In the United States, people generally don’t see labor culture as something active and world-changing. Since World War II, discussion of labor in the media has been relegated to tempered features in the business section, about as exciting and relevant as a discussion of the Sherman Antitrust Act. A vibrant popular labor culture that, at its height, produced such visionaries as Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie now seems alien and fusty to today’s working Americans. This is ironic, since our society is spending an increasing amount of time at work per year.
But in Canada, union contract talks make top-of-the-hour news and opinions of labor leaders are actively courted for front-page coverage. Canadians are arguably more conscious than Americans of their partnership in NAFTA, world politics and their own communities. “Canadian content” on radio, television and in the paper protects Canadian identity from the deluge of American pop culture. So being an American in Canada can often feel like being a kid from a dysfunctional family visiting the well-ordered home of a child down the street: It makes you self-conscious, but it is also calming — and often a bit boring.
Still, with the United States mired in war and facing worsening inequality, deepening divides and poisonous rhetoric, a look north shows how things can be different, and can offer hope and ideas. Metro Detroiters looking to explore this division between cultures are presented with an opportunity in the Sixth Annual Windsor Labour Arts Festival, taking place across the river Jan. 28-Feb. 5.
Windsor, one of the grittier cities of our neighbor to the north, presents an excellent site for this festival, the only event of its scale and scope in Canada. Contrary to the clichés of angry fist-pumping and shrill chanting, American audiences will be relieved to find the festival savvy and clever, as well as earthy and engaging.
A joint venture of the Labour Studies Department at the University of Windsor, the local art community and the Windsor and District Labor Council, the weeklong festival convenes on the university campus, at union halls, in art galleries and in the old industrial heart of Windsor.
Festival organizer Len Wallace explains that people don’t often think of culture as a form of self-expression. “People think of culture as something on television or as going to the symphony.” The festival’s events — exhibits of labor-inspired artwork and the relics of labor history, musical performances, cartoons and film screenings — are organized with the true spirit of the movement in mind. Designed to challenge the established model of a passive experience, organizers are hoping to project labor culture as something that affects individuals on a public and private level, something with which the audience can interact, alive and organic rather than a historical specimen put under glass, for viewing only.
One event during the festival, the Labour Heritage Fair (Jan. 29), features posters, photos, pins and other paraphernalia related to labor history. Festival-goers are encouraged to participate in this show by bringing personal mementos for discussion.
The performing arts will be represented as well. For a festival that tries to turn reactive audiences into proactive participants, what could be more appropriate than activist improv theater, where audience members get to dictate the terms of the performance?
As part of the festival, Artcite Incorporated showcases Students on the Line, an exhibition of work by student artists about the myriad of ways they are paying for art school. The Art Gallery of Windsor mounts Essential Work: Mexican Migrant Farm Workers, a photo exhibition telling the story of Mexican workers in Canada. And cinema fans can view The Take, a film about unemployed Argentines who occupy their idled factory, or catch a glimpse of The Negro in Industry, a recently restored “race film” recovered from a Texas warehouse in the 1980s.
For information about these and other events, visit the festival’s Web site, labourartsfest.tripod.com, or call festival coordinator Len Wallace at 519-253-3000, ext. 3723. Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com