Fillip 20 — Fall 2015

Not Just Some Canadian Hippie Bullshit: The Western Front as Artists’ Practice
Ken Becker

It may help to think of it [The Eternal Network] as being part of the wider network where artistic activity just becomes one of the elements. —Robert Filliou1

In the above quote, the French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou describes the conception of an Eternal Network made up of artists and their production, among other pursuits. Filliou sees in this system exchanges between different points on a map creating an art world that draws its energy from artists and their actions and that exists as a connective tissue in a nexus of ideas and operations, rather than a single, centralized location.2

At the time that the artist made this statement in the late 1970s, correspondence art, video exchanges, performance, radio, and sound art were helping to form new systems of authorship and distribution. Artists had already begun to develop and use non-hierarchical group formations and public systems of transmission, such as the postal service and broadcast media. Such strategies for production and distribution existed globally, but for artists across Canada they contributed to the foundation of new, burgeoning arts communities. In fact, in the 1970s, Filliou’s presence, with a Fluxus influence, contributed to the development of the Western Front (alternately identified as WF or the Front), an artist-run centre (ARC) based in Vancouver, Canada.3 Filliou’s first of many visits to the Western Front took place in 1973,4 which was the year the society formed and acquired the former Knights of Pythias Hall at 303 East 8th Avenue. Five artists—Kate Craig, Glenn Lewis, Eric Metcalfe, Michael Morris, and Vincent Trasov—as well as architect Mo Van Nostrand, composer Martin Bartlett, and writer Henry Greenhow, purchased the building together.

All eight were members of the Vancouver arts community and interested in having “stable living/working spaces.”5 By purchasing this specific space, the founding members also acquired the capacity to present public exhibitions, performances, and expanded collaborative productions. Their extended network of friends, in Vancouver and abroad, became both audience members and collaborators.6 With little previous existing infrastructure around them, members of the Western Front assumed a multitude of roles in order to fulfill an immediate set of administrative needs. Artist Hank Bull, who moved into the Western Front six months after it opened, illustrates this point when he states: Imagine a scenario that is architecturally determined. There is this building in which people live and produce; visiting artists live in the building. Managers, curators, and artists producing are all the same group of people....We made work together, showed it to each other, and created not only the work, but the distribution system and the audience.7

Although it is impossible to claim that all ARCs in Canada are direct descendants of Fluxus practice, it is worth tracing the influence of Filliou on the Western Front’s artists,8 for there are noteworthy affinities and relationships to explore here. For instance, attempts by the Front artists to create a functioning live/work space mirrors the pursuit of an art/life connection that also propelled artists associated with Fluxus production such as George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Geoffrey Hendricks, and Nam June Paik. In an essay entitled “Between Water and Stone,”9 Kristine Stiles describes Fluxus as having “originated in the context of performance and the nature of its being—the ontology of Fluxus—is performative.” She continues by writing: Fluxus performance stresses interaction between the material and the mental worlds, and its actions negotiate degrees of human freedom in relations between the private and the social worlds—directions that recall philosophical descriptions of the phenomenological character of the body as an instrument acting in the world.10

Thus, the Fluxus performer is not a mere character or role, but an individual or group of individuals consciously interacting with their physical and social surroundings. By viewing themselves as a sort of social sculpture,11 artists at the Western Front actively merged the performative with daily life activities.

It is my goal in this text to examine the Western Front as a mode and a space vis-à-vis artistic production: the site of daily performance, rather than as simply an artist-run gallery or site of artistic presentation. Consequently, by extrapolation, ARCs might be viewed more fully as an extension of artists’ practice rather than solely as an attempt to emulate or create organizational and administrative structures as platforms for their work. In this case, I will therefore consider the Western Front as a manifestation of how artists operate, instead of as a place where artists showcase the collective results of their activities

Historical Context

The Western Front is part of a larger story of artist-generated culture in Vancouver and Canada.12 In 1957, seventeen years before the Front opened, the Canadian government began a program to support artists, via the newly formed Canada Council for the Arts. Created through an Act of Parliament, the Canada Council was founded “to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of and the production of works in the arts, the humanities and social sciences,”13 and such support was vital to growing the cultural life in Canada. In the case of Vancouver, for instance, prior to the 1960s there was only one commercial gallery in the city, the New Design Gallery, and by the mid 1960s, the list had expanded to include only four more.14

The first non-commercial spaces in Vancouver formed less than a decade after state funding became available through various programs. The Sound Gallery formed in 1965, and the artists’ collective Intermedia emerged in 1967.15 Front members Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov started Image Bank16 in 1969 with ties to FILE magazine,17 published by the members of the Toronto-based collective General Idea. In 1967, Intermedia received the staggering sum of $40,00018 from the Canada Council, validating the collective’s existence and jumpstarting its public programming. By making their video equipment publicly available, Intermedia became one of the energizing factors for Vancouver’s growing art scene, and its dissolution in 1972 catalyzed the formation of a number of new artist-run spaces in the city, including the Western Front.

From 1973 to 1981, during what Bull describes as the “freewheeling experimental stage of the Front,”19 the building operated, in theory, similarly to a communal version of Andy Warhol’s Studio20 or a countercultural Shaker community, rather than a museum or gallery space. The Front’s expansive architecture functioned as communal living quarters, a performance venue, a residency for visiting artists, and a production studio. The building accommodated time-based events: dance, film, music, poetry,21 and other forms of social and artistic practice (although these sort of distinctions were not made by the participants at the time), which mainly took place in two large halls.22

The room that would eventually become the designated art gallery originally served as the group’s dining area, where elaborate nightly communal meals took place. It is worth noting that unlike some prior spaces in Vancouver, such as the one occupied by members of Intermedia, the Western Front did not provide public access to equipment and facilities.23 Instead, what eventually developed was a video artists residency program, through which artists were invited to stay at the building, utilize the equipment, and produce new work. This set-up restricted public access to the new video technology but allowed for a sustained system of facilitation and oversight, which Intermedia had lacked. Works made during such residencies are today stored in the Western Front’s archive and constitute the primary research for this text.

An example of how the Western Front’s founders combined art and life was in their adoption of pseudonyms or stage personas, further complicating the identifications of each individual within their collective, performative platform.24 Morris has described the motivation for these personas in the following way: We felt we had to create a context to live and make art that was independent from the museum and the marketplace but nonetheless would address issues and the public in totally new ways....I think the personas and mythologies were a necessary step in making such a radical break with existing roles and traditions: they created for us a world where the serious ground we were breaking could be taken as “business as usual.”25

One could argue that the process of creating identities facilitates both a certain creative distance from one’s actions but also allows the individual to expand outside of his or her own perceived limitations. One criticism of what was taking place at the Front was that these roles and personas were theatrical, light, or camp, undermining the merits of the artists involved. Robert Ballantyne sums up this critique of the Western Front artists by describing a parallel criticism levelled against FILE magazine in the following: The article...condemning File was written as part of a rising backlash against increasingly idiosyncratic and playful impulses towards the evacuation of the category of the self. The years following the international events of 1968 were increasingly dominated by conflictual demands from both the left and the right for a serious art, which we can read as a high art, capable of redeeming lost virility.26

When mentioning the desire for a “serious art,” it might be revealing to return to Fluxus practice as a counterpoint. Humour, the obvious inverse to seriousness, was one of the favoured tools of George Maciunas, who said:We never intended to be high art. We came out to be like a bunch of jokers. In fact, I gave an answer to one banker [who] asked me when we applied for a mortgage. They asked Bob Watts what was his profession, he said, well he was a professor for twenty-five years. Then they asked what do I make and what do I do, and I said, I make jokes!27

This apparent split (between the serious and the humorous/theatrical) would indicate at least two very different impulses in the art production of 1970s Vancouver—i.e., Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and artists who became known as members of what would eventually be called the “Vancouver School” and the practices that arose out of the Western Front. More than an active conflict, however, these two systems would seem to demonstrate basic differences in approach, two very different sets of goals and governing principles. In some ways the divide seems to be an example of two distinct movements occurring in the same moment within a shared geography. In reference to the same article Ballantyne mentioned regarding FILE magazine, curator Scott Watson draws parameters for the variances between the two positions: The difference between [the artists involved in the Western Front] and the circle of Jeff Wall is about precisely this. It came out into the open in the early seventies. There was a review of one of the first issues of FILE magazine....The article was written by Dennis Wheeler...a protégé of Robert Smithson and a friend of Jeff Wall’s. It really attacks...this kind of un-rigorous, devil-may-care attitude as being fundamentally unserious. I would say that for years there was a felt split between these two camps of artists. I don’t think that is true anymore. It’s all in the past....While Wall and his companions pursued an art that was conceptual, cinematic, and theoretical toward a progressive revolutionary politic, the Western Front were more eager to investigate process, revisions of the everyday, provisionality, in an apolitical, anarchist, sort of Buddhist subversion.28

To further reinforce this notion of revising the everyday in terms of their attitude toward the established structures surrounding the Western Front, Bull states succinctly: “As an artist you don’t have to fit into an institutional or an economic system. You can make your own up.”29

That process of self-definition and openness to broader forms, definitions, and practices seems to have fuelled artist-run spaces. The concept of rigour in Watson’s statement suggests a connection to academic diligence, which prioritizes that distinctive process, but rigour and energy might be equally valid components of non-academic pursuits. Inclusion, or the inclusive strategy of opting to obliterate any differentiation between one’s art and one’s daily life, connects back to Filliou, Fluxus, and creating spaces for pursuits that run in contradiction to supposedly serious art.

In the early ’70s, Filliou found in Canadian artists an actual manifestation of the “Eternal Network” he had imagined.30 Bull describes Filliou’s early connection with the developing scene: “[He] had coined the idea of the Eternal Network and then came here [Vancouver] and discovered FILE magazine. Here were these artists who already had a network....[Filliou] said, ‘Oh here are the artists that are doing the exact same thing I have been talking about!’”31

Filliou is a convenient stand-in for a larger realm of Fluxus influence. The broader context of Fluxus included a system for engagement that, as Craig Saper, associate professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, explains, “offered a research methodology for what I call ‘networked ideas’ and demonstrated the value of those ideas in various experiments.”32 If we continue to try and separate out what artists do from the end result of their endeavours, Saper’s essay “Fluxus as Laboratory” provides some insight. The goal of Fluxus, and one might argue the Western Front as well, was to provide an environment where this sort of learning might take place. Instead of making works, visiting artists at the Western Front, if viewed as conducting experiments, understand that importance of the generative process as the locality under which real change, growth, and learning takes place.33 Rather than making an artwork or individual pieces, the entirety of the production of the space can be seen as the result of laboratory production. Saper continues: Fluxus often parodied the kind of art that posits a masterpiece appreciated by a spectator. By contrast, Fluxus works highlighted socio-poetic interaction and encouraged epistemological experimentation among participant-users.34

One reading of what artists do might be the creation of circumstances in which one can investigate how we interact, relate to the world, learn, change, and evolve. The ideological shift away from art as an elite consumer good and toward a manifestation of that interaction and its social impact connects to Filliou’s piece Telepathic Music no. Now made in 1980 during his last residency at the Western Front.

Telepathic Music no. Now

During his first three visits to the Front, Filliou made work that was the continuation of projects conceived in other mediums. So, for instance, his Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts, Part II, made in 1979 at the Front, is the continuation of ideas formed in his book Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts I (1970).35 Most of these early works can be seen via the Front’s online archive.36 The focus here will be on Telepathic Music no. Now, an unfinished work, buried in the archive, and an interesting document in terms of its content, time frame, and direct connection to the discussion at hand.37

Lasting twelve minutes, Telepathic Music begins with Filliou sitting at a table, so only the upper half of his body can be seen. Next to him is a full-sized brown-paper grocery bag. The table is a saturated red and the backdrop a baby blue. The artist wears a white sack over his head with the eyes, nose, and mouth cut out. His glasses perch awkwardly over the hood. The overall visual effect, which might be a little disturbing, is offset, somewhat, by Filliou’s voice and delivery. His halting, repetitious, circular speech addresses great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren five million years into the future. He attempts to explain what he, the artist, is doing and why.

Filliou continues to speak as he empties two apples out of the paper bag (the apples remain in front of him on the table untouched), then places the bag briefly over his head (and over the hood), and at the halfway point of the piece, removes the hood, continually addressing the camera, replacing the hood again, this time with his glasses on underneath the hood. The grocery bag is placed out of sight at this point and remains off-screen for the duration of the piece.

With this work Filliou communicates a dissertation on artistic energy as the new driving force for a new approach to society’s failings. He collapses time so that his address of the distant future is in fact aimed simultaneously at the present. The position conveyed is one of the artist as a communicator, or poet, with the imperative to simply convey information across space and time. Filliou passes information, concepts, and instructions from artist to audience. The entirety of the argument, inherent in the work, lies in the conceit that words (i.e., ideas) are as powerful as actions (i.e., art) and are conduits that facilitate change.

If the connection between art and life is something that the artist actively pursues, his or her actions (i.e., process) constitute a form of self-reflexive meditation. This awareness process, the act of living with both art and life and attempting to do so without judgment between these two facets, requires actively ignoring any difference between both functions. This, in itself, is the performative act. And through this performance, the artist facilitates an alternate relationship with his or her own actions and self-realization. The performative component also allows for a distancing of one’s activities from the self,38 creating a space to explore new facets in a manner similar to an actor playing a role. Treating the ongoing performance as a communicative task, similar to an active meditation, or sustained concentration toward the act of being, is an idea that potentially extends well beyond artistic endeavours. Within Filliou’s title, Telepathic Music no. Now, exists the notion of mentally transmitting information from one person to another (what could be more direct than telepathy?) through an artistic gesture.39 The title also conveys a certain degree of concentration and effort on the part of the individual engaged in the act of communicating.

On an overly simple level the piece is a transmission of the state of what it means to be in the world and the capacity for art and communication to operate as energy for social change. Saper writes: The social project of the Fluxus laboratory involves disseminating knowledge. This is the social situation of learning....Fluxus work has no intrinsic value. The value of the work resides in the ideas it implies to the reader, the spectator and to other participants.40

The role of the viewer, my role, becomes activated while watching the piece thirty-five years later and is the continuation of a thinking-through of ideas related to learning, not as Filliou necessarily meant them, but as they are understood in the present. The artist’s oration focuses on art’s function and dynamic potential outside an art context. The videotape on which he appears is not a precious object, but a reproducible form that lends itself to dispersal throughout the network outlined at the beginning of this discussion. That network is not hemmed in by the limitations of time and space, but rather continues as long as the ideas are active in their engagement with an audience. The Eternal Network, as the name implies, is perpetually operational.

Absurdity heightens rigour. —Glenn Lewis41

Through an examination of ARCs, one can extrapolate the motivations for artistic attempts at achieving greater levels of self-determination.42 Striving for control of the space of production, control of one’s living situation, and melding the two into a social-artistic mixture were strategies exemplified by the founders/participants in the Western Front. The questions that form the basis of this essay concern the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities inherent in such systems. As part of this analysis, it would seem necessary to separate an artist’s works from his or her practice, i.e., separating the product, the art itself, from the productive function of being an artist. The first is a result (i.e., the effects of a practice) and the second is the process or system (i.e., the means of doing). The product exists ordinarily as the preserve of the market, disassociated from the location of its own production, existing instead among abstract systems of art commerce. Here, however, I am more concerned with an artist’s practice as a viable daily exercise that proceeds from self-discovery and contributes to individual growth. As such, my argument attends more to artistic labour (or, practice) instead of its product (or, art).

An artist-run centre can actively facilitate an artist’s development by providing an entry point, a supportive environment in which to work and expand. Ideas, in general, need testing grounds, receptive audiences, and a laboratory setting in which to fully develop. Do ARCs allow for artistic experimentation but fail to provide a larger critical audience to test one’s ideas against? Exhibiting work, truly exhibiting work, it could be argued, is an act that requires a certain criticality, the public, outside one’s own peer, friend, and social groups. This broader audience can theoretically access new works from a perspective unimpeded by a personal relationship with the artists and their work. By combining artistic and social contexts, the Western Front provided a space to experiment and test out ideas in the early stages of development among members of a like-minded peer group without the pressure to display work, which could be a perceived strength, but read equally as insular and limiting.

In a 1983 interview, founding member Kate Craig makes the following statement about her own approach to art making within the context of the organization: Certainly there is the issue of the amount of time required for organizing events, and working for others: it obviously gets in the way of your own work. But you also have to understand my attitude....It wouldn’t make sense to me to work on my own. I don’t relate to the world that way. I consider working on videotapes with other people very much part of my work. It’s the ideas that are exciting, the production. I have no intention to be famous; it doesn’t interest me....How one organizes one’s life is political....I know with my own’s not so much a critique as it is an alternative, a way of dealing with one’s life 24 hours a day, how one relates to the outside world or to one’s own community.43

The specific set of priorities stated here stresses a co-authored approach to art making in which the support role functions not as an inferior position but as a valid form of contributing to the process. The artist prioritizes the benefits gained through developing systems of organization that promote interaction between individuals toward a set of common goals.

Craig’s perspective also highlights an unapologetic stance toward the value systems associated with a larger art market. Her administrative role within the Western Front was as much a part of her own creative process as her individual art practice. In other words, Craig integrated the work she performed as a facilitator into her work as an artist. In fact, by imagining all of her activities—collaborating, making, thinking, reading, conversing, arguing, filing paperwork—as part of a singular practice,44 Craig articulates her own realization of the Western Front’s aims. This epitomizes the combining of, to return to Stiles’s definition of Fluxus, the material and the mental worlds, and its actions negotiate degrees of human freedom in relations between the private and the social worlds—directions that recall philosophical descriptions of the phenomenological character of the body as an instrument acting in the world.45 It also might mean that the Western Front, as an entity, was the external structure in which the enactment of such ideals took place. The space is the location where artists, whose practices extend into all of their daily actions, perform that role.

Residency Program (1976)
It was a sanctuary. It was a school. It was a place where I developed technical skills, a place where I could make friends and community, where I could share laterally. Where I could have the freedom to explore without the pressure of creating a product. It was like the ideal free school in a kind of way. I never went to art school, I never went to university, and so this was a really important continuing part of my training. I still needed to learn all sorts of things, plus I was attracted to this new technology. —Margaret Dragu46

In 1976, Kate Craig took over from Glenn Lewis as director of the Western Front’s artists-in-residence program. She inherited what had been a video program designed primarily to document events at the Front and turned it into a video production residency47 and outlined the goals of that project clearly: When I took over the video program I decided that given the facility, what we should really be doing is producing special production tapes. So, I started a program where we would invite artists to come to the Western Front specifically to make new video works. The artists that were invited were not necessarily video artists. They were people who were very interested in exploring the medium.48

Craig brought in artists who often had little to no video experience and gave them access to the technology and the space’s collective expertise. When she refers to special production tapes she means those that were distinct from recorded performances of live events, or the making of documentaries. There were no requirements placed on visiting artists. They were simply provided with the resources to make video works that were stand-alone pieces. A circumstance that was rare then, unheard of now, and which allowed them to work and produce as they wished, and even to burn the end result if they saw fit.49 Craig followed the basic model she and Filliou had developed during his first few visits, whereby artists would pitch ideas to her and a discussion would take place regarding the viability and parameters of a proposed project.

In 1978, she and visiting artist Margaret Dragu generated Backup, a relatively cinematic production for the Western Front at the time. Backup was a film that combined dual, fractured narratives through three clearly defined chapters consisting of multiple vignettes, and its script focuses loosely on the lives of two women played by Craig and Dragu, as themselves, and a set of female graduates at a finishing school.50

Backup (37:36 minutes) begins with Craig and Dragu standing on the roof of the Western Front with Vancouver’s skyline behind them.51 Craig can be heard through a voiceover, discussing the possibility of a city that prioritizes urban gardening. The second set of scenes depicts a group playing billiards. During this part, the narrative gets murky and the trajectory of action becomes unclear. Dragu and Craig share a hot dog. They have a conversation with another woman. A pool player makes a series of difficult shots. The video then cuts to a new scene where a group of young women, led by a matron of sorts, jog out of the Western Front building and around the block.

The same women are now seated in a French class, a tutorial follows on the proper way to make mayonnaise, and then a physics lesson, a life-drawing class, and a quick, confusing jilted-lover-and-murder scene where one woman drowns another in a bathtub for being in love with the same man.

Later in the video the alleged murderer and her lover-professor leave the building on bikes. The camera continues rolling as the teacher loses the contents of his bag on the street and has to improvise a clumsy recovery. He exclaims as they flee, “Let’s leave this madhouse!”

The next scene features a formal graduation banquet and some after-dinner flirting between the female students and a group of older men in suits (played by local lawyers) at a long dinner table. Food is served, conversation takes place, and in a later scene leg touching is apparent as the table is removed and the two groups continue to mingle.

Toward the end of the film there is a long shot of Dragu and Craig cleaning and ironing (to the song “Work to Do” by the Isley Brothers)52 in a small room. During this sequence, they work, take breaks, and share a cigarette. Each disrobes to iron the outfits they have on, and there is a pleasant meditative tedium to these tasks. This is followed by a set of carefully shot vacuuming scenes framed to mirror angles used in dance performances. The gender politics at play seem purposely oblique. In the final shot of the movie the two artists walk casually down the alley behind the Western Front as if enjoying the day together.

Despite the informal feel to these scenes, Backup was in fact a semi-professional production, demonstrated by the fact that it was filmed in colour and that its camerawork is steadier than much of the earlier videos in the Front archive. Although the shots are lengthy, the cuts are clean, and the progression of scenes appears to be reasonably logical. Backup also occupies an odd position between a movie or TV program (with a narrative or script) and a performative work, or art. Rather than integrating itself into the standard parameters of production, editing, etc., it purposefully contradicts these practices, facilitating an increased awareness of the conceits of normal, as evinced by mass media, mediation and leaves an audience constantly trying to position themselves within the (non-)structure of the piece. Its overlapping narratives and unfinished story arcs leave one searching to create connections that are not present in the film. Dragu and Craig’s refusal to satisfy our expectations in the constructed relationship between media and viewer might cause one to reconsider the expectation itself.

After filming the bathtub scene, Dragu and Craig53 (who was incidentally deeply uncomfortable with the depiction of a murder) agreed to completely abandon their storylines. Dragu credits the process with venerating her impulse to be suspicious of narrative and allowing herself to actively deconstruct the form.54 The film’s authors were too smart to impose a rigid moral structure on the proceedings, and that ambiguity feels exploratory and oddly rigorous. The downside of Backup is that scenes do drag on, the sound is often difficult to decipher, and the extended meditations on single scenes may lose the viewer’s attention after a time. Dragu and Craig’s collaboration communicates information about their characters with a choppy narrative, sexual innuendo, and a complete abandonment of the multiple story arcs. It also, on some level, manages to combine elements of daily life at the Western Front along with a fictitious plot, blurring the lines, again, between art and life, leading to a film that is nuanced and enigmatic.

What excites me about DIY culture is that it is about craft and community and it is generally less about art, or at least it tends not to inspire toward that art market. It typically happens on a local level or in an affinity group. And it often seeks to intervene in the same space that it is born. And it raises a question to me that is key, just because we have the capability and the tools to make mass media, or make high-art, should that be our highest goals. The rewards from working within particular communities often outweigh the actual benefits of mass distribution. —Rick Prelinger55

Rick Prelinger’s above quote about DIY culture applies equally to this discussion of artist-run spaces. It focuses on perceptions concerning the relative value of artistic production within a broader context. The argument of this essay takes the position that high art has more than its fair share of promoters. A consideration of other value sets is not meant to supplant the dominant systems of thinking, but rather to provide skeptics with a possible tool kit with which to move forward.

In Vancouver in the 1970s, work shown in state-funded artist-run centres was disengaged from the art market. The benefits of exhibiting in ARCs during that period were instead connected to attention economies. The often repeated refrain about the city is that it has never had much of an economic infrastructure in the form of commercial galleries and private collectors.56 Both market and attention economies cater to positions concerning degrees of accomplishment. One gauges achievement based on the exchange of money and the other on degrees of perceived recognition of an artist’s production. The long-standing impact of the Canada Council’s funding of artists and art spaces provides a certain state-funded alternative by which support is allocated based on a remarkable awareness of the actual need of artist-controlled spaces.57 On some level, the majority of the Western Front’s modes of production, such as correspondence art, video exchanges, magazine publishing, and radio, have that element of projecting outward. These modes acted as forms of promotion engineered through that extended network of friends and collaborators, as a means of increasing visibility, self-promotion, and networking. The act of creating one’s own buzz also links back to the quote from Hank Bull concerning the creation of one’s own systems, be they economic or institutional. Although the dissemination of artwork through these new artistic and communicative arrangements was generated by artists and ARCs, with their reliance on external funding sources such as the Canada Council, or even the postal service, public radio frequencies, public television stations, etc., to some degree this model could be perceived as being less about the creation of innovative strategies and more about integrating, or piggybacking, oneself into and onto pre-existing schemes that suit one’s economic, communicative, or self-promotional needs.58 Even the concept of the residency program is on some level a method to bring people into your space with the notion that when they leave they will talk about, and promote, their experience. To some degree, then, the choice to support others functions as a way to promote and support oneself.

It would be too complex to chart the benefit of the Western Front’s model of production to an individual in this paper, except perhaps anecdotally. All of the standard gauges for success are dependent on monetary and/or institutional values: the price of work, the number of exhibitions, the scale of future production, and so on. If the individual bases his or her practice, in part, on the rejection of these criteria for judgment because of ideological differences, what other factors might one consider? Mel Ramsden in his 1975 article “On Practice” speaks to the challenge of reprioritizing what constitutes value in regard to the outcome of artistic processes. He writes: In an integrated society, workers, as skilled craftspeople, control their activities and hence the attributes of their products. Hence the worker’s attachment to his or her product results not only from pride in the object of their labor but also and I think, crucially, in their personal regard for the community it serves...under reigning Capitalism, the worker’s hopes, community goals...cultural life...need not be, and are usually not, compatible with the products of their labor.59

The overarching goal of production in a space such as the Western Front was to provide individual and communal benefits derived from specific modes of and environments for making. The Canada Council, partially comprising artists, must have understood the value of structures that attempted to reach past art making and embed themselves in the way individuals relate to one another and as a group, forming the basic tenets of a society. Without that connection, Ramsden continues, “we reach a state where our work becomes totally alienated from our psyche, and finally our community—and to such an extent that we may be eventually incapable of helping ourselves.”60 Practice—the daily act, the negotiation, the relationship, the work of being not only an artist but an ever-evolving individual—moves beyond art, becoming “just one of the elements,”61 to return to Filliou. The greater ramifications for society of this line of thinking play out in the manner in which the individual performs those daily acts. Again, Scott Watson defines some of the basic notions embodied by the Western Front in its opposition to prevalent lines of thinking from that period: Vancouver is a periphery, and is self-consciously that. That is part of the raison-d’etre of the Front is to be a node in a wider network. The Front has always been about process, networking, and collaboration. It has never been about product. I would say for a long, long time, they would have been ideologically opposed to any criteria of quality as coming from a foreign, outmoded, and oppressive ideological aesthetics system; the one that Clement Greenberg stood for, for example. That offhandedness that you see, which eventually bores, is a position. It is not just the result of a lack of talent or no ideas. It also reflects the abiding commitment to not being very careful with the distinction between art and life, that avant-garde position. Trying to embody it and trying to live it....We see that in Glenn Lewis’s work, for which there is an abiding respect, around here.62

Vancouver is a city with a strong history of poetry and literature converging with a newly emerging visual art scene created through the development of a counterculture and the rise of feminism, racial politics, and academic institutions. Within that mixture exists a more recognized history, albeit an uneven and inconsistent one: that of the Vancouver School, comprising artists Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas, Roy Arden, et al., which situated itself within larger, mainstream international art discourses and broadcast itself externally (but in an internationalism distinct from the Front’s connection to the Eternal Network). This model favours engagement and discourse with an art world. In this case the work and the support of the work, exhibitions, texts, and philosophical substructure push outward and attempt to tie into, contrast with, and compare to broader, more international networks and discussions. Criticism and context, publication and exhibition, extend beyond the known entities. The artist engaged with broader audiences, abstracted communities, and commercial spaces, museums, galleries, and Art History, with a capital “A” and “H.”

In the Western Front’s archive63 one can access the other history of Vancouver, one charting the rise of state-funded artist-run centres—a self-supporting artist community that acts for and of itself (even though organizations within this mode competed and continue to compete for the same funds), and that allows for all modes of expression, discourse, and experimentation. A community composed of like-minded individuals with a shared goal of non-commercial, self-reinforced production, focusing on a wide-open model of acceptance with links to Fluxus, the emerging counterculture, and feminism. The networks and their casts of characters perform and share ideas that are co-authored, and commingled, with the production of the space.

The strengths of the artist-run-centre model can be seen specifically in terms of access and opportunity. This access manifests not only in the form of otherwise unavailable equipment, workspace, time, and skill sets of the members of the Front, but also as an ideological platform for making work. That platform is connected with an alternative vision of what artists do and links to a continued, ongoing investigation, teaching, and learning, and its impact on the individual and the community.

In contrast, one might argue that actors within academia and the commercial gallery system have a distinct set of goals, a different set of ambitions. In the 1970s, those systems were, and maybe still are, set up partially to determine quality and value based on a set of parameters connected with the market and dominant art-historical discourses, determined primarily by those with a certain knowledge base, a certain position, and an investment in the continuation and supremacy of those ideals. The creation of spaces that actively respond to the prevailing systems by calling for increased openness and accessibility to people on all the various levels of engagement and production provides a counterbalance and rightfully challenges the authority of such systems. If those same alternative spaces initiate and maintain active archives, the ongoing record created allows access to alternate histories. Rather than repeatedly having to reinvent the wheel, future initiators of projects driven by forces other than the market can access the accumulated knowledge of the histories of artist-run projects. This also means confronting the basic principles of fitting into pre-existing, or creating new, substitute economies. The two relevant examples here may be the Fluxus artists’ implementation of retail shops selling multiples and the Western Front’s eventual maturation into a professional, state-funded arts organization.

From 1965 to 1968, Filliou and George Brecht ran La Cédille Qui Sourit, a shop, for lack of a better word, in Villefranche-sur-Mer. In her article on their venture, Natilee Harren uses an excellent phrase to explain what they were attempting: “Fluxus practices in terms of a deregulation of the art object”—and then goes on to extrapolate—”deregulation not only of the art object but also of its movement through certain art networks, motivated by artists’ frustration and disgust at networks’ paradoxical tendency to consolidate power.”64 The notion of deregulating the art object, opening up new paths and modes of transmission for them to exist and move, fits perfectly into the notion of new networks and the dispersal of power throughout. It also coincides with an attempt to take the structure of the market, represented by the store, as a place to sell goods at a profit, and subvert the accepted configuration to meet the needs of the participants. Filliou and Brecht’s shop was by all accounts a prop shop.65 It was a shop mimicking the idea of a shop without having to adhere to the basic principles of the thing itself, taking on the form and forgetting the function.


A number of people who have read this essay prior to its published state provided feedback directed toward the concern that the Western Front receiving long-term funding from the state prevented other potential artist-run spaces from developing. The other consistent argument was that over time, because of any number of factors, the Western Front “institutionalized.” Framed as a negative feature, this discourse equates institutionalization with what can be reduced to simply selling out. It was proposed that artist-run projects have a specific shelf life and perhaps they should be built to fold after they have run their initial course. Those are all fine points. In regard to the politics of the distribution of state aid, the lifespan of ARCs, and the formalization of the administrative function of the space, these are probably points for a discussion better suited to the members of the community they belong to. As an outside voice, with little stake in the proceedings, it would likely be a misstep for me to interject into local politics.

The Western Front met the needs of the producers as a place of production and presentation as well as a hub of transmission for all the activities within. It wasn’t a space to see work that had been previously vetted by art professionals and it wasn’t a place that monetized the art experience. As was discussed, the artists at the Western Front were attempting to put into action a theory about how and what being an artist meant. Their definition was broad, inclusive, and experimental. They also established their own platform for defining a set of priorities and operating strategies within the community under which to operate.

Returning to Mel Ramsden’s musing in his essay “On Practice” may provide an expanded context for how and why we institute structural priorities amongst ourselves: In this article [I am] trying to suggest...regarding “art” not as a definition outside of conversation but as a “social” matter embedded in (our) conversation, may be both an effective opposition to the bulldozer of Official Culture as well as a way of affirming our own sociality outside of “mere” contractual role relations.66 He goes on to say that the community must engage in that conversation, and participate in the determination of its own “methodological base.” Rather than being an external imposition, the rules and the imposition of how art operates in the world become activated and exist only through the social enactment of the conversation and a running definition of what the members of that particular community deem of importance.

How that ties into the vast art-world trajectory is a matter for debate. In Ramsden’s case he is talking about New York City in the ’70s and it seems baffling to imagine a less singular community. It would appear important to recognize that within the notion of a local conversation, a monolithic solution, an answer, or a general consensus is unachievable. What may emerge are pockets of well-considered arguments and artists making work that reflects the intentions of that conversation and debate. The economics of urban spaces are increasingly enveloped within larger networks of international complexity. Discourse in the ramifications of these intricacies is one possible way groups who share geography remain connected to one another. The art community in Vancouver has a commitment to a long-running dialogue about all facets of artistic production within the city and how they both absorb from external sources and conversely project outward. As a subject, the city exists as a collective archive to outlining an argument about, in this case, ARCs. That archive, and this argument, exists because of the sustained existence of an ongoing conversation within the community and the veracity with which that intercourse takes place.

In all likelihood, when it comes to artist-run anything, projects are bound to peter out, or professionalize, as needs, circumstance, and economics shift over time. This essay is focused on zoning in on that area of being an artist that isn’t obsessed with the final result, but rather inhabits that murky, shifting notion of individuals processing information, together, within an artist mode. What that is, or what people need to operate in that capacity, may stay in the realm of constant conjecture. What seems to be important, and what the Western Front represents here, is the notion that artists in the moment may inherently possess insight, or at least the proximity to the source, allowing them to empower new work and meet each other’s immediate needs. Artist-run centres should be embedded forever in the evolving present, thus providing for artists what other facilities lack.

For instance, the response toward the development of commercial spaces and museums that have adopted mannerisms previously exhibited by ARCs (producing original work, providing space for experimentation, etc.) as a sign that artist-generated culture is no longer needed assumes that this appropriated form is still what artist-run spaces should look like. ARCs’ existence and expansion in the future may take on other forms entirely, adapting to the developing needs.

Debating provincial politics or the decreased vitality of ARCs over time can, again, be left to someone else. Instead, this essay recommends looking around and making spaces that meet the needs of your cohort. Have a stake in the production of others and embrace the necessary administrative function as a component of your own practice. To be accepting and immersed in art while it is being made, before others lay judgment on the end result, requires faith and excitement in the process, in the performance, and in the performer, rather than the requisite documentation, the essay, criticism, or review. And the effective artist-run space, for its active lifespan, inherently understands what is happening in the present tense.

It is also easier to connect the time spent working, the artists’ daily acts, to the place where those acts take place. This is opposed to the final product, which, as a commodity, can easily be dissociated, travelling from the place of its making. If one realizes that the importance of one’s actions are inherent in the actions themselves; that the location of said actions connects the maker to his or her immediate environment; and that the immediate environment is paramount, as are the actions of the local network with which one interacts, then one’s connection to that locale is strengthened, and maybe to “real” production, too.

The counterpoint to all the perceived leisure-class-driven art-world drivel/malarkey is not as simple as establishing collectives, or co-authoring work, or abiding by a non-material mode of (non-)production. What the Western Front was attempting to examine was the space in-between making, the moments of living, the running conversation that comprise an active participation in life and work. It’s not a notion exclusive to artists. It is being present in one’s own life and community. It is valuing the process and the interaction beyond the end result. It is an attempt at non-judgment when it comes to one’s own and others’ processes. If an attempt was to be made to disentangle art and commerce, the place to start might exist here.

  1. Robert Filliou, “Robert Filliou Defines the Eternal Network,” clip from Porta Filliou (1977), YouTube video, 3:07, posted by Clive Robertson, January 17, 2013,
  2. Perhaps one of the most important byproducts of the “artworks” generated by the [Network] methodology is that the work is defined by the artists themselves and does not necessarily depend on more traditional forms of validation from museums, the conventional art market or art history. The network activity began as an experiment in communications on a creative level, correspondence by mail proving to be the most convenient, accessible and inexpensive means available. It led inevitably, to a wider understanding of the use of media. Luis Jacob, “Golden Streams: Artists’ Collaboration and Exchange in the 1970s” (exhibition essay), CCCA Canadian Art Database, 2002, Also found in the Western Front Archive at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Box 16, File 1.
  3. When Robert Filliou developed his concept of the “Eternal Network,” he was thinking of the human condition rather than of art. Filliou held that the purpose of art was to make life more important than art. That was the central idea of the Eternal Network. In the years since Filliou coined the term, it has taken on a life of its own. The Eternal Network has come to signify a global community of people who stand for many of the ideas that Filliou cherished. This community is fluid, comprised of people who may never meet one another in person….From the early 1960s, using the postal system, the Eternal Network foreshadowed other networks that would become possible later through the use of such technologies as computer, telefax and electronic mail. Ken Friedman, quoted in Jacob, “Golden Streams.” Originally published in Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology (1995).
  4. A member of the Fluxus movement, Filliou’s visit affirmed and acquainted the Western Front with some social principles. Filliou had dedicated his Principles of Poetic Economy to Charles Fourier, a 19th-century thinker and utopian who, before Marx wrote and before Freud was born, succeeded in reconciling both. Fourier was the precursor of many liberation movements. He thought he had discovered the secret to social harmony—work as play. Keith Wallace, Whispered Art History: Twenty Years at the Western Front (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1993), 13.
  5. In the introduction to Whispered Art History, Wallace writes: Eight potential shareholders—Bartlett and Von Nostrand as well as Kate Craig, Henry Greenhow, Glenn Lewis, Eric Metcalfe, Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov—were secured. All were friends involved in some aspect of the arts that included painting, photography, video, performance, literature and music. All of them were also looking for stable living/working spaces (1).
  6. 1973 was one of those periodic booms in Vancouver. Many artists found themselves on the street, turfed out of old studios to make way for new building. Martin Bartlett, electronic composer, artists Michael Morris, Vincent Trasov, Glenn Lewis, Kate Craig, and Eric Metcalfe, architect Mo Van Nostrand, and writer Henry Greenhow found themselves homeless. By pooling their resources and obtaining two mortgages, they managed to buy the old Knights of Pythias Lodge Hall, a three-story wooden building, constructed in 1922. As Western Front, the society received its first grant for new music programming and performance from the Explorations Section of Canada Council in 1974….[The] Western Front set out to be a centre for all the arts, complete with artists in residence. Subsequently many other artists became involved in the Western Front, including Hank Bull, Jane Ellison, Daina Augaitis, Elizabeth Van der Zaag, Karen Henry, Annette Hurtig, Susan Milne, Corry Wyngaarden, Elizabeth Chitty, David Kelln, Patrick Ready, Babs Shapiro, Mark Corwin, Donna Zapt, Owen Underhill, Charles Watts, Bob Richardson, Kye Goodwin, Doug Brown, Paul Wong, Mary Beth Knechtel, Gerry Gilbert, Bill Little, Alex Varty, and Judy Radul. AA Bronson, From Sea to Shining Sea: Artist-Initiated Activity in Canada (Toronto: Power Plant, 1987), 64.
  7. Hank Bull, in discussion with the author, October 2013.
  8. Through the correspondence art network, from 1969 on, Image Bank had been in touch with Filliou and other Fluxus artists. Filliou characterized the correspondence and collaboration between artists as the “Eternal Network.” His attitude of ephemerality, life as art, and philosophy of equivalence had a powerful impact on the direction of the Western Front. Other Fluxus artists Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, and Geoff Hendricks, who were subsequent artist-in-residence, reinforced this view of art. They all did performance and made video tapes during their residencies. Bronson, From Sea to Shining Sea, 66.
  9. Incidentally, Stiles dedicates this essay to Robert Filliou, whom she cites as one of her most valued teachers.
  10. Kristine Stiles, “Between Water and Stone: Fluxus Performance, A Metaphysics of Acts,” in In the Spirit of Fluxus, ed. Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), 62–99.
  11. It’s very much art and life superimposed….Your practice is this social sculpture, in Beuysian terms. Life is a performance, it’s collaboration, there are all sorts of ways in for all sorts of people and it is something that is being done together, there is no one in charge and it’s a collective experience. Bull, in discussion with author, January 2014.
  12. There was no art scene no art collectors nor art dealers no art media no museums. As artists we found ourselves isolated both geographically and culturally. The tremendous distances between us prevented us from seeing ourselves as an art scene. Culturally we had none of the supporting institutions most art scenes take for grantedas artists we had to construct not only our art but the fabric of an art scene. We had to start our own institutions, start our own galleries, publish our own magazines and develop our own networks. Since there was no market we had to develop our own raison d’etre. The result of this activity was not only the accumulated activity itself, but also an institutional network of artist-run centres from sea to sea. In fact the entire face of contemporary Canadian art has been, no, not altered, but created as a result of this activity. Bronson, From Sea to Shining Sea, 10.
  13. From Twenty Plus Five, an unauthored “discussion paper on the role of the Canada Council in the arts, after the first twenty years (1957–1977) and over the next five.” Found in the WF Archive at UBC, Vancouver, Box 1, File 26.
  14. “Such as the Tempus Gallery, or short-lived artist-initiated commercial ventures such as Tempus Gallery, the Focus gallery and later the Magan Ghetto.” Keith Wallace, “A Particular History: Artist-Run Centres in Vancouver,” in Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, ed. Stan Douglas (Vancouver: Talonbooks and Or Gallery, 2011), 30.
  15. WF member Glenn Lewis served on the Intermedia Board of Trustees from 1970–72.
  16. Image Bank, the creation of Michael Morris and Vincent Trasovcame into being as a response to Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School and the subsequent correspondence art involvement with many artists in North America and abroad….Image Bank was primarily a structure for setting up, extending and reinforcing correspondence, creating a network using the postal system as a means of communication. An International Image Request Directory was instigated as the form of “exchange.” Requests were published quarterly in General Idea’s FILE Megazine and annually as a complete directory. Bronson, From Sea to Shining Sea, 41.
  17. Vol. 1, No. 1 of FILE Magazine, was published by General Idea, originated with the help of a federal LIP (Local Initiatives Project) grant. Its original purpose was to create a cross-Canada link-up between artists, and it featured Image Bank’s “Image Request Lists” from Vancouver and across-Canada gossip as means of doing this. The first issue featured Vincent Trasov of Vancouver in his Mr. Peanut costume, against the Toronto skyline. As the artists became more involved in the magazine format, it became General Idea’s first major step into appropriating and reinhabiting formats of mass culture. Ibid., 60.
  18. Ibid. The Canada Council spent $639,300 in the first year of its existence.
  19. Bull, in discussion with the author, October 2013.
  20. We wanted an art scene, a real art scene, and we knew we had to start with what we had before us: a theatre scene, a literary scene, a music scene, and so on. We also knew that we wanted to be connected cross-Canada and to the world at largeand so we were very aware of connecting with other communities and artists and creating an infrastructure that would hold together over time. This was a lesson we learned from Warhol: so much of his work was contextualized by the Factory community, which he built around him. He was very much a scene builder and we knew we had to be toobut on a larger scale. AA Bronson, quoted in Luis, “Golden Streams.”
  21. A major influence on Vancouver’s visual artists was the strong literary presence existing in the city since the ’50s. Poets and writers informed a sophisticated political, artistic, and literary discourse. From the Western Front’s inception, poetry readings have taken place every Monday night.
    The cross-fertilization of poetry and visual art is the most distinctive aspect of the west coast avant-garde, the germ of which was the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s. Black Mountain poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley moved to San Francisco, bringing their poetics with them (Lara Halina Tomaszewska, “Borderlines of Poetry and Art: Vancouver, American Modernism, and the Formation of the West Coast Avant-Garde, 1961–69 [PhD dissertation, University of British Columbia, 2007], 17.) In 1963, the University of British Columbia hosted the Vancouver Poetry Conference, the culmination of a three-year frenzy of poetic activity on the west coast. The San Francisco Renaissance had traveled and taken hold in Vancouver. This was only the beginning: Creeley, Duncan, Ginsberg, Spicer, Persky, and Blaser all taught in Vancouver during the 1960s. In 1961, the first Festival of the Contemporary Arts took place on the university campus. It was to be an annual event for the next decade—a multi-disciplinary festival that featured experimental film, visual art, dance, and music produced on the west coast (ibid., 19).
  22. From the 1978 Financial Statement in the WF Archive: the Western Front “is specifically designed for presentation, research, production and distribution to define and understand the art of the seventies.” The upstairs hall is known as the Grand Luxe Hall and the downstairs space was/is the dance studio.
  23. However, by keeping a tight lid on access to facilities and equipment, even to the point of installing a buzz-in entry system, the Western Front assumed its own particular form of institutionalization. As only invited artists could exhibit, perform, produce a video, or stay as part of the artist-in-residence program, this policy created a perceived exclusivity during the 1970s, one that alienated a considerable segment of the local art community and basically ignored the public (Wallace, “A Particular History,” 36).
    It’s difficult to determine whether having a lock on the front door of your home counts as imposing institutionalization or exclusivity. The odd set of parameters that factor into having public functions in a semi-private residence undercut what must have been an ongoing negotiation for members of the space. Whether the public was “ignored” by not being granted open access to video equipment is also up for debate. The Western Front continuously displayed an ability to professionalize in order to facilitate the sustained existence of the society. To a certain degree, the continued function of the institution forty years later in the same building, etc., rather than as a historical footnote, would seem to imply at least a semblance of forward-thinking pragmatism.
  24. See Wallace’s introduction to Whispered Art History, where he lists the various personae of the WF members: Eric Metcalfe—Dr. Brute, Kate Craig—Lady Brute, Henry Greenhow—S.S. Tell of Borderline Studios, Glen Lewis—Flakey Rosehip of the New York Corres Sponge Dance School of Vancouver, Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov—Marcel Idea and Mr. Peanut of Image Bank. Wallace, Whispered Art History, 3.
  25. Michael Morris, quoted in Jacob, “Golden Streams.”
  26. Robert Ballantyne, “Glamour Pageantry and Knives: Gay Identity in File Megazine” (PhD dissertation, University of British Columbia, 1994).
  27. George Maciunas, quoted in Larry Miller, “Transcript of the Videotaped Interview with George Maciunas,” in The Fluxus Reader, ed. Ken Friedman (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 197.
  28. Scott Watson, head of the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory and director/curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, in discussion with the author, January 2014.
  29. Bull, in discussion with the author, January 2014.
  30. The Decca Dance and the celebration of the ‘1,000,011th’ anniversary of art, organized by Image Bank, Lowell Darling, Willoughby Sharp, Ant Farm, General Idea and the Western Front. The fall of 1973 was spent in preparation for this momentous occasion, a celebration of the Eternal Network that took place in the splendid ballroom of the former Elk’s Lodge on MacArthur Park in Hollywood. Susan Subtle, Les Petits Bonbons, John Jack Baylin, John Dowd, Irene Dogmatic, Anna Banana, Victor Coleman, Andy Graffiti, and a host of correspondence artists from across North America appeared for the ritual celebration of “Art’s 1,000,011th Birthday” and Mail Art awards Ceremony. The stage show, a parody of the Academy Awards, featured a male chorus resplendent in tuxedos and Shark Fin Bathing Caps moving in stately symmetry to the inimitable crooning of androgyne Pascal. It could be said to mark the peak of the Mail art movement, and for many, signalled the end of it. Copiously documented on film, video and in print. “Hollywood Decca Dance and Art’s Birthday,” CCCA Canadian Art Database, accessed October 3, 2013, “”:
  31. Bull, in discussion with the author, January 2014.
  32. Craig Saper, “Fluxus as a Laboratory,” in The Fluxus Reader, 136.
  33. If one is compelled by economics or other internal and external forces to prioritize the end product (which this essay does not disparage), the process of composing may exist as a hurdle to overcome en route to a finished idea.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Robert Filliou and John Cage, Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts (New York: Koenig, 1970).
  36. Western Front’s private online archive is accessible via Vimeo. See “”:
  37. There are documents in Filliou’s artist file at the WF implying that the tape was to be added to by other artists, a plan which never came to fruition.
  38. Again tied to the Western Front’s founding members’ development of performative personas.
  39. With effective performers there is the feeling that they are communicating to each member of an audience individually. This experience is the closest I can imagine to group telepathy.
  40. Saper, “Fluxus as a Laboratory,” 137.
  41. “Artists: Glenn Lewis,” Trench Gallery (website), accessed March 29, 2014,
  42. Which are often more difficult to realize in commercially driven systems.
  43. Kate Craig, “Personal Perspectives,” in Vancouver: Art and Artists, 1931–1983, ed. Luke Rombout (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983), “”:
  44. Ambition, which Watson links in terms of Jeff Wall to individual, grand results and personal success, could be seen here in Craig’s case as a desire to see others, or the Western Front itself, succeed.
  45. Stiles, “Between Water and Stone,” 62–99.
  46. Margaret Dragu, in discussion with the author, February 2014.
  47. Glenn Lewis, email message to author, February 16, 2014.
  48. Kate Craig, from a short essay on the making of Backup and her administrative role in the space. Dated July 27, 1980. Written on Craig and Bull’s personal letterhead, found in Dragu’s artist’s file in the Western Front Archive.
  49. The Western Front had video equipment that was unavailable elsewhere in Canada at the time: the first JVC editing decks, new colour video cameras, etc.
  50. Margaret Dragu and Kate Craig met in Toronto in 1975. Members of the Western Front performed in a show called Spots Before Your Eyes at A Space. Dragu was hired on to tighten up the group’s sloppy choreography. With a background in dance, at Judson Church, Dragu was well suited to the task. Craig invited her to be an artist-in-residence. Dragu would visit on a regular, yearly basis thereafter, to work on projects and participate in the life of the Front. The tape they put together turned out to be the largest production made at the WF up to that point, with the collaborators having actual production meetings, renting props, and dyeing costumes. Dragu had acted in theatre and television and brought some of that industry professional experience to the endeavour. Her original concept was to make a murder mystery about a private all-girls school. Dragu, in discussion with the author, February 2014.
  51. Each chapter in the film has a title, or mode. The scene on the roof is titled “Mode 31: Get It On.” The pool hall scene is titled “Mode 4: Get Down.” The classroom scenes are titled “Mode 13: Get Up.” The banquet scenes are titled “Mode 112: Get Around.” The cleaning scenes are titled “Mode 202: Get Behind.”
  52. From the group’s 1972 album, Brother, Brother, Brother.
  53. Craig’s own works such as Delicate Issue (1979) and Still Life cont. (1976) are explorations of the artist’s body and living space from exceedingly close up. Craig narrates over the footage discussing the roles of the viewer and the person being viewed and what information can be ascertained the closer the gaze gets to the object, in this case her body. Shots blur and abstract as the camera loses the ability to focus that close to the artist’s body. Often it is difficult to tell what is on the screen until a nipple, an armpit, or shoulder blades appear. This piece is reminiscent somewhat of Joan Jonas’s Mirror Piece (1969), in which the artist attempts to view the entirety of her body with a small handheld mirror in front of an audience. Craig’s piece reads more as an exploration of landscape, and through the voiceover implicates the person on display within the exchange as well. The mediation of the video camera, the intimacy of the camerawork, performed by her husband, Hank Bull, adds to the voyeuristic nature of the experience. Late in the piece when the camera suddenly pulls into focus on the artist’s asshole it’s difficult not to still have a visceral reaction to the scene.
  54. Dragu, in discussion with the author, February 2014.
  55. Rick Prelinger, “Appropriation: Is it Finished? (A Manifesto),” lecture at the Wattis Institute, San Francisco, March 14, 2014.
  56. I have no idea if this is true or not. It certainly was mentioned like a mantra by nearly everyone I spoke with concerning Vancouver’s art scene. Wallace comments on the status of ARCs and the market in the 1970s: “Twenty years ago, few Vancouver collectors ventured into the world of ARCs to explore, and perhaps support, what was considered new or experimental art.” Keith Wallace, “Artist-Run Centres: A Reflection on Three Texts,” in Institutions by Artists, ed. Jeff Khonsary and Kristina Lee Podesva (Vancouver: Fillip Editions, 2012), 262.
  57. For instance, in the 1977 publication from the Canada Council outlining their funding rules and regulation, there is a funding category titled “Aid to Parallel Galleries.” It reads: “This program is for cooperative galleries, founded, and operated by professional artists for at least one year. Grants may cover operating expenses and costs of experimental exhibitions and other artistic productions.” For me, the phrase “experimental exhibitions and other artistic productions” seems remarkable. Canada Council, “Aid to Artists,” 1977, found in the Western Front Archive, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Box 1, File 26.
  58. So on a certain level this runs in direct contrast to Hank Bull’s prior quote: “As an artist you don’t have to fit into an institutional or an economic system. You can make your own up.” The Western Front found a way to integrate itself into both an economic system (via Canada Council grants) and institutionalized in order to continue to qualify for said funding. Even the residency program was not a new system but rather one that operated based on a set of principles venerated here.
  59. Mel Ramsden, “On Practice,” The Fox, no. 1 (1975), 182.
  60. Ibid.
  61. “It may help to think of it as being part of the wider network where artistic activity just becomes one of the elements.” Filliou, “Robert Filliou Defines the Eternal Network.”
  62. Watson, in discussion with the author, January 2014.
  63. Those tapes are breaking down and are in need of digitization, which may or may not occur based on budgets and time and luck to some degree. The tapes that are considered of most historical value and slated for digitization are actually connected with the Vancouver/West Coast literary scene of the ’60s and ’70s. Viewing any part of the archive from the first twenty-five years of the Front means there is a chance you could be the last to see that particular tape.
  64. Natilee Harren, “La cédille qui ne finit pas: Robert Filliou, George Brecht, and Fluxus in Villefranche (deregulation version),” Art & Education, 2011,
  65. A shop that is more or less a prop, rather than a shop selling props.
  66. Ramsden, “On Practice,” 187.
About the Author

Ken Becker is an artist and curator living in Berkeley, California. He is currently in the midst of a year-long stint as Curator-in-Residence for the California College of the Arts Ceramics Department. Prior to relocating to the Bay Area, he worked for fifteen years at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, assisting early- and mid-career artists in the production of new projects. Becker is the founder of the International Cup Makers Union, an ongoing ceramics collaboration. His curatorial strategy aims to connect artists with socially oriented practices to craft-oriented spaces. He has a BA from Bennington College and a master’s in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts.

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