Sunday, July 8, 2012

Toronto Curating Itself: An Unhistory

Various locations, Toronto Spring 2012

General Idea  <em>Towards an Audience Vocabulary</em>  1978 Performance documentation / photo courtesy AA Bronson / General Idea New York and Toronto General Idea Towards an Audience Vocabulary 1978 Performance documentation / photo courtesy AA Bronson / General Idea New York and Toronto

“And I might have enjoyed kicking a can of narrative along the iron railings of good Toronto taste, building my story from what people said, what they wore, whom they loved, when and how they betrayed themselves, revealing their secret gallantries, and their hiding places in bad times. Gossip remembered, as Herodotus and many since have affirmed, passes for history.”


—Vera Frenkel

I have lived in Toronto for roughly 10 years, and Vera Frenkel had lived in Toronto for more than twice as long when she wrote the passage above. The quote is part of a series of small essays published in the catalogue for the Power Plant’s inaugural 1987 exhibition, “Toronto: A Play of History.” Frenkel’s essay is a strange entry in an even stranger catalogue, an admixture of frustration, love, contempt, nostalgia: frustration with a perceived marginalization of media (in her case, video); love for the city itself, and its various art communities; contempt for institutional bureaucracy; and nostalgia for her time spent in the city, talking shop with fellow artists in the bars that served as the bases for the then–Queen West scene.

Twenty-five years later, I share Frenkel’s knot of mixed emotions. I am embedded in the Toronto art scene, and while it is socially available to me, as a whole, it is no less difficult, no less elusive than it was when I first arrived here.

Toronto, while it is endlessly self-reflexive, is not particularly keen on self-reflection. The last moment of curatorial self-reflection occurred about five years ago. The Power Plant mounted its Toronto show “We Can Do This Now,” which closed in February 2007. A few months later, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art mounted “LoVe/HaTe: New Crowned Glory in the GTA.”

Both exhibitions were disastrous. Critical receptions aside, they built a kind of abdication into their curatorial statements. “We Can Do This Now” hinged on an unwillingness to engage with the particulars of Toronto art production: “Curators Gregory Burke and Helena Reckitt resist the attempt to survey local artistic tendencies,” stated the Power Plant’s introductory text. David Liss and Camilla Singh’s curatorial statement was likewise resistant, and more declarative about it: “Traditionally it is the role of museums to sort through a particular theme, idea or art scene or movement and arrive at a proposition that will distill an idea down to a palatable, life-force-sucking antiseptic theory that assumes an audience’s need for clean, easily definable and consumable product. But that approach is, like, sooooo last century and naturally compels MOCCA to peel off into the completely opposite direction.” They then go on to aver, “It’s a big, contentious, eclectic, messy and confusing scene.”

These shows, and their public avowals of disinterest in forwarding any kind of cogent summary of Toronto art production, no matter how idiosyncratic, sit in retrospective contrast with a number of other art events. The first Quebec Triennial emerged a year later, in 2008. It was tasked with presenting a show encapsulating an entire province’s art production, and its curators did no such evasive contortions. Will Munro, whose activities and art production were so central to this city, passed away in 2010; the day after his death, the Art Gallery of York University decided to mount a retrospective (it opened in 2012).

Shortly thereafter, I had heard that a young American curator was crossing the country, doing an unheard-of number of studio visits in preparation for a survey show of Canadian art practices; “Oh, Canada” opened at MASS MoCA in May of this year. Around the same time, I heard that Michelle Jacques, who had already engaged the art scene here in a manner unprecedented for the Art Gallery of Ontario via a local-artist-dedicated space (the Young Gallery) and series (Toronto Now) was planning a Toronto survey show for the AGO.

Each of these subsequent events and shows revived a question that nagged me in 2007: why are we unable to make an account of ourselves? How can we possibly make a convincing account of ourselves that can be recognized by the outside world without institutional support? How is it that Toronto’s institutional curators are not only unable to forward a coherent argument about Toronto art production, but almost universally unwilling to do so? Where does this reticence come from? And if Toronto’s curators are unable to account for us, how will international curators make sense of the city?

The history of this unwillingness seems as long as the city’s art scene itself. To me, in a very crucial sense, this history of unwillingness is the city’s art scene.

Before I can continue, it is necessary to refine my terms and draw some necessary distinctions: I use the term “art scene” very deliberately, as opposed to referring to a Toronto art community. Everyone I talked to in researching this essay had many crucial disagreements, but there was one glaring consistency: there is no singular art community. There is an art scene, and that scene is comprised of various smaller communities, each one a fulminating hive of activity.

The history of the Toronto contemporary art scene is the history of lack. In the late 1960s, there were no relevant institutions that addressed its art production—or, some argue, the art production of Canada, period. In his essay “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” originally printed in 1983’s Museums by Artists and reprinted in the catalogue for the Power Plant’s second-ever show “From Sea to Shining Sea,” AA Bronson writes of an art scene “without real museums (the Art Gallery of Ontario was not a real museum for us), without real art magazines (and artscanada was not a real art magazine for us), without real artists (no, Harold Town was not a real artist for us, and we forgot that we ourselves were real artists, because we had not seen ourselves in the media—real artists, like Frank Stella, appeared in Artforum magazine).”

According to Luis Jacob, “Toronto's [initial] response to a lack is not fullness, but to respond to the lack in the mode of a lack.” The impossibility of nothingness is not resolved, merely addressed. General Idea's entire oeuvre was based around the notion of a fiction. They responded to the nothingness of Toronto not by actively creating something, but by disseminating the fiction that they were already art and media legends.

In some sense, General Idea's Towards an Audience Vocabulary could be viewed as the paradigmatic artwork of the Toronto art scene. A group of local celebrities including artists, musicians and fashion designers face an arts-friendly audience; the performers then enact audience-like gestures—a routine I can't help reading now as a method of “teaching” of an audience how to behave like one.

“There is no audience in Toronto,” explains Jacob, “and we have to take them through the ABCs of being an audience. It's witty, but it's also sad, the idea that a group of artists has to create their audience out of nothing, that you can't take the audience for granted.”

It's little surprise, then, that the Toronto art scene seems to have been largely invented by artists. Artist collectives and artist-run centres emerged to address this impossibility of nothing. Whether considering General Idea and A Space, ChromaZone and YYZ, or more media-specific centres like Gallery 44, Toronto Photographers Workshop, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and Vtape, this self-invention birthed an art community in the 1960s, 70s and 80s—and in so doing, created the conditions that haunt more contemporary issues of Toronto's curatorial self-representation.

The first two shows in the Power Plant’s history provide an efficient encapsulation of these conditions. Both had similar intents: curatorial summary. According to Philip Monk, “Toronto: A Play of History” was “a huge debacle, and a huge rejection.” The very next show was AA Bronson’s “From Sea to Shining Sea: Artist-Initiated Activity in Canada, 1939–1987,” which was widely loved and rightly remains an important document in the history of artist-initiated culture.

The key to the divergent reactions to these shows lies in their respective authors. The first show was a product of institutional curation, the second, an artist’s engagement with other artists. The former was seen as an intrusion, a distorted history imposed from above; the latter, a field report from a fellow traveller. Artists had spent the past 20 years writing this new chapter in Toronto’s art history; what right did a curator have to rearrange it? “Who is the Power Plant to impose this history?” Monk asks rhetorically. “It’s this idea that representation has to be all-inclusive; it can’t be a point of view. It’s being institutionalized, whereas the history of Toronto is an artist-written history; why aren’t the artists doing it?”

Toronto had mounted self-reflective group shows before: “Monumenta” in 1982 and “The New City of Sculpture” in 1984, for instance. (One can interpret “The New City of Sculpture” as an echo of the emergence of medium-specific artist-run centres; the show was mounted in response to the notion that Toronto was a “painter’s town.”) Both shows, however, were more interested in inclusivity than distillation. According to Barbara Fischer, "Monumenta," “the first ‘curated’ overview of representational art practice in Toronto, was short on judgment, long on participation and hardly clear-cut in direction.” Nevertheless, it was a mode of exhibition that reflected the social organization of the city’s art communities; an all-inclusive representation.

Louise Dompierre, one of the curators of “Toronto: A Play of History,” must have been keenly aware of the tide of resistance she was attempting to swim against; her essay for the show’s catalogue is one of the strangest curatorial documents I have ever read. The whole thing is rife with qualifications: the show is by no means a closed summary, it is an “admittedly microscopic” cross-section of Toronto art production; Dompierre goes so far as to justify her curatorial selections by offering an appendix cross-referencing the participating artists with important Toronto group shows, as if gathering evidence. Moreover, she spends the first four pages carefully defending the whole idea of selection. YYZ Artists’ Outlet faced similar controversy in 1989: its “Tour of the Instant” show was curated from its annual open-studio “Round Up” shows, causing howls of derision that it was creating a competitive climate and fostering, to quote John Scott, a “dog-eat-dog-eat-dog-eat-gerbil world.”

In my discussion with her, Fischer pointed out that this curatorial distrust is built into the mandate of Toronto’s artist-run centres; the position of curator doesn’t exist within any of their organizational mandates. Thus, the culture that created the Toronto art scene did so by absenting the curatorial role. Moreover, she says, this absence is unique to Toronto: “All of the artist-run centres in Vancouver accept the principle of the curator and always have. In Toronto, in the artist-run centres, that transformation has only taken place officially with Kim Simon’s change [at TPW] from being a programmer to being a curator. And it goes back all the way to Jeff Wall’s position. He was always cognizant of a system in which a curator is an integral part.”

Ah, Vancouver. Any discussion of a Toronto art identity must necessarily involve Vancouver, if only for the purposes of contrast. One cannot say what Toronto art consists of, but Vancouver art conjures an immediate set of descriptors. Perhaps the terminology is outdated, and everyone I have met who has left Vancouver tells me without hesitation of the stultifying effects of that brand. But nevertheless, it is pervasive and successful, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it dictates what constitutes Canadian art in the minds of international curators (for instance, I don’t think it’s an accident that the Canadian art included in the just-opened dOCUMENTA (13) is, with the exception of Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller and Tamara Henderson, entirely from Vancouver).

Vancouver was very quick to make an account of itself, quite literally. Its histories have been documented, and that documentation has been commented upon; positions and counter-positions, a succession of influences, a cycle of artistic commentary followed swiftly by academic recording. All of the people I talked to are quick to point out that, while the discussions in and amongst the Toronto art communities are no less rigorous, the Toronto art scene is poorly documented, barely historicized. At one point in our discussion, Jacob pointed to his extensive library of art books; writing about Toronto constitutes barely a shelf, and books about Vancouver take up three.

Monk points out what he terms a disinterest among Toronto’s academe in describing its recent art history. (Of course, Monk is now director/curator at a university gallery, which makes his statement all the more interesting.) “For decades it’s been a problem that there is no history in place that we can react to or follow,” he says. “We don’t have this sense of self-articulation that history or multiple histories that were in place would produce. We’ll constantly have a problem as an art community being recognized because we don’t have a sense of self-recognition through our history.” Toronto’s history is oral: “Gossip remembered.” Vera Frenkel’s paraphrasing of Herodotus in 1987 holds true to this day.

Vancouver isn’t the only place in Canada with a firmly established identity. Winnipeg has emerged as having a highly recognizable identity. What’s interesting is that, in contrast to Vancouver, where the “school” is dominated by a particular medium, the art production coming out of Winnipeg is wildly diverse: filmmaking, painting and drawing, animation. This diversity is something that all curators point to as one of the immediate obstacles to establishing a firm grasp of a Toronto identity, and yet this hasn’t deterred Winnipeg’s identity formation. Michelle Jacques believes that it’s a question of asserting a place, especially while abroad.

Jacob is quick to observe that, in point of fact, depictions of Toronto are rare in Toronto art; contrast this with the photographs of Jeff Wall or Ken Lum, or the films of Guy Maddin. The physical realities of Vancouver and Winnipeg are depicted in their art. Toronto, by contrast, maps itself through social networks. This is perhaps the strongest dominant theme in Toronto art, and has been a constant for at least 50 years: from Michael Snow to Joyce Wieland to General Idea to Colin Campbell to Lisa Steele to Tanya Mars to FASTWÜRMS to G.B. Jones to Will Munro to Margaux Williamson to me to you; across media, down through generations, Toronto has always placed an emphasis on who it is rather than what or where it is.

So, given all this, will Toronto ever establish an identity for itself? After all, the great legacy of Toronto art has been to create itself out of a lack, to assert a (fictional?) legend in the face of the impossibility of nothingness. But the assertion of an identity can't be a unilateral action. First of all, it must be written. Oral histories have their value, but things get distorted in the passing on of information. And without proper documentation, no scene, no community, can exist in any kind of perpetuity. Written accounts ensure that one's history is available for reference, not only to oneself, but to others as well.

In the economy of meaning, especially in the wider, global art world, for an identity to have value, it must be recognized as such by outsiders. In this, curators are essential. Monk, Fischer and Jacques all assert this schism between Toronto's artists and its curators. They are, in some sense, correct—the rift is ingrained in the Toronto art scene's foundation. But it must be articulated positively. Curators should, in fact, be (interested) outsiders; in that sense, they can act as diplomats, organizing and describing a scene, or perhaps a facet of a scene, not only for consumption by attentive strangers, but as an invitation to further, deeper research.

The artistic-class divide born of an artist-initiated art scene has frustrated that communication; the history of Toronto's artist-run communities is shot through with associating curators with the worst values of the art market. But it is a very different art world now. As Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak pointed out when I spoke with them, when they came of artistic age, one's art strived to resist the market. That is no longer the case; where once a critic or a curator determined artistic careers, the art market mostly does that work. Perhaps, in Toronto at least, this larger shift in the art world will make a new generation of more individualistic, career-oriented artists amenable to curatorial interest.

And, given all this, what might a successful exhibition of Toronto art look like? I put the question to all the curators I spoke with. Monk was the quickest to respond, which is no surprise. He has spent much of his career curating Toronto, and when he was at the Art Gallery of Ontario he did many significant solo shows, with publications, of local artists. Even when his shows aren't an explicit curatorial summation of the city, they are an attempt to write its history; take, for example, his re-enacting seminal shows by Toronto artists: his recreations of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, the various performances by FASTWÜRMS, his retrospective of Will Munro (the latter co-curated by Emelie Chhangur). These shows are a remembering. For him, a Toronto show would consist of two parts: the conceptual strain of Toronto art-making and its queer art community. For Barbara Fischer, the show would be organized via Toronto's sociality, its reflections of itself and mappings of its members.

The greatest pressure is on Michelle Jacques. For her, this question is not an abstract intellectual exercise; she is in the midst of arranging a concrete public answer. Furthermore, she has the history of the AGO to contend with. For many years, Toronto's artists have noted their lack of representation within its halls. The Young Gallery/Toronto Now space is a small, recent, arguably compromised step towards correcting that. So Jacques was understandably vague about her conception of her Toronto show.

“I guess what I'm looking for,” she explains, “is that point where even though you can't do everything, what is communicated is that there is so much here that, even though it's not all here, the rest of it is worth looking for. I don't think the AGO should go into an exhibition thinking that it's the only Toronto show, but it has to be a good enough or exciting enough show that people will say, 'when is the AGO going to do the next Toronto show?'”

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