Ai Weiwei's New York Photographs

This is the transcript of an address given 13 Nov 2014 at the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver.

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Thanks everyone for being here. And thank you Shelly Rosenblum and the Belkin Gallery for inviting me.

I've only been full time faculty here for 18 months or so. And one thing I didn't know to anticipate were these cross-disciplinary conversations that were possible on-campus. Last week I enjoyed listening to novelist Camilla Gibb talk at the Peter Wall Institute about empathy and anthropology. Today I get to talk with UBC History professor Carla Nappi about Ai Weiwei. This is a great pleasure.

I’m going to avoid saying anything that might be mistaken for art criticism today. It’s not my field. What I’m going to do instead is draw on my own practice area – both in journalism and writing novels – and talk about the narrative that these images suggest to me.

I feel encouraged to do this by Ai Weiwei himself, who didn’t really consider this collection of photos to be a work of art in themselves. This will seem counterintuitive, I realize. Ai WeiWei is one of the most recognized contemporary artists in the world today. He curated this selection from 10,000 original pictures and took the time to put them in a particular order. And of course it’s hanging in an art gallery, so it must be art.

But what he actually said about this collection is: “I would not consciously have called it art. It’s just the activities in my life. Becoming more conscious of my life activities, that attitude was more important than producing work.”

The attitude Ai Weiwei was speaking about was the conviction that he was indeed an artist, a belief that everyone who wants to practice in the arts must somehow attain. Not trying to be an artist. Not planning. But being. With these photographs, Ai Weiwei seems to be telling us, he wasn’t making art, he was making himself as an artist, which is never easy.

As a storyteller, I find that very interesting. Narrative comes to life when three elements first combine: (1) character, (2) desire (for concrete or abstract outcomes), and (3) obstacles that prevent the character from merely claiming what is desired. That’s the juice of narrative right there.

And as I look at these photographs, that’s what I find myself seeing. The beginning of a narrative about Ai Weiwei’s movement towards an objective. He may be a superstar now. But these pictures offer a glimpse of Weiwei at his crucial moment of becoming. 25 years old, out of China for the first time, and for the first time also engaged in a fully autonomous way with his own dreams and desires.

So who was this young man, before becoming the famous man?

History is relevant here. Born in 1957 in Beijing, Ai Weiwei arrived just a few months after his father, the well-known poet Ai Quing, had been denounced by authorities, banned from writing or publishing. And the family had been sent to a work camp in Northeast China. The cultural revolution in 1966 arguably made things worse for them. And without dwelling overly on this history, just consider that Ai Weiwei as a nine year old boy saw his father publically and ritually and repeatedly humiliated. He saw posters with his father’s image and defamatory statements. He saw his father force-marched through the streets, chanting confessions to crimes he hadn’t committed, while children threw stones. In a particularly vivid memory, the artist remembers when his father was denounced as a “reactionary novelist” by people who knew nothing about his father's writing – he was a poet, and had never written a novel – and these people then doused his father’s face in black ink. Since the couldn’t afford soap, his father’s face remained black for many days.

The end of the Cultural Revolution didn’t heal everything either. “After 20 years of injustice,” he said. “We were given only these words: it was a mistake.”

They were back in Beijing however, and more free than ever before. Ai Weiwei joined the Beijing Film Academy in the Set Design department, where he was going to learn how to paint. But almost immediately he began producing work so outrageous to his instructors that they declined even to consider it for grades. Ai Weiwei eventually quit and applied to study abroad in the US.

So that is the young man who arrived in the East Village in 1981, working part time jobs and by his own description, not really having any solid idea what he was doing there. He speaks of just leaving his apartment in the morning and wandering, without direction or agenda.

But he did have a vision of himself as an artist. And so a crucial triangle takes shape: a character, desire, and all the many obstacles that you might imagine for a broke, new immigrant, shortly to be an illegal immigrant, who has this most impossible of dreams.

Luckily for us, he also had a camera with which that narrative beginning might be captured.

Not immediately however. But it seems that around 1985, or 1986, the photos really started to accumulate. This documenting of himself doing the thing he’d dreamed of doing.

Here’s the son of a poet who was forbidden to write for twenty years. Here’s an artist declaring himself to be subject to no such powers.

“I started my own life, in which I was very clear about my own decisions. Before that, I was a student and all the decisions were made by common requirements – you study at school, finish your studies, and then try to become an artist. Then I realized that I am an artist and that it’s my life and that’s the way I choose to live. So I started to take some photos… excited about this new life and this kind of attitude.”

No surprise then that Ai Weiwei developed what you might think of as the proto-selfie. Here he is at the MOMA


Here he is on West Fourth Street, where Ai Weiwei and other Chinese artists would paint the portraits of passersby.


The artist here is in the process not so much of examining himself as gathering the supporting evidence to prove himself, something this shot into the mirror really captures.

That’s Ai Weiwei recording Ai Weiwei in the process of becoming Ai Weiwei.

In the Facebook era, there is a tendency to dismiss this as self-promotion: fatuous and transparent. But here is a man raised on the edge of a northern Chinese desert, exposed for the first time to the possibilities of the individual. I find this mirror shot makes a lot of sense in that context.

Of course, it's important to understand that he wasn't an isolated loner as these images might suggest. Selfies run the risk of suggesting total self-absorption. But this doesn't appear to ahve been the case. In fact, Ai Weiwei seems to have been a social magnet during this time, constantly in touch with people, exploring, listening, exchanging ideas. One imagines the conversations to have been very lively.

Artist and intellectuals:

A film student from Taiwan.


Here’s the well known Chinese poet Bei Dao visiting with Ai Weiwei in 1988.

Bei Dao is the most notable representative of the Misty Poets, a group of Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Dao would go on later to write a book of essays about his time in New York called Midnight’s Gate which includes a cloaked reference to Ai Weiwei.

In a piece in Artforum, Philip Tinari writes: “Everyone in Bejing knew that his basement apartment on East 7th Street had become an unofficial embassy for the avant-garde in exile.”

As you might expect, in that case, he was friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Harry Smith

Smith was one of the Godfathers of the beat movement, an artist and experimental filmmaker and bohemian mystic. He was also a fanatical collector of paper airplanes, Seminole textiles and Ukrainian Easter eggs. He would have been living with Ginsberg at this time, having run out of money, an arrangement Ginsberg’s doctor eventually put an end to, the story goes, because Smith was giving Ginsberg high blood pressure.

 

 

Ai Weiwei met Ginsburg at a poetry reading at St. Marks In-the-Bowery. Ginsberg knew Weiwei’s father and had met him in Beijing. In the New Yorker, Weiwei describes Ginsberg reading his poetry aloud including White Shroud, which Ginsberg wrote for his mother. “I didn’t quite understand it. But he loved reading it.

If there was a kind of narrative bump, or turning point in this material, this collection of photographs, to me it seems to be the Tompkins Square Riot photos of 1988.

 

As some will remember, New York had a series of riots in 1988 relating to housing and public parks access. Tompkins Park had itself become a squatters camp which then Mayor Koch famously criticized for being filthy before acknowledging he'd never been there. A curfew was imposed. And on August 6 and 7, police tried to clear people out of the park in what was later referred to as a "police riot".

This is the front of Christodora House, which is on Avenue B on the east side of Tompkins Park. This is kind of ground zero for the whole dispute. Originally part of the American Settlement House Movement, Christodora House was built in 1928 to provide “low-income and immigrant residents food, shelter, education and health services.” It had a pool and a gym, and was sort of like a private rec centre with social housing. It was in financial difficulties by the 40’s and was sold to the city, who seem to have more or less left it for a couple of decades. During the 60’s it was full of squatters and was reportedly the National HQ of Black Panthers as well as serving as a set for porn films. Wiki tells me that both Iggy Pop and Vincent D’Onofrio at one point lived here.

In 1975, the city sold the property for $62,500 and within a decade the developer began to convert the building to condos, which cause further friction in the area. During the Tompkins square riots crowds broke in and trashed the lobby yelling “Die Yuppie Scum”.

Imagine how angry people would have been if they’d known that in another 20 years, 25 years, a 1400 square foot one bedroom in Christodora would run around $2 million.

Later there would be other protests in Washington Square Park Protest 1988, and Ai Weiwei would be there too.

And the following year would be the year of ACT UP AIDS protests.

 

 

I think what we’re seeing here is the shaping of a world view, shaping of a sense of skepticism about power. Here’s a young man marked by the cultural revolution, adrift in America, in the process of proving himself to be what his imagination told him he could be… It is probably critical to note that these protests here would have been followed in months by events in Tianamen Square.

Here’s an artist intensely, ferociously engaged I think. Taking stock.

“We were young at the time and soon identified with the values of the free world because of our recent history. We hated totalitarian society very much and longed for the so-called free world. Later, we  became more critical of the US when we found out the country didn’t have as much freedom as it claimed.”

Did Ai Weiwei feel hopeless though? One suspects not. Because woven through the difficult images are always people acting, people (like Weiwei, but in their own ways) claiming themselves.

For every act of suppression, and act of expression.

 

 

After 1989, although I haven’t counted them, it seems to me the selfies begin to get less frequent. Ai Weiwei is still present in all of these, but we sense the process of self-discovery is now past its beginnings, that something like conclusions or at least convictions are shaping themselves in this young man.

The future beckons.

The Godfather of Beat Generation, Harry Smith dies

Smith had a heart attack in Room 328 of the Hotel Chelsea. He died in the hospital later in the arms of a poet friend who reported that he was “singing as he drifted away”.

I find myself thinking that Ai Weiwei had an ironic glint in his eye as he selected this as the last of the series.

End credits. Cue the violin. The artist has left the building.

“My experience in the US was the most important experience of my life. There I learned about personal freedom, independence, and the relationship between the individual and the state, as well as the power structure of that society – and art, of course, I learned a lot."

I want to return to the poet Bei Dao for a moment to close.

This is a short excerpt from Bei Dao’ book Midnight’s Gate about his time in New York. Note that he does not name the artist friend that he meets, but you be the judge who he’s talking about…

“The first time I visited New York was in the summer of 1988. We went to the East Village to look for W...

He’d been living illegally in New York for eight years. People have different reactions to living illegally. Some people live as if they’re walking on thin ice, while others take to it like a fish to water. New York remakes people like no other place.

This man who was a good student – a sophomore in film school – had completely transformed himself. His eyes were gloomy, his face fatter, and his ears bigger.

He was now full of New York slang. As he walked down the street all sorts of people walked over to greet him, their faces full of respect. At that time, the East Village was a land of the homeless, drunks, drug dealers and those suffering from AIDS. He would always grunt a response, but would not say much, just pat them on the shoulder, or stroke their bald heads, and miraculously, their enraged, crazy spirits would calm instantly.

I asked him how he made a living, and he said he painted people’s portraits on the street. He then got out his painting tools, hailed a taxi, and dragged us to a section of West Fourth Street, where a number of other Chinese painters were already trying to drum up business. Unfortunately, luck was not with him that evening as he waited two hours with no one even inquiring about prices. When someone suggested he go to Atlantic City for a little gambling, he immediately closed up shop and sailed off.

I’ll let Ai Weiwei have the last word, a quote which I find resonating in each of these photos. It seems to me that if these photos do one thing, taken all together, it is to show Ai Weiwei reaching this conclusion:

“Creativity,” Ai Weiwei wrote in 2008, twenty years after that visit with Bei Dao… "is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one's imaginationperhaps more importantlycreativity is the power to act."

 

Posted: Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 9:27am
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The Achievement Square Fridge Magnet Game

In the middle of the night, early in the third week of UBC classes, Fall 2014, a strange installation appeared in the new square that's being completed out front of the University Bookstore and across the way from the soon-to-be-completed new SUB.

It looked like a billboard.


 

But it wasn't advertising anything.

Instead, it depicted the space right in front of the board, but completely empty of people.

That space, the University has decided, will be called Achievement Square. And it's intended to be a high traffic zone where people can congregate and express themselves.

The billboard wasn't advertising Achievement Square, however. It was asking passersby to envision the space as they might like to see it in the future.

 



Fridge Magnet Game. Wha...?

But on the other side, it became pretty clear. Dozens of little people, fridge magnet style, campus citizens in minature, available for you to arrnage in patterns of your choosing, doing whatever you think they would be doing, in combinations or by themselves.

People didn't need instructions. Fridge Magnets is like a universal language.

A day or so after install, the new square had been envisioned over and over again, hundreds of times.

Some visions were just what you'd expect:

Romantic congress. Observation. Critical distance. That's pretty much campus life right there.

Go visit The Achievement Square Fridge Magnet Game out front of the UBC Bookstore, a collaboration between UBC Creative Writing, the artist Byron "Cameraman" Dauncey, and the UBC SEEDS Program (social economic ecological development studies), which is itself part of UBC Campus and Community Planning.

Come down and play the Fridge Magnet Game. There are no rules. There are no age restrictions.

 

 

Posted: Friday, Sep. 19, 2014 10:05am
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Foodville

Foodville by Timothy Taylor
Print length: 47 pages
Nonvella

Buy the ebook on Amazon here ($2.99 US, $4.29 CAD). Print editions available on Amazon, June 26th ($9.99).

In this nose-to-tail culinary confessional, the acclaimed novelist behind the bestseller Stanley Park, Silent Cruise, and The Blue Light Project makes a three-course meal out of our food-obsessed culture. When and how did we all get so hyped up about food? What is driving our fixation?
Calling on Taylor’s fascination with food critic culture, his recollection of meals miserable and meals sublime, and his experimentation with cooking at the cutting edge and in the deepest recesses of the out-of-fashion, Foodville feasts its way through the dining rooms and restaurants of our era, evoking a telling, affectionate and yet critical portrait of what we really talk about when we talk about food.

Excerpt:

I FELL FOR a girl over a meal in the Top of the Horizon once, the restaurant on the 31st floor of the Blue Horizon Hotel in downtown Vancouver. I was five years old, maybe six. Some Danish friends of my father’s were in town and they had a daughter around my age. Her name may have been Bridget, or Heidi, I don’t remember. She was this perfect doll: straw blonde, green eyes. I remember she wore a white dress with a red ribbon around her waist. The adults put us across from one another at the end of the table, so it was like we had our own little dinner date going on by the window, sipping Shirley Temples and eating those 1970s shish kebabs of skewered cubes of meat and green peppers.

The food probably wasn’t great. But the dining experience was seminal, because I think even at that age I sensed what magical things were possible with the right person and the right meal. The right view. The right rays of orange sunlight sloping off the shoulder of Stanley Park. When that little girl caught me gazing at her, she smiled back sweetly as if she’d been thinking exactly the same thing. And at the end of the evening, she gave me a blue-lacquered wooden horse that she’d brought all the way from Copenhagen.

Fast forward 20-odd years. I was newly married, and had just taken a job with the Toronto Dominion Bank in Vancouver. My wife and I had moved from Toronto, but in the weeks before we finalized our apartment, the bank put us up at… the Blue Horizon Hotel. We didn’t eat at the restaurant. These were our La Bodega years, and I’m not even sure Top of the Horizon was open at that time. But while unpacking, we came across an old scrapbook my wife had kept as a girl. And tucked into its pages was a photo of her when she was five. I hadn’t seen the picture before or any other one of her at that age. Which allowed me to discover—in a strange temporal rush, that feeling of a vortex opening and connecting you to a very particular moment and set of feelings from the past—just how firmly that long-ago meal had stayed in my subconscious. How seamlessly woven into memory it had been. Because looking at that picture of my wife, I realized that at five years of age, and right at the same time, she and Bridget/Heidi had looked exactly alike.

***

SEMINAL MEALS, FORMATIVE meals. The plates and flavors we never forget.

I’ve been poring over old menus and recipe cards from the mid-1970s, trying to push myself back in time. It’s one thing to understand how our long-ago evangelists changed the food world in unexpected, even unpredictable ways. But can we the diners and review readers push ourselves back? Can we ever really understand what came before, what food was like before the revolution hit, before we surrendered it to the tossing of fashion’s seas?

I’m suppose I’m the kind of food lover who would try. I have an obvious fondness for the old school. My heroes Barber and Pepin are guys who both published recipes for a stuffed whole head of cabbage. (You don’t see that on many menus, these days…) I always appreciated how settled they both seemed to be in their own culinary practices. Not much would change about either of them from the beginning to the end of their public cooking careers.

Want more? You can buy Foodville over at:
Amazon.com ($3.99) or Amazon.ca ($4.29)
 
 

The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

I'm very proud that my piece on Fred Herzog for Canadian Art has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. It was one of the very view pieces I worked on and published last year for various reason including a change in my mix of work as I moved to UBC full time.

Canadian Art has given me a couple of the richest assignments I've had in recent memory, and I'm grateful to Rick Rhodes for the editorial relationship we've developed.

THE WAY THINGS ARE: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

See the rest of the story here.

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

- See more at: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2012/12/12/fred-herzog-art-of-observation/#sthash.CDuRBWOD.dpuf

 

Posted: Friday, May. 2, 2014 7:46am
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RIP Paul Walker

Not a lot of RIP Paul Walker posts in my various feeds this morning, despite the Fast and the Furious lead having died a grisly death on Saturday. I guess Walker doesn't have big profile in the literary scene. His films were middle brow. His acting wasn't overly nuanced. So he died in the burning wreck of a Porsche, I can hear the collective consciousness murmuring. Wasn't that kind of in the script?

Maybe. I don't know. Who knows anything about death but the dead? But I did meet Walker once. So I can talk about the guy I met, who surprised me.

I was working for Toro Magazine at the time, Canada's upstart Esquire clone that burned through a few million of a prominent Toronto real estate developors dollars before everybody came to their senses. They sent me to LA to interview him in early 2006, just pre-Flags of Our Fathers. Some PR genius set up the meet at the Peterson Automotive Museum (cars, get it? Fast and the Furious? Like a theme-interview.) We walked around looking at old cars owned by other actors for awhile, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen. Walker was unimpressed because he raced cars himself. He'd piled a GT3 into the wall at Willow Springs the week prior. No big deal because he'd use it as a parts car. (Chilling a bit to note that he was passenger in a GT when he died, but I digress.)

I gave him a break from cars and we found a booth in the deserted museum cafeteria. We got talking and were there for a couple of hours. And a very interesting person emerged: a guy who hated Hollywood, disliked being a public person, and spent half his time plotting an escape from both that he never ultimately made.

You can read the article here and decide for yourself what you think about him. But one part of the interview that didn't make the article sticks with me most. It was the moment Walker realized that I didn't cover Hollywood for a living, that I wasn't part of the machine, and that was the moment he suddenly got very candid.

We were talking about the film he'd just produced called The Death and Life of Bobby Z, staring Walker and Laurence Fishbourne (who Walker hugely admired)...

Walker: Everyone was rock solid. And I just hope to God it comes out all right. Because it was just good people all around. Olivia Wilde is just awesome. She was on OC, she played what’s that Misha Barton… Is that her name?

 

TT: I don’t know.

PW: You’re worse than me. Even I know her name. But I don’t watch any of her shows. You watch TV at all?

TT: Nah.

PW: (Long pause.) Me either. Do you have a TV set up?

TT: Yeah, it's set up...

PW: But you don’t watch it.

TT: No.

PW: You watch movies?

TT: I do watch movies.

PW: (laughs, shakes his head) You’re like me. I don’t know who anybody is. You don't know who anybody is down here. (laughing)

TT: No I don’t know Hollywood at all. I didn't know who you were. I had to look you up.

PW: (really laughing now, long pause) That is awesome!

[At which point Walker started to open up and eventually we get talking about life in Hollywood.]

 

PW:Honestly? I like my job, but I can’t stand the people. I hate LA. It’s misplaced priorities. Everyone’s got their head up their ass. No one gives a shit about anybody. Relationships are disposable. They play like they want to be your friend, but only because you’re the hot piece of ass.

 

TT: I suppose it’s because there’s a ton of money involved.

PW: Sure. Yeah. Wherever there’s money involved it's gonna be like that. In big corporate America it’s probably the same thing. You know they want to be buds with you and shake your hand, but there’s no real loyalty. It’s pro sports. It’s anywhere. And I don’t want to live that life.

TT: But let’s be honest, you're involved.

PW: Yeah but who wants to live that life? You can’t go anywhere without people going hey, hey, this or that. You lose your anonymity.

TT: So what's it like for you walking down Wilshire.

PW: It drives me crazy! It’s bad. I mean you hear these stories about how certain people are such assholes. And there such pricks when it comes to it. And I find myself doing it sometimes. I’m doing the same thing. Earlier today, when somebody came up to me. I’m just eating my damn burger and it’s like I don’t want to be bothered, I’m sorry. I gotta run. I gotta go meet this guy. Dude, I had 25 minutes. I was just down the street. I thought, surely I can just get this and get out. But you want to know why I was late. Because the entire staff of the [burger joint name] had to come out. And I just wanted to go [throws up his hands]. But the only reason I didn’t is because I don’t want to be known as the Dick. That’s the only reason I stayed. But what I wanted to do is go: leave me alone I gotta go! I’m running late, you understand?<!--[if gte mso 9]> 800x600 <![endif]-->It’s such a weird deal. It’s not grounded in anything.

 

TT: Does this underscore your desire to get the fuck out of Dodge?

PW: Yeah. But then no. It’s like: can you have a normal life and still do it? Can you eliminate all the pricks. Can you surround yourself with people you know are good people. Every one of those guys I worked with on Bobby Z? What comes first and foremost? Their families. They’re out there the whole shoot, and they’re not banging the hair stylist and then fucking an extra the next day. There are morals. There’s a morality. You know? But there are still certain days when I really feel, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

***


RIP Paul Walker. You got away, only not in the way you wanted and no in the way I had hoped you would since our now-long-ago conversation. Peace to the Walker family.

 

 

Posted: Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 11:52am
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A New Phase in an Unpredictable Writing Career

My writing career started an unbelievable 25 years ago in an unbelievable place: banking. I can't say it was by accident either. I started university as cluelessly as many (most?) students, thinking only that I was suited for the corporate life and with hardly a thought for what the content of a satisfying work day might be. During my undergraduate days, at the University of Alberta, I ended up focussing on economics, which genuinely engaged me. But I wasn't mathematically inclined enough to really advance far past intuitive concepts.

At the end of three years, I knew my undergrad (without econometrics) wasn't going to mean much. Looking to decorate my intensely modest CV with some more letters, I applied to MBA schools. I was accepted at Queens and decided to go there.

I remember my time at Queens with mixed feelings, honestly. I loved the place, and enjoyed much of the program. But something was seeping from my subconscious to the more interruptive frontal parts of my brain. My desk in my apartment (North of Princess, the down-market significance of which won't be lost on Queens students or alum) was stacked with non-business reading. Some reading choices I'm proud of, some make me cringe. I remember reading the Richler canon, which really shaped what I thought was a worthwhile endeavour in literary writing. But then, I also slogged through piles of Auden, which seems a bit histrionic in hindsight.

By graduation from B-school, I had myself a fairly entrenched set of career conflicts going on. I wanted to write, but I'd been shaped enough by a practical upbringing and (let's be honest) by the mimetic inspiration of six years of econ/MBA studies, to think that making money was also a solid idea. I went into banking and tried to do that. I'm not going to say I loved my time at the Toronto Dominion, but it'd be disingenuous to I didn't benefit from that experience either. Years later, interviewing famed Canadian literary ex-pat Mavis Gallant, she'd tell me that her early job as a reporter still fueled her writing by throwing off memories of character types, snips of dialogue, physical mannerism and narrative ideas. I feel that way now about my banking days, which involved me in the lives of dozens (if not hundreds) of small to medium sized business people. These were folks running hard to make things work, giving themselves to a whole range of worthy (and sometimes less worthy) projects. People in that position, people with real skin in the game, tend to show you themselves, tend to show you character, one way or the other. No surprise the first short stories I started to write during this period involved people at their places of work. Work shaped people, I understood. And even as I failed to do the work I wanted to do in any consistent way - write, publish etc. - I could see that my own work was shaping me. I'm grateful to this day to some inspiring bosses from that period, hard-asses all of them: Arnold Fenrick, Mike Lefevre, Breen Egan.

All that said
, me and the TD wasn't a relationship with legs. Year four, just as I was being offered a promotion that would have meant a move and more responsibility, I quit. I recall being summoned to the SVP Pacific's office and asked politely what the hell I was up to. I didn't even really have an answer. I was quitting to do something creative. I actually said that, which was a bit naive because it was so nebulous but because it probably also diminished the creativity in business work, of which there is plenty. In any case, the veep was a gentleman about it, the head of HR a bit less so. "Is your wife quitting her job too?" he asked, clearly thinking I was off to join a cult.

I won't go through the gory details of starting a writing career, only distill it to the following. I wrote constantly and submitted stories everywhere. I pinned rejection slips to my cork board. I celebrated when a rejection slip had a hand written comment on it. I did all the typical stuff, in other words. And I benefited greatly from what had come before. I used my experiences prior to inform my fiction (see above, characters, situations, personalities). I also used the ethic of the business world to inspire my overall approach. That doesn't mean I made much money. I didn't! But I kept writing (production) and read a lot (product development) and talked endlessly to people (marketing and pre-social media social media).

As for the holy grail - publication - it started slowly and picked up only slightly after five years (five years! I kept the rent paid with consulting work.) I placed two short stories in the first 3 years (thank you endlessly Grain and Canadian Fiction). I published a few more over the next couple years, then as these things go, a single editor (Allen Hepburn then at Descant) took an interest. The first phone call I ever received from anybody in publishing was from Allen in 1998, I think. He put me on to my agent and from there, a new kind of energy was in the works.

Still, it took 10 full years from quitting my job, and 14 years leaving university with the vague itch to write, to see my first book in print: Stanley Park. But that's also where the second big break point comes in this crazy career. With Stanley Park, I could call on magazine editors and actually pitch them with credibility. I'm not saying this credibility was earned, only they gave it because *I had a book*. So I started getting gigs. In 2000, enRoute Magazine send me to Korea on the first assignment of what would be a long and continuing relationship (I think the enRoute article count is now at something like 26 pieces?). But there were other great client relationships formed during this period. I loved working with Toro and Saturday Night and Vancouver Review. And I'm proud to continue work with the best magazine editors out there, those at Harpers, Walrus, Eighteen Bridges, Cooking Light, Vancouver Magazine and a whole range of others.

After 13 years of that model - writing book length fiction and hundreds of magazine length nonfiction pieces - I took up teaching. I got into it by plugging into an SFU workshop on behalf of my friend, the writer Shaena Lambert. In those workshops, part of the SFU Writer's Studio program, I discovered something I couldn't have known about myself: I enjoyed that time with aspiring writings. I enjoyed the give and take of ideas (freelancing is like soloing a sailboat around the world at times, rewarding but... well, solo). I also benefited greatly I think from the critical process, listening to others critique work, improving my own critical skills such that they might be applied to my own work. When a full time position was advertised at the UBC Creative Writing Program in early 2013, I found myself considering a position for which even three years prior I'd have thought myself completely unsuited.

I'm thrilled to have been accepted by the team of writers at the UBC Creative Writing Program, along with fellow new hire Nancy Lee. But I also feel a very distinct feeling, unlike anything I've felt other than that moment quitting my banking job and that later moment when Stanley Park helped me turn another corner. The career has changed it's course, however slightly. It's shifted on its track and taken more wind. I'm looking forward to the Fall with real anticipation: to enagaging with students at various stages of their own writing projects, to working with the others here in the program, to bringing what I've done to this point to bear on the future, which is what I've somehow been lucky enough to do all along.

Here's my UBC contact page. Thanks everyone at Creative Writing for the chance and here's to the future.


 

Posted: Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 12:49pm
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Zahed Haftlang's Big Idea

The first time I met Zahed Haftlang was over two years ago, in connection with an article I wrote for Vancouver Magazine called Blood Brothers. That story was one of hope and determination. An Iranian boy soldier during the Iran-Iraq War, Haftlang saved the life of an Iraqi soldier, Nadjah Aboud, on the battlefield. Twenty years later (begging language like "miraculous" and "only in the movies") Haftlang and Aboud met again in Vancouver. They'd both endured years of war, imprisonment, torture, and abuse. And that moment of recognition – both men waiting for counselling at the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture, no less – became a friendship that lasts to this day.

As I wrote in Vancouver Magazine more recently, the double helix of the story is endlessly compelling. And the story has touched many, many people. I’ve been contacted countless times by people wanting to know more. And Haftlang himself has told me that people showed up at his place of work after the first article was published just to pose for pictures with him.  

But it hasn’t all been sunshine and happiness. It perhaps never is for refugees and survivors of torture. Both Haftlang and Aboud carry haunting memories. And Haftlang has struggled to stay employed. He lost his auto-mechanics business in 2012, and is still looking for a job at the moment I’m writing this post.

All that said, Haftlang also isn’t a guy to give up easily. He’s written a memoir with journalist Robert Matas that's looking for a publisher. He’s also planning an incredible walk to the United Nations (yes, from Vancouver to New York City, by foot) to raise awareness of both his story and the world's urgent need to set aside war.

Some would say the idea is quixotic, romantic, idealistic. And it would certainly be easy to dismiss it in that fashion. Only it’s worth bearing in mind that this is a man who has walked exceedingly long distances before. He crossed a good part of Northern Iraq by foot as a boy soldier. And after his release from Iraqi POW camp in 1990, he walked across Iran on his return home. He doesn’t boast about any of this. In fact, when he tells me about those long walks, he shrugs and notes that the weather was good.

Walking to the UN would take over 100 days, and he’s solicited the help of various people to help him. He has a website up now, called Step For Peace, although the donation parts of the site were still under construction at the time of writing. He’s looking for sponsors now to help him finish these things and begin preparing. But he remains determined. And the last time I saw him, on Upper Lonsdale after lunch at a Persian restaurant there, he shook hands with a firmness that speaks to his commitment.

My hope for his future is that there are more “only in the movies” moments.And if you're reading this and can think of a way to help... please visit Step For Peace.

Posted: Friday, May. 3, 2013 9:15am
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Global Civic Public Salon Address

Address to the Global Civic Public Salon 3 April 2013

My mother passed away seven years ago this past Sunday. And I was having lunch with Sam and Lynn a couple weeks back and told them a bit about her and my father, and the crazy, unlikely story of how they met. And Sam said: you know, you should tell that story at the salon. You’re passionate about it.
 
Which I had to think about, but then decided he was right. The story of how a half-Jewish refugee from Europe and a nomad Torontonian of seemingly no fixed address managed to meet in Guayaquil Ecuador is a critically important story to me because I can see now how it’s shaped my thoughts about home, my affection for Vancouver and for traveling… even my writing. Maybe especially my writing.
 
When I published Stanley Park – which is about a young locavore chef and his at-times complicated relationship with his anthropologist father, the Professor as he’s known, who’s living in Stanley Park and researching a community of homeless people living there – well only one person read that book and asked if the professor was inspired by my father. That one person was my brother, so he had an inside track. What my brother didn’t catch was that the professor – this man so consumed with both roots and rootlessness – was also very much inspired by my mother.
 
 

 
My dad was what you might call a classic nomad. He’s in Toronto in this picture, but he's not long for that town. What I see is a mixture of restlessness and ambition in this photo. He’s about to go to the Mediterranean and hunt German U-boats. But there’s tens of thousands of pre-airliner travel ahead of him after that. Back to Toronto, then to the Philippines and then, all the way around – Manila, and then stops in Vietnam, Sri Lanka then Ceylon, the Suez, the Med again, various cities in Europe and then back to Toronto. And still restless when he returns. Sitting at his desk, in what’s supposed to be his home town, I imagine him thinking one day and realizing he'd never been to South America and deciding he had to go. And in the movie version this is the moment we see him mounting a gangplank with a duffel bag, the knife of a ship’s bow cutting the waves, my father on the fo’c’sle, all anxieties sliding away in the salty air.
 
Prisoners becoming nomads. Refugees becoming settlers. That’s what this story is all about.
 
 
 

 

My mother wasn't restless, like my father. She arguably had more serious problems. Born in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could say, that is: born half Jewish three years before Hitler took the Reichstag. She spent the last years of the war in hiding and by the time it was over everything conceivable about the concept of “home” had been destroyed. Burnt down. Bombed. Taken away. Her old house flattened. Her family scattered or dead. She and her sister and her mother made their way to Paris via the International Refugee Organization. Spent three months living in an apartment above a brothel in the fifth where the madam fed them baguettes and fresh tomatoes. Sailed across to her new home in 1948 on ship called the Marco Polo. In the movie version she isn’t on the fo’c’sle, I imagine her sitting at the stern instead watching her life disappear with the wake. Caracas, where the air smelled like flowers. Baranquia, where it didn’t, where the shacks stretched up the hill. Through Panama and down past La Isla Puna into Guayaquil harbor, Ecuador where she was reunited after 8 years with her father, who wrote in his diary that day: They’re here. All is well. But to the 18 year old girl working in a bookstore, the sentiment might have been more complicated. I think I know what she was thinking because she spoke of that time. I think it was something like: what in the world will become of me?

I once traced my parents' twin journeys on the family globe when I was a kid and determined that at one point in 1948 they were on almost exact opposite sides of the globe. My mother in the bookstore where she was manager, and my father…. 12 and a half thousand miles distant in the China Sea running a surplus minesweeper down from Subic, crawling into Manila late at night through the submerged wreckage that threatened to sink them. He was on the fo’c’sle again this time, only on his stomach with a flashlight shining it across the water, calling directions back to the bridge. Port. Starboard. Full astern. OK forward. Making his slow way through.

How do these things work? How could these people meet? Something makes it possible for the nomad and the refugee, so far apart that they almost literally couldn’t be further away from one another without leaving the planet… something makes it possible for one of them to be sitting in a house party in Guayaquil Ecuador wondering where all the pretty girls are, and for this one to walk in.
 
The prisoner wants to be free, and so he roams.
 
The refugee wants to settle, and so she seeks her home.
 
There are twin freedoms to be had which they demonstrated to me: the freedom that puts roots under our feet, and the other one that puts wind in our hair.
 
 

 
We finally settled down. 1965. My father and mother have finally, finally took a shot at something like roots. West Vancouver. We’d lived in Venezuela up to that point where I’d been born in the town of San Tome, the last of five kids.
 
And what a move. Five kids aged 1 to 8. 13 pieces of luggage. We had stopovers in Washington and Toronto. My mother gave my two older brothers a sedative, 60’s era best wisdom on how to travel with feisty boys. The doctor didn’t mention these sometimes work to opposite effect. So it was 20 hours in planes with 5 and 7 year old boys wandering up and down the aisles acting like the town drunks. And even arriving in Vancouver, the move wasn’t over. We stayed first in a motel under the Lions Gate Bridge, then in rented digs in Burnaby where the whole lot of us came down with the mumps.
 
All told, it was 217 days after leaving Venezuela and the nomad/refugee life behind, that the family Volkswagen Beetle finally pulled into the driveway of our new house in West Van and disgorged the lot of us to the amusement of curious neighbors. Tucking us all into our beds and cribs that night, I can only imagine how fatigued my parents must have been, how existentially relieved to have that permanent roof over their heads.
 
However they felt, I apparently didn’t. That night, having kept my peace throughout the long move, I started wailing. And I kept wailing. All night. And the next night. And the next night. I took breaks during the day to eat, apparently. Otherwise, I kept it up for a week, sitting on the end of my parents’ bed. The eighth night I stopped wailing and fell asleep, my point seemingly made.
 
 

 
Well, as you can see from my final picture here, I was no worse for the wear. But when I look at this last picture, I know I’m stamped somehow: it took some tears, but here is the settler/nomad in the making. Vancouver is my town and I hold to it with a tight grip, only letting go …. every chance I get. Dubai, Igloolik, Trancoso, Xishaungbanna, Shangri-La. I’m leaving for Los Angeles tomorrow and how do I feel about that? Well I have to. I have stories to write. And I want to be there, just as much as I want to return.
 
I guess you could say: I’ve never met a place I didn’t like to come home from.
 
Of course I’m just waiting here. Waiting for all that to happen. All those experiences, all those words in potential, all queued up and ready to live. Thanks to my father. And thanks to my mother.
 
Thank you all for listening. Enjoy the rest of the evening.
 
Posted: Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013 7:43am

The Nomad and the Refugee: a trip home in 70,000 kilometers, 18 years and 217 days

My mother passed away Mar 31, 2006, almost exactly seven years ago at the time of writing. Memories of her are still with me powerfully. And the story of how she met my father is one of those genesis-legends that I now understand to have shaped me crucially: my love of Vancouver, my affinity for travel, and maybe most of all, my writing.

On April 3, 2013, I'll be speaking at Sam Sullivan's Public Salon and talking a bit about my mother's life as a refugee and afterwards, also about the remarkable, unlikely way in which she ended up meeting my nomad father. Between the refugee and the nomad, they had tens of thousands of miles of travel under their heels at that moment of their first dance at a house party in Guayaquil, Ecuador. And they weren't quite done yet.

Sam Sullivan's Public Salon, 7:30PM to 9:00PM, April 3, 2013

Vancouver Playhouse, 600 Hamilton (at Dunsmuir)

 

Posted: Friday, Mar. 29, 2013 9:39am
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1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes: Outtakes from a week in the culinary trenches

My article about cooking incredibly difficult food from the most insane cookbooks of the year is running over at Cooking Light.

1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes ("Can a home cook learn anything from the supercompmlicated cookbooks of the world's most celebrated chefs? We asked Timothy Taylor to dive into the deep end and throw some dinner parties for friends.") Marina Dodis shot the pictures for the magazine. Here are some outtakes I shot myself. Random preparations and plates.

11 Madison Park Radicchio and Mango Salad with Basil Gel

Blanched basil leaves

Juiced basil
Set up with agar-agar
Assembly, note re-pureed basil to make gel
A pretty plate. Basil gel necessary? YMMV

NOMA Dinner with Heston Blumenthal dessert, by far the most massive undertaking I've ever attemped in any kitchen, anywhere.

Obsessive planning paid off, in the end. Couldn't have done it by memory.

Beets and blood oranges for the jellieParsley OilApple gel for discsShallots marinating in blueberry juice24 hour oxtail reductionImprovised "dirt" for the NOMA vegetable fieldShocking veggiesPlating the app: Blueberries and OnionsSpectacular dish. Amazing flavours.Plating the vegetable field: mashed potatoes, shocked veggies, top with dirt and carrot greens.Et voila. Oh man. Goo-ood.A hit.Apple discs for the mainApple *gel* discsOxtail, oxtail reduction with verbana leaves, apple garnishOxtail with reduction, apple, sunchokes and crisp verbana leavesBlumenthalian Jelly.

 

 

Posted: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 12:12pm
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