BOOK REVIEW | Nostalgia’s Weathered Charge

Stan Douglas, Vancouver Anthology, 2nd ed., Talonbooks Press and Or Gallery, Vancouver, 2011. 320 pp., $35.00

The original edition of Vancouver Anthology, first published as a series of talks organized by Stan Douglas in the fall of 1990, has been up until now poorly circulated in bookstores and bookshelves due to its limited edition print. Its essays, on the other hand, have secured “must-read” status, gaining permanent residence in xerox centres and custom course packages for the last twenty years. At the outset, the initial premise of the anthology was rather straightforward. In Douglas’ words, as a “polemic,” the anthology sought to determine “what of the recent past persists in the present and why.” In this respect, the re-release of the Vancouver Anthology may initially appear wistfully nostalgic for the collaborative days of artist-run centres and the politically engaged art of the late 60s, 70s and 80s.

One might reasonably expect a book published at the dawn of the 90s, at the edge of the neoconservative precipice, to preoccupy itself with backward-looking melancholy, or find its contributors culling through the ruins of history to work over its remnants, possibly to uncover a contretemps useful within our own moment. But in fact this collection, written after the political miasma of the BC Social Credit Party and its ‘restraint’ years, becomes just as prescient for today’s concerns. When a city like Vancouver permanently disavows its own radical, working-class history, subjecting its memory repeatedly to the planned obsolescence of the commodity form and the forced amnesia of the history-less bourgeoisie, the work of historical memory often requires a vigorous message, if not complete electrotherapy — something that perhaps this anthology will spark.

Foucault once claimed that there are two great families of founders: there are those who build — who lay the first stone — and those who dig and hollow out. The depth and range of essays included are today indispensable: Marcia Crosby on the “Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” Scott Watson on Vancouver’s “Defeatured Landscape,” and Keith Wallace, Sara Diamond and Nancy Shaw on Vancouver’s rich artist-run culture. In the case of the anthology, ‘foundational’ should also read as ‘incomplete,’ a marker of the ‘in-progress’ of a house that was never quite built.

After rereading Vancouver Anthology, I was surprised to remember that the majority of the essays in the Anthology (save for a few exceptions) were less the work of art history, and more often than not restricted to the colorless work of survey, chronology and unadorned historical narrative. Keith Wallace’s “A Particular History: Artist-Run Centres in Vancouver,” Sara Diamond’s “Daring Documents: The Practical Aesthetics of Early Vancouver Video,” and Nancy Shaw’s “Expanded Consciousness and Company Types: Collaboration since Intermedia and the N.E. Thing Company,” are absolutely essential for any understanding of collaboration of that period. Yet in each essay, the writing is lifeless, accepting the placid norm of survey, rather than the detailed, effective analysis of production and its unexpected operations.

The anthology scarcely makes up a genuine attempt at a comprehensive art history. Although the book may present a summary of findings of art from the period, it also offers paths for exploration, like some guided passage through a rough-shod intellectual wilderness — a wasteland by another name. Yet there is still a pressing fear of speaking in universal terms, a fear of ‘totality,’ as well as a dismissal of historical synthesis as either too metaphysical or perilously authoritarian. But the concern comes across more as a mark of its time than a genuine critique.

The problem here may be the format of the conference-anthology, one-off events such as Vancouver Art and Economies (ed. Melanie O’Brian, 2007), Intertidal: Vancouver Art and Artists (2006) and the most recent Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties (2009). The format of the day-long, 2-day, or week-long conference, although rich in substance (sometimes), may not be entirely fruitful as a sustained, painstaking account of contemporary production in Vancouver, regardless of the debates and discussions spurred. That may be an unfortunate symptom of Vancouver’s critical circles who have manufactured rare but well-paying careers tracking all that is “Vancouver.” It would be inane to dismiss these writings and the above anthologies as inconsequential, but it is safe to say that the city, and its disparate collection of projects and pasts, deserves better: a prolonged, more ambitious history, not one taking the form of an easily digestible, brief 10,000 word essay, of which those such as Scott Watson have made a vocation.

Certainly, as someone who was not born until the late 80s, I cannot remember much of what happened in the 70s, but in all honesty, of what significance is it that this-or-that artist-run centre opened at this time, closed on that date, and was concerned with a specific type of anti-hierarchical structure — that is, if there is not also simultaneously an analysis of how collaboration operated, in its most mundane and intimate details, entirely beyond the facts-of-the-matter.

In all three essays, the effectiveness of artist-run centres in the last decades is thrown to Manet’s shredded, anti-utopian firing-squad. But today, when artist-run centres “disperse like dandelion seeds,” to quote Donato Mancini, the whole criteria of what is deemed a success or failure should be re-evaluated. Rather than judge the efficacy of artist run centres on sure-fire signs of attendance, immediate outcomes, funding grants or longevity (as its disfigured cousin the Cheaper Show does), effectiveness should be judged by a whole range of different terms. Among other criteria, what should be measured is a creative ability to undertake investigations that move on a subjective terrain; that catalyze discursive environments capable of sustaining actual thought; and that invent collective modes of being-together that are not easily irreducible to the market, stifling bureaucracy, or the retrograde criteria of funding grants.

In this vein, it is crucial not to dismiss all artist-run centres of this time (Intermedia, Women In Focus, or the most extreme example, Gallery T.O.O. (1988)) as a symptom of an unrealizable “utopian” project. Although some artist-run centres were unable to financially sustain themselves (as with Gallery T.O.O., the space closed within a year), they should not be doomed to the dust-bin of history. As Keith Wallace is quick to point out with Gallery T.O.O., the gallery had no board of directors and was opened as an adjunct residence for “ambitious programming in an unambitious space,” while sidestepping the suffocating demands of bureaucracy or commercialism that had already inundated other, more established artist-run centres. It does not need to be said that the same bureaucracy that persisted back then, continues to level-off collaborative culture and advanced art to this day. In this particular world, if your grant application is flawed, too ‘difficult,’ or poorly written; or worse, if it holds out the possibility of actually challenging the reality of the situation, your work might not meet future prospects.

Similar to the classical workers movement, the apparent successes of artist-run centres may in fact be its actual failures, while its failures are its most promising successes so far. Today, artist-run culture still exists as an uncertain experiment whose truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled. Indeed, the same can be said about other collective modes of being-together that resist transforming into “affirmative art,” providing the necessities of the good, the true and the beautiful for a small, tax-exempt elite.

What makes matters worse is that a number of essays in Vancouver Anthology are tainted by the fear of responsibility and the real dangers of an engaged authorship. In other words, the essays are of their time, ensconced in disempowered postmodernism. Some authors bleed agency dry by adopting the safe position of academic relatavism, disfiguring long texts with apologetic distancing from meta-narratives, universal authority, “difference,” analyses of social reproduction, all the while committing to a reductive and trite survey. The writing becomes an ingredient list of last night’s spaghetti dinner. Sometimes the critique of inequality, disempowerment, difference, comes around full circle to reverse the very critique itself, producing a writing that is more debilitating than liberating.

When reading Carol Williams essay, “A Working Chronology of Feminist Cultural Activities and Events in Vancouver: 1970-1990,” it becomes painfully clear that Vancouver deserves a rigorous and prolonged analysis of feminist production in the city during the later half of the century, and not just Williams’ limited chronology of collaborative practices — omitting as Williams does, solo shows. Vancouver’s feminist history is rich, with a proliferation of feminist orientated collaborations, women-led artist-run centres and collectives — think here of Women In Focus Production and Distribution Centre, Reelfeelings, UBC Woman’s Office; not to mention the presence of women in the most significant Arts administrative positions of their time: Kate Craig as Special Productions at the Western Front and the VAG’s Special Events programming run by Marguerite Pinney (1968-72) and Dorthy Metcalfe (1972-76), especially when the gallery was providing its most exciting and experimental programming. Indeed, recent attempts at posing a definitive feminist production have emerged from Williams’ chronology, such as Marina Roy’s essay on “Feminism and Phenomenology in Vancouver Video and Performance 1968–1983,” and Persistence: An Archive of Feminist Practices in Vancouver (2008), drawn from VIVO’s media archive. Yet again, with respect to an art history, this particular reader is left wanting, still hoping that ambitious scholars will step up and write a book, or two, on the subject at hand — not just a short review in Fillip or in some poorly-funded exhibition catalogue.

Concerning other matters, Douglas’ new editorial omissions are unsettling. The new edition removes the original subtitle “Institutional Politics of Art” from the 1991 edition with no definitive theoretical reason, except that such exclusions speaks to a “more open,” cleaner and simplified Vancouver Anthology. It is possible that the work of  “institutional critique” that came to the fore in the later half of the 20th century, and its successful attempts at raising political consciousness, inevitably fell prey to the instantaneous project of acculturation and co-optation, in the sense that its operations ended up saving the same institution that it wished to annihilate. True, art and life have now merged under the culture industry, complicating any avant-gardist rendering — but in our present, we might also just need a perpetual change of tactics, or at the very least, an acknowledgment that there have been attempts in our midst to transcend the institution itself.

This particular reader is also left disappointed by the unambitious afterword to the re-release. Douglas’ last words comprise two compressed pages. For such a thoughtful and conceptually tight thinker, the piece is lackadaisical. The afterword, penned at the height of the global housing crisis in December 2008, expresses faith that “governments worldwide have rushed back into the business of regulating business and, in turn, will have to make their behaviour answerable to their citizens.” Yet the verdict is in, the Obama stimulus was too small, too half-hearted — less noble than “hope” and much closer to a heightened police operation. The emergency re-distribution of funds by the Treasury has become a crude means for securing order, with no democratic content.

Today, with the US about to default on their debt, the Fed will continue to gun cheap money into the system to keep it from tipping over. As the $814 billion stimulus fades, so too does the political will for another shot at the total overhaul of the banking system, or even Keynesian policy for that matter. Unemployment continues to rise and is kept in check only to the extent that the underemployed ‘precariat’ gives up its search for work (I certainly have!) and — through the magical lens of state calculation — ceases to be “unemployed.” Now, as in the 80s, the United States and Canada are driven to the right with a Conservative majority in parliament and Republican majority in the House of Representatives — the same must be said about the political scene in Vancouver, where, in an upcoming municipal election, NPA and Vision (with a COPE electoral alliance) have adopted the same core values across the board, with no veritable alternative. Vision, the NPA, the BC Liberals, not to mention the Republicans, have a growth strategy, and we know it well: recovery led at the helm by the liberated wealth of the elite. Redistribution of wealth to the top once more!

The parallels with the 80s are drawn: the rise of Bill Bennet and Social Credit Government, and the move of the Vancouver Art Gallery to the old courthouse, and its first exhibition, Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931-1983. At precisely that juncture, then-director Luke Rombout penned the most regressive statements concerning the gallery’s earlier experimental projects:

The Gallery gained its reputation during those years substantially for the Special Events program, not so much for what was done in the visual arts…. [E]ven though they attracted a very particular and very loyal audience…people who were interested in the development of the visual arts, including collectors, had turned their backs on the Gallery…. The first change I made was to virtually cancel the Special Events program. I was determined to bring the Gallery back to being involved in the visual arts. (Luke Rombout cited in Keith Wallace, “A Particular History: Artist-Run Centres in Vancouver” in Vancouver Anthology, (Vancouver: Talonbooks Press, 2011), 36.)

Image by Coupe L’etat

No doubt the Vancouver Art Gallery is still suffering from Rombout’s decision to court the consumption trends of Vancouver’s oligarchy, and pit them against the experimental social practice of Vancouver’s uncompromising artist-run culture. Today the VAG has appointed financiers and real-estate developers to its Board (most recently Terry Hui, President and CEO of Concord Pacific, and Peeter Wesik, Chairman of Wesgroup Properties) while pursuing the least experimental public programming — an artist talk here, a conference there, not to mention a blockbuster exhibition every summer. “Fine Art” becomes something much closer to “Wealth Management.”

If only Jeff Wall were still Marxist and felt similar about what he called, at the time, the “restorationist” VAG:
Those benevolent and innovative, structurally-modernized, almost self-transcending bureaucracies of the 1960s and 70s are becoming restorationist instruments for commercial and cultic values […] The ideal of a dead vanguard is the subjective desire of the institutions which are themselves now being transformed into hierarchical instruments of social control. It is their manifesto, their inner tendency now being forced to the surface. (Jeff Wall, “The Site of Culture: Contradictions, Totality and the Avant-garde,” Vanguard 12:4 (May 1983), 19.)
With the re-release of Vancouver Anthology, Stan Douglas is at ease abandoning himself to an equivalent mechanism. This is because he does not, or cannot, expand his project to encompass the present. Instead, the possibilities of Vancouver’s past are locked into just another historical account, at times too scattered in its own right. At best, Douglas’ afterword is lazy; at worst, it is capitulation to the culture machine named “Vancouver.” As the VAG rallies us all to march further east with its building in-tow, certainly the project of neoliberalism is not over, and a language is needed to articulate this fact. Douglas’ negligence transforms the book into just another valorization of our world, when it was once positioned differently. An apparent nostalgia for Operation Solidarity and its surrounding practices are not necessarily regressive, as one might claim. Nostalgia here could also be envisioned as a powder keg laid at the threshold of the present, whose weathered charge, only requires a courageous match to throw down the door of the old order, forcing us to encounter the alternative located in our own eternal present.