Sunday, August 23, 2009

Flashback to Andrew as an Angry Young Man

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I went to art college, I spent a fair amount of time hanging out with friends in the studio space given to fourth year drawing students.

This hanging out would occur at all hours of the day and night. At the time, the Alberta College of Art (but not yet Design) was open 24 hours a day, and the Nastys, as our teachers referred to a specific group of us, took full advantage of it. To this day, I shake my head with regret over the plight of ACAD’s current student body, many of whom may never know the joy of slapping paint on a 10x12 foot piece of cardboard, blind drunk at three in the morning. Those were the days, or so I’m told. It’s all kind of a fog now, but I can’t imagine we’d have done it so often if we weren’t enjoying it.

On one fairly mellow Wednesday night, I and a couple buddies were sitting around the candlelit studio, discussing the kinds of intensely deep thoughts that only pretentious 22-year old art students can have, when one of the commissionaires that patrolled the school in the wee hours poked his head in the door.

This was a bit of a surprise; not because he poked his head in, but because of the door it was poked in, which was the door that was A) actually in the wall of “our” space, and B) generally used only by the uptight jewellery technician next door to pound violently on as punctuation for his threats on our lives if we didn’t quiet the #*%& down right now. It was rarely, if ever, opened, and when closed, always locked. So it swinging open at this late hour was a bit of a surprise.

As it happened, it swung open in such a way that when the commissionaire poked his head in, he couldn’t see me standing behind it. I didn’t see any particular reason to reveal myself, so I stood there behind the door while the commissionaire made some gruff comments to my friends. I recall the phrase “hanky panky” being used, which struck me as odd, because the old guy’s tone let me know it was being used in a thoroughly unironic way. Anyway, after exchanging a few words with my fellows, the door closed and we resumed our conversation, thinking nothing of the incident…

…Until Thursday morning, when rumours of homosexual activities of an oral nature taking place in the drawing studios the night before filled the halls. That afternoon, the head of the department posted a memo all over the drawing department’s area, declaring all sexual activity in the studios off-limits.

This bothered me on multiple levels. First, I’d been in the drawing studios that night, and there hadn’t been any sexual activity, homo or otherwise, taking place. At least, not unless three mildly inebriated young men discussing their frustration with that at the time all-important area of their lives counted. Secondly, it seemed to me that art college was not an appropriate place for restricting any consensual activity between people who at least thought they were adults. Like it or not, sex is a huge factor in Art, experimenting, experiencing, and expanding one’s mind likewise huge when it comes to art education. I really didn’t see any good reason for the folks in charge trying to stop sex from taking place inside school walls. Admittedly, my reasoning at the time was influenced by my desperate belief that it was at least theoretically possible that some girl might throw herself at me in the studio, and my desire not to have that possibility (which, alas, never did become a reality) snuffed out by a cruel and uncaring head of the drawing department.

Above and beyond all that, it was (still is, actually) my belief that the reaction from those in authority wouldn’t have been so severe if the supposed sexual activity had been of a more hetero flavour. The more I thought about the whole thing, the more pissed off I got. Finally, I felt compelled to do… something.

The natural and obvious path was to use the incident as inspiration for a piece of art. But by this point in my evolution I was increasingly of the mind that capital-A Art as I understood it was a self-indulgent activity, and Art intended to convey Important Ideas was doubly so--the equivalent of feeling satisfied that one’s “done their part” to combat bigoted morons by joining an anti-homophobia facebook group. No, if I was going to address this at all, it was going to have to be in the form of something other than Art.

My commentary took the form of a second memo, with ACA letterhead, with the head of the department’s (inverted) signature at the bottom, that was hung in close proximity to the original memos. This memo expanded the general theme of the first one, getting into the specific kinds of sexual activity that wasn’t going to be permitted. As the list of forbidden acts went on, it grew increasingly more ridiculous; among other things the memo banned all discussion of gender issues in any context, and the removal of men/women washroom signs. If I hadn’t been writing in hot blood, I’d probably have had the memo ban the use of periods.

I hung the memos around two on Friday morning, and went home to bed.

At around 10AM that same day, the insistent squawk of the duckphone roused me from the sleep of the just. I answered; my friend Amy was on the other end of the line. “Andrew, is it true you wrote the sex memo?” she asked. I smiled smugly to myself, and admitted I had. “Uh, you probably shouldn’t come to school today.”

According to Amy, the department head was on the warpath. He was out to find, expel, and possibly kneecap the memo’s author. I couldn’t believe it; all the crap I and the Nastys had pulled over the last couple years, and this was what was going to get me kicked out? That was the situation as Amy understood it. I took her advice and didn’t go into school that day.

I was terrified. As much as I enjoyed playing the rebel, the notion of being expelled was a kick in the gut, largely because of the investment my parents had made in my education. I was seriously upset when I called them Friday night to explain why their son might be getting kicked out of art college a scant few months before he was scheduled to graduate with distinction.

Mum and Dad took the news with more grace than I deserved. Dad recalled a note Mark Twain had written to a friend, explaining that he’d made a complaint about something and then signed the friend’s name to it, as the complaint would carry more weight that way. Mum fell back on her over the years oft-repeated justification for her son’s general uselessness: “We raised you to be an artist.”

By Monday, the whole thing had blown over. The memos had been removed and the department’s official policy was to pretend nothing had happened. I went on to graduate with distinction a few months later and promptly failed to establish anything resembling a viable career as an painter. Eventually I moved away from Art and into the much lower overhead area of writing, which I’ve always tried to approach from the perspective of a craftsman.

I’d rather entertain than educate. On the whole, I generally try to avoid dealing with Important Issues in my writing. On those occasions something bothers me enough that I feel compelled to discuss it publicly, now, as in college, my tendency is to use satire as the vehicle for self-expression.

At the same time, whenever I do something like, for instance, paste a Hitler mustache on Trig Palin to make a point about the overuse of the term “nazi” , I find myself reliving those ugly hours in college, between the time I said something I felt needed to be said, and the time I had to deal with the fallout of saying it...


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