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Victor Coleman

Cost of Living (1982)

Image Nation 25, edited and produced by Sandra Janz, Chris Reed and Kim Tomczak
Vanguard, October, 1982
[ 857 words ]


Since music, art and literature play an important role in our society. Sing not the songs of make believe. Draw not the pictures of fanciful delusions. Write not the books of empty words, but create to relate, to the struggles of the people.
— Ato Seitu, Fight Apartheid

The quote above, from the 25th issue of the photography periodical Image Nation, contradicts the pun in the title of the magazine that contains it. It is spoken against the imagination that this periodical has so splendidly represented since the late Sixties, when Fletcher Starbuck and David Hlynsky turned a Rochdale College newsletter [edited by the undersigned] into a full-fledged photo magazine. The name of the magazine comes from a serial poem by Vancouver's Robin Blaser, with a nod to William Carlos Williams, who wrote: 'Only the imagination is real.'

The current issue is subtitled 'Artists working towards social responsibility', and the thirteen artists included provide uneven speculations as to how this responsibility can be affected. The editors' Foreword does not provide us with any ideological focus, and it continues to confuse the social with the political, the demarcation points of which must be clearly drawn in order to adequately enact real change.

What we see here is art that reflects the current trendiness of agit-prop amongst the post-conceptualists. In some ways it harkens back to the absurdist collage and the bitchy cartooning of Correspondence Artists, who were seldom explicit about their stand, ideologically. The important thing about Correspondence Art was that it was truly Communal. Globally. I mean these people didn't have Apple IIs — they had postcards densely packed with information, a special language, and, above all, a sense of humour.

Image Nation provided the leading edge of the photographic manifestations of this movement until its (i.e. the movement's) untimely demise — which I place around the time when the postal systems of the world became laid back in Labour's egalitarian rush, not to mention the impossibility of refining such an art form. I should mention that Image Nation 25 is not available at the take-out counter of your local grocery store, or at Mac's Milk, or even through the major bookstore chains. It is distributed to an elite which is defined by the system of dissemination that it is caught in. It's telling 'artists' to be socially responsible — and well it might.

The issues dealt with here are: patriotism/war; American Imperialism and war mongering; censorship; consumerism; the economy (the 'Spectacular Commodity' variety) and lemmingism; circumcision as a barbarism; Canadian Native Revolutionaries; grass roots labour movements; battered spouses; Apartheid; and some things only implied.

What I liked about this issue was not its overall push — it doesn't have one — but a few isolated, some interrelated, pieces that deal forthrightly with the issues they address. Namely, Dave Larson's poem; Al Neil's The Music of Stonehenge; Isaac Applebaum's excruciatingly precise piece juxtaposing a circumcision with late-night stories of German concentration camps told by the parents of the ritually circumcised; Lisa Steele's altered transcript of the ramblings of a battered spouse; and Chris Reed's cartoons -- which strike me as powerful social statements completely devoid of ideological pretension.

Karl Beveridge and Carole Conde's piece on unionized women on strike poses the most problems for me as effective agit-prop as art. Using a composite approach, including reflections from women on strike against Radio Shack, Fleck Manufacturing, Blue Cross, Fotomat, and Irwin Toys, Beveridge and Conde attempt to 'illustrate' the problems and conundrums of women who are new to the labour movement. This portrait of a compos-ite proletarian straddles the real and the stereotype rather gingerly. The ignorance of the woman/women suddenly thrust into the machinations of union organization is evident, and the sympathy of the artists lies with them clearly. Conde and Beveridge go further out on a political limb than does Lisa Steele in her rather matter-of-fact transcription of a similar feminist issue. The difference between these pieces is in the 'art' — Lisa Steele seems convinced that the information, in her arrangement, suffices as art; Conde/Beveridge go beyond editorial judgment to enact the issue in the context of the photographic medium, providing 'fumeti' to accompany their text which include themselves playing the roles of the exploited persons quoted.

Splashes of red decorate the violent depictions of circumcision and Apartheid, otherwise the issue is all black and white, presumably to reflect the social responsibility of the editors and artists. There's certainly nothing cynical about the way the various issues are treated; but there is a flatness, a dullness, to it all that tends to numb the senses one has brought to art for so long, an inexorable dark that succumbs to the easy target, the popular issue, with such an emphasis on the disasters that plague us all that a certain amount of commitment is a prerequisite to enjoyment of the art.

The aim of the individual artists, for the most part, is true; but the organisation of the material is slapdash, and the design is punkishly depressing.

Vanguard, October, 1982

Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.


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