“Est-ce que c’est le Parlement?”
“Non, c’est Canadian Tire.”
–Snappy answers to stupid questions overheard on Parliament HillThere is a certain satisfaction in seeing the confusion on people’s faces. If this is what’s oozing out of Ottawa, just what is happening to your average mediocre city? A spontaneous and unexpected outbreak of tropical hysteria in a cold, boring, early-to-bed bureaucratic monocrop of a town. Stories of new mind-mush: it’s getting hotter every year. Perhaps we’re just some random itinerant students at the universities, passing through a radical phase? Or an infection of external rebels living here by circumstance from certain known centers of revolt (Montreal, perhaps to a lesser extent Toronto, which is at least large enough to be plausible?) What puzzles to the point of numbness is that many of our group are actually from Ottawa (and the true Ottawa, of course, its suburbs). Of those that have come here from elsewhere, it is usually from even smaller, even more boring places.*
It could be said that our critique of the city is therefore endemic.
Ottawa is one of those odd New World administrative-capital cities which are often explicitly distinct from the centres of culture (Montreal, Toronto, New York etc). Sitting stupidly on-top of sacred indigenous sites at the crossing of the rivers and the Chaudière falls, its capacity to crush its own mythic loci is astounding. And then, during its colonial existence, Bytowne was an actually pretty wild frontier spot with some interesting mythological implications (the giant Big Joe Mufferaw…Devil along the Kitchissippi in search of an onion sandwich…The Witches of Luskville… The Haunted Lake of Fairies).
But this was a separate life on the same spot, a totally different town, and has had no real impact on the present mindset of the city. This negation is the result of a series of specific, massive colonial and then Federal projects surrounding its capitalization, such as the Rideau Canal, the Copy-Pasted Parliament Buildings, or the Victoria Island paper mill, and then, a century later, the Gerber Plan. They have built indiscriminately on top of the interesting, the indigenous, and the poor, as usual. And now, for example, a massive new condo project being developed on-top of the old poisoned industrial site built on-top of a sacred Algonquin island. We must be onto our third or fourth layer of outrage, now?
And he pointed out a sort of Nuremburg toy planted on a hill top. This toy with its polychrome architecture resembled the House of Parliament in London much as the Montreal cathedral resembles St. Peter’s at Rome. But that was of no consequence; there could be no doubt it was Ottawa.
-Jules Verne, Robur the Conqueror
The blossoming of the fatberg.
It is well known that a fatberg is a congealed lump in a sewer system formed by the combination of non-biodegradable solid matter such as wet wipes with grease or cooking fat. Fatbergs may also contain other items which do not break down when flushed into a toilet, such as sanitary napkins, cotton buds, needles and condoms, as well as food waste washed down sinks. The resulting lumps of congealed fat can be as strong as concrete, and require specialist equipment to remove. Such are our problems.
In some ways the fatberg is too adorable to hate. It’s not unique in its style of mediocrity, and that’s the whole point.
Of course there is a typical banalization of life itself emanating from the most dominant presence in the city i.e. at present, boring middle aged and mostly white bureaucrats who moonlight as hockeydad paterfamiliases. And with them the standard level of racism and fascist-nurturing as expected, dog-whistle attacks on black music from our local radio stations who insist only on “real rock” and the nuanced suppression of the indigenous, immigrants, people of colour, workers, and the homeless.
What’s worse, in recent years the fatberg macro-culture has itself developed a bad-conscience. The functionaries themselves feel the need to justify themselves by deriding their own status, and pursuing the sweet “spice of life” activities on the side. Thus the rather pathetic proliferation of “Ottawa at Night” or “Ottawa Underground” documentaries, the promotion of a local pseudopoetry or pseudo-radical arts scene (Scotiabank Presents Nuit Blanche!) or other abortive attempts to make amends for its own mediocrity.
Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, a new spirit forms from the angry kids and the misfits of the fatberg ideal. They simply allowed some of us too much freedom to watch old cartoons and to play in the forest. It is from the magical lots of old quarries and abandoned factories that the sludge of the Chimera originally crawled into the gullets of a few maniacal teenagers who never blossomed as they aged.
Perhaps the one redeeming feature of how the city “looks” in its official capacity is its penchant for the neo-gothic architecture. Well then. Maybe these are our houses, and we’re the neo-goths?
We know our forebears. We know what you are on the inside. We speak from the insider’s experience of an unintentional mediocrity of life to an explicit mediocrity in the eyes of the service economy, on the trail of the phantom carriage.
At the outskirts of the utilitarian city we might recreate ourselves as:
A centre of gravity for uselessness
Sexual and gender multiplication tables
An outlet for misfits, the poor, the mad (who often join us at our park bench, and play along)
Nonconformists, absolutely, but also underconformists, sideconformists, etc.
An experimental farm for chance
A greenbelt of antagonism
A provocation for the eclectic productives and cool parents
Ignorers of initiatives
The next step for activists who are too angry
Collectors of the detritus of Old Hull
Fangirls of the Wendigo, the Loup-Garou, the ghost of the Lac des Fées
The spirit of revenge against the personality-market of that sponsorship scandal masquerading as an arts and poetry scene.
All of the above items remain as hypotheses or as temporary scaffolding to try out, in group life. We have tried on the masks we saw hanging out of reach on the walls of the museum of our childhood, but we’re not done playing with them yet.
We’re here to poison the happy families. Obliteration everywhere for all pseudotropolises.
*But after all, is it all that odd? Paris and London/SLAG, of course, but it’s Leeds that has the longest running surrealist group in the history of the UK. Chicago is also, as the Rosemonts have pointed out, an alternative reality to the more central literary culture of New York. Even Stockholm, it seems, is not exactly a radical effervescent centre (either now, or in the 80s?). And others. Perhaps there is a sweetspot of alienation, social pressure, population density and radical unimportance that favours the growth of surrealist fungi.