April 24th, 2013 · Liz Park
Tales from the Western Front (part 1)
Tales from the Western Front (part 1)
By Liz Park
The Western Front, Vancouver's historic artist-run center for new art forms, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Founded in 1973 by eight artists—Martin Bartlett, Kate Craig, Henry Greenhow, Glenn Lewis, Eric Metcalfe, Michael Morris, Vincent Trasov, and Mo van Nostrand—the Western Front has been an important pillar in the city’s contemporary art community. This interdisciplinary art organization has supported the production and presentation of exhibitions, media art residencies, performance art, music, and publications, and houses an impressive archive of early media work and recordings of performance art by international artists including Antoni Muntadas, Tania Bruguera, Mona Hatoum, Chip Lord, and Sanja Ivekovic, to name a few.
I first became involved with the organization as a Media Arts curatorial intern, and soon after, as a curator in residence. This experience has been instrumental in my development as a curator and the Western Front continues to be one of my most cherished workplaces, sites of social gathering, and contemporary art spaces. What makes this organization unique is that it is a living space, literally and figuratively. Initially conceived as a communal live-work space by the eight founders, the Western Front still remains home to Eric Metcalfe and Hank Bull, who later joined the group and took up residence with his late wife Kate Craig.
In writing about the activities of the Western Front, it is impossible to separate the lives of those involved with the organization from their art practice. The members were inspired by Fluxus ideals, and saw their life as art and the everyday activities of their communal living as a performance. This brief text cannot do justice to the 40-year history of the organization that has fostered the growth of so many people in the arts and has left a profound impact on the arts community in Vancouver and beyond. In place of writing an authoritative or a didactic account, I engaged in a conversation with Eric, Glenn and Hank as well as consulting previously recorded statements and publications about the Western Front. This text is a confluence of stories from the artists whose performance of the everyday became the very fabric of this important organization that continues to define the place of art in the larger cultural ecology.
Stories of the Western Front often begin with the purchase of a building, now lovingly called the Western Front Lodge. Keith Wallace, the editor of Whispered Art History: Twenty Years at the Western Front, writes about the Lodge in the introduction:
The building initially catered to the secret fraternity of the Knights of Pythias, a charitable organization founded in 1864 to heal the hatred instigated by the American Civil War, and whose rituals are based on the story of Damon and Pythias, two ancient Syracusians so committed to their friendship that they were willing to die for each other. The interior contained two large gathering halls, two kitchens, office areas, staircases, a long corridor dotted with closet-like spaces that stored ritual paraphernalia, and other assorted undefined rooms and closets. The doors were fitted with peepholes that serviced requests for entry during initiation rites. For artists, it was a building ripe with possibilities for residences, common areas and working spaces that, though within the same complex, could also provide some degree of privacy.
It was indeed a space of possibilities. As Kate Craig states in a 1983 statement about her personal involvement with the Front:
It was becoming increasingly difficult to find space to work, and the nature of the work was changing. So when the Western Front building became available we decided to buy it… In the seventies, with the performance work that was going on, the beginning of video, a place like the Western Front was ultimately suitable. In fact, I think the building itself had a tremendous influence. It made it easier to do certain kinds of work.
For Eric Metcalfe, the building itself and the collectivity of the group fundamentally changed how he practiced as an artist:
I am sure the architecture informed our practice. The bigger room upstairs offered itself to performance. We had poetry reading, musicians coming by to play music…. The next thing I know, I found myself moving more and more in the direction of performing and making videotapes as did Kate. The practice shifted into what was going on there. The development of our practice was very organic, although there was a strong dose of conceptualism.
The physicality of the building also helped foment a sense of community. It not only provided a much needed space for performance and exhibitions, but also acted as a hub for long-distance exchanges.
A lot of people came here the first year to see what we were doing. Ant Farm, an architectural group from San Francisco, came up. Willoughby Sharp and Liza Béar from Avalanche magazine came and did a profile on us. Robert Smithson [who also visited Vancouver, but earlier in 1970] was on the front cover of the issue we were in. Those were the kinds of infusions that happened at that time.
[Because of the building] they could come and stay here. It was like a big rooming house.
We were trying the communal thing. Undoubtedly we shared meals together, talked about ideas. The building allowed for social exchange, parties, and the things that went with it, in the best possible way.
But it was not all parties, of course. It was a site of learning. When Hank Bull joined the organization shortly after its formation in September 1973, it provided him with an unparalleled education in contemporary art:
I had already spent a couple of years at the New School of Art in Toronto, which was an artist-run alternative art school. The Front was kind of like a post-grad experience, if one were to compare it to formal education. In material terms, it is also worth pointing out that although I was there almost daily (and nightly) and worked in many capacities, I was not paid for the first few years. So that makes it more like a school. And of course it was not a formal education; it was an informal education.
Speaking only for myself, I took a kind of anti-professional stance, a kind of militant improvised Renaissance amateurism, inspired in part by Don Davis, the one-man band we met in Hollywood during the Deccadance (1974), whose motto was TOTALmedia. The seventies were a period of intense artistic production, with HP radio [a weekly radio show I ran with Patrick Ready on Vancouver Co-op Radio for eight years starting in 1975], the shadow plays, numerous collaborations, and support for many productions by other artists.
Guiding the experimentations, collaborations, and the ongoing learning process were key mentors. By 1973, Glenn Lewis had had experience teaching at art schools and organizing exhibitions and performance events as a member of the Intermedia Artists Co-operative (1965-1971). Michael Morris was another member of the co-operative with significant curatorial and administrative experience—it was Morris who penned the organization’s mandate to promote “the role of the artist in determining the cultural ecology.” They had an influential role at the Western Front, as did the French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, a frequent visitor and artist-in-residence in 1973, 1977, 1979, and finally in 1980. Lewis states:
Filliou and his Fluxus work were a great inspiration when he visited and worked at the Front in the early days. I had already been doing conceptual work at Intermedia, like the film Blue Tape Around City Block in 1969, but Filliou confirmed and strengthened this direction for me, and showed me the depth of this kind of “living art.” There were a tremendous number of artists and their work from all over the world passing through the Western Front. As an artist, some of that must have rubbed off on me.
Filliou provided affirmation and encouragement by providing an international context for the activities at the Western Front, which considered itself one of many hubs in the Eternal Network. As Wallace explains:
This term was coined by… Filliou, who optimistically expressed a belief that artists should be in communication at all times in all places without dependency upon the art establishment. Within the Network, artists most often used correspondence through the postal system as a means of exchanging ideas and images. In this context, making art was a shared activity and not dependent upon the individual artist creating objects within the isolation of the studio. The Network also challenged the idea that certain cities constituted geographical art centres; through the medium of correspondence each artist could be connected internationally without having to live in a major urban centre.
Filliou’s Eternal Network connected the Western Front to its counterparts dotted across the globe, but the members were immersed in other postal exchange networks as well, including Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School of Art and the Image Bank founded in 1969 by Morris and Vincent Trasov. In an obvious nod to Johnson, Lewis founded the humorously named New York Corres Sponge Dance School Vancouver, under the auspice of which he performed synchronized swimming dance routines with all the swimmers sporting a shark-fin cap.
From top: Martha Rosler, slowscan transmission, 1990; Vincent Trasov, Mr. Peanut Mayoralty Campaign, 1974; Wadada Leo Smith, solo concert, 1976.
Lewis, Morris, and Martin Bartlett provided guidance as well as a lineage and local context for the kinds of experimental art activities that took place in Vancouver before the inception of the Western Front. As members of Intermedia (short for Intermedia Artists Cooperative as well as being a Fluxus reference to discipline-blurring), the three artists brought much of the ethos of the previous collective to the Western Front. Lewis recounts the arts community in Vancouver in the 1960s and some of the events that led up to the formation of the Western Front:
Intermedia established an art community in Vancouver… I think in the late sixties it had arisen as part of that period’s worldwide young people’s (student) uprising, drugs, free love, and back to the earth movement. McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller were looked at seriously. The environment at Intermedia was collaborative, but artists did individual work as well... Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer came and gave performance art workshops and the first performances in Vancouver were done in 1968. By 1973 Intermedia had ceased operating.
During the late sixties the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), under Tony Emery, had been enormously supportive of the work Intermedia was doing, basically turning the Gallery over to the artists once a year. I co-ordinated the exhibition at the VAG in 1970. The artists would have large meetings to decide what we would do. In this case, we all decided to construct domes (re: Buckminster Fuller) for each room of the Gallery…. Performance, readings, and installations took place in the domes. It was quite innovative for its time. I mention this because I think Michael Morris, Martin Bartlett, and I took this spirit with us in forming the Western Front. When Intermedia folded, the artists divided like a cellular division, if you like, and formed separate organizations (some not formal) to carry on activities that were developed at Intermedia. The Grange with Glen Toppings and Gary Lee Nova did construction and installations for themselves and others. Intermedia Press was formed by Henry Rappaport and Ed Varney. Video In (now Vivo) was formed by Michael Goldberg and a number of others… Women in Focus was formed by Marion Barling and others. Cineworks was formed…
Western Front was formed and probably had the most ambitious programming (of subsequent artist-run centers in Vancouver) incorporating exhibition, new music, performance, readings, film screenings, video documentation… and you could probably throw in cooking and dinners.
So began the first few years at the Lodge and a new chapter in all of the artists’ lives as the Western Front became a way of life for them. In the words of George Maciunas, the leading proponent of Fluxus who penned its Manifesto, the members of the Western Front “obtain[ed] their ‘art’ experience from everyday experiences, eating, working, etc.
WF NOW (New Orchestra Workshop), concert, 2008, Grand Luxe Hall.
Liz Park is a Performa Magazine writer in residence.
(from top): Glenn Lewis, New York Corres Sponge Dance School of Vancouver, 1973. Hank Bull and Patrick Ready, the HP Radio Show, 1976.
All photos courtesy of Hank Bull and the Western Front Society.