Paradigmatic Selves / Paradigmatic Scenes (2016)

I was invited to give a talk for a MFA/PhD class in Methods in Practice-Based Research at York University in January 2106. I then reworked it for a Criticism and Curatorial Studies class shortly later at OCADU. What I developed I thought interesting enough to work into an article. Giorgio Agamben's "What is a Paradigm" was a required reading for the class, which led me to these speculations.

For the original publication, click here.

Paradigmatic Selves / Paradigmatic Scenes

       The personal is not only political; it is paradigmatic.

The question I am asking, which may seem odd, is whether it is possible to be paradigmatic to oneself. That is, can one’s practice become paradigmatic for oneself? The question would lead to the discovery of one’s own methodology, which then would guide the practice, lead it on. But it would not be obvious. It would take knowing what that practice was, and not an idea of one that a curator has received: a curatorial practice as taught or theorized. I’ve always believed that curating is autobiographical—but a curator realizes this only after having practiced sufficiently long. At that moment, one asks oneself, what is this thing that I do—and why? The “why” is not a professional question, nor is the “what” sufficiently apparent. The question takes or, rather, begins a personal excavation since it is a question of the “I” doing it.

It began for me in 1996. I had curated the exhibition The American Trip for Toronto’s Power Plant. And as the publication necessarily was due on the opening I had concluded my text on America’s fascination with the image of the outlaw, as examined in the works of Larry Clark, Cady Noland, Richard Prince, and Nan Goldin, with the following:

Celebrity and delinquency are bound together by the threat of corruption found in both Hollywood Babylon and teen babylonians. What starts as a celebration by artists is appropriated by the mainstream media and ends as panic in the press. Nowhere is the fear greater than in the heart of the American family, the locus of the worry, the terror even, that the enemy is within. In the same way that 1950s monster and sci-fi movies were sometimes read as worries over the “threat” of communism, so the worry now is that kids are not all right. The images of people in this exhibition show them not to be traditional outlaws. They are, as these artists celebrate, the girl—or boy—next door.

This last paragraph wrapped up the exhibition’s “theme.” But in installing, I discovered exactly what the exhibition was about. That is, about for me, autobiographically. It was about my attraction—not to the outlaw but to the metaphor of the underground criminal family—to the idea of the underground, the underground art scene, that is. It was the story of my attraction from afar to the images of the underground, living as a teenager in scene-less sixties Winnipeg so distant from Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Could such an insight, personal as it was, lead to a methodology? Not immediately. Yet it consciously led to two other exhibitions a couple years later: American Playhouse and Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years, shown together in 1998. American Playhouse looked at two generations of American artists, the first the originators of the sixties underground, the second a generation from the late 1970s that received its predecessors’ images and restaged them performatively through photography. Picturing the Toronto Art Community looked at the performative institution of the Toronto art scene through the images it created of itself, which were not always necessarily artworks. In both it was a matter of the dissemination and reception of images between an underground art scene and, for want of a better word, the suburbs that led those so distant to join art scenes elsewhere. In a sense, for later generations of both American and Canadian artists the 1960s New York underground scene provided not only the image but also the theory, so to speak, that other communities put into practice locally.

My question, then, becomes more complicated: Could an art scene itself be paradigmatic for future art scenes? My two questions are related. I understood the situation of both, or, rather, I understood that the origins of the Toronto art scene in the late 1970s instituted itself by some of the same principles of my attraction. But it wasn’t until I read Giorgio Agamben’s essay “What Is a Paradigm?” that I realized the explanatory value of this concept that enabled the linkage of the two.

What is a paradigm? It was Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions that introduced the historicizing concept of the paradigm and popularized the term “paradigm shift.” For Kuhn, paradigms are the unspoken rules by which a period validates research in the sciences, not through objective criteria but rather by means of consensus of a scientific community. More specifically, Agamben writing in 2008 notes, “a paradigm is simply an example, a single case that by its repeatability acquires the capacity to model tacitly the behavior and research practices of scientists.” [1]  He suggests Newton for which we could substitute Picasso as an example from art history of modeling artistic behaviour. In what follows we will continue with Agamben alone, in part because his explanation of the paradigm does not proceed from consensus. Rather, from an examination of his own practice, he asks how “actual historical phenomena” can become paradigmatic.

The paradigm rests on repeatability. An example is repeatable. It is an example in that it can be repeated. Can there be a singular example, an example that is singular? There is no more singular example than the self. The example of a self was the basis of my first question. But we have seen that the first question is implicated in the second. That is, the first question—“Is this idea of the underground and attraction from afar to an art scene a paradigm, my paradigm?”—is essential to the second: “Or is it the scene itself (its institution) that is a paradigm?” Together, the two constitute my example. But this would take finding the second, the scene, as singular, too.

Agamben proceeds in his discussion by a series of examples of which I am taking his explanations to explain and justify my particular paradigms. His basic point is that “Paradigms establish a broader problematic context that they both constitute and make intelligible” [p. 17]. Here Agamben gives an example from Foucault: “In short, the panopticon functions as a paradigm in the strict sense: it is a singular object that, standing equally for all others of the same class, defines the intelligibility of the group of which it is a part and which, at the same time, it constitutes” [p. 17].

This is the interesting thing about paradigms: they don’t pre-exist. [2]  This is not to say that I have fabricated my example as a fiction. The art scene existed, of course—but in a way that is not evident or rather only thought of as purely social and non-consequential, at best a passage towards a history of works that stand on their own, not constitutive in itself or institutive of a history. The “art scene” does not exist as an explanatory model in that it is not traditionally given as a mode or form of analysis; rather artists, works of art, stylistic chronologies, movements, etc. are looked to in order to provide this function. In a sense, this is why the paradigm is “problematic”: it does not necessarily attract consensus around it. But does it need to? For Agamben suggests that it is the nature of the paradigm to be explanatory and constitutive at the same time, which perhaps is a reason for its “problematic context.” Its problematic or perhaps paradoxical character is its performative effectivity—that it can call something into being.

Agamben says, “The paradigmatic relation does not merely occur between sensible objects or between these objects and a general rule; it occurs instead between a singularity (which thus becomes a paradigm) and its exposition (its intelligibility)” [p. 23]. The “art scene” itself would be this singularity, even though it is composed of “sensible objects”—works that artists produce and are written about in their time and historically, where “History” might provide the rule of their association. Instead of what we think is historically given, however, we have to focus rather on the idea of the art scene in a new way and isolate it as a constitutive category. “The paradigm is a singular case that is isolated from its context only insofar as, by exhibiting its own singularity, it makes intelligible a new ensemble, whose homogeneity it itself constitutes” [p. 18].

What is explanatory and at the same time constitutive when it comes to the Toronto art scene of the late 1970s that makes it a paradigm? Looking initially at myself as the individual example, the explanatory elements of the model would be: firstly, that there is a distant art scene that, secondly, one has an attraction to from afar, and, thirdly, that photography plays a role in disseminating its image—and, fourthly, that one joins it or a substitute for it. Now thinking of these as the main elements, how would they be translated to the Toronto art scene itself as a functioning model? Firstly, that there was an art scene in formation. Secondly, that in this desire to be an art scene (i.e., the requisite distance from an art scene—the ideal desired), collectively one performed a fiction of it. Thirdly, that photography, in the forms of artist magazines and video, created an image of it. [3]  Fourthly, what was performatively acted out as a fiction actually constituted what Toronto was as an art scene, which is now its historical character. To mimic General Idea: They said it; they did it; there was a Toronto art scene.

These conditions/elements, in fact, are constitutive, institutive I would say, of the Toronto art scene in the late 1970s. Saying this (or observing this) establishes the paradigm, and the paradigm makes the art scene both intelligible (intelligible as a model) and constitutive (constitutive in itself and a paradigm for the future). What describes the Toronto art scene and makes it intelligible are the elements and actions that constituted it as a scene—and then makes this paradigm the rule for the future. (That is, the paradigm is not just an historical description, but an actual rule, too.) Would this set up an ideal, or rather an idea, that future generations of Toronto artists would have to live up to? And would the failure of Toronto art be its failure to live up to this idea, to take it up for themselves?

Repeating Agamben but substituting the art scene for his example of the panopticon, we can say that the art scene “functions as a paradigm in the strict sense: it is a singular object that, standing equally for all others of the same class, defines the intelligibility of the group of which it is a part and which, at the same time, it constitutes.” [p. 17] The late 1970s downtown Toronto art scene is paradigmatic—but not for all art scenes, only those that would be possible in Toronto.

Paradigms provide the rule. “That is to say, to give an example is a complex act which supposes that the term functioning as a paradigm is deactivated from its normal use, not in order to be moved into another context but, on the contrary, to present the canon—the rule—of that use, which can not be shown in any other way” [18]. This is always problematic, especially in Toronto where one is always asked by what authority one claims the right to make an historical statement. [4]   How does the paradigm justify itself, make the rule, and present the canon? “It is the exhibition alone of the paradigmatic case that constitutes a rule, which as such cannot be applied or stated” [p. 21]. This then is the rule by which we must write our history and the writing of this history reinforces the rule, even if stated there for the first time.

The idea of Picturing the Toronto Art Community was not a paradigm for me when I curated this exhibition in 1998, but by the time I researched Is Toronto Burning? in 2014 and wrote a book of the same title it was. Moreover, it was not just a paradigm for me, for what constituted my practice, but also for what constituted itself as the Toronto art community, even though at this later date I refined its years of formation. [5] 

Yet the question must be asked whether a paradigm provides the rule for all time. For the notion of the paradigm to work it must be an explanatory model but at the same time be open to replacement, as when, inevitably, there is a paradigm shift. In the forty years since the inauguration of this scene has a shift taken place? Is the “art scene” for Toronto a past paradigm?

Yes, I believe so. Even after recently writing a book where I state the importance to Toronto of the inauguration of this scene in the late 1970s, I would still make this claim. Before we realized it was even the case, a Toronto paradigm, it was over. The Toronto art scene of the late 1970s was one of the last avant-gardes. You could say, at the cusp of the digital revolution, it was one of the last analogue avant-gardes. I would argue that an underground, perhaps even an avant-garde, is impossible today, given the immediacy of access to information online. It is one of the many casualties of the digital age. Perhaps it is too early to speculate, given that there is no one community in Toronto, but what would the terms of affiliation and conviviality for artists now be? What is the current paradigm?

I actually read Agamben’s essay when preparing to talk at an MFA/PhD Methods in Practice-Based Research seminar, where it was an assigned reading. In light of my last question, which I posed to the class, I speculated whether collectively we were enacting it, sitting in this darkened seminar room. Would PhD practice-based research be the current paradigm dictating new forms of affiliation and conviviality? Of course, generations have changed, social conditions have changed, and the art world immeasurably has changed, so one can’t necessarily judge one generation of artists against another. But from unlicensed underground to academic institution would be a paradigm shift, indeed.


 1. Giorgio Agamben, “What is a Paradigm?,” The Signature of All Things, New York: Zone Books, 2009, 11. Following citations are indicated in the text.

  2. “For this reason, the paradigm is never already given, but is generated and produced (paradeigmatos ... genesis; paradeigmata ... gignomena) by “placing alongside,” “conjoining together,” and above all by “showing” and “exposing” (paraballontas ... paratithemena ... endeiknynai ... deichthei ...  deichthenta).” Agamben, 23.

3. AA Bronson said it first: “Toronto’s most salient characteristics, to my mind, are these two: an overwhelming pragmatism—(Toronto artists were constructing an art scene, not an alternative)—and an unruly diversity resulting from an ongoing migration of artists from other regions to Toronto.
      “The first of these is best revealed in Toronto’s fascination with periodicals and video. In order to be an art scene you have to be able to see yourself as an art scene. In the early 70s magazines such as FILE, Proof Only, Image Nation and Impulse set out to do just that, to reflect the art scene back to itself. Similarly, early Toronto video was usually narrative and usually aimed at an audience of other artists. Artists starred in each others tapes, and a premiere of a new Colin Campbell tape at the Cabana Room was a little like attending the Academy Awards. In this way both periodicals and video aided artists in seeing themselves as an art scene and in representing themselves as an art scene.” AA Bronson, “Artist-initiated Activity in Canada”, From Sea to Shining Sea, ed. AA Bronson Toronto: The Power Plant, 1987, p 12.

 4. See Philip Monk, “Thinking Through Curating,” M5V, 3 (Spring 1992), 42–47, where the prescriptive and performative can now be seen to be allied to the paradigmatic. Available on Reading Philip Monk:

 5. Picturing the Toronto Art Community covered the years from approximately 1975 to 1985. I would now restrict the Toronto’s scene’s formation strictly to the three years of 1977 – 1979 covered in my book Is Toronto Burning?. I see the later period as already the beginning of its dissolution.