Retrospective Synopsis of a Fact-Finding Mission to Canada (Pascale Cassagnau) [fr]

Retrospective Synopsis of a Fact-Finding Mission to Canada

(Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary/Banff)
December 5-13, 2011.

“(...) Où les chasseurs de ratons
Raclent les pelleteries
Etincelant diamant
Où le train blanc de neige et de feux nocturnes fuit l’hiver
O Paris
Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt
Paris Vancouver Hyères Maintenon New York et les Antilles
La fenêtre s’ouvre comme une orange
Le beau fruit de la lumière”
Apollinaire, Les Fenêtres, Calligrammes.


“Et ces trouées bleuâtres dans le vent sont les paquebots en partance pour le Klondyke, le Japon et les Grandes Indes.
Il fait si noir que je peux à peine déchiffrer les inscriptions des rues où je cherche avec une lourde valise un hôtel bon marché.”
Blaise Cendrars, West, Documentaires.


“Speaker au cour de l’année 1791, le vicomte François- René de Chateaubriand vint peut-être contempler les cataractes du Niagara. Il en publia en 1797, dans son essai «Essai historique, polotique et moral sur ces Révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dans les rapports avec la Révolution française, une illustre description : « Elle est formée par la rivière Niagara qui sort du lac Erié et se jette dans l’Ontario.”
Michel Butor, 6810 000 litres d’eau par seconde, 1965.

“La musique la meilleure n’est pas faite pour le concert ; elle est faite pour le salon, pour le micro, pour la caméra. Elle n’est pas un acte de représentation théâtrale.”
Glenn Gould, La musique, le concert, et l’enregistrement.

“GRIM TRUTH: You’re smarter than TV. So what?”
Douglas Coupland, Player One.

The Canadian Scene or the Foundation of Modernity:

Western Canada’s art scene, populated by historic figures of modernity—the great media philosophers, Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould (Toronto) and Robert Murray Schafer (Vancouver)—, was formed after the Second World War in the Fluxus movement and by artistic thinkers in the visual arts, through the use electronic technologies, telecommunications, radio, whose main concern was the issue of “access.” More generally, its history is also that of the whole of Canada, stretching from Edmonton to Winnipeg, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa—to very active centres for art.

In addition to using video as its main medium and mode for both artistic and documentary creation, the various Canadian art scenes pioneered the use of telematics, the Internet and digital tools. In that sense, the Direct Media Association conference on the use of telematics, organized in 1979 by 22 artist collectives and associations, was representative of the experimental research on media. Video art was developed very early on in Canada through cable television experiments. In 1971, Montreal’s Le Vidéographe invited people in the city to create their own video tapes to be broadcast across Canada, in this way continuing Nam Jume Paik’s research, which he theorized in his work, Understanding Media. In 1963, the artist created Café Congo, 152 Bleecker Street or Five years, old dream of me.

The combination of Electronic Television and video tapes recorder is realized, in which he recorded everything he saw and heard from the window of a taxi driving across New York. Since video doesn’t have to be developed in a lab, contrary to cinema, Nam June Paik was able to show his film in a bar on the very same night. This democratization of the medium coincided with the rise of conceptual art and the performance age and was a force behind the desire of artists to move the art scene outside of galleries and museums and into nature, workshops, self-managed artist centres and the street, while calling into question the supremacy of the art market and collectors. The systematic introduction of archives and documents into the field of creation occurred during this era, as did the emergence of media as both artistic means and material, in addition to a strong interdisciplinary dimension. (1)

In this sense, the Western Front is a model of the history of Canadian modernity. Western Front was begun by a collective of eight artists in Vancouver in 1973 with the aim of making a space for the exploration and creation of new art forms. The artist-run centre quickly acquired an international reputation for its innovation and experimentation with new technologies, interdisciplinarity and dialogues between non-Western cultures.

Contemporary Artists: Images and Use of the World

Built around international writers such as William Gibson, Douglas Coupland, and graphic artist Bruce Mau, filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin—all worthy heirs to McLuhan and Fluxus—the Canadian contemporary art scene is full of visual artists (photo, video) who also work with sound. Rodney Graham is one such artist and a representative of a rich and diversified art scene; having studied Art History at the University of British Columbia and at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, he created a composite work of performances, photography, films, texts, and music. The artist is also a guitarist in an alternative punk group, the Rodney Graham Band, which he uses to explore the musical genres of popular idioms (rock, punk, pianissimo, folk, electro) by writing songs. Producing works tinged with themes of memory, repetition and entropy, Rodney Graham views reality and his images through the optics of illusion.

Still images, movies and sound, treated in a reflexive manner and with consideration for the architectural and social context, form the salient points of Canadian contemporary art. Just like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and eXistenZ and Atom Egoyan’s film Family Viewers, Canadian artists have long excelled at configuring critical images that are critical of the image.

While Canadian painting of the 18th and 19th centuries was fundamentally realist in nature (as Emily Carr’s work illustrates) and influenced literature, theatre, painting and film, this documentary tradition embodied by the figure of John Grierson and the questioning of reality through images endures in the cybernetic fiction of David Cronenberg. Serge Grunberg describes his universe this way on the subject of the films Scanners, Stéréo, Videodrome. “The body doesn’t have a real existence anymore, it has become an image, an illusion and the mind itself,” which in Scanners could mean an IT center, is reduced to being a “hallucination helmet,” a flesh television that cathodically decodes flesh and struggles to recode it correctly. In David Cronenberg’s work, the truth of images is brought into question by a certain number of “magical hypotheses.”

It is also worth noting that new media (video, new digital technologies) now make up the common and general condition of contemporary art, both in photography and in printmaking, as well as in moving images and sound, from the standpoint of production and broadcast formats.

The list of major internationally recognized Canadian artists includes Roy Arden, Janet Cardiff, Stan Douglas, Marcel Dzama, Rodney Graham, General Idea, Mark Lewis, Ken Lum, Michael Snow, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Charles Pachter, Vera Frenkel, and Edward Burtynsky. (Many of these artists have work in French collections). As for the younger generation of artists, they include, in particular, Geoffrey Farmer, Julia Fray, Hardley and Maxell, Janice Kerbel, Damien Moppet, Isabelle Pauwells, Judy Radu, Kevin Schmidt, David Rokeby, Paul Butler, Shary Boyle, and Micah Lecier. Jeffrey Farmer and Luis Jacob will represent Canada at the upcoming Documenta 2012. The My Winnipeg exhibition, ably presented by the Maison Rouge in the summer of 2011, and coproduced by the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, introduced a new generation of Canadian artists to the French public.

Arts Institutions in Western Canada

As heirs to the independent centres run by artist collectives in the 1960s and 70s, visual art centres have some common characteristics:
They are associative institutions (and many non-profit art spaces, following the American model) mostly financed through public funding, in some cases part of a large university, functioning as a colleges, faculties or schools of visual arts, equipped with an exhibition gallery, one or several screening rooms, real professional publishing services that publish books, for authors, essayists, theorists, as well as for artists’ prints. This is case with the Emily Carr University Press, Presentation House Editions, distributed via Presentation House Gallery (Vancouver), and the Banff Centre Press.
Systematically interdisciplinary teaching is part of the basic outlook of research. Thus, the dimensions of “theory” and “practice” are not considered in the mode of the dichotomy. These spaces for creation, production, and broadcast are also places of residence. They often have their own archives, works of art (with control of proprietary rights or the broadcast/distribution rights) and manage both online databases and paper archives.

Lastly, it is important to highlight that, whether they are in Toronto, Vancouver or Banff, the spaces supporting creativity and creators maintain very close professional ties, which aim to establish real synergy between all centres and, in so doing, jointly organize events and plan in advance.
It is the role of the Canada Council for the Arts to provide the financial support system for creativity. The Canada Council is a federal government corporation created in 1957 whose goal is to “promote the study and enjoyment of the arts and the production of works in the arts.” It offers grants and services to artists and to professional Canadian organizations in media art, visual art, dance, performance art, writing and publishing, music and theatre. There are substantial grants available for artists. Similar organizations exist at the provincial and municipal levels.

The Cities of Toronto and Vancouver

The cities of Toronto and Vancouver form part of architectural and urban contexts in full expansion and development, which are giving rise to a dialectic of the centre and the periphery (the case for all large contemporary cities), as Western Canada is itself a territory on the border, located on the margins of the American continent. The fluctuating urban identity, redistribution in blocks, the generalized phenomenon of gentrification in downtown urban areas through the establishment of cultural institutions or malls, all make up the post-modern components of these two Canadian megalopolises. As Nadia Tazi writes in the publication Mutations:

“Notions of centre and periphery have lost their stability. That of the perimeter is becoming completely relative. The strata tectonics that is often shown does not take into account the movement or the interactions with the work. More generally, the city has lost its space. It is trending everywhere and nowhere; a lost instance, a common body that, designified, is no longer an organism, overinvested and fragmented, gridded, split and overstretched, that we exhaust ourselves in following, through circumlocutions of masterly words, through complexity, control, chaos, vectors, fractals, the generic, the diffuse, the pandemonic.”

The photographic compositions of Jeff Wall or Roy Arden were, at a very early time, able to show these social metamorphoses at work in Vancouver.
These cities nevertheless offer substantial architectural and intellectual contexts, which attract important figures in contemporary art such as Dan Graham, who was long based in Vancouver.

In terms of bibliographical references on the rise of video art and the formation of an image environment in Canada in its historical moment, there is:

“Video Has Captured Our Imagination,” Video re/View: The Best Source for Critical Writings on Canadian Artists’ Video; Ed Peggy Gale and Lisa Steele, Toronto: Art Metropole/VTape, 1996. Originally published in Parachute 7, Summer 1977.

Douglas Davis, “Filmgoing/Videogoing, Making Distinctions,” Video Culture: A Critical Investigation, Ed. John Hanhardt, Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986.

Timothy Drucker, Iterations: The New Image, New York: International Center of Photography, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1993.

Before and After the I-Bomb: An Artist in the Information Environment, Ed. Peggy Gale, Banff, Banff Centre Press, 2002.


- In Toronto:

Darren Copeland, Artistic Director of the NAISA festival (New Adventures in Sound Art);
Lisa Steele, Kim Tomczacek, directors of Vtape; Wanda Vanderstoop, Distribution Director. Pablo de Ocampo, Artistic Director, Kate MacKay, Programmer, Images Festival, with the attendance of Laure Dahout, Cinema and Media Officer, Consulate General of France in Toronto.
Michelle Jacques, Associate Curator for Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).
Olga Korper Gallery, for the launch of the journal Canadian Art-Winter 2012. Andrea Picard, Programmer at TIFF- Toronto International Film Festival. Barbara Fischer, Director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and Cristof Migone, Director of the Blackwood Gallery at the University of Toronto. Gael Morel, Curator of the Ryerson Image Centre, Pierre Tremblay, Associate Professor at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts in Toronto. Melanie O’Brian, Curator and Head of Programs at The Power Plant, and Stan Douglas. Noah Cowan, Artistic Director of TIFF Bell Lightbox and Laurel MacMillan, Exhibitions Manager.

- In Vancouver:

Ken Lum, artist. Norman Armour, Director of the PuSh Festival, and Lorna Brown, artist and independent curator, curator of the virtual project, Institutions by Artists. Scott Watson, Director and Curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Elspeth Pratt, artist and Associate Director of Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts (made up of five faculties in the Visual Art Program), and Colin Browne, artist and teacher at the Audain Gallery at Woodward’s. Bruce Grenville, Curator, and Daina Augaitis, Chief Curator, Art Video Historian at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Philippe Pasquier, Assistant Professor (Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts), computer music composer, and member of the Vancouver New Music Festival. Caitlin Jones, Curator and Director of Western Front. Kitty Scott, Director, Visual Arts, at the Banff Centre (Calgary). Meeting with Kevin Schmidt (Vancouver), artist in residence. Ian Wallace, artist. Reid Shier, Director of Presentation House. Amy Kazymerchyk, Curator at Vivo and Programmer at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver.

- And with:

Raynald Belay, Cultural Attaché, Consulate General of France, Vancouver.
Claire Le Masne, Cultural Attaché, Consulate General of France, Toronto.
Laure Dahout, Cinema and Media Officer, Consulate General of France, Toronto.
And Consul General Evelyne Decorps, Consulate General of France, Vancouver.

- With the kind assistance of:

Juanita Odin, Assistant to Raynald Belay, Consulate General of France, Vancouver.
Philippe Pouet, driver at the Consulate General of France, Vancouver.
Marie- Hélène Tessier and the staff at the Waldorf Hotel.

Pascale Cassagnau, Inspector, Creation, Head of Audiovisual and New Media Content at France’s Centre National des Arts Plastiques (CNAP), French Ministry of Culture and Communications.

Last modified on 16/02/2012

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