Boring photo conceptualism!

 Vancouver sometime in the 80s or 90s [?]

That’s the Facebook comment I made, 2 words succinctly summing up what I think of a particular ‘school’ of art or maybe it’s a movement, but is it really?

Vancouver photo conceptualism. Yes the best known art movement from my hometown. When I say best known I mean the only’ art thing’ that’s associated with Vancouver in the wider art world.

Okay, just to make a few highly opinionated observations here. Nothing I say below will be ‘fact,’ it is purely opinion.

The occasion was a re-post on FB from a 1984 issue of Canadian Art magazine, specifically an article about the Vancouver downtown art scene. The article, by Art Perry, notes that “The new Vancouver Art proclaims itself from the hoardings: it’s downtown, down – market and high decibel.” [scroll down to see the article]

It’s interesting because there been so many books and exhibitions about the New York Downtown art scene, which like Vancouver’s also started in the 1970s and was at its height in the 80s until the World Fair (EXPO) crashed it down, and by the mid 90s it was really dying. But there’s no acknowledgement of the Vancouver Downtown scene and what is produced or how it left a lasting influence on people (like me!). Although Vancouver at that time was not in the same state of decay as New York, the city had a number of unique qualities that fed into the emergence of a dynamic Downtown Scene that produced really innovative and interesting artwork and inspired artists, fashion designers, musicians and people in general.

Vancouver was then a relatively small city which, as now, had a densely packed highly walkable downtown area. The old downtown core, which was starting to decay a little, offered up spaces for studios, happenings and all kinds of activities. It was a really interesting time and place. It was a pretty eclectic mix, all ages, social classes and a although Vancouver was not quite as ethnically diverse as it is now, the art scene was relatively diverse. And it was genuinely nutty. Fruity and nutty.

Because Vancouver had no appreciable visual art collection, no Musee de Beaux Arts, and an infinitesmal art history, there was a sense of freedom from any influence other than lived experience. The only Old Masters I ever saw growing up were in the pages of books, which meant that I could cut them out and collage them on a sheet of paper and then photocopy that with no sense of reverence. Essentially, we had no contact with the “art world” as such. I suppose this has its pros and cons. It can create an insular scene, but it can also be an extremely rich breeding ground for creativity. I suppose Vancouver at the time was a bit of both, but people were aware of what was going on in the rest of the world; people read books and magazines and travelled a bit. Though it has always struck me, then and now, how self contained Vancouver was culturally; despite being close to Seattle and  California there has never been much evidence of cultural exchanges.

Sometimes known as Terminal City, Vancouver is situated on the very edge of the North American continent, facing the ocean. The rest of the province is wilderness and small towns and south of the city lies the vast empire of the  United States. I suppose that sense of being at the final shoreline of  a continent where the seat of power remains firmly in the East, at that time offered a sense of freedom. Another source of freedom, though a tainted one, is that the City of Vancouver, and the Province, never supported the arts one bit, and certainly not the Downtown Scene. This meant that Vancouver artists never owed anybody anything, and that is good. On the other hand, the long-term effects of absolute neglect by the city and the province, and their pigheaded refusal to acknowledge or appreciate the arts in any way (other than ostentatious public art), was to effectively kill off innovation and creativity. It was left to the institutions, the city’s art school and universities, to take care of things. But institutions can’t do that. People are only in institutions for a couple of years, after that they graduate and they have to become ‘the art scene’. And if the art scene isn’t supported and acknowledged and allowed to flourish, then what’s the point?

Music, on the other hand, burgeoned. With international punk stars such as DOA essentially ‘founding’ hardcore, the city’s art-punk scene, led by painter Jim Cummins’s I Braineater, was even more experimental. Bands like Tunnel Canary, Mecca Normal and U-J3RK5 (featuring Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham) combined performance art with truly innovative clever sounds. And of course the city nurtured the genesis of industrial music, with Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly and more.  

Art Perry’s observation that Vancouver art was “in the street”, blaring from the hoardings, a brash loud and eclectic downtown scene was, by the time the article was published in 1984 absolutely true, yet within 2 years things started to change drastically.

Essentially 2 things happened, one was quite a positive one, in that some of the artists emerging from that downtown scene were gaining traction within the wider art world with distinctive lens based art. Although not a great deal actually links the so-called Photoconceptualists to each other except Vancouver itself, I suppose it was impossible to resist creating a “Vancouver art brand”, given Vancouver’s relative anonymity (Perry’s article notwithstanding) within the larger Canadian and international art scenes. Creating the “Vancouver School of Photoconceptualism” presented Vancouver art to the larger international market, but in doing so inevitably it created the sense that anything that didn’t belong to this movement essentially didn’t exist.

In theory, there is nothing really wrong with photo conceptualism as a practice, although I suppose for me I find it disappointing because what is known as the “Vancouver movement of photo conceptualism” seems to be so male-dominated and so dependent upon having access to extremely high quality high-end camera equipment and expensive display. I’m a huge fan of William Egglestone, so don’t think I don’t see the beauty in the banal.  yet much of the Photoconceptualist output seems to me to be quite overly banal. Quite a lot of conceptual art is too banal for me. Give me Rubens over Martin Creed any day.  If I want philosophy I don’t want it half baked; I’ll read a book or watch a good film like Astra Taylor’s Examined Life or one of Slavoj Zizek’s film essays.

Although it has its roots in the Vancouver downtown scene, the products of photo conceptualism that have become known and successful seem to me to be overly commercial, so high-end collectible, so designed for the art market, and – inevitably – so utterly predictable. Because of this, the purported “social engagement” of the photo conceptualists rings a little bit hollow. I have always found the photo conceptualists work much more interesting when I have seen it reproduced in the pages of magazines, than when I have seen it hanging on a wall. On the page of a mass-market magazine the photos jump off the page and are very exciting and challenging to the dominant media discourse. (Of course, not all the artists who are sometimes feted as Vancouver Photoconceptualists really deserve that definition, because some of them – such as Rodney Graham or Paul Wong –  are much more diverse and eclectic and make a wide range of different types of work.)

The 2nd thing that happened was not positive in my opinion, and that was the wholesale giving over – by all levels of government – of the entire city of Vancouver and its regions to developers* and their clients, many of which  came to the city with shed-loads of what might be called “absolutely dirty money.” That is, money laundering; untaxed money extracted from impoverished populations of totalitarian regimes, which is then spirited away and invested in Vancouver for the delectation of corrupt oligarchs and their families. Don’t forget, in ’89 the Wall came down and within the decade the oligarchs had arrived, laden with cash ripped from their raping of the populace of the formerly socialist states.   (* the developers who feed chunks of the city to these oligarchs then dominate and dictate the local art market) Course there’s a knock on effect; the city gets ripped down and built up, and in the place of bars and galleries and studios for artists, there are instead condos and all kinds of ‘investment’ (laundering)  properties, many of which remain empty or at best are filled with anodyne identikit bland nonsense. Then the live music disappears, the theatres and independent movie houses fold, and in place of life you get “lifestyle.”

— By way that is not something that just happened in Vancouver; it’s happening everywhere, and in the time that I’ve lived in London I have seen it storming in … Everybody loves an oligarch, the filthier the better; the more his hand drips with the blood of the expropriated, the more the system licks his feet…

From my point of view this whole thing kicked off only 2 years after Art Perry’s article was published. 1986 was the year that Vancouver was officially designated a “world-class city”. [wtf?!] That was when Vancouver played host to Expo 86. Remember the Expos? The so-called world fairs where all kinds of different countries plopped their own pavilions down in a kind of super fairground, each intending to showcase that country’s wonders.

Frankly, despite being young and inexperienced in life,  I found Expo 86 pretty appalling**, as even I noticed that some of the greatest pavilions from the sightseer’s point of view were bankrolled by the most totalitarian regimes. But it wasn’t so much what was on offer on the Expo site which was so shocking, it was the way in which the city was so speedily torn up, and thousands of people evicted from housing, in order to put a on brand-new veneer of world classness and make way for tourists. The downtown core of Vancouver as a cultural nexus disappeared and in the wake of Expo a hideous kind of rot and decay set in, as huge swathes of the old downtown was bought up by absentee landlords and left to decay, I guess in the hope that once the buildings became unviable they could be torn down and new modern blocks put up in their place. Over the next decade and a half the city decayed more and more and became host to an absolutely intractable problem of needle drug addiction. I’m not even going to talk about this here.

** [EXPO 86 was marked by the socalled Expo Riot when the Vancouver band Slow (brilliant) encouraged the audience to rebel:

“Expo was incredibly unpopular in the eyes of the majority of the alternative music community and we were under a lot of pressure, perhaps self-imposed, to do something to protest a lot of really lousy things that happened, like the evictions,” recalls bassist Stephen Hamm. “Slow prided itself on being a volatile, unpredictable and dangerous rock ‘n’ roll band – probably the only one this town has ever produced”. The band exposed themselves onstage, which prompted the venue to shut off the power and then all hell broke loose. It was great.]

With one part of the downtown blighted, and the other ‘gentrified’ the sense of an artistic core culture seemed to disappear. There is certainly nothing in the city that might now be called its “downtown, down-market and high decibel” hearbeat – at least not on the surface, noticed and available to everybody. And this is where the photo conceptualist idea really starts to make me groan. If there is critique and social engagement in the work, and frankly I don’t really see it myself, it is so polite, like a hushed whisper at a developer’s cocktail party. That’s what I mean by “boring photoconceptualists”; it is not necessary that every work itself is “boring,” it is just that it is so polite, so polished, that I feel a bit sad that it is the dominant ‘face’ of Vancouver art. No more fruitness or nuttiness…

downtown van (1)

And what about cinema? Vancouver is the centre 2nd biggest centre of film production in North America. Much Hollywood product, from television series to blockbuster feature films were made in Vancouver by Vancouver crew, though not usually by Vancouver directors or writers. Surprisingly, the existence of all these facilities and talent in the city has not had a knock-on effect of creating  a lively “Vancouver scene” of independent filmmakers. This still may happen – how long can you hold your breath?

I don’t know … Maybe this is just the view of an expat… it might look different if I was there all the time instead of twice a year … I don’t know why …  maybe the lure of “lifestyle” over life just really is too attractive to people … Maybe that’s why I moved away to a place which has no appreciable lifestyle, but a hell of a lot of life. …

But I miss my hometown and so I’d like to end this rant simply by saluting those in Vancouver, the musicians, artists, photographers and creatives who still know how to be “downtown, down-market and high decibel” and are keeping some small corner of the city alive. Jimmy Cummins the great Braineater, this means you!

The article I referred to