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From the Second Storey: Guelph Lecture, ArtsEverywhere festival to focus on "the life of ideas"

Event focuses on reconciliation process during Canada's 150th birthday
From the Second Storey by Andrew Vowles

Don’t let the bright red clown noses fool you.

Yes, fun is part of the point of the 14th annual Guelph Lecture, the anchor event of a three-day arts and culture festival called ArtsEverywhere taking place this month, says organizer Shawn Van Sluys.

shawnShawn Van Sluys. Courtesy of

For instance, the Northern Ontario foursome Midnight Shine will perform on the River Run Stage as the musical portion of the Guelph Lecture: On Being Canadian. And literary guest Ann Hui, the Globe and Mail’s national food reporter, will talk about her Chop Suey Nation project, based on a road trip to Chinese restaurants in towns and cities across the country.

But Van Sluys, executive director of Musagetes Guelph, says there’s a serious side to those clown artists performing during the festival, to be held Jan. 19-21.

In the most important sense, he says, there’s nothing very funny about clowns at all. Just ask anyone who felt threatened or scared by last fall’s “creepy clown” sightings.

Beyond that, Van Sluys is talking about the art of clowning as a kind of mirror to society – a paradoxical role played over centuries from King Lear’s fool to the Harlequin of commedia dell-arte.

“It’s not just birthday clowns and creepy clowns. It’s a serious art form,” he says.

Six professional clown artists will perform during the ArtsEverywhere festival. They’ll talk about the clowning tradition in Canada as well as the idea of failure and reconciliation.

Those topics relate to a wider theme running throughout the festival. Many of the events and speakers on the bill will address the ongoing reconciliation process between indigenous peoples and non-aboriginal Canadians.

The headline lecture will be given by Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan educator, writer and activist, and indigenous studies professor at the University of British Columbia. Van Sluys says Armstrong will talk about parallels between our relationships with the landscape and our interactions with one another.

Central to that topic is a kind of tension or give-and-take between society’s tendency to shape identities and our attempts to express and carve out space for our individuality.

That kind of opposition between the group and the individual is a common dynamic – not least for Van Sluys, who grew up within a tight-knit farming community in southern Alberta.

His family arrived there from the Netherlands in the 1950s. Growing up on the farm set between two First Nations communities, he witnessed overt instances of racism, from slander to violence.

That experience has helped inform his convictions today about the need to implement the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

It also plays into the ArtsEverywhere program, including On Being Clown: Failing and Reconciling in Canada and other events:

  • A workshop on “doing reconciliation”
  • A discussion of the complexities of reconciliation, based on experiences in British Columbia, where few treaties were signed between indigenous communities and the Crown.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation – an event being celebrated with various activities and events across the country. Van Sluys acknowledges the birthday, but says the TRC reminds us that there’s work to be done in bringing everyone to the party, as it were.

“It’s tough to be talking about the celebration of 150 years without making significant recognition and restitution.”

He sees the Guelph Lecture and the festival as a chance to spark discussion about including different ways of knowing and thinking in the local and national conversation. “It’s about the life of ideas,” says Van Sluys.

This year’s events are sponsored by Musagetes, the Eramosa Institute and the University of Guelph.

Last year’s inaugural Spur Festival also involved the Literary Review of Canada. The magazine is not involved in this year’s ArtsEverywhere event.

The first annual ArtsEverywhere festival draws upon a website of the same name launched by Musagetes last year. The eponymous online platform publishes essays, reviews, policy papers and podcasts about the role of the arts in building community and informing public policy.

A recent discussion paper looked at how arts affect health policy, including the role of artistic practice in patient recovery and the well-being of residents in long-term care facilities.

This year’s festival will include a Big Ideas in Art and Culture lecture to be given by Suzy Lake, who uses performance, video and photography to study the politics of gender, the body and identity. This event is co-presented by Musagetes and CAFKA (Contemporary Art Forum – Kitchener and Area).

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About the Author: Andrew Vowles

Andrew Vowles writes on arts, culture and connections in Guelph. He has written about science, environment, arts, culture, health and travel.
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