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Reviewing a Wild Year in Art With the ‘Culture Gabfest’ – The New York Times



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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Winter wonderland: A look at snow art across Ottawa – CTV Edmonton



This past weekend saw the biggest snowfall of the winter in the capital, and it wasn’t just any kind of snow. It was the sticky type, perfect for sculpting everything from snowmen, to dragons to igloos.

And people’s imaginations were running wild.

“We woke up Saturday morning and saw all the snow. The kids ate breakfast and raced outside,” says Ottawa resident Michelle McCombs. “It was the perfect snow for making a snowman.”

But just one or two snowmen weren’t good enough for the McCombs family. More than a dozen snowmen sit on their front lawn, greeting people as they pass.

McComb's snowmen

“People have been stopping by all weekend. It kind of lifts your spirits up,” says McCombs.

Jayson Ambrose wanted to build a giant snowman, but instead built a little Buddha on top of a giant snowball. A perfect accident, he called it.

Jayson Ambrose snow Buddha

“I just kept playing with it and it ended up kinda looking like a little snowy laughing Buddha sitting on top of are giant snowball here,” he said.

Lindsay Hunter and her family needed a place to play checkers outside, so they built themselves what they call their Irish igloo, complete with tables and chairs.

Lindsay and Rosalie Hunter in snow fort

“We’re very tired of being inside all day,” says Hunter, “and when the beautiful snow came, which was the stickiest, best textured snow to make stuff, and on top of that it was warm out, we couldn’t help but spend all day outside.”

Many people around the city took to their yards, spending hours making snowy masterpieces and the talent was off the charts. 

But Daniel Benoit’s castle in Embrun is next level.

“We were doing it during lunch break, and then after dinner with the kids.” says Benoit. “After the kids go to bed, both of us go out and spend some time away from the TV screen or computer screen.”

Daniel Benoit snow castle in Embrun.

The Benoit family had been working on it for two weeks, and with all the snow that fell this past weekend, they were able to finally complete it. But they might not be done just yet.

“My wife was already taking about another tower or something so we’ll see,” says Benoit. 

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Online art course with Adrian Baker – Millstone News



NEW! Appleton Studio – online ‘ART MENTORING’ course

Instructor: Adrian Baker, BFA, MFA

Want to keep making art this winter, but could use a little guidance? I’m offering personal feedback sessions by email, one-on-one online meetings, and online group feedback sessions. Work on your own projects in your choice of medium, under the guidance of a professional artist. Receive valuable feedback from your peers. Flexible scheduling to suit your routine.

‘Art Mentoring’ runs from the week of January 18th to March 26 (choose your own times/days).

Cost is $180

What you get:

– Weekly personal assessment of your current art project via email, with constructive critiques and professional guidance. (eight sessions)

– One-on-one online meetings to discuss the progress of your work (six sessions)

– Online group feedback sessions with fellow participants (two sessions)

– Regular links to online painting tutorials relevant to your work.

What you do:

– Choose a project to work on in your choice of medium. Your first email session can be a discussion of what to paint, how to get started, colour & compositional decisions, etc.

– Photograph your artwork regularly as it progresses over the ten weeks and send the pictures by email for feedback from the instructor, for a total of eight email instructional sessions.

– Schedule six one-on-one meetings with instructor over the 10-week period (schedule of available days/times will be provided)

– Participate in two online group critiques (coffee, tea or wine are optional!)

– Have fun! Be creative! Keep on making art!

I am accepting a limited number of participants, so let me know asap if you are interested.

To register, or for more information:

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Are phone skills a lost art? Time to get back to basics say East Coast Experts –



The family phone used to be a hot commodity and phone time a valuable resource.

Waiting until evening rates to place a long-distance phone call to a friend or family member could easily take up a Saturday night. But these days, a person can reach virtually everyone they know instantly, with a few swipes of their fingertips.

Smartphones and technology have ushered in an age of texting, emailing, and messaging communication within both personal and professional aspects of many people’s lives. And with these forms of communication, there’s less need for speaking person-to-person over a voice call.

But this doesn’t mean the phone is on its way out, even if people might be finding increasing anxiety around phone calls, according to Mary Jane Copps, whose professional business, The Phone Lady, fosters connections between people and phone conversations.

Even if video calls are the new fad, Copps says voices are still what brings people together.

“The medium may change as technology continues evolving, but phone and voice calls are here to stay,” she says.

In general

Copps says comedian Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t kidding when he quoted a statistic in a stand-up routine that said people feared public speaking more than death itself. She says this feeling is one that many now equate with phone calls.

She says anxiety around phone calls is due to people now being used to the delay that comes with texting or email.

“We can edit and think about it – we don’t have to think of an answer off the top of our head,” she says. “For some people, there’s anxiety around what they see as a performance part of a real-time conversation.”

But even with that anxiety, Dalhousie University communications researcher and professor Dr. Binod Sundararajan says people are still gravitating towards the personal connection that voice provides, pointing to the prevalence of voice message exchanges in smartphone messaging apps.

“People still crave a synchronous connection – a real-time conversation – so they video chat or send voice recordings back and forth on apps like WhatsApp,” he says.

It’s because it lacks voice that Sundararajan says email and texting are “terrible” forms of communication beyond simple exchanges, as they cannot effectively convey true emotion.

And with the stress that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, an empathetic voice on the other end of the phone could be exactly what is needed to relieve said stress, even if feelings of anxiety precede that call.

“There is so much uncertainty these days. The last thing someone should worry about is how to interpret communication, so asynchronous phone call is the thing that can best alleviate anxiety around this,” he says.

Even as texting and email become the main way people connect, Dalhousie University communication associate professor and researcher Dr. Binod Sundararajan says the prevalent use of voice recordings in messaging apps like Whatsapp points to how people still crave the connection that voice provides. – Contributed

Phones at work

The importance of tone and inflection in the voice, whether virtual or over a phone conversation, is something Copps says plays a key role in professional interactions, even with the advent of video conferencing.

Copps says the past year has shown there are many distractions during virtual meetings that cause those in attendance to miss something or lose their ability to pay attention. While a 15-minute phone call can be “lovely,” she says, a one-hour one is often the opposite.

“Being on camera is exhausting for us,” says Copps. “A lot of people turn off cameras and listen, which is the same as a phone call.”

With phone calls still making up a significant amount of business communication, especially as people work from home, Sundararajan says proper phone etiquette – and specifically knowing how to communicate effectively and empathetically – is as important as written communication.

“Being professional doesn’t mean being cold and aloof – you can have empathy and warmth and still be professional,” he says. “A good phone call goes miles in making people feel respected, acknowledged, and listened to.”

Call it personal

Dalhousie University associate professor Dr. Kathleen Kevany says the allure of voice, along with images it conjures, will ensure the phone remains an important form of communication. - Tyler Colbourne photo - SaltWire Network
Dalhousie University associate professor Dr. Kathleen Kevany says the allure of voice, along with images it conjures, will ensure the phone remains an important form of communication. – Tyler Colbourne photo – SaltWire Network

It’s the allure of voice that means phone calls continue to be an important form of communication, according to Dalhousie University communications associate professor and researcher Dr. Kathleen Kevany, who says voice calls, like radio, are often more intimate than video media.

“Voice alone demands more of us, requires more interaction and imagination … and we like to activate our imagination. It’s why people listen to the radio or read a book,” she says.

This is why Kevany says a phone call remains the most effective and personal way to check in with loved ones and friends, something she says has become critical as COVID-19 keeps many people apart.

“We are in a time of isolation, so the more human connection we can foster, the better for our own wellbeing and others. Reaching out, picking up the phone, and calling someone can make a difference in their day and is much more memorable than receiving a text,” she says.

Sundararajan says the pandemic is perhaps the best example of why people need to fight for the phone and reconnect with feeling comfortable around using it, both personally and professionally. He says the same goes for people receiving a call, who must listen and respect the person who’s reached out.

“Yes it appears that calling someone on the phone is disappearing and yes, we should fight to retain that,” he says.

Connecting younger generations

Feeling comfortable on the phone is something Sundararajan and Copps say young people need to start mastering, as it’s crucial to succeeding in the job market.

Sundararajan says as the first phase of a job interview is often a phone or video call, the skill is critical to landing a job.

Copps has also seen a huge increase in her business since the fall in training professionals in phone communication. She says this is due partially to a lack of phone skills in today’s young professionals.

“Big companies are all really clear that soft skills are the most important thing they now look for, above education. Communication is part of that and it’s something we need to be teaching to kids,” she says.

Kevany, who teaches her students about public speaking and verbal communication, says humans have always felt a great sense of confidence in communicating until faced with presenting. Like presenting, phone calls are a skill she says comes down to practice.

“You learn knowledge, but you cultivate a skill. That goes for public speaking and it also goes for phone calls,” she says.

There is only one way to overcome a fear of the phone, according to Copps.

“You’ve got to pick up the phone and make the call,” she says.


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