Since 2015 I have travelled three times to Lower Silesia, Poland, where my father’s family lived for centuries under Bohemian, Prussian, and German rule. Their homes were in regional villages south of Wroclaw, a thousand-year old city. The earliest Silesians were migratory tribes. Traces of Stone Age habitation were found on the city’s riverbanks and Celtic populations passed through and moved on. Silesia was claimed by the kingdom of Poland shortly before the year 1000, followed by various competing rulerships and kingdoms as the land was bought, sold, seized in battles and traded in marriages between revolving political, social, and religious controls, becoming finally a province of the Republic of Germany until it was annexed to Poland after WW2. My relations, along with most ethnic Germans, were expelled to the west, leaving their homes behind. While in Silesia I filmed sites, visited archives, and recorded interviews for my media project, Borderland Memories. I was a visiting researcher on a team from Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland, and my project research and creation was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Here is a link to a new visual essay, Among the Ruins, published in the online journal The Goose (2018). An early version of this work was presented at the 2011 Green Words/Green Worlds conference in Toronto. The images were shown as part of the 2013 exhibition, Abject Transformations, at Arcadia Art Gallery, Toronto.
In June I attended a conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, Rust/Resistance: Works of Recovery, at Wayne State University in Detroit. I presented media and writing from my project in progress, Borderland Memories in Lower Silesia. It was my first time back to Detroit in many years and my only previous encounter with the city was at the Greyhound bus depot, en route to Ann Arbor Film Festival. As I walked among the ruins and some wonderful old architectures, I found myself in a city of hidden stories with much heart. Filmmaker Patrick Keiller wrote, “The present day flâneur carries a camera” and travels in some kind of vehicle (The View From the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, 2013).
Distance is measured differently in places where the land is wide with many spaces mostly populated by more than human others. In Northern Ontario where I grew up, we could visit our neighbours two hundred kilometers away for lunch and be home later that day for supper. Now I live in Toronto where driving a mere ninety kilometers north constitutes a road trip. Recently I was north again, to participate as a mentor on workshops about knowledge mobilization and multi-media, produced by Docs North in Thunder Bay, home of the Bay Street Film Festival, and some of us there had a conversation about how distance is embodied in the north for those who live there, and still for those of us who went south …
“Red Motel” (2005) from the series Northland.
I am presenting my published writing, reading from the chapter I contributed to Working on Earth: Class and Environmental Justice (2015), on a conference panel with the book’s editors, Christina Robertson and Jennifer Westerman (see post on the book below). The conference is How Class Works, at the Center for Study of Working Class Life, State University of New York, Stony Brook, NY, June 9-11, 2016. For conference information go here: http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/workingclass/hcw2016.html
Much of my doctoral research was focused on themes of class, beginning with the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams, that great proponent of lifelong learning founded in public pedagogy and open, shared knowledge. As early as the 1950s, Williams supported new media and film as democratizing educational technologies that, though polluted by commercial interests, can also promote a more critically engaged general public (see McIlroy & Westwood (1993). Border country: Raymond Williams in adult education. Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.)
In the neoliberal global marketplace, the rhetoric of classlessness persists as a cultural imaginary. Meanwhile class divisions continue to be reproduced as economic inequalities intensify for much of today’s workforce, whatever their colour of collar, those fated to increasingly precarious employment. As we journey ever more deeply into environmental collapse, let us keep our spirits up as we continue to produce and engage with works and means of challenging that trajectory of doom.
Our conference panel is called “Working on Earth: Essays on Class, Environment, Community & Justice” on Friday, June 10 at 3:45 PM.
This promises to be a timely and important discussion, and I’m happy to be part of the conversation as I look forward to a wealth of great presentations.
A new film by Michael Zweig, Director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life, tells the story of how international worker solidarity changed labour law in Iraq, guaranteeing rights such as collective bargaining, and prohibiting sexual harassment at work, and child labour. The entire short film can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/164793529
I recently saw The Measure of a Man (2015) , a cinematic masterwork by Stéphane Brizé, which brilliantly interrogates themes of class. Here we witness a Foucauldian panoptical reality, as Snowden’s nightmare and Orwellian fantasy collide in a fusion of complex ethical struggles and human grace.
Image: “Old Mine Cart” (2007) from the series Northland, by Edie Steiner.