By Liz Park
This is the second half of "Tales from the Western Front." The first half is available here.
If I am to imagine the Western Front Lodge as a living organism, its heart would be the Grand Luxe Hall—a 1,250-square-foot black box performance space with a fourteen-foot-high ceiling fitted with theatrical lighting and adjacent media production facilities. The Luxe has hosted not only performances, screenings, readings, and occasional exhibitions, but also rehearsals, community meetings, dinner parties, marriages, funeral wakes, festivals, badminton games, and other social functions of various sizes. In this hall, relationships are forged, ideas exchanged, declarations made, and life becomes intertwined with art.
As Hank Bull recalls:
It is useful to remember that for the first 5 years of its existence, the Front did not have a gallery in the sense of a white cube. The idea as I understood it was to leave all that behind for a trans-disciplinary, performative, networked, and collaborative collectivity, [striving for] a kind of revolutionary creative movement.
The Luxe was the platform for these collective activities. However, just as a single-cell organism divides and multiplies to become complex in their composition, the Lodge soon began evolving in its physical and operational structures. Glenn Lewis was an exceptional administrator and organizer who facilitated many such changes.
Our aims and purposes were defined at the get go when we formed as a society. Each of the member/curators defined their own program, and I, as the administrator, would get the details of each and then work out their individual budgets with them. I conceptualized the Media [Arts] Program, which was mostly because I was applying for the funds.
HP Radio Show, Hank Bull and Patrick Ready, 1977.
While Lewis was laying down the foundation for further media-related experiments at the Western Front, Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov conceptualized the Exhibitions Program. After their departure from the organization, Bull was entrusted with the curatorial responsibility.
When the gallery was set up circa 1978 it was used for things like an exhibition of colour photocopy, mail art, and the first slowscan and telecom show produced by Bill Bartlett and Peggy Cady from Victoria. While Michael and Vincent conceived and designed the gallery, laid the beautiful new floor, and decided most of the exhibitions, after they left for Berlin [in 1980] I became the first formal "curator" of the gallery in 1982.
A few years prior, the Performance Program came under Eric Metcalfe’s direction.
Glenn passed on the Performance Program to me in 1979. But I also did the music program, because of my interest in jazz, and some gallery shows. When Glenn got the job as the Head of Media Arts at the Canada Council for the Arts [which remains a financial supporter of the organization to this day], he said I should take on the Performance Art Program. I did for probably too long—20 years. It was a very successful program, given that it sustained itself for those 20 years.
For Metcalfe, Lewis’s mentorship was of utmost importance, especially to him and Kate Craig, who was in charge of Media Arts, Artist-in-Residence Program:
Glenn was very encouraging to us. He really mentored Kate especially. Kate had a chance to start her own thing – the visiting Artist-in-Residence program for video production. This was very innovative for the time.
It was a sentiment shared by many others, including Lewis.
Artists-in-residence is perhaps the most significant Western Front contribution, an idea which has spread worldwide. There are residency programs for artists everywhere now. In the early years of the Western Front, I don’t recall any other galleries or centres promoting performance or artist-in-residence.
"Mini-FM," Tetsuo Kogawa demonstrates the fabrication of a 1-watt FM radio transmitter, 1994.
As the member/curators started molding their own programs, the silo-like structures became more defined. However, the process of becoming an institution of sort was not a conscientious decision for Lewis.
I don’t think I, or probably we, thought, OK, now we are going to be professional… but more likely it snuck up on us. It was a slow process where more was demanded from us from the funding agencies.
For Bull, this period of professionalization was also an opportunity for curatorial experimentation.
In the 1980s, the Front became a platform for curatorial production. As the organization professionalized, so did I. I produced a project with musicians from Africa, which failed but taught me a lot. Then I did Infermental VI, "a video map of the world." Exhibition projects with William S. Burroughs and Canadian tours organized for a number of Japanese artists closed the decade. At the same time I remained active with telecommunications and video projects, including a number of video productions with Eric. The 1980s also saw the proliferation of artist-run centres in Vancouver, with the founding of Or, Artspeak, Grunt and others...
At the same time that we clung to our inter-disciplinary ideals, Glenn, and later Karen Henry, did a lot to develop an effective board and gradually separated the roles and responsibilities of owners, board, and staff.
As Keith Wallace reminds in Whispered Art History, the gradual process of professionalization and division of programs had its root in the funding system from the very beginning.
In late 1973, the Western Front was encouraged by the Canada Council to apply for a grant from the newly instituted Explorations Programme which encouraged ‘exploration’ in new areas of cultural activity. As a result, [Martin] Bartlett, Lewis and Morris developed a music and performance series comprised of six events for the 1974 season… The music and performance series marked the beginning of the Western Front’s gradual division of programmes, a development that often corresponded with the gradual division of funding programmes at the Canada Council. As different media became more evident or specialized within the artist-initiated centres, the Canada Council responded with new programmes. (1)
What Wallace suggests is that the relationship between the arts council and the organizations that it supports is not unidirectional. In fact, as Morris imagined and wrote into the mandate of the Western Front, artists had an important role in determining the cultural ecology, and even shaping the funding structure. Lewis is a prime example of an artist-administrator who has had an influential role at the level of the federal granting body as Head of Media Arts. Nonetheless, as Metcalfe affirms, his performance programming had to be responsive to the context of the funding structure.
My rule was that the performers have visual arts training. If they came from theatre or dance, I was always suspicious. The program was born out of visual arts… and that’s how I ran the program. By the time other people took it over, the whole funding structure shifted and the money was coming from media arts. So the criterion has shifted.
It is no surprise that after the Canada Council disbanded a separate funding stream for performance art that the Western Front began to fold performance art activities into other programs. However, the dissolution of the Performance Art Program itself is no indication of the Western Front’s commitment to supporting the production and presentation of inter- and trans-disciplinary art activities which include performance and live art. For instance, in fall 2012, Media Arts Curator Sarah Todd invited New York-based artist Brendan Fernandes to produce The Working Move. Developed in collaboration with Vancouver-based choreographer Justine Chambers, this performance piece involving ballet dancers in various movements with museum pedestals sat somewhere between dance and visual art, performance and a rehearsal, an exhibition and a demonstration. The work questioned these boundaries and drew new contours around how the audience understands their role at a performance event.
Another example of how performance is currently taken up at the Western Front is Exhibitions Curator Jesse Birch’s most recent group exhibition "Edible Glasses," which was on view from January to February 2013. The title comes from the performance work of Lithuanian artist Ieva Miseviciute, in which edible glasses are brought to life as part of a joke. The curatorial decision to ground an exhibition about how objects become animated through the work of performance is truly in line with the spirit of the Western Front; its members furiously rejected the bourgeois understanding of objet d’art and instead, engaged in intense experimentation around what can be done with such objects. Just as Metcalfe breathed life into the wooden saxophone with leopard spots and a kazoo mouthpiece in his performances under the alter-ego Dr. Brute in the 1970s, the exhibition was pregnant with the potentiality of the objects that can become something else in a performance.
This exhibition opened on January 17, 2013, in honour of Art’s 1,000,050th Birthday; in 1963, Robert Filliou proclaimed that Art was invented a million years ago when someone dropped a dry sponge into a bucket of water. This anniversary tradition at the Western Front is a way of looking back and acknowledging art as something living, growing, and maturing—something worth celebrating. At the Western Front, such celebrations often take place at the Grand Luxe Hall, where its constant use is like the beating of the heart. The hall has recently undergone a number of improvements, including new walls, technical equipment upgrades, and uncovering and reinstalling the windows.
Each time the physical building is renovated, it is indicative of a new phase, growth, and evolution of the organization itself. It only makes sense that the architecture that fostered certain kinds of practices and socialization would be modified according to the structural changes that take place. With every new addition to the staff, the building, and the community that it supports, the Western Front builds on the work of its forbearers. The work and the very lives of those who made the Western Front what it is today can be seen and heard in the walls and the floors. The Western Front is a place for not only the living but the memories of those who are no longer in this world. Traces from Filliou, Craig, the late Patrick Ready, and others are in the media archives, the old filing cabinets, pictures on the wall, and dusty storage bins in the nooks and crannies of the building.
As an upstart curator and researcher, I had the good fortune to sift through these traces in 2008–09. During my time there, I got a sense that the organization has a life of its own. Precisely for this reason, the task of introducing the Western Front is a tall order. In place of a conclusion, and with my most humble respect, I close this text with the words of the late Kate Craig—a pioneering video artist who was at the helm of the most innovative video production and residency program in Canada.
It’s very easy for an outsider to analyze work from the Front and see it as critical of the general culture, but I know with my own work, and my attitude to the Front, it’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 community. The motivation behind a lot of the work is very positive; it’s about being able to find resources—people, buildings, and facilities to actually produce something new. It’s never been a school, there’s never been a manifesto, there’s never been an over affiliation, except with other artists. (2)