to being sent away [into debt slavery].

In other words, when things were at their worst for both peoples, it appeared their collective creativity was near a peak (African masks were a major influence on Picasso, Graeber reminds readers).

Of course, the linkage between creativity, suffering, and social transformation is easily lampooned, as on a button I once saw: “I suffer for my art and now it’s your turn.” That line probably resonates with more than a few gallery-goers who’ve wandered out of exhibits of name artists thinking, ‘what was that all about?’

“Visit art schools or galleries, and you get the impression that a substantial portion of the art world is content to serve as support staff to a global ruling class,” observes Holland Cotter in a recent New York Times editorial. Globally, institutional art now falls into two categories: the portfolio playthings of billionaire buyers and the hamfisted propaganda of demagogues and dictators. In North Korea for example, public art exists to service of the cult of personality Kim Jong-un inherited from his dad. (I’m thankful I do my creative work here rather than some nightmare regime run by some autocratic applause junkie, though I start to get fidgety whenever I hear Canada’s Prime Minstrel turn state dinners into Karaoke bar nights with his teeth-gritting performances of “Hey Jude” and “Sweet Caroline.”)

But I digress. Unless they hit the auction house jackpot, younger cultural creatives schooled in IAE find better work opportunities outside the gallery world, in animation, film, television, and gaming – fields where pompous, obscure communication is generally a hindrance rather than a requirement.

But what of my friend’s eye-catching Haitian masks, which came from a place far from the hermetically-sealed world of billionaire buyers, mystery-mongering artists, and obscurantist copywriters? The street artists of Port-au-Prince were not labouring under the dead weight of theory, or fabricating giant baubles for corporate-sponsored exhibits. They were doing something playful and creative – and saleable – in a land of immense social challenges. As the Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote in the 13th century, “Gold becomes more and more beautiful from the blows the jeweler inflicts on it.”

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 14 and Mar. 21








by Geoff Olson

ImageMy partner, who works from home, found it hard to focus on her job once she began to hear scratching sounds from the roof. “Listen,” she said, putting a finger to her lips and pulling me into her office.

“Sounds like rats to me,” I said after a moment’s silence. Too big to be mice.”

I placed a call to a Vancouver pest control company and described the situation. “Could be rats,” the employee said. “Could also be squirrels. We won’t know until we investigate.” I was hoping for squirrels, in part because the quote was less open-ended than for rat removal.

The next few nights were difficult for my partner. Scratching and scampering sounds were now coming from behind the bedroom wall at night. Whatever critters had holed up inside our house, it seemed they were multiplying like Spielberg’s Gremlins. “They’re building a nest in there!” my sleep-deprived partner exclaimed with dismay. (They turned out to be rats.)

Ecologists refer to rats and squirrels as “synanthropes,” meaning animals that thrive in association with human settlements. My partner is as creeped-out by their squatting as I am, but as a committed animal lover she is the first to tell anyone these highly intelligent creatures are capable of “laughter” (high-pitched vocalization during play, scientists claim).

How smart are they? Bill Bryson’s entertaining and informative book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, describes how rats will work cooperatively for a common goal. “At the former Gansevoort poultry market in Greenwich Village, New York, pest control authorities could not understand how rats were stealing eggs without breaking them so one night an exterminator sat in hiding to watch. What he saw was that one rat would embrace an egg with all four legs, then roll over on his back. A second rat would then drag the first rat by its tail to their burrow, where they would share their prize in peace,” Bryson notes.

If these critters ever evolve opposable thumbs, we’re screwed.

Rodents with designs on human dwellings come in three main varieties in temperate zones: Rattus rattus or the common roof rat, Rattus norwegicus or the Norway rat, and Mus musculis, the dusty-coloured house mouse. The first kind makes its home in attics and rooftops – like mine. The second is the scary one associated with sewers, urban back alleys and film noir. The third is the tiny scourge of kitchen floors and Disney flicks. All varieties are astoundingly prolific. Only the high death rate of rats – up to 95 percent for Norway rats – keeps the critters from tumbling from our cupboards and vents like coins from a slot machine.

If rodents were said to have any kind of superpower, it would have to be chewing. My partner and I put a compost bin in our backyard. Within a year’s time, rats – presumably the Norway variety – made their way through the bailing wire around the heavy-duty plastic, forming tunnels throughout the compost. But since it was outdoors, we weren’t all that concerned. Our cat, a mouser extraordinaire, was all the patrol we needed on the domestic front. Or so we thought.

Of course, there are multiple reasons why you don’t want rats in or around your home. “Rats consume and contaminate food with their fur, urine and feces. Rat burrowing causes streets and structures to collapse. Their constant gnawing damages property. This has caused power outages, Internet blackouts, computer crashes, fires and human deaths. It is estimated that 25 percent of all fires attributed to “unknown causes” are probably started by rodents gnawing on gas lines, electrical wiring and matches,” according to a document on municipal rodent management from the Illinois Department of Public Health.


The common squirrel is no slouch at destructive behaviour, either. Wild Ones author Jon Mooallem was intrigued by a story about a squirrel that immolated itself on a power line in Tampa Florida, cutting off power to 700 customers. So he set up a Google alert in 2013 using the term squirrel power. In less than three month’s time, he had catalogued reports of 50 power outages caused by squirrels in 24 states. “And these, of course, are only those power outages severe enough to make the news,” he wrote in the New York Times.

“Squirrels cut power to a regional airport in Virginia, a Veterans Affairs medical centre in Tennessee, a university in Montana and a Trader Joe’s in South Carolina. Five days after the Trader Joe’s went down, another squirrel cut power to 7,200 customers in Rock Hill, S.C., on the opposite end of the state… Nine days later, 3,800 more South Carolinians lost power after a squirrel blew up a circuit breaker in the town of Summerville.”

Mooallem’s list of rodent-related mayhem goes on and on: 9,200 power-deprived customers in Portland on July 1; 3,140 customers on July 23; and 7,400 customers on July 26 – 10,000 customers in Kentucky in two separate events a few days apart. The town of Lynchburg, Va., suffered large-scale power outages caused by squirrels on two consecutive Thursdays in June. “Downtown went dark. At Lynchburg’s Academy of Fine Arts, patrons were left to wave their lighted iPhone screens at the art on the walls, like torch-carrying Victorian explorers groping through a tomb,” observes the writer.

I discovered more of the same north of the border through a quick search of “squirrel power” on Google Canada. In June, thousands of Maryland, New Brunswick, residents were left in the dark, according to CBC News, after “a squirrel climbed in a substation, causing a breaker to catch fire, sending a trail of black smoke into the air,” in the words of a Brunswick Power spokesperson. In October, a bushy-tailed terrorist triggered a massive power outage throughout Fredericton’s downtown core. Also in October, a stretch of Highway 12 in Ramara Township in Ontario was closed for a few hours after a squirrel on a wire caused a utility pole to catch fire, resulting in Hydro wires falling onto the highway.

Canada’s national rodent-symbol has also made headlines in this context. On January 11 of this year, a 152-car train laden with coal was derailed in Burnaby after heavy rains washed out a beaver dam. “Almost the entire content of one car has been emptied into the creek and the contents of a second car are spread down the creek bank,” noted a spokesperson for Voters Taking Action on Climate Change at the time. It would be misleading to blame Castor canadensis for the derailment, but the incident demonstrates how bad weather and beastly habits can turbocharge the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Squirrels and other rodents cost US states hundreds of millions of dollars a years in repairs, all in a time of crumbling infrastructure awaiting trillions of dollars in uncommitted funds. The limit to their destructive ability has yet to be seen. A squirrel shut down the NASDAQ for 82 minutes in a 1987 incident. Another squirrel shut down the NASDAQ in 1994.

How do the creatures manage these assaults on the electrical grid? Two ways: the first is through obsessively chewing through wires. The second and more common method is for a scampering squirrel to touch on two pieces of energized equipment simultaneously, completing the circuit and exploding in a flash of squirrel-combustion (sometimes with an obliging pop). If the squirrel’s charred remains do not drop to the ground and remains stuck on the wires or equipment, it can generate a so-called “continuous fault,” which interferes with an electrical restart.

Utility companies have fashioned various guards to minimize these ongoing assaults on the grid, but rodents have millions of years of evolution behind them, as opposed to our few hundred years of industrial tinkering. One squirrel lights up on a wire like a Roman candle and a dozen more are ready to take its place, like a formation of nut-gathering insurgents.

Feral cats, raccoons and birds also contribute to the attack on electrical utilities, according to Mooallem, and the disruptions can be quite counterintuitive. “Last month, reports surfaced in Oklahoma of Great Horned Owls dropping snakes onto utility poles, thereby causing frequent power outages,” he observed in his Times report.


Back to the rats. In March 2013, after a mystery power outage at a Fukushima Daiichi power plant, engineers discovered the charred remains of a six-inch-long rat by a switchboard linked to the cooling system. The power outage deprived a pool of fuel rods of energy for cooling – a dangerous development, to say the least. The engineers believe the rodent gnawed on the switchboard cables, precipitating the blackout.

The nuclear complex, severely damaged by the March 2011 tsunami, requires a constant power supply so the repair work can continue uninterrupted and fuel rods do not overheat. The whole area is an atomic tinderbox, with many experts predicting terrible consequences from any unforeseen developments.

Just two weeks after its fried rat incident, Tokyo Electric Power Company shut down another one of the cooling systems to remove two more dead rodents. In November 2013, a warning alarm went off after a rat urinated on the alarm wiring. Then on December 10, rats yet again set off a power system alarm after entering a power panel box at the plant.

That’s four power-compromising incidents involving rats at a nuclear complex in under a year. We’re not talking about unrelated accidents, but a consistent pattern. Is this the way the world ends, not with a bang but by a whisker?


In his 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued that societies disintegrate when their investments in social complexification reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. That is, they get less and less out of doing more and more, while small perturbations scale up into large, nonlinear gyrations. The only way back to a state of social stability is to shed complexity – that is, to collapse, either slowly like a failed soufflé or suddenly like a house of cards.

Whatever dire threat you can imagine for humanity – solar flares, asteroids, nuclear war, global warming, a return ice age, a reunion tour by Styx – rodents seem like outliers on the apocalyptic laundry list. Yet they represent small nudges to complex systems sensitive to disturbances. Even marine life is getting into the act. In 1999, 40 million Filipinos experienced a massive power outage. Many thought a coup was underway, and in a sense one was – from a jellyfish bloom in the South Pacific that had clogged the cooling system of one of the Philippines’ biggest coal-fired plants.

On July 27, 2006, while docked in the port of Brisbane, Australia, the USS Ronald Reagan suffered an “acute case of fouling” from jellyfish in the words of the commander of the US Naval Air Forces. Thousands of the gelatinous creatures, sucked into the cooling system of the ship’s nuclear power plant, brought the ship’s onboard capabilities to a standstill. Then the most modern aircraft carrier in service, the USS Ronald Reagan was forced out of port by a species hundreds of millions of years old.

Yet the creatures are capable of even bigger defeats. In September 2013, one of the world’s largest nuclear reactors was forced to shut down after tons of jellyfish clogged the pipes that bring in cool water to the plant’s turbines. Operators of the Oskarshamn nuclear plant in southeastern Sweden had to cut power to one of the reactors to perform repairs. It was not the first, nor will it be the last, shutdown at an atomic complex due to jellyfish, experts believe.

The enormous blooms of jellyfish in the world’s oceans and lakes are thought to have resulted from carbon-compound acidification, coupled with the decades-long decimation of large fish species and other marine life by the global fishing industry. This has given the sci-fi organism an edge over declining species, allowing them to occupy a niche friendly to their Precambrian habits. In Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin insists we have taken the ocean past the point of no return and an invertebrate species more ancient than the dinosaurs is rushing in to fill a vacuum largely of our own making. It is all unutterably sad.


In a 1969 essay, naturalist Loren Eiseley reminisces about a discovery he makes after a nearby lot is dug up for a supermarket development. In his apartment, he finds “a little heap of earth on the carpet and a scrabble of pebbles that had been kicked merrily over the edge of one of the flowerpots.”

It is probably one of the furry inhabitants of the lot, sent scurrying by the bulldozers and backhoes, he concludes. Somehow, in his flight, a mouse “had found his way to this room with drawn shades where no one would come till nightfall. And here he had smelled green leaves and run quickly up the flower pot to dabble his paws in common earth.” But the naturalist never sees the mouse in his burrow, even though he looks hopefully for several days into the fern pot. Perhaps it was a victim of a trap in another tenant’s room, he figures.

“About my ferns there had begun to linger the insubstantial vapour of an autumn field, the distilled essence, as it were, of a mouse brain in exile from his home. It was a small dream, like our dreams, carried a long and weary journey along pipes and through spider webs, past holes over which loomed the shadows of waiting cats, and finally, desperately, into this room where he had played in the shuttered daylight for an hour among the green ferns on the floor. Every day these invisible dreams pass us on the street, or rise from beneath our feet, or look out upon us from beneath a bush.”

Our human dreams – of gleaming spires, belching smokestacks and atomic reactors – have not, for the most part, factored in the Earth’s other inhabitants other than as pests, pets, food or fodder for laboratory experiments. The present unravelling of the environment may turn out to be a final, fatal reminder that we are not the ‘crown of creation.’ Like any of our animal brethren, we are just another spectral form in nature’s Great Dreaming.

Common Ground, Mar. 2014