Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Design is a Verb 


Amik, designed for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, George Huel, Yvon Laroche, Pierre-Yves Pelletier and Guy St-Arnaud.

Seeing the documentary Design Canada opened a bit of an old wound for me. One where I remembered that time in frustration I acted like a bit of a jerk. The film highlights the quality of graphic design work, primarily in the "international" or "Swiss" style. It showcases roughly a decade of Canadian design from the early 60s to the late 70s. Primarily the time just before Expo 67 and the time just after the 76 Montreal Olympics. This was a tremendously optimistic era for Canadians and several important symbols for Canada and Canadians came to life. In 1960 the Canadian National railway were convinced of needing an entire brand identity system and not just a logo. From those efforts came Allan Fleming's classic CN logo. Only a few years later a committee was struck to determine a new original flag design for Canada based on the maple leaf. By some miracle, a committee of politicians and bureaucrats actually choose a great design, which was later carefully crafted and fine tuned by a small design team.

These two designs seemed to be the beginning of a genuine emergence of talented designers making great work in Canada. Well, to be fair, talented European men who had come to Canada and worked from Toronto and Montreal. In most respects, this wave of talented immigrants and the work they did is the story of Canada. We are nothing if not a community of communities. In fact, I would stop there when describing any kind of Canadian Character or … ugh, I hate this expression but here goes, "Canadian Identity". Therein lies the salt in my old wound.
“…did these symbols, in fact, design Canada?”
When I studied design, almost the entire staff consisted off immigrant Canadians from places such as the UK, the Netherlands and Poland. It was great and really eye-opening for a Newfoundlander to meet and learn from these fine fellows. Except, it grew very tiring to hear of the golden age of Canadian Design (and in particular of the federal agency Design Canada - never mentioned in the film of the same name) as having come and gone. Yup. It was over. Oh those halcyon days were so fine and never to be repeated. Rather than imbue their students with the confidence to create from their own world view, they instilled a cynicism that took a generation of young Canadian designers to shed. I also grew very tired of having the Canadian Identity explained to me by these guys. There certainly is a truism that "newcomers" have a unique view of their adopted land and that is immensely valuable. Yet the view they had was one of the two solitudes of Protestant Ontario vs Catholic Quebec or even more succinctly put, TO vs MTL. The view of the teaching staff - even the Canadian born ones - was so incredibly myopic, they had no idea of the insult they gave every time they extolled the Canadian virtues embodied in maple syrup and Muskoka chairs. So, as a young man I routinely struck back. One thing I said then, to a particularly disagreeable Anglo-Canadian was that I was tired of "having a bunch of old European guys lecture me on what the Canadian Identity was". That came out wrong - I may have even been more forcibly insulting and said "old foreigners" - which was shamefully more xenophobic than ever intended. If a 20-year-old woke bi-racial woman asked "Why should a bunch of old white European men tell me what my identity is?" it would go viral today. That certainly wasn't the case then and in truth, I wasn't offended by "foreigners", but by Ontarian and Quebecois identities being offered as some kind of ethnic simulacrum of "Canadian Identity". What I really meant was I was fed up with "mainlanders" telling a Newfoundlander that to be Canadian was to drink beer while eating maple soaked bacon sitting on a rock in Northern Ontario, listening to Neil Young. Or as Brent Butt put it, the all-Canadian story is that of a Moose who wants to play in the NHL but his father wants him to take over the canoe factory. People in places like Newfoundland, Quebec, the Yukon or New Brunswick never really have to ask "what is the Canadian Identity?" because they know that is a telling question fielded largely in by Southern Ontarian media concerns.


Parks Canada,c. 1970 Roderick Huggins.

This attitude was distilled in a line from the documentary, "…did Canadians design these symbols or did these symbols, in fact, design Canada?" Okay, dear designer, climb down from thine lofty perch for a moment. Was the period from Expo to the Olympics a golden one? Undoubtably. Were these designers working at the highest level, creating some of the best graphic design anywhere in the world? Yes. Did those symbols create our identity as a nation? Not so fast, friend. I would agree that era, particularly after WWII, Canada was an optimistic, progressive, forward looking, history-unshackling place of nation builders with growing self-confidence. That socio-economic moment combined with a generation of designers who, as another designer in the film states, were essentially "Swissed" or worked in a very disciplined "International Style" led to that moment. To me, the fact that the CBC accepted a great modern icon or that the government commissioned and chose a really great icon for introducing the metric system was a reflection of a country that was forward looking and bold. The design activity of the time reflected our confidence and our imagined place in the world which in general is what we can say of most media, visual art, or literature created during any historical period. Compared to recent updates of the Ontario Trillium icon, the CBC logo or even the Parks Canada icon, which reflect a contemporary fad of "re-branding" and creating symbols designed to avoid offence, the graphic design of the 60s and 70s was bolder, more adventurous and more disciplined. When we see contemporary designs that look like they fell off of a clip art truck that reflects a lack of desire to pay someone the time to come up with something better or that the decision makers of those corporations lack the knowledge or resolve to make better decisions. If we are in some kind of current design doldrums (and who says we are) it may be more due to the abundance of branding firms doing so much work simply to justify their existence. Whatever the case, can we just stop calling what happens in Toronto and Montreal, our "Canadian Identity" because it never was, never should be and never will be.

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Monday, August 06, 2018

Seen in… July 


Leave No Trace. Image via The Movie DB

It's strange that despite it being a very hot month, I only saw two films in air conditioned theatres. I guess it was cooler in my basement watching movies on the laptop than riding through thick sticky air to get to an air conditioned theatre.

Dirty Money Season 1

If you are the kind of person who thinks liberal democracy (small "L" - liberal) is under attack by conservative tactics (small "C" - conservative) that undermine public institutions in order to abolish and eventually privatize them, then this documentary series will only make you feel worse about the world. If, on the other hand you are the kind of person who feels that political correctness and a political elite are fracturing our economy, culture and national boundaries then this documentary series will also make you feel worse about the world. It has something for everyone. The common thread in the series of six documentaries is that people who are committing fraud for their own ends don't see anything fraudulent about the fraud they are committing. The series begins with the scandal of Volkswagen's cheating emissions tests and proves without a doubt how this was done to get around government regulations while deceiving consumers to win market share. Job done. Some execs were charged, some fines were paid and in the end it was discovered that every major auto maker practices the exact same deception, oh and VW has gone on to become the world's largest car manufacturer. Each documentary is on a different subject but on a similar theme. Deception. Whether it's a payday loan company hiding profits in shell corporations, an international bank laundering narcos profits, or the fact that Donald Trump has somehow walked away unscathed from more corruption and fraudulent money and real estate deals than you can count while still managing to become president of the United States of America. There is some comic relief in the story of the theft of millions of dollars of maple syrup from a Quebec Maple Syrup Cartel but in the end the thieves look almost as bad as the people they stole from. Despite the outcome of any of these stories, knowledge is power and knowing that ethical investigative journalism still exists is very powerful.



Star Trek: Discovery. Image via The Movie DB

Star Trek: Discovery Season 1

This Star Trek series is still set in the future but it is the original series’ past so just forget the original series and enjoy this one. Part of being set before the original show means the war with the Klingons is fresh and the show begins with how the whole thing started. There’s not enough space here to discuss the whole season but know that it centres on Michael Burnham, a human female raised by Vulcans (notably as Spock’s adopted sister) and her struggle to find her role in Star Fleet. Another pivotal plot point is the unique technology of the space ship “Discovery” which is some kind of organic quantum propulsion engine that allows the vessel to be anywhere else in the universe instantly. This tech inevitably leads to parallel universe complications and time travel which, of course led some critics to cry out, “For shame, lazy writers, for shame.” yet I say, “give it a break”, it’s a good bit of fun. The only thing I really didn’t like in the show was all of the actors speaking the Klingon language as… slowly. And. Clearly. As. Possible. It drove me nuts and slowed the rhythm of every scene to a crawl. On the bright side, one fun episode included a throw back to a character who showed up in the original series, Harry Mud, which should've gladdened the hearts of all the original Trekkies out there (but I don't think it did because people can be stupid).

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Seen in… June


Don't look now, but here comes Il Sorpasso, an Italian classic. Image via The Movie DB

I know, I know. Talking about what I saw in June at the end of July is a bit ridiculous, but in my defence, it's been very hot. Too hot to sit at a computer all day then do the same thing at night. I've tried to balance my viewing with something of "higher standard" with something more popular. Like alternating kale salad and a bowl of ice cream. It hasn't quite worked out that way but there's plenty of summer left.



Howard Silk is tired of Howard Silk's crap. Image via The Movie DB

Counterpart Season 1

J.K. Simmons plays Howard Silk, an uninspired and uninspiring bureaucrat in a nameless UN agency who one day discovers an unusual secret when he is introduced to his “other”. Howard’s “other” is in fact, Howard. A Howard from a parallel dimension. In this version of Berlin an experiment about 30 years before created a portal to a parallel world. Our Berlin is designated as “Prime” while the other version is called “Alpha”. At some point the two dimensions began to diverge and now something is happening that has forced Alpha Howard to reach out to Prime Howard. Despite having a shared history and personal life, the two Howards couldn’t be more different. Alpha Howard is a cynical, seasoned, no BS spy who is less than amused at the sheepishness of Prime Howard. J.K. Simmons plays the two men so adeptly that you know instantly which one is which, and that in itself is fascinating. The show itself is no less intriguing. Is it a simple metaphor of the cold war and the dangers it wrought? Or is it a more complex study of our lives and the decisions we take that make us who we are (or do we make those decisions because of who we are?) What makes us tick? Have you ever wondered what your life might be like if you had done one thing differently? The possibilities are endless but in Counterpart they are laid bare to discover by walking through an underground passage in Berlin that connects two identical but radically different worlds.
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Thursday, July 05, 2018

It's Hot in the City 


Maybe looking at Wayne Thiebaud's “Untitled (Three Ice Creams)” from 1964 will cool you down.

You know it’s really hot when you step out of your air conditioned office to find yourself relieved that it’s only 28°C with 66% humidity instead of “boil-you-alive° C” with “you’ll-never-feel-dry-again%” humidity. I spent most of the weekend lying prone in front of a fan, trying not to move for fear the exertion of say, batting an eyelash, may lead to more sweating. I’m starting to think the scientist who said, “sweating is the body’s built-in air conditioner” never really knew what an air conditioner was, or what “sweating” was, or what “built-in” meant. I realize that weather isn’t climate and one heat wave during one summer isn’t proof that we’re destroying the planet yet it feels so much like what I imagine the end-of-times would feel like, that blaming something like climate change feels good. Not "comfortably dry at 23°C" good, but the kind of good like when you curse after stubbing your toe. It does nothing but it mends the psyche if not the toe.

One thing did occur to me during the hottest moments of the weekend. Feeling near death in the punishing heat is sort of an ailment of the poor or the slightly less privileged. People who can retreat to air conditioned homes have something that people living in older sweltering apartments do not. People who drive with their vehicles sealed shut while running their A/C on full blast are far more comfortable than those walking the hot sidewalks or riding the older stifling streetcars. Air conditioning used to be considered a luxury but it has become a necessity of life. During a heat wave the city advises those without air conditioning to seek out cooling centres. Air conditioning is as essential to a modern city as elevators. You can’t live in a tall building without an elevator to take you to your floor and you can’t live on that floor of a tall building (essentially a chimney stack with rooms) without air conditioning.
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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Tomorrow Begins at Midnight 

The World of Tomorrow
Over the last two years I’ve gained twenty pounds and I’ve lost the habit of exercise. Gains and losses. The story of modern life. How did I lose something so fundamental to who I am? No matter what I thought of myself, I could always see myself as active and, if not fit, at least able bodied. Then came a patch of illness and maladies that admittedly took more out of me than I realized. Eventually between that and a lot of travel for work, I lost my comely figure as well as the will to care. Of course, I thought I have to get back in shape. Then I’d go to the gym, tweak my back,knee, or some other thing and have push the reset button again.
“But that ends today! - was the thing I said yesterday”
If the ailments of age weren’t enough, the last couple of years my work has led to a schedule that might begin at 7:30 AM and end at 7:00 PM. Even if I did finish early there might be a “hacktivist" night to attend where cheese pizza satisfied as supper until I got home at around 10 PM. No techy meeting to attend? Hey don’t worry there’s a Cycle Toronto meeting to go to. No meetings at all? That’s fine, I still have to actually do the things I said I’d do at those other meetings, right? There’s nothing that will destroy your humanity faster than spending 16 hours of your day looking at a computer screen then to close your eyes at night and still see it. I seem to spend my days staring at the world through a glass window or staring at glowing pixels through a glass screen. Yet that’s what I signed up for. What was my reward for this effort? Certainly not sleeping and yet still having to get up the next day which inevitably begins with a headache caused by not sleeping. I think by now I’ve consumed enough ibuprofen to have dissolved my liver, at least one kidney and probably have added a hole where I don’t need one in my stomach lining.

"But that ends today!” was the thing I said yesterday and all the yesterdays before that. The last time I was in shape I discovered a magic number. 100. If you exercise everyday for 30-45 minutes for one hundred days consecutively (given some recovery days of light exercise in between) you will be a different person. Perhaps even a better person. They say you can accomplish almost anything in 100 days. Learn a language or learn to play an instrument as long as you do it 100 days in a row. When I did this before, I lost 25 pounds and felt 10 years younger. Thus I’m always just 100 days from being that person again.

I finally went for my first run in almost exactly one month. Then a day later, I intended to go to the gym but work did what work does and being committed to finishing something meant there was no way I could get to a workout. Then I was off to a Civic-Tech Toronto meet-up (where I heard the incredible 83-year-old sprite, Joy Kowaga talk about a community currency she helped create more than a decade before anyone had heard of cryptocurrency or blockchain). I left the meeting planning on doing a workout at home but first I had to grab some groceries. By the time I walked through the door it was almost 10 PM.

The next day I was again 100 days from my better self. I dusted myself off and started the whole thing over. Eventually, I’ll string together two days of exercise. Then three. Before you know it, I’ll need that recovery day. Some days tomorrow never comes, but other days, tomorrow begins at midnight. You can count on tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow.

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