The Power of Myth
How Winnipeg and Its Art Became Such a Big Deal
Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. Photograph by Jody Shapiro. © Everyday Pictures Inc. A Maximum Films release, photo courtesy of Maximum Film Distribution.
“Winnipeg is an oubliette,” says Guy Maddin in his mythical memoir “My (Other) Winnipeg” in Border Crossings magazine.
It is? The conception of a cold city populated by sleepwalkers, perpetually astonished at its own age may work for the city of Maddin’s mythologies. Yet, this author left Winnipeg for Montreal five years ago quite ready to forget the place – but forgetting Winnipeg has been impossible.
It is impossible because, in the realm of art nowadays, Winnipeg is everywhere.
Arriving at Concordia University art school in 2004, I encountered student shows exhibiting sketches of sad robots and miniature watercolours of demented bears. Clearly, I reasoned, there were a lot of Montreal art students who wished they were Royal Art Lodge members.
For me, being from Winnipeg has been a rustic, oddly exotic pedigree. I could not have predicted that hailing from this frayed, downmarket loser of a city would elicit perky reactions like: “The city produces such awesome art!” Or: “Everyone from Winnipeg is so cool!” Or even: “It must be such a wonderful place!”
And it’s true – about the art; Winnipeg’s arts scene punches well above its weight. In fact, artists are one of Winnipeg’s primary cultural exports. Montreal’s art scene is well populated – colonized, really – with Winnipeg expats.
“I hate Winnipeggers,” a friend announced as I introduced him to a Winnipegger at a Montreal art opening.
“Oh? Why?” we asked.
“Because Winnipeggers meet other Winnipeggers – and then all they do is talk about Winnipeg!”
Truly, no one talks about Winnipeg like Winnipeggers do. Talking about Winnipeg is becoming an industry.
Increasingly, it’s not about Winnipeg’s spry little arts scene anymore, or about how Winnipeg artists are receiving wider international attention. The art isn’t just from Winnipeg – the art itself, and the conversation that surrounds that art, is increasingly about Winnipeg.
Can’t say the fish aren’t biting. Two words to the doubters: My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin’s masterful “docufantasia” has basically taken the already burgeoning Winnipeg mania and supercharged it.
Winnipeg has become a cultural product. And exactly how a city like this – with its flotillas of mosquitos, its blistering cold, its malignant racism – ever managed to turn itself into a cultural product sought out by the wider world certainly is a question that merits attention.
Winnipeg in its early days was a boom town, but the dream went south with the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal, and the city entered a decades-long economic winter. To be sure, Winnipeg has many things going for it. Ukrainian perogies and Mennonite farmer sausage are easily had. Every summer the neighbourhood streets are transformed into cathedrals of foliage by rows of towering elms. And the city’s electorate tends to return NDP legislators, a successful record undermined in part by its record of electing silly mayors.
The best thing about Winnipeg is hope, which allows Winnipeggers to put aside the fact that the factors in favour of their city are outnumbered by those against. Winnipeggers turn a brave face to their city’s seemingly intractable social and economic problems, even as they lack, and lament the lack, of the resources to address them.
Hence Winnipeg’s longstanding tradition of civic boosterism, where leaders and citizens alike have strived to foster civic pride by whitewashing the city’s quotidian grit. Drivers entering the city are greeted by signs proclaiming “Winnipeg: One Great City.” Every Winnipeg child of the 1980s will recall the nauseating “Love Me, Love My Winnipeg” campaign – and strive in vain to forget the “101 Reasons to Love Winnipeg” campaign of the 1990s. Boosterism went provincewide in 2006 with “Spirited Energy,” a crypto-racist, multi-million-dollar Manitoba rebranding effort that paradoxically mingled northern hydro development with styles appropriated from First Nations.
I’ve sometimes felt that Winnipeg’s particular form of self-promotion involved a certain arrogance or meanness. Civic-pride campaigns are well tested vehicles for local politicians to score points with voters while doing little of tangible worth to earn them. That’s bad enough – but this meanness is something deeper.
At some point in the mid-nineties I attended a very impressive Du Maurier Arts New Music Festival. Sadly, the single detail that remains with me from this festival was the host, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Maestro Bramwell Tovey, goading the audience to boo whenever he said the hated word “Toronto.” Embarrassing – but the audience ate it up.
These were no shock-jock talk-radio fans, snitch-line callers, or tie-a-yellow-ribbon goofball patriots. These were well-heeled urbanites, a university-educated set that might well frequent the city’s art galleries.
Loving to Hate Winnipeg
Looking back at what I just wrote, I wonder if “meanness” isn’t a little harsh? The little angel speaking into my right ear says yes. The little devil speaking into my left ear, however, confidently asserts that I’m right on the money.
My condition, here, is what is known as ambivalence, a ubiquitous quality that born ’Peggers like me come by honestly. A consistent inclusion in every creative Winnipegger’s psychological toolbox, ambivalence arises again and again in the art that Winnipeggers make, and, broadly speaking, it characterizes the selling of Winnipeg’s art scene.
The ineluctable fact is that Winnipeg artists and musicians make better boosters than its political and business leaders ever did. Of late, Winnipeg artists have aggressively sold the city like never before, have achieved its transformation into a cultural product, not by avoiding ambivalence as a civic characteristic, but by embracing it.
This is an easy argument to make, and My Winnipeg seems like a good place to start. The film is an autobiographical farewell letter, in which a fictionalized Maddin seeks to “film my way out” of the city, while riding the city’s trains in the perpetual cold and the company of narcoleptic fellow travelers. But the trains circle around and around, never leaving. Maddin did, at last, film his way out. Today, he lives in Toronto (though Winnipeg will continue to claim him, as it does everyone who became famous and moved away).
My Winnipeg isn’t the first place the theme of leaving, and the inability to leave, manifested itself in Winnipeg art. Take the title track of the Weakerthans’ album Left and Leaving”:
My city’s still breathing (but barely it’s true)
through buildings gone missing like teeth.
The sidewalks are watching me think about you,
sparkled with broken glass.
I’m back with scars to show.
Back with the streets I know
Will never take me anywhere but here.
The Weakerthans have practically traded on ambivalence. Everyone who attended agrees the highlight of Mayor Glenn Murray’s famous Portage Avenue streetparty was the premiere performance of the band’s “One Great City,” which lampoons Winnipeg’s deathless appetite for boosterism:
And up above us all
Leaning into sky
Our golden business boy
Will watch the North End die
And sing, “I love this town”
Then let his arcing wrecking ball proclaim
I … hate … Winnipeg.
Another Winnipeg artist who until recently based his practice there (lately moved to Montreal) is Daniel Barrow, whose Winnipeg Babysitter show features a compilation of vignettes from Winnipeg’s “golden age” of public-access television. The footage, which comes from a time when any Winnipegger could get their own T.V. show, had they the gumption, was painstakingly researched and sought out by Barrow. Though the source materials are often undeniably low-fi, even pathetic, they also evince a level of outside- of-the-box creativity sadly absent from today’s airwaves.
Barrow isn’t ridiculing the originators of this footage; somehow, his commentaries are at once humourous and respectful, a complex negotiation that few except a sensitive artist like Barrow are positioned to achieve.
Winnipeg Babysitter points to another Winnipeg tradition rooted in deep ambivalence about this city: taking something bad (or just weird) and turning it into something good by way of citation. Take the “social,” an event rooted in Ukrainian tradition and more or less unique to Manitoba, and a fundraiser for anyone in need of a cash infusion: newlyweds, spongee teams (that’s a sport found only in Manitoba), what-have-you. No one grows up in Manitoba without being arm-twisted into attending these cash-grab parties, featuring classic-rock DJs (failure to play “Mony Mony” amounts to breach of contract) and cheap rum-and-cokes. Legislated sideboard fixings include rye bread, keilbassa, pickles and little cubes of cheddar and mozzarella (never slices, always cubes!).
In short, nothing to write home about – unless you’re a Winnipeg expat attending one of the “Winnipeg Socials” organized in Toronto by former Winnipeg music writer Chuck Molgat. Authenticity demands accurate citation, that is, the details are important: those little cardboard trays of Old Dutch potato chips carefully situated upon each table are guarantors of cool. It’s a terrific opportunity for Winnipeg expats to mingle and – wait for it – talk about Winnipeg!
The Winnipeg Art Industrial Complex
Winnipeg was not built in a day. The current currency of this city and its plucky arts scene is not, as commonly suggested, the result of its endless, cold, winter nights or its geographic isolation (though both conditions are real). Integral to Winnipeg’s international reputation have been the tireless efforts of a handful of influential local art mandarins like Wayne Baerwaldt, Meeka Walsh and Robert Enright. These individuals lose no opportunity to draw national and international attention to the city.
By way of example, check out the 2008 “Winnipeg” double-issue of Border Crossings, which focuses exclusively on contemporary Winnipeg artists and features essays by Walsh and Baerwaldt. Fat like Cosmo, this special issue pushes young Winnipeg artists including Michael Dumontier, Marcel Dzama, and many more.
It also features Winnipeg-boosting essays by Baerwaldt and Walsh. In “Dream City Shimmering,” Walsh sallies forth in mythic mode, calling Winnipeg a “chimera, an illusion, an idea of a city. A city of ideas, of imagination.” Walsh elucidates a fantasy in which eighteenth-century French author of aphorisms Joseph Joubert finds himself in Winnipeg, and likes it: “Joseph Joubert, 1754-1824, in Winnipeg, an imagined city, dream city, city of ideas, 2008.” The skeptical reader might ask if Joubert would be enthused about Dr. Pepper Slurpees and Sunday-night hot-rod cruising – but Walsh does hit one nail squarely on the head: “We’ve made a significant place, this dream city, Winnipeg.” “Made” – no kidding!
For his part, Walsh’s co-editor Robert Enright is similarly committed to the Winnipeg myth: “What’s interesting about Winnipeg and the reputation of its visual artists – both those who have left and those who continue to live here,” Enright wrote in the Globe and Mail in 2006, “is that the real and the imaginary have become indistinguishable.” Enright takes every opportunity to boost Winnipeg artists and the city itself, taking his mythic vision of the city on the road in speaking engagements.
Baerwaldt’s essay, “Winnipeg: You’ve Come Undone, or You’ve Got to Get Down to Get Up,” is more earthbound than Walsh’s, taking the bad with the good, listing the many people, institutions and events that have made the city what it is. Today the director of ACAD’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Baerwaldt used his considerable influence and connections to champion various Winnipeg and other Canadian artists, like Theo Sims, Noam Gonick, and collaborators Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (though he will always be known best as the man who threw open the gates for Marcel Dzama and the Royal Art Lodge to go international).
The City Behind the Myth
Winnipeg artists – and the city as a whole – owe much to the considerable efforts of these influential “fixers.” For the representation of Winnipeg as a sort of mythic art mecca has surely been a good thing, hasn’t it? Winnipeg and its artists are receiving more attention than ever before, so can this repackaging be anything but good? If life gives you lemons …
Add as much sugar as you like, however, lemonade always tastes at least a little sour. Here’s my sour point: In a city widely known as the “Aboriginal Capital of Canada” – a 2006 census put the indigenous population at 68,380, representing a 22-percent growth over the previous five years – why are no Aboriginal artists featured in the Winnipeg issue of Border Crossings? No KC Adams, no Darryl Nepinak, no Roger Crait, no Urban Shaman Gallery. I’m not saying that Border Crossings needs to observe some sort of editorial affirmative action (neither am I saying it doesn’t), but the omission is actually surprising, given that Border Crossings has a well deserved reputation for supporting Aboriginal art.
Only a few non-Aboriginal Winnipeg artists take on Aboriginal issues – Noam Gonick’s film Stryker comes to mind, as does some of Simon Hughes’ work. Aboriginal people make a strange appearance in Maddin’s My Winnipeg: The popular Happyland amusement park, destroyed by rampaging bison, is relocated on the city’s rooftops by homeless Aboriginal people: an Aboriginal Happyland in the sky. What’s strange is that Winnipeg’s Aboriginal population was tiny at the time in which Maddin’s scene appears to be set. In a sense, though, Maddin has produced a potent metaphor for white Winnipeg’s median attitude toward Aboriginal people and their history: It’s just easier not to know. To the rooftops with it!
In the real Winnipeg, in 1951, Winnipeg had only 210 Aboriginal people, a number that grew to 1,082 by 1961, 4,940 by 1971, 16,575 by 1981, 35,150 by 1991, 55,755 by 2001 and 68,380 by 2006, according to Canadian census statistics. By 2020, the population may exceed 100,000.
The in-migration of Aboriginal people to western Canadian cities was related to the lack of opportunity on rural reserves. This internal migrant labour force unfortunately arrived at the same time as secure, industrial jobs were being replaced by insecure, low-wage, service-sector jobs. Taken together with the fact that rural Aboriginal people were unprepared for the challenges of urban life – and the fact of white racism – Winnipeg’s Aboriginal population suffered from racialized poverty and a lack of opportunity.
Aboriginal people resisted this situation by organizing their own institutions, beginning with the Indian-Métis Friendship Centre (IMFC). As Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researcher Jim Silver has documented, from humble beginnings, Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community-based organizations now number in the dozens, addressing a galaxy of needs including education, justice, addiction treatment, child and family services, political advocacy, and much more. Owing in large part to the city’s media, which unprofessionally choose to offer Winnipeggers a highly distorted image of Aboriginal people, most Winnipeggers don’t know anything about this incredible history of self-organizing.
Further, most artists don’t understand that Winnipeg’s Urban Shaman Gallery, the Aboriginal artistrun centre, represents part of this history. From the 1960s onward, Aboriginal artists like Norval Morrisseau, Jackson Beardy and Daphne Odjig began drawing attention to Aboriginal art in Manitoba. But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when artist Louis Ogemah identified the absence of any organization devoted to Aboriginal art, that Urban Shaman was born. For Winnipeg Aboriginal artists, the ability to exhibit art is part of a larger, truly incredible struggle to reclaim Aboriginal identity.
Maddin’s My Winnipeg is a brilliant film – and so is much of the work produced by non-Aboriginal Winnipeg artists. But I can’t help but wonder what My Winnipeg would have been like had it been made by an Aboriginal filmmaker.
Earlier this year, Steven Loft, the National Gallery of Canada’s first Aboriginal curator-in-residence, delivered an artist talk at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Visual Arts, in which he discussed the significant advances made by Aboriginal artists in Canada. “In many ways, Winnipeg is the future,” Loft told me later during a studio visit. He was referring both to the ongoing Winnipeg Aboriginal population explosion, and to this aforementioned genius in self-organizing. This process is perhaps most advanced in Winnipeg, but it will follow elsewhere.
Apartheid of the Mind
This article isn’t about assigning blame to Border Crossings, which has often published work on Aboriginal art. But mainstream, especially white Winnipeg artists and Aboriginal artists are engaged in different projects – a difference even progressive non-Aboriginal Winnipeggers, many of whom remain affected by a sort of “apartheid of the mind,” easily overlook.
This is the flipside of the Winnipeg myth that no one talks about. While white artists are engaged in building civic mythologies, Aboriginal artists and curators are reclaiming their culture – often in spite of white mythologies (like the myth that Winnipeg isn’t built on stolen land) – and in doing so have been building a real Winnipeg, brick by brick, organization by organization. It’s a Winnipeg that will be their own – rightly – very soon: the political offices, the businesses, the police, the professions and, indeed, the galleries.