The co-hosts of Slate’s long-running and influential podcast discuss the “urgency” of art in a crisis and whether Meryl Streep should play Anthony Fauci.
This year was bittersweet for the culture consumer under lockdown. Some ways of experiencing art (reading, watching television, listening to podcasts) felt more necessary than ever, while the absence or degradation of others (going to the movies, or to the theater, or to a live music performance) left an agonizing void. The pandemic and subsequent crises of racial justice and democracy bled into all of it, posing new questions about meaning and merit that will linger long after the virus fades.
Few charted these changes with more deftness and good humor than Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens, critics and co-hosts of the long-running Slate podcast “Culture Gabfest.” As it has since its premiere in 2008, the show delivered a weekly (or, for a three-month stretch this summer, every two weeks) mix of brainy cultural analysis and sparkling repartee — proof that even a once-in-a-century calamity could be reckoned with if not overcome.
If you’ve ever listened to a conversation podcast about popular culture, you’re probably familiar with the “Gabfest.” One of the earliest shows of its kind, its format — in which the hosts dissect three zeitgeist-y topics collectively and then each make a personal recommendation — helped define a genre.
Recently, I spoke by video chat with Metcalf, Turner and Stevens about adapting with the times over the podcast’s more than 650 episodes, critics as inessential workers and what art does in a crisis. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How did your consumption habits change this year? Do you ordinarily have routines for getting through all the material that you have to digest in a given week?
STEPHEN METCALF We kind of exist on the far end of a pipeline that has a very ritualized flow of content coming from the major entertainment conglomerates — a big movie of the week, for example. Once that flow got disrupted, we were liberated in our format. We started doing movies that we called “comfort watches” — something from history that we thought was somehow either apposite to the pandemic or an antidote to it.
JULIA TURNER It was fun to talk about old movies and not have the sense that the culture industry was serving us 10 different things we should talk about every week. Like I had never seen “Twister,” Dana’s oft-mentioned favorite cable TV movie watch. And we sort of watched everything from “In a Lonely Place” to …
METCALF “Paddington 2.”
TURNER I think one thing that characterizes us as a culture show is that we like to try to bring some sense of historical sweep or academic framing to the way we think about culture. So it was fun to go back and look at these other older objects and ask, what did this mean? And, what does it mean that we want to watch this right now? Dana kept making us watch just sicko, torment type content.
DANA STEVENS All my comfort movies involved some kind of mass death or something.
How much culture do you engage with just for yourselves versus what’s for the podcast?
STEVENS Doing a lot of this stuff does feel like homework to us, even if it might be interesting or fun homework. Since we’ve been stuck at home, I find myself less likely to want to stuff something new into my head, because I’m never short on things to watch. In a way I dread when someone comes to me saying, “You’ve got to discover this great Swedish Vimeo series!” Someone did just recommend that to me. And it sounded amazing. But a part of me thought, that’s what I’m going to do with my spare time? More cramming of meaning and words and thoughts into my brain rather than just trying to let what’s already in there expand?
TURNER I mean, it’s such a privilege to have a job where literally anything I do culturally counts as work. [In addition to co-hosting the “Gabfest,” Turner is a deputy managing editor for The Los Angeles Times.] But I do reserve corners of my brain for culture consumption that’s harder to turn into work. We don’t do many books on the show, because it’s a lot to ask of listeners, but I’ve been leaning into either highbrow thriller mysteries or literature with strong plot elements, because I just want to be pulled into another world.
METCALF I’m kind of the opposite of Julia.
TURNER That’s our whole shtick.
METCALF I’m a human, she’s a robot.
TURNER I love the people, he’s a snob.
METCALF No, but I’m a terrific weirdo. And I’m always in danger of spinning completely off the axis of contemporary life. So doing this podcast has anchored me in what everyone is watching and talking about in ways that I’m incredibly grateful for. Because what I do now in my spare time is what I would do with all my time if I weren’t doing the podcast, which is read essay after essay on the nature and state of neoliberalism. Right now I’m reading Habermas’s 1980 lectures on the nature of modernity.
Did it ever feel strange, or uncouth, to be spending your time grappling with art, or asking other people to do the same, amid so many overlapping societal crises? Did you ever feel inessential?
TURNER I think we feel deeply inessential most of the time, so I don’t know if that was a change. A podcast is fundamentally optional listening for people who find it valuable. To me, one of the most striking things about this year, was just that it was sort of the first pan-human event. The first global event where everyone was being buffeted by the same problem at the same time and we had instantaneous communication. To the degree that art is fundamentally about reckoning with being, and the question of what does it mean to be human, it felt urgent to me. It was as relevant as it ever has been.
METCALF I completely agree. And I would just add that, from the beginning the concept animating our show was politics as culture, culture as politics; that in modern American life especially, there’s no distinction between one or the other. So yes, we’re utterly inessential, and yet culture itself and how you apprehend the culture isn’t somehow trivial. It’s how Americans order their sense of common reality. It comes as much from Kim Kardashian as it does from Joe Biden.
What’s your appetite for art about the pandemic or about 2020? Is there a gold standard for that kind of thing? Because there’s going to be a lot of it.
STEVENS I’m so not looking forward to those “Game Change”-style somber re-enactments of recent political events. I do not want to see some sort of behind-the-scenes ticktock of why Fauci was ousted from the inner circle of pandemic discussants. It’s bad enough knowing that it’s happening right now. I don’t care who puts on prostheses to look like Steven Mnuchin or something. That whole genre is just so old and tired.
TURNER I think I probably have a bigger appetite for it than Dana. Because if you think about the set of art that was made about the financial crisis, and a bunch of films we ended up talking about, from “Margin Call” to “The Big Short,” people will make dopey re-enactments, and they’ll make big-deal fancy Hollywood things, and there will also be smart little indie slices of it. I’m sure some of it will be fascinating and profound.
We’re all in the middle of going through something wild and incomprehensible, and art has such an important role to play, I think, in helping us process that. We don’t know yet what young artist will find purchase on it in some way. What legends and lions will come up with some fascinating new thing to say. But I don’t think it all has to be Meryl Streep as Anthony Fauci, or Julianne Moore is Sarah Palin.
The year you guys started, 2008, is basically prehistory for podcasts. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry or community over that time?
TURNER Well, people know what we do now. I think for a while people were like, “You have a what? OK.” So it’s gone from being an unknown to, “I know what that is,” to a little bit of an eye roll, like, “Oh, of course you have a podcast. Who doesn’t?”
But the medium is so exciting now and flexible and full of people doing really interesting things, with documentary, with fiction, with short form, with history. I think at the beginning, podcasting felt like another radio station, and now it feels like a whole genre and universe unto itself.
Has your experience of the show, or your relationship to it, changed at all?
METCALF I would say for me, it took a long time to find what the right voice was. I started out with this kind of “radio voice” that was preposterous, like a character on a sitcom. And then you try to just kind of speak as yourself, but that’s too informal. So it’s just finding this register that’s somewhere in between. Of course the master of this is Ira Glass, right? He just sounds like he rolled out of bed but also as if he has this entirely synthetically created, informal persona that he’s in complete control of. I think I finally got it right about a year and a half ago.
STEVENS Steve, I like your on-air persona so much more than Ira Glass’s manufactured offhandedness. I’d rather hear you any day.
METCALF That stays in the piece, Reggie.
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Visit the city's tiniest art gallery: Five things to do in Saskatoon this weekend – Saskatoon StarPhoenix
In an effort to help Saskatoon residents share art with one another, Suzy Schwanke has created the Free Little Art Gallery YXE outside her home at 332 Hilliard St. E.
Whether you’re interested in art, a virtual party, some outdoor activities or cleaning up around the house, there’s a little bit of something for everyone this weekend in Saskatoon.
1. Visit the Free Little Art Gallery
In an effort to help Saskatoon residents share art with one another, Suzy Schwanke has created the Free Little Art Gallery YXE outside her home at 332 Hilliard St. E. Designed in the style of community libraries and kitchen boxes, visitors to the gallery can take a piece of art, leave a piece of art, or do both. You can check out some of the artwork on Instagram @Freelittleartgalleryyxe.
2. Hit up The Bassment’s virtual party
Featuring the music and talents of eight Saskatoon bands, The Bassment presents InTune 2021 — a free online party playing from 2 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The shows will be streamed live through the Bassment’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
3. Check out local performers
Watch as some of Saskatoon’s performing artists share their work in Episode 1 of Persephone Theatre’s Open Stage, which was published earlier this month. The episode is available to watch whenever you want at persephonetheatre.org and features Peace Akintade, Kathie Cram, Amanda Trapp, Sketchy Bandits, Carla Orosz and Ellen Froese.
4. Have some family fun
The Fuddruckers Family Fun Centre (2910 8th St. E) is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Sunday, weather permitting. Families can practice their skills on the 18-hole Putt N’ Bounce miniature golf course, reach new heights on The Rock climbing wall or take a swing at the Grand Slam batting cages. More information is available at fudds.ca or by calling 306-477-0808.
5. Drop off your hazardous waste
The City of Saskatoon is holding its first Hazardous Household Waste Drop Off of the year on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Civic Operations Centre (57 Valley Rd.). The drop off is open to Saskatoon residents from residential properties only. Products eligible for drop off include aerosols, automotive fluids, batteries, cleaners, light bulbs, yard chemicals and more. Learn more at saskatoon.ca/hazardouswaste.
The news seems to be flying at us faster all the time. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be hard to keep up. With that in mind, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix has created an Afternoon Headlines newsletter that can be delivered daily to your inbox to help make sure you are up to date with the most vital news of the day. Click here to subscribe.
YK ARCC celebrates 10 years by pushing for NWT art gallery – Cabin Radio
Its trailer doubles as one of the NWT’s only art galleries. Now, the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre is turning 10 years old.
The group, YK ARCC for short, formed in 2011 in a downtown Yellowknife church scheduled for demolition. “There was always something going on,” recalled Métis artist Rosalind Mercredi, owner of the city’s Down to Earth Gallery, who was YK ARCC’s first president.
“I think it was so good to be able to have a space where people wanted to work on stuff and, if they had bigger projects they wanted to do, there was a space to do it. It was pretty vibrant times, I would say, for art.”
Though the organization stayed in the church for less than a year, it has brought art and shows to Yellowknife since. Temporary homes have included an apartment above a Vietnamese restaurant and empty spaces in the Centre Square Mall.
Casey Koyczan, a Tłı̨chǫ artist from Yellowknife pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Manitoba, held some of his first shows with YK ARCC’s help.
“It really helped to be able to show work within an environment that was conducive to more of a fine arts aesthetic as opposed to … a coffee shop, or a pub, or something like that,” said Koyczan, who was on YK ARCC’s board.
“YK ARCC felt like it was getting to more of a formal-exhibit kind of feel.”
‘We need a territorial gallery’
The group made headlines shortly after opening a mobile art gallery in a trailer. At the beginning of the pandemic, the team took art to residents by accepting reservations through Facebook then driving the gallery to make house calls in different neighbourhoods.
“Because it’s so small, we might be the only gallery in Canada that didn’t have to close,” said longtime board member Sarah Swan. “It has a limited capacity. We knew we could still operate it safely.”
Yet the trailer’s success simultaneously illuminated what YK ARCC’s members believe is a glaring deficiency in the NWT: the absence of a territorial gallery.
The cost of rent makes it difficult for the non-profit to hold on to one space for any length of time. Many of the spaces that are available in Yellowknife don’t work well for art shows.
“We need a territorial gallery,” former board member Dan Korver said.
That doesn’t mean a commercial gallery geared toward profit, he clarified. Instead, Korver wants a space where artists can show their work and engage with an audience “for art’s sake.”
The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is the only large-scale, non-commercial, gallery fitting that bill in the NWT. It hosts two fine art exhibits a year.
“It’s just simply not enough,” said Swan. “There are so many more artists and so much more work out there to show, so many more ideas.”
“We created the mobile gallery in the first place to feel that exhibition gap, but also, we created it to be a piece of agitation in itself. That’s why we called it the Art Gallery of the Northwest Territories.
“It’s really pathetic that our territorial gallery is a trailer. We all joke that if there ever is a real gallery of the Northwest Territories that’s not in a trailer, we’ll happily give the name back.”
Koyczan described obstacles in establishing his career that stemmed directly from the lack of a territorial art gallery.
“Back when I was showing at YK ARCC, it wasn’t recognized by the Canada Arts Council,” he said. “Therefore, when you go to apply for grants and funding … and you provide your CV saying that you showed work at YK ARCC, they check their records and say the show basically didn’t exist because they don’t recognize it as a legitimate gallery.
“I’ve had to work really hard on exporting myself and making artwork that is impactful so that, regardless of where I was located, it would be recognized by people in the south, or around North America, or internationally.
“The NWT needs a contemporary gallery. It’s just holding us back, not having that space.”
‘No GNWT mandate’ for a gallery
In a written statement to Cabin Radio, the territorial Department of Education, Culture, and Employment said it has no plan to create a territorial gallery.
The department said it “does not have a mandate to create physical infrastructure for the arts.”
“However,” the response continued, “the GNWT would be happy to work with regional organizations to see how the GNWT can support their plans.”
Korver believes government involvement in creating an artist-run centre or non-commercial gallery should be limited to provision of funding, so any gallery can remain community-driven and independent.
“We need that physical space, but how do you run it?” he wondered. “Is it better to just provide a grassroots organization – or organizations, maybe there shouldn’t just be one – with stable funding so they can provide those spaces and run those spaces?”
More spaces that can host art are on the way.
Makerspace YK moved into the old After 8 pub this January and is planning workshops and exhibits. The City of Yellowknife expects to open a visitor centre in the Centre Square Mall that would include art displays.
Meanwhile, the territorial government is set to release its updated NWT Arts Strategy this June. The previous territorial arts strategy, released in 2004, had identified a need for more arts spaces.
As a gallery owner, Mercredi said she is curious to see how the strategy is implemented.
“You can make a strategy but if the plan doesn’t have an implementation idea behind it, then really just sits,” she said. “How do you implement it when most of the arts organizations don’t have enough infrastructure or people to put those things together?”
Swan said YK ARCC will continue to run its mobile gallery while celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Members have applied for funding to run a series of “emerging curator workshops.”
“Art is our passion,” Swan said. “I think there’s just this drive to share.
“Because we know how good art can be, or how amazing and fully developed it can be, we want to fight for that. We want to try to grow the art community in Yellowknife.”