2019 Canadian Atheist Awards – Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year

The first award in the 2019 Canadian Atheist Awards is “Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year”. This award goes to any work of art, entertainment, or culture – film, music, literature, theatre – that stood out to Canadian atheists in 2018.

If you’d like to review the list of nominees before finding out the results, check out the nominations announcement.

Before we begin, I’d like to offer congratulations to all our nominees. Although there can only be one final winner, every nominee earned their spot by being a high-quality work of art, entertainment, or culture that positively expresses atheistic ideas. Every one of them is worth checking out in its own right.

The creators and producers of all works nominated have earned the right to use the following images or any other method they prefer to declare themselves nominees for the 2019 Canadian Atheist Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year:

The award nominee image

And so, with no further ado, let us get to the awarding of the 2019 Canadian Atheist Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year.

Runners-up

Runner-up: Hõt Dõg Water – Douglas Bevans

[Photo of bottles of “Hot Dog Water”, which is bottled water – supposedly the leftover water from boiling hot dogs – with an actual hot dog sausage in it.]
Hõt Dõg Water

Readers of Canadian Atheist are no doubt familiar with goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand of snake-oil hawkers. I’m sure many of you could even name your favourite bullshit product she sells, like the coffee enema or the infamous jade eggs. For Douglas Bevans, that product was the wearable stickers that promote “bio-frequency healing” that even got NASA to come out and say what a load of BS (literally!).

But while most of us respond with little more than a facepalm and a tear for humanity, Bevans got inspired.

So at Vancouver’s Main Street Car Free Festival, Bevans set up a booth to sell his own health and wellness product…

… hot dog water.

Literally that. The water left over when you boil hot dogs.

But the real genius here was in the marketing. Bevans bottled the hot dog water in slick, modern packaging, with completely unnecessary tildes over the “o”s (so: “Hõt Dõg Water”) and an organic sausage literally in each bottle, and included lots of health-and-wellness buzzwords in the sales pitch. The hot dog water was described as “unfiltered”, labelled with “keto-compatible – lose weight – increase brain function – look younger – increase vitality” and promising that it can “help restore the body’s homeostasis after an electrolyte imbalance”, and explains that it is able to achieve these “multiple outcomes” because it “[cuts] the bodies (sic) need for caloric intake while increasing its metabolic demand”. There was also some text vaguely hinting that the water came from a spring caused by a 50,000 year-old volcanic eruption. That’s pure bullshit poetry there.

[An image of a display listing the alleged health benefits of Hõt Dõg Water.]
The Hõt Dõg Water health claims

Bevans’s stall also included a “scientist” – complete with a microscope prop – to talk up the “scientific” benefits of the hot dog water, and the bottles sold for $37.99.

And people bought them.

And if all that wasn’t hilarious enough, Bevans also sold hot dog water side products, such as hot dog water lip balm, hot dog water body spray and… I shit you not… hot dog water breath freshener.

The stunt attracted international media attention. But, disappointingly, virtually all coverage took a smug tone mocking the festival attendees for being so duped by such an obviously silly product. Thing is, that doesn’t seem to be what happened at all. Although the set up was designed to look like the kind of high-end health-and-wellness bullshit pushed by companies like goop, it was also clearly satirical. Bevans himself wore a hot dog costume. And the sign advertising the product and listing its bullshit health benefits literally said: “Hot Dog Water in its absurdity hopes to encourage critical thinking related to product marketing and the significant role it can play in our purchasing choices.” In the end it looks like it wasn’t the festival attendees who were credulous suckers, but rather the news sources.

But that wasn’t the end of Bevans’s performance! Because in October, Bevans set up an encore performance right outside of the “in goop health” wellness summit at Stanley Park Pavilion.

The “goop” attendees weren’t as amused by the stunt as the Car Free Day Festival people. One of them bizarrely accused Bevans of “bullying” (oh, the poor, helpless victims who bought $400 tickets to a celebrity’s glamour brand conference), and at one point Bevans was even turned away by event security.

But his ingenious and brilliantly-executed send-up of the slick marketing and bullshit health claims has earned Douglas Bevans’s Hõt Dõg Water performance art as one of the top art, culture, and entertainment stories of 2018.

Runner-up: “In Sure and Certain Hope” – Jim Fanning

The poetry of The Ancient Hippie was a very late entry in the nominations process, but as soon as I read his work, I knew it was going to be a nominee – not to mention a strong candidate for work of the year. Indeed, the hardest part of the process was deciding which of the many poems published in 2018 would be the primary work for the nomination. I had to narrow it down by restricting myself to the eight 2018 poems explicitly labelled with “atheism”, and finally selected “In Sure and Certain Hope” after much deliberation.

(As an aside, after I selected that poem, but before I announced the nominations, I asked Fanning if he would be interested in contributing a poem for an upcoming series I’m planning highlighting artists and works related to Canadian atheism. By coincidence, Fanning offered “In Sure and Certain Hope”. So we’ll probably be featuring the work on Canadian Atheist sometime in the not-too-distant future!)

Fanning’s style is a fascinating fusion of influences that is uniquely Canadian in its multicultural flavour. On the one hand, he uses imagery and language from Dharmic religions, probably inspired by his time posted in India with the Canadian Diplomatic Service. At the same time, he comes via the seanchaí tradition of Gaelic storytelling going back to pre-Christian Ireland. The combination of mystically esoteric Vedic imagery delivered in the colourful rhythm of the Irish folk storytelling is a thing of beauty.

But it’s the content that puts Fanning’s work on this list. Fanning describes himself as a “[traveller] on the knowledge path to Moksha” where moksha in this context means enlightenment, awareness, and freedom from ignorance. One would be forgiven for assuming this implies some sort of woo-y Deepak Chopra double-speak for magical or irrational thinking, but no, Fanning means something very different by his use of the term; he is talking about a very humanistic kind of enlightenment. Sadly, I lack the skills to put it clearly into words myself – with my science fiction background, the best term that comes to mind is “grok”, but I doubt that helps anyone (besides other nerds like me). The best way to understand what Fanning means by the term is probably to read his work.

[An illustration of the Earth being held in the palm of a giant hand.]
The image accompanying “In Sure and Certain Hope”

Let’s take “In Sure and Certain Hope” for example. “In Sure and Certain Hope” is one of Fanning’s more accessible works, eschewing the more indirect imagery of works like “The Company of Shadows” or the broader scope of works like “Transient” in exchange for a more direct message. The message is basically the as John Lennon’s “Imagine”, but where John Lennon opts for simplicity almost to the point of being pithy and gives us a somewhat saccharine, feel-good view of a beautiful future we can achieve merely by “dreaming”, Fanning doesn’t wear Lennon’s rose tinted glasses. In his poem, we are born into violence (a slap), misery (a cry), and confusion ([we] spend our lives puzzling over how, and why), and it only gets worse from there as religion and ignorance take their toll. But! – and this is where Fanning and Lennon really diverge in their views – Fanning promises that a better world, a brave new dawn, is possible… if we work to achieve it.

That we have to consciously put effort into improving our lot is a recurring theme in Fanning’s work. In “In Sure and Certain Hope”, he says: we’d work towards peace and inclusion,

shunning dogmatic fairy tales. The particular emphasis on actions we must take – “working”, “shunning” – makes it clear Fanning doesn’t just believe we can get high, dream, and we’ll have a better world. No, we have to get high, dream, and work to make that world. But we can do it.

Most of Fanning’s poems express a similar belief: they are chock full of bold and uncompromising criticisms of the tribalism and the closing of the mind that divides us and keeps us from our full potential, while at the same time bursting with the humanistic optimism that we can do better … all we need to is to actually do better.

But that’s just skimming the surface! There’s so much more buried in the lyricism and imagery of Fanning’s work if you’re willing to really dig into it. Just consider the title “In Sure and Certain Hope”; that title alone is a puzzle box that teases the mind like a Zen koan. What is “certain hope”? Isn’t “hope” what we feel when we are not “certain” of something? And yet… I understandexactly what he means by “certain hope”. I daresay anyone that truly groks humanism understands it too.

For his humanistic poetry in general, Jim Fanning, The Ancient Hippie, deserves recognition, and particularly the lovely “In Sure and Certain Hope” has earned a very impressed nod as one of the top art, culture, and entertainment stories of 2018.

… AND THE WINNER… IN THE CATEGORY OF ART, ENTERTAINMENT, OR CULTURE STORY OF THE YEAR… IS…

< < < drum roll > > >

WINNER: “Mythical Riddles” – James Fry

James Fry, who sometimes goes by the pen name “Jimi Fritz”, is a massive ball of talent. He’s an author, a photographer, a filmmaker, award-winning television writer and director, and – of course – a multi-instrumentalist musician and songwriter, and he’s been doing it for at least thirty years. And he’s only one part of the family of talent at SmallFry Enterprises.

He’s also a secular humanist, whose site links to the Center for Inquiry, as well as humanist publications Free Inquiry and New Humanist. If you listen carefully to his lyrics you can even hear the influence secular humanism has, for example in “A Dream I Had”.

[Screenshot from “Mythical Riddles” video, showing musicians James Fry (acoustic guitar, vocals), Anton Fierce (trumpet), Eli Bender (cello), and Dan Beer (drums) performing with stained glass windows as a backdrop at Christchurch Cathedral in Victoria, British Columbia.]
James Fry with backup musicians, performing “Mythical Riddles” at Christchurch Cathedral in Victoria, British Columbia.

In May, Fry uploaded a new song video to his YouTube channel: “Mythical Riddles”. Subtitled “An Atheist Anthem”, the song is an original composition, recorded – both the song and the video – live.

Musically, the song is gorgeous. It has a nice, relaxed tempo and a gentle, swaying melody – I confess that I’ve been humming it all week. The arrangement is beautiful: acoustic guitar, bowed cello, drums with brushes, and muted trumpet. Fry’s voice is bold, deep, and gravelly, making the lyrical content insistent and confident.

And of course, it’s the lyrics that really make this an “atheist anthem”. Fry’s lyrics are not just a declaration of the principles of reason, they are a bold stand of defiance against the pressures of religious conformity: I shall not be moved, scared away or confused. I stand on the tenets of logic and reason, and I’ll fall with the truth.

But “Mythical Riddles” is not just a battle cry. Fry also recognizes the challenges of sticking to his principles. The only repeated lyrics in the song are at the same time bleak and hopeful, describing the solitude atheists often feel when they refuse to surrender to religious and cultural pressures, while also reminding that no atheist is ever really alone: I may stand alone, maybe far from my home. I stand on the shoulders of giants who scatter the seeds they have sown.

If “Mythical Riddles” were just a song, then this would have have been an extremely difficult award to judge – I might even have been inclined to make it a three-way tie! But “Mythical Riddles” was also a video, and it’s the video that elevates it to something unforgettable.

Even ignoring the symbolism, the gorgeous setting is a visual delight. The group performs in front of a giant, colourful, stained glass window, with the sun streaming through it over their heads. It’s almost religious in its glory.

And of course… that’s the point.

You see, James Fry had the magnificent cheek to record the video for his “atheist anthem” at the famous Christchurch Cathedral in Victoria. The religious scenery stands in sharp contrast to Fry’s uncompromising lyrics and bold delivery – indeed, it seems almost farcical in comparison.

But that’s not even all. Fry also opts to perform in an outfit that looks an awful lot like a pastor’s outfit, with a neckline that looks an awful lot like a clerical collar. The video also opens and closes with a rendition of the tune played, by Fry, on a church organ … and at one point, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Fry actually standing at the pulpit with a book in his hand, as if preaching.

Those subtle, tongue-in-cheek irreverencies are the icing on the cake which is the music video, which is itself a delightful extra course to the song.

For crafting an “atheist anthem” that is beautiful and bold, and presenting it with a video that is visually sumptuous and cheerfully irreverent, James Fry’s “Mythical Riddles” is the Canadian Atheist 2019 Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year.

James Fry has earned the right to use the following images or any other method he prefers to declare himself winner of the 2019 Canadian Atheist Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year:

The award winner image

Congratulations to James Fry!

Summary

Last year’s Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year award saw a wildly diverse field of art forms, and international nominees from as far as Ireland and Australia (plus an honourable mention for an Argentinian filmmaker, Gustavo Coletti).

This year there were fewer nominees, but there is still a diverse showing from different fields of art: poetry, music, and performance art. And this time they were all Canadian!

And once again, just as with last year, there was a remarkable diversity in tone among the nominees. Douglas Bevans’s “hot dog water” stunt was comedic genius, Jim Fanning’s poetry is haunting and hopeful, and James Fry’s song is bold and proud.

I am looking forward to 2019’s contributions to atheist art, entertainment, and culture. Here’s hoping it’ll be an exciting year!

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