Old Moles and Invisible Cities (Nov. 2014)


Talk delivered at York University as part of CEAC: Radical Experiment or Exercise in Self-Destruction: An Afternoon of Discussion

On November 12 at 1 pm, Art Gallery of York University AGYU hosts a symposium on the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication CEAC. CEAC was active in Toronto in the mid-1970s to mid-1978 when it closed. It rivaled A Space for the quantity, diversity, and interdisciplinarity of its programming. Its publication Art Communication Edition, later to become Strike, rivaled General Ideas FILE magazine, and was a vehicle for promoting the centres radical political program. When in the second-last edition, Strike advocated Red Brigade style knee-capping, a scandal ensued that ended CEACs fundingand lost its building, the first owned by an artist-run center in Toronto.

Join the surviving original protagonists of the CEAC experimentDiane Boadway, Peter Dudar, Lily Eng, Bruce Eves, John Faichney, and Ron Giii along with Mike Hoolboom, Philip Monk, and Dot Tuer for a series of conversations on the forgotten history of and renewed interest in the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication.

The symposium is held in conjunction with AGYUs fall exhibition Is Toronto Burning? 1977/1978/1979 Three Years in the Making and Unmaking of the Toronto Art Communitycontinuing until December 7, 2014. Is Toronto Burning? features the artists and collectives Susan Britton, David Buchan, Colin Campbell, Elizabeth Chitty, Carole Cond and Karl Beveridge, Judith Doyle, General Idea, Isobel Harry, Ross McLaren, Missing Associates Peter Dudar & Lily Eng, Clive Robertson, Tom Sherman, and Rodney Werden alongside archival documents, with a room devoted to the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication.

I’d like to begin with a few words from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory… (I’m skipping to the end of this brief chapter, it closes like this: “It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old postcards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.”

The temptation, the irresistible lure, is to speak of CEAC as if it was a single thing, a single body perhaps. I hope to return to it as a choir of voices, you can decide whether they’re singing from the same playbook. After Mr. Calvino, let’s turn to Jearld Moldenhauer. Jearld: “In late 1970 I left Berlin where I had just found work and a place to live and traveled back to Niagara Falls, New York to attend my father’s funeral. Not having enough money to return to Germany, I took the bus back to Toronto and was ‘taken in’ by two gay friends. Once again I quickly found a job and a place to live. Amerigo Marras, a young artist from Sardinia, now an architecture student at the University of Toronto, and Suber Donald Corley, a draft dodger from Mississippi, now a high school teacher in Toronto, were advertising for a roommate. Their apartment was at 65 Kendall Avenue, only a block away from the Brunswick Avenue place where I was staying. It was in this apartment that I founded (out of a backpack) Glad Day Bookshop and where The Body Politic Collective meetings were held. The Kendall address was used for both.

About seven-eight months later the couple bought a house (4 Kensington Avenue) in Kensington Market with the intention to turn the ground floor into an art gallery. They created a legal entity called the Kensington Arts Association and I was included as a ‘Board Member.’ Amerigo was quite a prolific artist and never stopped producing canvases. (Where are his canvases? He definitely had a strong and personal aesthetic spark. I hope some have survived.) We lived on the second floor of the house. The household included John Scythes (now owner of Glad Day). I met John one rainy night when he wandered into an early CHAT Dance, then held at the Holy Trinity Church. John more or less attached himself to me. He was searching for a way to come out and create a life away from his parents. For Don and Amerigo he was a welcome addition, since even in his early twenties John was a walking encyclopedia of construction/renovation procedures.

There was an unheated shed attached to the back of the house and it was agreed that I could use it for both a Body Politic office/layout room and for the fledgling Glad Day Bookshop retail space. So much happened in that tiny space, and so many people somehow found their way to this almost invisible cauldron of gay radicalism. The memory of the energy of those times still burns strong within me.

In issue five of our bi-monthly effort, Gerald Hannon published his first sympathetic investigation into the lives of men who loved boys. ‘Of Men and Little Boys’ caused a major media firestorm that August of 1972. Newspaper editorials across Canada called for our arrest. Corley and Marras didn’t exactly freak out, but they did get cold feet. Their cause was related to promoting contemporary art, whereas mine was to nurture a (then) radical social movement. I was asked to leave, meaning The Body Politic and Glad Day. Notice was also given to John Scythes.”

The first version of Maurilia is a gay liberationist organization, it spawns a bookstore and a newspaper. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be printed.

The Kensington Arts Association lived from 1970-75 in a pair of downtown Toronto homes that were converted to galleries, and from its very beginnings, as Jearld describes, it acts as a hub where a variety of activities can take place: publishing, art exhibitions, architectural interventions, group living, it was all part of an evolving political project. I would like to offer this speculation. That CEAC’s political project was, even in its earliest moments, conceived as a liberationist struggle that saw gay liberation, women’s liberation, black liberation, animal liberation, as a chained series of movements dedicated to the overthrow of colonial capitalism.

The Kensington Arts Association was not the only group-home situation in downtown Toronto, in fact, collectives were the new normal. Why? In Canada the sixties happened during the seventies, and it was lent urgency by 60,000 young men who streamed across the border from the US, determined not to suit up for the war in Vietnam. And of course there were many thousands of American women who also came at that moment. They were young, educated, politically hip, and it is impossible to underestimate the effect they had on a growing Canadian art scene. Suber Corley was one of those 60,000 people.

Here is Vtape co-founder Lisa Steele describing a teenaged moment back in Kansas City: “By the time we were planning to move up to Canada we were living in a hippie commune of three couples. Half were art students and half were liberal arts students going to university and part of Students for a Democratic Society… We were part of a Marxist group at that point, and then a Maoist collective. We did a lot of work around factories that were producing components used in arms.” I’m repeating Lisa’s words here in the hopes that you can hear echoes of some of what would emerge out of CEAC in a very short time. Marxist-Maoist collectives, anti-war, collective living, anti-establishment.

After Lisa’s boy pal was drafted they moved into “the American ghetto” here in Toronto, and promptly reconvened their entire commune north of the border. Lisa: “The other two couples we were living with had already moved up to Toronto, we were the last to join them… The American ghetto was on Baldwin and McCaul Streets and we were right around the corner. I also lived on McCaul Street in a couple of different places. We met other people in the ghetto very quickly and worked with the draft dodgers that were here, and the organizations that supported them.”

The glue that held some of these liberationist struggles together was the opposition to the Vietnam War, and I’d like to suggest that some of the counterculture oppositional rhetorics, that CEAC for one would be taking seriously, took their cue from the daily war reports featured prominently in the corporate media. The language of war.

Here is Amerigo Marras in a 1977 essay entitled Notes and Statements of Activity: “The enemy is the merchandising of intellectual issues. The enemy is the entire art world market that is presently directed by New York cultural imperialism. The enemy is the class system that capitalizes upon our work and divides us. It preserves the conflict of unresolvable contradictions made hazy by the smoothness of the system.”

In 1975 the KAA rebrands as CEAC (Centre for Experimental Art and Communication) and moves into an industrial building on John Street for about nine months. As an anti-capitalist project, the emphasis is on performance, film and video are shown, public discussions are held. But it is not a gallery where objects are manufactured and celebrated. The house slogan was: everything but the wall. If CEAC was interested in ideas, not objects, this is a revolution that would begin with the body, what else would a group of gay liberationists dream of but a new social body to accompany their new dreams? And how would this new body arrive? Perhaps via the radical work of Missing Associates Lily Eng and Peter Dudar who explored behavior as movement, and whose aggressively energetic repetitions reimagined the gallery as sparring arena or audience interrogation vehicle.

Or in the decomposed structuralism of dancers like John Faichney, where single gestures are held and repeated over long periods of time, or Wyndham Wise and Richard Shoichet’s Spinning, where a man spins on the spot, for half an hour, or again in the earliest serial music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, where note patterns or clusters are driven through a rigorous series of variations. In these moments the body could be examined, recomposed, repurposed.

(After a major round of volunteer renovations, CEAC opens its John Street location with an exhibition of body art, and New York artist Robin Winter takes up residence. An early practitioner of durational performances and relational aesthetics, Winter was also a union member and a draft dodger. No sooner do they have a new home then they begin plans for leaving it, the John Street space coincides with the first international performance art tour.)

One of the primary aesthetic strategies deployed in CEAC’s liberationist project was duration. Sometimes even a short time could feel like a long time. The so-called mainstream can hijack many moves from the underground, but duration is very difficult to co-opt, so it’s an interesting strategy of resistance, though it may not be “popular.”

Repetition was the usual: say something once, why not say it again? In place of what Marras described as “the smoothness of the system,” here was art that was not so smooth, or slick, or entertaining. Here are, at least sometimes, dancers who are not dancers. We’re not part of the spectacle world creating objects that can be consumed and reproduced. Instead, the gallery returns as the most temporary of stages, where the new micro-relationships of the body, uncovered and demonstrated via serial repetition, break down the narrativized body (and along with it, presumably, the accompanying meta narratives of more is better or heteronormativity or useful labour). I would like to offer this hazy speculation, this vague idea. That the mechanics of capitalism, the operating gears of the system, were imagined to reside, like DNA, embedded within the body itself. I am capitalism, my movements are already parts of larger systems, I contain colonized universes that I am going to demonstrate and unravel using these new serial processes.

In that same moment some artists were producing movies that were dubbed “structural film,” and these were animated by the central idea that capitalism was coded inside the machines of reproduction, inside the cameras, and filmstock and projectors, and that it was the task of movies to decode these mysteries and liberate its audiences. It was a practice that was deeply material and political at the same moment, and relied on duration, on new modes of long term attention that was able to track small changes over time.

The audience was conceived not as a point of convergence, all of us nodding in time to the spectacle at hand, but instead the single artwork should produce a radical diffusion of response. And if everyone in the audience is seeing their own, very particular, entirely singular, version of the movie that’s being shown, underlying this hope is the old hippie dream that the cinema, or any contact encounter with art, would produce artists, instead of, for instance, consumers or spectators. And the production of artists via the decoding of capitalism embedded within our machines of reproduction or our bodily movements, is linked to the larger liberationist project of overthrowing capitalism itself. Or maybe I’m just making all that up.

While the art might be one night stands, the ideas were built to last, and CEAC turned quickly to the production of posters and magazines. Here is the always articulate John Faichney: “Sometime in 1975 Amerigo hosted what may have been a touring exhibition of artist’s books curated by Richard Kostelanetz. In a smartly opportunistic way, he sent out a form letter saying that if you don’t want your book back we’ll make it part of a permanent collection, and overwhelmingly people said sure. That became the basis for the library. Other items were added incrementally and I also organized a few exhibitions… Amerigo offered me a job as a librarian/archivist. Because I was surrounded by all these art publications, I accumulated a database of names and addresses, so I became the person who found places to send the CEAC newsletter/newspaper which caused so many problems later on. The database was created so I could contact other publications to propose an exchange of their publication for ours (CEAC’s newspaper, initially Art + Communication Editions, later Strike). CEAC’s newspaper became another means by which we were able to enhance the collection.”

It’s interesting John’s use of this word “collection.” What else would an art centre have, but a collection? But what kind of collection would a Marxist, radical anti-capitalist group have, exactly? Artist’s books. At least in this case. A collection that is also a library, and one that they would be dedicated to adding their own words and pictures to.

Saul Goldman: “We once applied to the National Museums of Canada for funding. They sent someone over to check us out. It was the same person who went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the ROM and various other museums across the country. He asked John Faichney, the CEAC librarian: if there was a fire, which three pieces would you save from your permanent collection? John said the stuff was all ephemeral, so ranking was irrelevant. Of course that was the wrong answer, but the reality of the collection we had, and our philosophy, was that the stuff wasn’t really that important by itself. That’s how we thought of it at the time, maybe it’s a short term way of looking at it. In retrospect there are amazing works of art that we lost track of. But we were interested in the process of making, it was about people and relationships… We just didn’t feel that stuff was important, we could always make more of it.”

The strangeness of a collection held by non-collectors was not the only in-house contradiction. Suber Corley, for instance, was not living on the arts council dole, he had a real job, first as a high school teacher and then as a self-taught computer programmer. It was Suber who put up half the cash for the Duncan Street space, $55,000, the other half came as a matching Wintario grant. The CEAC were Marxist landlords who threw their arms open to the Liberal Party of Ontario (well, OK, the Party wasn’t paying as much as they should have been, and CEAC was stuck with their long term lease), along with the punks in the basement and the super 8 open screenings.

In the summer of 1976, after just nine months on John Street, CEAC moves to 15 Duncan Street and begins programming in the fall. Riddle me this. Was there one CEAC at Duncan Street, or were there two? The first group (maybe possibly) was the one headed out to the performance art tours: Missing Associates, John, Ron Gii, Suber, Amerigo of course, Bruce and Diane. I’m probably forgetting names. But then along comes architect Roy Pelletier, and his pal Bob Reid, along with Paul McLellan, and they strike a different tone. Or do they? Here is Bruce Eves talking about the changing of the guard. Bruce: “It was with the second issue of Strike that the break happened. And with the break came a change in attitude. Peter Dudar said that the place was suddenly remote and closed off, the inner sanctum of the office was off limits and casual drop-ins were discouraged. His description sounds like another trope sort of unique to the 1970s — cults. The previous ironic acknowledgement of speaking from a privileged position within an art world had disappeared along with all sense of style. It was like a type of madness had infected the place.” The second issue of Strike, of course, is the one that brought the house down.

This is the end of the usual CEAC story, the Toronto Sun headline, the mysterious phone call to John Faichney the morning before the newspaper appears asking him about it, the RCMP visits, the Globe and Mail cartoon, the arts councils unilateral funding withdrawals, the astonishing anti-CEAC fingerpointing signed by the entire art faculty here at York University, this is the endgame, right? Well, not exactly.

Here is Saul Goldman remembering what happened next: “After the demise of CEAC there were three of us: Brian Blair, Paul Doucette and myself. We moved from 15 Duncan Street to a small space at 144 Front Street West… When the arts councils withdrew their funding the Duncan Street building had to be sold, but we still had equipment and a mandate to run the organization. So we moved into a temporary location on Front Street until we could find another building to re-invest the monies that we had made from the Duncan Street sale. We had to reinvest that money in a comparable property and it took us a while to find something.

As a way of funding the Front Street studio we tried to turn CEAC into a semi-commercial video operation, which was a really tough thing to do in those days. We talked to rock bands about video but most weren’t interested, they felt it had little to do with their music or image. There were certainly a lot of musicians who had been around CEAC that we could have worked with but we were just a little too far ahead of the curve. We hired Paul Doucette as our marketing guy and he made cold calls to ad agencies, engineering firms and architects trying to sell our services. We did have moderate success doing educational, promotional and test commercials. John Faichney made a very nice brochure with a price list and we managed to do a lot of very interesting work, unfortunately it didn’t generate enough dollars to keep the wolf from the door. Our lives were economically tenuous.

Brian, Paul and I were at Front Street from 1979-80 and then in 1980 we moved to an old Salvation Army building on Lisgar Street where we stayed for a year. CEAC bought the building. It was essentially a church, an old complicated building that had been added to over the years. There was a main chapel space with a stage that we occasionally used for performances, and added to it was a gymnasium where we housed the video studio. We painted the walls chromakey blue. It had tremendous potential but there was a very old furnace and we had little sustaining funding other that what we could generate through our video productions. We occasionally rented equipment to supplement our needs and worked for ad agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and Benton & Bowles. We made test commercials for them which they would bring to clients to try and sell in order to make a real production. We made a spot for the Royal Canadian Mint, for example. We did a really interesting production for Shoppers Drug Mart. They did a beauty cosmetics fair and we recorded a fashion show for them and then set up a playback at the consumer show they ran.”

So here is another face of CEAC, another version of Maurilia, newly shorn of government funding, reinvented as a video production business. In each phase of CEAC, architecture feels central, though by now the mission statement has changed. If the intention had been to overthrow the system, now CEAC was looking for a place inside those systems, seeking out relationships and building networks that it had been insulated from or even hostile towards. These relationships were driven by the video studio they had amassed and put together in the Duncan Street space. Technology was the new driver, which mostly meant a single broadcast colour camera, a rare and expensive edit suite, and a gaggle of black and white portapacks and monitors. Is Toronto burning? Or is that the smell of a fire sale? What is for sure is that CEAC’s many shapeshifting unbranded moments have been left behind for too long already. I’m grateful that the public work of memory can go on in places like this. There are few consolations for aging, the bodies that could perform those marvelous structural permutations is greying and tired, but it also holds memories that provide urgent continuities between anti-capital resistances that continue to appear and disappear, like Marx’s revolutionary mole. “We recognize our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution.”