Stealing to save the world

0 Posted by - August 18, 2011 - Blog, Conversations, Reviews, Visual art

Creatively, the graphic novel Kenk is an astounding success in its unique form: it is a thick book of dark pages containing photocopied images from previously recorded video with smudgy typewriter text that captures audio and carries a loose narrative. As a devourer of political comics and graphic novels I’ve never seen anything comparable, and while the heavily processed industrial and gloomy aesthetic was jarring at first, it grows on you and begins to make sense throughout the 260 pages.

The story follows Toronto’s notorious bike thief Igor Kenk as he talks about his past in Slovenia, waxes philosophic on the suicidal and absurd Western lifestyle and runs his infamous bike shop in the Trinity Bellwoods Park neighbourhood of Toronto.

Many reviewers have critiqued the book for its lack of objective distance from Kenk and for merely recording and reconstructing “semi-coherent” ramblings of an ego-maniac justifying his thievery in a consumerist world gone mad. Yet this is precisely the aspect of the book—possibly its main point—that fascinates and provokes.

Kenk is indeed a giant windbag who doesn’t suffer fools, or for that matter anyone who disagrees with his outlook on life – that is, a kind of Robinhood social Darwinist eco-warrior melange that doesn’t quite add up. He’s caustic, unapologetic and clearly looking out for number one: himself.

Yet behind that veneer is a complex character, a former policeman from “communist shithole” who is shocked and dismayed by throw-away culture in the West. His business of recuperating old “junk” is not only his means of survival in a quickly gentrifying city, but is the tangible manifestation of his philosophic stew mentioned above. And it’s also a means of justifying dealing in stolen “junk bikes.”

Vilified and crucified by the media and Toronto’s bike-going public alike, Kenk quickly sunk to infamy during the summer of his arrest and trial, following the exposure of the largest cache of stolen and recuperated bikes in the history of the city. Understandably, victims and others had found a face to attach to their frustration and rage. Yet also unsurprisingly this outpouring of bad blood, facilitated by mainstream media, lacked self-reflection and a socio-political context.

Enter Kenk, the graphic novel (also a film in development) to fill that void. Through a sympathetic lens (in the sense that it is not a crucifying lens) Kenk becomes a little more three dimensional – a little more human and less villain. Through mostly his words his world is made starkly clear: it is one of unsustainable madness that is destined for disaster. Responding to the madness and idiocy around him, he ekes out a living cleaning up, recycling, and practicing a philosophy of radical conservationism. At least this is what we see in the book – it could very well be that in reality his practices do not so fittingly match his ideals, but who cares – this narrative is an argument for sustainability and sanity told through the story of one hated misfit in Canada’s largest metropolis.

There are lessons to be learned from this tale, and to understand the project more completely, Art Threat shot a few questions at one of the book’s creators, Alex Jansen.

Art Threat: Why Kenk? How did this project come together?

ALex Jansen: I moved into the West Queen West neighbourhood of Toronto (where Igor operated) 7 years ago and avoided him entirely based on reputation alone for the first 3 years I lived there; even then his shop stood out like a sore thumb, with its sheet metal facade, mounds of bicycles and shady clientele, and it was well known that even the police would send you there to look for your bike it it was stolen. But one late April night I was cycling through the adjacent Trinity Bellwoods park near midnight, saw his shop was still open and decided to stop in to pick-up a bell and light – the police were cracking down on bike safety, but it was equal parts pure curiousity that brought me in. I stayed nearly an hour…

He defied all my black and white assumptions. Here was this exceptionally bright former child prodigy who’d immigrated from Slovenia, where he worked as a police officer… His partner was a Juilliard graduate… He’d gone through the collapse of Yugoslavia… He was a radical environmentalist, capturing his shower water to feed his plants, decrying Western excess and preaching his own brand of communism, all the while acting capitalist in the most vicious sense and amassing thousands of bicycles often through loopholes in legislation that he argued weren’t entirely that different than how we exploit the third world. But he shit right where he sleeps, and it was clear that he was on a collision course with the rapidly changing neighbourhood – of which I was a part.

I came back the next day with my long time collaborator, filmmaker Jason Gilmore, and we began shooting extensively over the next year. We took as many notes and photos as we did film footage, because KENK was always conceived as a graphic novel. I’ve long been equally passionate about all forms of visual storytelling and having worked extensively in film, I was really attracted by the freedom that the graphic novel medium could afford, especially financially and creatively (in the past I would often be forced to make several negative compromises when trying to mount a film project, but here we were able to achieve something as close to the original vision as possible).

We followed Igor right up to his arrest; our last interview was only days before the bust. As the news story exploded, we received a lot of interest and were approached by a lot of media, but Richard Poplak was the first journalist interested in really delving into the story and not just solidifying the one dimensional vilification. Up to that point, I’d planned on handling the writing myself, but as it became a larger journalistic story it made sense to bring on a journalist (and it was equally important to ensure an objective eye to the subject and material). We let Rich in on our graphic novel plans and he was immediately hooked. It was a logical next step to best serve the project.

The art style evolved organically as well. We sent Rich to Slovenia to do background interviews with Igor’s friends and family, and he discovered an art movement that dominated the underground culture while Igor lived there, called “FV.” Visually, it was largely rooted in the photocopier, which was an important agent of democracy against state controlled printing presses – the aesthetic was similar to the punk rock zine movement here, but much more politically charged. As Rich would put it, it was a style that informed and informs of Igor’s ethos, and it immediately made sense to take that direction for the art. At that point we brought on Nick Marinkovich to work from Jason’s lay-outs and design; Nick immediately got it, in part from his family’s Serbian roots.

Having an extensive background in distribution and marketing, from there it became a race to complete the book as near to Igor’s coming release from jail as possible to reach the broadest audience.

It’s never made clear exactly what his illegal activities are, but in one sequence in the book he does collect a bike off the street he’s been “eyeing for a while” – but we don’t see if he cuts off a lock or not, and therefore we cannot make a judgement as to whether he is in fact stealing or just removing an abandoned bike from the street. Why is this left ambiguous?

In the instance mentioned, we were entirely caught off guard when Igor saw what he deemed an abandoned bike, stopped, threw it in the back of his truck and continued along. He didn’t cut a lock, but said bike’a ownership is equally unclear to ourselves.

It is important to note, and quite clear in the book, that Igor could hardly go more than a few blocks before he’d slam on the brakes seeing something of value to pick up, be it a discarded appliance, TV, fridge door or otherwise, explaining that it may only fetch him a few dollars at the scrap yard but took him only minutes to make. I’m sure that to him this bike was no different.

He’d regularly go off on how in the western world we’re so wealthy that we regularly throw away things he couldn’t even get in Slovenia. It started to make a lot of sense as to how and why he operated, especially when we later discovered that back in Yugoslavia he was smuggling in stereo equipment and bananas. He was an opportunist and hustler.

He was also a massive hoarder. In fact, had he been arrested only weeks earlier the police would have seized another 500-plus bikes that he’d just very unwillingly taken to the junkyard in compliance with multiple demands from the city.

We didn’t hold anything back from our footage but we also weren’t aware of the extent of his illegal activities until after his arrest (though the charges are detailed in full in the book). We never saw him cut a lock, but we certainly witnessed him buying several expensive bikes from suspect sources (regardless of following the formalities of the law) – though in turn, we’d also, witnessed him resell same said suspect bikes back to a knowing community.

Kenk comes across as a complex subject in your book – full of disdain for everyone around him, delusional, hardworking, intelligent, displaced, caring, and always aware of “Monkey Factor” – was this the purpose for doing this book, to offer a more nuanced, complex and deep view of this now notorious figure?

My personal goal was to explore elements of human nature as it pertains to consumption, ownership and exploitation through equal parts examination of this fascinating individual and the changing neighbourhood. The process has certainly lead me to examine my own assumptions, choices and participation.

Aside from a straight-up portrait, this book is also about society’s self-destructive tendencies around consumption, waste and ignorance. Kenk presents himself as a sustainable warrior, doing society a service by not consuming new material and by repurposing the refuse of an indulgent, myopic and greedy culture. Do you feel this really defines him or is it part of his spectacle?

This is certainly one of his facets, but also part of his spectacle and self-justification. And, as with most people, there was certainly a divide between Igor’s ideas and actions. If anything defines him, it might be his many contradictions (and “monkey factor”)

Where is Kenk now?

Igor returned to Europe within a couple months of his release from jail. We’ve actually recently caught up with him again from Slovenia, to conduct an interview for a new short epilogue we’re looking at putting together for the book’s digital and US release this November.

Any plans for a documentary film on Kenk? And what is your next project?

We have been developing an elaborate KENK animated documentary with Director, Craig Small, who has been doing some absolutely mind-blowing things with the original documentary source footage.

Meanwhile this past spring we completed The Next Day, a print graphic novel and separate interactive animated documentary online, both built from interviews with four people who’ve attempted suicide and survived. The graphic novel released in May and was recently featured in The New York Times summer reading list. The interactive experience is a co-production with the National Film Board in partnership with TVO and launches this fall. (More information can be found at

And this summer we’ve preparing production on a photo-novella, based on an original short story by Russell Smith, adapted and directed by Richard Poplak, and shot by Jaret Belliveau (an incredibly talented young photographer represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery, which is a partner on the project) with a full cast and crew. We’re also currently wrapping up a new media prototype through DocShift’s incubator program, and we have several cross-platform projects in development. Busy days indeed!

To find out more about Kenk (the ongoing media project) visit Kenk: A Graphic Portrait by Richard Poplak, Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore and Nick Marinkovich is published by Pop Sandbox and can be purchased here or from Amazon. Images courtesy of Pop Sandbox.

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