Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Lucky Accident of Orality

At risk of belabouring the topic for those who know me or visit this blog semi-regularly, I am still very much informed and influenced by my time teaching in the Canadian Arctic in the early 1990s. The solitude and silence of the place along with the social and professional challenges I encountered there have had lasting influence on my perceptions about education and the relationship between Canada's Indigenous people and its settlers.

The time I spent there was very much a trial and error sequence as I tried to find my way in the classroom and community and I gradually progressed from the tried tactics that I was schooled with during my childhood and something much more intuitive, exposed and - ultimately - productive. One of the milestones on my journey to flat-out asking my students what they wanted me to teach them was storytelling. There were movies that had a hit and miss nature to them based on the content of the story and it was evident with those that there was something lacking and less than compelling for the kids as I resorted to that. To my chagrin, the kids voiced the assumption that life in the south resembled the mayhem of Terminator 2, which had made its tour of the local VCR's while I was there and prompted many of the kids to hide behind the tinted Terminator shades when I arrived.

The shades were part of the uniform for the teen cool and indifference that they tried to communicate and often kept me on my heels as I tried to progress toward some sort of breakthrough to connect with them in the classroom. There were times when I tried certain things to work on their listening skills and vocabulary in the English classes but they were rejected as dated or old because they were the strategies used by the colleague of mine who taught them English when they were elementary school age.

Try and try I did and I gave storytelling a try, even though it was something that I, in my elementary school experience recalled ending around grade four with the vivid memory of gathering on the floor to listen to Stuart Little while I eyed the patina of Gail Murphy's braids and heard Stuart's story. I often concluded that the class I taught in the Arctic was too old and would insist on being too cool for storytelling or me reading from a book to them. Desperate, as I often was, I gave it a shot.

I chose my material quite carefully and did not wish to merely pick something off the shelf but draw their attention to an association between Inuit and non-Inuit stories that they may not have been familiar with: seals. While the Inuit had their origin myths about seals -- most notably the story of Sedna the daughter of a sea god who defied her father and as a consequence of her banishment became the source of all marine life -- there were similar mythological attributions to seals among other folklore as well. Though the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, the most famous -- and I acknowledge I may be using the term "famous" quite loosely -- was produced and released after I left the Arctic, there were other variations on the theme that I could draw upon. I had grown up on a steady diet of Irish folk music and over the years heard the story-song "Peter Kagan and the Wind" countless times and I would always pause attentively at the mix of spoken word verses and sung chorus.

I wrote out the song for myself and brought it into class and despite the reality that there was little or nothing "cool" about this route I was taken to connect with the kids and make my time with them relevant to them, something happened. I provided enough introduction to make it clear that I was intending to read to them but I did not make the effort to draw the mythological connections clear to them. I started and they sat quietly. Some even moved to the floor to lie down and perhaps drift a few inches toward sleep and I smiled to myself about the possibility of that calm repose in their morning of school as unexpected as it was for them. They chose to indulge in that calm of the spoken word and when the 10-12 minutes passed they were clearly refreshed by that recess in their day.

I am not sure of the connections they made that morning. They may not have had the explicit knowledge of the Sedna myth but the story and the voice had done something and in some small way the stones were put in the river from me to proceed from the classroom techniques and curriculum I grew up on to those they longed to learn from.

At a time when Indigenous people and settlers look to come to a closer understanding of one another, it will be our oldest stories, the ones that have the most potential to resonate and echo with one another that will prompt understanding and do so without and extended negotiation about the meanings and misunderstood attributions we will assign to more recent stories. Those more difficult stories need to be told, negotiated and understood, but the older tales, the ones that show we have a great deal in common, are the ideal ones to begin with.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Bridge of Passion

For quite some time I have been meaning to write a post about the passions we have and the metaphor and guide that they provide as we interpret our surroundings and use them to offer our perspective to others. By passions I mean the pursuits, hobbies and interests that occupy our thoughts, occasionally obsess us and, often, give us the language and metaphors to provide our insights on the topics we engage with.

In many instances, these passions are the areas which prompt us to self-identify, with pride, as a nerd or geek. Whether we declare ourselves a Star Wars geek, a jazz geek, or such we describe ourselves with pride and only the slightest bit of self-effacement despite the pejorative lineage of the terms geek and nerd. The powerful aspect of these passions is indeed the way that we can apply them to describe our world and illustrate concepts or shares beliefs in ways that are more challenging when we observe or interpret the world without a lens or vocabulary that invigorates us in such a manner.

At a time, though, when people are less inclined to listen to one another because of the assumptions we make based on perceived self-interest -- the tendency to attribute a certain belief system or motivation because of race, gender, generation, hairstyle, et cetera -- there is the slightest chance that by speaking with the metaphors that are unique to us we can breakdown the layers of platitudes, right and left-wing karaokes and ears-covered-na-na-na-na routines that provide the bleak measure of "discourse" as it is abused during a time when the messy, complex and paradoxical pursuit of understanding of reality and one another has been so nastily discarded in favour of something much slicker, brutish and, ultimately, disengaging and isolating.

As the rights of the marginalized are further diminished and even mocked, there is the chance that a geek's reminders about the egalitarian universe of Star Trek might make a case clearer to someone who is disinclined to hear more conventional arguments about a topic that they are hard-wired to an unchangeable position on.  It is our passions that provide the best metaphors to break the deadlocks that have persisted over the last few years and show little promise in dissolving until something catastrophic sends the pendulum back into retreat.

Speaking in such a passionate commitment to our terms of reference is not without its risks. The Peter Sellars' movie Being There (1979) presents the exceedingly uncomfortable story of a man who finds himself in the circles of power after essentially being expelled from the security of the refuge where he, naive and intellectually challenged, is equipped with little more than his passion for gardening. Clearly, in the clip from the movie above, his metaphor is given the utmost generosity in interpretation and that is far less likely today when there are so many people who are uninterested in listening under any circumstances and would run you out of the room or conversation for being too nairy-fairy for their tastes.

It would still argue though, that there is a chance of reaching a few more people than we would trying to reiterate or fine tune argument or positions that have fallen on deaf ears and strident opposition. So, if Douglas Adams, Dr. Seuss, Fight Club, Seinfeld or the garden speak to you as few other things do, feel free to speak of these things and extend the view of the world that you have enjoyed from each of these lenses. There is a better chance of making your point and if you fail in the process in the short-term you might get a laugh out of it and later learn that you made a point anyway.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Two Walks on Election Eve

Wednesday morning unfolded as expected: I dropped my son off at out of school care on my way to work and headed to the LRT to get to work. I walked the five minutes or so to Sunnyside Station oblivious to the white noise of election signs for mayor, councillor and school trustee that dotted the lawns in the run up to the municipal election in Calgary slated for October 9. When I arrived at the station, I spotted one of the candidates for councillor, Dean Brawn, mainstreeting on the opposite platform dressed in a Calgary Flames jacket, despite the controversial maneuvers the petulant corporate citizen has made during the campaign. The sartorial selection suggests a lack of subtlety or strategic insight on the part of Brawn and his campaign team.

Brawn, who has made a point of using campaign signs that bear hardly a coincidental resemblance to the livery of the bygone Progressive Conservative party, is running in my ward as a candidate intent on cost-cutting. He has gone after the incumbent, Druh Farrell, for her spending and he has made every orchestration to indicate he would cut spending and possibly taxes, despite his apparent interest in the Flames' ambitions to not have just a new arena, but the chance to indulge in a side business in real estate. In light of the history that Calgary-based real estate developers have had trying to influence municipal elections to pave the way for continued sprawl further and further out of the city's core, Brawn's bald affiliation with the Flames and those with aspirations of visiting a reopened corporate welfare trough. With mayoral candidate Bill Smith touted for his Progressive Conservative bona-fides, his reluctance to follow through on transit plans that are in place for the LRT Green Line and Southwest BRT raises questions about his interests in ensuring that the city continues to build the infrastructure that it has in the last 5-10 years and making the progress toward building a more sustainable, walkable and urbanist community that Calgary and other Western Canadian cites have strived to develop in the last decade.

It is undeniable that money has been spent during Naheed Nenshi's term in the mayor's office and money has been spent in Ward 7, where Druh Farrell is councillor. The money that has been spent has gone into infrastructure that will have a last impact on the life of the city and its citizens. The unspecified change that Smith, Brawn and other "cost-cutters" running for office have wrapped themselves in to promote themselves as champions of the taxpayer or the little guy is nothing more than a ploy to regress to an approach to city-running -- I deliberately avoid the terms "leadership," "government," and "management" -- that discards a long-term view or granular assessment of city life that ensures the city proceeds in a direction that lacks in the complexity and strategic insight to spend money wisely and with a comprehensive plan that impacts all of the aspects of the city's life.

To make a point about the distinctions and advantages of living in Calgary that is run with a comprehensive vision for what it could or ought to be let me contrast two neighbourhoods I have lived in. Ten years ago, I lived in Rocky Ridge with a view to the west that gave me a sunset but no connection to the rest of the city. If my wife and I wanted to go for a walk to a coffee shop, we had to walk for 55 minutes to find the closest. The only time we saw one of the few neighbours we knew was when we ran into him when he worked at the airport.  (We are not jet-setters who are passing through YYC anymore than two or three times a year.) The lot that housed a large billboard in 2008 touting the soon-to-come elementary school still has that sign and has yet to see the shadow of a shovel. These are the types of broken promises that are made when people are encouraged to buy into the sprawl of the suburbs but the city and the province does not have the resources to build infrastructure further and further out rather using the infrastructure in the core of the city as efficiently as possible.

For the last eight and a half years, however, I have had the good fortune of living in a neighbourhood where the walkability and convenience has put me in touch with neighbours with whom I have become acquainted with a fond of. I can walk my 5-year-old son to school at the start of the day on my way to work and at the end of the day I can walk him home. I also have enough time in my day to make a side-trip to the supermarket. He chattered away in wonder at how the snow melted as soon as it hit the ground rather than accumulated, stopped me to gaze up at a nest in a tree and for the two of us to share what unfolded throughout the day without inhibition. The walks the two of us share regularly are not merely an opportunity to chat, but one for him to enjoy the benefits of daily walking that is less available to everyone living in the outer suburbs. I would not have this opportunity if I was driving home, bouncing from station to station looking for a good song or a traffic report while my son stared out the window or gave his input on the listening options.

These incidental relationships and moments in communities where neighbours get to know one another and a father and son can have the conversations that teach and bond them together are the fabric of the community that Calgary can be. Dean Brawn and Bill Smith do not demonstrate a grasp of this when they talk about cutting transit and suggest they will open the coffers to a low-return contribution to developers and sports teams.  They seem more like power-brokers than community-builders and they are more motivated to assume office than necessarily do anything particularly constructive when they get the keys. Mayor Nenshi and councillors such as Druh Farrell, Gian-Carlo Carra and Evan Woolley are among those who have had a detailed, granular grasp of and passion for recognizing how cities, neighbourhoods, and streets work and bring an insight and passion for community-building to their roles that have made them valuable stewards of the city.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Victory Lap?

Sponsored by an ambulance service?!
With the Boston Qualifying time under my belt and my registration confirmed, I was still inclined to get out and run one more marathon in 2017.  After running four last year, the itch lingered and the office was clearing its throat for me to start burning through the vacation days I had piled up.

I had a strong interest in returning to Nashville to get another massive bit of bling and take a shot at winning my age group in a smaller, now-familiar race, but Portland beckoned as well. With Portland, there was also the opportunity to visit a city that I had heard so many positive things about.

With Boston 6 1/2 months away friends have been regularly asking what I was going to do to get ready for it and I openly admitted the possibility that the motivation may not be there since racing there might be the cherry on the cake. I have actually wondered how many more marathons I'd want to do after next April. I've thought about being a pacer in future races but have said more than a few times that it would be tempting to treat Boston as a victory lap and that there was just a remote chance of me going back regularly or annually after doing it in 2018.  I have not expressed the recognition, however, that training at the pace I have throughout 2017 was not going to be sustainable and that I would have to take some kind of break between now and the end of the year before bearing down for the new year.

That retreat had already begun in earnest since qualifying. I have not been running as much or eating as carefully as I had through the year to this point. In September, I made my mileage goal only on the very last day on the month.  So this morning, I lined up for marathon number ten with plans to maintain the pace I kept in August with a bit of help from being on a relatively flat course at sea level.  I started out well though I needed an early bathroom break (my fourth in all of the races I've run in the last 7-8 years) and kept a strong pace through the first third of the race.

The recent lack of hill training made its point to me around the 13K mark but it did not put too big a dent in me.  I stayed on target pace for the race up until the 30K mark and felt the legs go tight and felt an unfamiliar compression (it seemed) on my lower ribs. From that point on, I laboured and lost in range of 5-6 minutes over that last stretch of the race and finished with a 3:34. Not feeling the pressure to run faster, I focused on remaining comfortable and steady for the last 12K and still felt that I could get close to the qualifying time.  Being passed by the 3:30 pacer was demoralizing but I did what I could to keep pace with them.  However, according to my GPS, I somehow ran an extra 600 metres, which did not help.  The tightness I experienced is rather unusual as I'm more accustomed to having a flabby, weakened feeling set upon my legs when a race takes its toll on me. On top of the achy legs, is soreness in the arms from pumping through the way I did.

So the day winds down with a bit of clock watching due to a flight delay while the rose I received for completing the race dries. It was a fun race and I am abundantly amused that the race finisher T-shirts were sponsored by an ambulance service, a reminder that this is the original extreme sport.

Mentally, I did not have the focus I had in August, or the confidence that I had then either. I was quite possibly cocky, rather than confident and I was not telling myself to have fun and to succeed as I did in August.  Instead, my mind was a less-focused blankness and I did not assert myself in this race. I was rather withdrawn from my fellow racers, as was the case in May this year.  The question is whether the mental aspect is something that will come to be or if it is something that I can force myself into.

Still, managing my third best marathon on a day when my fitness was not at its peak is an assuring indication of what my body is capable of.  With a few nagging aches to look after and a light racing schedule for the rest of the year, it will be time to ease up a bit, rest my body and mind and start to ramp up the training for Boston as winter sets in and I prepare to make my next marathon a more meaningful and memorable one.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Jason and the Hooded Left Wing Hate Machine - A Children's Story

I am not particularly interested in the race for the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race and have not tracked polls, the issues or know or care when the vote will be occurring. What I do pick up on when something rises above the white noise of the Alberta right is that there is an arrogant inevitability about Jason Kenney’s campaign. He is campaigning directly against the NDP government rather than any of his opponents and that is well within his rights and it is not the first time such a strategy has been adopted in a leadership campaign.

Despite my disregard, I regularly see posts from his campaign appear on social media and I'm regularly invited to like his posts or follow the campaign; an indication that the algorithmic nuance of his social media campaign is set somewhere between zero and absolute zero. I have the most fleeting of temptations of following the campaign, but I have scanned enough vitriolic message boards on topics that I anticipated benign discussion to quash the notion rapidly. The  amped up anxiety of those who have believed the Alberta is the divine right purview of conservatives and that the province needs to be taken back - in time, I ask myself - in order for it to proceed down the road to oil riches that Alberta travelled so well for so long. The unstated fallacy being that the election of a UCP government would see the consequent recovery of the price of oil the day after the election and that the “normalcy” the Albertans perceived as their right would be restored. The oil patch would be revitalized, the biweekly Fort Mac-Newfoundland commuter conveyor would restart, there'd be a pipeline in every kitchen… er… direction and our property values would rise again.

https://pressfortruth.ca/top-stories/why-was-jason-kenney-bilderberg/
What little I have seen from Jason Kenney’s campaign videos has deliberately avoided nuance and done so as strategically as he has avoided campaigning against his UCP competitors. He chooses to ramp up anxieties about gun control or the status quo of responsible gun ownership. I am not a rural or native-born Alberta but this is not a campaign priority to me and it sounds more like a splinter issues that has been excavated from the Reform Party playbook in the ‘90’s and the aughts rather than something that has relevance at the provincial level. I acknowledge that this is an issue among rural voters but I suspect it is a few steps below health care, education, elder care and the economy.

The splinter issue of gun control is more likely to get certain groups out of a space of calming sitting through the debate of a campaign and get everyone on edge about the dearth of meaningful dialogue, the conduct of politicians in general and disengage voters who want a civil, detailed and clear campaign about significant issues rather while energizing voters who have clear hot button issues that will bring them out to campaign events and shout down the civilized dialogue and discussion of policies about the future of Alberta rather than a gilding of the good old days that are out of reach and require vision, an ability to negotiate collaboratively, a focus on building communities the appeal to families and potential investors. You can already see the campaign trail silliness of a UCP hack heckling a suburban NDP candidate about the National Energy Board as if it were 1979 and disbanding the NEB was something that the candidate was solely responsible for and the move would restore the price of oil to $140 a barrel. Mr. Kenney, with his talk in the past about firewalls and his assertion that he can renegotiate the equalization formula with Ottawa seems more intent on delivering a deftly managed federal campaign for 1997 than he is in putting forward a vision for governing a diverse, increasingly urban and urbanist Alberta in the 2020’s. The firewalls sound more like the musing of a boy in his shorts wanting to keep his treehouse safe from girls than the musings of a former Minister of Immigration or Minister of Defense who ought to be drawing on his experience of how permeable reality is and how we need to be responsive and nimble in the face of not only threats but opportunities as well. Instead he will argue that his party will need more funds to keep that reality away or hold off the rationally stated fact or valid argument that he cannot contend with

He is not offering anything of substance that pertains to running the province and leveraging the resources that are available in the Premier’s office in Edmonton. Should he assume the Premier’s seat after the next general election, there is the strong possibility that he will go into Stephen Harper's mode of constant campaign and keep the electorate’s attention away from his lack of vision for the future of the province or his administrative skills and strive to divide Albertans or mislead them with rhetoric, much like the recent comments about a left-wing hate machine — such mature a contribution to discourse about Alberta politics — that is in full churn against him. Refusing to allow Mr. Kenney’s campaigning to go unchallenged by the facts is not the work of a hate machine, it is an assertion that we must live and agree to be governed within the realm of reality rather than the illusions and rhetoric that serves an aspirant on the campaign trail.

Despite the focus of Mr. Kenney's campaign, he will not become the Premier of Alberta, the Prime Minister of Canada or the lead rodeo clown in Ponoka. He will be the leader of the UCP, a group that has its roots nourished by supporters of some of the most narrow-minded and divisive politicians to sit in the provincial legislature over the last decade. In light of the misogyny they have targeted the Premier with since the NDP formed the government and the distasteful ways they have attempted to dehumanize members of the current provincial government and the diverse constituencies they attempt to represent there will be an attempt by the UCP to run a campaign similar to one we saw a year ago south of the border, and only because it worked.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Time to Break Bubbles

It is easy to believe these days that conversation or dialogue - complete with nuance, richness and discovery - is a fossilized relic rather than a contemporary standard of interaction.  The pendulum has swung from dialogue to solitude and concept karaoke amongst the like-minded.  If you are not able to parrot along with the conceived topic of agreement, ostracism follows. Ostracism in many contexts occurs in the name of assuring a community's well-being -- those who threatened the day-to-day survival of a community because of a pathological behaviour -- but given how promptly groups ostracize outlying opinions today, the fragility of the group or the sanctity of its unanimity is grossly overstated.

There is the well-evidenced gap between left and right ends of the political spectrum.  The opinions of each side are clear and each side has built a fortress around their mindset that make position immutable in the face of counterargument or evidence.  The permission to distort and to offend that each of these camps grants reduce discourse to the crudest or most personal of terms as is the case with federal Conservative MP Gerry Ritz's "climate Barbie" remarks about Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. Rather than engaging with her in a discussion on environment policy (a unicorn-and-rainbow gilded fantasy of discourse in this day, I admit) or outright criticizing the policy itself (which would have resulted in him appearing to be less of a sexist and just a buffoon - a win-win) he chose to go after her gender and tried to discount her and undermine her credibility on her gender and perhaps her looks rather than her stand on policy.  There was no cry of, "What about the little suffering oil companies" or some other tribute to Jimmy Stewart's admirable filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Ritz opted for the entrenchment of exclusion.  It further reinforces the prevailing opinion of politicians, especially those who favour strategies that divide and conquer the electorate rather than bring people together.

The question is, how willing are people to come to a table likely to pose challenging conversation amongst people equipped with not only diverse opinions, but the ability to challenge you on the validity of the world (or bubble) that we enclose ourselves within.  All too often people are unwilling and consequently they discard or narrow their individuality and for the sake of a vague allegiance to an individual or group they hope will champion a pursuit of having their way in lieu of the long, challenging but energizing quest for understanding and wisdom.

It is easy to utter the word 'politicians' with a dismissive tone, but they are not the only ones who find it troublesome to dialogue. More and more people enclose themselves in gated communities where they can not only take comfort in the assumptions that can be made about the opinions of those in the same tax bracket but make rules for them to follow that, despite assumptions about freedom of speech, deny them the right to hang a peace symbol on their house. Even neighbours -- not exactly a group we summarily dismiss as nuisances -- are more inclined to litigate against one another than talk and come to some realization of where they differ and where they have common ground.

As the years pass, we fragment ourselves into smaller and smaller groups, each increasingly exclusionary with each subdivision. The self-definition grows intricate, unwieldy and ultimately hypocritical, think for instance of the female Conservative MPs who were silent in the aftermath of the Gerry Ritz tweet, shrugging at the bad behaviour with either the resignation since the outgoing MP is resigning shortly or a strong-as-oak commitment to the opinion on policy that Mr. Ritz's tweet. "Is a woman getting a 'here-we-go-again' blast of knuckle-dragging misogyny from a clown who doesn't deserve the 6-digit salary and the soapbox he feels so entitled to? Yes, but she and I are so far apart on environmental policy that I won't stand up for her." Again, these or politicians and their conduct bears a childish lack of nuance.

These nuances, however, do not merely escape politicians who somehow feel more and more empowered to misbehave because of the audiences that they can motivate or alienate with a single tweet.  Despite our hunger for reasoned discourse amongst politicians they still have to play to their audiences or constituencies to essentially score points. During the trudge to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the United States in 2009-2010 there was a complaint that the debates over this made for bad television. Sadly, the efforts to dismantle it in 2017 are making for good television but do little to bring insight or dialogue to an effort which is, at best, a ham-handed and naked money grab. There is little of the parry and thrust of a debate or discussion but just an effort to ram the legislation through via the brute will of those who feel they are, again, entitled.

This is not the only place where the oxygen supply to dialogue is getting cut off.  Increasingly, the aversion to dialogue and free speech is becoming evident amongst the generation that has grown up post 9/11. Whether it is a lifetime of being inculcated to a certain wariness about the clash of opposing views or the free flow of information, a habit of getting the info-fix they want from the echo-chambers of their social media feeds or a lack of armour and skill to weather the challenges to the perspective that they have formed and had reinforced time and again by their select circle of friends who have been selected and recommended by their oh-so-trusty algorithms.

This younger generation needs to sit down with unlike-minded peers long enough and often enough to pare away their poor habits of reasoning: their tendency to disregard a statement of fact or opinion because of their opinion of the messenger; the recklessness with which we choose our words; our tolerance for being snowed by those we want to align ourselves with; our settlement for descriptions when explanations are required; and rediscovering the patience to ponder where another person is coming from. There is much to be learned from conversations with people whose opinions and experiences are far removed from our own and at a time when successful business see the strategic advantage of diversity and different ways of thinking we ought to ensure that we bring that into our lives in a deliberate manner rather than locking ourselves into the closed feedback loop of our cellphones while we wait for AI and virtual reality to further assure us that our delusions about the world are secure and further fortify the bubbles that should have burst so long ago.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Beauty is NOT in the Eye of the Driver

From http://globalnews.ca/
The City of Calgary has ensured that public works projects include a component for public art. The formula starts with a far-from-indulgent 1% of a project's total cost to a maximum of $4 million. The city has been enhanced by the additions of these elements and they have significantly contributed to the atmosphere of the neighbourhoods where these projects have occurred and art has been added. During my first visit to Enmax Park this morning, I was greeted by an installation of a multicoloured fish. There are, as Calgarians well know, similar installations throughout the city at our LRT platforms, public buildings and other infrastructure that has been added to the city.

Collectively these pieces of art contribute to the life of the community and have met with little controversy or criticism.  There are, however, two notorious pieces which continue to provoke bewilderment if not the ire of Calgarians.  The Big Blue Ring and the more recently installed Bowfort Towers have been the most controversial of the installations and it is probably not a coincidence that these two pieces were installed near new highway construction. The scale and complexity of pieces in such large spaces is going to be far more problematic than pieces located in more walkable areas of the city where the interaction with the art can be more casual, intimate and less time-sensitive.  The larger scale art along the highways needs to be bold (or blatant) rather than nuanced, at least in visual complexity.  Factor in the significant budgets for both installations -- which has amounted to $470,000 and $500,000, respectively, -- and you have projects that are going to provoke criticism. 

Drivers, the notorious lot that they are, are difficult to satisfy.  If they are asked how their drive is, there is rare mention of a pleasant or mind-clearing drive.  You know, the wide open roads of the Pacific Coast Highway or the Cabot Trail did not emerge during their tedious, tree-lined trip from Calgary to Edmonton and back.  If they happen to have the opportunity to drive the Icefields Parkway, they will complain about getting stuck behind some acrophobic driver from Saskatchewan who was terrified of the heights during the drive, overlooking the chance that said tourist might be soaking in the sights.  A driver wants nothing more than to get from point A to point B with the minimum hassle and fuss and the lowest risk possible of getting caught by photo radar.  They will happily screech to a halt at the first fluorescent or neon beacon offering burgers, donuts, soda and or coffee no matter how little of the drive is left, but they want to be alone and have the road to themselves.

It is disappointing that the expense of the art gets the ridicule that it does but the investment in the highway infrastructure is regarded as a requirement, even though research shows again and again, even in Calgary, that such spending on cars and highway infrastructure is futile.  

Part of the problem with these public art projects is that regardless of where the funding is coming from, they are projects that are ultimately regarded as private space by those who use them.  These highway projects raise the expectation, wrongly, that they will ease congestion for people travelling in these parts of the city and fail to do so. In the face of that failure, drivers' sense of entitlement regarding the roads they drive on escalates.  The City of Calgary's policy regarding public art ought to maintained rather than suspended and reviewed. The issue with the Big Blue Ring and Bowfort Towers is the disconnect that is evident when trying to put public art into a space that people want to regard as private.  The aesthetics and budget for the art aside, the main provocation may be the assertion that this highway infrastructure is not a simple slab of concrete and asphalt than appeared pricelessly from the heavens but the reminder that it is ultimately a public space.  Installing art in these areas, despite the controversy, has been a noble effort to assert that these spaces are, indeed, public.

If the suspension of Calgary's current public art policy prompts a retreat from adding the public enhancements that have helped beautify and revitalize the city as it has over the decade or so since the policy was introduced, it would be a significant failure of will and sound thinking at City Hall.