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Tesseracts 17 Interview: Lisa Poh

anthology, speculative fiction, SF, fantasy, Canadian authors

Tesseracts 17 is now out with tales from Canadian writers that span all times and places.

Lisa Poh hails from her home in Montreal, but is also from Singapore and uses a bit of both cultures in her story in Tesseracts 17.

CA: “Graffiti Borealis” deals with the urban landscape, but touches on a very Canadian aspect of landscape, the aurora borealis. Was this your intention?

I didn’t really set out to write a Canadian story. It just struck me that living in Montreal, I should write a story set here, so that was what I deliberately set out to do. When I started thinking about the landscape of Montreal and Quebec, Graffiti and the aurora borealis, two things that fascinate me, suddenly connected. Graffiti surrounds you in this city everywhere you go, and with the bright colors, it can be the most vibrant thing standing out amidst the aging concrete and brick. When I thought about it, it struck me that it was a like an aurora borealis in the city—neon, alive, always shifting, disappearing and reappearing.

 CA: Landscape plays quite an important role in this story, especially in feeling a part of or alienated from one’s surroundings. Daniel feels this in several ways. What cultural/societal motifs did you want to highlight?

I think that the immigrant experience always involves feelings of alienation, and simultaneously, of confrontation. There is a lot of push-pull attraction happening on different fronts. You want to integrate, and yet you want to remain yourself. Diversity is a huge part of the Canadian identity in my view. But as an element of society, it is not always something natural or easy. After all, what is assimilation, and what is it we are supposed to assimilate into? I thought it was interesting to have Daniel, who comes from the straight-laced, law-abiding Anglophone Asian track, thrown into partnership with La Guéparde, his opposite in so many ways. But yet, they are the same on some levels and have the ability to relate.

CA: Graffiti is a unique form of rebellion, art, political commentary and cultural nomenclature. Can you speak to those aspects in context to this story?

poh, graffiti, art, rebellion, cultural alienation, fantasy, speculative fiction, Tesseracts 17

Lisa Poh uses cultural and urban landscape in her tale “Graffiti Borealis.”

Oh yes. I come from Singapore, a country where painting graffiti on public property is punishable by caning and avenues for political commentary are restrictive. So the proliferation of graffiti here, along with the freedom of political protest, are some of the things I notice the most. My reaction is complex—sometimes repulsed, sometimes admiring. When I guide visitors through the city, I point it out with a mixture of disapproval and pride. Yes, this is Montreal. I tried to express these feelings through Daniel.

CA: Will we be seeing this world or the characters in other tales?

I haven’t any plans but if the inspiration strikes, why not?

CA: What else are you working on right now?

Right now I’m taking a writing break as my typing hands are full with a very vocal four-month-old baby. Once he learns to sleep on his own though, I hope to work on some new stories and a novel!

Lisa Poh is a writer, teacher and communicator who grew up in the tiny tropical metropolis of Singapore, but now lives in Montreal, Canada, with her game designer husband. Together, they consume too much caffeine and own too many books, video games and manga for a small apartment. A graduate of the 2009 Odyssey Writing Workshop, Lisa’s fiction can also be found in Expanded Horizons and Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories. She is also the author of two high school English textbooks used by schools in Singapore. She blogs at http://lishwrite.wordpress.com/.

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East Van Wall Art

wall, graphic art, graffiti, art, wall art, East Vancovuer, East Van

Bugs on the wall

East Vancouver, around the Commercial Dr. area is known as the boho artsy part of town. The neighborhood used to have and still does, a heavy Italian and Chinese influence, mixed with artists, First Nations and lesbians. It’s eclectic, used to be lower income and filled with many restaurants. Every fall there is the East End Culture Crawl where people can wander through the many artist studios in the area.

wall art, East Van, art, culture, crows, graffiti,

Wings on the walls

As much as these characteristics are part of the cultural pastiche of East Van, the natural fauna  include raccoons and crows. Crows and Ravens are our local board and even the seagulls don’t compare. Every evening as the light leaves the sky, murders of crows fly east to Burnaby and the Grandview cut to roost for the night.

feathers, crows, East Van, wall art, graffiti, graphic design, boho, art

Feathers on the wall

It’s no wonder that recently in a community beautification project, that crows feature largely.  Britannia Centre includes a high school, day care, library, park, year-round skating rink, swimming pool, gym, courts and other areas. The school grounds take up several city blocks and on the west side there is a large retaining wall. A few years back, they rebuilt it and people have been trying to do some community gardening there though it’s been sporadic.

wall, East Van, art, design, crows, graphic art, graffiti, wall art, communityBut recently, in the last two months, during Vancouver’s cool weather this year, people were showing up to paint the walls. I was curious. Was it a random flash graffiti mob or was it organized? People came with stencils and I’d say the bottom part was done by participants who didn’t need to be artists. Several people blocked the background geometrical colors, while others came along and blocked in one color with a stencil.

Later, I saw some guys doing the top part of the wall, which is covered with flying crow silhouettes. The bottom half has bugs, bicyclists, birds and leaves. What really worked for this wall was the range of colors, bold swatches behind bold designs. All of the images have had depth added to them with brushstrokes of other color. The wall is interesting and complex without being overly busy and it’s so much nicer than the bland concrete of before.

wall art, culture, East Van, Vancouver, art, crows, graffitiI don’t know who paid for this project, if it was the community or the city or some combination but it is a beautification plan that has greatly enhanced the area. The wall is two blocks from where I live and I love walking by it. The only thing that could dampen it, like some of the other walls in other areas, is if people paint graffiti over it. I don’t mind graffiti but it’s disrespectful, pointless and destructive to paint over other art. Here’s to hoping there are more projects to make the city look better, and to community spirit.


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Movie Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy's art

On the weekend I went to see a movie with a friend, and it’s not the type of movie I normally would see. Usually, I like my escapist mind candy. I see a lot of speculative (SF and fantasy) movies because it’s what I mostly write. I like a good drama; once in a while a good comedy. I don’t tend to go to horror/thriller movies, slapstick humor, chick flicks or documentaries. With documentaries I guess I feel I want to just enjoy a world of make-believe, of fiction, and not have my emotions tossed all over the place. Or I believe they’ll be boring.

So I wasn’t expecting much when I heard we were going to see a movie about graffiti artists, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The movie started out with this guy Thierry Guetta and his obsession with filming everything in sight. There was a little interview/statement at first by some guy in a black hoody whose face was hidden and his voice disguised. The shots are like old home movies, bad angles, out of focus, insipid color. I didn’t think much of the first ten minutes, but then the brilliance of the movie started to unfold.

Now I come from an art background and I know there is graffiti art, those jagged large letters on walls all but unreadable, yet of a discernible style. There are wall murals but they look to be done by artists hired by the establishment. There are some pictures or posters. And there is the slogan graffiti, like the one on the little bathroom in Grandview Park, painted with a simplistic landscape and some crows, but some anti-everything anarchist defaced the art by painting “F**k the pigs!” and “Kill the pigs!” Not particularly intelligent, deep or new and nothing to do with the most recent protest (on upgrading the park facilities) which was when it was painted.

What I had no clue about was the depth of graffiti art, or street art, where people devote their spare time and money to making images and posting them, usually illegally. How this relates to Thierry the obsessive videographer is that when he is visiting family in France his cousin makes these plastic tiles and sticks them up on walls and underpasses, and they, like his name, are all about Space Invader. Street artists have aliases (probably to protect them from police and being fined) and become known for their particular style. They will print 10-20-foot tall images and then paste them to sides of buildings. What I did notice of all the artists shown was that they use blank walls and never deface public art. They might paint over a previous artist’s work if it’s old and known as a graffiti wall.

The better artists have a good style and may also have a message to get across. Thierry in his obsession began filming his cousin and was then filming numerous street artists, in a way documenting a transitory art form that had not yet been captured for history or memory’s sake. One of the most notorious  and political street artists was in Britain and goes by the name of Banksy. As Thierry finally meets Banksy, Banksy tells him it’s time to get this documentary out there for everyone to see this impermanent form of art. But what they don’t know is that Thierry has thousands of cassettes and he’s never looked at any of them or cataloged them in any order. What results is an unwatchable 1.5 hour film.

What is evident through this film is that it’s a bit of a biography of Thierry, a documentary of street art, a commentary on art and value, a look at culture and a very complex, multi-layered piece. Along the way it’s obvious that Banksy and others stepped in to take some of Thierry’s footage and make something truly historic. And street art starts to move into the big LA and British galleries, being auctioned off and worth big money. Banksy tells Thierry to go home and make some art. But what he didn’t realize was how powerful Thierry’s obsession was.

Thierry goes from filming to wanting to be a street artist too. Banksy gives Thierry a quote: “He’s a force of nature and I don’t mean that in a good way.” (paraphrased) Thierry isn’t just doing a bit of street art; he’s doing a lot. Plus he mortgages his house, sells his business and mounts a truly monumental show. In essence, he makes himself an artist almost overnight. And the thing is, this guy isn’t the trendy artist, nor an anti-culture rebel icon. He’s very provincial, sort of an innocent, and not very eloquent, and yet, he has something. This film also is about what is art and can someone create art without going through the long steps of training and gaining notoriety.

The brilliance of this documentary is subtle and so multi-layered that I’m still thinking about it. And yes, it highlights the elusive Banksy, who remains mysterious, but then it looks like, in the end, that he produced the movie. And Banksy, well, he’s subversive, he’s political, he’s talented and really quite brilliant (I hope his head doesn’t swell too much should he read this.) I’ve included one of his images here, which says a lot , and his website from where I found this piece. You can also find out when the film is being viewed in your city. http://www.banksy.co.uk/index.html

Exit Through the Gift Shop is so ingenuous that it’s worth seeing, whether you like documentaries or not, or are interested in culture, art, history, politics or people. And this is a subtly funny film too. I know that when I go for walks from now on, I’ll be looking at graffiti with a different eye. I don’t know how big the street art movement is in Vancouver but I can say that the best of it is truly a form of unique art worthy of appreciation. I would give this film five stars.

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Freedom of Speech:Shhh, They’re Listening

Freedom of Speech. It’s a big thing in democratic countries and we hold it like a torch to indicate how different we are from the regimes, the dictatorships and any place that silences writers by putting them in prisons, house arrest or just killing them. The pen is mightier than the sword and it’s been feared by conquerors for a long time. And of course, those who win are those who write the history books.

But North America: Canada and the US, we’re different. We truly have freedom of speech. A person can get on any bandwagon and scream their beliefs and they won’t be stopped. Of course they won’t. Not where the media will see it anyways.

Conquering nations, or just those in power that manage to vanquish the foe, like to show how good and just they were for doing so. This attitude extends down the line to foe being interpreted as famine, poverty, unemployment, deficits–you name it. Any trouble that a government faces becomes the foe or the need to do some PR and impress the voters with how good you are and how right and just your cause is.

So, freedom of speech. Do we really have it? No. It’s selective, even in these democratic countries.

Years ago I was in New York City, staying with a friend. Desert Storm had just happened and the troops were coming home. There were giant yellow ribbons around some buildings as well as on fences and trees. Two interesting incidences about the smothering of anti-war/Desert Storm protests became evident. In NY even the cop cars seem to be banged up and have graffiti. There’s is graffiti and slogans everywhere. When someone spray painted numerous bus stop shelters with an indelible ink on the glass with anti war statements NY made an unprecedented move.

The slogans were removed in 24 hours and if they could not be cleaned from the glass, well the glass was replaced. There was no way that the ticker tape parade was going to be affected by people protesting what they felt was wrong about US troops in other countries. A minor thing, perhaps, and could be chalked up to city maintenance but my friend said nothing like that had caused such wholesale cleansing before.

He also lived near a park (I no longer remember the name of it) known for having demonstrations of different types. The police had set tape around the perimeter, with other obstacles, effectively blocking any access to the park before or during the arrival of the troops. No demonstration in a designated area and in fact no freedom of speech. Muffling of dissenters is what happened in the great democratic nation of the US. Don’t go against the government.

Is Canada any better? No. We like to pretend we’re calmer, more polite, more peaceful but the 2010 Winter Olympics is coming to town. Our fair city of Vancouver has changed some existing bylaws. These bylaws will in effect give the city engineer the right to make up bylaws on the fly. “I don’t like the anti-Olympic sign in your window: I can make a bylaw, invade your home, remove your sign and arrest you.” In fact, that’s part of the bylaw already, giving people only 24-hour’s notice before being invaded or having signs, posters and whatnot confiscated.

Of course, the city councillors say it’s for protecting people. Because we know what nasty papercuts you get from pamphlets and anti-Olympics posters. There has already been a case of a woman being tailed and questioned outside of her classroom because she just happens to know and anti-Olympics protestor. And like she said, this has caused her to be against the Olympics, a reverse of what the Olympics gestapo are probably hoping for: shiny happy people ecstatic that their tax dollars are going to something they can’t afford and having their rights infringed upon.

Who knows, perhaps if they find this blog, I’ll be tossed in the can before the Olympics. I’d rather they just deport me to Greece for a month. It’s hard to be for the Olympics when games start taking precedent over civil liberties. Can we say Beijing? Can we say Germany, 1936. I wonder if Gregor Robertson has been brainwashed or is wholesale for clamping down on people’s rights to protest. Oh and if you happen to be in a zone that’s close to any venue or anything the Olympics committee deems important, know that you won’t be able to get in or out the same way as usual, and you might not get any mail for the three weeks because they are removing paper boxes and mailboxes. That’s one great way to curtail freedom of speech, just remove anything that has words in it.

I’m waiting for our Olympic souvenirs. You know the ones. We’ll get them a week before the opening and they’ll have a spiffy logo on them. They’ll come free of charge but we’ll all be required to wear them throughout the Olympics: our own personal gags with a free gag law attached.

http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2009/10/09/bc-anti-olympic-sign-law-bccla.html

http://www.torontosun.com/sports/vancouver2010/2009/10/07/11334116.html

http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Olympics2010/2009/07/21/newspapers-Olympic-bylaw/

http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/vancouver/2009-09-17-protest-zones_N.htm

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