Toronto Spur Festival

Over the past week, I have been thrown into a new festival based on the discussion of art, politics and ideas. The Spur festival brought together people from all professions to debate issues which affect us all. I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in the discussion, and to have met so many sharp and vibrant people. I am also flattered to have been considered adequate to keep such accomplished company with my newest colleagues.

The festival was a large success, with over 350 people in attendance on opening night. The festival took place mainly in the Yorkville area of Toronto, with one event on York University's Keele campus. As was hoped, each event brought out a diverse crowd, ranging from young to old, and from students to professionals. I will outline some of the major events and the discussions that took place. 

The Future Of The Book

uring this event, Paul Holdengraber and Hugh Mcguire debated both the present and future states of the book. Holdengraber, as a key player for the New York Public Library system played the part of the traditionalist, stating that printed books more accurately represent the experience authors expect their readers to have. Mcguire, as an entrepreneur and champion of the audio and ebook formats, argued the opposite. His ideas gave importance to the sharing of ideas, accessibility of classic and contemporary texts and the preference of the reader.

In what became one of the more memorable points in the night, Mcguire recounted his experience of reading Tolstoy's War and Peace on his iphone. He explained that the complexity and passion of the story kept him interested in the notoriously long and difficult book, made all the more difficult by the format in which it was read. This illustrated an interesting point that shaped the discussion as a whole, mainly that a book should be loved for it's content, not it's format.

This idea led to what I consider the fundamental disagreement that defined this talk. The real and deeper question was actually 'what is a book?'. In the traditional sense, Holdengraber explained that a book is what you find between the covers. He promoted his belief in having a real, tactile product to hold on to. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mcguire argued that a book is the ideas present within those pages, whether they be real or digital. his dichotomy proved to be the most important issue during the event, and one that drove the conversation between the audience and the speakers.

I lean towards the more liberal interpretation. For me, it is the ideas, mechanisms and style that make up a book. Whether or not those ideas are presented in a bound product, on a digital screen, or projected noise does not hold real importance for me as a reader. As an example, my most recent literary challenge, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, roved to be as complex as its reputation suggested. In order to ensure that as little of the book was lost on me, I decided to purchase the audio book version. This allowed me to utilize the narrator's inflection to help me parse the often digressive or meandering text that defines the work. In a sense, the change in format allowed me to better experience and understand the 'text' as the author intended it. 

owever, there is one notable exception to this liberal view of the book, and a selfish one at that. As a hopeful writer who wishes to complete and publish a long form work, I want a printed, tactile product. While I, the reader, may not care about which form of the book I partake in, I, the writer, do. This selfish contradiction helps illuminate the difference between author and reader. For one, the book is an idea, or collection of thoughts to be absorbed. For the other, the book is the end product of years of obsession, compulsion, and work ethic. 

This event launched the Toronto Spur Festival to a crowd of over 350 people, and was a great success. The ideas that arose from this discussion set the tone for the whole weekend, which proved to be full of equally interesting encounters.

Political Satire: Does It Matter?

his event, perhaps more than any other, illustrated the diverse backgrounds of the speakers and attendees present at the Spur Festival. During this round-table, activist Andy Bichlbaum, Onion News editor Todd Hanson and Saturday Night Live actress Robin Duke discussed the merits and relevance of political satire in Canada. The discussion was moderated by award winning author Terry Fallis.

The discussion centered around what many consider the absence of meaningful satire in Canadian culture, the obvious exception being Terry Fallis' own books. It was interesting to hear the same sentiments come from such varied sources. For example, Andy Bichlbaum achieved his fame from his work in the Yes Men, an activist duo turned film project who regularly impersonate and disrupt corporate actions which they deem unethical. Their most famous action came when they impersonated Dow Chemical representitives and claimed full responsibility for a chemical spill in Bhopal, India on BBC news. The television spot was seen by millions worldwide before the hoax was discovered.

That Canada has rarely seen such radical and invasive means of satire does not mean that the convention is completely absent, however. As Todd Hanson was quick to mention, programs such as Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour has 22 Minutes, even The Rick Mercer Report all involve or are based on satire. What's interesting to note about these programs is their production, direction and/or funding by the CBC. The question of whether satire given to us by a crown corporation makes it less relevant or biting is one that the panel left us pondering, and is a question that I have yet to answer.

Todd Hanson, who dominated much of the time, suggested that where the money comes from does not necessarily affect the end product. erhaps the two most popular examples of politcal satire in the States, The Daily Show nd he Colbert Report each rely on corporate funding to stay on the air, yet often (read: almost always) use comedy to illustrate the unethical or ludicrous actions of government and big business alike. The question that remains is whether government funds have a different affect on satire than do private funds, and whether Jon Stewart's popularity limits the hold that financial backers attempt to maintain on his content. 

The most surprising and pleasant part of the evening was the obvious talents of The Onion's odd Hanson. His website runs comedic faux news stories, which satirize current events both nationally and globally. While the stories they run rely on making light of serious events, sometimes causing offense (while sometimes designed for that very purpose), Hanson was careful to draw a line. He explained that satire stops being effective, and becomes offensive, if the object of the offense is not clear. In essence, something is offensive when the intended recipient is not the one who's directly affected. In his words, if you miss the target, not only is it bad satire, it's bad writing. This notion of collateral damage has seemingly served The Onion ell, as it continues to be a strong internet presence.

The one question that stayed with me after this discussion was whether or not satire requires an appreciative audience. Several times in The Onion's history, their stories have been picked up and cited by legitimate news sources. Their victims include American Politicians, the Iranian Government and the People's Republic of China. If we take this further, to a point where no one understands the satirical elements of the stories, are they still satire? While the internet takes pleasure at the mistakes of news sources who cite the onion as a source, if the humor is missed by the majority of people, is it still humorous? What is atire?

I think if we expand on Hanson's views on harm and offense, the answer is no. In the first example, if the writers cause harm to someone other than whom they intended, the satire fails to hold up to their standards. Similarly, if the humor is lost on an unappreciative populace, missing the mark in another sense, it should also fail, but I am not wholly convinced of my own thoughts.

The Spur Experience

ne week later, and I am still amazed at the people, ideas and discussion that I was privy to while attending the Toronto Spur Festival. Myself, and the countless others who attended the weekend event walked away with both answers and questions, which proved to be the purpose and strength of the festival in it's first year.

I would like to thank Helen Walsh, director, Nick Hutcheson, producer, as well as the Literary Review of Canada and Diaspora Dialogues for allowing me to be involved in this event. I would like to especially thank the RBC Foundation for their great support of myself and the RBC emerging scholars.

Thank you all.

Duncan FieldComment