This March the Western Front turns forty. For those unfamiliar with this historic Vancouver artist-run centre, the Western Front was founded by a group of locally-based visual artists, musicians, poets and dancers who purchased the former Knights of Pythias Hall at the northeast corner of 8th and Scotia as both a place to live and a place to continue their experiments in food preparation, collaboration, installation, movement, performance and video -- in a non-institutionalized setting.
Over the years all but one of the original founders have dispersed, some selling their stake, others to heaven. Of the original founders, Eric Metcalfe remains in an Ikea-like suite at the bottom-rear of the building, while Hank Bull, who arrived shortly after the original founders took possession, occupies a rustic island-style apartment on the top floor overlooking the entrance. Running things now is a group of visual artists, musicians, dancers, curators and archivists in their mid-thirties to mid-sixties, all of whom work within (and sometimes without) the templates of public institutional funding.
The present regime is led by Caitlin Jones, who arrived two years ago from the Guggenheim Museum, where she held a combined research position in both the Curatorial and Conservation departments. Jones’s archival training is apparent in the centre’s current direction, which is focused on the material, ephemeral, mythical and logical inventory that has accrued since the Front opened its doors in 1973.
One program that has brought the archive to the fore is the Past as Prologue residency, of which I was an early participant (Three Readings: Camera, Tape and Sound), followed by Sophie Belair Clement, whose research resulted in a multi-channel exhibition based on an August 1, 1974 visit by Fluxus member Robert Filliou, a patron saint of the early Fronters.
Earlier this year, Instant Coffee was invited to "exhibit" Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little (2012) -- two opposing bleachers, between which invited guests gave talks, while on “off-days” patrons engaged in social events (book clubs, whittling, etc.) facilitated by this self-described “service-oriented” collective. Most remarkable about Instant Coffee’s presence was its (re)assignment of events usually associated with the much larger Luxe space upstairs to the Exhibitions space, a space that reluctantly (for some of the founders) became a gallery for the display of art objects. Instant Coffee's inversion (inadvertent or otherwise) of the Front's traditional content-to-space apportioning was not lost on those who know something of the centre's history.
This past weekend Front audiences were treated to what might be the most insightful – and audacious -- reading of the centre in Isabelle Pauwels’s LIKE…/ AND, LIKE/ YOU KNOW/ TOTALLY/ RIGHT (2012), a 64-minute operatically-proportioned video (with ads, like the image above) that pairs the centre's multiple myths and histories with Pauwels’s own developmental trajectory, one familiar to anyone who attended a North American high school. Indeed, if the Front was a privileged and at times infantile “boys’ club” (as it was known in 1970s), Pauwels and her twin sister Valerie (who, for the most part, appears dressed as “Catwoman” -- in an homage to co-founder Kate Craig?), enact a “girls’ club”, with founders Glenn Lewis, Eric Metcalfe and Hank Bull playing both themselves and who we perceive them to be (in the case of Metcalfe, Pauwels takes the artist's legendary fetish impulse to new heights). But to leave it at that would be an injustice to Pauwels’s considerable research, staging and editing skills, all of which come together seamlessly in this mammoth undertaking, what Western Front Media Arts curator Sarah Todd, who commissioned the work, describes as a “two week shoot and a four month, 16 hour-a-day edit.”