Suspended Paradise Andrew James Paterson
The sign (by Tom Dean) informs us that this is indeed “Paradise“, and it must be since there are (mostly) men drinking at tables below that sign who have been drinking here since World War II.. Some of these characters leave at “last call for daytime prices” and some soldier on, becoming part of the night time mix. And what a mix it was.
A friend of mine always asks me (as a long-term tenant) how is The Cameron. I’m never quite sure what the question refers to. Does it refer to the business, to the bar, to the upstairs accommodation, or to some all-encompassing entity? Does it refer to some social experiment or some abstraction at least several degrees removes from everyday realities?
Does it refer to a “community”? What is meant by that over-familiar word, anyway? A geographical community, or an artistic counterpart? Perhaps the reference is closer to a scene than a community. But both words imply commonality, so …? Was there a school of thought either originating at or coalescing around The Cameron? No, mercifully there were far too many contradictions and even oppositions - both during the 1981-7 period and indeed ever since.
When The Cameron House changed management and mandate in 1981, the neighbourhood around Queen Street West was in full swing and also in flux. Older artist-run galleries (A Space) had moved to Toronto’s downtown west, and newer ARCs (YYZ, Mercer Union) had recently opened in the vicinity. There were also younger artists -painters, sculptors and others, who felt that the artist-run galleries had become institutionalized and inaccessible. The waiting lists were too long, so alternatives were necessary. There were also many artists making art that was social, that involved crowds and audiences who were themselves performative, as in they enjoyed being on display.
The new Cameron became an immediate successor to bars or taverns which had gained artistic reputations via their clienteles. The Cabana Room, in the Spadina Hotel at King and Spadina, had earlier been a fluidly interdisciplinary performative venue but now it was really just another live band venue. The Beverley Tavern, further east on Queen, was no longer the Ontario College of Art watering hole that it had been previously. The Peter Pan restaurant wasn’t the art hangout it had been in the nineteen seventies, when it catered to artist clientele and employed artist-servers. The Cameron also could be viewed as a descendant of Toronto boho landmarks such as The Pilot in the now-gentrified Yorkville neighbourhood, as well as Grossman’s on Spadina just south of College, with its mixture of draft-dodgers and peace activists, hard-edged abstract painters, and generic blues bands.
The late Felix Partz, one of the three artists comprising General Idea, opined in the performance Press Conference (1977), again in the videotape Pilot (also 1977), and then reasserted in Shut the Fuck Up (1986) that “if it doesn’t sell, then it’s not art”. (1) For not only artist-run centre people, that quote sounded rather Thatcherite or Reaganite (or Mulroney-Lite). This quote is also a clear ancestor of the twenty-first century Instant Coffee maxim “Be social or get lost”. Does the verb “sell” refer to strictly economic transactions? Or does it, like the word “social”, refer to the notion of entering into play, engaging audiences, mirroring scenes or communities rather than staring them in the face and demanding respect or reverence?
Certainly, in the early period of The Cameron House, even seemingly hermetic practices such as painting became more “social” in flavour. Not only the figure but also scene or salon portraits were back with a vengeance. Performance art and video art also began to flirt with their host and ghost mediums - theatre, film, and television. With the art boom in full swing, there was pressure to go big rather than remain small. Out of the garrets and into the public realm, which included the bars as well as the media? In the spirit of the early decade, there were a lot of people talking being interdisciplinary, about “crossing over”. Artists who refused to confine themselves to singular disciplines have always existed - they certainly exist today. Many such artists have profitable careers thanks to their eclecticism. However … there is crossing over as in truly appealing to different audiences who have not traditionally blended or interacted; and there is “crossing over” as a marketing plan. Mix in this with a little bit of that and then … voila! That mindset tends to result in messy confusion, rather than creative collaboration.
But the bar itself was certainly a mix. In the front room, one could circulate (or wait on tables) and identify different tables with different galleries or art organizations. There’s the Art Metropole table, there‘s YYZ at another table, there‘s Mercer Union, there’s FUSE magazine, there’s Chromazone, there are the abstract painters, and then there are so many more. On many nights all of these people would inhabit the same geographical space. Some stayed put at their tables. Some didn’t like each other very much; and some did make a point of crossing the floor and socializing. Then there were unaligned individuals, younger but not only younger artists, looking for exhibition opportunities. (2) Many of them were suspicious of the governmental granting agencies. Many artists of course benefited from governmental largesse but there was and still is legitimate criticism of the agencies in question: they were too political; they were too apolitical; they were frankly too white-bread and inaccessible to a large variety of eligible artists. Quasi-anarchic impulses and quick-draw capitalism have often been difficult to distinguish and the early decade was a time when many were impatient with bureaucratic demands and restrictions. Somebody or a pair or group of people has an idea. So why not get working on it immediately and to hell with handouts?
However… there did seem for many to be a very appealing energy at the Cameron itself and in the neighbourhood. But did, or could, that energy sustain? Energy by definition attracts other energies, and profile attracts more and larger media. Queen Street West and the Cameron itself became brand names - its players and inhabitants had these tastes, they consumed these products. Distinctions between “community” and targeted demographic or market became messier than they already were. Parallel restaurants and music venues sprang up - The Rivoli and The Bamboo. City-TV moved into the Ryerson building on Queen West and displaced non-profit tenants A Space, Trinity Square Video, FUSE, and others. Everything had to get bigger and bigger. If something isn’t visible, then how can that something exist?
As bodies became defined by means of their consumption habits and so forth, bodies also came under attack. What was initially called GRID (Gay Related Immunity Disease) was renamed AIDS (Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome). As HIV/AIDS literally threatened and killed bodies, profiles or images of bodies also came under the microscope. As the AIDS pandemic intensified, as representational questions which had been swept under carpets during the top of the Roaring Eighties became impossible for anybody with a brain to ignore, and as markets began seriously crashing; reflexivity began to resurface. Image-making became less celebratory - visual and media-arts entered a suspended zone oscillating between activism and mourning. Art became more “social” (in relation to socio-political issues) and less “social” (in relation to being seen and hanging out). Performance for its own sake was no longer good enough, if indeed it ever had been in the first place. People got older - they read and thought more. Energies must either seriously re-charge or else simply fade.
1 - This quote dates back to General Idea’s performance “Press Conference”, presented at the Western Front in Vancouver on March 9, 1977. Segments of this performance were integrated into GI’s videotape “Pilot”, produced for television by OECA TV (The Ontario Educational Corrections Authority, now TV Ontario), later in 1977. The author would like to thank Fern Bayer and A.A. Bronson for this information.
2 - Many of the younger artists who felt alienated and excluded by both non-profit and for-profit galleries reacted creatively by forming collectives that operated on a project-by-project basis without gallery overheads and with minimal bureaucratic baggage. These collectives included: Public Access, Republic, Nethermind, Spontaneous Combustion, Blanket, and numerous others. Cold City Gallery, a commercial gallery operating parallel to an artists’ collective, is also interesting in this context.
Suspended Paradise Andrew James Paterson Suggested Bibliography
Philip Monk, Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years, “C” International Contemporary Art No. 59, in conjunction with Power Plant exhibition Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years, Sept. 25- Dec. 20, 1998
Barbara Fischer, YYZ ¾ An Anniversary, Decalog: YYZ 1979-1989 (YYZ Books Toronto, 1993, pp.5-31)
AA Bronson, The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Spaces as Museums by Artists, From Sea to Shining Sea (Power Plant, 1987, pp. 164-169, reprinted from Museums by Artists, Art Metropole, Toronto, 1983)
Rosemary Donnegan, What Ever Happened to Queen Street West?, FUSE, No. 42 (fall 1986, pp. 10-24)
Dot Tuer, The CEAC Was Banned in Canada, Mining the Media Archive (YYZ Books, 2005, pp. 55-90, reprinted from “C” No. 11, 1986, pp. 22-37)
Clive Robertson, A Culture of Eviction: Beer, Boats, Bohemians & Bureaucracies, FUSE, Vol. XI, No.1, Fall 1987, pp. 42-45
This essay was commissioned by and for This is Paradise, exhibition at MOCCA (Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art) from June 24 to August 21, 2011. This and other commissioned essays for this exhibition have been supported by YYZ Artists’ Outlet and YYZ Publishing.