BACKGROUND / VANCOUVER : AN ARTIST'S VIEW OF THE CITY, OCTOBER 30, 1972
BACKGROUND / VANCOUVER
An Artist's View of the City, October 30, 1972
Background / Vancouver is a portrait of Vancouver, British Columbia captured on an autumn day in 1972 by four artist / friends Taki Bluesinger, Michael de Courcy, Gerry Gilbert and Glenn Lewis. This photo-mapping initiative was conceived and produced by Michael de Courcy as part of his photographic documentary project of Vancouver's Intermedia Society made as an artist/member there from 1967 to 1972.
"For five years, beginning in 1967, Vancouver was the setting of an extraordinary program of experimental performance, exhibition and publication. Produced by the grass roots artist collective, known as the Intermedia Society, these cultural "happenings" took place in a wide range of public venues including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Societies own facilities, city parks and the streets. Unconventional and often controversial, Intermedia events were never-the-less popular. In fact during Intermedia's most active period, the three years from mid 1967 to mid 1970, the society's programming so dominated the artistic agenda in the city that Vancouver's daily newspapers published over 65 Intermedia reviews and articles. The formation of the Intermedia Society and it's continued support, was the result of an unprecedented mobilization of cultural forces, which included city universities, local and national arts institutions and private enterprise. Many of the collective of artists, musicians, dancers and poets who formed the creative heart of the Intermedia Society had shared a prior history working together in various artist run initiatives, organizations and collaborative events which had defined, the avant-guard and counter-culture movements in Vancouver since the late 1950s. Intermedia was a Fluxes-like socio-cultural experiment which, throughout its tenure, posed a fundamental challenge to the idea of what constitutes a work of art, while seeking to redefine and expand the roll of art and artists in society. Intermedia artists; practiced collaboration, celebrated the ephemeral, encouraged audience interaction with their art work, snubbed commercialism and were fundamentally anti-institutional. When in 1971 this brief, but intense, intervention into the cultural life of Vancouver began winding down, a number of Intermedia artists associates, including myself, intent on preserving the society's remarkable legacy, set out to produce and publish an Intermedia history. Together we submitted an application for an Intermedia Past Present and Future project grant to the Canada Council for the Arts. The application was successful and we set to work organizing the society's archives. Along with important papers— grant applications, mission statements, meeting notes etc. these archives also contained thousands of documentary photographs. Having been the main author of this photographic evidence I assumed the task of designing and producing a photographic segment for the publication.
There was, this sense among those of us involved with intermedia that through the experience of working and growing together as artists and audience, in "Vancouver", we had formed a tribe of sorts, an extended family who had in common not only what we did for art, but also a strong sense of identity with the intense geography of the place. Ranging between the coastal mountains and the sea, Vancouver is a city, carved out, over time, from what was previously a dense rainforest. Living here places one in the epicenter of a monumental drama of environmental give and take. On its sunny summer beaches and its grey and damp winter streets, the city, charged as it is with a sort of darwinian atmosphere, played a prominent roll in many of our public happenings, installations and interventions including: choreographer Helen Goodwin's City Feasts (parks and vacant lots), artist Herb Gilbert's Lunar Celebrations (city beaches), sound-sculptor Denis Vance's Floating Mushroom (afloat in lost Lagoon) Geodesic Dome installations (throughout the city) etc.
Given the significance of this ongoing romance between Intermedia artists and the urban wilderness in which we lived and worked, I felt that a telling of the Intermedia story should draw attention to this pivotal socio-geographical link.
I first developed the idea of performing a photo-mapping expedition in and around Vancouver, in order to assemble what would be a comprehensive portrait of the city— a sequenced snapshot which when presented alongside my Intermedia documentary material, would effectively anchor our pictured tribal activities firmly within a specific geographic boundary. The process of blocking out neighborhoods and plotting individual routes was straightforward. I divided a map of Vancouver and its neighbouring municipalities into three comprehensive sub-sections, tracing photo-routes along major arteries through each of these. The routes were then fine tuned to include key artist's studios, living and meeting places, exhibition venues etc. which had played a critical roll in the unfolding Intermedia story. Artists, Gerry Gilbert and Taki Bluesinger along with Glenn Lewis agreed to assist me with the actual photo mapping process, each photographing a route over the course a single day— a day in the life of Vancouver.
The day Monday, October 30, 1972, was a federal election day. We met in the morning at the Victory Square Cenotaph, the start and finish point for each route. The weather, overcast with showers, was fittingly typical of late fall Vancouver. Before setting out, each of us marked the beginning of our adventure by photographing the cenotaph. The three routes, which on the Vancouver map appeared as overlapping loops, covered approximately 12 miles each. After completing our circuits we arrived around dusk, back at ground zero in Victory Square. (see Joan Lowndes's 1974 Vancouver Sun article City by Mural for a more in depth description of each of the routes)
As it turned out, the envisioned Intermedia Past Present and Future publishing project was never completed, at least, not as we had planed in 1972. I, however, with a keen interest in maps and mapping (already blending elements of cartography into my art making process), continued to contemplate that extraordinary series of 360 views, systematically captured of the city in the course of that October day. Over time as my ideas and intention for this work evolved from published history project to large scale map — a sort of, in a glance, artists' view of the city— the Vancouver photo-mapping project gathered a momentum of its own. From the who, what and where information which had been noted at the site of each view as it was photographed, poet Gerry Gilbert assembled a list of photographic titles. These titles in relation to their views range from being factually descriptive to wildly interpretive. Keyed alphanumerically to the overall grid of 360 sequential Background/Vancouver views they form an index which, in itself, when read back and forth and/or up and down creates an impressionistic multi-layered Vancouver narrative coded to the Intermedia story. As language, each photographic view along with it's index title voices a unique idea and/or affirmation of what it was to be an artist living and working in Vancouver in the latter half of the 20th century.
Cost estimates for the production of my proposed 10' by 13' Background/Vancouver map were high. In1974, I approached Doris Shadbolt, then Associate Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, who in turn brought the project to the attention of the Canada Council Art Bank. In the end the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Bank, together, lent their support, agreeing to pre-purchase a number of prints as a way of covering the overall publishing cost. The work was screenprinted, under my supervision, in an edition of 10, at the Great Canadian Screen Shop in Winnipeg.
Background/Vancouver was the last work of mine which I would also consider to have been an Intermedia collaboration. At Intermedia, the notion of collaboration, could range from simply assisting another artist, on their project, at some basic technical level to several artists developing a project jointly and then following it through, as a team, to its completion. No two models of collaboration were ever exactly alike. In fact, reflecting now on the various projects in which I was a participant during Intermedia times and on the, all but unspoken, contracts which governed our working together, back then, whether structured as an egalitarian or a hierarchal alliance, each collaboration played out as a unique negotiation among equal peers and there was always a lot of give and take. These "free-form" collaborations were enabled by the kind of "impossible idealism" which, to me, now seems likely to have been rather exclusive to that very brief window of time between 1967 and 1972, when in an atmosphere relatively void of the usual sense of professional competition it was commonplace for artists to share ideas and to work together to achieve common goals irregardless as to whether or not this made prudent economic and/or career sense. In this way Background/Vancouver, coming about at the tail end of what might be described as an uncommon age of enlightenment, demonstrates a model of artists working together which might be considered typical and illustrative of its time.
As an artwork/archive, a fundamental purpose of Background/Vancouver was to record and preserve a sense of the background against which the Intermedia phenomena unfolded. It also recognizes the definitive and highly energizing roll which this unique landscape exerted on our Intermedia tribal identity. The artists who were involved with me in the actualization of Background/Vancouver each generously contributed their specialized skills to preform in this unique mapping adventure. They also brought to the project a focused sense of commitment to make this comprehensive view of Vancouver meaningful, historically, within our shared context of Intermedia. With regard to my relationship to the finished work, I have at various stages cast myself as artist, collaborator, curator, mapmaker, publicist and finally archivist. As much as I see myself, over the long term, as having played the definitive roll in the overall project it is equally important to state that—encapsulating, as it does, the idiosyncratic vision of each of the artists who helped produce it, endows Background/Vancouver with a plurality of view, which I feel results in a far more complex and undeniably richer artwork than I might, given the same parameters, ever have created solely on my own.
I have just recently completed the digital remastering of Background/Vancouver for an exhibition of serial street photography. This has involved returning to and scanning the original negatives and re-keyboarding the map's indexed titles. Although time-consuming, this digital editing and restoration process has given me cause to contemplate each and every photograph and to once again revisit the multilayered narratives animated by the relationship between these images and their indexed captions. As I worked through these details, of what to me is familiar territory, I couldn't help but wonder how, 40 years removed from the time and ideas that it represents, an uninitiated viewer, that is one without a specialized knowledge of this regions art history, might read this work. I think that this is an important question now as we curate, exhibit and/or archive what might be considered the first 40 years of photo-based artwork. Even though we may know what it meant to us in 1970, now 40 years removed from its native context how can we best represent a hybrid photographic work such as this so that it may retain its relevance to a new generation.
Traditionally artists have looked to gallery and museum curators, critics and collectors to attach meaning, assign value and preserve their art works. Although I recognize the practical advantages of this self contained centralized model of banking our culture, personally I have never felt entirely comfortable within it. I have always gravitated to the intention that my work might be readable and generate meaning not only inside but also outside of this traditional art world context. In pursuit of a wider range of accessibility, over the past 40 years I have vigorously explored and developed a number alternative models for positioning my art in public where it might engage with a diverse mainstream audience. As an example of this "alternative" shall we say audience (community) specific approach, Poster! is a 1988 project of mine which celebrated postering and the poster hoarding as freedom of expression. The project was designed to address this issue, as the city of Vancouver petitioned the courts to outlaw postering and graffiti thereby effectively removing these and potentially other forms of grassroots communication and protest from public spaces. Poster!, a street level art work, utilized installations of artist-published and posted screenprinted broadsheets, a storefront display and a give-away souvenir post card catalogue to draw public attention to this important community issue. Central to its installation and key to the overall meaning of Poster! was the textual refrain READ THE WRITING ON THE WALL IT IS THE ART OF THE STREET.
The photographic artwork is unique in that it lends itself to being presented in a variety forms simultaneously— at home on a wall, in a book, as part of a movie or on a billboard. By it's nature the meaning of a photographic artwork isn't so much determined and defined by its singularity as say a painting or a sculpture is. A reproduction of a painting, no mater how accurate, appears diminished, viewed next to the original. With photographic work, on the other hand there can be many originals in a variety of different forms and they can each convey an equal meaning. As an artist using a camera I have always been strongly compelled by this chameleon-like ability of the photographic medium to adapt to a wide variety of contexts and still, essentially, continue to be itself. Background/Vancouver is an excellent example of the versatility of the photographic work. When first issued in 1974 it was published in two strikingly contrasting versions. In the first version, it was mass produced as a feature in The Vancouver Sun newspaper, accompanied by an article about the project by, then art critic, Joan Lowndes entitled "City by Mural." Subtitled "Close up look at your own Vancouver", it was printed as a "collectable" 15" by 24" newsprint centerfold in the Sun's Weekend Leisure section. The second version of Background/Vancouver was the 10' by 13' limited edition screenprint, exhibited in my 1975 exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This gallery debut of the work placed it in the context of several other of my mapping related projects on which I was working at the time.
Lately, I have been reconfiguring past art works and developing new ones for installation on my internet projects-portal. I am excited about this website adaptation of Background/Vancouver. The digitally remastered images reveal a depth of photographic detail not accessible in previous editions. The index of photographic titles, which in itself is compelling, is presented here as a self contained text bringing to light a rich fabric of reference and idea. One may begin to navigate through this online version of the work either by selecting a particular view or a specific title. The ability to develop transparent interconnectivity between diverse bodies of information is a feature of working on the internet which, as an artist, I find particularly intriguing. In this case being able to blend almost seamlessly the maps index with corresponding photographic views, provides the opportunity for a unique and I think particularly satisfying engagement with the work.
As for its relevance to a contemporary audience— Background/Vancouver is composed of detailed photographic views of quotidian sites, ie the Upper Levels highway, Point Grey Road, Simon Fraser University, Coal Harbor etc.. For viewers who were once familiar with or today live in or around any of these particular views, the work will continue to provoke and to resonate with nostalgic meaning. Here any shift in context, brought about by passing time, merely continues to enhance the heritage significance of the collection of photographs which make up the work. For this demographic, delving into and studying the landscape represented in Background/Vancouver, reflecting on changes in familiar landmarks, street corners and neighborhoods, might be analogous to performing an archeological dig through an ancient ruin.
For artists and art historians, on the other hand, along with others who might have a topical interest in the visual and literary arts in general or with those of Vancouver in particular, at first glance Background/Vancouver forms a complex, combined photographic and textual, representation of a city. Closer scrutiny of this collective portrait of Vancouver provides a bonanza of photographic detail and textual clues, with which to further consider the milieux from which Intermedia's cultural intervention of the city was staged almost half a century ago. Finally, although each frame with which the portrait is composed may have, at least in previous more graphic versions, been primarily seen as being linked together, just one of many working components, now, in this highly resolved digital version, these same "working" images may each also be approached and examined as an individual photographic work of art — an intimate moment of recognition — a direct link from artist to viewer.
Produced in 1972, Background/Vancouver can most certainly be viewed today as a landmark example of a conceptually driven photographic artwork originating at a time in Vancouver when artists including myself were re-assessing the fundamental meaning of photography and how a photograph might most effectively function as a work of art.
As for the Intermedia Past Present and Future publishing grant which was awarded to Intermedia by the Canada Council in 1972— it was, apparently deposited in an account but never used. When I set out, in 2003, to complete our unfinished history project. I found that, although totally unsubstantiated, there prevailed amongst many of the alumni, to whom I spoke, the notion that this bag of money might still be languishing in a bank somewhere, Intermedia treasure, just waiting to be discovered and finally put to use."
Michael de Courcy, 2012
Photograph: Boxwork - A performative intervention, at Pender Street and Main Street in downtown Vancouver. Bob "Box" Arnold. September, 1969
Michael de Courcy / The Intermedia Catalogue (1967 - 2009)
Links to other Intermedia related projects by Michael de Courcy:
the intermedia catalogue
a five year project to document intermedia's art and artists
an INTERMEDIA REVOLUTION
a video montage of Intermedia archival material with the music of the Al Neil Trio