Literature gets a new look

This year’s Kingston WritersFest features artists, poets, writers and fimmakers who are mixing media in new ways and attracting audience attention

KENK, profiling “the world’s most prolific bicycle thief,” is a graphic novel based on documentary footage shot by (from left) Jason Gilmore and Alex Jansen, written by Richard Poplack and illustrated by Nick Marinkovich.
KENK, profiling “the world’s most prolific bicycle thief,” is a graphic novel based on documentary footage shot by (from left) Jason Gilmore and Alex Jansen, written by Richard Poplack and illustrated by Nick Marinkovich.
Credit: 
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Artistic expression today is definitely not what it used to be. Books can be art, poetry can be a performance and music can be used in ways never before heard.

Many artists and writers are mixing these mediums up, and they’re coming to Kingston to show it off.

Writer and poet Jill Battson is hosting a spoken word poetry event, Vox Performa, at this year’s Kingston WritersFest.

She said people have some misconceptions about poetry, but that she’s determined to prove them wrong.

“They should come out and see spoken word ... if they had any idea that poetry is boring,” she said, adding that they could also take a page out of her book and try writing a bit of their own.

She said that she used to be a film producer but with months between gigs she needed something to fill her time.

“I’ve always written ever since I was a kid,” she said. “I started going to the venues in L.A. [to] read my work, and I got really good reactions from these poems that weren’t very good.”

The audience’s positive reaction inspired her to keep improving, she said. It also let her watch people take in her message.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I’m a poet who performs ... it’s very hard to get published in book form,” she said. “I wanted to get my work out.

“It’s a big thrill to actually hear people and see people engage with your work ... that’s the best thing for me.”

Now, years later, Battson has found her footing and refined her style.

“What I do as a spoken word artist is … work in collaboration with other artists,” she said, adding that her performance repertoire includes creating dance pieces,working with visual artists and writing music.

“Working with artists from other mediums ... is really challenging,” Battson said.

Nonetheless, it’s beneficial because it allows you to reach an audience that would otherwise not have seen your work, she said.

“For Vox Performa I think it’s a great opportunity for people to come out and see a wide range of people who are involved in spoken word,” she said.

C.R. Avery is a beatbox poet, musician, writer and one of the spoken word artists performing at Vox Performa.

He said that people often get bored really fast when watching artists but that performance art doesn’t have to be dull.

So what makes a good performance?

“Something that doesn’t bore the shit out of people,” he said, adding that even with the pressure, sometimes it’s important to forget about performing and to focus on being an artist.

Nonetheless, when performance does come into account, artists should remember to keep the audience engaged, he said.

“Music is beautiful but sometimes you need a little more content,” he said. “No one wants to hear someone talk for an hour ... between the beat box and the songs and the poems, it’s just a good way to hold my attention span [and others’].”

In our television day and age, sometimes all the audience needs are a few visual cues to turn a true story into a riveting piece of art. When a Toronto man, Igor Kenk, was arrested in 2008 for bicycle theft, the world watched on the news. They watched police recover almost 3,000 bicycles from his bicycle repair shop and they watched newspapers decry him as the “world’s most prolific bicycle thief.”

Alex Jansen saw a piece of art waiting to happen.

Jansen, who attended Queen’s film studies in 1999, worked alongside three other artists to capture over 30 hours of Kenk’s life on film in the year before he was arrested.

Jansen and his team then used the footage to create a graphic novel, KENK, which will be appearing on Sept. 23 at WritersFest.

“KENK was always conceived as a graphic novel,” Jansen said, adding that its May debut marked the first release for Jansen’s new multimedia production company, Pop Sandbox.

He said that a graphic novel made sense as a first project. “I was really attracted by the freedom that the graphic novel medium could afford, especially financially and creatively,” he said.

“The much less expensive graphic novel format allowed me to control not only production but also distribution plans.” Taking from images and transcription from their documentary footage, Jansen said the book’s graphics are similar to the DIY and ’zine movement in Canada.

“It has a collage like feel and the images are treated with a very gritty photocopy type aesthetic,” he said.

While this may have once been seen as an imperfection, today it’s seen as an added layer of expression.

In terms of the documentary process, Jansen said once they turned the camera on, they began shooting day in and day out.

“You certainly got the sense that things would come to a head one way or another,” he said.“The last day we shot him was six days before he was arrested.”

Kenk’s shady reputation was well-known around his area of west Queen Street West, Toronto, Jansen said.

“For that reason I completely avoided him the first three years I lived in the neighbourhood. Even the police would send you to him to look if your bike was stolen.”

Once he actually met Kenk, Jansen said he was surprised at his complexity.

“Here was this exceptionally bright former child prodigy who’d immigrated from Slovenia, where he worked as a police officer.  His wife is a Juilliard graduate,” he said.“He was this radical environmentalist, capturing his shower water to feed his plants, decrying Western excess and preaching his own brand of communism, all the while acting capitalist in the most vicious sense.”

Although he was legally allowed to sell the bikes, Jansen said, “he’s buying $500 bikes for 50 bucks.” This would be an ethical dilemma for many, however Kenk argued that this didn’t differ much from North American exploitation of the Third World, Jansen said.

“You couldn’t ask for a more complex and compelling character,” he said, adding that most media outlets were treating him as a petty criminal or criminal mastermind.

“This is equally the story of the changing neighbourhood and the collision course they were on,” he said.

“In this case we’re looking at what stands to become one of the most significant periods in our generation’s history—the monumental year in which it takes place, leading to summer 2008—the year of Obama, of rising gas prices, increased environmental awareness and shift in consciousness, and pending economic collapse.”

Vox Performa will appear at Kingston WritersFest on Sept. 24 and KENK on Sept. 23. Rush seats are free for Queen’s students. For tickets, visit kingstonwritersfest.ca.

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