In the fall of 2009 I was approached by two documentary filmmakers researching the “Vancouver School,” a name given by the French art historian Jean-Francois Chevrier a couple of decades earlier to identify an unaffiliated group of Vancouver-based artists who, like the “Dusseldorf School”, work in, and with, photography. Would I, as someone who writes on visual art, be interested in meeting with them, share with them my thoughts on these artists and their contribution to contemporary visual art? I said yes.
As is often the case in advance of such meetings – meetings where I will be asked not only what I know but also what I think – I began to anticipate the questions and, in turn, rehearse my responses. What would I have to say about Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Stan Douglas and Roy Arden, and why is it that these are the names that come to mind when someone says “Vancouver School”? Should I begin by taking issue with Chevrier’s sobriquet, insisting that what is true for the Bechers and their students at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf is not true for Ian Wallace and those who studied under him at UBC and ECUAD? Or should I bypass the “Vancouver School” classification and instead speak of how the work of these artists sets them apart from each other, as opposed to that which they have in common?
After the first ten minutes it became clear that the filmmakers were less interested in details than working within the proverbial box, creating not a critical view of the “Vancouver School” classification but one that celebrates its successes – as if “success” is what its “members” have in common. But really, what was I expecting from the authors of Superkids (2004) and Stand-up Samurais (2001)? And what is success anyway?
Last night I finally got around to watching the documentary. Picture Start (2011) is a 48 minute film that profiles Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and, in a role that is uncredited on the DVD box, Christos Dikeakos. Indeed, it is from the cover of this box that we are given the tagline “How a small group of artists launched an unlikely city into the fine arts stratosphere,” a reduction so repugnant that it reaffirms my belief that the current crisis in documentary filmmaking owes less to a lack of content than an adherence to a format that makes all stories sound the same – and this from the director portion of the Picture Start team who once wrote a book called The Tyranny of Story (1998).
Like the premise of MASS MoCA’s “Oh, Canada” exhibition, we are subjected to a synopsis that opens with this: “The members of the so-called Vancouver School are the biggest international art stars to ever come out of Canada, yet they remain little known, even to many Canadians.” Again, where does one begin to unpack such a reduction? Further on we read about Wallace, Wall and Graham’s participation in “the most uniquely talented rock band in Canadian history,” U-J3RK5, a band formed “along with famed sci-fi author William Gibson” (an untruth if ever there was one), until we come crashing to earth with the promise of “how and why their ascent occurred in a city [that] until recently [was] known more for its surrounding forests than its artists" -- a “how” and “why” that might well have been replaced with a more expansive examination of their practices and the local art historical milieu in which they emerged.
Is the film worth seeing? If you want to hear four artists talk thoughtfully and intelligently about their work, then yes, it is, because these artists have a lot to say in the time they are given. As for the directors, curators, gallerists and critics who comment on these artists, validate their successes, that varies, as one would expect. Did I allow myself to be one of them? No. Even from the beginning I could see where this was headed.