Was Toronto Burning? (2016)

"Was Toronto Burning?," Canadian Art 33:2 (Summer 2016), 68-70.

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For the original submission, which differs somewhat from that published, read below.


Was Toronto Burning?

After forty years we should have a different view of the late seventies Toronto art scene than it had of itself. Indeed, if it had a view on itself: it was too busy creating itself and had no time for writing its own history. Now when we have no art scene, we historicize. And it is exactly the late seventies art scene we look at to do so. But still we think what the past thought of itself rather than look at it from the point of view of the present. History is cruel. History is not one thing after another: a secure narrative chain unfolding itself to eternity. Over time, radically new narrative paths open up, but they do not simply present themselves; they must be conceived through historical writing. Simply stated, forty years on, some things are important, others not. It is our job, before we move on and someone else does the same to us, to establish what was important and what not: i.e., what was historically consequential.

In writing this book, I discovered for myself, not knowing when I began, precisely what composes this history. It begins with a lost history of feminist performance, such as Glamazon, 1975, organized by Dawn Eagle and Granada Gazelle (aka, Miss General Idea 1969), for which David Buchan was the stage manager. These strategies then changed gender and transitioned to queer male artists when subsequently performance principles were applied to photography. But not any photography. Photography allied itself to semiology in this period, when photography was beginning to go big, in influence and size (and also being disseminated through artist magazines like FILE), but Roland Barthes was still the possession of the camp cognoscenti. They were camp principles but they applied to straight artists, too, to Ian Carr-Harris, for example, as well as to General Idea—so much so that you could say that “camp conceptualism” ruled Toronto art. It was embodied, gendered, and dealt with codes and the transgressing of them. Toronto’s conceptual art was performative. Then there was what I call Toronto talk. Talk was the theatricality of Toronto art. Language was attracted to the image as talk and together the two were seen to be a frivolous performance. How did such degraded art scene entertainments—of media parodies and inhabited popular cultural formats—become the main show of Toronto’s history?

It was no triumphant progression for the downtown Toronto art scene. Camp was contested by the macho rigour of phenomenological sculpture and the vacant prettiness of colour field painting, which were the privileged purview of uptown commercial galleries and the mid-town Art Gallery of Ontario. Most of all it was opposed by the decade’s political orientation in art—of the Red Guard, Marxist-Leninist variety of strident polemics and sometimes good graphics. Ultimately, the fashion for politics and the posturing of performance were all one pose, which may have irked the former “moral” artists when they unselfconsciously utilized the so-called frivolous strategies of the latter.
Whatever New York likes to think, 1980s appropriation art was invented in Toronto in this period by the likes of General Idea, David Buchan, and others when the practice was called inhabitation. What made Toronto unique? Well, it was partly that New York no longer had authority in the mid-1970s, and communities temporarily could go off to create their own scenes, usually in the unregulated edges of downtowns where no one officially was watching. Artists were, though. And looking at one another, and participating in each other’s artworks moreover (again something unique about Toronto), they created the fiction of an art scene, which at the same time they performatively instituted.

And they talked in the bars and argued, especially in the slew of artist edited and produced magazines newly available, courtesy government funding, where character assassination was an art, too. Conviviality and contestation made the Toronto art scene at a time when Canada’s vaunted artist-run system was in turmoil: with a palace coup at A Space and the closure of the radical Centre for Experimental Art and Communication, when it advocated knee-capping Red Brigade style and consequently lost its funding. New social movements were in formation at a time when the art and punk/new wave music scenes intersected. The unaligned Cabana Room, run by video artist Susan Britton upstairs in the Spadina Hotel, was as important as any art gallery; and CEAC had Crash ’n’ Burn, Toronto’s punk epicenter when it broke summer 1977, in its basement. In its own way, punk was influential, too. Its destructiveness mirrored the wide-scale demolition of factory and warehouse buildings housing the downtown art scene. Sophisticated artists recognized punk’s strategic value and co-opted its violence in order to transition from the hippie sentimentality of the early 1970s to the suave new wave irony of decade’s end.

Curiously, the socially transgressive alignment between punk musicians and downtown artists was happening precisely at the moment punk academically was being examined as a subculture, notably in Britain by the likes of Stuart Hall’s Birmingham School and Dick Hebdige. Subcultural theory came out of the sociology of deviancy. Artists could teach punks a thing or two about that. Really, didn’t the Toronto art scene itself have all the characteristics of a subculture, with its own protocols of belonging and negotiation of the dilemma of visibility? Too much visibility and … well, that’s when the police come. And they did.