Toot toot … beep beep: Colin Campbell’s Bad Girls—An Allegory of Art Community (2002)

 

Presented in 2002 at The Power Plant as part of a series of talks and screening in homage to Colin Campbell.

Toot toot … beep beep: Colin Campbell’s Bad Girls—An Allegory of Art Community

Toot toot … beep beep. Toot toot … beep beep.
Were it not for Colin Campbell, would I be able in a public presentation to express these words, sounds, emblems really, of—seemingly—one of the most debased and reviled of popular cultural forms: disco?
Toot toot … beep beep.
Were it not for Colin, would I be able to enact an analysis, perform in public, and assume an identity based on such trite material?
Toot toot … beep beep. Toot toot … beep beep.
Were it not for Colin Campbell’s Bad Girls, a “throwaway” videotape from 1979, produced serially for presentation in the Cabana Room, a downtown Toronto artists’ bar, toot toot; that took its subject to be a fictional “Cabana Room,” a new wave music club, beep beep; and the story of Robin, the hapless suburbanite character Colin plays in drag, toot toot, trying to be admitted to the scene and become an artiste, beep beep; were it not for Colin’s Bad Girls, would I look on the origins of our art community in the same way?
Toot toot … beep beep.
Would I?

[Segue to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls”; fade out from 1:16 on]

Bad girls, sad girls, like everyone else, they come from near and far.
Bad girls, sad girls, like everyone else, they wanna be stars.

Bad Girls—An Allegory of Art Community? An art community attracts; it attracts participants to it—they come from near and far. In Bad Girls, Robin, who is from the suburb of Thornhill, seeks out the Cabana Room because she read about it in The Globe and Mail. This attraction was one of the theses of Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years, in which Bad Girls was so essential a part. Except, the success in infiltrating the mainstream press was secondary to the images the art scene created for itself. This play of portraiture was the subject of my exhibition: that the origin of the art community in this period was coincident with theatricalizing images of self-presentation. Hence, the drag, the posing, but also the uniqueness of this moment of collective portraiture, as artists used themselves and their artist friends in their works: like everyone else, they wanna be stars. All this, Bad Girls and many other Toronto works of the period, had.
    An allegory of art community? I don’t think Colin intended it so. The trials and tribulations, the rise and fall of his lovingly portrayed hapless heroine Robin, rather, followed the episodic structure of the picaresque novel. Bad Girls was made according to the exemplary avant-garde model of film production of Warhol’s sixties Factory: episodes were written, shot, edited during the week, and screened on the weekend in the Cabana Room. This gave the video an immediacy derived from dealing with what was at hand. Note, when we screen it, the minimal set—a white wall and a few props. Everything is carried by the performance (performance is everything: the centre of attention), albeit a performance that is exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous, though a loving parody—camp, you could say, of an altogether different kind. Although the story sets itself in the milieu of popular culture, music specifically, the performance does not just mimic a commodified pop genre, as in drag lip synch. The story places itself in the moment (1979), at the point of transition between punk and new wave, with new wave in the ascendancy. New wave had its camp element: hence the Cabana Room’s twist contest in Bad Girls, or its reference to the B-52s. This was hip camp (of which Robin knows not the codes: during the twist contest when she is supposed to freeze, Robin blithely continues dancing). But camp worthy of its avant-garde heritage extemporizes from the more degraded forms of contemporary pop music, as Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger used then current pop music in Flaming Creatures and Scorpio Rising in the early 1960s. And so the subtext of Bad Girls is the unconscious of new wave—concurrent démodé disco. Disco opened a whole new repertoire for camp:

Bad girls, sad girls, like everyone else, they come from near and far.
Bad girls, sad girls, like everyone else, they wanna be stars.
    
    Bad Girls—an allegory of art community? I don’t think Colin originally intended it so. Robin, as Colin said, was a vehicle to talk about the alternative art and music scene in Toronto of this period. The art and music scenes uniquely intermixed in this period. But was Robin perhaps a vehicle to talk about the art scene through the music scene, through the masquerade of the music scene? With no history of its own to fall back on, avant-garde art in North America has instead used the image of popular culture and pop music to mask its discourse. And so did Colin in Bad Girls.
    The Cabana Room in the Spadina Hotel was the art community’s first social space, a bar in which videotapes were shown, performances given, and art bands played. “The Cabana Room” in Bad Girls was a make-or-break new wave music club to which Robin sought first entry then success. The manager, Ms. Susan, was played by the ultra-cool video artist Susan Britton, who in real life programmed the space; the Studio 54-type doorman was Felix Partz of General Idea; Robin’s bandmate Heidi was played by video artist Rodney Werden; musician Steven Davey was played by himself. Not only a portrait of the art community (the tape’s function within my exhibition), this grouping, as I see reviewing Bad Girls now, represents something of the inside of the art community, its elite. Am I saying that Colin was an elitist? No. But seeing the beginning of the video with Robin at the door of the Cabana Room seeking entry and being kept out because she is too geeky, I wonder: a play of trendies and geeks, of insiders and outsiders, is Bad Girls an allegory of admittance to the art community? Perhaps so.
    Robin doesn’t quite get it. She is always off. Notice she keeps calling the Cabana Room the Cabana Lounge, even though the sign is right behind her. Once inside, finally admitted purely through the fluke that she has a ponytail needed for the twist contest, she fails to follow the rules of the game. She doesn’t know the rules, the codes, the signifiers, the mimicking of which will make her acceptable, to be seen to be an artist, to be part of the clique. (The advice of Steven Davey, of how to be a new wave musician, is one more scenario of ridiculous rules.) But in spite, or rather because of this lack of knowledge she succeeds in becoming a success with her techno rendition of Donna Summer’s "Bad Girls."
    Robin is no bad girl—perhaps a sad, pathetic girl; however, her music is bad—and no reason to be a success, except through some perverse whim of others. Colin Campbell is no … bad girl, but his “off” performance captures all that Robin is, and perhaps identifies with her—her plight outside whatever the “Cabana Room” signifies. Bad Girls: a critique of the art system?—no; an analysis of the art community?—not really; a star is born melodrama?—not actually; a fiction?—yes and no. The irony of all this—it’s Toronto; no one but the artists are really paying attention in spite of The Globe and Mail articles. Bad Girls was a necessary fiction of the art community. It is no different now. Welcome to the art community. Toot toot … beep beep.