OneLove @ The Cultch
ArtQuake’s two evenings of youth expression explore issues of identity through art and performance
Words by Celesse McCarthy
Photos by Jensen Gifford and Ash Tanasiychuk
This year, ArtQuake, in conjunction with The Cultch, hosted OneLove – “a 2-day live arts celebration celebration honouring youth leaders who are using their art to initiate positive change in their communities.” (from artquake.ca)
ArtQuake’s goal is to help youth (aged 13-25) capture their understanding of identity as well as help them develop their technical and creative skills to translate their explorations into spoken word, music, theatre, paintings, photography and mixed media displays.
With the help of mentors Graham Myers, Rachel Gamboa, Stephanie Gagne, and Kim Possible, twenty youths were given the opportunity to develop themselves as creative individuals. Their works (along with works done by youth outside the mentorship) were showcased in an exhibit and performances at The Cultch this past August.
VANDOCUMENT was asked to be official media sponsor. Our team went to the event and discovered there was more to these youth, and to OneLove, than met the eye.
AUGUST 21 – Silent Auction Gallery Walk
It excites me to be back in my old neighbourhood – Grandview-Woodland – where my youthful wanderings laid the tracks for my future as an adult. I quicken my pace to get to The Cultch where tonight I expect to be inundated by works that speak to youth & the issues of identity.
Looking at the works produced by the OneLove mentees, I am reminded of the question: ‘does art reflect life, or does life reflect art’ – something I was challenged with in my first term of college. As I enter the anteroom of The Cultch I notice it is tickled with tracts of self-referentiality that only the critical mindedness of youth can create.
Jannika K. has illustrated a self-portrait with a female head suspended in water. Talk “bubbles” (pun) eject themselves from a sealed mouth. “Boop Boop!,” “Blub! Blub! Blub,” they say, the face speaking underwater, but not saying anything intelligible. I talk to Jannika and she declares confidently, “I had an hour to create a self portrait with only newspaper and watercolour.”
Matthew T.’s self portrait is a little bit different. His exhibits a face with broken, fragmented skin that is cross-hatched with stitches. Cells show through the cracks at the top of the portrait, a brown seeping out of the top. I realize the portrait is embedded in the image of an iPhone.
The audience is expanding. A young crowd is engaging in dialogue about their pieces. I’m starting to believe in the process that ArtQuake allows: a group of young students having an exhibit in an established setting where they can safely engage in content exchange. It’s a definite contrast to my experience as a young artist, which, without this sort of support and encouragement, left me insecure and jaded.
The bar is open, but is not being occupied – the crowd has found themselves a home near it, cusping adulthood. Huddling to express closeness and eagerness, the teenagers’ words are flying with a fervour I can’t replicate in any other space – much like the pieces which are specific to the event. I move toward a corner of the room where photographic portraits are being taken against a press backdrop.
Zoya J.’s “Tell Me Your Story” chronicles, in acrylic and pen on canvas, an open book with a steaming cup of coffee. Curling from the top of the book is a wave, above which emblems of youth (butterflies, music notes, flowers and a clock) identify the themes in the book which isn’t actually a book, it’s a diary, as indicated by the pencil next to it. Zoya complains, in her description, that “In a fast-paced, technology-oriented society, it is simpler to make assumptions about people than to make time to truly connect with them.” I’m not sure if the description really speaks to the piece, but maybe that’s because I am too assumptive.
Another piece below, by Stephanie G., titled “Hair” is a board wrapped with fake weave. The artist’s description claims “hair measures the passage of time.”
Stephanie G. mentored three youths. When I asked her about her process, she said she “let them know basic techniques and steered clear from vocabulary.” She also “taught them to price their pieces and how to talk to guests.” She focused on helping her students choose a theme and how to put that on paper with technique.
The photography portion of the exhibit shows more complexity than the painted self-portraits. In one of the series, “The Three Wise Monkeys,” a young boy holds his mouth while a painting of a woman in the background holds her mouth. Below, he holds his ears beside a wall of graffiti, and directly below, painted hands hold his eyes. Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, See No Evil: It’s something I can understand would be bewildering for a youth who is attempting to understand the world, but is barred by a convention that maintains that children should not be privy to knowledge that would otherwise corrupt them.
Beside this series is a list of diptychs focusing on gendered norms. There is a photograph, “Colour Coded,” of teddy bears and purses paired with a photograph of xbox and sneakers. Then, “Gender Identity,” a girl dressed as a man then of a woman. Below, “The Norm,” an office building and a kitchen.
The self portraits created by these artists highlight physical, social and psychological aspects of identity.
Outside the main gallery, in the side hall, is a space shared by Community Arts Dialogue and Stories of the Diaspora. The descriptive text describes: “The Community Arts Dialogues engage individuals in exploring how art can create healthy, thriving communities and catalyze change.” Stories of the Diaspora pieces were created by participants at an “event hosted by the Canadian Council for Refugees.”
In this section is an amazing charcoal sketch of embraced feet by Leanne T. who claims, “Similarly to personalities, two (feet) may be similar at first encounter but… it becomes clear that we are all different from the multitude of occurrences in our lives.”
There’s an emergent theme in all the pieces; an exclusion that is exacerbated by cultural paradigms which are seemingly inescapable. While I believe these are important themes to look at, I hope these artists don’t dwell on their suffering (like I do even as an adult) and move beyond typifying relationships, reducing them to stereotypes and binaries. It is important to challenge youths to look beyond immediate reactions. It is important to look at identity and oppression, but it is also important to challenge our understandings. It seems all these teenagers want is to stop being teenagers, but the realities that exist beyond these walls are much more emphatic and pressing, and to thrive, it will require imagination beyond technique, pricing, and gossip.
AUGUST 22 – Performance Evening
Tonight’s instalment of OneLove is being hosted in The Cultch’s theatre. In the lobby, the youths’ portraits, photographs and paintings have remained on display from last night’s exhibition opening. I notice in the middle of the display wall a glitter-covered dildo accompanied by a chapbook that pronounces that the space is a queer / genderqueer positive event.
I overhear one of the youths exclaim; “I don’t usually wear this much makeup!”
I am surprised to see the lower section of The Cultch’s spacious theatre is full. Thankfully, they open the balcony area to allow for extra seating. The space is brimming with excited youths, parents and community enthusiasts.
When the theatre had simmered, the organizers give an opening speech. It includes the encouraging phrase, “Art can be used as an effective tool to fight oppression.” A few organizers give lengthy, formal speeches to drill the message. Another organizer claims, “Art is essential to leadership and change-making.”
After twenty minutes of formal speeches, the MC asks the audience to turn on, and be active on, their cellphones – live tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming – but he fails to mention the hashtag that would benefit the organization in their dissemination. Apparently, there is a contest for tweeting. Later in the programming, the MC announces the hashtag #onelove which, when searched in twitter, is unfortunately filled with unrelated things including a football game play-by-play.
An improv group from the tri-cities take the stage. They work a 1-2-3 game with the audience, taking suggestions like ‘antidisestablishmentarianism,’ ‘dishwasher,’ and ‘computer salesman.’ Most of the jokes they make are puns.
There’s a poetry slam. While they explore the theme of identity, they have unfortunately not been given adequate poetic techniques to fill out their diary-like entries.
Following this is Alana, a singer-songwriter with a songbird voice, very much like Cat Power in her delivery. She explains that she’s “written a lot of new songs. [She] just realized none of them are appropriate for now.” I wonder why they are inappropriate.
A male pop-punk four piece, Chase Your Words, performs. After a technical hiccup with the wireless bass, the band sing their power-chord-riffed, bubble gum lyric laden anthem “You and Me Tonight.” The song, unfortunately, reasserts a heteronormativity that is not disguised by their excellent hair and awkwardness. I discover a universal truth: as a teenage boy, all you need to do is jump around in tight pants to make teenage girls scream.
Perhaps the most poignant piece of the evening: four performers make themselves act as clay while another three ‘mold’ them into random positions. The remaining two youths then explain the art to the audience. Amazingly, they perform an improvised satire of art and art criticism.
On reflection, it seems ArtQuake’s focus on art does not come as much from artistic practice, research, or experimentation but rather, on grassroots activism. It could even be said that OneLove was encouraging an expression of agitpop, a highly-politicized style of art that had a negative connotation in the West, due to it’s origins in communist Russia. Agitpop is now seen as leftist, political propaganda disseminated through literature, drama, music, or art.
There is nothing wrong with this take on youth art, as youth is a time of internal struggle exacerbated by increasing awareness and participation in the larger, “adult” world, which is admittedly f**ked up and frustrating. Responses to the massive problems in the world are needed, and starting on a personal level by tackling issues of “identity” is a great place to start. But without the knowledge that these are the underpinnings of ArtQuake’s intentions, it would be easy for the audience to dismiss some of the expression displayed by the youth tonight at the Performance Night.
For more photos, check out our OneLove gallery
Founder of VANDOCUMENT. Photographer, illustrator, lover and supporter of arts & culture.