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Victor Coleman

"Collage or Perish!"
A Colloquium concerning 'Relations Between Writing and the Graphic Arts'
held at Stanley House, The Gaspé, Québec, Summer 1973.

Provincial Essays #4, 1987.
[ 2,365 words ]


Early in 1973, when I was still senior editor and production manager at the Coach House Press in Toronto, I was approached by the Canada Council to organize a colloquium at Stanley House, the former Governor General's summer residence in the Gaspé. The ostensible 'topic' of the colloquium was 'Relations Between Writing and the Graphic Arts.' I was told that I could invite fourteen artists and writers to participate and that a representative from the Council would also attend. As I sat up nights making lists of possible guests it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was put together a working group that would be able to create, rather than merely discourse and analyze. At the time, collaboration was a buzzword for the large circle of artists who were at the leading edge of the avant-garde and the original movers & shakers in Canada's then fledgling 'artist run' movement: Coach House and A Space (Toronto), the Western Front (Vancouver), and other, independently minded individuals who liked working together on projects that satisfied their experimental designs.

The dates of the colloquium were July 2 - 7. The participants were: Dana Atchley (a.k.a. Ace Space), who had authored one book [on the printing of books], was a graphic designer, performance artist, archival lecturer, and video artist; Stan Bevington, head coach at Coach House Press, graphic designer, photographer; Victor Coleman (a.k.a. Vic d'Or), writer, editor, designer, performance artist; Robert Fones (a.k.a. Robin Cones), writer, painter, sculptor, graphic designer; Michael Hayden, sculptor, video artist; David Hlynsky, photographer, graphic designer, writer, painter, holographer; Catharine MacTavish (a.k.a. Everything Associates), collage artist, painter; Jerry Ofo, illustrator, writer, designer; bpNichol, writer, concrete &sound poet, graphic designer; Jorgé Saia (a.k.a. Jorgé Zontal), one third of General Idea; Sharon Smith, writer, musician / composer; Michael Sowdon, photographer, graphic designer, painter, holographer, amateur magician [with Hlynsky, half of Fringe Research]; Rick / Simon, photographer, graphic designer, interloper; Vincent Trasov (a.k.a. Mr. Peanut), painter, performance artist, photographer; and David Young, writer and collage artist.

All the participants had been associated with Coach House in one capacity or another, and Coach House had been, in many ways, the focus of a certain kind of non academic interdisciplinary activity in Canada since 1965, when Stan Bevington, writer Wayne Clifford, and art historian / curator Dennis Reid founded the press. Visual artists and writers were actively rubbing elbows and collaborating on book productions from the beginning and that collaboration led to similar cross-disciplinary activity through A Space, the Western Front, and other cultural [artist-run] 'centres' across the country.

I had few preconceptions of what might happen at Stanley House, just a certain resolve that the five days would be productive — full of new ideas about the 'ultimate' relationship between writing and the graphic arts.

Everyone was encouraged to bring a camera, and most did. Most of the participants originated their sojourn at Toronto's Union Station. We took an evening train to Montreal and changed there for the sleeper to Québec City and the Gaspé. Ten of us crowded into Dana Atchley's 'roomette' and Dana showered us with stories and squirted us with his water gun.

We arrived in Richmond, P.Q., early July 2. As we stood on the platform at the small station, cameras emerged and began to record one of the most remarkable collaborative productions I have ever witnessed.

Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert had been invited to participate, but at the last minute couldn't make it. One of the younger members of the Coach House graphics team (along with Hlynsky, Sowdon, and Bevington), Rick / Simon had expressed great interest in attending, but I couldn't fit him in because of the Canada Council's stated desire to participate. The Canada Council rep. could also not attend at the last minute.

We arrived, as appointed, in the morning and were met by Stanley House staff who announced to us that 'the chairman' had already arrived. As it happened, Rick / Simon had arrived the day before and had identified himself as me! Quickly adjusting to the first in a series of inadvertent identity crises, I introduced myself as Gerry Gilbert. The week had begun.


The Identity Party

Since two thirds of our participants had pseudonyms, everything seemed to be in order. Each of us was assigned a room, informed of the meal schedule and told to relax until our first 'meeting' before dinner.

The Stanley House staff consisted of four chambermaids, a grounds keeper / janitor, a cook, and 'the Matron'. As it turned out we were the colloquium that was to be subjected to a changing of the guard. We had two 'Matrons,' two doting moms to contend with — one outgoing, the other just beginning. A lame duck and a virgin. HELP!

I unloaded my luggage in my room and headed for the beach. The chambermaids were sunbathing and I asked them if there was a boat we could use. They showed me where it was moored and hopped in with me for a quick row on the lake. The rest of the party made their way slowly to the water's edge and encountered a sight that bordered on the apocryphal: there I was on the lake in a rowboat with three chambermaids — none of whom spoke English!

Our first meeting was an informal affair over coffee in the living room. We discussed the reality and the possibilities and decided that fiction was stranger than truth. We collectively determined to produce a final report of our meeting that would be unlike any other in the history of the place.

Days were set aside for various activities — but everyone was encouraged to create an individual / collaborative product. The camera was our 'weapon' and the scenario our 'battlefield'. We succumbed to our creative instincts and decided to 'go for it'.


Genre Blur

One morning, over breakfast, I suggested that the day be devoted to three person collaborations involving the documentation of everyone's fictional murder, in turn. Each was to be the architect of his / her own fantasy demise, having chosen a perpetrator and a documenter. The genre was clear, more specifically it was in direct reference to Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. The ultimate product was to be another genre (format, really): the Italian fumetto or French photo roman. Although few of these murder scenarios ever saw the light of day, a fumetto-like final report on the colloquium appeared in the fall 1973 issue of FILE Megazine.

The spirit of collaboration led to some fairly odd photo encounter sessions, such as the one created by David Young, Vincent Trasov and Sharon Smith one day on the beach. The trio, all nude, were photographed by David Hlynsky. A roll of aluminum foil was unrolled and Sharon was ceremoniously wrapped, then carried into the water and 'set afloat'. This event —a performance for the camera —was emblematic of an aesthetic that eschews the academic premise of colloquy, preferring to take in the colloquial roots of simple discourse. The big issue we were addressing was visual literacy. At the time another buzzword around Coach House was 'post literate', which in many ways had a more piquant meaning for many of us than the more academic 'postmodern'.

When I look now at the work produced by these artists and writers, then and since then, I feel a strong sense of relationship that ignores the borders between artistic disciplines. I'm reminded of bpNichol's whimsical illustrations for his own writing, his visual poetry and his experiments with sound; of Robert Fones's poetry illustrated with found anthropomorphs, or his own drawings and his exhibitions of paintings and drawings that feature text prominently; of the impersonation of an anthropomorphic peanut by Vincent Trasov, his subsequent run for the Vancouver mayoralty and his long association with Image Bank [see A Selection from the Morris/Trasov Archive elsewhere on the site] and the Western Front; of David Young's brilliant collage work and the visual language subsequently applied to his 'collection' of stories (?), Incognito [Coach House, 1982); of Michael Hayden's neon monuments and his sense of radical decoration; of Sharon Smith's musical voice coming through clear and strong in her short memoir, Fox Lore [Coach House, 1974]; of Dana Atchley's careful study of the art of fine printing, his gorgeous designs for Jonathan Williams's witty one-liners [Blues & Roots / Rue & Bluets, Grossman, N.Y., 1971]and his work as a bricolleur of American monumental kitsch; of Jorgé Saia's Good Enough to Eat exhibition [Rochdale College Art Gallery, 1970) of photos of dinner place settings and his narrative drawings; of Jerry Ofo's illustrations for bpNichol's Martyrology [Coach House, 1972, 1977, 1979, 1982), his famous 'wiener finger' icons and his tireless work on the dollar bill Queen engraving which he cut and pasted for months in order to make [the monarch] bald, and his notebooks of mad aesthetic theory; of Catharine MacTavish's small scale booklets in collaboration with Robert Amos, her 'unseen father' collages and her subsequent monumental paintings; of Michael Sowdon's photographs and paintings, his book designs and illustrations (especially those for Robert Sward's Jurassic Shales [Coach House, 1975), which incorporated [some of] Jerry Ofo's [bald] Queen collages, and his pioneering work in holography; of David Hlynsky's renaissance man development, beginning with photography and slides, painting and holography, and his integration of fiction and photo [ Salvage, Coach House, 1981, available in an online version elsewhere on this site]; of Stan Bevington's support of much of this activity through his 'cottage industry' printing philosophy, his photographs, and his impeccable sense of design.

But, as Bill Hutton would have said: 'What does it all mean?' I could easily understand why our hostesses were a little disturbed by our behaviour. Our week at Stanley House was distinct from all others that had previously (or subsequently) been held there. We came to create, to demonstrate, not discuss. One of the lists produced went as follows:

... Hmmm, let's see, 27 rolls of PAN X 36 exposures; 17 rolls high speed infrared, 20 exposures ... three loops of placebo clicking, 1400 feet of chemically treated voice print eradicator and a battery of Nikons with trip wires ringed, er, rather rigged in parallelograms from the six points of the compass ... right ... then they move down to the beach thinking their talking will be the thing remembered. Fr6 at 125th with a slight juggle which is my heart and then freeze the bastards with a methane flash, precious, for the Silver Archives ....


But we were a rowdy bunch, capable of some pretty odd looking high-jinx. And the nudity didn't help to assuage the delicate attitudes of our hostesses. In the middle of our stay, Wednesday evening, the outgoing matron called Naim Kattan at the Canada Council and, saying that things had gotten out of hand, threatened to remove the staff from the premises.

We were colloque maudit. At the wrong place at the wrong time. The chambermaids loved us. Too much, it seemed. I had been spotted alone in the rowboat with three of them that first morning. And Rick / Simon, 'Mr. Chairman', was happy to entertain them and they tried to join our evening parties but were ultimately forbidden to do so.

Some of the resources available to us at Stanley House are found in another list:

Thirteen bedrooms upstairs, two downstairs, a kitchen, a staff of seven, two pantries, a dining room, two parlours, a bar, halls everywhere, bathrooms for the ladies, bathrooms for the men, a gazebo, 2,000 feet of ocean frontage, 200 acres of ripe daisies, ping pong, darts, cards, 300 back issues of Fortune Magazine, pillows that have cushioned Nijinsky, Truman, Gordie Howe, and a telephone directory you can read in the twenty minutes it takes to drive to the liquor store.


Videotapes were made of luncheons and of the preparation of one evening's dessert, a trifle, if memory serves. After dinner the video monitor was wheeled out and the tape of dessert preparation was enjoyed by all. This was, I think, our last evening meal, and relations between us and the staff had improved immeasurably in just one day.


Le Silence d'Or

One morning a sign was posted announcing that it was 'golden silence' day and that communication must be achieved without speech. There was plenty of singing at the table, but subsequently most of us kept the pact.

At any given moment two or three of us would be huddled over typewriters, or arranging ourselves in various poses for the assembled papparazzi. Somewhere else a couple would be madly collaging ('Collage or Perish', using 'whatever was lying around'.)

Another list:

Hmmm, let's see ... cigarettes, one bottle of scotch, Courvoisier, one gallon of red wine, one gallon of white wine, three cases of beer, three rolls black and white 3000 Polaroid film, two rolls 120 colour, two rolls 120 black and white, four rolls fast 35mm black and white (four more rolls, please), Bristol board and Lepages glue for collaborative collages (mind expanding gifts for the over 45 set), party eye masks (basic Tonto black is best), stencils, package of razor blades (gauge optional), several bathing caps (the Clean Feel of '84), gauze mosquito netting (chiaroscuro bondage), bright red lipstick (for animated exchanges), one roll masking tape (for beach bondage), a length of chain (put teeth in those threats), a ten foot piece of dowl (for those prodding conversations), a super large pad of cheap paper as message board (jungle communication), random go between props, green garbage bags (suggestion boxes), matches (light them outside, please) ....


Signs were posted everywhere that attempted a complete scramble of identities. Another said simply:

RELATIONS

between writing

&the graphic arts

is prohibited.


In a lot of ways I don't think what we did at Stanley House was much appreciated by the people who had originally approached me to organize the colloquium. We were supposed to sit around in heavy discussion and instead we had one hell of a time playing and creating with one another in a sense of community that seems to border on the nostalgic these days. I firmly believe that this event could have been the prototype for a whole new style of artists' conferences. Instead, our wrists were quietly slapped and things went back, as usual, to 'normal', whatever that is.


Provincial Essays #4, 1987.

Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.


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