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