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The History of the Artist Response Team (ART)
Chapter 1. The Artist Response Team was born in 1989 on the decks of a 20-foot sailboat. We had been invited to join a Greenpeace flotilla that was circling a massive US nuclear-armed warship lurking in Vancouver harbour. Bill Henderson was there. Stephen and I had lugged my keyboard on board, along with our Bose speaker system. We were playing a new song we’d just written, called Three Minute Culture.
A 3-minute culture, the rich keep gettin’ richer
Taking advantage and living in luxury
A 3-minute culture, the poor keep getting poorer
Losing power and living in misery
Should we be trying to make fortunes in the blink of an eye?
I don’t want corporations controlling my life
Why should rich folk get richer while the poor people die
Just to keep military industries alive?
This ain’t right, everybody knows this ain’t right!
We were going around and around this giant warship which towered above us, five or six stories. 3 Minute Culture is a rockin’ swing blues tune, and we could see the sailors way up there, lining the railing, laughing and snapping their fingers as we sang and sailed along. There was a delightful sense of irony seeing that they were getting so much enjoyment out of our song and our protest. I don’t think they could actually hear the words; it didn’t matter.
Artist Response Team. Cultural swat team. That was us.
The groundwork for ART was laid in the late 80’s, when I was performing at benefits. Name a group, we probably did something for them: the Stein Festival, Greenpeace, Wilderness Committee, Sierra Club, Burns Bog, and on and on. This meant that we were hearing the leading speakers of the burgeoning environmental movement: David Suzuki, Paiakon of the Kaiapo Indians of Brazil, Wade Davis, Hopi speakers. This fed into our songwriting and we created song after song about the environmental issues of the day, like Stand Up.
You can see it in the sunlight, you can see it in the clear blue sky
You can hear it in the whale’s call, and in the eagle’s cry
Taste it in clear water, you can smell it in clean air
Millions of people can become simultaneously aware
Stand up and be counted for what you know is right
Stand up for survival of every form of life
Stand up and be counted, do what you do best
Stand up for the planet and future generations
Help set an example for the rest
We share the victory when the Haida claim their land
Feel it in Carmanah’s thousand year old Sitka stands
Hear from endangered peoples like the Penan and the Kaiapo
Fighting for their forest culture so their children have a place to grow
However, performing at benefits was a zero-sum game. We couldn’t survive. And we got frustrated because somehow we were always giving our talents and production services, and yet would get passed over when the big opportunities came along. A case in point was when the Wilderness Committee had managed to get Bryan Adams to do a benefit for them at the 86 Street Music Hall, and they were choosing the opening act; we didn’t get the shot. We made a huge investment, and yet never got to reach that larger audience to help build our careers and cash flow.
So we started producing our own events in earnest, and it is a point of pride for ART that we always pay the artists involved. These projects brought their own set of odd and capricious circumstances. In 1990 we were approached by the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union to produce the Wild Salmon Clean Water Tour to 14 coastal communities, to draw attention to the disastrous policies being put in place by DFO. The UAFWU had limited cash, so we went out and fundraised $5,000 from the fledgling BC Liberal Party, which was starting to gain momentum under the leadership of Gordon Wilson. This had conflicted results: We had the money we needed to produce the tour, but it pissed off the labour types in the UAFWU who saw the Liberals as capitalist interlopers; so that diminished the enthusiasm in that quarter. We discovered that within the fishing community, there were ongoing internecine battles. The sports fishers didn’t talk to the commercial fishers, who didn’t like the Native fishers, who warred with the gillnetters, etc, etc. So a lot of people in the fishing community actually boycotted the concerts. But we got to go all over the coast to fabulous places like Bella Coola, and get fed washtub loads of prawns in Pender Harbour. The tour culminated in Ucluelet, where a bunch of drunk loggers showed up and were talking loudly while I was singing. I was singing louder and louder to try to be heard, and was going hoarse. Stephen, who always avoided the spotlight like the plague, uncharacteristically came up and took the microphone, and addressed the loggers directly, asked them what their problem was. Sylvia weaved up to say that they didn’t like us city folk coming in and telling them how to live, and leaving town with all their money. Stephen said, “Sylvia, anyone who wants their money back can get a refund from me. And you can see from the small attendance here that there is no great amount of money leaving town with us. In fact, we’ve brought our own funding.” They kind of grumbled their way out the door. I was hoarse for two weeks afterwards, and was despairing of recovering. Stephen told me to practise singing softly, and we wrote a song that could be sung in my lower register, called I Believe:
I believe in defending the rights of every living thing
I believe that when we smash these drug lords, we will still have robber kings
I believe caring is salvation, and that ignorance creates pain
I believe we are capable of helping, I believe that it’s not too late to change.
Our next junket was Last Spike: The Great Canadian Whistlestop Tour, to draw attention to the gutting of VIA rail by the federal government. ART, and in particular Stephen, was developing the ability to raise money from various sources to fund our productions. We had the first Mac512 computer with a tiny screen, and an Imagewriter printer. We were our own printing press, and created documents and proposals that featured Stephen’s compelling ideas, accompanied by Gary Larsen Far Side cartoons and Carl Chaplin artwork. Fred Strong became an investor in Last Spike and ART. We incorporated ART as a for-profit company because we wanted to be able to generate sustainable cash flow from selling stuff, rather than relying on non-profit fundraising. Fred shared this vision, and became a partner over the next decade.
Last Spike was a tour to Victoria, Duncan, Nanaimo and Courtenay, traveling on the E&N railway up Vancouver Island. Songwriter Paul Hyde, performer Rick Scott, guitarist David Sinclair, writer/comedian Des Kennedy and the Raging Grannies were part of the entourage; Valley Hennell King did the stage managing. We produced an the Last Spike album featuring the music of the artists, to support the tour. Stephen and I traipsed into radio stations with the request to put one song from the album onto some kind of rotation, to let people know about the concert and raise support for local rail service. We couldn’t get one station to play one song. Finally, in a meeting with a Program Director in a Nanaimo station, our frustration mounting, the PD told us, “But you’ve got to understand. We don’t decide which songs get added to our playlist; those decisions are made in Toronto.”
The light bulb went on, and we turned our faces eastward, like pilgrims to Mecca.
I have to interject something about the basic dynamics of ART. Stephen and I were a wedded pair, literally and figuratively. I was a haplessly addicted singer. Life only made sense to me when I had a gig on the horizon that I could plan and practise for. When shows were slow, I tended to get despondant and dejected. But when I hit the stage, I made a good impression. Stephen was really in love with me; he was a successful building contractor on Cortes Island when we first met. He had a genius for design, and creating unique original homes that were in harmony with the landscape. He created our homestead, a multi-level home with $10,000 worth of stained glass windows, a stream on the property, forced-air wood furnace, back-up propane stove in the kitchen, southern exposure, huge garden, orchard, 2000 square foot shop—this property was the dream of his lifetime. He pre-empted one of the last pieces ever of Crown Land in BC. When we got together, he immediately created a music studio for me, and threw his support behind my career. Partly because he knew that I was useless unless I was performing.
He had a science background in zoology and biology; he saw the environmental crisis looming, and knew that our little piece of paradise wasn’t long for this world, because of bigger forces like climate change. He saw the potential for my voice to take out messages about ecology; he was the driving force behind ART. He built ART the way he built houses: With a plan to get from the foundation to the roof, and everything in between. He created a structure to support not only my career, but the idea was to create work for lots of other artists doing the same job of going out there and singing and helping to educate and inspire people to take care of the Earth. Enlightened capitalism. Make money by doing good things.
Stephen was the most determined and committed person I’ve ever known. He’d set his course with ART, and ultimately we ended up selling the Cortes property to move to Vancouver, and invested everything we had in the music.
So when the Nanaimo radio PD told us that we had to go to Toronto to make something happen on the airwaves, Stephen immediately began hatching a plan to make it happen. We developed the concept for Environment Week on the Airwaves, a national broadcast campaign to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Canadian Environment Week (who knew?!).