Arts on Parade

September 1, 2009

This spring, about 600 artists of every stripe flew from British Columbia to the nation’s capital in time to catch the cracking of the tulips. They were there for a two-week festival called B.C. Scene, engineered by the National Arts Centre as an expo of our province’s culture. (Atlantic Scene happened in 2003, Alberta Scene was in 2005, and Quebec had its in 2007.) For those two weeks, the one place in this country meant to studiously represent everyone took a stab at regionalism.

Within a five-block radius of the stout brown N.A.C. complex, there was a constant flow of airlifted artists: Bramwell Tovey, Valdy, Douglas Coupland (who Tweeted his arrival, calling Ottawa “the Bonn of Canada”). Amidst Ottawa’s usual crowd of well-suited bureaucrats and ill-suited CBC correspondents there moved a recognizable fleet of cultural ambassadors greeting each other with the pleased but cool recognition that the wealthy issue when they run into friends in Saint-Tropez.

What surprised many attendees (American talent scouts in particular) was that this flock of artists had no hammered-down “scene” to sell them. In fact, the more you saw at B.C. Scene, the harder it was to isolate a B.C. trait.

Each song, dance, and exhibit seemed to offer a separate account of the province. When roots phenom Alex Cuba sang at Centrepointe Theatre, it was entirely in Spanish. And Cuba poked at the Englishness of his adoptive home: “The first time I spoke to a lady in Vancouver, I was almost arrested.”

The next day, during an intimate concert in the National Gallery’s Rideau Chapel, 22-year-old opera starlet Simone Osborne premiered a song in Farsi by UBC student Iman Habibi. Also at the gallery, the superb Nomads exhibit only served to muddy the waters further: it positioned Vancouver’s visual artists (Geoffrey Farmer, Althea Thauberger, Myfanwy MacLeod) as heroes of rootlessness. And a (rather lame) production of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe reminded everyone that B.C. culture is always laid atop the decimated First Nations cultures that preceded it.

The most anticipated B.C. ambassador at the Scene was Diana Krall, whose consummately performed Peggy Lee-like ballads did little to clarify local culture. Between her jazz standards, she joshed a fan (“Shut up; it’s my show”), swooned about the joys of sleeping with Elvis Costello, and, most bizarrely, said that the botanical gardens in Brazil remind her of Vancouver.

Plural identity may be commonplace in North America, but it’s a special problem in Vancouver, which has become concerned with that larger expo, the Olympics, and the civic branding those games entail. A city needs to be on message, all agree, but what will the message be?

One morning I was writing on the steps of Parliament, opposite a massive digital clock that counts down the seconds to the Vancouver Olympics. A woman in a sari, accent as thick as her sunglasses, walked up and, while photographing thousands of cardinal tulips, asked me if I was a tourist.

“Sort of.”
“Where are you from?”
“Vancouver."
She gave me a confused smile. “Is that in this country or another one?”
Good question.

Certainly our artists were semi-strangers to both their capital and each other. “There’s no curatorial through-line,” said a foreign presenter one morning after she’d taken in her fill of the happy jumble. Translated roughly, what she was saying was this: “I have no idea how to describe this to my board members.” The N.A.C. shuttled minivans full of scouts like her, representing 20 countries, from venue to venue in search of shows they might wish to import to their own lands—B.C. Scene was a marketplace as much as a festival.

On the second-to-last night, one of those minivans left the capital altogether and drove a half-hour north to the tiny lakeside village of Wakefield, which, despite its size, has a significant claim to fame: its bar, the Blacksheep, is known as a discovery joint for indie bands. (One kid on the patio lit his cigarette off a tiki torch and said, “I saw Arcade Fire here way before they went big.”)

The opening act, Miss Emily Brown, was sweet but earnest in a Feist-lite way. She announced one song as being drawn from women’s war diaries; a presenter murmured into her beer, “Uh-oh—that’s all you need to know.”

The prevailing atmosphere was indeed earnest. The well-loved, shabby establishment was packed with warmly drunken nouveau bohemians. A pair of women cuddled by candlelight; a pack of groupies swayed by the stage.

The headliner, Mother Mother, created such a fever in the room with its literate, breezy pop sound that you couldn’t help having a visceral experience. Most kids in the bar had no idea the concert was part of B.C. Scene. They were sharing something, not observing it. It was a moment of lived culture; nothing was being explained or represented or marketed. It was just a bunch of musicians playing and singing, and 200 ecstatic youths chanting, “Encore! Encore! Encore!”

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