Thursday, November 26, 2009


Hello, friends

I've been busy fluttering around the social networking circles, getting myself involved in all sorts of things. Probably most exciting or all my new projects is that I now write for an excellent Canadian music blog, North by East West (possibly my favorite blog name ever, explained as "A geographically impossible blog for a geographically impossible country." Cleverness for days). Between now and the end of the semester, my posting might be pretty scattered, as my actual life is getting unreasonably chaotic, but once Christmas holidays hits (15 days!), I hope to have lots of time to sit down, come up with my Favorite Things and year-end music lists on Man Descending and get some posts up to NxEW.

Also, you should watch these videos:

Ashleigh of Hey Ocean playing "If I Were a Ship" on kalimba

The Zolas playing "The Great Collapse"

THE ZOLAS - The Great Collapse from Mitch Fillion on Vimeo.

If you're interested (you should be), you can check out NxEW

Monday, November 23, 2009

Activating the Tweet: A Manifesto in 128 Characters

Building, sharing, and celebrating collaborative, participatory dialogues and social action. In real time. One voice at a time.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Last February, I wrote a fairly long, but perhaps not-so-coherent post on La Blogotheque, a French website that posts "take-away shows," which are essentially re-imagined music videos fascinated with embedding performance within a shared public space. Since that ill-fated late night attempt at profundity, I've had a number of opportunities to explore the idea of public space in a bit more depth, and based on some rather stunning information I've come across, I want to take another crack at this. Unfortunately, I'm again taking this project on late at night when many, many things should be taking priority, but this somehow seems more pressing.

The notion of a "public space" seems natural in the West, but every discussion of this issue demands that we see the idea of public space as something relatively new and socially constructed, growing largely out of the late 1800s and the force of the Industrial Revolution. . In pre-industrial European society, work and leisure occured in the same spaces. The family, in the era before waged labour and factory-style production, was a productive unit, turning the home into at once a space of work and a space of rest, a space where the family would eat, learn, pray, assemble, craft, carve, and celebrate. Work was carried out not in the interest of exchange, but largely in pursuit of a subsistence lifestyle, and thus there was rarely an impulse to produce beyond what was necessary for survival. The crop that a family worked to maintain was not meant to be gathered and exported for profit, but consumed within the home, and perhaps shared with neighbours during annual celebrations. In this society, ritual, work, play, and survival were inextricably combined, and so were the spaces in which each took place.

With the Enclosure Acts of the early Industrial Revolution, however, this arrangement was dramatically undercut. The Enclosure Acts allowed feudal lords to conglomerate and fence their land, and crucially gave them clearance to remove from these lands the subsistence-level tenant farmers who for centuries had lived a life based on communal use of shared resources. As a result, many farmers found themselves cleaved from their rural existence, and had little choice but to immigrate to cities and accept waged work in the factory system. Suddenly, instead of tending crops on the family plot that would eventually be utilized and consumed within the home, workers travelled from spaces reserved exclusively for sleep and rest, to spaces reserved exclusively for work and production, and created objects that they themselves would rarely consume, as wages for early industrial factory workers were stunningly, inhumanely low. It is in this divide that we find the roots of the idea of public and private spaces. Spaces such as the home and the factory were decidedly private, reserved for particular activities that were radically dissociated from one another. The city, despite being overwhelmingly dense, disaggregated the elements of daily life for the new working class. Outside the factory and the home was a network of spaces reserved exclusively for leisure: pubs, taverns, parks, and eventually music halls and theatres. However, as the dominion of the market over daily life increased throughout the period, even these spaces came to be roped off to all but those who could pay to enter, ultimately serving to privatize leisure.

Out of this history comes a sense that privately owned property is fenced off from the general public, and everything outside these areas falls into the public domain, an amorphous and ill-defined sphere where space, resources, and experience are shared. In urban studies rhetoric, this public space is one that encourages mingling and discussion between people of all ages, religions, races, income levels, and backgrounds, allegedly promoting the growth of values such as pluralism, openness, and social learning. Unfortunately, as anyone living in a city is well aware, this optimistic vision of the street is far cry from urban realities. The public space is rigorously policed not just by official institutions such as municipal governments, but also by the forces of capital. We live in a profoundly branded physical world. Everything is sponsored by, made possible by, facilitated by, founded in partnership with (ad nauseam) some corporate body. Every street is lined with billboards and storefronts emblazoned with colourful logos. Even spaces such as universities are deeply commercialized, with campuses accepting into their walls international chain retailers and food outlets. As a result, just as common as the vision of public space as pluralist and socially vibrant, is a vision of public space constantly under attack by corporate colonization and, in many areas, gentrification.

This process of colonization has reached almost comical levels. Well, I suppose it would be more funny if it weren't actually happening, but nonetheless. For example, it was recently brought to my attention by a filmmaking friend that it is now possible (and apparently quite common) to copyright a building. Iconic designs the world over such as New York's Empire State Building, Paris' Eiffel Tower, and Vancouver's Canada Place have all been copyrighted, and, as a result, it is technically illegal to photograph, film, or represent these buildings in any way, without either obtaining express permission from the copyright holder, or simply biting the bullet and forking over exorbitant amounts of money to cover rights clearance. I should point out that the Eiffel Tower copyright issue is a bit more contentious than I make it out to be. Technically, the Tower itself is not copyrighted, but the constantly rotating and changing installations that adorn it are subject to the protection of copyright. For example, the tower is currently covered with thousands of lights that periodically twinkle throughout the evening. It has been argued that this installation is a non-trivial artistic expression, and thus can be protected by copyright, making it illegal to photograph or film the tower after dark. Based on that detail alone, it's not hard to pick up the overwhelming scent of lunacy that lingers around such practices.

Vancouver's Canada Place

The Eiffel Tower after dark (subject to copyright, apparently)

I can detect two main faults (of many more possible ones) with this practice. Firstly, there is perhaps no better illustration of the spectacular failure of nations around the world to protect the founding principles of copyright law from exploitation by commercial interests. Copyrighting is a practice that was developed as a way of protecting the creators of non-trivial expressions of an original thought. The practice of copyrighting a building, vista or public view, however, all but ignores this definition of the term. Rather than protecting the interests of creators, it pads the pockets of copyright holders: in a situation where someone creates something while employed by another person, the copyright on that something they created is immediately owned by their employer. In the case of an architect on commission, the copyright on their design goes to the person funding their work, not to the architect him or herself. To claim copyright on a building, then, only makes sense if you're copyrighting the nuts and bolts of the design. If someone were to steal the blueprints that the architect created and build their own Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower, then there should be legal grounds to take action. This protects creators. This allows an architect to defend their work from theft and compromise. When the owner of the copyright on a building, however, bars students from filming their first- and second-year projects in certain spaces that are ostensibly and functionally of the public domain by citing copyright infringement, they are simply exploiting their legal ownership of that space as a way to shake every last dime from the pockets of citizens.

Secondly (or rather, an extension of firstly), such a practice moronically and unjustly attempts to reorient the very notion of public space by blanking out certain portions of the urban map. It is my belief that once a building is created, it exists within a larger urban fabric that people move through, around, wrap themselves in, and occasionally tear to shreds. In other words, it becomes something larger than itself, it contributes to a shared cityscape where it can be interpreted variably and unpredictably by any citizen walking by. It exists as part of a skyline, as part of the pulsing urban organism, as part of a shared material world. Narratives are negotiated around it. Life happens outside of it. Life happens inside of it. And the life that happens on the inside bleeds into, informs, and is itself structured by the life outside of it. In essence, it is public space. How is it then possible to simply, with the stroke of a pen, make it invisible? How do we photograph downtown Vancouver without capturing the billowing sails of Canada Place? It's outright impossible. Copyright holders have attempted, through legal rhetoric, to assert that their properties vanish when confronted with the unlicensed camera, but the eye doesn't lie. We see that Canada Place exists. We see that it belongs to our city. We see it as an instrumental part of our shared urban experience. No exploitation of copyright law can undo that integral combination of the material and the social that gives rise to the organismic city. To copyright spaces or buildings is like copyrighting air or conversation or bus noise or the garbage on the streets. Every single one of these things is part of public space, and deserves to be treated as such, and cannot be artificially blanked out by commercial interests.

Cities only exist because people live in them. Because we allow them to. Because we will them to. Without people, cities are just buildings. This is a fact that colonizers of public space seem to forget. Their buildings only have such profound meanings and strong reputations because of the people that they now attempt to push away with legal wheelings and dealings.

The city that you live in belongs to you, and vice-versa.