Pal­ette Cleanser

A new cbc arts do­cuseries aban­dons the rules of prime-time tele­vi­sion

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Caoimhe Mor­gan-feir

In late april, in the In­dian city of Agra, there was a sea of tourists around the Taj Ma­hal. Some were tak­ing self­ies, oth­ers posed rigidly in front of the land­mark, and a few even reached their arms up into the air so that, with the cam­eras strate­gi­cally an­gled, they ap­peared to be touch­ing the tip of the land­mark’s bronze finial. In their midst stood Divya Mehra, a thirty-six-year-old artist from Win­nipeg. Mehra was not fo­cused on the build­ing, though; her own lens was fixed on the pos­tur­ing tourists.

Mehra, in turn, was sur­rounded by a CBC film crew that was doc­u­ment­ing her project. The crew was un­der strict in­struc­tions from Mehra that the Taj Ma­hal it­self was not to ap­pear in any of their shots. “I’m not in­ter­ested in per­form­ing this idea of In­di­an­ness,” Mehra had ex­plained ahead of the shoot. “If you’re in­ter­ested in learn­ing more about that or if you’re in­ter­ested in see­ing im­ages of the Taj Ma­hal, you can Google that.” Mehra was at work on an art piece about how im­ages of the Taj Ma­hal have been re­pro­duced in Western pop­u­lar cul­ture. While the team was on board, the re­quest wasn’t met with uni­ver­sal un­der­stand­ing. “Why did we spend so much money, get through this rig­or­ous process, and come here and not show the Taj?” said Ricky Sak­sana, one of the two In­dian fix­ers help­ing the CBC team. “I mean, that’s ridicu­lous,” he added with a laugh.

Mehra first made her re­quest one month prior, dur­ing a Skype call with Sean O’neill, pre­sen­ter and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of In the Mak­ing, a new CBC arts doc­u­men­tary series that launched in Septem­ber. O’neill was out­wardly sup­port­ive, though in­wardly, he was wor­ried. To take a crew halfway around the world and fail to cap­ture that quin­tes­sen­tial shot could be a hard sell to the broad­caster’s ex­ec­u­tives. But re­spect­ing Mehra’s de­ci­sion was also es­sen­tial for the show that O’neill had set out to cre­ate.

The con­cept be­hind In the Mak­ing is sim­ple enough: find Cana­dian artists about to em­bark on a large project and doc­u­ment their process. Its sim­plic­ity is also what makes it sur­pris­ing. Non­scripted tele­vi­sion — the broad um­brella that in­cludes re­al­ity TV, game shows, and doc­u­men­taries—has spi­ralled into so many out­landish con­fig­u­ra­tions over the past twenty years that un­less some­one is mar­ry­ing a stranger or on the verge of win­ning a stag­ger­ing amount of money, the stakes can feel un­der­whelm­ing. In the Mak­ing is ar­gu­ing against this flashy and shal­low ap­proach to tele­vi­sion — the series is wa­ger­ing that, even when it’s stripped of prizes, in­ter­per­sonal con­flict, and celebrity, view­ers still care about art.

In the mak­ing’s eight episodes serve un­apolo­get­i­cally high­brow fare for a Fri­day-night au­di­ence, and ev­ery el­e­ment of the pro­duc­tion seems to have been metic­u­lously con­sid­ered: New York de­signer Christy Nyiri, whose clients have in­cluded moma, de­vised the show’s ti­tles; the team forewent the CBC’S mu­sic bank and brought in com­poser Kieran Adams, of the ac­claimed Toronto indie band Diana, to score the episodes; artist Amy Lam was hired to con­duct archival re­search; and episode di­rec­tors in­clude doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers Chelsea Mc­mul­lan and Amar Wala. View­ers might not no­tice these de­ci­sions if they aren’t watch­ing for them, but to­gether, they give the show an un­mis­tak­able feel­ing of aes­thetic authen­tic­ity; it’s as though, for twenty-two min­utes, you’ve climbed in­side the artist’s world.

The eight artists pro­filed are just as care­fully cho­sen — they are all suc­cess­ful and well-re­spected fig­ures but not ex­actly house­hold names. There is the mu­si­cian Lido Pimienta, who won the Po­laris Prize last year (she also made news again a few weeks af­ter­wards, when a white con­cert­goer in Hal­i­fax re­fused to move af­ter Pimienta in­vited “brown girls to the front” of the venue), as well as artists Adrian Stim­son, Shel­ley Niro, and Cur­tis Tal­wst San­ti­ago. Chore­og­ra­phers Dana Michel and Crys­tal Pite are pro­filed, as is mu­si­cian Chilly Gon­za­les. O’neill is a con­stant pres­ence in the episodes: he joins the artists on their trav­els and prompts them to talk about the sub­jects they tackle, which in­clude the his­tory of res­i­den­tial schools, racism, and deal­ing with grief. But the artists them­selves re­main the fo­cus.

The idea be­hind In the Mak­ing was de­vel­oped out of an, ad­mit­tedly, silly show. O’neill, who is thirty-three, first be­gan work­ing with the CBC as a pre­sen­ter— not, he notes, a pro­ducer — on Crash Gallery, a game-show-style art pro­gram that launched in 2015. A for­mer ac­tor, O’neill has worked for most of the last decade pro­gram­ming events and or­ga­niz­ing projects at the Art Gallery of On­tario, mak­ing him uniquely equipped to host art-re­lated TV. Crash Gallery didn’t uti­lize this ex­per­tise. In each episode, three artists (the def­i­ni­tion stretched to in­clude cake mak­ers and nail tech­ni­cians) com­peted in out­landish chal­lenges, such as paint­ing can­vases while sus­pended up­side down or smash­ing plates and turn­ing the shards into mo­saics. The show had a slap­stick ap­peal, but it didn’t of­fer much in­sight into con­tem­po­rary art or make for a par­tic­u­larly en­ter­tain­ing game show. But as O’neill was hand­ing com­peti­tors wa­ter guns filled with paint and ask­ing them to cre­ate a visual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of “love,” he was also nurs­ing an idea for a dif­fer­ent kind of arts pro­gram—an in-depth, story-driven series that would fo­cus on artists at the lead­ing edges of their dis­ci­plines. “It had been so long since the CBC had done any­thing re­ally ma­jor in terms of cov­er­ing the arts in Canada, and I thought, ‘Okay, there is a good show that could be made, and maybe if I do Crash Gallery, then the CBC and I will build a re­la­tion­ship and that could lead to some­thing else,’” says O’neill.

The last se­ri­ous prime-time arts show that most ca­sual view­ers re­mem­ber is likely Adri­enne Clark­son Presents, wherein Clark­son, play­ing both host and coach, in­ter­viewed (and oc­ca­sion­ally grilled) mu­si­cal acts, architects, and artists. The pro­gram was crit­i­cally well re­ceived and had an im­pres­sive run, from 1988 to 1999, end­ing around the time Clark­son be­gan her ten­ure as Gov­er­nor Gen­eral.

Crash Gallery ended af­ter two sea­sons, and O’neill’s long-term plan­ning paid off. Ac­cord­ing to Jen­nifer Dettman, who heads up un­scripted con­tent at the CBC, the broad­caster was in the midst of a new strat­egy for cov­er­ing the arts, and while more tra­di­tional favourites won’t be cast aside—“we still do Strat­ford plays on Sun­day af­ter­noons”— there was new room for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

In the in­ter­ven­ing decades be­tween Adri­enne Clark­son Presents and In the Mak­ing, tele­vi­sion has greatly changed, and so has con­tem­po­rary art in Canada. The lat­ter is cer­tainly more po­lit­i­cal and much more di­verse—some­thing that In the Mak­ing keenly re­flects as it tries to be­come the new cor­ner­stone of the CBC’S arts pro­gram­ming. “We didn’t

sit down and say, ‘Okay, we’re go­ing to make a doc­u­men­tary about eight po­lit­i­cal artists,’” O’neill says. “But when we looked at the land­scape across the coun­try of what artists we’re talk­ing about and deal­ing with, there was a com­mon thread of artists look­ing, ex­am­in­ing, ques­tion­ing, and cri­tiquing.” The di­rec­tors and O’neill needed to fos­ter an en­vi­ron­ment where artists work­ing with fraught sub­ject mat­ter could feel com­fort­able open­ing up. “In some cases, these con­tro­ver­sial places that the artists were go­ing meant that, on our side, we needed an equally di­verse and in­ter­sec­tional set of peo­ple on our crews and in our cre­ative po­si­tions,” O’neill ex­plains. The re­sult of these con­scious ef­forts is in­ti­mate, and oc­ca­sion­ally heavy, tele­vi­sion.

The most poignant mo­ment of the series oc­curs dur­ing the episode on Adrian Stim­son. Stim­son, whose paint­ings and per­for­mances gar­nered him a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award ear­lier this year, was work­ing on a project with artist AA Bron­son about an un­likely connection in their fam­i­lies’ pasts: Bron­son’s great-grand­fa­ther John Wil­liam Tims moved to south­ern Al­berta in the 1880s to work at the first res­i­den­tial school on the Sik­sika Na­tion re­serve, where he sparred with Chief Old Sun, who was an an­ces­tor of Stim­son’s. Stim­son’s fa­ther and fam­ily mem­bers would later at­tend that same res­i­den­tial school.

Dur­ing a din­ner party with friends and col­leagues that Stim­son hosted as his gen­der-bend­ing al­ter ego, Buf­falo Boy, he and Bron­son talked about their shared past and the wealth of in­for­ma­tion they’d un­earthed dur­ing their archival re­search. Myrna Young­man, a friend of Stim­son’s, weighed in on the project, and started to thank Bron­son for broach­ing this his­tory. “It’s re­ally mean­ing­ful that you’re ac­knowl­edg­ing what your grand­fa­ther did,” she told him. “As a res­i­den­tial-school sur­vivor, it means, from my heart,” her voice broke, and she took a long pause be­fore she ex­plained how rare it is to see some­one take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the past wrongs of their fam­ily. By the time Young­man con­cluded, most of the guests were in tears.

It’s a vul­ner­a­ble scene, and it gives a deeply per­sonal in­sight into how the art­work that Stim­son and Bron­son are start­ing to cre­ate has real con­se­quences. “It showed me that these con­ver­sa­tions are never go­ing to be pleas­ant, but we are ab­so­lutely ca­pa­ble of hav­ing them,” says Amar Wala, who di­rected the episode.

Whether the av­er­age tele­vi­sion viewer will forgo cash prizes and cliffhanger com­mer­cial breaks in favour of sober self-re­flec­tion re­mains to be seen. In the Mak­ing is cer­tainly weight­ier fare com­pared with our pub­lic broad­caster’s other prime-time pro­gram­ming, and the team isn’t sure who pre­cisely its au­di­ence will be. “We weren’t cen­tring at ev­ery junc­ture what one might think of as the tra­di­tional CBC Tele­vi­sion– watch­ing au­di­ence, which tends to be a lit­tle older, higher in­come, a lit­tle whiter...maybe a lot whiter,” O’neill says. The show is also be­ing re­leased on­line, im­me­di­ately and in its en­tirety, when the first episode airs, and it is pos­si­ble that In the Mak­ing will find its au­di­ence there.

Still, there are met­rics that are more im­por­tant than eye­balls. View­ers and mar­ket-share fig­ures are the bot­tom lines of com­mer­cial chan­nels; pub­lic broad­cast­ers, how­ever, should be pushed to con­sider other fac­tors, such as whether a pro­gram in­forms, in­no­vates, and re­flects the peo­ple they rep­re­sent. This is where In the Mak­ing suc­ceeds, re­gard­less of its even­tual view­er­ship num­bers: for per­haps the first time, a tele­vi­sion show is trust­ing artists to present their work as they see fit and, more im­por­tantly, trust­ing au­di­ences to ap­pre­ci­ate these works in all their nu­ances. Rather than con­tort­ing art and artists into gim­micks or hav­ing a host ex­pli­cate so in­tensely that the pro­gram re­sem­bles a lec­ture, In the Mak­ing makes ev­ery small el­e­ment of the show re­sem­ble the sub­jects it’s doc­u­ment­ing and, in do­ing so, feels like a work of art it­self.

caoimhe mor­gan-feir is the for­mer manag­ing editor of Cana­dian Art. She has con­trib­uted to Frieze and Toronto Life. She is based in New York.

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