Below is an essay I wrote to accompany an exhibition I am curating at SFU Gallery next month, entitled "to show, to give, to make it be there": Expanded Literary Practices in Vancouver: 1954-1969.
“to show, to give, to make it be there”: Expanded Literary Practices in Vancouver: 1954-1969
This year saw dramatic changes in the book publishing industry. Though the reintroduction of the e-book grabbed most of the headlines, almost lost in the hoopla was word that book promotion would be going online, and that a book’s success would be contingent on its author having an online platform. Some authors took this further, expanding their readings to include projections, singers, actors and props. Stagings such as these were met with bemusement by arts commentators accustomed to more traditional forms of presentation. The author most cited as an exemplar of this trend was Margaret Atwood.
What is conspicuous about the bemused response is that it reminds us of a time when expanded literary activities were encouraged, not indulged. Atwood, like bill bissett, turned seventy this year, and though it might seem odd to see these two names in the same sentence, it was Atwood who published one of her strongest poems (from Power Politics, 1971) in a 1970 issue of bissett’s blewointment magazine. Still, that she is now participating in what bissett and others engaged in so freely feels more like market forces than artistic exploration.
The title of this exhibition comes from bissett’s first issue of blewointment, his editorial poem in praise of Leonard Forest’s 1963 documentary In Search of Innocence. Forest’s film is an outsider’s view of an emerging Vancouver art scene, where Jack Shadbolt builds a painting, Al Neil plays a gig (and scores the film), Fred Douglas reads his poems (with Neil’s band), Douglas and Kiyooka argue, and more. Although he makes only a brief appearance in the film, bissett’s contribution will be remembered less as a participant than as the film’s ideal reader. He writes:
“to me, you showed all these levels instead
of talking about them, i.e. you have made a visual
poem, which I think must be the artistic solution
Forest’s film is not a narrative but a collage, one that allows its viewer to visit Vancouver’s art scene for the first time, without preconceived notions about when is a poem and what is a painting. It is in this spirit that bissett and radiofreerainforest’s Gerry Gilbert chose to compose their magazines (in contrast to the “straight” literary modernism of TISH and “The Georgia Straight Writing Supplement”). It is also how Al Neil (and later Carole Itter) chose to occupy a shack at Dollarton, and how Margerie Lowry, also of Dollarton, edited her deceased husband’s “Through The Panama” (written in 1954), arguably Vancouver’s first work of collage fiction.
This exhibition is an exploration of a fifteen-year moment in Vancouver’s cultural history, a time when visual artists, writers, dancers and filmmakers transcended disciplines to engage in new forms of composition, new modes of production. Whether this transcendence was unconscious, or whether it speaks of a post-war artistic culture dissatisfied with modernism’s tendency to totalize and refine (at a time when the world was atomizing), are questions worth asking.
To the first question, the shape of Malcolm Lowry’s “Through The Panama” was more likely a result of the author’s early demise than anything he might have intended. To suggest that it was an intuitive composition might belong more to those who followed the Lowrys at Dollarton. Neil recomposed what came ashore as artist materials. Maplewood Mudflat’s Tom Burrows, whose intertidal sculptures drew on nature’s rhythms for completion, showed how an abstracted steel hoop achieves figuration (the numeral 8) at high tide.
To the second question, one could say that the presence of Neil and Burrows squatting at the city’s edge was itself an act of conspicuous composition, an alternative to the geometry of the western city, with its manicured parks and gessoed canvases, its university lectures halls and white cube galleries. This was the same city that bissett and Roy Kiyooka moved to at the end of the 1950s (bissett from the Maritmes, Kiyooka from the Prairies). Common to these artists was that they arrived as adults, with Kiyooka already an established abstract painter, someone for whom his adopted city, with its social history of Japanese settlement (and overnight evacuation/internment in 1942), provided a canvas upon which to explore the ideogrammatic as both figure and map. bissett, whose first artistic impulses were the writing and performance of poetry, began inserting his drawings and paintings (amongst other things) into what might otherwise be editorial breaks in his magazine.
Unlike bissett and Kiyooka, Judith Copithorne and Maxine Gadd spent enough of their youth here to have grown with the city. Whereas Burrows (who came west from Ontario) attuned himself to the ebb and flow of Nature, Copithorne and Gadd were present for Vancouver’s material highs and lows: not only the built environment of roads and bridges, but also the unequal distribution of wealth. Although class politics were not at the forefront of their work, they recognized class as part of a larger patriarchal complex that had as much to do with the curriculum of the academy (the singularity of “Poetry”, “Drawing”, “Painting” and “Dance” classes) as the architecture of the hotel beerhall, where “Men” entered separately from “Ladies & Escorts”. Indeed, it was their recognition of these knotted and seemingly immutable structures that created a space for their hybrid activities – poetry, drawing and dance in Copithorne’s case, the spoken, sung and sculptural with respect to Gadd.
For artists such as Gary Lee-Nova, Glenn Lewis and Michael Morris, all of whom attended art school (Lee-Nova studied with Kiyooka at the Vancouver School of Art), post-medium explorations were based less on a public articulation of their medium’s limitations (pottery for Lewis; painting for Morris and Lee-Nova) than an invitation to participate in an emerging epistolary form known as “mail art” -- an invitation that came from New York Correspondence School founder Ray Johnson in a 1968 letter to Morris after Johnson had seen a reproduction of Morris’s The Problem of Nothing (1966) in Artforum. What resulted was a flurry of collaborative networking, from Lewis’s New York Corres Sponge Dance School to Lee-Nova’s Dead Letter Funeral (1972) and beyond.
Much of this networking manifested itself in the UBC Fine Art Gallery’s Concrete Poetry exhibition, curated by Morris and then-director/curator Alvin Balkind, in 1969. Though the show featured contributions from locals bissett, Copithorne, Gilbert, Morris and Lee-Nova, many more, such as Joseph Kosuth, Bruce Nauman, Johnson, Claus Oldenburg and Emmett Williams, came from outside. Another local participant was newcomer Ian Wallace, whose crossword collages appeared in blewointment, and who was represented by a catalogue text that exclaims: “concrete poetry plays a special role in the modernization of literature, a role that becomes more important as the power of rhetoric becomes exhausted.”
Although tempted to see this fifteen year period as a lost continent of Vancouver art, its productions eroded by an intransigent academy and the political economy of retail shelving, I would argue that the work has continued, though less through literary-based practitioners than theatrically-expansive artists such as Liz Magor, Laiwan, Myfanwy MacLeod, Judy Radul, Steven Shearer and Geoffrey Farmer, all of whom have made collage a material as well as a method. With the advent of recent changes to book publishing, one might expect more performative, collagist acts, not only from literary artists, but from those who comment on their work.