TRIBUTE TO GERRY THURSTON (HE'S STILL ALIVE!)

Gerald Thurston Self Portrait (circa 1970)

Gerald Thurston Self Portrait (circa 1970)

The Calgary Spoken Word Festival and ProArts @ Noon Concert Series had a tribute to Gerry Thurston to recognize his good work in Calgary throughout the past 30 years. My pals Michael Green, Mark Ikeda, Denise Clarke, and Anne Green all contributed. Here is what I had to say about this rad dude:

 

Gerry Thurston was in the Navy!

This biographical detail is something that Gerry regularly chooses not to disclose when discussing his practice as an artist and educator. I'm not sure why. I only found out he was in the navy because he hired me once to help clean his office and I stumbled across an old resume buried beneath a stack of yellowing magazines, student assignments, and High Performance Rodeo festival guides. Gerry tries to forget he was in the navy, I’m sure. But I make certain to remind him every time we drink together. Not because I am trying to embarrass him (like when he reminds me I played hockey or I'm an Albertan), but because I don’t want Gerry to forget. At some point in time, during his early twenties, Gerry Thurston spent three consecutive summers earning his first post-secondary degree. He was training to be a Naval Officer. To overlook Gerry’s nautical past is to fully misunderstand his creative work and his great impact on the Calgary arts community. Let me explain:

View from ship (1962)

View from ship (1962)

Showing off new hair cuts (1962)

Showing off new hair cuts (1962)

Anybody who has spent a small amount of time with Gerry will know that he refuses to tell a story from beginning to end (10 stories simultaneously yes, maybe, but a single narrative, never!) This makes gathering information about Gerry’s history pretty difficult, but I have had enough conversations with him over the last decade or so to piece together a bit of an understanding of what I think being in the Navy meant to him. Gerry will tell you (or maybe I'm making this up): that Naval Officer Training is where he came to understand the relationship between coercion and education; that it was from standing guard at the back of war ships—looking for enemy submarines to shoot —that parallel and intersecting geographical structures—for instance, the prairie landscape and the calm sea—began to take shape. Gerry will tell you that the rituals of masculine camaraderie, the ceremonies of state power, and acts of aggression as rites of passage revealed ways in which new meanings could come into the world. Gerry learned that rites, rituals, and ceremonies were not only used to sustain a fucked up oppressive society, but that rites, rituals, and ceremonies could be used as structures of resistance.

It is no surprise then, that after graduating from naval school and later an education degree, that Gerry Thurston would go on to form his own officer training program: The Academy of Canadian Space Cadets. You might think I am joking, but I encourage you to look at his Linkedn profile (http://linkd.in/Og8zEB).

Early recruits to the Academy of Canadian Space Cadets (circa 1977)

Early recruits to the Academy of Canadian Space Cadets (circa 1977)

The first time I had ever heard Gerry introduce a group of students as the 27th inaugural class of the Academy of Canadian Space Cadets (myself being one of those students), I was a little put off. Of course I, like many of my classmates, understood the phrase ”space cadet” to mean somebody who is constantly “spaced out”; somebody who is lost in another world; somebody who is kind of stupid. “Space cadet” as we interpreted it, was an insult. And at that moment I thought, well this Gerry guy is a bit of a space cadet himself! But for Gerry Thurston—ever the decoder, decipherer, and deconstructor of language and meaning, space cadet was not an insult, but something very different. For Gerry, to be a space cadet is to have radical presence in the prescient present. Put another way, to be a space cadet is to operate in two places at the same time: the concrete physical world and an imagined possible world. These two simultaneous geographies—the imagined and concrete—intersect one another at a very specific site: the body. For Gerry Thurston, to be a space cadet is to be a political proposition. A space cadet who is “spaced out” on outer space and inner space means that you are actively investigating your environment and how it shapes your identity. You are a space cadet when you are challenging oppressive social and spatial structures that seek to demarcate human expression and human experience. While the 20th Century space race was winding down, Gerry, my good friend, was just ratcheting it up.

Gerry as "Cowboy Navel Officer" (2013)

Gerry as "Cowboy Navel Officer" (2013)

Gerry has never describe the Academy of Canadian Space Cadet’s in this way, but I believe it is what he means by it. His pedagogical discourse is laden with spatial metaphors and he is constantly grounding his own identity in places of personal significance. Gerry knows and taught us all that space has a way of putting people in their place. He uses his own spatial history as a way to illustrate the necessity of social and spatial dislocation for human emancipation. He uses his stories in the hopes that they will draw us out of one world and into another. The intersection between physical space and mental space is a matter of performance and how we perform ourselves in the world has the potential to shape new futures. Gerry has known this for a long time and he has steadfastly performed as if the future is a generous and compassionate place. As a radical anti/uncle intellectual intellectual Gerry Thurston essentially created a methodology that uses lived experiences and personal interpretations to produce new geographical knowlege-bases.

The Academy of Canadian Space Cadets is Gerry’s legacy to all of us. I’m proud to be a member.