Story by Lynn Burshtein
TORONTO, ONTARIO — The speaker at the podium was having a few technical difficulties at the start of his PowerPoint presentation, “ROMSpeaks: Beyond Our Contemporary World,” held on March 27 at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. The screen froze at first, and then advanced a few slides out of order. “Oh, shit … um … um … Oh, what is wrong with the planet?” he muttered rhetorically, with a tone of slight frustration that would naturally occur during momentary technical glitches such as this one. But the presenter in question was Canadian cultural icon Douglas Coupland and when Douglas Coupland asks, “What is wrong with the planet?” you better believe the audience is waiting for him to provide the answer.
Ever since 1991, when his landmark tome, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, introduced his clever musings on the post-Baby Boomer era, pop-culture aficionados have looked to Coupland for his keen and witty commentary on society. So, once the ROM computer resumed working, Coupland went on to provide pithy but poignant observations — including on social, technological and environmental issues — to the delight of a packed audience.
The evening’s presentation, accompanied by photos of his mixed media works, was a complement to his current exhibit, “Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything,” being co-presented by the ROM and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. It would do the exhibition a disservice to try to describe the full meaning of the works in a couple of paragraphs.
Suffice it to say, his use of everyday materials from Western society (e.g., Kraft singles, bleach bottles, debris and other found objects) are transformed into serious think pieces; a mix of high and low art, if you will. His works cover a wide range of topics from 9/11 to the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia as well as CanCon subjects such as Terry Fox and the Group of Seven.
On stage at the ROM, Coupland was joined by a number of other notable thinkers: Sara Angel, an arts journalist and founding executive director of the Art Canada Institute, was the evening’s host and the panel was rounded out by Jessica Allen, host of CTV’s “The Social,” OCAD University professor Michael J. Prokopow and New York Magazine contributing editor Adam Sternbergh. Their presentations were impressive in their own right. On the whole, the conversation among them and with the audience was lively and observant, touching on issues explored in the ROM and MOCCA exhibitions.
Commenting on one of Coupland’s favourite subjects, technology, Allen lamented this generation’s relentless use of acronyms on social media (e.g., ROTFLMAO), while Sternberg proclaimed that 9/11 was the last mass event before historical events started to become refracted through smart phones (e.g., real-time commentary on Twitter feeds and Instagram). All of the speakers were highly articulate, save for a couple of occasions when a few of them (including Coupland) stumbled in their delivery of the tongue-twister program title. But that only seemed to add to their charm.
The audience was made up of a wide cross-section of the population. There were a few septuagenarians; a large number of sharply dressed middle-aged couples, Gen-Xers (presumably, with no trace left in their closets of ’90s plaid shirts or Doc Martens); and a smattering of Gen X’s successors, millennials.
As for me, I was enthralled throughout the whole presentation and hung onto the speaker’s every word. Coupland makes his statements with such eloquence and economy. And yet, he has a very accessible demeanour. Although, full disclosure, an old friend of mine, Jackie, is a close relative of Coupland’s, I say with all sincerity that he is a true Canadian ambassador who is entirely deserving of his place in pop culture history. Coupland continues to provide fresh and thought-provoking commentary on modern life.
MORE ABOUT ROYAL ONTARIO MUSUEM
Location: 100 Bloor Street West, Toronto (see map below)
Exhibit: Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything is at the ROM until April 26, 2015.