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Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker

West Coast Performance: Praxis Without Ideology?
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

An inaugural exhibition in celebration of the opening of the new Vancouver Art Gallery
at Robson Square, October 15-December 31 1983

[ 2,020 words ]


The Mondo Arte Cabaret was in thehaut-camp performance tradition pioneered by the Western Front years ago: variety show, vaudeville, serious art history, and loads of good silliness, all cooked up together. (1)

The above comment, contained in a review of The Living Art Performance Festival by Toronto critic John Bentley Mays, reflects a commonly held perception of both the content and the form of West Coast performance. His assessment of the critical value of the event is also familiar.

Thus did the charming amateurism of so many West Coast artworks combine with a reluctance to wield the editor's knife to spawn an evening that was not nearly as good as its best moments deserved.

West Coast performance, especially that associated with the Western Front, even when it has, like the Peanut Mayoralty Campaign, (2) overt political aspirations, still manages to be seen as more good fun than politics, more group therapy than social action.

The relationship of haut-camp West Coast performance to ideology seems to recall the pre-feminist condition of the single female — marginal in a centralized culture / economy, seductive in its half nurture / half entertainment. Concerned with public image over function, entertainment over instruction, it occupies the territory between described ideologies, content to lie without definition, in need of definition.

Haut-camp performance appears virginal in its absence of definition, if not in its sexuality. The absence of a definition, however, should not be confused with the absence of an ideology itself.
The ideology of haut-camp performance from the West Coast (not West Coast performance) lies in the process of its production, as much as in its form. It is less evident in what is commonly described as content.

The process of production is constructed on personal relationships, collaboration, and references to past, present and fantasy life styles. Skills are called upon, shared and utilized. Even if a skill is not specifically required by the content, the script will often be modified to incorporate it. The content thereby becomes the process of collaboration itself.

The willingness, even imperative, to share and collaborate enhances the possibility of complex, multi-layered, multi-monitor events (live and video). It also, as a result of a fairly consistent cast of participants, tends to impart a specific and recognizable quality to the productions. This is often incorrectly identified as style rather than content.

The fewer the collaborators, the more individual the production, the more personal (rather than collective) the content.

In this regard, it was fascinating to watch the transformation of the work and content of Toronto artist Susan Britton during the 1979 Western Front production of Message to China. The stridently 'political' tone of Tuti Quanti Before and After is catapulted into a party setting, with the full Western Front cast waving hello to China. Agit prop to camp in one production!
One of the few West Coast performances to deal with life style and collaboration as overt rather than covert (means of production) content was Paul Wong's 4. In this performance Wong assumes the position of observer / manipulator / participant while four women (with whom he has in real life had complex personal and professional relationships) discuss themselves, and one another.

Although the performance purports to be autobiographical and reflective of East End Vancouver, Main Street Culture, the autobiography begins at the point where the life style was chosen. The choosing of (at times, fantasy) lifestyles in most West Coast performance (especially haut-camp} is perhaps one of its most distinctive and generalized features.
In West Coast performance conventional distinctions and relationships between art and life break down, becoming art-life-style. Art does not re-present life. It projects, and sometimes generates, fantasy, camp or chosen lifestyles. These lifestyles and concomitant personas are often collaboratively defined, and then created, through art. Thus the notion of image-bondage — the individual trapped into an image, persona, even lifestyle, generated in fantasy but more captivating than fact (to the artist, as well as to the audience).

The notion of borderline case also contains the situational aspect of person meeting persona, of art meeting life, of fantasy confronting fact. The big Borderline Case is Media Reality, whose natural child is West Coast performance.

One of the most potent collaborative exploitations of Media Reality on the West Coast was the 1974 Mr. Peanut Mayoralty Campaign, conceived by John Mitchell. This incursion into real world politics was articulated through a media image (Mr. Peanut) which of course the Media loved. The content of this elaborately conceived performance played between entertainment / media advertising clichés, the collaboration implied in such a large scale project, and a genuine critique of the political process. In its absence of diatribes, political slogans, billboard rhetoric and dogma, it was distinctively West Coast. Indeed, in any conventional sense, it was remarkably low on praxis.

It is deceptively easy to dismiss the Peanut Campaign, and much West Coast performance, as a camp, amusingly clever, unserious and ultimately passive observation on the political process. West Coast performance very early abandoned self-consciousness in the visual forms it utilized (shifted focus from I am using a camera to the resultant image). However, this ease with visual forms, with media reality, with media personas, is in fact a sophisticated rather than a naive charminglyamateur response. It is a response fully articulated in the real-world politics of the Kennedy and Carter campaigns and the media war over Vietnam.

The difference between real-world politics and West Coast performance, including the Peanut Campaign, is that performance not only operates within and assumes media reality, it also provides, through camp, excess, exaggeration, the distance necessary for critique as well.

This distance, combined with nostalgia (an appropriate substitute for history), media and entertainment values, results in an extraordinary camp hybrid of cartoon-type characters in marvellous settings (with background music).

Discussion of West Coast performance should not ignore the marvellous settings, the overwhelming presence of the landscape and the strong influence of both the Indian and Oriental communities. Certainly the exotic costuming of characters, and the transformational rites of some of the events, are strongly rooted in the pervading presence of Indian culture in British Columbia. Although it is more overtly evident in the work of Evelyn Roth, it is, I believe, a recognizable aspect of performance from the Western Front.

Vancouver is in the curious position of fulfilling the tropical (media) fantasies of a cold climate with a rain forest environment — a rather wet version of Hawaii Five-0. A culture, one of whose major industries is tourism, ultimately committed to The Image! The sheer exotica of the physical and cultural environment makes fertile ground for both myth and media. The newness of the transposed culture also facilitates the adoption and redefinition of lifestyles and cultural forms. In its Frontier, edge-of-the-world, on-the-sea, isolation, collaboration becomes the technique of survival and a shoulder against suicide. It advocates a-historicity and transformation.

This is not to suggest that West Coast performance ( haut-camp or otherwise) is not aware of, or does not draw on, the history of performance itself. There are demonstrable connections to Dada (especially the Cabaret Voltaire) and close communication with Fluxus.

In his seminal article Role Art and Social Context(3), Kenneth Coutts-Smith contributes greatly to our understanding of the proto-performances of Futurism, Dada and Fluxus and provides tools to reconsider Happenings and contemporary performance. Unfortunately he makes only one passing reference to West Coast (indeed Canadian performance) which he describes, along with European performance, as 'subjective, voluntaristic and ultra romantic postures.' (4)

It would appear, however, that many of his insights are more appropriate to Canadian, and especially West Coast performance. These insights include an insistence on a 'critical perspective based on sociological parameters.' (5)

With the centralization of role-playing, the very nature of visual culture has been fundamentally altered. The network of activity — conception, performance, event, spectacle, response — has been abstracted from the domain of a circumscribed art culture... and has been restored once more to the social frame of reference. (6)

The social space to which Coutts-Smith refers is that occupied by artists like Joseph Beuys:

... available to as many people and to as broad a cross section of the art public who choose to attend the gallery; as wide a selection, basically, as any exposed at first-hand to the conventional plastic arts of painting and sculpture.

Quite obviously, this in itself constitutes a privileged circle to a broader degree and to a minor level of intensity. That question, though, is hardly relevant in this particular context, since such privilege is the norm in any aesthetic confrontation that presently takes place in our society
. (7)

In West Coast performance, however, the social frame of reference, as described earlier, takes on an entirely different meaning. It is not only localized into the collaboration between close personal and professional friends, it is also expanded (through potent media / advertising
clichés and the use of mass media) into a broadly defined social space where access to mass media is the only privilege required.

It should be recalled that Mr. Peanut obtained 2,685 votes in his bid for the Mayoralty. Although the motivations behind these votes can hardly be described as aesthetic, there is no doubt that such performances are altering our notion of 'aesthetic confrontation', and interpretation of social space.

Mass-media is as much part of the landscape of West Coast performance as the Mountains and Sea. It is simultaneously the form and the content. (8) The 'variety show, vaudeville and loads of good silliness' to which John Bentley Mays referred is day-time and late night T.V.; the 'serious art history' is Canadada.

It is appropriate here to recall the origin of the word Dada:

It was by this time [1916] that Ball and Huelsenbeck had coined the name, which they had found in a German-French dictionary, for the singular Madame le Roy: 'Dada is "yes, yes" in Rumanian, "rocking horse" and "hobby horse" in French.' 'For Germans,' Ball said, 'it is a sign of foolish naïveté, joy in procreation and preoccupation with the baby carriage. (9)

The 1979 Vancouver event for which this article was written was titled The Living Art Performance Festival. In 1915 Hugo Ball described Living Art.

But all living art will be irrational, primitive, complex: It will speak a secret language and leave behind documents not of identification but of paradox. (10)

There is no doubt as to the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the documents of West Coast performance, especially haut-camp. Usually in the form of videotapes they appear aggressively marginal and nostalgic (usually for primitive, i.e. pre-T.V. man). Whether they are charmingly amateur, as Mays suggested, or in fact highly intuitive, sophisticated analyses and critiques of media-reality, is perhaps best considered in the light of a remark by Andre Breton:

I do not think that the nature of the finished product is more important than the choice between cake and cherries for dessert. (11)

This article first appeared in Living Art Vancouver (Vancouver: Western Front / Pumps / Video Inn, 1980) documenting The Living Art Performance Festival Sept. 27-Oct.3, 1979.

From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983


Text: © Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. All rights reserved.

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