One Hour Empire Interview Andrew James Paterson
Interview by James Gunn in spring 2011, loosely in conjunction with the exhibition This is Paradise at Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) - June 24 - Aug.21, 2011.
JG: At the end of the 1970s, Queen Street West took shape as an art community when existing artist-run centres (Art Metropole, A Space, CEAC, the Music Gallery) moved in and new spaces (YYZ, Mercer Union, the Cabana Room) opened up. Video and performance joined music in bars - spaces like the Cameron House and the Rivoli became the main hang-outs for artists. How do you remember the emergence of this scene?
AJP: In the mid-to-late seventies, there already were art spaces in the Queen West neighbourhood. CEAC was in an Ontario Liberal Party building that also hosted The Crash and Burn, a punk club run by The Diodes. Or one could look at the corner of Richmond and Duncan. Art Metropole moved into there from their south Yonge Street location, sharing the second floor with FUSE. And the Body Politic had their offices just south of that corner. So... one could see a convergence of these people at The Beverley Tavern, Queen between John and McCaul. The Beverley had a back space where people could gab and ignore the bands, sound didn’t carry. The Beverley is immortalized in Colin Campbell’s Modern Love video.
So I guess the Beverley scene largely moved over to The Cabana Room, which predated The Cameron. The Cabana Room was started as a mixed performance space by Susan Britton and a guy named Robin Wall - he‘s now a painter living in Picton. I guess The Cabana Room kind of degenerated into more of a traditional band venue. Ironically, my band The Government was blamed for this in certain quarters, because we’d become popular with a more geeky music nerd audience that wasn’t very interested in anything too artistic. So … there was a need for a larger mixed space, and the new Cameron, which opened in 1981, at least initially fit the bill. Also, the Rivoli, which opened in 1982, had a great back space for film or video screenings as well as performance as well as live bands.
A lot of “spoken word”, if I recall correctly.
For video artists, there was always a tension between showing in accessible spaces and being compensated for the work. There were huckster types around who would hype about “exposure” and getting the work off the shelves of Art Metropole (and later V/Tape). Of course, surely it’s not unreasonable for artists to expect payment for exhibitions or screenings. But this tension between DIY initiatives, pseudo-anarchic capitalism, and legitimate bureaucratic concerns has always been present.
I would say there were tensions between grant and non-grant people. There still are. This and other tensions could, I guess, beg definitions of words such as “scene” or “community”. Do these words refer to geography, ideology, common practice, or what? I see these eternal questions come up again, so …. There we go.
JG: You were primarily a musician in the early 1980s, playing and writing songs for The Government. Can you elaborate on the formation of the band and its relationship to the inter-media theatre ensemble VideoCabaret?
AJP: The Government were formed in September 1977 and unofficially disbanded in June 1983. The Government was initially formed as a house band for the inter-media theatre company VideoCabaret. I had worked for VideoCabaret - the playwright Michael Hollingsworth and the agit-performance group The Hummer Sisters - in 1976. I initially augmented a band brought in by the company - that band was named Flivva. But, in 1977, I was handed the responsibility of forming a new band for the company’s inter-media productions, which included live music, live video, and dramatic and/or cabaret theatre.
So … I wrote songs, played dirge guitar, and sang. We had a parallel existence as the house band for VideoCab and as an autonomous band, and for a while this was actually tenable. I was at least as interested in soundtrack music as I was in traditional song structures then - I was obsessed with Brian Eno wallpaper, or what Satie called “furniture music”. My main collaborator in the band was Robert Stewart, who played bass, sang, and did some writing. Robert was truly a force of nature, when he was on. He wasn’t a serial or career musician - he was an artist who developed an idiosyncratic style of playing that worked perfectly with his or my or our collaborative songs. Robert was also a great performer - not nearly as self-conscious as I was. The Government had three drummers - Patrice Desbiens from Sept. 1977 to May 1978, Ed Boyd from June 1978 to December 1980, and then Billy Bryans. Billy is a very good funk and salsa drummer, and he kicked some ass into The Government. I mean, I was all theory and not much practice, and I took pride in this. But …even before Billy came on board … the dirge/Goth element had yielded to a sort of scratch funkiness, also with some dub elements.
The Government severed from VideoCabaret in August, 1979. We had decided to split during rehearsals for theirs and Hollingsworth’s production of 1984 - professionally, we should have given them earlier notice. I had written many commissioned songs for this production and most of them were not really working, or didn’t work outside of the production. But my song How Many Fingers did work autonomously. The title does come from Orwell - it’s where the interrogator is trying to get the prisoner or patient to snap by means of repetition. Orwell has it that common sense insists that a repeated image of four fingers in one’s face represents the number “four“, but the fascist totalitarian state overrides common sense. This is interesting territory, as fascism and anarchism have always had their cross-flirtations. Neither of them thinks much of liberal democracy or what Emma Goldman calls “parliamentarism”. I mean, who says what looks like four is really four? Your math book, your teacher? The Government, after seceding from VideoCab, would play this number live and get people from the audience to be patients. If they answered something other than four, they would get brownie points for originality. Orwell was not a Surrealist or Autonomatist or any of those artistic movements who see the Rational rather than the Irrational as being tyrannical. So … anyway, the song How Many Fingers had quite a life before it was finally recorded.
I should stress that, while the Government severed from VideoCab in 1979, I have done some contracted composing for them, particularly between 1994 and 1999 for Hollingsworth’s Village of the Small Huts series. The band was not involved in the 1982 Hummer municipal campaign, although I wrote music for one song. That campaign certainly was an effective public and media performance piece. Also, earlier Hummer works like The Patty Rehearst Story (1976) were quite innovative with their blending of live theatre and video and also their performative take on media and hostage-taking.
JG: The Government recorded a video for the track “How Many fingers” at 299 Queen Street West, an address that many Torontonians recognize as the old CHUM-City building (now Bell Media). The New Music, City TV’s television magazine, rejected the video because it did not look like a “music-video”. Yet, it has survived as a work of video-art and provides an interesting document, particularly of the artists involved in its making and the location of the recording. Could you talk about the production?
AJP: I’d say the video for How Many Fingers began to take shape during the recording process, in June of 1981. The record was made at Trinity Square Video, in what was then the Ryerson building, and especially at night the hallways more and more began to resemble a hospital. One could walk around but one was never quite sure about the security - about whether one was really alone. And this not unpleasant queasiness began to interact with a weird fixation I’d developed with quiz shows - especially The Price is Right. It hit me that “Big Brother” was not some clichéd dictator but your benevolent Uncle Bob - the too-friendly television host who’d wear people down with the world’s most superficial charm. I’d always wanted to watch The Price is Right or Jeopardy and see all that was edited out, and see how Uncle Bob was probably not such a nice man after all.
So … that’s where the quiz show How Many Fingers came from. Now … the record was produced by a man named Ian Murray, a quirky fellow and a good audio artist. This was under the auspices of Trinity Video, which Robert and I already had some connection with. I had already begun dabbling with video art, so … . The staff and personnel of Trinity all chipped in time and labour to make the video. The artist Robin Collyer designed the How Many Fingers video game on Telidon - early funky graphics. Alan Fox, who worked at Trinity, came on board as director, videographer, and editor. We wanted to do as much as possible without editing or post-production - this didn’t quite work out of course. But the tape was choreographed to the music, which was playing throughout the shoot. By that guitar squiggle, the gurney should be ready to enter the “operating room” - that sort of detail.
Other artists associated with Trinity at the time chipped in - Paulette Phillips and Geoffrey Shea for example. Also Kim Tomczak. And then we recruited friends to be extras or bit parts. We thought George Whiteside as a doorman was an in joke. David Buchan as a DJ - we were friends with David and thought he was a great artist and camera presence. Tanya Mars has a lovely cameo. There are tons of people at the “party” - Andy Fabo and Tim Jocelyn humping away to much faster music. Well … I mean, it’s all very medicated, just like it tends to be in hospitals. Martin Heath, from what was then the GAP (Grange Artists Performance), donated a gurney and his doppelganger presence. The artist Amy Wilson worked on sets and costumes - she has always been tireless.
I don’t remember making a calculated decision for the band not to play in the video. I just think it’s because the video had this narrative that therefore how could the band be playing when the band were also the foreground performers. Of course, music videos are not at all concerned with this sort of traditional continuity. So …. Much Music didn’t want it. John Martin, who was the New Music producer, told me it wasn’t entertaining - we weren’t jumping around. Well, I guess we were being very modernist here - we didn’t jump around like idiots because we weren’t idiots. We weren’t playing by the rules of the music video - using a promotional language. What or who was exactly the product? I remember Alan Fox and I were always meeting with Ed Mowbray, who was an artist who worked both the television world and the art beat - Ed then worked for the New Music. Ed would recommend the tape, but there were no takers.
But … this work has indeed survived as a work of video-art, I think, because it is and isn’t television. Thus it was very of the period. There was a series of programmes produced by Trinity in 1980 called Television By Artists, in which artists played with what could be television or what already might be television except for a few disorienting details. I think the Fingers video is in many ways an extension of this initiative - why can’t this or that be television since it makes as much sense as most of what already occupies the medium? Somebody might see How Many Fingers, see the quiz show, and have some expectations without being able to identify a genre. It is a musical video and not particularly a music video. I suppose it also begs the “community” question, since it’s arguably more about a group of people or a “scene” than a conventional product or a band. The video does tend to avoid the tropes of advertising. It is not “commercial”, so does that make it “art“?
JG: Your art practice is interdisciplinary, involving performance, music, video and writing. How do all these facets coincide? Is there a certain element of your practice that acts as a common thread?
AJP: Well, I’d say writing and performativity are commonplaces or tropes throughout my work. I’ve used self-composed music in most of my video work, although I haven’t really performed music for years. I don’t think I’ve ever been much of a performance artist - not a body-performance artist a la Marina Abromavic or Chris Burden or Vito Acconci (although Acconci is a poet and an architect). I’ve never really done performance like Tanya Mars, who is a performing visual artist. Recently, at the suggestion of J.P. Kelly, the programming coordinator at Trinity Video, I presented a sort of inventory performance at the opening for my recent exhibition there - The Ghosts of Home Entertainment. I wore a white lab coat (mad scientist? quack doctor? suspect academic?) and riffed through Trinity’s historic video collection. I was distinguishing between collection, which is purchased, and archives, which are donated or accumulated by default. I start with a loose plan and then improvised in reaction to the site., but it’s still somewhat writerly. More Andrea Fraser institutional critique than body art.
So … writing is present in most of my art, although I’ve been playing with making language a ghost. I’ve been doing some either strictly silent animations or animations with music - they’re on my website. When I showed my video A Typical Morning for Green and Blue (2009) at Trinity in the aforementioned show, a friend of mine told me she wished I’d not used the language component (there are vestiges or traces of a screenplay breaking up the image sequences.) She thought the images communicated quite satisfactorily without the dialogue, which killed the mood. But I like the idea of ghosts leaking through - ghosts like language or bodies. However, I feel my recent video work has been moving away from language. Take something like 12 x 26 (2008), in which there are seven 26 word alphabetical poems and five sequences of 26 images in 26 frames. That’s like concrete structuralism, although the words are hopefully provocative and amusing, they also move away from communicative models.
Perhaps moving away from language also means moving away from bureaucracy? Simultaneous fascination and revulsion with bureaucracy runs throughout most if not all of my work. I tend to see systems and grids where there don’t appear to be any - my tendency is to say but yes there are so why not festishize then instead of denying them. Plus formally I just love grids - Bach, colour-field painting. I’m not a painter, so I knock them off in Photoshop. Photoshop of course encourages serious processing, and then Final Cut Pro on top of that. Processing on top of processing. My recent videos have been non-camera. I compose images and then synch and process them, in relation to either text or music. Lately text and music have not been parallel - it’s been one or the other. I think emotion is non-verbal - I’m very classically modernist. I remember in 1994, when I was showing my two-bureaucrat video Controlled Environments (1994) at YYZ and the artist Ron Giii sat in on a class. Ron asked me how can one escape the Franz Kafka conundrum and (if I recall correctly) I replied that I’m not sure one can. Or even if the opposite of Kafkaness is even preferable. I suspect apparently free-fall zones of being controlled environments - someone has to be in charge or else the motor would not be running.
So … a lot of my video work is about bodies in relation to bureaucracies and other systems. There are three works shot on black and white Super-8: The Walking Philosopher (1999), The Headmaster’s Ritual (2002), and DOA/Remake/Remodel (2005). These were all commissioned for Splice This, a Super-8 festival running between 1998 and 2006. These works involve me behind the moving camera - they are performative documentaries of a sort, if you like. They are about public spaces that can be hosting random elements, queer exchanges and flaneur-ism in general. Or they are also about systems - especially The Headmaster’s Ritual, which is shot on the grounds of a school I attended in my teens and which hosts a voiceover about right wing gay men whether libertarian or fascist. Yes… this work is about extremely restrictive space. I think tensions between public and private spaces, bodies within bureaucratic or technological contracts … these are motifs running throughout my work, no matter what discipline.
Because of my flirtation with the music industry, and I would also say because of my long part-time job as a server at the Cameron House for years, I’ve always been aware of tensions between those inside and outside of granting systems. This is certainly the roots of a book project I edited for YYZ Books in 2001, in tandem with the artist and writer Sally McKay. This book is called Money Value Art, and I think there are few more in stock but only a few. I remember in 1989, when Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star interviewed a member of The Purple Institute, a quasi-anarchist group with a space over on Gladstone. One of the Purple Institute people may have snorted a few too many lines and started yapping to Hume about how the Institute would never apply for government grants because they’re just too slow. Hume, who had always been critical of artist-run culture, lapped this up. Here is the real avant-garde and they’re against government grants - all right! I remember in the Village Voice, during the Senator Helms NEA hysteria in 1990. A hackler was interviewed in the context of concerned artists and arts-professionals; and the hacker broke the party line by opining who gives a shit about the NEA since art is all on the net. Back then, I thought what a wanker. That plays right into the hands of Senator Helms and right-wing governments. Now I have more time for people like that hacker. There is art and there are artists who do function very well inside different systems than what they perceive as a dominant “art community”. Yes .. That word, again. Yes … these are tropes within my work.
Another recurring motif in my videos is self-dialogue. There’s a ghost of Beckett, and also of the Socratic dialogues. Sometimes I literally use split-frame, like in Controlled Environments or Cash and Carry (1999). Sometimes I do use other voices, but the speakers are not seen. So perhaps this is more ambivalent as to whether the works are self-dialogues, as in Rectangular World (2006) or The Enigma of S.A.P. (2008). The latter work mixes a dialogue about art spaces and economics with my own “paintings”, which are on the wall in a brand new gallery in an area previously noted for its social housing. Here we go again. What, if anything, could or even should be done with seemingly available space?
Also, media and media-dynamics are a trope within my work between 1987 and 1992 particularly. The works I made during that period are more quasi-dramatic and they are situated in media environments. Who Killed Professor Wordsworth? (1990) - well, that’s a media hoax of sorts. Like who exactly is the professor - where did he come from and who made him a popular media figure? The performer (me) is a weird hybrid of Bob Barker and Arthur Kroker. Immortality (1987) is my semi-transvestite hybrid of Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, and Spinal Tap. It was like a bowel movement - it just had to be done. And Pink in Public (1992), about celebrity “outing“. Well … that issue hasn’t completely evaporated, although it’s more relevant to certain closeted politicians. Who gets away with nudge nudge wink wink, and who gets targeted? That question is all about media and power dynamics. But … those works occupy a weird space between documentary and drama, and I don’t feel like artistically revisiting that territory. There are too many commonplaces with mainstream production, and even calling cards. Beginning with Controlled Environments, I made a decision that the production industry was not for me. I did write unpublished novels during this period, so …. Now I have a strong preference for grids and abstraction - this is both my comfort zone and my danger zone. One can go very abstract and lose oneself, which is largely the point.
I also should mention that A.A. Bronson and Art Metropole published my novelette - The Disposables - in late 1986. This book was the result of a feature film script I had been writing. I spent a good deal of the early eighties with this basic material. A work about popular culture, making observations about popular culture in the middle of a plot, and published by an art publishing house. Serious contradictions here, and why not?
And … what would the eighties and late-seventies have been without the periodicals - FILE, Impressions, FUSE, and IMPULSE, and others? These periodicals and their editors encouraged or commissioned artist’s pieces, in which artists could mix aspects of this discipline and that discipline. Here boundaries between the literary, the performative, and the academic could easily be transgressed or simply ignored. As an interdisciplinary artist, having these publishers and outlets was literally pennies from heaven.
JG: Historical surveys in the form of group exhibitions often make the claim of documenting a scene or community. How do you perceive terms like “scene” or “community”? Do they exist only in retrospect?
AJP: First of all, “scene” and “community” are different words. What many people call communities I would call scenes, or I think scene is a preferable word. “Scene” is not meant to be inclusive - these people have their scene and other people are not part of it. “Community” is one of the most loaded words in the English language - right up there with “culture” (not to sound too much like Raymond Williams in Keywords.) When people talk about “community”, are they thinking socially, geographically, what? Are they thinking about networks or neighbourhoods? There has to be some sort of demography involved, or why would some people be part of “the community” and some not part of it?
I should emphasize that my disdain for “the community” is quite parallel to my suspicion of nation-states and all forms of nationalism. Nationalist initiatives and movements are always looking for some unifying essence, even when claiming to be diverse and inclusive. The first person plural pronoun “we” implies “they” or “them”. Or other(s).
I’m against the definite article in front of “community” - I go out of my way not to speak of “the community”. What the hell does that refer to - why is this person a member and not that person? Community is a relativist word, and the definite article is restrictive. The word might well intended to be inclusive but it is the opposite. The definite article implies gate keeping. Is this person a member or not? On what basis can or should someone be included in “the community”? Do they consume these products; do they shop in this store or drink in this bar? Is “the community” just a polite way of saying “the market”? I’ve heard far too many examples of someone supporting A against B because A is a member of “the community” so A must be supported, when actually B is the person in the right. There is always subjectivity with the definite article in front of the noun “community”. Or … do people mean “society”? Maggie Thatcher, or one of her speechwriters, once stated that there was no such thing as society. That of course is ridiculous. When one thinks, when one considers contradictory options or opinions, then there is something called “society” as in there is more than one. But... I hear “the community”, I just want to scream and then demand, “whose community?”. Who put you in charge, and where do you get off thinking that you are in charge?
So … when “the community” interacts with history, of course it’s subjective. It’s the historian or curator’s or teacher’s or whomever’s version of history. So biases must be declared. Someone is recalling their version of community, or perhaps those who they deem worthy of recollection. There is writing I’ve read about the early eighties and Queen West and Whatever that compresses factions together who were actually like oil and vinegar. Group X and Group Y may have been in the same room at the same time, but they did nor intermingle let alone collaborate. When people have done these sorts of historical surveys, there are always people who cry foul and, when the curator or researcher or whomever doesn’t have a strong curatorial mandate, then people are quite right to wonder why them and why not me.
The verb “documenting” and the noun “documentary” are problematic here. They imply objectivity, which is impossible. There is always an editor or a curator. So why pretend there is not? People should talk about “my community”, which included this and does not accommodate that. The idea of as singular art community is absurd considering that different disciplines often did not mix. Look at film and video. Narrative film people generally do not get “video art”, but video art and experimental film have much more in common than video art does with (most) television. Surveys on the late seventies and the early eighties have tended to miss The Funnel - an experimental cinema and society operating on King Street East and not on Queen West. Is this omission geographical? Is it the result of suspicion about “film”, that it involves a production mentality and not an individualist artist mentality? Experimental film is as hands on as one can get, so ….? And are hard-edge abstract painters part of the same community as figurative painters? Maybe yes and maybe no. Are theatre people part of the same community as painters or sculptors? Well, there have been some collaborations, but there are also different practices with different conceptions of audience and different critical vocabularies.
Another thing I notice about historical surveys is that some people rate being named and some don’t. There are people who appear in many photographs and other images (videos) by various artists who are not identified. Do audiences not wish to know who recurring people or personas are? Are some subjects identified because they are members of “the art community” and some are not - instead, these people are members of the community-at-large who happen to turn up at documented events? There is definitely a ranking system, since there is a curator and presumably a curatorial premise. So … some bon vivants will rate and some will not? Are those not named or recognized not part of “the community”? Well… what the hell does that expression mean, anyway?
Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge use the phrases “arts community” and “community-at-large”. I interpret the latter to refer to society - there is so such a thing as society. But … this can slip into a too easy dichotomy between artists and “the real world”. It is interesting to hear how different galleries, particularly artist-run, use the phrase “the community”. Some will be referring to parallel artists; and some (A Space) will be referring to non-artists, or “the public”. I also think of Hal Jackman’s late-nineties re-branding of the Ontario Arts Council - artists protected from the market live in a “private” (meaning hermetic) bubble, while entrepreneurs masquerading as representatives of the real world represent “the public”, as in the market.
I should emphasize that I am not at all against “community’ - there are situations in which neighbours or artistic contemporaries or people who find themselves in the same boat definitely should collaborate and even agitate, in relation to issues around AIDS, health, poverty, zoning, real estate, censorship, and governmentality.
JG: In Toronto, there will always be groups of artists who work, live and play together, and gather in familiar places, but would anybody define this as bohemia? Do you think the concept of bohemia is still relevant in large urban centres?
AJP: It is true that the word “bohemian” has become rare and largely discredited - except of course in lifestyle advertising (The Bohemian Embassy or Embarrassment). Bohemianism has always been suspect in relation to class and class politics - bohos or artists are considered by many on the traditional class-based left to be voluntarily downwardly mobile and therefore not a genuine underclass. But… is there not an echo of the idea of bohemianism lying outside or beyond class structures in the all-to-prevalent Richard Florida notion of “the creative class”? The presence of artists elevates neighbourhoods (or communities?). Art is good for the economy and “artist” refers to a lifestyle one can purchase - a club one can become a member of by buying art or artistic embellishments.
The simplistic concept of “the creative class” ignores the fact that artists can’t always be wearing the “I’m an artist” hat or identity-badge. There are situations - in reference to zoning or traffic or noise - in which artists are not unified. Some enter into working dialogue with non-artists in proximity, because they feel strongly such initiatives are called for in the particular situation. “Artists” are often used to justify gentrification processes; and many artists quite rightly don’t wish to be used as such. Here, artists are citizens, parallel to other citizens.
It might sound like the pot calling the kettle black, but I have trouble with the idea of artists as some sort of superior class. There’s simply too much of an echo of Marinetti, if not Mussolini. Perhaps artists are never a comfortable fit in relation to temporal notions pertaining to work and labour. Perhaps artists don’t quite fit into sharp class demarcations. But the idea of an artist being above or outside of ethical and other considerations is problematic. I’m not just referring to idiots who kill pussycats and use the art alibi. I’m referring to those who use the fact that they are artists in order to present themselves as a superior class. I’ve actually heard it stated that this or that artist or writer can be as homophobic or racist or whatever as they want to be, simply because they are great artists or writers or whatever. Well … I mean … whatever! Of course they can paint or shoot or write whatever they damn well feel like making, and even exhibit it. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, just because of their superior talents.
When artistic merit issues collide with legal issues, the art alibi or defence can only sustain so far. In the Eli Langer trial, The Crown had a witness who was a shrink who argued that a pedophile would indeed see Eli’s drawings and then cream his jeans. From that point on, the defence had to produce a witness who would be a shrink who could discredit The Crown’s shrink - because now the case had moved beyond apolitical aesthetic concerns and into a legal or social realm. When Wilde stated that there was only good art and bad art, he was taking a stance and a stand against Philistinism and Puritanism. But, more than a century later, aestheticism has become too often a refuge for the apolitical, and apoliticality is too often a refuge for terribly conservative politics.
There is another federal election tonight - one in which arts and culture have barely been mentioned. In the 2008 election, Harper made a faux pas about the elitism of art or “culture”. A group sprung up calling itself The Department of Culture - I got involved. Groups of art types (largely theatre people) went out into targeted ridings and attempted engaging citizens. Some citizens were undoubtedly engaged, but I don’t think The Department of Culture was particularly effective, upon looking at the election results in those particular ridings. I think there are a lot of people who don’t give a shit about art - perhaps because they don’t have too much leisure time or perhaps they associate art and culture with waste or perhaps they really are Philistines. So … why should artists attempt or bother to force their art and art-systems down those people’s throats? But … I will contradict myself here … one thing I liked about showing video at YYZ was the YYZ-TV connection, which people could access by cable. I appreciated the fact that my grocers could see my work - that meant a lot to me. So … the public is not a homogenous entity, and neither are artists.