Canada’s avant-garde set to storm Brock University next week

More than 85 national and international avant-gardists will descend upon Brock and St. Catharines next week for Avant Canada, a conference on the avant-garde in our country.

“This is an unprecedented gathering of Canadian avant-garde writers and scholars on the avant-garde in Canada,” says Gregory Betts, organizer of the event and director of Brock’s Centre for Canadian Studies.

“Avant-garde writing is some of the most interesting and vibrant work coming out of this country,” he says. “It is enormously influential around the world, people are tuning into this stuff. And this is that moment for all of us to finally get together.”

“People from across the whole country are coming,” he adds, noting that participants from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia will be in attendance.

The conference is the 28th instalment of the Two Days of Canada conference at Brock University – the oldest Canadian studies conference of its kind in the country.

The two-day conference takes place Nov. 5 and 6 at the University’s Rodman Hall Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines and will be followed by a one-day symposium on Canadian poet bpNichol at the Niagara Artists Centre on Nov. 7.



“We will be congregating for three days to discuss all of the work that has come before and to map out the future of writing in Canada,” says Betts. “It’s a gathering for all those who are interested in ideas of avant-gardism and radical social intervention through art.”

The avant-garde is both a historically specific term and a general idea of art that is deeply invested in changing society through art. Historically, the avant-garde movement emerged in Europe in the early 20th century in response to conservative notions of the nation while technology was radically changing societies. The avant-garde represented a break in history.

“It was a way to say, look – you cannot be a Victorian in the 1920s when we have electricity, radio and film. It was a way to shuck off the baggage of the past,” says Betts. “It was intended to be a disruption. It was a way to question what it means to be a civilization in the electric age.”

In contrast, at the turn of the 20th century, Canada did not have older established notions of Canadian identity to break free from. We were a hodgepodge country that borrowed from other civilizations. Consequently, the avant-garde in our country was more interested in building than in breaking.

“The European avant-garde was rejecting institutions,” says Betts, “but in Canada they were helping to invent them.”

The Three Powers by Bertram Brooker (1888–1955)

The Three Powers by Bertram Brooker (1888–1955)

In the 1920s, early Canadian avant-gardists like the Group of Seven painter and poet Lawren Harris and Bertram Brooker, an artist and novelist, helped to establish some of the major institutions for supporting the arts in Canada. Institutions like the National Gallery, National Library, Canada Council for the Arts, and the Massey Commission – formally known as the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, which advocated for federal funding of a wide range of cultural activities in Canada.

Avant Canada will include discussions, panels and practical-skills workshops, as well as an exhibition of First Nations digital art by Skawennati and a keynote talk by author and philosopher Lee Maracle, recipient of a 2014 Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Lee Maracle will deliver the conference's keynote address on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.

Lee Maracle will deliver the conference's keynote address

Topics include, and this is just the tip of the iceberg: avant-garde video games; Canada’s publishing industry; contemporary representations of indigenous peoples in popular culture; digital environments in First Nations communities; and feminism and gender issues.

The one-day symposium on bpNichol includes a creative evening of poetry featuring 12 Canadian poets reading works inspired by the award-wining author. It will also feature a digital interactive and real-time Twitter performance by writers from around the world.

Nichol, who died in 1988, is noted for his “concrete” poetry – poems that borrow from visual art to produce lively language-based images rather than expressions. Noteworthy works include the “visual book” Still water, the booklets The true eventual story of Billy the Kid and Beach Head as well as the anthology of concrete poetry, The Cosmic Chef, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.

The symposium is one of the early manifestations of Betts’ “bpNichol project,” which he’s undertaking as part of his 2014-17 Chancellors Chair for Research Excellence at Brock.

“Nichol’s particular ideas of making one’s own art and sharing and distributing it was more of a gift economy of art,” he says. “He was an incredible figure in the publishing industry and community building in Canada. I want to foster an international network of scholars to continue the discussion around his work and this is the first entry in that discussion.”

Avant Canada will feature events every evening that are free and open to the public.

  • A keynote talk by Lee Maracle, entitled “Two Days of Canada, 53,785 Days of Colonialism” at Rodman Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. Maracle is an instructor at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto and was recently presented with a 2014 Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts
  • A screening and artists talk on the Indigenous Futurist mini-series TimeTraveller by digital First Nations artist Skawennati at the Niagara Artists Centre on Thursday, Nov. 6 at 8 p.m.
  • Friday’s (Nov. 7) symposium on poet bp Nichol includes a creative evening of poetry at the Niagara Artists Company at 7:30 p.m. Twelve Canadian poets will recite works inspired by Nichol. And it will also feature a digital interactive and real-time Twitter performance by writers from around the world.

Check the conference website for the full schedule and event details.

Avant Canada at Brock is made possible by support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Editing Modernism in Canada, the Centre for Canadian Studies at Brock, and the Niagara Artists Centre.

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