Some people leave our lives without a trace. Others make an impact, be it by force or necessity – colleagues, lovers, family, friends. All of them shape the narratives of our lives in some way but only a few will leave us with the stories to share. Colin Boyd Shaffer is one of these people.
I met Colin in the November of 2013 when he featured me as Cosmopolis Toronto’s Croatia “delegate”. Over the course of a year Colin’s project photographed Torontonians from 200 nations to document our city’s extraordinary diversity. Applying, we needed to describe why we do believe we should be featured, choose a location that in our mind spells “Toronto”, and bring an object we feel connects us to our country of origin. I also had my own agenda. I was working on a collaborative cookbook project of MCIS Language Service and Sandgate Shelter, Food for Language , and I felt miserably stuck. I needed to talk to somebody who is connected to a project I perceived to be similar in nature to find out how they are managed. He called and our meeting was arranged in a few days.
The place I chose was the Toronto Reference Library, a shelter and refuge that helped me to survive my first couple of awkward years in Toronto. In early 1990s, in the pre-Internet age, libraries were source of orientation, information and, to me, a familiar workplace I once inhabited. He took a couple of photographs through the window on the main floor and we finished off with a coffee. One thing I noticed about Colin was his unpretentious, respectful and curious personality. He was genuinely interested in my motives and challenges, and willing to listen attentively. I felt it is safe to share and unload. Over the next few months, two people from my closest circle (Nino and Gautam) happened to be featured too (unrelated to my application) bringing to this project even more of a personal value.
By January, 2014 Colin’s exhibition at the Toronto Centre for the Arts was in a full swing and the project was already featured on Global National News, The Toronto Star, CBC Metro Morning, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post. Anybody even slightly involved with the promotion of arts and event planning understands and appreciates the magnitude of work needed to be moved to this level. MCIS was a minor sponsor of the first Toronto exhibition and I attended on their behalf. I remember how inspiring it was to see the size of his team of volunteers. Acquiring and keeping volunteers is a yet another peculiar skill that only some could master, Colin obviously being one of them. By the end of 2014 he won Toronto Urban Photography Festival’s Global Building Giants Award and was featured speaker at the TEDx Toronto. By the end of 2014 he had six solo exhibitions, and in the first part of 2015 added three more (featuring also his two newest projects – Interlove and The Wild). Until today he remains to be a person who will respond by personal email if personal email is sent, always willing to help with promotion is needed and always capable of providing meaningful exchanges on social media sites. His energy is inexhaustible.
I met Colin earlier today at the McKenzie House to collect my printed copy of Cosmopolis . In two weeks he is moving to Bulgaria to teach mediaeval history and geography at one of the high schools. He hardly started packing but he efficiently packed and shipped all orders destined for libraries, non-profits and individuals who could not make to the launch. We talked, hugged, took pictures and said we are going to keep in touch.
Looking back, there are two main reasons why it is important to speak about artists like Colin Boyd Shaffer and projects like Cosmopolis Toronto. The first is that art-based stories provide multifaceted, complex and deep narratives about communities and people especially in comparison with currently dominant media-shaped narratives. Media narratives, often driven by labelling and oversimplification, reduce inclusiveness, transformation and opportunities for creation. The second reason is that in our age of disruption of all systems, including funding, we as a public have a new power to sponsor the artists directly. However, we need to be encouraged to take on these opportunities and understand the value of our direct engagement.
Are personal narratives really that important?
One of my personal favourite thinkers, writers (and Ayurvedic physicians) Dr. Robert Svoboda, in his newsletter marvels over people spending endless hours on-line or in person discussing twists and turns of fictional characters in George R. R. Martin’s saga A Song of Fire and Ice. “It is a dramatic real-world example of a principle that I never tire of restating: humans can simply not be separated from our stories… Humanity is narration, both of self (who I am and what I do) and other (how and where I fit in); try to sneak by without writing your own self-description and others will describe (and thus pigeon-hole) you.” Without narration and stories it is as-if we don’t exist; will the narrative be media-driven (winners, losers, violation, polarity) or art-driven (underdogs, heroes, inclusion, unity ) we must have one or the other to explain our world. When we opt for the stories like Cosmopolis Toronto we actively choose the world leans toward diversity, intellectual curiosity and peace. When we choose the main-stream media framework we are often influenced by lack of maturity, wisdom and drama. The ultimate choice of how we will define our reality, our narrative, is entirely ours.
Collaborative art theoreticians Guillamet & Roca (The Double Face of Collaborative Art: The Exchange of Theory and Practice) demonstrate dichotomies and challenges of collaborative art making. Art collaboration is important because it can ”choose to raise the visibility of groups, promote their social integration and strengthen the self-esteem of its members. In either of the above cases, the aim is to establish a support at two levels of identity: values and individual and group representation” On the other, “collaborative art projects” depend on institutional grants, proposals with a strong procedural and flexibility, necessary for a purely collaborative approach, they are not usually accepted. “ Although companies and governments have different aims in terms of what they want to acquire from art projects both comply to market logic expecting “value” in exchange for investments being made. “Government agencies usually require scheduled and programmed educational justification of the artistic projects to which they will allocate their funds, just as they expect tangible results and materials. This behaviour also implies a paternalistic character… There is therefore the possibility that the proposed projects from these institutions fully or partially ignore the needs of these groups, prioritizing political or advertising performance that these interventions can report them.”
Some artists, like Colin, wisely funded their projects via Indigogo and Kickstarter in addition to relying heavily on personal funds and funders. As contribution “ranging from $7 to $1000” were encouraged they are able to fulfil their modest financial goals and, in the process, acquire a possibly much wider reach than many of the government/ corporation funded projects . Lately, this has been a proven way for emerging or independent artists – to work directly with the public and avoid funded routes. Plus, being free from a corporate sponsorship agenda, regardless of how attractive being “funded” is, gives a broader artistic freedom.
Art was once an exclusive funding enclave reserved for the rich. Individual supporters, corporations, later joined by governments, have been funding artists and projects that suit their agendas and their taste, some governments definitely being more generous and more aggressive than the others. However, in the Age of Disruption as we – individuals or public –are finding ourselves for the very first time to be approached by the artists directly we are also in position to shape our narratives. In other words, we are now able to contribute financially to projects that actually matter to us. Evidently, KickStarter, Indigogo and Artistshare became not only new vehicles for independent souls to get funded but they acquired a significant share in overall economy. In fact, since its inception in 2009, Kickstarter “has raised more than $1.5 billion for over 80,000 art projects and has opened doors and lifted curtains for many projects that couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise have gotten off the ground and onto the stage.” (Christian Camerota, HBR, 2015). $1.5 billion over 5 years is $300M annually which certainly gives small contributor more power than one would expect.
And why we would not use this power? Whenever opportunity presents itself and we feel the narrative resonates with our real life, we should consider it as a privilege and give our money, our talent and our time.
Because, if we do not choose our stories or we do not choose our narrators, somebody else will. Let’s encourage talented, genuine, agenda-free narrators to enter the public place and maintain their presence over the years.
Congratulation, Colin – I am immensely glad that you accepted to narrate our Cosmopolis Toronto stories!
Bon voyage, and keep us posted.