Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Small Victory

Yesterday, myself and Tim Broughton, one of the managers of Toronto's C'est What? venue, stood in court to challenge two anti-graffiti fines that were issued against C'est What? for posters promoting a residency of Paint shows from February 2011.

We argued against the prosecution on two grounds: 1) Tim put forth the factual argument that the band operated independently of C'est What? in putting up posters according to what they believed to be the venue's guidelines and limitations on postering; thus charging the venue was a misapplication of law; and 2) I presented a three-fold constitutional argument that blanket bans on postering are in fact an infringement of s.2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms pertaining to freedom of expression.

The case law was entirely on our side. Ramsden v. Peterborough was the landmark decision, in which the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously agreed that prohibiting postering on public property violated s.2(b) of the Charter. As postering is protected by the Charter, then any bylaws limiting this right must provide only "reasonable limits" that are minimally restrictive. Postering on public property, regardless of its content, constitutes "expression," and no persuasive distinction exists between using public space for leaflet distribution and using public property for the display of posters.

A subsequent case against the organizers of the Evolve Festival in Halifax laid 18 charges of postering on grounds that the city had created "information kiosks" for posters to be displayed. However, it was argued not only on constitutional grounds (as in Ramsden) but also that such kiosks were in fact an unreasonable limitation on freedom of expression because of their inconvenient locations and small numbers. The Halifax Regional Municipality dropped the charges on the grounds that there was "no reasonable prospect of conviction on the charges before the court."

A similar case in Montreal saw Jaggi Singh, as well as organizers of the Pop Montreal festival, charged with postering on "surface(s) (not) designated for such purposes." The Quebec Court of Appeal, in July 2010, declared the anti-littering bylaw (under which posters fell) to be "invalid" and "unconstitutional," on the grounds that bylaw, as in Ramsden, violates s.2(b) of the Charter.

The City of Toronto, under Rob Ford, is claiming that they also have similar provisions on "kiosks" and designated spaces that do allow for postering legally. However, as in the case in Halifax, such limitations are not "minimally restrictive," and I am of the opinion that Toronto is in violation of the Charter just as Peterborough, Halifax, and Montreal were, and as the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed.

Taking all of this into consideration, the City dropped both postering charges against C'est What? after myself as a representative of the band refused to take the fine in their place on constitutional grounds. The condition of the dismissal was that C'est What? present the City with their revised terms of performance to clearly state that postering is only allowed where legally deemed appropriate -- which, sadly, no one is entirely clear where those spots are, nor is it all that different from the provisions C'est What? already had in place.

The bottom line is that our charges were dismissed and it is worth celebrating (which is what the show on Dec. 8 at C'est What? is meant to acknowledge). However, it is still unclear where bands, promoters, and businesses are and are not allowed to poster without risking a fine.

Bans on postering represent an attack on the arts, especially in times of political conservatism when arts can be seen as subversive. 85% of the 413 infractions stemming from anti-postering in Montreal in 2009 were against the cultural industries. Posters are an accessible and affordable form of advertising for locally-targeted events in an oversaturated internet market. By-laws against postering are simply creating barriers for artists of a certain income demographic to get their messages out. Unless one has the resources to advertise in mainstream media, which is often controlled by certain interests, or own property and put up a big billboard, ideas and expressions are limited. The concept of “public space” contains the assumption that people freely express themselves as permitted under s.2(b) of the Charter.

In Toronto's case, shy of banding together to file a constitutional challenge (which I would say isn't entirely outside the realm of possibility) the onus sadly is placed on the backs of artists to stand up for their rights. Poster and promote as you would, and if fines are issued, do not pay them. Go to court. Use the above case law to argue your points. And drop me a line, I'd be happy to help.

Your in solidarity,
Robb Johannes

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Honour of Jack Layton

This morning our nation lost of its brightest stars and true patriots. Today we mourn the passing of federal NDP leader and Toronto-Danforth MP Jack Layton to cancer. Mr. Layton's death is a tremendous loss for Canada and Robb and Andre's local community in Toronto. Mr. Layton was a passionate and genuine man deeply committed to his country and its people. A rare bird and shining spark of hope in an ominous landscape.

A friend said something to the effect of "In all my pessimism about politics, Jack Layton was someone I actually believed in," and many others have expressed similar sentiments. This is what made Jack Layton so rare and unique. He did what politicians are supposed to do but very few can ever achieve: he lead by example and inspired his constituents to contribute to their communities and countries, one brick at a time. He gave us hope for the future and the tools to make it possible. He was more than a politician, he was a model citizen and an example that hope can grow from the most cynical dirt in the most apathetic political climates. He was a Kennedy, a Malcolm X, and a Beatle :)

While men and women do not live forever, ideas do. It's up to all of us to carry forth the legacy and vision that Mr. Layton helped develop and articulated so well. We are all stronger by virtue of his efforts, and while it is certainly a sad day for Canada, it is not the end of a social movement led by Mr. Layton's NDP that looks after the interests of everyday working people, compassion, and true democratic values. Jack Layton gave so many Canadian the most powerful gift of all: optimism.

Condolences to Olivia Chow and the rest of Mr. Layton's family.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Small Cost to Posting Bills

"I know it's only rock 'n' roll but I like it."
- The Rolling Stones

"It wouldn't be rock 'n' roll if it didn't have at least some element of crime."
- Robb Johannes

Pardon the use of a self-constructed quote but I couldn't find the perfect Stanley Cohen-esque nugget on moral panics. Allow me to explain:

Back in February, Paint played a month-long residency at C'est What? in St. Lawrence Market. The venue has been a staunch supporter of the arts in Toronto, and kindly allows bands an outlet to workshop and develop new material -- at least that was the case for us, as we were stage-testing songs before we entered the studio to record our forthcoming album, Where We Are Today. As any hard-working and business-minded band would, we employed street-level marketing tactics to promote the residency to the local community by getting permission to display leaflets in surrounding shops, and adhering to C'est What?'s policy on postering only on surfaces not deemed off-limits by the City of Toronto. We began the residency playing to a modest-sized audience and closed the final installment with a room over capacity. For us it was an artistically-rewarding process, and we became a family of sorts with the staff at C'est What? along the way.

Months went by, we toured more, went into the studio to make the record, mixed it, mastered it, pressed it, and a month before its release we found ourselves going to C'est What? to catch some friends play a show. It was at this time, we were pulled aside and told that under Mayor Rob Ford's new "anti-graffiti" mission, the City of Toronto issued a fine to C'est What? for posters that were put up sometime in January or February promoting Paint's residency. Now, having developed a forward-thinking graffiti diversion program called RestART in conjunction with the City of Vancouver, I'd like to think I have a smidgen of knowledge about graffiti, defined as "Writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place," essentially paint or ink applied to an unsanctioned public surface. In this case, Paint was applied (in pun only) but not as "graffiti" per se.

Beyond semantic technicalities there is a plethora of concerns that the City's sanctions raise, and neither C'est What? nor Paint are willing to let Ford's neo-conservative ethos steamroll anything pertaining to the arts and local business in Toronto. C'est What?'s management is taking a stand premised on "This is like you steal a car and I charge your mother for it!" The venue is going to continue to encourage bands to promote their shows in every legal manner available, as it raises the profile of Toronto's vibrant arts community and stimulates business for local establishments. This kind of out-of-touch "crackdown" by Ford and his almost exclusively suburban support base would not fly on Queen Street or in Kensington Market due to the sheer volume of venues and postering activity (a lot of which is commissioned by the City -- who is, in a way, looking after their own on this issue). The fact that this "graffiti" occurrence was around St. Lawrence Market, a relatively upscale quadrant, surely raises issues of class and cultural clash in a city as diverse as Toronto -- which is in many ways what Ford's election was about.

C'est What? will not stand for this fine (as they shouldn't), and I will be joining them in court on Monday, August 15th at 1:00 p.m. to observe the hearing. I would like to extend an open invite any musician or artist in Toronto who may find themselves available to join me in attendance.

As a testament to their continued endorsement of the arts, as well as their sardonic sense of humour, C'est What? is committed continue to fight every single one of these fines in court if and when they emerge (with Paint being the first of such cases). If it so declared that C'est What? is to pay the fine, the venue will host a benefit concert for the band in question, and money raised from the door will go to pay the fine. And of course, in the event of a fine-benefit show, bands may be encouraged to put up posters with an old-western "WANTED" motif.

Thanks Rob Ford, your governance of a city you can hardly say you actually live in continues to manifest itself in ridiculous ways. The frivolousness of this particular one kind of smells like, well, gravy.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

"The Artist Looked at the Producer...."

I saw Spirits play at Canadian Music Week last year and it was one of the most inspiring things I'd seen on stage in a long time. I became a major fan immediately and we ended up opening for them a few months later, which was when I found out that in addition to being a brilliant performer, Ian Smith is also an accomplished songwriter and producer.

We started planning to go into the studio with him right away.

Ian has been on all sides of the equation in the recording process, and because of that he really knew how to create an environment that was comfortable, welcoming, and creative; we could all just be ourselves and focus on the task at hand. I've never been able to sing so freely and openly.

As well, I could bring out the most obscure musical reference to describe the tone or mood we were trying to achieve for a song or a specific part, and not only would Ian be familiar with the record I was referring to, he would know what microphones, amps, instruments, and effects they used to capture sounds. Whether it was Suede, Ryan Adams, Kraftwerk, Editors, Pearl Jam, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Idlewild, U2, Neil Young, or a slew of bands no one but Ian and I seemed to have ever heard of, we were always on the same page with where we were heading.

I honestly believe that by the end Ian and I had melded into one brain. We were clearly in the hands of a fan of music and someone so technically wise that we left all technical discussions aside and just dove into focusing on the spirit of the songs, the subject matter, and what we were trying to communicate musically with this record. 

The results are, well, Where We Are Today.

Friday, May 06, 2011

At Last We Have a Left Wing: A Canadian Election Reflection

"Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society."
- Michel Foucault

On May 2, 2011, after three consecutive minority governments in seven years of attempting to gain power through failed and wasteful elections, Stephen Harper alas wore Canadians down and his Conservative Party took majority control of the nation's government. Similar to the bigoted Rob Ford's recent mayoral victory in Canada's largest city of Toronto (albeit without any support from the "city" of Toronto and entirely relying on the suburban areas outside the city recently classified as the "Greater Toronto Area"), the equally-removed Albertan Harper's Conservative Party was found in contempt of Parliament -- which is what sparked the election in the first place. The irony that they now hold majority office is surely lost on no one.

Never mind that Harper wants to Americanize Canada by implementing mandatory minimum sentences for petty drug offences and building American-style "super-jails" while reducing personal income taxes (ultimately leading to the privatization of government services -- a practice which even American prison officials have begun to abandon due to its complete and utter failure). Never mind that Harper wants to purchase fighter jets from Lockheed Martin and pump $39 billion into military ship-building. Never mind that Harper is acting on behalf of the Evangelist Christian right in dismantling abortion rights. Or cut corporate taxes. Or allow increased individual donations to political parties (with the reward of tax breaks). Or continue to abandon evidence-based policymaking with the removal of mandatory long-form census. All of these platform items are presently abstract bits of political and electioneering rhetoric which Harper may or may not turn into reality.

But what is tangible is the power we all have as citizens, which includes the potential to affect meaningful change and powerful resistance to an out-of-touch government.

The thing that is irking me about left-leaning Canadians who wonderfully got out to vote this time is the "sore loser" effect by saying things like "What was the point of voting at all cos the Conservatives won anyways," or "I'm going to move to America" (America?!?! Seriously? Are you fu*%ing kidding me?!?!?), or something equally sour and retreatist. Canada's lack of activist spirit sometimes gives me ulcers but often propels most of the activist-based work I have done throughout my entire adult life.

First of all, you didn't lose! You helped the New Democratic Party win 102 of 308 seats, 65 more than they held in 2008, and give the left a much-needed and much-welcomed presence on Parliament Hill. Jack Layton and the NDP are the official opposition for f&%k's sake, which is a tremendous step in Canadian political history and affords the left the opportunity to be more powerful than it ever has been under any otherwise right or centre-leaning Liberal/Conservative regime, particularly with a lame-duck post-Chretien Liberal Party acting as opposition. That means your votes actually accomplished something: they gave you representation in Ottawa!

Second, you're acting as though it's some kind of travesty that the Conservative Party won when the reality is Canada is a nation that has a long and well-documented history of conservatism, bigotry, colonialism, violence, genocide, and organized and institutional racism. I mean, come on -- "explorers" and "settlers" murdered thousands of Native Canadians, annihilated their cultural, social, and medical lives, and sent generation after generation to residential schools where they were raped by priests and told they were worthless pieces of sh*t unless they embraced Christianity, the English language, and rid themselves of every bit of their ancestry -- and once they did that, they would still be plagued with alcoholism and mass imprisonment.

And the Opium Act of 1908? Building the entire Canadian Pacific Railroad on the backs of underpaid Chinese immigrants and when they were done, creating laws against opium use (which was primarily done as a post-work leisure activity amongst Chinese labourers) and saying "Thanks for building our railroads, now f*&k off and go to prison where you belong"?!?! I don't know where this delusion that Canada is somehow a liberal mecca emerged; our nation's history is chock full of violence and oppression, and this history has directly affected the present. Stephen Harper is hardly un-Canadian -- he is carrying forth a legacy of conservatism that has plagued Canada since its inception (of course this path hasn't been linear, and we do have many progressive-thinking leaders like Pierre Trudeau to thank for bringing civil rights into Canada's collective thought).

Third, it's this sort of, "Well I'm just gonna pack up and move," fickle patriotism that gives Canadians the reputation around the world of being bland, polite, non-offensive, pushovers. Seriously: in 2005 Ian Bush gets shot in the back of the fu*%ing head under police custody in Houston, BC for no apparent reason and when the officers stand trial and are acquitted, Canadians shrug their shoulders and go "Oh well, can't win 'em all." But when the Vancouver Canucks lose the Stanley Cup to the New York Rangers in 1994, thousands upon thousands descend into downtown Vancouver to riot and loot Robson Street.... Something tells me Canadians' priorities are completely out of order -- one thing I will always give Americans credit for is their ability to get angry for the right reasons; the response to the Rodney King beating (and subsequent police officer acquittal), and the Civil Rights riots indicate that one thing we can learn from our southern neighbours is how to get pissed off about things that actually matter.

So before you write off your own country, Canadians, keep in mind that your power and responsibilities as citizens aren't limited to going to a poll every couple years and writing and "X" on a ballot. We can all be much more effective as citizens if we saw complaining simply as a means of venting and strategizing, and used our frustration as a springboard to action; to get out and actively do something to help our country. Stand up for what you believe in. Take a pay cut and go and get a job with a non-profit. Volunteer to support someone who's on parole, or working to get clean. Help out at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. I've had the great fortune of working closely with people who are, or have been, activists or politically-involved, and damn near everyone is ecstatic that youth got out and voted this time, that Canada now has a strong opposition party, and have recognized that Stephen Harper may have a majority now but he is still only as powerful as we let him be. Remember that we elect people to represent us, and when they don't, the last thing we should do is allow it to continue. Never mind "winning" an election; if we sit idly by, that is when Stephen Harper has truly won.

Without our compliance, he is powerless.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

How Many Deaths...

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is not my place to comment on whether Osama bin Laden was indeed behind the tragic attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 11, 2001; nor to argue whether or not weapons of mass destruction indeed existed as justification for the subsequent American attacks on Iraq. There are plenty of articles, books, and "intelligence" on such matters, and anyone with a library card and an internet connection can draw their own conclusions. However, there are certain elements in recent developments of the West's culture of violence that elicit some of the most primal and ultimately disturbing images of lack of human compassion and de-sensitization to violence.

On April 30, 2011, Canadians flocked in hordes to television sets, sports bars, and the Rogers Centre in Toronto (with a sellout crowd of 55,000) to observe the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The following evening, May 1, 2011, their American counterparts descended by the thousand on their nation's capital and other significant sites of historical and cultural significance across the United States to rejoice in the murder of Osama bin Laden. Observation without context of giant crowds cheering "USA! USA!" may as well have implied that the World Cup or Olympic gold medals had been won. But in many ways, response to the slaying of bin Laden, America's 21st century Antichrist, is just another manifestation of the good, old-fashioned American past-time of turning violence into sport. The "score" was settled when news broke that bin Laden had been killed -- never mind that the bloodshed of 9/11 and the resulting war in Iraq can never, ever be resolved by the murder of one man (or murder period).

Three-thousand Americans died in the 9/11 attacks. In response to 9/11, the George W. Bush-led war in Iraq has resulted in the loss of over 100,000 Iraqi citizens' lives. Did Americans cheer about that? Well, sort of. However, can we hold Osama bin Laden morally and singularly responsible for all of these deaths combined? Especially in light of so much ambiguity, confusion, and dubious American connections around bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Afghanistan, the opium trade, the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and the Taliban? Or even for how the American administration responded militarily to 9/11? In legal terms, a reasonable doubt can be shed on bin Laden's guilt for the totality of 9/11 and the Iraq war with which he has been seemingly held solely responsible. However, right-leaning Western media is presenting the death of bin Laden as some kind of Biblical affirmation; as though the death of 3,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis (not including soldiers who have lost their lives since 2003) have all somehow been vindicated and equalized in the face of the death of one solitary -- and lest we forget, Muslim -- man who had been elevated to demonic status through the course of a decade of mystery?

Herein lies the paradox of America's Judeo-Christian revenge philosophy: bin Laden's death will not bring 3,000 Americans back to life. Similarly, George W. Bush's decision to attack Iraq in response to 9/11 and have 100,000 Iraqi citizens die would not be somehow vindicated for Iraqis if Bush were to meet a similar fate. Anger and revenge are simply stagnant emotions; they produce nothing but more violence, hate, fear, and intolerance. Nothing productive. Nothing forward-thinking. Nothing progressive. And no resolutions. The son whose father died at the World Trade Centre still doesn't have a father. And Osama bin Laden's death would not bring an ounce of "justice" if the execution of Saddam Hussein and 100,000 innocent Iraqis already hadn't. The propensity for revenge through violent measures (on the macro and micro levels) is a self-perpetuating cycle that permeates the Western cultural narrative in an age when societies are too multi-faceted (or at least enhanced in their awareness of geography) for such simplistic polarizations as good/evil, sinner/saint, Christian/Muslim, us/them, "eye for an eye," and so forth. Many Westerners ascribe to an archaic and reductionist Old-Testament ethos of revenge and binaries that is not adept to deal with 21st century diplomacy and multiculturalism. There is no black and white, only shades of grey.

Regardless of who Osama bin Laden was, or was characterized to be, it seems deplorable to celebrate the fact that someone is dead -- and not just dead, murdered. Seeing placard-carrying mobs hording the streets in major urban centres to host spontaneous festivities in honour of the murder of another person is nothing more than a sad reflection on a culture embedded into a military-industrial complex and its accompanying simplifications and anachronisms around so-called enemies who become nothing more than "the other team" in a sporting event. America kicked Iraq's ass 100,000-3,000 but that wasn't enough; they had to take out the big guy, or else all of those other murders weren't worth anything. Especially disturbing is the propensity to place such significance upon the death of someone who was essentially a figurehead; a manufactured image of Islamophobia; a scapegoat and displacement of misdirected American anger. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, whom American well-to-dos have vowed to exterminate (and in many cases, also helped to create), still exist, and have continued to do so whether Osama bin Laden died in 2001 or 2025 -- remember, he has essentially been powerless and in obscurity for nearly a decade. All we are left to ask in the end is: now that bin Laden is dead, can the West move beyond 9/11 and into more peaceful avenues at global relations, or was bin Laden simply another pawn-like casualty in a much larger war that would be moving forward with or without him?

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Catchy" like the Clap?

"It's now obvious that pop music has become the sole preserve of 12-year-old girls who spend their pocket money (or children's allowance, it's so hard to tell these days) buying ringtones by their favourite band." 
- Ian O'Doherty, "The Irish Independent"

"I've never intended to be controversial but it's very easy to be controversial in pop music because nobody ever is."
- Morrissey

The other day a friend said he just wished someone would hurry up and shoot Justin Bieber in the back of the head and get him over with. While I agreed in practice, I had to bring up the principle of the matter: if someone killed Bieber, he and his estate would be rewarded with a lifetime of "tragic hero" tales, post-humous album releases of garbage that was never supposed to be released (i.e. Michael Jackson -- not that any of Bieber's actual releases could count as anything more), and an air of mystery, like "Oh, if Bieber had only lived to turn 13, he had so much potential to be the next Bob Dylan...." I was of the opinion that all we can hope for is he'll get too many zits and his voice will sink so low once he hits puberty that his baffling appeal will diminish and he'll fade into obscurity, only to reappear 20 years down the line on episodes of Celebrity Rehab, or better yet, not at all. The best way to rid the world of the Biebers is to simply ignore them -- which is sadly, not what this blog posting is doing.

I long ago recognized that crafty advertisers have been taking advantage of unsuspecting and vulnerable children with throwaway pop music for decades, forever leaving their taste in music disabled. It is a cruel, cruel act to manipulate children. One of my constant frustrations is hearing grown adults continuing to justify the existence of awful pop music on the "But it's catchy" factor; "BY MENEN" is probably as "catchy" (and less annoying) than a Justin Bieber song (which I admittedly would not be able to identify), but that does not mean I am going to be duped into going out and buying it or repeating it in front of people at parties. Why? Because I have a brain and free will to decide when I am being insulted by advertisers (which is all the machinery of the pop singer really is). Free will is what separates humans from species that operate on classical conditioning, though Pavolv did prove that humans can be dumb and manipulable mammals when it comes down to it. 

Furthermore, there is a significant difference between commercial jingles (i.e. boy bands and Biebers) and music that has artistic and cultural relevance. And of course, just because something is "popular" does not mean it has to water down its literary or artistic merit and sophistication; music is art after all. The only person who has ever been able to successfully marry art and commercial advertising was Andy Warhol (RIP), but he did so with a conscious eye for social satire and an unmatched ability to turn the lens of society back on itself.

In a world overflowing with beautiful art amongst a species blessed with the wonderful gift of creating and appreciating it at their own volition and free will, I encourage you to exercise that will, kids. Pop music is bad for you. And bands: give your audience the credit they deserve for the intelligence they have. They will only appreciate you all the more because of it.