Everyone in Between: Toronto Artist Arowbe on the Borders

It’s easy to have good conversations with Toronto-based poet/musician/composer/performer Rob Bolton.  But this particular conversation was having a tough time getting off the ground.  When we finally got vchat to work on two finicky wireless networks, important business interrupted:

“Hold on one second, I think my coffee is ready,” he said.  It was Saturday morning.

Rob writes and performs for the group Broadway Sleep, as well as for the duo Times Neue Roman (which has a new video dropping today for Hands no Hands).  He has also written songs for artist Tanika Charles, including Silly Happy Wild, which was nominated for a Stylus Award in the category of Canadian Best R&B Single.  He participated in TEDx Toronto as a solo artist and with Broadway Sleep.  He writes hip-hop odes to Music and Math; homages to motown; and writes Lacanian lyric poetry.  In other words, he’s pretty busy these days.

“My desire to have a mix of genres and styles is a big part of who I am as an artist,” Rob said, describing the varied approach that characterizes his projects.  And what strikes me about his work in its various iterations is not the variety itself–but rather the consistent practice that binds together the different forms.  There’s an underlying (and as-yet still forming) commitment to cross-disciplinary method to Rob’s work–not to its own end, but rather as a means of answering questions about contemporary life.  It’s tough to see this when browsing through his evolving portfolio of work (though I would argue that the track Music and Math relays it pretty readily).  Rather, to understand where Rob–or Arowbe, as he’s better known up north–is coming from, the best starting point is Aesthetics of (In)Betweennesss.  In this video, Rob lays out what he calls “a statement of poetic”–one that embodies an important perspective on the nature of contemporary artistic production.

In a cultural moment dominated by the increasing influence of the virtual–as online life encroaches on the “real”–Rob explores the traditional borderlands between genres as a means of trying to redefine the role of art/music/poetry/image.  The digitalization of ordinary life produces a virtual space into which we upload our ideas, photos, tweets, likes, and other identificatory information–but also some important piece of the content of our relationships, emotions, and desires.  What is the nature of the space of social networks?  What part of our self-identify resides there?  How do we create and disseminate mediatized identities of ourselves?  How can art help us understand the middle places between forms of media and the meanings that these forms produce?  These questions become central to Rob’s inter-genre projects.

Aesthetics of (In)betweenness provides a primer for why artists working in the current moment should be considering the collisions and combinations of genres and forms of expression.  Throughout the video Rob walks through mostly uninhabited, industrial, and generally abandoned spaces in New York.  These are the spaces we think of as traditionally “in between”–the places we navigate on our way to somewhere else.

But in a key scene, Rob stands stationary, as crowds flow around him in Times Square.  “I’m Totally fascinated by Times Square,” Rob said, but only to the extent that:

it’s my least favorite place in the world.  It’s an inbetween space but it’s also a destination.  Nobody really ends there.  Everybody is coming and going there.  But then it’s the center of the dissemination of media and advertising.

Times Square is the quintissential in-the-world embodiment of an in-between zone: a place where information is constantly flowing elsewhere–a place where people come to see precisely the flows and non-interactions of others on the way to a different destination.  It excites the senses, but can also be deeply unnerving.  Inhabiting the middle space–occupying a borderland between multiple destinations–is what cross-disciplinary work in the arts (when done right) should do.  And it’s what Arowbe is working on in Toronto.

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