September 3, 2018 § Leave a comment
I Love Dick writer talks the importance of labour-of-love publishing ahead of appearance at launch for IMPULSE magazine’s interview compilation
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
Lucky Toronto. The city is getting a reprieve from its tendency toward cultural amnesia with a gorgeous book of interviews, collected from a seminal 80s art magazine. Published from 1971 to 1980, IMPULSE was led by Toronto artist/editor Eldon Garnet and art director Carolyn White.
The book replicates the mag’s distinctive style and features a mind-blowing collection of archival interviews that includes rocker Debbie Harry, cultural theorist Paul Virilio and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All of these figures continue to be influential in today’s culture. Equally influential is the author Chris Kraus, travelling to Toronto for the launch. A lot of her work, some of it made 20-30 years ago, is finding an audience today. Her roman à clef I Love Dick was recently made into an Amazon series by Transparent’s Jill Soloway.
Kraus also has a long relationship with this city, including a column in the art publication C Magazine, from 2001 to 2006. We chatted via email about the importance of local art scenes and labour-of-love publishing.
Is it fair to say you’re something like a literary Neil Young? You’ve managed to stay at the centre of each cultural moment you lived through by transcending it?
That’s high praise! But maybe not really accurate. I was present around the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the early 80s, but mostly as an observer. And then again, around the earlier days of Semiotext(e). I didn’t start being active until the early 90s, and it took a couple of decades for people to take what I was doing then seriously. I think maybe some of the interest in my earlier work, like the films [1982-1996] has to do with the way they carry forward communities that no longer exist into the present.
When you say it took a couple of decades for your work to be taken seriously, you mean recognized beyond the scenes you were working in?
Or recognized at all! Hardly anyone saw the films during the years I was making them.
You say the interest in your early films stems from a curiosity about the communities that produced them. The IMPULSE book definitely carries that charge. I like that Eldon Garnet left the ads in. That context is so important. When you note these communities no longer exist, is that just due to normal churn, or is there something about our current time that is less hospitable to this type of local artistic scene?
Well, maybe both – although you should ask Eldon. I don’t think IMPULSE could exist now in the same way as it did when Eldon and his friends produced it. It came out of a moment and community of people in Toronto when Toronto was cheap. People were also very connected to the cultural worlds in New York and Europe. IMPULSE, like Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) magazine, was a high-stakes/low-stakes game. It was a labour of love, very time-intensive and didn’t rely on grants or institutional funding. The people involved took the magazine very seriously, and it had a tremendous reach and influence.
A high-stakes/low-stakes game is the perfect way describe most art endeavours. From what you know of Toronto’s scene, do you feel it is similar to other local art communities you’ve been a part of?
Yes – it’s famously provincial, but then, so is any art community! Even in a major city like L.A., people create little pockets of community, like Janet Kim and her friends did with their artist-run gallery Tiny Creatures. Everyone’s always saying it’s over, but these scenes are perennial.
Its hilarious and rather charming that, among other luminaries, IMPULSE did an interview with John Kenneth Galbraith, renowned advocate for the Liberal economic order we still enjoy the remnants of today. Shows the magazine was fearlessly ambitious. Should today’s art mags try similar stunts?
Yes, why not? Obviously, IMPULSE had much less to lose than magazines like Artforum or Canadian Art. The work of Eldon Garnet and his collaborators was a great example of moving with the freedom that comes from operating at the margins, rather than complaining about it. I mean, I think that’s how culture happens.
Originally published in NOW Magazine, August 31, 2018
July 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
Including Rebecca Belmore at the AGO, an exhibition all about islands and rotating installations by furniture designer Patty Johnson
Feeling the heat? For temporary relief look to a number of summer-long exhibitions currently on view in the climate-controlled quiet of Toronto art galleries. At their most serious and pointed, art shows create an opportunity to think though the pressing issues of our time. Toronto art institutions frequently provide an influential take on this potential, some of them framing a conversation — about Indigenous issues, for instance — they are helping to lead internationally.
DIAGRAMS OF POWER, OCAD ONSITE GALLERY
July 11-September 30
An exhibition in OCAD’s flagship professional gallery that posits maps, diagrams and other forms of data visualization as the best way to understand the complexity of 21st-century geopolitics. Featuring works by the Anishinaabe art collective Ogimaa Mikana; monumental history painter, Julie Mehretu; and the controversial 2018 Turner Prize nominees, Forensic Architecture, this show is essential viewing for thinking about what representation looks like in a networked world.
A VIEWING ROOM V. 3, SUSAN HOBBS GALLERY
June 21-August 10
This is the third edition of the gallery’s yearly summer look at the intersections between art and design. A rotating series of installations puts the work of furniture designer Patty Johnson in dialogue with art from the gallery’s collection. Toronto-educated Johnson works all over the world and is known for her projects with developing countries to create sustainable design projects for local industries.
ISLAND[S], ART MUSEUM U OF T
July 25-August 18
Visit this gallery and enjoy the oasis of green that is King’s College Circle at the heart of U of T’s downtown campus. This show’s curator, Julie René de Cotret, suggests the island as an apt metaphor for the way artworks solicit our focused attention. Combines work by a selection of younger and emerging artists with that of Michael Snow, the celebrated Canadian artist who has made significant works that frame, parse and contemplate the Canadian landscape throughout his career.
COMMUNITY ART SPACE: RECENT HISTORIES, GARDINER MUSEUM
July 5-September 17
Thanks to its Community Art Space free summer program, now in its third year, this museum dedicated to the ceramic arts is enjoying an enhanced profile amongst Toronto art audiences. Driven by the mission of creating space within the venue for temporary exhibitions and performance-based work, the Gardiner partners with a range of artists, collectives and community groups to present events that tell the stories of the hugely diverse populations that make up this city.
REBECCA BELMORE: FACING THE MONUMENTAL, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO
July 12-October 21
More and more, Canada is acknowledged as leading the global conversation about Indigenous issues in art. This major presentation of the West Coast Anishinaabe artist’s work adds to the dialogue. Presenting art from across Belmore’s career, the show features the artist’s powerful figurative sculptural works, photography and documentation from her trademark performance practice.
ELLEN GALLAGHER – NU-NILE; GRADA KILOMBA – SECRETS TO TELL; ABBAS AKHAVAN – VARIATIONS ON A LANDSCAPE, THE POWER PLANT
June 23-September 3 (Gallagher and Kilomba); June 23-December 30 (Akhavan)
Here is a venue with the added advantage of being next to the lake. Under the direction of Gaëtane Verna, the Power Plant is building a strong track record presenting exhibitions by people of colour. The show presents the internationally renowned Gallagher’s first solo exhibition of paintings in Canada. Also features the 2015 Sobey Art Award winner, Akhavan, who is enjoying increasing recognition abroad, and Portuguese artist, Kilomba, presenting work about the African diaspora.
Published in NOW Magazine, JULY 18, 2018
Condo Living: An exhibition gets reprised after 30 years, revealing deep changes and some continuities in Toronto’s art scene
November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
Chroma Lives install image: stairs by Manden Murphy, Avocado Sprouter and Spoon for Return Baby Bird to Nest by Tammy McLennan, Book Stack andJumbo Playing Cards by Roula Partheniou, Spit Pits by Laurie Kang, Untitled Background 2 by Connor Crawford.
Visitor account by Rosemary Heather of ‘Chroma Lives’, Camrost Felcorp Yorkville Plaza Sales Centre, Toronto, 1-30 June 2016. Curated by Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Heterich
The second time I visited Chroma Lives I sat on furniture that was part of the exhibition, happy to have escaped the blazing hot sun of the Toronto summer outside. Presented in a condo showroom, the exhibition was pleasantly air conditioned and accompanied by a treacly jazz soundtrack. There was no cake, and there had been at the vernissage, but I could live with that.
Curators Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Herterich had assembled works by local artists and designers in one room in the sales centre. Devised in reference to Chromaliving, an earlier exhibition held in the same upscale Toronto neighborhood some thirty odd years before, Chroma Lives repeated its predecessors’ basic gesture of furnishing a retail space with artworks. The two shows however were on decidedly different scales: the former featuring 150 artists, and the latter just eighteen. This difference is one of a number of reasons Chroma Lives has a seemingly notational relationship to its past context. Another would be the more obvious explanation that, between now and then, historical circumstances have changed.
Chroma Lives install image: Heather Goodchild’s in the morning and in the evening, wool and burlap rug.
In the showroom, affixed in serif letters on the wall is the marketing slogan “Reside in a Modern Day Masterpiece.” The curators wisely chose to leave this feature intact. By giving credence to the hoary idea that artworks connote elegance, Chroma Lives made evident the narrow space of maneuver it was operating within. An agitated light fixture hanging in the centre of the room, animated to jerk constantly while making a crackling electric sound (Connor Crawford’s Light from a dilapidated interrogation room, 2016), was one of the few hints of disturbance amidst the otherwise placid facade of the show. Of course, closer inspection of the art on view revealed other signs of disruption, such as the wry humor of Oliver Husain’s phallic curtain tassels (Can we talk about the elegance in the room, 2016), for instance, or the subtle perversity of Laurie Kang’s seventeen aluminum-cast peach pits scattered across a silicone mat on the floor (Spit Pits, 2016). Many of the other works in the show were elegant takes on household items. Made by young designers who had responded to an open call, the show’s intermingling of art and design was for the general purpose of a mise-en-scene.
Throughout the exhibition, the curators used the showroom during off hours to conduct interviews with Chromaliving participants, from which they will produce a book and online archive about the project. This focus made Chroma Lives function like something of a portal into the past. A photo archive and catalogue provided documentation of the original exhibition. Presented in the vacated space of a bankrupt department store, Chromaliving was a maximalist endeavor. If that show’s contemporary incarnation presents mostly as decor, the latter exhibition was staged to serve an entirely different purview. Chromaliving aggressively positioned art and artists as values in and of themselves. In the documentation, one sees aesthetic excess that, among other things, might have pointed to a lack of infrastructure for the Toronto art scene of its day. If this art rawness is little in evidence today, this is perhaps an insight Chroma Lives helps to illuminate.
Toronto critic and curator Philip Monk has done important work chronicling the history of contemporary art in the city. His recently published Is Toronto Burning? : Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene (2016) is the catalogue for an exhibition that looked at the years 1977-1979. Monk positions this three-year period as foundational to the city’s current art scene. So called “artist-run” culture has always been strong in Canada, in part due to relatively lavish government largess. The galleries Mercer Union, Gallery TPW, and Gallery 44, so central to Toronto’s artist run culture today, were founded during that time, along with some of the city’s most influential artistic tendencies. Monk has written:
“In the midst of the economic and social crises of the 1970s, Toronto was pretty vacant—but out of these conditions its artists crafted something unique, sometimes taking the fiction of a scene for the subject of their art.”
If creating an art scene out of fiction sounds familiar that’s because it was the modus operandi of General Idea, the artist group who are Toronto’s most internationally celebrated art practitioners, along with Michael Snow. GI (as they are always referred to in Toronto) also participated in Chromaliving, arguably having been a progenitor of the DIY ethos that made the show possible. This legacy is still evident in certain threads of Toronto art practice — the queer, low-fi aesthetic of Peaches, Allyson Mitchell, FASTWÜRMS, or the late and dearly missed, Will Munro, for instance. The demand for such self-invention never goes away. In light of this, the Chroma Lives project has the feeling of an interlude: an occasion to contemplate past eras, and how Toronto as a location gets manifested in art today.
Chroma Lives features works by: Joshua Brolly, Connor Crawford, Laura Dawe, Mike Goldby, Heather Goodchild, Oliver Husain, Tim Jocelyn, Laurie Kang, Jeremy Laing, Brittany MacDougall, Tammy McClennan, Pasha Moezzi, Manden Murphy, Roula Partheniou, Shakeel Rehemtulla & Dynasty, Wanze Song, Kristian Spreen, and Brad Tinmouth.
Text commissioned by If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution, summer 2016.
October 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
“For both Manet and Baudelaire, can their invention of powerful models of modernist practice be separated from the seductive and nauseating image the capitalist city seemed to be constructing for itself?” 
At first, I couldn’t understand why Instant Coffee would deep-six itself into a Fallout Shelter. Their motivations for doing this seemed rather obscure to me. Weren’t bomb shelters a thing of the past? The millenialism of the gesture a little late?
A garden today more readily evokes narratives of sustainability. Whatever the state of contemporary geo-politics, there is hardly a nuclear winter on humanity’s horizon.
When I asked IC’s Jenifer Papararo about this she averred — the tale told here was a happy one, it may be “a dark fairytale…but, we are together, even under fallout.”
Ah, survival. So IC sees its future to be much like its past. Improbably succeeding, setting the agenda. Outwitting and outlasting and the competition. Still here. Ha.
And if the terminus point imagined seems a bit grim, well, artworks are never only about the artists that make them. Implicit to Instant Coffee’s Fallout Shelter project is a larger narrative about the fate of all utopias.
Now clearer that my first impression had been too literal, I remembered that I had always kind of misunderstood what IC was trying to do. And I was not alone in this.
Severed from work done in a specific medium, the zone of representation is a tricky substance from which to hone an art practice. This is especially true if you hardly bother to—or deliberately avoid—differentiating what you do from representation’s more mundane existence as the language of commerce.
Perhaps, too, because of the collective’s proven ability to anticipate the forms of their ongoing relevance which is on pace with wider art world trends, but may be a little in advance of their audience, the Instant Coffee project has always been somewhat misunderstood.
Throwing parties will do that to your reputation; enjoyment, for some reason, is one of the more hypocritical realms of human experience.
The art show as party was the original format of IC-engineered inclusivity. In the collective’s own words, creating event-based exhibitions was a way to “renegotiate…traditional exhibition structures”. In the process, they jettisoned outmoded medium-specific hierarchies of the more traditional exhibition venues.
Self-reflexive about their own role as facilitators of art experiences, IC recognized the important part that brand identity could play to formalize the collective as a framework of possibility. Cannily adopting the language of globalism, IC staked its territory as a “service-oriented artist collective.”
The claim is funny in itself. Self-aware and proactive, it lives up to the ideal of truth in advertising, yet partakes of the peculiarly Canadian preoccupation with being nice and non-threatening.
To embrace a plurality of practices means to embrace the plurality of artists responsible for them. And at the point of this connective tissue, we find the core Instant Coffee ethic. Not only were collective members party people, they were people people too.
So, for instance, in early incarnations, Instant Coffee’s parties and their predecessors — Jin’s Banana House and the Money House — used the device of the slide show to provide an easy format of participation for all invited, artists and non-artists alike.
A practical approach to curating contemporary art, Instant Coffee’s democratizing strategy was also a way to contend with the difficulty of assigning value to artworks. This is a problem, one of positively diluvial proportions, that follows in the wake of post-minimalism.
Increasingly, when de-skilled and neo-conceptual, the possible in contemporary practice has become difficult to differentiate from the necessary.
IC’s brand-defining rhetoric energetically addressed this predicament. Starting with their name, Instant Coffee (i.e., the ersatz version), the collective declared itself a non-arbiter of value. Taste, they contended, distracted “from the fundamental reasons for ingesting either the real thing or its substitute.”
The above excerpt from IC’s manifesto—which has served as the collective’s credo throughout their career—suggests that artworks are a medium of social interaction, and in some cases a mere pretext for it; an idea which has subsequently played out in the contemporary art world at large.
In Instant Coffee terms, the figure of ‘the party’ was the refuge—and the metaphor, perhaps—for the demotion of the curatorial role. To explain the circumstances they saw themselves operating within, the collective chose an ironic voice…
Instant Coffee. No Better Than You… Instant Coffee: it doesn’t have to be good to be meaningful…
…creating a ground ripe for misapprehension; but that, too, was part of the act. Those observers who took the IC party for the main event were missing the point.
Because inventing an art scene that accommodated and gave validity to the activity of your peers was a kind of utopia – symptomatic, maybe, and expressive of a wider condition — but a utopia nonetheless.
It is possible to characterize ICs commitment to inclusion as a practice of extreme courtesy, an idea that is fully in keeping with the collective’s ethos. Which is why their Toronto Sculpture Garden project is a departure in more ways than one.
With the inception of the Instant Coffee Disco Fallout Shelter, the question arises as to who now is being served? For the outside observer, a look into the sculpture’s video kiosk reveals the collective to be inside the shelter hanging out; business, for them, as usual.
But six people living cramped together in an underground space — what kind of paradise is this?
By choosing to sequester only IC’s immediate members, and by making an artwork out of that decision, it is as if the collective has devolved into real personalities. They have become the artwork. It is a hard won conclusion to this story—or at least this chapter of it. The IC Disco Fallout Shelter probably has always been IC’s inevitable destination.
August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
—Abolfazl Ali, head of Chehr-Abad research group
“To open the doors of the Atomic Theatre your eyes have to open up like a vast reservoir of water falling from another planet. Once the mind has turned inside out, the springs of time will emerge as the centre of your cognition. The Atomic Theatre takes its pulse from the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.”
—Ron Giii, The Atomic Theatre and The Dictator’s Opera
Things change. A banal metaphysical statement worth reflecting on. This is especially true if you have the materials at hand to give substance to the idea. The work Ron Giii has made over the course of thirty-five years provides the perfect vessel for these considerations; in Giii’s oeuvre you can see what changes and what stays the same, much as you can in a biological body over time. This is also to say that art provides an excellent answer to the question, Where are we?
If you ask Giii, the continuities that both defy and define the present are “the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.” Even in this fragment from the artist’s writings there is so much to discuss, as in his work as a whole: mine deep and you will discover riches.
Giii’s work presents itself at the place where the invisible meets the visible; another example of this is theatre, which like visual art takes place within a framework, or proscenium arch. As in art, theatre is the forum where antimatter becomes visible, precisely because the primary consideration of art is form. In Giii’s case, artistic form and the forum of its presentation converge in a way that is especially distinctive. Giii’s full sentence: “The Atomic Theatre takes its pulse from the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.”
This is a quotation from a text written by Giii to accompany a show of his drawings in New York in 1986. A wholly coherent statement about his oeuvre, the text and the show provide a good pivot point on which to consider the stages of his career. What began as performance continues as drawing, all of it taking place within the conceptual framework of theatre. In Giii’s view, theatre formalizes the process of becoming that is all of our lives. Like us, the figure within the frame or on the stage looks outward, seeks a connection with others and beckons to an audience more often than it turns its back to the world. The proscenium, like the page, presents a threshold of possibility just waiting for the moment of its random apprehension.
Looking at Giii’s art, one understands that the simple encounter is his fondest hope for it; each work provides this encounter, fulfilling this desire with imperceptible ease. The drawings live and shimmer with unimagined sensitivity. In The Atomic Theatre, Giii speaks about the figures in his drawings as real people, “laughing and hiding from me as if they had their own reality.”
Giii was already active and engaged in the Toronto scene when he was a student at what was then the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD), in the 1970s. It was a cultural moment in which the bohemian sectors of society were alive with dreams and ambitions that are difficult to fully access today. Giii’s early works provide a way in. At the time, “live art” was a fringe pursuit. In 1978, Roselee Goldberg, writing in the first authoritative study of performance, noted that it had only recently been accepted as “a medium of artistic expression in its own right.” Like other practices in the visual arts in that moment, it was a hybrid—theatre or sculpture and dance—newly unbound from traditional constraints. In common with much that happened post Minimalism, performance art found its possibility in the context of art itself.
Pervading the era in which Giii first started working were the powerful cultural tendencies of political radicalism and lifestyle utopianism, not to mention the commercialism of these trends in the pop-cultural mirror, with its attendant distortion. Artistic disciplines intermingled to electric effect. Along with freedom from medium specificity and craft was an embrace of ordinary things as subject matter for art, including garbage and noise—the incidental art of John Cage and Fluxus—and, above all, people. The Happenings of the 1960s included audiences reimagined as paintings and sculptures, with the gallery as frame. In this context, real human bodies—frequently naked—had an incredible impact.
The shock produced by a simple encounter with a human body—naked or otherwise—and the things you could do with it, was a basic element in Giii’s art at that time. The experience could result in a psychological and sometimes physical violence. While both were still students, Kimo Eklund and Giii created the performance entity SHITBANDIT. Giii has said,
We used the name to shatter the very conservative milieu surrounding OCA . . . we did Christ on a pair of two-by-fours with microphones placed out in the street, and a used Volkswagen where males and girls got it on and they were surrounded by porn mags.
A site for many of Giii’s early performances was the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) in Toronto, one of Canada’s first artist-run centers and one with a short, explosive history. Ever more and more radical in the theoretical and political platforms it promoted, CEAC eventually lost its government funding. Its many provocations gave birth to a notoriety that is increasingly obscure—and that appears to have little relevance to the activities and self-image of the Toronto arts scene today.
As part of a group of artists associated with CEAC, Giii traveled and performed extensively in Europe and the United States. A 1976 tour, for instance, took the group to Sweden, Germany, Italy and Belgium. Communicating with each other via the postal system, among other methods, rather than the Internet, they were part of the first globalized artists’ network, made possible by the dematerialization of artwork. Dot Tuer comments on the intense schedule of activities carried out by CEAC. She has noted that “during 1976 and 1977, there was literally an event held at CEAC every night of the week.” As with everything, the moment was fleeting; as Giii wrote, “The performances were wild like animals who were going extinct.”
In her fascinating and very thorough scholarly essay on the history of CEAC, Tuer notes the influence of Hermann Nitsch and the Vienna Actionists on the kind of performance work Giii, SHITBANDIT and others did at CEAC.1 Self-exposure, transgression and ritualized actions formed a common thread, the goal being to orchestrate a moment of “raw” experience for audience and performer. Informing it all was the idea that confrontational art stripped away layers of falsity in consciousness and social interactions, and the naked individual in the gallery promised a return to Rousseauian innocence and/or political consciousness or some combination of the two.
While the Vienna Actionists were motivated by the desire to expose the incipient societal guilt stemming from the not-so-distant (Nazi) past, Canadian shock performance tactics had the broader target of exposing the individual’s complicity in a generally corrupt society. Giii: “After reading texts on the destruction of nature we adapted the wild behaviour and hence we entered the world of dominance, force, power and abuse.” This focus in Giii’s work continued into the 1980s in the film Taste, the only surviving example of his work in Super 8. In Taste, which was shot in a garbage-strewn alley for about $100 in 1984, Giii and Darinka, his female accomplice, subject each other and themselves to a series of ad hoc actions. By turns emotionally disturbing and theatrical, even Dadaesque, the performers’ actions have quasi-sado-masochistic overtones, but Giii’s intention in the film was to do more than shock. He makes this clear in the soundtrack, which he narrated spontaneously in a single take after the fact in complement to the film’s continuous improvisational performance. “The artist is a fascist,” Giii intones many times throughout the film, questioning the power dynamics inherent in the artist’s relationship to the audience and to the work of art. Enacting a theatrical sado-masochism in the film, Giii indicts himself, but as with the doctrine of original sin itself, this is only to declare that he is part of humanity.
Hegel’s Salt Man
In his later work, Giii’s investigations into the dynamics of power gave way to openness and vulnerability. The figures in his drawings are always tender and are rendered with the lightest of touches, like a mere breath upon the page. Frequently also present in these works is a proscenium arch; figures float inside a box or within intersecting lines that delineate geometric space. Together, the lines and the figure represent a new naked self, one that grapples with and must survive life’s intractable circumstance and that does so with moments of joy and lucidity. Another quote from Giii: “Each instance of conception is a view of a theatre that has no words nor semblance of a rational world with all its contradictions and confusion.” Combined, the early and later works compose a biographical “before” and “after,” that corresponds to Giii’s experience with bipolar disorder; the drawings belong in the “after,” which continues to this day. More striking, however, is the work’s extraordinary coherence and wholeness, as if all of it were of a piece, antimatter that was once and will be again invisible, that is available as a point of contact in this moment and yet is just passing through.
By Rosemary Heather
Epigraph Ron Giii, from his text produced to accompany the exhibition The Atomic Theatre and The Dictator’s Opera, 1984–86 at 49th Parallel gallery, New York, 1986.
1. Dot Tuer, “‘The CEAC was banned in Canada’: Program Notes for a Tragicomic Opera in Three Acts,” in Mining the Media Archive: Essays on Art, Technology, and Cultural Resistance (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2005), which can be purchased here.
This text was originally published to accompany the exhibition I curated, Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man, presented at the Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto (2007) and Carlton University Art Gallery (2008). The catalogue Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man: writings/works 1975-2007, featuring essays by me and Eli Langer, can be purchased at Art Metropole.
Andrew Patterson wrote a review of Hegel’s Salt Man you can read here.
A version of this text appeared in Hunter and Cook No. 8.
Ron Giii is represented by Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.
August 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
A couple years later, I visit Second Life again, this time with a more ‘legitimate’ destination. I am going to RMB City, a project of the Beijing-based artist Cao Fei. Still my experience is much the same. Where is everybody? I am suffering from a disjunction between real the virtual, a dynamic Cao Fei had explicitly set out to explore. My experience helps to shed light on the problem, but it’s of the unintended sort. If my navigations through the world of Second Life are cumbersome and alienating, it’s because I have a sub par computer. It’s an issue of processing speed. Inadvertently perhaps, Cao Fei’s ambitions in Second Life provide a metaphor for the looming dilemma faced by the West. We are lagging behind but lack the drive needed to overcome this predicament.
Disjunctions between the real and virtual worlds, often unintended, also dominate the Residency in RMB City project. Because it is located in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, the Gendai Gallery is somewhat hard to get to. With this exhibition Gendai curator, Yan Wu, puts the venue’s peripheral status to good conceptual use, proposing a show that can be, in part, accessed by computer. Working with the artists, Adrian Blackwell, Yam Lau and the collaborative duo of Judith Doyle and Fei Jun (known as GestureCloud), Wu creates an exhibition that combines a gallery presentation with digital artworks created for Cao Fei’s Second Life property.
Made up of an amalgamation of references to Chinese architecture, RMB City features the Herzog and de Meuron Bird’s Nest along with shiny skyscrapers, motorways and sidewalks, warrens of small shops selling take out food and the like, all of it organized around the central structure of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s Imperial Palace, which dates from the Ming Dynasty. Although Cao Fei promotes her project as a platform for artist collaboration, miscommunications meant that Wu found her initial proposal to create an artist residency in RMB City rejected by the artist. Further communications remedied the situation; as of press time, the artists are soon to begin moving their projects to the Second Life location. In recognition of the changed status of the project, this second phase will now be termed Intervention into RMB City. A publication about the project, called From Residency to Intervention will be published in the spring.
In the Gendai gallery, Blackwell presents Lóng Sùshè (Dormitory) (2011) a plywood maquette of a workers’ dormitory proposed for RMB City. Trained as an architect, Blackwell has lived in China, teaching architecture there at an offsite campus of U of T. With Lóng Sùshè he provides infrastructural context for Cao Fei’s metropolitan fantasy. An interest in sculpture as a platform for public discourse has been the long term focus of Blackwell’s practice. Referring to an actual dormitory in the industrial region of Shenzen, one that is continually being built in an effort to meet the growing demand for worker’s housing, Lóng Sùshè, helps to clarify certain questions that will emerge along with China’s growing economic dominance. What kind of public will China’s new global order create? How easily do traditions of the West translate, and are they even relevant? The notion of a public sphere is amongst the highest ideals of a functioning Democracy, but it’s not clear how it will figure in a country that has little in the way of democratic traditions as they are known in the West.
Writing about the legion of workers that power the engine of China’s economic expansion has become a journalistic trope in Western reports about the country. China’s nineteenth century industrial conditions are a subject of some fascination in the West. Such reportage helps provide a salve for the conscience of those enjoying the products of cheap Chinese labour. Judith Doyle and Fei Jun’s GestureCloud (2011) uses the space of Second Life to rewrite this narrative, to great critical effect. In place of the whole, but nameless, Chinese worker, the artists create a virtual inventory of the gestures factory employees are forced to repeat, ad infinitum, when doing their job. Based on video documentation of the duties performed in a printing factory in Beijing, GestureCloud represents these workers in terms of their real world effects. This distillation by the artists’ creates clarity: like everybody, really, in global economy, the factory workers are mere nodal points within a vast system — or to borrow a 19th century metaphor, cogs in the machine. As with other multi-user online environments, Second Life has a real world economy, money changing hands in the form of Linden Dollars (San Francisco’s Linden Labs is the company behind the site). For the RMB City stage of the project, these gestures will be available for purchase via a vending machine in Second Life, the animations being useful presumably for avatar-related Second Life labours. Gesture Cloud’s ultimate ambition is to return the money they make back to the factory workers in Beijing.
One translation of RMB City is Money Town; a mordant commentary on the breakneck pace of economic development in China, Cao Fei’s project also creates a narrative for the transition China is currently undergoing — and the implications it has for the rest of the world. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can use Second Life; the language of software is more or less universal. With Princess Iron Fan (2011), Yam Lau gives expression to the heterogeneity of elements from which this new Global culture is being constructed. Princess Iron Fan is character from a Chinese folk tale, adapted for a film of the same name, which was the first animated feature film made in China, in 1941. Lau adopts the figure of Iron Fan as it appeared in the 1941 animation for his Second Life avatar, but with important alterations. Presented in pleasingly anachronistic black and white, the avatar is given certain ghostly characteristics. It is visible from the front but not the sides or back; the artist slyly attributes vaporous qualities to a thing that already has no substance. In the gallery, the projected animation appears from time to time, mimicking the avatar’s movement through the virtual world; in Second Life, Princess Iron Fan is programmed to similarly ambulate around. However, she never appears in both places at once: Princess Iron Fan is perpetually destined to exist on the threshold between the virtual and the actual. In metaphorical terms, the virtual animation of a Chinese folk hero points to the changed cultural landscape that will characterize the 21st century – an expanded world no longer necessarily bound by Western ideas or traditions.
By Rosemary Heather
August 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
Melanie O’Brian, Director/Curator of Artspeak in Vancouver for the past six years, recently moved to Toronto to take up the post of Curator & Head of Programs at The Power Plant. With this appointment, O’Brian makes the shift from what’s known in Canada as the artist-run sector to one of the country’s major venues. We spoke over email in March, 2011.
RH: Your professional career up to now has been firmly rooted in Vancouver. How do you think this experience will translate to Toronto? Do you expect to shift your priorities, or will you continue with the type of programming you developed at Artspeak?
MO: My goal is to maintain a strong foundation in the local while intersecting with international practices and dialogues. My programming interests regarding site will undoubtedly shift at The Power Plant. At Artspeak I addressed the institution’s mandate to reflect a dialogue between language and contemporary visual art and I also extended the program outside of the limited confines of the gallery. Through the OFFSITE program (2008-2010), I took artists’ projects into various ‘public’ situations using the street, parks, print, large-scale advertising, building sites, the postal system, etc. While I certainly maintain a desire to do offsite projects in Toronto and address contextual specificities, the institutional spaces at The Power Plant will allow me to initiate projects that would never have been possible at Artspeak.
RH: Speaking about OFFSITE, why do you think art institutions feel the need to develop audiences beyond what you refer to as the “confines” of the gallery? Is this tendency artwork-driven or institutionally-led?
MO: Artists are engaging strategies that re-activate wide cultural, political, and economic discussions within the process of art production and its reception. Institutions are encouraging this activity, often arguing that the audience for contemporary art is wider than ever before. But only a select audience overtly sustains contemporary art’s dialogues. Contemporary art is intersecting with audiences on multiple levels from the gallery to the street, from the blockbuster to the festival, from the biennial to the incidental. Perhaps the spectacularization of contemporary art’s presentation is a point for discussion?
RH: Toronto has a wildly successful Nuit Blanche event, presenting public art works across the city for one night. It attracts an estimated audience of one million people. The number one criticism of the event is that it tends to feature spectacular artworks. This could be seen as pandering to the crowd, or it could simply reflect the changing nature of art. Any thoughts?
MO: These types of events are increasingly common, whether autonomous or embedded in the Olympics. They do not necessarily reflect the changing nature of art, but rather the changing nature of the art system.. Art fairs, biennials, and other large scale spectacles provide a point of comparison. They are formats that often request, if not demand, art that competes with or withstands the spectacle. I might add that in what could be touted as a post-relational aesthetics, post-participatory moment, artists and artworks must not just engage with the art system, but intervene in it and question it productively.
Interview by Rosemary Heather
This text originally appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Flash Art.
Melanie OBrian is the Editor of Vancouver Art and Economies, an anthology of writing about the Vancouver art scene, which can be purchased here.