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A tower of creative power

Vjeko Sager's new art project celebrates hidden personas, playing — and being alone

Mountains; beauty; nature; a place of inspiration and solitude; a place to get away, and play and play and play. A place that's unplugged and definitely plugged in, in spite of itself.

Whistler is all of the above, and more: more than the sum of its parts, including the paradoxes and contradictions it's concocted for itself over the decades. And if there's one art event this summer that examines and connects to all of this — one you, in turn, can examine and connect to — it's Vjeko Sager's diviNation Tower.

A powerful multi-media artist with international reach — he earned his master's in Applied Arts at the University of Belgrade; his drawings are in collections around the world, including the Drawing Center in New York and the Museum of Modern Art; he curated CBC Studio's Art in Exile; plus he's been featured in Vancouver's PuSh Festival and Paul Wong's engaging Thru the Trapdoor — Sager is the featured artist at this year's Your Kontinent Film & Media Arts Festival in Richmond.

He's also been a frequent visitor to Whistler for the past 20 years since moving to Canada with his family from a beautiful resort in Monte Negro that could be a doppelgänger for Whistler. His father, a journalist with the top news agency in the former Yugoslavia, introduced him at a young age to friends like Ivo Andric, a Nobel Prize-winning author, and Vojo Stanic, a member of the Montenegrin Academy of Sciences and Arts who's exhibited at the renowned Venice Biennale, part of the Venice Film Festival.

With his homebase now established in North Vancouver and his studio in East Van, Sager calls Whistler his favourite escape.

"I've spent many weekends skiing, strolling, photographing and sketching at Whistler's cafes," he says. "I always find my favorite spots and turn them into my 'moving studios' where I work on the go."

To connect the dots between being human and art and technology in diviNation, Sager has built a 30-foot temporary tower in front of the Richmond Cultural Centre that's almost as high as the stately trees nearby.

Part reality TV, part anthropological study of the creative process, Sager's project is centred on living and creating on top of his tower 12 hours a day for seven consecutive days — no matter what the weather.

During that time, live streaming will connect him to our everyday world below, just like webcams connect us to those other-worldly events like baby eagles hatching or astronauts floating in space.

In this case, our subject will be pondering, drawing and creating non-stop using a wide range of media while documenting his creative process and responding to real-time input on his work via tweets and blogs.

"I'm using my hand to write and draw, and I'm using my phone to make recordings, videos, photos. I'm using a computer. I'm using my fingers to draw in the sand — everything which allows me to become creative is my tool," he says.

"I don't find computers any different than making marks in the sand."

Each day of the week-long creative journey, Sager will assume a different persona — from a techno geek and ordinary guy to a rebel/anarchist, a philosopher and a spiritual person. About 60 per cent of his project will be curated; 40 per cent will be shaped by his viewers and audience. Each persona will determine the clothes he wears, the food he eats, the nature of the artwork he produces, and the media he chooses to create it with.

It all symbolizes "how an ordinary person who uses technology learns, evolves and is transformed by the psychological, philosophical, physical and mental work of creating," a considered theme in his art practice and teaching.

"In Greek, 'persona' means 'mask,' so when we talk about personas we talk about masks," says Sager, who's taught at Arts Umbrella and Vancouver's International Children's Festival and is currently an instructor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. (When Emily Carr brings some of its programs to Whistler, he could be your instructor; Sager often teaches ECUAD's new courses.)

"The most interesting aspect for young people is that they have more than one persona. So they can start exploring the different aspects of their personality and turn that into creative acts. You can use videos, drawings, words, movement, dance, even sports to explore and express those personas."

The problem, he explains, is the everyday demands of society usually confine us to one persona. By contrast, the idea of carnival, with its associated masks, was created to release our locked-up inner selves. Take World Cup or Olympic celebrations when people dress in team colours and paint their faces to match; Carnivale, Mardi Gras, even Whistler's Children's Art Festival and Halloween let us release other personas.

"When we suppress them (personas), they can become violent and eruptive and uncontrolled. So I believe creativity is the best way to try them out, give them a chance to express themselves — definitely for kids I believe it's better than anything else," he says.

Another aspect of Sager's diviNation Tower is meant to show that creativity is rooted in something quintessential to Whistler, something he himself enjoys when he visits — the idea of playing and just being free.

"When we think about games, they all have rules. We can win or lose," he says. "But with play there are no rules. I think creativity is playful, without any boundaries or any rules. When you start playing in the sand, you don't expect to have end results. It's going to vanish the next day.

"...Probably that's one of the reasons we are scared of creativity, because we expect a finished product. For kids it's very, very important to remove the fear of finishing anything."

diviNation also speaks to solitude. It's inspired partly by a dream he's had since boyhood to be a solitary lighthouse keeper, and partly by the stylites — saints and ascetics of the ancient world who lived atop pillars to transcend the ordinary world (One stylite in Syria lived on his pillar for 37 years!).

"When I was a boy, I had my world and I enjoyed it immensely," he says. "If I was not alone daily I would really suffer as a person.

"I'm sorry to say it, but sometimes in our society, aloneness and solitude are treated as a negative. But that is the most wonderful human aspect because if we cannot be alone, we cannot be human," he says.

In fact, he believes one side of our personality, the creative side, needs to be isolated to incubate ideas, so they can carefully grow, protected, "until they gain some force, some life of their own, and then they become public."

Just as they will in real time on diviNation Tower.

Check out more private and public aspects of DiviNation Tower at:

For live streaming, go to:

Richmond's Your Kontinent maps out new film & art boundaries

You don't have to be a filmmaker or an artist to appreciate Your Kontinent Film & Media Arts Festival in Richmond. You just have to be excited by creativity and the idea of an international, integrated world.

Now in its fourth year, Your Kontinent is based on the idea of Urkontinent, a term coined by German scientist and geophysicist, Alfred Wegener, for Earth's first continent — a single, unbroken landmass. The festival reflects the vision of an integrated, socially cohesive society that not only accepts, but embraces, difference.

Featuring more than 30 local and international films, over 100 multidisciplinary artists and the latest, cutting-edge digital media experiments, Your Kontinent also highlights an artist each year whose practice has contributed significantly to media arts in Canada. Besides this year's Vjeko Sager, featured artists have included Paul Wong (2011), Margaret Dragu (2012), and Dana Claxton (2013).

For the 2014 lineup, program director Lynn Chen looked for projects that "reveal how technology affects our relationship to one another and to the natural world."

This year's festival features a number of hands-on workshops including flip-book animation and Japanese anime and manga comics. In addition to screenings of international films —Taiwan and France are highlighted this year — you can also get a sneak preview of Lulu Suite: 17 Films for 17 Islands, a new public art video installation by Deanne Achong and Faith Moosang at the Richmond Olympic Oval, and Lulu Sweet: A Gold Rush Tale, an app that guides you on a historic walking tour along the mighty Fraser River.

The festival's super-popular Screen Bites combine food, film and a lot of fun. Check out the "Dim Sum movie" at Shiang Garden Seafood Restaurant (showing Red Obsession from the Berlin and Tribeca film fests), and the Canadian premier of Mussels in Love (L'Amour Des Moules) paired with seafood at the 1894 Gulf of Georgia Cannery, a National Historic site once known as the Monster Cannery where many a fish learned a whole different meaning of "it's in the can."

WHERE: Just whip down Highway 99 to the southern "sea" end of Sea to Sky and the heart of Your Kontinent Film & Media Arts Festival. With the exception of Screen Bite events that feature food and film in one tasty go, all events take place at the Richmond Cultural Centre, 7700 Minoru Gate. Tickets are available online at Film & Media Arts Festival, by phone or in person. Go to for more details.

WHEN: Co-presented by Cinevolution Media Arts Society and the City of Richmond, the festival runs July 17 to 26. Opening night, July 17, also features a special opening performance of diviNation Tower, 7:30-8:30 p.m. The full seven-day performance of diviNation Tower runs July 19 to 26, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.