The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat:
Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists
published in Museums by artists edited by AA Bronson and Peggy Gale. Art Metropole, Toronto 1983. (ISBN 0-92095-613-0) pages 29-37.
It is republished here with permission from the author and presented courtesy of Goodreads.ca
...Intoxication must first have heightened the sensibility of the whole machine before it can come to any art. And all kinds of special varieties of intoxication have the power to work in this way: above all, that of sexual excitement, which is the first and oldest form of intoxication. And then, too, the intoxication that comes with any great desire, any great emotion: the intoxication of the festival, of a combat, bravado, victory or of any extreme movement: the intoxication of ferocity; the intoxication of destruction; intoxication under various sorts of meteorological influence, that of spring, for example; or under the influence of narcotics; or finally the intoxication sheerly of the will, of an overcharged, inflated will. The essential thing in all intoxication is the feeling of heightened power and a fulness. With this feeling one addresses oneself to things, compels them to receive what one has to give, one overpowers them: and this procedure is called idealization. But let us, right here, get rid of a preposession: idealization does not, as is generally thought. consist in leaving out, a subtraction of the insignificant, the incidental What is decisive. rather, is a tremendous exaggeration of the main features, before which those others disappear.
In this condition, one enriches everything out of one's own abundance: whatever one sees or desires, one sees swelling, bursting, mighty,
overladen with power. The individual in this condition changes things
until they are mirrors of his own energy - reflections of his own perfection. And this compulsion to change things to perfection - is art."
Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idol 1888.
As an artist writing about museums by artists, about my
own history, which is a story beginning in 1968, a Canadian story with elaborately Canadian characters dreaming the Canadian dream of one community, that is a network of communities, sea to sea, in that reticent evocation of collective consciousness which seems our
national destiny; as a Canadian artist then, wanting a
Canadian art scene just like in New York, or London, or
Paris in the thirties; as a Canadian artist typically unable
to picture the reality of a Canadian art scene except as a
dream projected upon the national landscape as a sea-to-shining-sea connective tissue; that is as a dream community connected by and reflected by the media; that is,
authenticated by its own reflection in the media; as such
a Canadian artist desiring to see not necessarily himself,
but the picture of his art scene pictured on TV; and
knowing the impossibility of an art scene without real
museums (the Art Gallery of Ontario was not a real
museum for us), without real art magazines (and artscanada
was not a real art magazine for us), without real
artists (no, Harold Town was not a real artist for us, and
we forgot that we ourselves were real artists, because we
had not seen ourselves in the media -
Yes, the media is a means of fabricating a tissue, if not of actual activity (as in the physicality of the New York art scene) at least as a sort of sketch of an art scene - an abstraction, a gesture, a configuration. The Canadian configuration is of course a line: five thousand miles long and one hundred miles deep, the pattern of inhabited Canada nestling innocently against the belly of the American border, nurtured by the aggressive foreplay of American magazines, American radio, American television, all portraying for us reality as something our American husband does at work, a great turmoil of masculine sweaty activity on the other side of the border, while we, the great white princess protected by our snow-white blanket of inactivity and our good manners, wait to be stimulated by these muscular reports of the real world... we who are so good at watching and listening.
In 1968, especially, we felt the closeness and the divisiveness of the American border. We felt the lack of feeling ourselves as part of an art scene. We felt the great Canadian sense of a pitiable relationship to magazines, an important relationship to magazines. We read the Village Voice. We read Artforum. We didn't read artscanada. We had no magazine of our own, no voice of our own.
In 1968 we formed General Idea, Jorge and Felix and I, not really knowing this was what we were doing, not in fact inventing the name until 1970. Emerging from the late Sixties psychedelia of student revolution, fluorescent posters, underground newspapers and Marshall McLuhan, and inspired by Canada's first artist-run centre, the unbeatable, unforgettable, indescribable wonder that was Intermedia (where Jorge performed his first art performance in Vancouver in l968) and carrying the memories of other, less celebrated projects - the short-lived artist-run gallery in Winnipeg where Felix first exhibited and the independent publishing and networking of the Winnipeg free school and underground newspaper where I first tasted blood, the blood, as it were, of the will - we pooled our fantasies in the druggy way characteristic of the time to actualize our Burroughsian dream of a transcanada art scene.
Yes, we didn't know there was an art scene, but there was. We all knew about Intermedia, the Vancouver assemblage of artists, film-makers, writers, poets, and intermedia artists, and when Intermedia faded we all felt something great had faded, something great inside us had faded, this clue to a future lifestyle, completely independent of the gallery system, the museum system, yet able in fact to cooperate with the Vancouver Art Gallery (and here the Vancouver Art Callery must be commended for its astoundingly innovative programme of the period); and we all felt that this sort of community involvement and self-determination on the part of the artist was the only way that anything would ever happen for us here. And now it was gone. Why? we were not sure.
Meanwhile - let us say meanwhile because all these events were not absolutely concurrent: they all happened in the same period, that period which was announced by the 'summer of love' of 1967 and culminated in the formation of ANNPAC in 1976 - meanwhile, Iain Baxter and Ingrid Baxter had started the NE Thing Company up at Simon Fraser University, and this too was a sort of self-determining method of bypassing the gallery system, the artist's office as museum reaching into the corporate pocketbooks of big business. That was a very Canadian thing. The NE Thing Company recognised telex and the communications systems as something for them and it was.
Also in Vancouver, and we see how instrumental Vancouver was in Canada's art history, Michael Morris, Gary Lee Nova and Vincent Trasov were beginning their post-Intermedia Image Bank, devised to bypass the dead-end street of the impossibility of nothing - no gallery shows, no reviews, no art scene - and to begin a decentralized art scene based on long-distance exchange of images between artists. This was later called Mail Art. It was and it wasn't. It answered a need of the time. Image Bank was a theory of image virus, a means of networking by creating a need and answering a need for decentralized communication between artists and others. Like a disease, this communciation spread through the artistic population to create a sort of cultural epidemic ignoring the established art system (if "system" is in fact a credible word for those static impenetrable institutions) and establishing a community based on national and inter-national networking.
Back in the inscrutable east, several events are worth noting, the first being the Festival of Underground Theatre in 1970, which brought to Toronto such diverse groups as the Cockettes from San Francisco and the Bread and Puppet Theatre from New York. General Idea performed its first video performance entitled What Happened based on the script by Gertrude Stein, and Marien Lewis heckled through the entire thing. Many artists had tangential connections to the theatre scene at this time, for only in this scene was the massive cultural growth of the Seventies already visible, and this festival may be seen as an influence on Toronto performance.
At this same event, General Idea performed the 1970 Miss Ceneral Idea Pageant, which culminated the following year in the 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant. Now here we must look at the Canadian networking tendencies beginning: the 1971 entry kits were sent to contestants across Canada, including Michael Morris, Gary Lee Nova and Vincent Trasov of Image Bank, and including Margaret Coleman, Victor Coleman's mother at the Coach House Press. Each contestant sent in entry forms and photographs of themselves or the contestant of their choice in the Miss General Idea Gown (supplied in the kit). David Silcox and Dorothy Cameron were judges. The entries were exhibited at A Space. A Grand Awards Ceremony was held at the Art Callery of Ontario. We may see this ceremony as a visualisation of the possibility of being rich, famous and glamourous, desired by throngs actualising the reality of a vast and desirable Canadian art scene in response to the ritual of opening envelopes and applauding their own performance. This made a real art scene. The essential ingredient was irony.
But let us not forget that as 1970 ended and 1971 began, Chris Young's Nightingale Gallery was being inseminated by the gang of five - Ian Carr-Harris, Stephen Cruise, Robert Bowers, John McEwen and Marien Lewis were nervously havering about this unformed but oddly open space wondering what to do. Gorilla, the underground newspaper, moved in, moved out. Theatre and performance connections were in the air. Project '70, their inaugural exhibition of something - none of us knew what but all of us knew something - imported Dennis Oppenheim and exhibited, as clues towards a new scene, works by General Idea, Ian Carr-Harris, Stephen Cruise, John McEwen, and so on. And on: when this two-story rather tony building was gutted by fire our gang of five went in search of a space and found it, an ex-stable, complete with ramifications of the work ethic, waiting to be invaded by the rawer sensiblities of these artists led by Mother Marien as the figure of Victory, battling gallery/museum expectation to create simply a space, and that's what they called it: A Space. This was the first artist-run centre in Canada we say, and why do we say that? There were of course others: Intermedia in Vancouver and short-lived spaces in Winnipeg and London, Ontario, and perhaps others, all burnt out by premature birth and/or premature ejaculation... let us think of Intermedia as transformed into a young couple ritually killed, embraced in a sacramental love death. Now these sacraments were coming to fruition. And A Space was the first fruit. And the first exhibition at this new space A Space was of course work (and the artists, the staff and students) from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the eastern node on this network of becoming. Despite its domination by American professors from Kansas City, this was the beginning of something, something for Canada. Ian Murray and Garry Kennedy first surfaced for all of us here.
The Coach House Press was a late Sixties manifestation, a small press rooted in a community, a community on Toronto Island of artists, writers and poets. Their early involvement with utopian Rochdale College, and with artists and writers such as Roy Kiyooka, General Idea, Robert Fones, Greg Curnoe, Jim Dine, Gary Lee Nova, Image Bank, Ken Doll and others, and with poet Victor Coleman (who also wrote reviews for artscanada) at the editorial helm and Stan Bevington as Abe Lincoln, this small press was a fermenting ground for much to come. Self-determination and the communications industry were two main, and very Canadian, ingredients.
And the last key link I must mention in this gathering of forces towards a major involvement by Canadian artists in a visible network of galleries and museum-like spaces run by artists themselves, this last key link is the Canada Council. In 1970 the Canada Council instituted the travel grant, which allowed artists to travel for projects, openings or research to other parts of the country (and elsewhere). Now much has been made internationally of the Canada Council as the enlightened institution it is, largely because of its funding of artists and artist-run spaces, but at this time the crucial element in creating a Candian art scene was the travel grant. Suddenly we were all travelling. Now Image Bank's image network weakened as it was replaced by actual contact, actual projects together. And this possibility of travelling across this five-thousand mile linear network, this possibility of travelling in a straight line and meeting almost everyone made the art scene in Canada what it is today: now suddenly all these characters in this epic plot began to intertwine into that Rococco form of bureaucracy called Canadian art today. Suddenly we had a sense of seeing ourselves as beings seeing each other, sensing each other as beings sensing themselves as beings seeing each other. And that is the importance of travel.
Someone sometime must write a really good history of Canadian art in the Sixties and Seventies. This was a unique period of massive development responding to a unique geographical and political situation. Here in Canada something happened that happened nowhere else. The linear construction of the country, the reliance on media, the lack of Canadian identity, the aggressive cultural domination of American popular media, the lack of any real art market at all, the impossibility of competing internationally with New York's hype system and the machinery of American politics pushing American art down the throats of the entire Western world, the McLuhanistic policy-making of the Canadian government in the mid-to-late Sixties, this constellation of unlikely catalysts crystallized into the post-Capital art scene we experience here in Canada today. One aspect of this system is ANNPAC, the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres, a typically limp and bureaucratic title which ignores the erratic and inspired cataclysms which constructed this system, in favour of the elemental description which homogenizes it.
Now I have overtaken myself, and arrived at the climax before the plot develops. To prevent this essay becoming a story, rather than a commentary, let me simply say: suddenly there were galleries (and other hybrids) by artists popping up all over the country: Open Space in Victoria, Video Inn and the Western Front in Vancouver, the Parachute Centre for Cultural Affairs in Calgary, Plug-In in Winnipeg, Artspace in Peterborough, the Music Gallery, 15 Dance Lab and Art Metropole in Toronto, Véhicule in Montreal, Powerhouse in Montreal, the Centre for Art Tapes in Halifax, and many more. We called upon our Canadian tendencies, the bureaucratic tendency and the protestant work ethic, and soon there were little artists' bureaucracies having exhibitions and promotions and educational programmes and video workshops and concert series and anything else you might care to think of in this parody of that museum world we all supposedly were trying to escape.
Then one day someone had an idea. When an idea's time has come everybody is having an idea and then suddenly everyone is meeting in one room having bureaucratic squabbles over points of order and that is how ANNPAC was formed: with the help of the Canada Council.
In 1971 we began FILE Megazine. Specialized audience magazines and newspapers and especially underground papers mushroomed in the late Sixties. The notion of lifestyle created a sudden blossoming of special interest groups. In the art scene, too, and especially in Canada, artists' publications became a connective tissue allowing us to see ourselves as existing, as an existing art scene with real artists you could take pictures of. This was, then, the only way to see ourselves, to know ourselves. FILE started as a response to the networking then actively pumping images, manuscripts, ephemera through our mail slot and collecting in our archives. Now we needed a way to recycle this material back through the system it reflected, to allow a self-image, or the possibility of self-image. The first issue of FILE in April 1972 featured Vincent Trasov as Mr. Peanut in . front of the Toronto skyline photographed by David Hylnsky. East meets west. This is not to say that FILE was a form of artists' communication. No, rather a means to see oneself as a part of this configuration of personalities, that is, as a component of a "scene"
A partial bibliography of Canadian artists' periodicals
would be noteworthy here: Image Nation started as an
innovative newsletter for Rochdale College in 1968 and
transformed into a photography magazine in the early
Seventies. Other magazines, such as
The second major means by which we were able to see ourselves was video. Both the 1970 Miss General Idea Pageant and the 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant were performances for video. The importance of video in Canada is no accident. The only way to see ourselves is to see ourselves on TV. In Canada in the late Sixties there was no way to see ourselves, no way to know we existed. Certain media had a magnetic importance. Video had a magnetic importance. We all knew the importance of seeing ourselves. In 1971, A Space started its video programme with Lisa Steele and Tom Sherman. In 1972 Video Inn opened its doors in Vancouver. In 1973 the Canada Council started video funding. In 1974 Art Metropole began video distribution. And then suddenly everyone everywhere in Canada was making video and this was a Canadian thing.
So video is a connective tissue and periodicals are a connective tissue. Together they delineate the disjunc- tive configuration of the various nodes of this hybrid and various art scene in interaction. This is not to say we work together. This is not an image of continuous growth and development but the image of a pattern of cultural convulsions, personality cat-and-dog fights, occassional collaborations and multitudinous fragmented relationships across the country.
ANNPAC is a structure. It is a union of museums by artists. It is more than a union of artist-run centres, it has a connective tissue. It is in motion. Video is a connective tissue. Parallelogramme is a connective tissue. Meetings are a connective tissue. Travel, the continuing and casual Canadian travel from centre to centre making exhibitions and performances and talking to each other and then not talking to each other, going to each others' performances and then not going to each others' performances, going to each others' lectures and then not going to each others' lectures, lecturing on each others' performances and on each others' lectures on each other performing so that certain artists cannot go to each others' performances or to each others' lectures that is the connective tissue and that makes a scene.
ANNPAC exists outside of its particular physicalities: even outside of the characteristics of its particular organisations and their interorganisation - as a sort of nervous energy, an aura of hyper-aesthetic tension stretching like elastic from the [agged peaks of our aspirations to envelop the valleys of our misguided mistrust of self in lowlying parabolic envelopes... a contained, muffled space of mathematically elusive dimensions.ANNPAC has a life of its own. We call it the living museum. It is a pattern of disjunctures, inadequacies, irrelevancies. Some of us are politically incorrect and some of us may be moralistic, emotionally immature, unrealistically demanding, or addicted to stimulation. That is the nature of the artist and the nature of ANNPAC. This "structure" of perverse attributes has its own intrinsic self-definition, its own musculature, its own skeletal structure, its own cavities, resonances, mechanics of motion; it lopes, lingers, lumbers, lolls.
The artist inhabits this flux of dream-galleries, traveling through these private chambers in which s/he enacts the whole chain of artworld beings as a sort of psychodrama of one's most archetypal desires/dreams. One wants to be an artist. One is an artist. One wants to be an artist in control of one's environment. One is an artist in control of one's environment. One thinks one is. One thinks one is not. One wants to be one thinking one is in control of one's environment. One is. One is not.
Now I want to address the problem of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is one side of a two-sided coin, John A. MacDonald on one side, and from the other side of reality, what voice of poetic aspiration calls? This is the curse of the artist-run space. ANNPAC stands at the intersection where two worlds meet, forming a bevelled edge: on the one hand, poetic aspiration and the idealisation of the obsessed, on the other, empirical reality and the anti-poetic per se.
At times, (usually annually) ANNPAC is defined by its apparition as a series of long and pedanticly democratic meetings, an endless ritual of calling and answering, proposal and revision, a bureaucratic means of reducing all to the lowest common denominator (although, in all fairness, I must point out that ANNPAC is conscious of and humiliated by this tendency, and further, in true Canadian fashion, conscious of the humiliation).
Although the diversity of possible institutions is wide, there are clearly certain models which do not happen here (as Fashion Moda, in New York), and those started on entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic or museum models, tend to crumble under the weight of the national characteristics (chorus: bureaucratic tendencies and the protestant work ethic), to participate in the nationally funded cultural character, not as it is defined in Secretary of State studies, but as it defines itself within this sketch of an art world, in which each centre plays its restless role, takes poses, tries stances before certain genre backdrops, assumes certain props and gestures to create the indicated reality of its politics, style, affiliations... all in front of the same camera, each in turn flexing particular muscles, but generally participating in the unspoken network of spontaneously generated rules of self perception.
These are museums by artists.
And what better place to develop the interior
kingdom of the soul, than in the humiliation of the
bureaucrat, the constant death of palace coups, the
submission of rational consciousness to this sleep-song
drifting down the long chain of dream-palaces, this
idealised vision of the "museum", of history, in which
the artist animates the quaking body of the institution
with his own obsessive will?
AA Bronson of General Idea