September 23 Public Salon recap

Artist Ken Lum speaking at the Public Salon

We had a great turnout for our sixth Public Salon, including Jessica Linzey who was also in attendance. She’s written an excellent summary of the evening, which I’m sharing below…

September 23rd Public Salon recap
By Jessica Linzey

On the evening of September 23rd, Vancouverites poured into the Vancouver Playhouse to hear eight outstanding citizens share ideas, and reflect on themes of culture and community, seven minutes at a time. Artist Margot Kane acted as the evening’s Reader, appearing every now and then to share a poem, a philosophy, or to ask the audience a question. It would be a wonderful evening, and a true exercise in civic engagement.

UBC planning professor and author of Our Ecological Footprint Bill Rees was the first to take the stage. The idea he put forward was a sobering one. “Humanity’s most significant environmental problem,” he argued, “is the mind.” According to Professor Rees, our greatest assets are our capacity for logical analysis, compassion, and forward thinking – none of which we use to move through the dilemma of sustainability. Instead, we fall back on our genetic and cultural predisposition to expand. This means that while reason tells us that we cannot avoid catastrophe unless we plan an economic recession, we will not act. Instinct will always prevail over reason, and so what is scientifically necessary is, to our inevitable demise, politically unfeasible.

Dr Nicole Aube, a clinical and forensic psychologist, followed Professor Rees, and spoke passionately about the personal journey she embarked on when she signed up to work with the organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) six years ago. Since then, she’s been on five MSF missions to help people suffering from post traumatic distress. Dr. Aube told us the story of one woman who had been kidnapped by rebels and witnessed the rape and murder of daughter, but still found five good reasons to live: her five remaining children. It was just one of hundreds of stories she’d heard in her travels, said Dr. Aube, before reminding us of the 130,000 British Columbians who suffer from mental health illness and addiction. “Distress is everywhere, even close to home. We all have the capacity and responsibility to assist,” she said, leaving us with her belief that to give to others is fulfil yourself.

Up next was Chief Justice Lance Finch, who made a compelling case for restoring the Old Courthouse – currently home to the Vancouver Art Gallery – to its original purpose. Today’s courts, housed in a building designed by the late Arthur Erickson in the 1980s, have long since outgrown the space they occupy (and in fact, the building was thought to be too small even at the time of construction). As the VAG is looking to move, the Chief Justice argued, what better solution than this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the courts to expand north back into the old building? Talking us through the fascinating history of the Old Courthouse, Chief Justice Finch also suggested that restoring the current gallery would go a long way towards reanimating and opening up the underused public space to the north of the building.

Percussionist and Dean of the VCC School of Music, Dance, and Design, Sal Ferreras followed, and began with a look at how his roots in street music and his classical training had shaped his career. The common thread, he said, was improvisation, or “the art of the other view.” But how is the brain agile enough to create something cogent from multiple stimuli? According to Ferreras, successful improvisors possess a high level of receptivity and rate of processing information, which leads to an immediate sense of “knowing.” For some performers, he argued, improvisation is beyond thinking, beyond consciousness, tapping into something that already exists. Still others believe that all songs already exist, and that it’s up to the improvisor to unravel them.

Artist Ken Lum wanted to talk about ghosts. More precisely, he wanted to talk about Vancouver’s tendency to ignore its ghosts, whether it be the Viaduct, the Downtown Eastside, the renaming of Stanley Park, or the suppression of the Chinese community. Berlin works hard at exorcising its ghosts, Lum said, and that’s part of what makes it a great city. China suppresses its ghosts with such force that it creates interesting opportunities for art. But Vancouver? “When you tell people there are ghosts here, the response is ‘that’s nice’ or ‘whatever,’” said Lum, before adding that we’ll never be interesting if we don’t acknowledge them.

Vancouver Sun columnist Peter McKnight then talked us through a brilliant slow reveal of how what was once a theory of the far left has been strangely embraced in recent years by the right wing in North America. Post-modernism was born as a distrust of methods used to explain the world, McKnight began, a belief that science creates truths that don’t really exist. (Scientists, of course, thought this was a problematic philosophy.) From philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend – who argued that there is no scientific method or absolute truth, and thus infuriated the American religious right – through the father of Intelligent Design, Berkeley Christian law professor Phillip E. Johnson – who argued that ID is as valid as science, and thus deserving of equal classroom time – McKnight brought us around to our current government. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives “have made decisions that would make post-modernists proud,” he said, their actions revealing a deep skepticism of facts, and suggesting they don’t see science as a privileged form of inquiry. And so post-modernism, moving as it has from one end of the political spectrum to the other, McKnight concluded, is now truly the Canadian condition.

Dr Max Cynader, founding director of the Brain Research Centre, gave us a fascinating look at the latest developments in what he called the middle of the revolution in our understanding of the brain. There are two factors, he said, that have led to this revolution. The first is imaging, as we are now capable of looking at the brain to see what’s active, and when. The second is genomics, our knowledge of which is progressing at an astounding rate. Combine the two, said Dr Cynader, and it’s remarkable what we can see. Understanding the connections between neurons will allow us to manipulate what we remember. “The juggernaut is coming,” he said. Soon, we could have the power to “tickle” or silence certain areas of the brain – a power, Dr Cynader warned, that could very well be dangerous.

The final speaker of the night was former CBC broadcaster and author of The Vancouver Book, Chuck Davis. It was a talk he hadn’t intended on giving, but a terminal cancer prognosis earlier in the week compelled him to use his time to make an impassioned plea for help. Twenty years after the release of The Vancouver Book, Chuck began work on his final book, The History of Metropolitan Vancouver – a book he now knows he will not live long enough to finish. And so there were two things he wanted to ask of us: one, to help him find a writer who could take over the project; and two, to help raise the money to pay that writer. “It is big and fat and full of facts. It must be finished,” he said, before leaving us with the moving story of his arrival in Vancouver – the city he grew to love so deeply – from Winnipeg.

It was a deeply emotional note on which to draw the evening to a close, and one that perfectly illustrated the event’s overall theme of extending love for community through time. In the lobby afterwards, a gentleman tucked his handkerchief away. “It’s beyond Sam now,” he said, waving his arm over the crowd. “People are interested in the ideas.” The next event will take place the evening of November 3rd. As Sam so succinctly put it, the conversation has just begun.

A freelance journalist and researcher, Jessica has worked in print (Halifax’s The Coast, Momentum Magazine), television (Al Jazeera English, The Food Network), radio (CBC Radio One), online (OpenFile.ca, TheThunderbird.ca), and live event production (London’s Frontline Club, NewsXchange). She is currently pursuing her Masters of Journalism at UBC, where she is specializing in urban planning and design, and producing a radio documentary about the role of architecture in post-disaster Haiti. A native of Nova Scotia by way of the Yukon, Ontario, and Quebec, Jessica has been living in Vancouver since 2008. Of the dozen cities she’s called home, it may just be her favourite.

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