The Canadian Art Database
 

   
Douglas Ord

An Archaeology of Desire (1996)
Paul Wong's Confused: Sexual Views and General Idea's One Year of AZT,
in adjacent rooms at the National Gallery

BorderCrossings, Volume XV #3, Summer 1996.
[ 3,263 words ]


I.

In 1986, two artists appeared before the Supreme Court of British Columbia, one as plaintiff, the other as expert witness. The plaintiff was Paul Wong, a Vancouver video artist who was suing the Vancouver Art Gallery and its former director Luke Rombout for breach of contract. The expert witness was AA Bronson, of the Toronto artist group General Idea, who was testifying on Wong's behalf. At issue was Rombout's cancellation, two years earlier, of Wong's project Confused: Sexual Views only days before it was due to open. Rombout claimed that, having been scheduled while in progress, the project when finished had lacked 'aesthetic merit', being both too 'documentary' and potentially offensive. Therefore, he argued, he had been entitled to refuse to show it.

Confused: Sexual Views consisted — when it was cancelled — of nine hours of videotape. In the early 80s Wong had questioned friends and acquaintances about their sex lives and had taped their replies; he had also added his own, as elicited by an anonymous interviewer. The format was without sensationalism. The interviewees were recorded singly and sometimes as couples against a neutral background. The camera didn't move. When Wong reworked the tapes for public viewing he also edited out the questions, so that only the talking heads of the respondents remained. But these talking heads were indeed providing information very different from that usually provided — in the early 80s anyway — by talking head commentators on television. Instead of providing 'newsworthy' details of other people's lives, they were recounting in the first person pronoun tales of sexual initiation, experience, transgression, desire and aversion, with stops at points in between.

When Wong's suit finally came to trial two years after the cancellation though, the process had a subtext largely lacking in the tapes themselves: that of irony. Because Rombout himself was no longer with the Vancouver Art Gallery, the judge simply dismissed that part of the suit which was directed at him. But more significantly, the Gallery itself had in 1984 just moved into the city's old courthouse, which had been renovated to house it. Wong's exhibit had been supposed to inaugurate the video room, and was also to have been the first by a Vancouver artist in the 'new' building. Instead the Gallery's takeover of disused judicial space, toward the display of art that supposedly sets its rules as it goes along, had backfired. Installed in the former seat of Law, its Director had apparently not been able to resist laying down the law about art. But this meant that what displaced art, in the public view, was the spectacle of an artist appealing to precisely those legal procedures of which the courthouse had been emptied, and against the Gallery which had done the emptying.

This irony was only sharpened by the appearance of AA Bronson, whose expertise could have drawn as much from General Idea's own status as emptiers and recolonizers of established categories, as from his familiarity with Paul Wong's tapes. General Idea — or to push the game of masks back one step, the pseudonymous AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal — had begun their career in the Toronto of the early 70s by taking over, emptying, and re-occupying the category of 'artist' itself. 'We wanted to be famous, glamourous and rich,' they had written in 1975. 'The image of the artist is the easiest to inhabit. Because of its historic richness, its ready but empty mythology ... in a word FORM without content, the shell which was art was simple to invade. We made art our home and assuming appearances strengthened by available myth, occupied art's territory. Thus we became glamorous, made art, made ourselves over in the image of art.'

The Vancouver Art Gallery had in its own way just entered this game of masks, making over the city's former courthouse in the 'image of art', and even upping GI's ante by occupying what had once been the forum of Law. So it was not inappropriate that General Idea's own mini-retrospective had been welcomed at the Gallery in 1984, only months after the cancellation of Confused: Sexual Views. But General Idea's 1984 had also been a deliberate parody of the documentary genre which so affronted Rombout when he encountered it without an overlay of irony in Wong's tapes. The exhibition meticulously covered the planning, rehearsal, destruction, and subsequent excavation of ruins from The Miss General Idea Pavilion of 1984. The Pavilion had been conceived by GI in the early 70s. The paradox was that, for all the careful documentation, it had never existed.

GI's practice then deliberately subverted the usual codes of epistemology and 'historical truth,' even while appropriating those of art. But it was also this very lack of specific anchors which allowed GI to invent and experiment, to construct a field which did seem eerily to map not what already existed but what might be coming: a post-humanist global network, 'la région centrale, with no periphery and no division. The emphasis on the year 1984 also playfully exposed the dread associated — initially through George Orwell — with the open category of 'the future'. 'Throw away old disguises,' General Idea wrote in their 'megazine' FILE, 'and give some overworked lighting man a holiday, 'cause the spotlight is not on you — it's through you. What could the matter be, when there's no matter to be?'

This lushly paradoxical style was, to say the least, very different from that of Paul Wong, who laid claim to a kind of existential seriousness, and to dealing 'with real issues, not those of art.' 'The viewer is encouraged,' he said of Confused: Sexual Views at the time of its cancellation, 'to question his own sexual attitudes. ... It's very honest, and that's the disturbing part.' But such blurring of sexual categories as Wong's interviewees — and Wong himself — tried to articulate with apparent sincerity on tape, and even in some cases agonized over, General Idea accepted as a foregone conclusion. For them, the blurring had already gone much further, eclipsing not only 'sexual attitudes' and notions of 'honesty,' but conventions of 'individual identity' itself.

The success of GI's scrambling of these conventions could be measured by the fact that, when a third of the collective split off and appeared before the Supreme Court of British Columbia, he managed to do so as 'AA Bronson,' and not as Michael Tims, which happened to be the name on his birth certificate. Once there however, he put on a straight face and defended the status of Wong's 'honest' tapes as art, though not as his 'best work.' But Law itself then turned the tables, showing that it could not be emptied of its own content so easily, and rendering Bronson's own witness a mere formality. After ten days of hearings, Supreme Court Justice Reginald Gibbs dismissed the suit on a technicality, without having viewed the tapes. Though Wong's oral agreement with the Gallery to provide a work was a binding contract, he said, the Gallery also retained the right to cancel this contract if the work did not meet expectations. Thus did Law bestow its favour on the institution which had occupied its former shell, and which having done so had established its own law of exclusions concerning art. And thus did the alleged transgressor of these laws receive no answer from judicial authority, as to whether they should be stretched to absorb his alleged transgression.

Nevertheless by 1986 a different kind of authority had quietly decided in the tapes' favour. The previous year, curators at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa had bought copies, and consigned them to the Gallery's vaults. The Gallery — at that time itself inhabiting the shell of a building designed for civil servants — did not proclaim their cause. Instead Confused: Sexual Views remained in storage for the next ten years, unseen and unshown, though the year after the trial the Gallery added the final five hours to the initial nine. That same year, Paul Wong tried one more suit of the Vancouver Art Gallery, then turned to work that played less easily to public perception of him as — to quote the Vancouver Sun — a 'sex video artist'. AA Bronson returned to Toronto, where — also in 1987 — he and his fellow GIs were confronted with a new zone of preoccupation, that quickly overgrew the ruins of the pageant that had never happened.

The decade passed.


II.

I've never been afraid of sex.
— Brad, Confused: Sexual Views

By the autumn of 1995, the National Gallery of Canada was a very different place from the office block on Elgin Street where it had been stranded when the tapes of Confused: Sexual Views were bought. Like the Vancouver Art Gallery, it had moved up, but not into Law's 'forgotten shell.' The new National Gallery was really new, situated on a promontory overlooking the Ottawa River and facing onto the Parliament Buildings across a narrow bay. Or, on closer scrutiny, it was sort of new. For it also simulated, in smoked glass and cut pink granite, the shapes of both the Cathedral across Sussex Drive, and the Parliamentary Library behind the Peace Tower. These structural homologies might not have entailed occupation of Law's empty shell; but they did seem to entail absorption of Law's icons past, in such a way that these specific homologies implied if anything a project more ambitious. Namely: that in some way this building and its contents might speak to contemporary Canadian society, as these earlier buildings and their contents spoke to earlier versions of that same society: as loci of authority, and guarantors of public meaning.

It was into this context that, at last, Confused: Sexual Views officially came out, though not in isolation. It was included in a retrospective of the by this time middle-aged Wong's video work, titled On Becoming a Man. The retrospective occupied both the Gallery's video room, and the adjacent temporary exhibits area. Confused
: Sexual Views was given a room of its own, across a corridor from Wong's other work. Eight-by-ten colour photographs of the interviewees were displayed on the walls, along with short excerpts from their interviews and — as in the tapes — their first names only. There were twenty seven half hour interviews, shown on four large monitors. One of these faced toward the corridor; the others were at the room's centre, each facing outward onto a walled, self-contained zone that contained three chairs.

To encounter Confused: Sexual Views in this pristine context was a little like viewing the contents of an animated time capsule, with words and faces fixed as they were in the early 80s. But for all its neatness, the arrangement did not prove flattering. When he described the tapes after their cancellation, the artist admitted that while 'encouraging the viewer to perceive,' they were far from titillating and might be 'almost boring.' He could have dropped the qualifier: the tapes are boring, especially when viewed in packaged succession. McLuhan was in this respect right: to filter twenty seven monologues through the same video screen is to ensure that, after a little while, the sameness of the screen will overcome whatever differences exist among both monologues and talking heads. The 'individuals' will be absorbed by the system: by the technical system that mediates their presence and — in this case — by the system of foreshortened discourse imposed by the obligation to speak only of 'sexuality'.

There has been some ambiguity about the extent to which Wong grasped the obtrusiveness of both his method and his medium in these 'interviews.' But this obtrusiveness is such as to hijack his ambition of 'honesty,' along with distinctions among the talking heads. Nevertheless to view Confused: Sexual Views in the autumn of 1995 was in one crucial way to enter a scene infused with dramatic irony. We know something they don't — and didn't — know. We know that many of the behaviours being described so blandly, so naively, so eagerly, some of the enthusiasms being recounted, the obsessions being indulged, eased the transmission of HIV. And in the early 80s, when the tapes were made, no one knew this. The spoken words, then, are rendered homogeneous in another way. Throughout the twenty seven interviews there is almost no mention of the virus, from these flickering faces that have been rendered ever-young by recording technology. Their words reflect instead dilemmas of 'sexuality' as they existed before violent closure was imposed on experimental openness, as on the quaintness of personal opinion itself, by a supremely indifferent and impersonal shadow.

The awareness bestowed by the passage not just of any decade but by the decade of AIDS gave, in 1995, then, a poignancy to the tapes, that they would certainly have lacked when Rombout viewed them in 1984. Wong, however, in overseeing the retrospective, opted not to provide a gloss that took in these years. The imagery was presented without comment, and under the continued illusion of atemporal presence. Yet given that the National Gallery had had the tapes for ten years without once displaying them, and given also the result of the court case, perhaps the artist could be excused his desire to see them presented unaltered from how he made them. And curiously, even uncannily, coincidental aspects of the installation process itself provided mitigating witness, that tempered the tapes' indifference to the passage of time.

According to the Gallery's video curator, Jean Gagnon, Confused: Sexual Views was initially going to be installed in the video room, as had also been the case at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1984. But a more recent piece, Mixed Messages, needed the room's dark walls, so Confused: Sexual Views was again bumped, though in this case across the corridor. Another much larger room was adjacent to the new site, and connected to it by an open doorway. For some months prior to the retrospective this room had been occupied by an installation, which was left in place. It was after Confused: Sexual Views was relocated in this way that, according to Gagnon, Wong himself realized the potential of cross pollination. And perhaps the artist was indeed wise at this point to step into the background, without further comment.

The installation was produced in 1991 by General Idea, and purchased by the Gallery in 1995. Along with a loaned companion piece One Day of AZT, it was introduced as part of an AIDS awareness campaign in 1994. One Year of AZT consists of 1825 styrene models of enlarged AZT capsules, still the drug of choice, not in curing AIDS but in suppressing symptoms. The capsules are white with a single blue stripe; for the installation they are represented as sliced halves only, that are Velcroed to the room's white walls. Aligned precisely in columns and rows, they in turn form a dozen blocks so that all of the walls become a kind of grid. The room is brightly lit, giving the impression of immaculate cleanliness and sterility. On the floor is the companion piece, One Day of AZT. It consists of five immense fibreglass models of entire capsules, so large that even though shiny white and curvilinear, they most resemble coffins.

The half-capsules mounted in columns and rows on the walls of an art museum replicate and parody the central role assigned 'the grid' in visual modernism. But they also subvert modernism's agenda of detachment by mimicking, in their monolithic linearity, the bars of a prison that surround the viewer's body and field of vision. Given that the viewer is told by a wall card what AZT capsules are for, the sub-cerebral jolt by means of which formalist detachment is subverted is hard to avoid. But so too do the enlarged capsules on the floor seem to menace the body, threatening in their homology to coffins to absorb and engulf it. The suggestion is that even as AZT boosts the body's immune system against the prepersonal and opportunistic assaults of the virus, it simultaneously enmeshes the body itself in another system. This is the coldly clinical and suprapersonal one constructed for the body by what might be called the medico-pharmaceutical complex.

Clearly, between 1984 and 1991, General Idea did not lose any of its capacity for irony. But just as clearly, the tone of this irony underwent a change. One Year of AZT proclaims not a polyvalent openness of surface such as invigorated the group's early work on the Pavillion, but a brutal closure. The trajectory of this closure began with the group's appropriation, for a benefit in 1987, of Robert Indiana's psychedelic LOVE poster from the 60s, reconfigured to produce the word AIDS. The trajectory made for a succession of viciously ironic if obsessive exhibits: the artists as three baby seals trapped on an ice floe; the Miss General Idea Pavillion reduced to its 'pharmacopia'. But by 1995 the closure had escaped aesthetics. The wall card reads simply 'General Idea, active Toronto 1968-1994'. Insofar as it reflects the blandness of an epitaph, the description is appropriate. What it does not say is that two of the three artists — Jorge Saia (a.k.a. Jorge Zontal) and Ron Gabe (a.k.a. Felix Partz) — died of AIDS in 1994. The third — AA Bronson — was by autumn 1995 in the process of transferring the group's archives and those of the affiliated Art Metropole to the National Gallery.

But within the context of this coincidental juxtaposition, and this time through their work, General Idea was once again bearing witness to the status of Confused: Sexual Views as art, especially insofar as it bore the capacity to interact within the complex fields established by the National Gallery itself. In 1995, with sad irony, the witness was more successful than in 1986. It was also reciprocal. As One Year of AZT enriched and filled in the historical omissions of Confused: Sexual Views, so the reverse also happened. This was because Confused: Sexual Views provided, immediately if inadequately, flickering traces of 'individuals,' in relation to the systems which are always ready to absorb, efface, occlude and erase them. Among these systems are as much the humanly-constructed and supra-personal ones of media and the medico-pharmacological complex, as the pre-personal one of viral invasiveness that goes by the name of AIDS.

To pass via a simple doorway from Confused: Sexual Views (1984) to One Year of AZT (1991), then, was to traverse much more than a few metres of gallery space. It was to be exposed to an unexcavated tangle of connected threads, that were every bit as dense and as rich in meanings as the fabricated fragments of the Miss General Idea Pavillion of 1984. Except these threads, if in some way more 'real,' were also invisible, crisscrossing the occluded layers of recent Canadian art history which — in a time of textual impatience as of surface and image — are too easily left neglected. Part of the potential of the new National Gallery must be, undoubtedly, to provide a crucible in which these threads can meet and intersect, often in the process opening the possibility for new readings of art that might go ignored or even excluded elsewhere.

Douglas Ord thanks the Ontario Arts Council for an Arts Writing Grant that assisted in research for this article.


BorderCrossings, Volume XV #3, Summer 1996.


Text: © Douglas Ord. All rights reserved.

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