Friday, 19 August 2016

Diversity in the Arts as Expressed in the Bar and Restaurant Scene.

 Recently the Tate Modern in London expanded in a way that left critics wondering if the additions were designed solely to attract tourists and not out of historical precedent. The interactive and educational advances of the Tate are part of the current reflection in the art world regarding the value of the traditional gallery. Much of the art in galleries never gets a second glance, the average painting or sculpture about three seconds of attention. This has left many in the art world wondering if art can be more relevant if taken out from the gallery and into the community.
    Sadly the obvious never occurs to the hoi polloi fine art supporters that art already exists outside of the gallery. It’s called popular art/culture. Contemporary galleries host mostly fine art, which comes with a totally different set of functions. And it seems that the hipsters are not hip to it, referring to contemporary art as "philosophy on the walls." On Reddit, artists bemoan the fact that for all the supposed progressive thinking displayed on the site there is more ignorant hostility to the contemporary art which they find dismaying. 
     Popular culture has its drawbacks with its primary problem being that of equal representation. Although popular culture is improving there remains a world where stereotypes abound and diversity is not often considered. A wonderful series like Netflix's Marco Polo features only a couple Caucasian actors amongst dozens of Asian, Arab and Indian actors. This is very rare. Television is only beginning to represent the LBGTQ community or admit to human foibles explored more often by contemporary artists and writers. If there is one thing that contemporary art does well it is in its egalitarian mission to allow for diverse voices often at the expense of quality, but not without a lack of great honesty, commitment, experimentation or creativity. 
     Changes are happening rather quickly in the popular culture world as the appetite for honest representation of human life continues to find a bigger audience. Our prejudices are breaking down and we are fascinated by the multiple angles now taken up in stories that were once otherwise uncomplicated by reality. It’s a reality that not even Shakespeare could handle. The paragon of animals is far more complex than we ever imagined.   
Onur Altinbilek of Black Pirates Pub
     So who would have thought a bar or a restaurant might come to the aid of contemporary artists and expand their reach into the community? In a community that is typically blue collar there is enough of a population in Thunder Bay to harbour a great diversity of people, but not so big that groups of people with different interests, different make-ups, can find public spaces where they can share their interests and readily express themselves, share stories and empower themselves.
     In 2008 Onur Altinbilek was co-founder of Black Pirates Pub. He became the sole owner in 2014, and from the beginning ran the space as a live entertainment venue focusing on local and touring entertainment, including bands of all stripes, drag shows, burlesques, cabaret, fashion shows, art performances, movie nights, video and more. Right from the start BPP has been supporting the local music and arts community. “It’s a community I’m proud to be a part of,” says Onur. 
     On any night the diverse make up of an audience is apparent and the the freedom to be who you are and to be with likeminded people goes without saying. But it wasn't long ago when cliques and prejudices abounded, where a gay man would have a difficult time letting himself go in Thunder Bay. Now cross-dressing and transgender sorts can have a ball with supportive straights and the guys from the Mill who when asked how they feel being amongst such diverse people simply reply. "So what?" Or, "Really, I couldn't give a f...."
     Having worked at Jacks, a restaurant that shut down a few years ago, Onur has always been connected with the Definitely Superior Art Gallery, which has sought out venues in the North Core to fundraise, expand opportunities for artists, improve business for everyone downtown and to essentially liven up the city. “I love what Dave and Renee do for the arts community, for the visual arts and the music scene,” says Onur as he unloads the mega pack of raw chicken he’s going to cook for the throng of people who will show up a few hours later. He adds, “It’s little known that they’ve (DEFSUP) even given some bands gas money so they could get to the next gig.”
       The big event in the North Core is The Hunger, a Halloween event in October. It’s less artistic than say, Urban Infill in which artists and models parade artistic statements made into fantastic costumes, but there is creativity galore that comes with the event where young people get to work planning and building their costumes months in advance. BPP and other restaurants get involved in the Hunger, Urban Infill, and the but it is BPP that keeps the contemporary ball rolling with multiple events throughout the year, like the Derelicte fashion show where artists run a catwalk with fabulous creations that are also personal artistic statements.    
      “There’s no stone unturned. We try to cater to every group within the community, which is why we do drag shows, metal shows, punk shows. We’re basically the home for the punk and metal bands, and we do the local festivals and fundraisers,” says Onur.
     Referring to Thunder Bay Onur states, “We cater to everybody, whereas in a big city you go to one place for one thing and another place for another thing. But if you got to BPP you can go to a different kind of show all the time. Places like ours have to cater to everyone. I see myself as a piece of the puzzle in the community where there‘s a lot of collaboration. Collectively everybody downtown has made it come alive. We’re one of the older ones here, and I’m happy to still be doing it. It’s still exciting.”
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.


  1. Hey Duncan. The BPP does do awesome things with Def Sup. I know this is supposed to be a feel good article and i can't deny that BPP is awesome to be open to all demographics and the arts scene from Def Sup has definitely changed tbays social scene. I'm wondering if you interviewed any "transgender sorts" for this article? My experience in Thunder Bay is that there are safe(r) spots or events than there used to be for gay people and even drag queens but transgender experiences are way different. Maybe (some of) the cis men are okay with it (as you quoted) but that hasn't stopped hate crimes, gay bashing and more happening that don't make it safe for people who are transitioning or visible as transgender. I sincerely hope that is changing!!

  2. As much as we should work to stop all hate crimes, it likely won't happen. Murder, rape, robbery and every other sort of crime is endemic to any society. Bullying will always be a thing. Transgenders and gay people will also continue to be victims. The best any democratic society can do is keep it to a minimum. I appreciate your desire to work against the hate. Part of that is to tell the public about progress and to indicate that progress for one group of people is not a threat to others. I write an arts column so that was the article's focus, on art and it's potential value. (I didn't have time to interview many people, but I would have liked to, for sure.) Art won't get rid of crime or hate, but when artists work together with a common goal they can certainly help. Shaming people into better behaviour only goes so far. If you focus on the problems exclusively, and only problems affecting one part of the community, you might put people off, including potential supporters. I have this problem when I complain about publishers. I have to limit my complaints, although real, otherwise no one will talk to me. You have to celebrate the positive too. Shine! And most notably, when one group of people is having fun, doing their thing freely and openly allowing others to join, that can be the most powerful way of convincing others that their prejudices are just that.