Vancouver from the Outside In: Part One
Cliff Lauson and Lawrence Weiner
The influence of 1960s and 1970s international conceptual art practices on the development of art in Vancouver is by now better understood. More contentious is the degree to which the relationship between the local and the international is brought to bear on interpretations of the work and how accurate a characterization the centre/periphery dyad was in the first place. Cliff Lauson spoke with Lawrence Weiner and Dan Graham, two American artists of this generation who visited Canada repeatedly during this time, to discuss their personal experiences of historical Vancouver as well as the art and artists associated with the city. This interview took place in New York on 19 February 2007. The second interview, with Dan Graham, will be published in a forthcoming issue of Fillip.
Lawrence Weiner: My first introduction to Vancouver was when I worked on the seagoing ferries that used to go to Vancouver Island, Seattle, and Portland. So I was in Vancouver during the labour riots when they had the strikes on the docks—I was a part of that.1 Coming back again, I was in all those exhibitions by Lucy Lippard, Seth Siegelaub, and N.E. Thing Co. that were setup through Simon Fraser University.2 Those shows meant a lot to a lot of people.
Cliff Lauson: From an American perspective, how was Vancouver perceived in terms of being peripheral, like Nova Scotia and other non-capital cities?
Weiner: It was a little different to Nova Scotia. In Vancouver at any time there was a lifestyle. Nova Scotia at that time had no lifestyle. In Nova Scotia, if you had to go there, you’d go down to the water to buy a lobster because it was cheap early in the morning, a head of lettuce that somebody had rolled all the way from California, and a little teeny thing of olive oil that they didn’t quite know what it was for. Vancouver was always reasonably sophisticated, very Canadiana. It was not peripheral. It was an exotic, old-fashioned city.
Lauson: Do you think it was not peripheral because conceptual art allowed it to not be peripheral?
Weiner: No, I don’t think it was so-called “conceptual art” that did it. It was just art that did it. There was a lifestyle, and people from Vancouver knew where other things were. Remember that Vancouver had the advantage that Nova Scotia didn’t—Nova Scotia never got involved with the waves of immigrants that were coming through Halifax, but Vancouver had incorporated them slowly into its geist. So Vancouver was very much like a Canadian San Francisco in those days: it had a beat scene and a music scene.
Lauson: When you describe Vancouver as “Canadiana,” is that an ethos related to post-‘68 or the Vietnam War?
Weiner: No, the early sixties—‘61 and ‘62. Later on, it was a different story. You were going for art things, and I didn’t go for the Simon Fraser shows. I met all of those people in Toronto and in other places while they were travelling via the Canada Council.
Lauson: So was the interchange of artists coming into and out of Vancouver similar to that of Nova Scotia?
Weiner: More or less yes. They invited and did projects with people.
Lauson: As a part of the more general, global phenomenon?
Weiner: That was a phenomenon that had come from Black Mountain, Aspen, and all over the world. All those colonies and little towns in France would have people coming and doing things. Yes, of course, that was Canada entering into the international arena, and it entered with a great amount of panache, a great amount of understanding, and very little money.
Lauson: Well, one thing about the group of artists from Vancouver, who are often called a “school” like the “New York School,” but are not technically a school, is that...
Weiner: Yeah, they’re a school. They’re a school.
Lauson: Oh, you’d say they’re a school?
Weiner: Why not? You can even put Dan Graham and me together with some of them.
Lauson: Well, critics do often credit you, Dan, Robert Smithson, Ed Ruscha as the outsider forerunners, as the influence that inspired a generation.
Weiner: But, also remember Ed, Dan, and myself have in common that we don’t really care where anybody comes from.
Lauson: And that’s why the “Vancouver School” artists also don’t really subscribe to the notion of a school—because it implies provincialism.
Weiner: Well, let’s call it “artists who know.” And then you have “artists who know Jeff Wall,” “artists who know Ian Wallace,” “artists who know Ken Lum,” “artists who know this one,” “artists who know that one,” and that’s the school! [laughing]
Lauson: The term often used to describe the early period of their work is photoconceptual art, about which you have said, “Well, photography has always been around, so there’s no reason why it is a new thing.” Do you think photoconceptualism can be a successful artistic strategy?
Weiner: No—since I don’t have any idea of what the definition of “conceptualism” is! Do you?
Lauson: Not so much....I have an idea of what it’s not! What I mean is a form of “soft conceptual”
Weiner: I hate those terms, soft, hard, pure. I don’t quite understand what they are supposed to be about. I do understand people wanting to differentiate themselves from other people. Neither Ian Wallace nor Jeff Wall wanted to be N.E. Thing Co., to be Iain Baxter. I don’t think anybody was expecting them to be Iain Baxter, but he really helped open up that whole idea. The Western Front was important. Mr. Peanut was important.3 These were all integral parts of one’s existence if you were in the art world at that time. They were functioning, they were doing things. File magazine was not unimportant—it had a real place in the world.
Lauson: What seems to define this group is that they learned from artists like the Baxters and then turned away to start out in their own directions.
Weiner: They decided to go in their own manner “international,” and that brought down the wrath of the Canadian system. Remember that all the artists that you’ve chosen to study took the chance of losing the love of their parents, meaning their hometown, by stepping across a line and doing it out in public. And then you got people who couldn’t step across the line because they had been brought up totally dependent upon the subsidy system. Therefore, you didn’t see what you saw before the subsidy system became rigid. Yes, the Canadian government would help all of these people, but it was not quite as rigid, quite as set, or quite as national as it was afterwards. The bureaucracy itself was what stopped other people stepping aside and taking the chance of losing the affection of their hometown.
Of course, a lot of international galleries opened their arms to these people, who were more than happy to show in New York, Toronto, and Paris and were not that worried about the neighbourhood, staying in the quarter. So they received a very easy go into the world, but they did stand up and say, “Look, we’re not just making this for Canada. We’re Canadians making this for the world.”
Lauson: One of the key artistic concerns in the city at the time was its expansion, from the urban to the suburban.
Weiner: The condition of every single city in the entire world.
Lauson: Well, that’s another part of it, as everyplace.
Weiner: Exactly, as everyplace. The same mall structure, the same breakdown and downtown, the same total ethnic divisions for downtown areas, which don’t really exist once you get out.
Lauson: Another thing they all seemed to agree on is that the method of working structurally through language was alone insufficient to address the issues they were interested in.
Weiner: Exactly, but they didn’t realize that photography was just another language.
Lauson: That’s interesting.
Weiner: Drawing is just another language, painting is just another language. I never thought the use of language in art was particularly radical. I make drawings, which are aphorisms with language, and I make work with language, which is sculpture. What is the difference between that and charcoal? There is none essentially. A line is a line.
Lauson: It’s also a response to certain technologies at a given moment with an interest in representation.
Weiner: But remember they were also stuck in a very academic reading. They began to believe that the whole world sees everything in terms of straight lines—half of the world doesn’t even write in straight lines!
Lauson: Do you think it is insular, then?
Weiner: I don’t think that had anything to do with Vancouver. I think that had to do with spending too many years as a teacher or a student.
Lauson: That’s interesting, because pedagogy is a rather central concern if you’re talking about a school.
Weiner: When you’re talking about that, it has so little to do with Vancouver, but with a benevolent academic structure. Maybe not a friendly one, but a benevolent academic structure. As a New Yorker, I never grew up in a situation where I had anything to do with the local museums or spaces and things—coming from a smaller city, that is inevitable, especially if you are linked to the educational services either for an education or for a living. Teaching is a really honourable profession, and I’m not being corny. I know there is no way for me to pay attention to the needs of the students and to pay attention to my needs as an artist. An artist is one person in the world who is never supposed to have authority. And a teacher is one of the people in the world that you are supposed to inherently give authority to.
Lauson: Well, to put it the other way around then, if some were academics first, then they are teachers who started producing art.
Weiner: Then they are authoritative. And if you want to say something about this non-existent “School of Vancouver,” essentially everybody’s work in that group is authoritative.
Lauson: As in modernist?
Weiner: Yes, modernist. It’s all based on the Aristotelian, Aquinaian acceptance of a leap of faith. Modernism is based upon a leap of faith. That authoritative part is an essential part that differentiates Vancouver from other places. They embrace the authoritative stance of what is a misreading of the avant-garde.
Lauson: Does anyone in the city get it right?
Weiner: Very few people get it right in the world. Vancouver is a very strange place, remember. I’ve hitchhiked to Vancouver through Canada. In order to get to Vancouver, you had to come through the whole country, and it was not like the United States, where you went through all of that and the people at the other end looked the same. Once you got to Vancouver, it was a totally different population than Nova Scotia—totally different people with a completely different lifestyle.
Lauson: Which you describe as more like San Francisco.
Weiner: Totally, they are the West Coast. But the West Coast with an impetus of having the most beautiful physical location. You stand there every day of the year and you are probably in the most beautiful city in the world. That is, until you wake up one morning and the mountains ringing you make you claustrophobic. Then you do what Douglas Christmas did and get out.
Lauson: Landscape is a romantic thing, isn’t it?
Weiner: Yes, life is the point of all these decisions. Why did Jeff become an artist? Because it was far more romantic than being an art historian. All these decisions people make are romantic—there’s nothing wrong with it. We are looking at a profession, the making of art, which changes people’s perceptions of this real world we live in. If that ain’t romantic, then I don’t know what is! Without a little sense of adventure, then you’ve got dictatorship, and you’ve got authoritarian nonsense. Put a little romance into it and it’s not so bad.
*Lauson:* And of course, there is the process of historiography as later generations come around to romanticizing the sixties.
Weiner: They were romantic. There were shows being done in the late sixties that were attracting artists from all over the world. But in the sixties everybody was quite naive. We were convinced that the world was trying to destroy itself. Now we know it. It’s not even a conversation. Now it’s not nihilism anymore, now it’s just basically trying to do some fancy dancing and keep it going.
Lauson: And what role does art play?
Weiner: It can be put back.
Lauson: Postponed, delayed, deferred?
Weiner: Or just put back a little romanticism and see what happens. You know anything about chemistry and biology? The slightest change in the mix, in the equation, can give you a brand new product. You might not like what you get, but it’s a brand new product. You didn’t invent anything, just rearranged it.
Lauson: So, naïveté in the sixties and romancing the naive times.
Weiner: A lot of idealism. I think I can take some credit for not having been so idealistic and being quite down to earth. That’s because I’m probably really the only working-class person of that whole group.
Lauson: The whole sixties group?
Weiner: My particular group here, the people that I’m associated with. If you didn’t go to work on Tuesday, you didn’t eat on Wednesday. But you could get work because you had skills, so you were not lost. You were not the lumpenproletariat; you were almost like the new invention of the new world. Whereas Canada happily had a social net, the United States never did.
- During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the coastal ferry services provided by Black Ball Lines and the Canadian Pacific Railway were subject to multiple labour disruptions. To force a settlement, Premier W. A. C. Bennett invoked the Civil Defence Act, allowing the government to seize control of ferry operations and property. Simultaneously, the government announced the establishment of crown corporation BC Ferries to administer all ferry services, buying out any existing routes and preventing private companies from running competing services.
- In 1969, Seth Siegelaub curated the exhibition One Month involving thirty-one artists each given a day of the month of March to produce a work, according to Charlotte Townsend [Gault], “with the idea of assembling an exhibition that would be an idea rather than an actuality….The artist’s name could be listed, along with a description of his ‘work’ and-or relevant information; his name alone could be listed; or nothing at all would appear on this day. The replies and non-replies were printed in calendar form, one page a day, and hundreds of them have been distributed. Artists making art include Robert Morris, who sent a telegram reading ‘USE THIS,’ which is printed, code numbers and all, on the March 22 page; Claes Oldenburg, who wrote ‘My work: Things coloured red,’ for the 24th, and Lawrence Weiner, who specified ‘an object tossed from one country to another’ on the 30th….Obviously this exhibition happens wherever there is a copy of the calendar and someone thinking about it. But it can be displayed day by day in a public place, and this is being done right now in the display case outside the Theatre at SFU.” Charlotte Townsend, “N.E. One for Art?” Vancouver Sun (March 14, 1969). Lucy Lippard’s 955,000 (1970), shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the University of British Columbia’s Student Union Building Gallery, and other sites around Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, included Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Robert Barry, Mel Bochner, Jonathan Borofsky, Hanne Darboven, Jan Dibbets, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Douglas Huebler, On Kawara, Joseph Kosuth, Barry Le Va, Sol Lewitt, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, N.E. Thing Company, Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Jeff Wall, Ian Wilson, Christos Dikeakos, and Duane Lunden, among others.
- Mr. Peanut was the alter-ego adopted by Vancouver artist Vincent Trasov. As Mr. Peanut, Trasov ran in the 1974 mayoral campaign managed by John Mitchell, winning 3.4% of the vote.
About the Authors
Cliff Lauson is a PhD candidate at University College London and is
writing on Vancouver art and artists. He is also working on specific exhibition projects as Curatorial Assistant at Tate Modern, London, and has recently published in Art Monthly and contributed to Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing.
Lawrence Weiner divides his time between his studio in New York City and his boat in Amsterdam. He participates in public and private projects and exhibitions in both the new and old world, maintaining that art is the empirical fact of the relationships of objects to objects in relation to human beings and is not dependent upon historical precedent for either use or legitimacy. A retrospective of Weiner’s work is at the Whitney Museum of Art from 15 November 2007 to 10 February 2008.