La Carre Rouge

It seems that I left Quebec just before things really got interesting. I felt that the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement would help spur on more action, but I had no idea that this was brewing in Quebec. Or perhaps I did. The Quebecois are a politically active people, they pay attention and they are not quiet or passive when they don’t feel heard. There is a passion there that is lacking in the rest of North America, which is why it should come as no surprise that Quebec has become ground zero for the continuation of what Occupy began last fall.

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The issue of student debt is emblematic of the larger systematic problems that exist in contemporary globalism. It shows a roadmap for where the world is headed if our course is not changed. What happens to youth today is an indication of what shape society will take in the future. Crushed by debt from the moment they leave home they will become a class of indentured servants to a small financial elite who hold the promisory notes that bought their education, their homes, their cars. People will live from the age of majority to death in perpetual debt and therefore not the true masters of their own lives. Meanwhile bankers, politicians and mafiosos will smoke cuban cigars and sit on golden toilets in their 55th floor corner offices. Enough.

Though Quebec students have been some of the first and most vocal, they are by no means alone. The same problems plague students across North America. Canadian tuition is on course to more than double in the next few years and US student debt has cleared $1-trillion. Defaults are increasing. Just like the housing market. Things are headed for a crash.

I encourage students and supporters around the world, not just in Quebec to take up the symbol of the student strike, the “Carre Rouge” or red square, referring to the debt being accrued by so many students before entering an increasingly bleak job market. The path has been laid out, there is room for many, many more to join the movement. Make your voice heard. Offer up your own ideas and solutions, just don’t sit by and do nothing.

Incubator

So it seems to be the least I can do with my ample spare time devoid of work, a social life and even not very much volunteer work to do (though I have taken on a role with Burning Man – more on that later) is to develop my art.

I haven’t really put a ton of effort into my photography in some time. Sure I’ve been taking photos pretty much constantly over the past few years, even going so far as doing a 365 project called 1625, but I haven’t really pushed myself artistically. I haven’t had a vision, a thesis or anything that I was really digging into. Consequently I don’t really feel like much of my work over the past four or five years is any better than what I was doing back in 2006 and 2007. In fact my favourite pictures are still from that era.

Now I’ve learned a lot of technical skills since then and perhaps that’s what’s dulled the edge of my artistic blade. When you think too much about the nuts and bolts you start to forget about the intangible soul that links all of the tissues together. Its a world of rules, of thirds, of “proper” exposure and focus. All of that is important to know, and technically I’ve improved, but I don’t feel like the images are as moving or as ambitious. Its as though life is happening and I’ve just been catching snippets of it, as though by chance.

What I think helped to highlight this for me was the paid gigs I’ve been doing recently. As I gain competence in the technical details the things I really need to figure out how to do is the concept and how to execute that concept. Particularly when working with non-performers and non-artists the onus of creativity and interest really comes from me. People don’t know how to pose, what the best setting or lighting would be. That’s my job. On top of all the technical stuff.

So its time for art school.

Not actual art school mind you. I can’t afford that. Rather the virtual, do it yourself kind. Internet enter stage left.

I’ve just watched documentaries on Annie Leibovitz and James Nachtwey and have more in the queue for inspiration. I’ve begun to look for photography contests to enter. I’ve started thinking about series to shoot. I also have a great big list of YouTube lessons and tutorials on everything from framing to lighting or post production.

I’m contemplating a Tumblr or Pinterest stream to continue the 365 idea, though with a different twist than the one I did last year. I’ve started playing with different ideas for exhibition. If I’m truly an artist then I need to exhibit my art in more interesting ways than just posting it on a website.

Well, this post seems more trite than I’d originally envisioned. I do have some meditations on photography, creativity and art brewing, perhaps its just not yet time to put quill to parchment on the subject. It makes sense to take advantage of this idle time however. I’m sure once I’m working more regularly again I’ll fall right back into my resentment of my lack of time. Best to use it while I’ve got it.

The Land of Milk and Honey?

I haven’t really written since I arrived in San Francisco more than half a year ago now. In part its because I don’t want to be a downer, the transition has been a difficult one and endless woe is me entries in this blog wouldn’t exactly be endearing to you faithful readers. I feel like I can at last unload and debrief about the past few months, the challenges and the victories and the potentials for the road ahead.

To say that I’m settled in, cozy and warm in my new environs would be a lie, but I don’t hate it anymore. Yes I hated San Francisco. Many out there consider it a kind of high tech, counter cultural nirvana, which is something I used to buy into as well, but its just a city like any other. I think the fairy tale version of San Francisco is in part the cause of my dissatisfaction. The street level reality of San Francisco can never match its mythical extolled virtues, at least for me.

There’s lots of income disparity, public transit isn’t great, there’s not as much green space as I’m used to, the job market is insanely competitive (due to that fairy tale vision), there’s a bit too much flakiness in the air and speaking of the air, the weather is rarely bad, but rarely good.

It feels good to have that off of my chest. Phew.

All of that said, if I were to list my top ten cities to live in San Francisco would still be there. I no longer hate it here and the longer I’m here the more I come to understand and appreciate it. Many of the disadvantages and frustrations are also what makes it great.

The high cost of living here and the competitive nature of it is hard to cope with sure, but it also summons you to bring your best to the table. It wasn’t until arriving here that I really started to get serious about being a photographer. Its an uphill battle, slow moving and sometimes frustrating, but I’ve been making ground, picking up jobs and making connections. I’m not really making a living (and that’s a big source of pain) but I’m getting close to it and I can imagine a day when I do thrive as a camera for hire. Its the best and worst of America, you can achieve a lot if you work hard, but nobody is going to pick you up if you fall.

The flakes and the wierdos come with San Francisco’s extraordinarily accepting nature – everyone is welcome here and they’re welcome to do and think whatever they like without judgement. There’s definitely a lot of stuff that pushes my buttons (both good and bad) but I love that so many possibilities are open as a result. If you’re into it, chances are there’s a community here for it, even if that also means crazy cultists and geninuely crazy people roam the streets. It also means that there are people here working on truly groundbreaking and challenging new (and old) ideas. It can be overwhelming, but its an amazing form of democracy and diversity.

Finally San Francisco’s geography wreaks havoc with its attempts at public transit and a well integrated park system, it also crams a lot of density into a small area (in a way that can sometimes feel stifling to this prairie boy) and traps crummy weather right overhead. When the sun shines though, hot damn, its gorgeous here. San Francisco is a beautiful city, if you’re here on the right day and go to the right places. Most of it is concrete jungle, but the parks and waterfront and hills are tremendous. The many historic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and the rest are pretty stunning, I just wish I could take the Metro there. 😉

There’s a lot more pluses and negatives to go around. One of the biggest challenges for me is being underemployed, not having my own space and no real disposable income. Slowly that is changing and I’m sure that as it does my resentment of hipsters in designer toques will wane (though really, toques in the summer is just dumb). I’ll be talking more about SF and digging into it. Its a fascinating town, but for me this relationship is off to a rocky start. I think it was just bad timing, so let’s do it.

We are the 100%

Occupy Wallstreet protesters are angry, and with good reason. A very small number of people, the purported 1% has in their hands the overwhelming majority of the money and power in the world and the gap is ever widening. But, as this image so aptly points out, the imbalance is a lot bigger than comparing their multiple mansions and yachts to your two bedroom rental apartment (or wherever you live).

[And of course now I can’t find the image that several people posted on facebook recently so I’ll describe it. Basically its a motivational poster style image with a picture of Occupy protesters on the left and starving children in sub-Saharan Africa on the right. Below it reads – “You are still the 1%”]

So let’s take that image in for a moment and think about its implications. The obvious implication is that despite it all we have it pretty good compared to most of the world and we’ve got quite the responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than we are. If we dig a little deeper and think a litter bit harder thought we’re led to another realization. Most of us, most of the time don’t think about the fact that most of the rest of the world deals with much harsher relative conditions than we do. In fact we take it for granted and even feel entitled to things like clean drinking water, education, roads, etc. We feel that way because we were born into a certain class, in a certain part of the world. Its just how we live. Making due with less is scary, and its frustrating when we see others who have so much more.

Now for the leap.

If you were born as one of the 1% of the 1% you’d feel the exact same way. Think about it. Born with a silver spoon in your mouth, always having servants, getting a BMW for your 16th birthday. Many of today’s uber-wealthy if not born into their fortunes got a pretty good head start compared to the rest of us. From their perspective the system works pretty well, and the idea of giving up the summer house in Nice or drinking $75 wine is downright terrifying. It must seem like the world’s being turned upside down. When you’re raised to think that you’re special, that you deserve everything you have, that somehow you earned it, why would you question that?

Here’s an interesting documentary that probes into exactly that, what its like to grow up uber-rich.

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/born-rich/

This is where the 99% vs. the 1% really breaks down. Ready? They’re human beings too. They’re scared of losing what they have. To them, taking the bus and eating bean soup would be like living in a shanty. They’re understandably defensive and afraid. Just like we’re reluctant to give up our cars or live in a smaller house. Some of the 1% are self-made and many of them sympathize with the Occupy Movement like Warren Buffet. Of course there’s sure to be a few genuine psychopaths amongst the uber-rich as well, but that’s a totally different bucket ‘o bolts.

99% or 1% we’re all really just playing out a game predicated on a set of rules that was written nearly half a millennia ago when central currency, major banking institutions and chartered corporations all got started. Now, those old rules about money, value and trade have snowballed into an avalanche that’s carrying us all away, poor, rich and middle class alike. That the system has treated certain members of society better than others there can be no doubt, but its reaching the point now that its starting to squeeze everyone (in relative terms of course) but its been in place for so long that hardly anyone is even aware of it, let alone trying to create a new alternative.

That is what we need to do, 99% and 1% together. Build a new system that doesn’t force us to be at each other’s throats.

There’s a lot dystopian sci-fi books and movies about a future where computers take over the world and enslave humanity. I suggest that this is already happening, except that the computers aren’t ArpaNet or Cybermen or Matrix Machines, rather its the increasingly complex “program” of financial systems, corporations and laws that are dictating how we do just about everything. Its not about metal and silicone robots dominating us, its about corporate ledgers and law books. We’ve written our own prison, our own doomsday scenario. Ironically all we need to do in order to escape is write a new one.

Writing a new scenario, a new script to follow (or better yet to improvise!) will take imagination and courage. This is why youth are so important. They have less invested in the old system and therefore can see and do things the rest of us have forgotten were even options.

The Great Protest

They used to call WWI the war to end all wars. Then they called WWII that. We all know what came next. More wars.

The Occupy Movement is stressing me out and I think its because at some level I’m under the incorrect impression that its the protest to end all protests – that somehow if we really apply ourselves and do an absolutely stunning job that we’ll manage to solve everything. What a ridiculous thought. And yet I can’t help myself – I’m a romantic and an idealist.

That’s why I want to be there all the time, obsess over strategy, because I feel like its an endgame move. We either win it all, or we lose everything. In some respects this is true. Social and ecological systems on the planet are definitely on a course for disaster and given our huge technological power as a species today we could really trash the whole place. We could also unwittingly dismantle centuries of progress in social spheres, justice, social welfare, health, etc. So understandably the stakes are high.

But let’s be honest, even if we achieve a lot, there will still be problems. Most revolutions go in fits and starts, some things get better, other things get worse, some people settle, some people take advantage, then things destabilize again. It takes a while.

What concerns me most and keeps me up at night is knowing that MOST people don’t understand the underlying mechanisms of the injustice and inequality found in our current political and financial systems. As a result we’re likely to accept band-aid measures rather than the sweeping changes that are truly needed to create a better and more just society for EVERYONE and the PLANET. I’m afraid that all we may do is buy some time, make a few more people more comfortable, just enough to quiet people down but not enough to actually make any lasting or deep changes.

I do have hope though. There ARE people who understand the underlying issues. One of the great strengths I’ve found in the Occupy Movement is that its a community as much as its a protest, and its a community that’s eager to have dialogue to discuss not only what we’re not happy about, but also how we might build something better. In fact the very structure of the occupations, providing their own services of food, education, communications, sanitation, etc. demonstrates that we don’t really NEED government or corporations, and that’s the first step in getting them to really seriously negotiate with us, from a position of being equals rather than supplier and consumer. (No self-deception that the tents and food and computers don’t come from corporations, but there is something distinctly non-commercial about these Occupy “villages.)

Its also vitally important that this revolution is for the benefit of everyone. Getting to the root causes of corruption is a way to do that, not by passing laws to protect a few middle class white Americans, but by fundamentally changing the way we produce and consume on a global scale, from Wall Street to Harlem to Haiti to Hong Kong. That’s why the global(ish) nature of this revolution is important. We all have to recognize that we’re in this together and that we need to collaborate, rich and poor, black and white, east and west, north and south. Otherwise new systems of domination will simply replace the old ones.

So all of this is a big order and probably not what we’ll get from this first wave of revolt. But who knows? We really should be trying to do that anyways. That way, even if we only achieve 1/10th of what we set out to do, there will at least be seeds planted for the other 9/10. Seeds planted will eventually grow, and if this boulder keeps on rolling, pushed by those who are never satisfied – well, just try and stop a boulder that’s going in the right direction…

Occupy

The longer I live the more in touch I get with my life’s purpose. Its about AHA! moments. Those clicks where a slice of someone’s world view changes, like a continental sheet just slipping away into a whole new ocean of possibility. Figuring out how to push peoples’ buttons so that happens is really big for me. So is community building. Figuring out what people really want and need, how that aligns with other peoples’ needs and wants, and finding a way to put all of that together, because together we’re more powerful, more capable than we are as individuals.

This is probably why the Occupy Movement really gets me going. There’s a lot of energy and momentum and potential here. I want to find ways to help it grow, spread, evolve and become sustainable. To actually make a difference.

The foremost thing on my mind right now is exactly that, hearts and minds to steal a phrase from the US military. Movements succeed where there is common understanding, intention, emotion and belief. So as humans of many different sorts, different backgrounds, beliefs, religions, races, personality types, etc. Where are the points upon which we can all agree, and how do we grow outwards from that?

Exhibit A: People who see the police as the enemy. I don’t think this is the case. Yes there are a few cops who got into it because they just like bullying people, but those are the minority. Police are defenders and warriors and as such are the kinds of people that believe in honour, justice, duty, respect, clarity and service. These are all wonderful, important, powerful traits that we NEED when it comes to defending our borders or protecting our cities. The problem comes in when To Serve and Protect becomes more and more serving and protecting only a certain segment of the population, because defenders believe in the rule of law and the chain of command they will follow orders that don’t necessarily reflect the values and needs of the greater good. The chain of command is very important in battle to ensure success, but when unscrupulous people end up at the top of that chain of command the police can be used for purposes that even they don’t believe in. But, the law is the law.

So protesters shouldn’t be upset with the police. The police are doing the job we pay them to do. Maintain order, uphold laws, obey commands from above. Getting angry at them is a mistake except for the bad apples who pepperspray without provocation, but they can be dealt with on a case by case basis. No, protesters need to empathize with the police and see what a difficult position they’re in. Chances are many of the police feel the same way as the 99%. If you talked to them off duty I can almost guarantee it. But they can’t just do what they want.

Here’s what needs to happen. We need to demonstrate to the police that we are also honourable, we believe in justice, we believe in respect, in fact we believe in those things MORE than the politicians and the corporations do – and what does that mean? That means that WE THE PEOPLE have more moral AUTHORITY than the 1%.

You cannot have a successful and bloodless revolution without winning the hearts and minds of the police and the military. What we create and what we desire must be defended, and in order to defend something we must first create it. So build it, and they will come. Police will gladly pepperspray and club rowdy vandals, on the other hand they will just as gladly protect decent, honourable citizens who are building something better to serve as an example of what could be.

Exhibit B: The 53% is a misguided and uninformed swath of people who’ve been hit hard by the machinations of the 1% who see the 99% protesters as entitled crybabies. As far as I understand it their argument goes something like “I got shafted in X, Y and Z ways and you don’t see me complaining.” Is it victim mentality? I don’t know. I need to think about this one more.

Exhibit C: “Corporations provide us with tons of great services and products and jobs. Why are you angry at them?” I think this one can be chalked up to a lack of imagination. I like cameras and cell phones and Internet and cars and all that. I really do. But so much environmental damage and human suffering is connected to all of those products and services, I have to share in the blame for that because I’m a consumer. But that doesn’t mean I have to just take it. You can only be called a hypocrite if you don’t acknowledge what you’re doing. Cleaning up the practices of these companies is also about cleaning ourselves of the guilt of years of tainted purchases.

Exhibit D: I had something for this but I can’t remember it. I just had it a second ago. About freedom, fear, imagining something else. This was a really good observation, something that’s hidden in plain view, something about how we are in the world. Why we’re doing this, I mean really. YES!

Youth. Many critics of the Occupy Movement classify it as a band of unwashed youth looking for a handout, but that isn’t really what we want, its never what we wanted. Even before the economic crisis hit we had a feeling in our guts that something was wrong. We want meaning. We want challenges. We want a real future. What is it to look to the horizon and see only hours of toiling in call centres or in a Wal-Mart? Our lives are without meaning or purpose, all we do is move cash through different machines for one another. America has become a culture of servants serving one another for the sake of having something to do.

We want horizons and possibilities. We want to invent. We want to create. We want to build. We want to think for ourselves. Instead we’ve been regulated to death and given dull, menial, departmentalized “jobs” to do that don’t even afford us enough money or free time to do anything more meaningful. What does America aspire to these days? Going to space? Exploring the oceans? Finding new energy sources? Creating fabulous art? Nope, none of that. All that’s important it seems is making money, most of it going to those who already have a lot of money, so that they can use it to turn around and make more money. None of us who are young today signed up for that. We dreamt of much bigger, brighter and grander things. We want to change and shape the world, not work a cash register for 8 hours a day, then eat junk food and watch TV before going to sleep and doing it all over again.

This deserves more lucid, poetic, evocative writing, but this I think is the true manifesto. We as humans yearn for something more than mere subsistence and comfort. If that’s all we wanted we would never have left the jungle. No, we want to push the boundaries, to grow, to change, to evolve. This 9-5 grind in pointless jobs where we don’t even see any real benefit or products of our labour is not why we were born.

 

So begins the discussion, the transformation. Let’s DO THIS THING!

The Time is Now

Can you feel it? Its coming. Everything is changing. I wish I weren’t so busy, but that’s probably just a sign of the times. Another symptom of the world beyond the periphery of where we are now.

facebook is censoring events and blog posts. They and other websites have also been subtly modifying the design of their sites to make them more about delivering content than about creating it. Notice how you can’t make status updates on your facebook homepage anymore? Last year Amazon dumped wikileaks after US government bullying. Today the media is willfully ignoring a steadily growing occupation movement on Wall Street.

Does any of this feel historical to you? You’re playing a part in history. Right now. How do you want to be remembered? What kind of world do you want your children to grow up in? I’ll give you a clue. There is no way that it will resemble the posh western lifestyle that you and your parents enjoyed in the 20th century. It could be better than that. It could also be much, much worse.

On top of all this I’m working full time to pay off debts that I can’t be forgiven, even though corporations can go bankrupt or get bailouts without even blinking. My credit card colonized me, I should have listened to my parents. I am also preparing to move. Where on earth will I find the time to do what I need to do in my personal life, while also doing what I need to do as a politically engaged person? All I know is that I will. What needs to get done is at this moment crystal clear.

  • taBURNak! the Third needs to happen. The culture and values of Burning Man represent to me the best place to begin building a new culture, a new economy, a new structure. No dictates as to what that will be, but I think that more people need to experience all the different possibilities that are out there and I’m all too happy to bring those experiences to them.
  • I need to work, make money, get out of debt. When I’m in debt, I’m owned. I need to get out, and stay out. This way of relating to money and value and things is OVER.
  • I need to go home for Thanksgiving. It doesn’t matter what work says/wants. This is non-negotiable. Family comes first.
  • I need to join, even if only for a day the Occupy Wallstreet movement in NYC. I want to put my weight behind the wheel of history and change its course.
  • I need to move. The thing that makes life worth living, makes all these other things worth doing is love. Love is also what makes these things possible. I need to be with my lover. Not only that but there are new horizons to explore and new adventures to undertake. I see important work there.

I would love to go deeper into all of these, but alas I have too much to do. I need to get to sleep so that I can be as productive as possible in the coming days. There’s A LOT to be done.