Get Down Toronto: Queen Street Revisited (1998)
“Get Down Toronto” is an unpublished response, written in 1998–99, to the reception of Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years, which took place at The Power Plant, September 25 – December 20, 1998. The catalogue, “Picturing the Toronto Art Community,” was published as an insert in C international contemporary art 59 (September - November 1998). The exhibition was presented in conjunction with American Playhouse: The Theatre of Self-Presentation.
Get Down Toronto
It should not have been a surprise that the two critical responses to Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years—that it was a nostalgic portrayal and that there was no, or little, art in it—hinged on criterion of representation. To understand the exhibition under this term is to place demands on it that it never intended to fulfill, and, in fact, that the exhibition implicitly criticized.
In spite of the fact that The Queen Street Years presented an image of the Toronto art community, from roughly the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, it was not an historical exhibition. Picturing the Toronto Art Community examined how certain types of images operated within the art community. The subject makes it historical, but the approach is contemporary. To suggest that it should have shown the art of the period would make it into another exhibition. To demand that it should have more adequately represented the individuals, or practices, of the period is fundamentally to misunderstand why the images in the exhibition were chosen. The exhibition attempted no such judgements as to who was in or out, historically speaking. Nor was it merely a nostalgic scrapbook of aging participants. Nostalgic images are not enough to make a contemporary art exhibition. (Such an interpretation of the images in the exhibition, either as representations of practitioners or as nostalgic ephemera, believes in their transparency as documents and misunderstands how their selection and arrangement in a gallery—the curatorial work performed here—produces new meanings for them, and, thus, makes the exhibition not just a generation’s concern.) “Picturing,” not “representing,” the title said; and in that difference is the emphasis of the exhibition on the diverse images that artists put forth in their time, not the judgements we make in ours. Here is the real historical work that the curator is doing in shaking these images loose from artists’ studios and archives, in spite of what I say above, because that work is achieved through a contemporary presentation of past images. History—not of the capital “H” kind—is always performed through images other than people expect.
It was plain to see, and this is where the analysis of the exhibition must begin, that this was preponderantly an exhibition of portraits, and that, although these portraits took many guises (in that many of them were indirect, not meant to be portraits per se), they were all photographically based (photographic prints, video, film, various printed matter). This is not to suggest that traditional issues of genre and medium should define the critical response to the exhibition. Instead, the exhibition endeavored to break down the hierarchies within the medium of photography of what was and what was not considered to be art or relevant for inclusion in a gallery exhibition (or, by extension, a museum collection), a proposal, apparently, that was not well received. Photography handily supplied the images of the period but culminated in no mere archive. Certain criteria determined images’ selection. Emphasis was placed on those that showed a sense of theatricalized self-presentation in poses that were either self-projected (no matter the formality or informality of the circumstance) or determined by the photographer, to various ends.
The fact that so many images could be found—in what undoubtedly could not be a comprehensive presentation, in that this has to be on-going research—suggests that this type of image appears along with the origins of the art community in Toronto and might have something to do with its founding. At least this was a good enough premise to conceive an exhibition.
Perhaps not so consciously articulated as in General Idea’s ironically performative statements issued in FILE, Toronto artists pictured themselves as an art scene. The images that artists made for themselves functioned in many ways and took various forms, but they all served, from the poster on the door to the image on the screen, to keep this story going. The fictional maintenance of this idea and image of an art scene as it was being actualized was localized in the social spaces, not the places of production (the studios) or presentation (the artist-run galleries), but the bars—hence the “portraits” of the Cabana Room and the Cameron in the exhibition.
Made initially by artists for themselves as a community, some of these images then were publicly disseminated and attracted others to the scene. (This secondary effect can be suggested but not examined by the exhibition.) There is a telling sequence at the beginning of Colin Campbell’s videotape Bad Girls where the protagonist—Campbell in drag as a young suburbanite—tries to gain admission to the Cabana Room, saying she had read about the club in a column in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. In Bad Girls, the Toronto art scene itself becomes a, albeit ironic, subject for making art. (This tape was serially produced for weekly screenings in the Cabana Room and one of its fictional characters, Susan Britton, the co-founder of the Cabana Room, reprises her role fictionally. Bad Girls, with its Donna Summer’s title and disco soundtrack is one of the many instances of music and dancing that run as sub-themes through the exhibition.)
Another image, a David Buchan work—appropriately based on Degas’s Absinthe Drinker and set in the Cameron, used as an advertisement for that tavern, placed in a 1984 issue of FILE—equally is emblematic of the complex integration of the art community. In fact, the photographer’s studio could be taken as a symbol for the interconnectedness of the art community and as another social site. The exhibition uncovers the role that these studios played in the production and dissemination of these images. Credit lines show photography at the intersection of a number of practices and reveal artists’ participation in the making of others’ works. (See, for example, the various roles that Rodney Werden’s, George Whiteside’s, and Jorge Zontal’s photography played, in the latter case as photography for General Idea’s works, or for appearance in FILE’s BZZZ column, for record covers by Rough Trade, or as ongoing portraiture.) The photographer’s studio was a switching centre where photography was sent off to serve its various functions. How are we to determine which of the photographic images resulting from these activities are to be considered the only legitimate art works?  And is it useful to so distinguish? Picturing the Toronto Art Community is a curator’s answer.
1. My article, “Trash as a Cultural System,” in C Magazine 58 (May–August 1998) was a first attempt to articulate, or, rather, to speculate on some of these issues.
Questions were never raised: Why is it possible to make such an exhibition at this time? What does such an exhibition suggest about the status of the work of art and the function of the image in our culture?
2. Establishing an image archive and bringing it into view is as important as works of art for creating a history for a place and especially for stimulating or sustaining interest in it. This has yet to be done for Toronto. Aside from its curatorial theses, by concentrating on the social scene of the art community, Picturing the Toronto Art Community was an initial attempt to bring some of these images into view.
3. There was a wide scope to what was considered to be portraiture, which included “traditional” studio portraiture, works of art where portraiture was accidental to the intention, posters, advertising, book covers, magazines (the concentration on FILE over other artists’ magazines of the period is due to the dual role it had in sustaining the fiction of a community and in being a vehicle for portraits), video, and film.
What the exhibition points to as unique to Toronto, as AA Bronson said at the panel on the exhibition at the Rivoli, is the fictionalizing participation of artists in other artists’ works, not just in their own, as in David Buchan’s Roots: thus the important resource of the period’s performance works and video for creating a portrait of the community and mapping its interconnections.
4. The relationship to the concurrent exhibition American Playhouse: The Theatre of Self-Presentation to Picturing the Toronto Art Community could be seen as that between theory and practice. The images from the New York underground of the 1960s, let’s say those produced by Warhol’s Factory, disseminated to other cities, became a model to be exemplified in our own art communities. Photographic images, not necessarily works of art, were the seeds that spawned—in a camp reversal of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers—new art communities of like-minded individuals.
6. There is a parallel between the social site for art examined in the exhibition and the marginal status traditionally given to the material presented, rescued from the past, but which then is rejected again in the present: i.e., “there is no art in this exhibition.” The willful disregard for the hierarchies of photography in the exhibition implies that: either everything in the exhibition is art, as AA Bronson maintained at the panel at the Rivoli, or, as I thought by putting this exhibition together, it all eventually will be.
The concentration on the social images of the art scene ignored traditional places of production (the studio) or dissemination (the gallery, concentrating on other means, such as magazines). Does the rejection of a possible art status for these images base itself on a perceived lack of authenticity due to the manipulation inherent in photography put to various uses and because these images derive from a place of production that is modeled on the fashion photographer’s studio?