The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

This is Free Money?
Western Front as Facility, Institution and Image

from Whispered Art History, Twenty Years at The Western Front, ed. Keith Wallace. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 1993.
[ 4,518 words ]

Every night before I go to sleep
Buy a ticket, win a lottery,
Pick the pearls up from the sea
Cash'em in, buy you all the things you need.

Every night before I rest my head
See those dollar bills go swirling 'round my bed
I know they're stolen, but I don't feel bad
I'll take that money, buy you things you never had

Oh baby, it would mean so much to me,
Oh baby, to buy you all the things you need, for free!

- Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye, Free Money, 1975

In a 1981 letter from the Research Associate of the Association for National Non-Profit Artist-run Centres (ANNPAC) to member centres — among them the Western Front — Kerri Kwinter described a Special Programme in Cultural Initiatives from the federal Department of Communications. After detailing the amounts available and stressing ANNPAC members' eligibility for the programme, a new paragraph begins: 'THIS IS FREE MONEY.' Coming across this intemperate declaration in the (disappointingly) staid archives of the Western Front administration, (1)  the words called me back to the Patti Smith Group tune quoted at left. Although I have no idea if such was Kwinter's allusion, the song's uneasy negotiation with the 'undead' character of counter-cultural 'freedom' amid the contradictions of late-capitalism seemed to provide a theme for looking at Front history. The yearning and true lover of art — the artist — dreams of the magic liberation that money could bring, achingly acknowledging that merit, desire and availability do not necessarily coincide. Money, like art, is a medium, entailed and historically embedded — a very unfree thing that denies and stimulates some forms of desire. Free the Chicago 7! Free love! Free the Angolan people! Free clinic! Free hair! But how could you ever free money?

The Front is famous for — and notoriously lucky in — getting funding for 'all the things you need' to be an artist in this last quarter of the twentieth-century. A variety of public bodies (and a few corporations) have granted monies and materials for its programmes and equipment procurement — from videophones to visiting artists' residencies, from touring exhibitions to computer graphics systems, from video production equipment to community history projects, from slowscan imaging processors to mixing boards and job development term-employment (not to forget all the cables and correspondence running in between performer and technology, artist and bureaucrat, money and 'living art'). And who for? For artists, say the applications, and, of course, for themselves, since the directors and staff, for the most part, also suffer to be loved under the label Artist. And all who use and work at the Front do it for concepts of freedom — or at least for minor remuneration. Free money for free spirits — an equation that, in important ways, slips around the costs and bounded relations lurking behind the mechanisms of government funding and artistic license, the twin backers of the Front enterprise.

It is the complications of thinking of the Front in such ways that I want to address. Not to expose something — for I could find no good scandal in the files — but to give an abbreviated account of the salient the Front has been protecting for the past two decades. In this scheme, the Front has existed in three overlapping modes of operation. First, as a facility, a place where equipment resides and is used: the hardware store of materials for programming and producing art. Second, as an institution, a set of (sometimes unconscious) processes for maintaining and realizing programming through relations with funding agencies, artists and artist-run centres, media, publics. Third, the Front as image — as an entity with ideas about itself and about its workings that affect the hardware, the products and the systems of the institution in order to produce the tangible result that this essay and book seek to venerate: twenty years of longevity and a history that can be identified and discussed. This is not the unique domain of the Front alone, for much of the maneuvering and strategic placement around funding bodies and artistic practices is shared by many non-profit centres, yet the Front's entrance into history and its maintenance of position make it an interesting case study. As well, each of these modes is not entirely stable or clear in terms of the resulting history, so I am going to talk about some factors conditioning the moves made by the administration and directors of the Front as I read their residue of documentation. Other sorts of (I hope) informative digressions should help to position those factors in an appropriate climate of cheques and balances.

The naming of the Western Front carries a martial ennui that should not be forgotten; something of the bleakness of Remarque's All's Quiet...formulation permeates the redoubt the administration has held on to since 1973. What the name calls up are the wearied soldiers of 'experimental' art gathering-in for the duration, facing an inhospitable future with a saddened eye to the past. As you see, this belligerent trope can be overdone, but the Front's naming is not alternatively anodyne like its fellow early ANNPAC members — Véhicule, A Space, Open Space. Nor is it specifically geographic or generic like YYZ Artists' Outlet, Forest City Gallery, V / Tape or Video In. Rather, the name Western Front combines the geography of Vancouver art at the edge of the Western hemisphere with a memory of earlier avant-garde formations (dada especially) around the First World War, proceeding to nominate itself as a peripheral bastion of hopes unfulfilled — most notably those excessive but soon exhausted and fractured dreams of the genre-blurring Intermedia Society (where several Front founders caught a dose of administrative savvy). (2) 

The building itself — bought over time by the residents / directors — is institutional property first of all, accessible facility second. Another memory has impact here, for the fraternal ambience of the Knights of Pythias haunts the centre, stressing membership and initiation as well as the privileges of passage into the club or knighted estate. There are also the demands of membership to be considered, akin in this case to the many voluntary duties rendered across the non-profit sector. Recurring in budgets and funding requests are lists of donated labour which inventory and cost-out the work done painting, wiring, building-up and maintaining an aging structure. The Front personnel and volunteers put hours into the property, something they assiduously list in order to impress upon the bureaucrats that the 'free money' has meant no free ride. Also, it should be noted, the time and effort devoted to the administrative requests and functions went unpaid or was only meagerly recompensed for many years. I saw in the papers both a pride in Front work-ethic and a sense that payback is the obligatory return on the individuals' donated time. The centre worked to get the funding needed, while the funding in turn obliged the programmes — and the invested property of the Front itself — to continue on a more-or-less determined course. (3) 

The policies that accompany the entrenched and self-abetting position of the administration were well discussed by Keith Wallace in Vancouver Anthology:

By keeping a tight lid on access to facilities and equipment, even to the point of installing a buzz-in entry system, the Western Front assumed its own peculiar form of institutionalization. As only invited artists could exhibit, perform, produce a video or stay as part of an artist-in-residence program, this policy created a perceived that alienated a considerable segment of the local art community and basically ignored the public. (4) 

The perception Wallace notes will be taken up later, but for now I want to consider access and equipment and the attitudes surrounding them. Attempts at 'open-access' and democratizing facilities rang the death-knell of Intermedia and an understanding of that debacle infused the still-extant policy of invitation at the Front. The sometimes unsavory locale of the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood — and the marring of the Front's opening party by the theft of a sculpture — mandated the buzz-in protocol, but so did the investment in equipment. Property needs policing in order to stay in place, and the range of activities and their spatial disposition across the building leaves pockets where lock-ups and monitoring personnel together cannot protect the integrity of the facility. This is simple, but not so simple is the defensive enclosure produced by the presence of equipment itself. What precedes the 'closed-shop' mentality at the Front is the multi-media, mixed-use enthusiasm that calls for audio, video, computerized and near-professional quality matériel to reinforce Front logistics.

There are several aims served by equipment. One is the self-directed aim of the Front to have spaces for live music, performance, exhibitions, readings, video production, etc. — activities demanding a public-address, lighting and visual apparatus to meet expected standards of a public venue and a production centre. (5)  This, in turn, recalls the substantive motive behind artist-run centres, for the notion of being in control of venue and the ability to exercise command over programming represents the broader aim of self-determination underpinning moves away from traditional practice — including, in music, dance and performance, the contrivance of the commercial impresario and other theatrical management, and the officious connoisseurship of curators in the visual arts.

The second aim was to document the activities of the centre, an interesting and timely resolution to record and archive the Front as a continuing and historic formation. This second point is often stressed in the cover letters and planning documents accompanying equipment 'wish lists' submitted to the Canada Council, the Department of Communications, the provincial government and other agencies in the early years of operations. A good deal of the enumerated equipment was purchased during the moderate accumulation of granted funds up through the early-eighties — and, since that accumulation, the process has been renewed as materials became overused and out of date. In the meantime, the archive established remains a significant resource for studying local art activity, conceivably because it had the goal of representing such an instrument in the first place. (The Front has always wanted to make art history — here I am abetting that desire.) (6)  The third aim of collecting equipment was to produce in-house video and print merchandise (catalogues, posters, Front magazine) for further dissemination, an outgrowth of a desire to reach out and draw in attention from elsewhere. While the artists themselves contract with other organizations to fulfill the task of distribution; (7)  the production of transferable documents and products is a move to not simply adjust practice within the centre or the city but a tactic to participate in structures and coteries through the transportation of tape, paper and bodies along the communication lines of the Fluxian, locally adapted idea of the Eternal Network.

The amount of paper devoted to those equipment lists and the justifications for their requisition is almost staggering. Specifications for cameras and microphones, projected dates for acquiring technology and schedules for training staff in its use, hoped-for donations from corporations and names of technicians who could customize the equipment — names, dates, serial and tabulated numbers fill the files. The form of the process is familiar to any requestor for funds. Based on the potential demonstrated in past programmes, best-case needs are stated and details amassed, the total exceeding previous requests and coming just short of a magic rounded figure. Responses from the bureaucrats are cautious, asking for more detail and noting the limitations on funds available. For the most part, a grant is given. It falls short of the 'wish list' so a revised budget is drawn up, leaving aside the grander and less-immediate elements of the request.

The money comes and the material purchased becomes obsolete (through use) in several years. The programme established or furthered by the equipment previously purchased is now a form of symbolic capital invested in by the Front and the funding agencies. Requests for upgrading go out, emphasizing the invested aspect, pointing out changes in technology and outlining how technological improvement will enhance the equity resident in the documentation and artifacts produced by the previous and continuing programme. The cycle starts again...requests, funds, obsolescences.

There were windfalls and rejections amid all this circulation of requests and grants, but the remarkable thing is the tenacity of the requests and the unspoken assumptions at work in the centre's image. Like many who began working with 'new' technology in the period Martha Rosler deemed 'the utopian moment,' (8)  Front personnel have held to a belief in hardware that is instrumental in a curious way. While surely aware that such technology represents the media construct of social control, they presume that, placed in the hands of artists, the resulting work produced (at the Front and at other techno-struck centres) liberates the machinery and redirects the limitations of commercial use. Thus, despite their differing positions, the hunger for the new bites both the commercial and the artist-run segments of technology-users; the next generation of recorders, cameras and computers always appears (or is marketed so as to appear) to answer the problems of the past. Hi8 follows Porta-pak and in turn calls for chroma-key facilities, computer interfaces, snappy editing consoles. (9) 

Meanwhile, the libratory energies released in wanting to be past the problems and limits of the past excite the desire for more money, more hardware, more of a chance to enter the gap between freedom and domination that opens up with each new apparatus. In constructing this version of the Tower of Babel, the 'good' end of artists' access overwhelms the purposes of oppositional representation, echoing the originary utopian hopes (of Intermedia) for artists to participate in the technocracy as an adjunct and advanced-warning system for industrial and state protocols. Complicity, not subversion, is the payoff of this desiderative tactic.

What I find intriguing here is the lack of a critical position. The essential assumption is that equipment can be re-directed and that such re-direction into artistic practice marks a preemptive re-functioning of the representational apparatus of the technocratic regime. The programmes proceeding under such assumptions are goal-directed in principle, with that goal being enabling artists to make tapes and mount performances and exhibitions. Any evaluation of the results has been undertaken according to the amount, constancy and kind of production rather than in the tactical arena of what I infer to be the ultimate goal of such practice: that is, the entry upon and exploitation of the gap possible in acquiring cutting-edge technology before its promises are institutionalized.

Measurement of Front effectiveness is chiefly limited to the non-commercial 'art society' acceptance of its products: exhibition itineraries, occasional video festival prizes, the listing of biographical accomplishments of the artists selected to reside and work at the institution's behest. Indeed, by seeing itself foremost as the enabler of individual production, the Front does not even enter into critical terms for overall programme evaluation; by permitting credit to accrue primarily to the individual practitioner in residence for the production, the choice of 'quality' artists — not necessarily what they do — constitutes programme justification. This is not evaluative but explanatory — the technology makes work possible and then the work is produced, acclaimed or merely appended to the singular agent's curriculum vitae. Notions of the impact of practice as the sum of activity — or an analysis of its effects — go unexamined, except insofar as the material produced by artists proves that artistic practice is enabled at the Front.

In some ways, the absence of evaluation of programming in strategic terms is itself an institutional product, for the presumption of artistic license supporting it is also the hook the bureaucracy uses to grant funds to organizations like the Front. In the world of Cultural Initiatives and Equipment Grants, the aim of providing 'aid to artists' is a bureaucratic principle while means of evaluating use are left up to others (peer juries, arts' boards, if anyone at all). The bureaucracy, industry as well in some ways, likes the idea of artists' access to technology because it legitimizes McLuhanist notions of 'creative use' of apparatus and of the artist as the massager of the tight and sore muscles of the spectacle. Besides the (probably over-estimated) rewards of artists performing industrial research and development at low-paid levels, (10)  the repressive tolerance inherent in accepting art practice as a creative endeavour combines with the technophilia spoken in requests for more equipment to reassure official and industrial interests of the effectiveness of novel technology. Since the novel is so desired by those outside the loop of profit (artists), the material is regarded as instrumental in re-tooling signification and can be understood as an investment in methods for altering present consciousness. By asking for the equipment, the Front places itself in the instrumental regime while it also absents itself from the manipulation of publics through that regime by being an 'artists-only' institution. As John Bentley Mays once said to me, you start working for the government the minute you put your name on the grant application. Also, I might add, you could become a company employee the minute you put the camcorder scope to your eye.

The Front's neat fit with bureaucratic objectives sustains a vagueness about effectiveness that is covered over by an application of rigour in other fields. Maybe rigour is not the right word, since the accord between bureaucratic and artist-run programmes is mutually reinforcing, but the 'perceived exclusivity' Wallace mentioned has its elements of discrimination and is significant to an understanding of Front history. Behind the perception lies procedures governing involvement in Front activities and the manner in which Front authority is exercised and represented. With equipment and space available, the Front instituted a set of programme directors or curators in place to oversee activities. Any overall committee to oversee those activities and the products emanating from them took form from the curators themselves, with additional representation from the directors who own the building. While financial control has always been centralized, the choosing of participants in programmes remains with the respective curator (though participants sometimes have and can span categories, presenting performances and making a video over a residence, say). In politics this scheme would be called oligarchic.

In artist-run centre practice, the Front does represent the exercise of power by the few. (11)  The complications of exhibition committees or open submissions are eliminated, each curator setting the terms and choosing the participants for the programme without necessarily consulting with others, ah, in the community (as we like to call it). On the one hand, this has ensured Front longevity, for the fractious negotiations between committee members and the advocacy of 'special interests' have been excised from the process as the artist-curator provides representative clout. On the other hand, the oligarchic formation is exclusive and protects, above all, the integrity of property and the symbolic capital of Programme Longevity in the Centre by holding rein on access. This has kept the Front distant from some of the internecine battles fought at places like A Space or Women In Focus; it has also brought the Front into temporary alliances of some note.

The first of these alliances — historically and perhaps productively — was with the Canadian artist-run centre scene in the 70s — most notably through Toronto. Reciprocal ties with A Space, Art Metropole and General Idea garnered the Front a set of useful contacts. Western Front resident artists got shows in Toronto, distribution through Art Metropole and FILE megazine. As well, many Toronto artists made the trip West to take up residencies — some of which resulted in definitive productions of Canadian video and performance art that might be said to represent the 'heroic' phase of Western Front Production. Some of the artists — both of the Front and of Toronto — became exemplary of a style of media parody and personal license that had coherence and a quirky, pessimistic take on mediated personae and artistic pretensions. Yet even an assault on pretension can generate hyperbole and this is the sort of comment on Front activity that lived on:

Like explorers, these artists were to go into the jungle to observe, catalogue and analyze the bizarre images and acts of the natives there. Yet they themselves, of course, were part of the tribe they were describing, consumers of the same cultural fantasies The work of the Western Front in it early days...was to incorporate those dreams, creating fantastic versions of them so large and so striking they could scarcely be understood by the Front actors themselves and could only with difficulty be ignored by others. (12) 

While the author (occasional Front visitor and one-time A Space board member — and semi-official General Idea booster — J.B. Mays) wanted to put a sort of Levi-Straussian gloss on this ethnographic theme, what is notable here is not just the racist, colonialist metaphor but the way the work is made 'so large and so striking,' so 'beyond' its producers' comprehension as to be as ineffable as an abstract expressionist canvas. We read here the fandom of the canon-imposer who would make this art 'major', conventional, or, as Mays recently wrote of G.I., representative of 'Good Art — the tough stuff, the challenging visual matter.' (13)  The normative aesthetic shoe-horning Mays uses is extreme but representative of the moves to establish the Toronto and Vancouver artists associated with the Front's early days as 'touched' by the mantle of canonical significance.

However, the story has more twists than the canonist will admit. Having taken on the myths and enervated impersonalizations of mass culture, it soon came time to shed them before the bad air suffocated the artists. Dr. and Lady Brute disappeared themselves, Mr. Peanut discarded his shell; G.I. became poodles and archaeologists, as a closing gesture, LaMont del Monte extinguished himself by presenting his life-story at the Front in 1989. Yet, the alliance they represented was not so short-lived in its effects as in its duration. There is every reason to believe that the Toronto connections and the reputation of the Front as the home of 'so striking' a set of artists fueled the image of longevity by raising names and forming contacts with prominence in the jury-rigged system of arts-funding. (14)  Also important were the international artists invited to the Front, as the staff brought people such as Robert Filliou, Fabio Mauri, Hermann Nitsch, Antonio Muntandas and Laurie Anderson to town. While these names may have become better-known since then — Nitsch, in this country, made his name infamous through his Front performance — even the temerity to have international and obscure contacts enhanced Front trustworthiness. The Eternal and Living Museum networks operated to substantiate the facility as a place of calculated risk-taking bolstered by an illustrious past with both the notion of risk-taking and past production combining to form an image of reliability and canonical potential.

Mention should also be made of the local alliances struck between the Front and subsequent practitioners — such as those gathered around Pumps and Video Inn — and its embedding within the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood and the collection of artist-run centres in Vancouver. The relatively brief life of Pumps, as well as the continuing production elicited from its participants, owes much to the interest of Front personnel in Pumps' move to re-instate performance, video and wall-based art in the late-seventies atmosphere of a punk and post-punk aesthetic. The continuing alliance with Video Inn has similar roots and resulted in the well-coordinated, multi-venue exhibition of national video installations, Luminous Sites, in 1986. On another, more conservative, channel, there is Front-sponsored work that located the building itself in its locale — the Brewery Creek Project with Allan Storey's weather-gauging devices still hanging on the building. This example of a neighbourhood, community history project — like the Luminous Sites project — moved away from production inside the building, taking into consideration the changing character and hidden life of the geographical and art community that the Front takes as its implicit context.

Each of these examples, and the work of the personnel involved, demonstrates the resilience of the Front as an oligarchy. They choose with whom to associate, access becoming elastic at the point where contact is made. It is not an ideal structure, nor has it ever been representative of the art production under its aegis — either 'experimental' or local. Many artists working in Vancouver and Canada have been left out, or taken up rather late, but the remains speaks of the Front's ability to stick to the trenches. Most recently, an interest in identity politics has come to the centre. A planning document from 1991 states:

The programming focus of the Western Front in the next five years will include:
Pacific Rim (International and local)
Life on the Water (South America / North America)
Cultural Diversity (International and local)
Community resource in the field of cultural diversity

While I want to note the emphasis here on objectives of a certain currency, two points stand out. First, while the Front has a long-expressed interest and investment in 'cross-cultural' endeavors, these have sometimes appeared more appropriative than representative in terms of fostering 'community resource.' Whether the adoption of 'Cultural Diversity' will result in a rethinking of the Front's administrative structure or a move to incorporate different communities and viewpoints as part of standard programming is not entirely clear. Procedures for engaging with diverse practices are not outlined — though they may well be contemplated — and this remains problematic for the scheme I have outlined.

Indeed, elsewhere in the document, there is a statement that explains why this reactive shift to identity-politics is possible for the Front. After detailing the areas the centre has operated in, the text reads: 'The above focus is not a change of the Western Front mandate. The critical elements remain the same and the draft summary is a rewording of the original mandate.' I indicate this because the 'song remains the same' tag reflects the theme of this essay; the Front was and is constituted with a flexibility that permits it to take things up and run them through the programme without effecting the administrative structure. This flexibility is a product of oligarchical power since the choices made come from personnel and are not imposed — nor necessarily sensitive to events — from without. In this scheme, free money is a factor of stability, canonicity, adherence to and acceptance of bureaucratic policies and objectives. It is not perpetually cynical in its strategic working-out, but represents the manner in which continuance of funding with a triple-A rating requires that the requestor accept and inhabit, willy-nilly, portions of the ideology of the giver. The Front's oligarchy may symptomatically reflect the bureaucracy in this way, but such a display has kept the centre going when others have fallen apart or dissolved. The point is that the self-imposed and often unconscious restrictions implicit in this scheme are only rarely thought of in combination with Front programming as a service to art.

from Whispered Art History, Twenty Years at The Western Front, ed. Keith Wallace. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 1993.
Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, February 1979

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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