Thursday, May 14, 2015

Party of Five: Kegan McFadden reflects on 1990s Canadian art publishing

“…let’s make it happen again!”

Curator Kegan McFadden gave me a tour recently of Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool) at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (Winnipeg). We caught up afterwards for a Q & A, which has been condensed for clarity.

H-In this exhibition about artist-produced magazines in Canada during the 1990s, you’ve examined Texts (Calgary, 1989-93); Flower (Toronto, 1992-96); Boo (Vancouver, 1994-98), The Harold (Winnipeg, 1995-97), and Cube (Montreal, 1996-98). You mentioned that The Harold was your personal gateway to contemporary art. Given that and the fact that the show is at Plug In (its publisher), was The Harold your starting point for research?

K-Yes. In many ways The Harold started it all. I was 15 when I first went to Plug In and The Harold was something I picked up on the way out. This was a time when alternative papers would litter the doorways of public buildings–or at least buildings of a certain kind: cafés, galleries, theatres, you know. I was transfixed by it. Even though I’d been regularly picking up alternative weeklies who mainly focused on music, The Harold was the first art zine I got my hands on…I didn’t really know anything about contemporary art; I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be a curator at that point, or really even know the word. Upon subsequent visits to Plug In, I’d always pick up the latest Harold. It was their in-house magazine, but it started as an artist-project by the late Jean LeMaitre.

I think that everything is research. So, holding on to my cache of Harold magazines, and the others that came after, was in a way a long-term commitment to curatorial research, I just didn’t know it at the time.

H-That’s a lovely perspective; it’s such a great contrast to the tendency to conduct last-minute research that is seen all too often in the present day.

Was the content primarily regional, Canadian, or international, or is it not possible to generalize?

K-We have to remember, these magazines represent a pre-Internet moment. So there was a network in place, but it was analogue. It amounted to which editors knew which contributors, and where everyone was based/how far their experiences went. So, for instance, CUBE magazine published “reports” from various cities: Toronto, Chicago, and Seoul. In a way it was the most international of the five I’ve chosen to focus on. But then there’s Texts, which found a lot of its material from the proximity to Banff and all the artists in residence there. Boo out of Vancouver had contributions by writers from San Francisco, etc. More precise than ‘regional,’ I believe these publishing projects represent communities. Flower, for instance, is a calling card for a certain generation of artists in the Queen West scene of Toronto.

H-Speaking of pre-Internet, you noted that hesitation about digital media was expressed in the pages of these publications. It strikes me that 1990s art represented a point of transition, being pre-digital but also being made after the freshness of postmodernism had diminished, arguably. How would you characterize 1990s art?

K-It seems there is something in the air. There is a huge show touring the States right now–Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s, curated by Alexandra Schwartz. It’s getting rave reviews as being the first museum show to historicize the decade. Many of the critics are discussing the representation of identity politics at play in so much of the work in the show. The ‘90s really ushered in a postmodern approach to discussing, and addressing, the marginalization attached to class, gender, sexuality, and race.

If I take Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow as a springboard for that idea, we see work by queer artists in the exhibition. There are also moments regarding the representation of Indigenous peoples, of women, and even of class struggle. In an editorial for Cube, Pierre Beaudoin writes about how, at the time, he was the Director of an artist-run centre in Montreal, and on the way home he buys a quart of milk and thinks to himself whether or not the clerk is making a better living than he. So, I’d characterize the art of the ‘90s, as seen in my show, as intersectional.

H-That makes me think of when I was an ARC director (post-‘90s) and I’d pick up groceries for receptions in a suitcase and a backpack, with a baguette poking out of the backpack! No glamour there.

In your opinion, is there a quality to printed matter that can’t translate into digital? I don’t think it’s just the vitrine displays that make the publications feel precious.

K-Yes, for sure! That’s why we’re still printing things everyday. That’s why the biggest thing to come about in the art world lately is Art Book Fairs. People love to hold things, to flip trough things, to touch and smell things. The fact that I enclosed the 60 issues of magazines within vitrines was purely pragmatic; we couldn’t have folks handling the material, the chance of damage was too great, and some of the magazines are on loan from institutions/collections. I also didn’t want the show to feel like a reading room. So I worked with this amazing designer, Susan Chafe, and we figured out a way of turning the content of all the magazines into wallpaper (shown below), effectively making it so the visitor to the gallery could feel like they’re inside the pages.

H-Why did you want to show the history of the magazine “warts and all,” as you put it?

K-I think that’s because I’ve met too many people lately who are afraid to try things. They’re afraid to fail, or to look like an idiot, or maybe they’re lazy. I wanted to show that here are five magazines that had various outputs throughout a decade. Some were made in people’s kitchens while others were printed more professionally. They’re all equal; they’re all contributing something…so let’s make it happen again!

H-Is there a disarming quality about the looseness—to borrow the term you used to describe the networks—of these publications? I was struck by the fact that a 90-year old was touring the show as you were sharing an anecdote about François Morelli, a Cube contributor collaborating with his 11-year old son, Didier. And when I reflect on the tone, it often veered towards the casual with writing often in the first person, reminiscent of Sassy, a personal favourite from my own youth that was a gateway to so much in terms of culture.

K-As part of that intersectional descriptor I threw out earlier, I think intergenerational approaches also play a role. It dovetails with the reality that we are now in a moment of the hyper-professionalized artist, but the ‘90s weren’t like that. You could have a collaboration with your 11-year-old son be published, or a book review by the teenage babysitter might take up as much space as a prose poem by A.S.A. Harrison. I like that thinking a lot; it is disarming in the best sense.

H-You observed that Texts was the most invested in art criticism, and that throughout all the magazines, many well-known artists are represented who were then emerging artists. Were up-and-coming curators and critics also cutting their teeth on printed matter?

K-Well, I can say that there were contributors to these publications 25 years ago that are still very much in the mix now, if not in more institutional roles. For example, Barbara Fischer and Kitty Scott both contributed to Texts, as did Bruce Grenville. Jeanne Randolph was interviewed for Cube, and so was Scott Watson for Boo. These are all names of a certain generation, but all playing major roles across the country and internationally to this day.

H-You mentioned that Flower ceased publication because of funding. Was that the reason for the other four magazines folding as well?

K-The reality is that no one is getting rich or even making a living doing these sorts of projects. They were labours of love. So I believe that was the reason each of them ceased.

H-Is there a reason you looked at publications that both began and ended in the 1990s rather than looking at publications that had a life into the next century?

K-The end of the ‘90s is really the cutting off point for so much. There were amazing magazines that crept over that millennium line, like Lola (Toronto), or Tart (Winnipeg). For me access to the technology in 1989 versus 1998 is one thing, but extending beyond 2000, it was so radically different and practically unrecognizable. Also, distribution of these periodicals differs vastly into the Millennium. One editor I spoke with remembered a concern over making their magazine digital had they continued beyond the ‘90s. That seemed like something less interesting to them at the time.

H-Editors for four of the publications provided brief descriptions that are included as didactics in your show, but François Dion and Pierre Beaudoin chose instead to stage a photo called “Draft for Cube 6” with them in front of wallpaper comprised of past issues. You seemed quite taken by this photo. Can you comment on what it means for you?

K-It was a Call and Response situation. I wanted to offer room for the voices of those editors who produced the material. I didn’t want to exclude them by only allowing for my voice. And when I approached each of the editors of the five magazines I did so in the same spirit they would’ve 20 plus years ago. I asked for a recollection, and was clear I wouldn’t limit them in any way. I said it could be as long or as short as they wanted; it could be a text, or a visual. The team from Montreal were the only ones who took me to task, and so I was very pleased to show their performance photo as didactic material.

H-There have been a number of special events planned in association with Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool). How has this programming shed light on the show?

K-I really have to acknowledge Jenifer Papararo, the Director of Artistic Programs at Plug In ICA for all the work she did in organizing what’s been referred to as a “raft of programming.” Jenifer was recently appointed to the position with Plug In, and this was the first show she inherited. I had the idea of inviting a few artists and writers for presentations, but she spun it and pulled more out of me, and together we were able to offer nearly a dozen related events. When a show is on for four months, the gallery really needs to be activated in various ways. I’ve been so thrilled at the huge amount of interest for these events. Each one seems busier than the last. We’re hosting Angie Keefer this coming week, and she’ll be speaking about her project, The Serving Library. We’ve also had writers who were contributors to these magazines come and offer lectures or readings. That’s been amazing to invigorate the space with the voice of these thinkers. They’ve all been really fun and inspiring, too.

H-As we wrapped up the tour, you referred to the pairing of original artworks with related content from the magazines as creating sightlines. Do you have a favourite sightline in the show?

K-There are some very powerful moments in the show for me. One of them is in Gallery 4, a small salon type room that includes work by Denis Lessard comprised of slides, black and white photographs, and lecture notes. This is the ephemera from his 1991 performance, Banff**. The piece first existed as a performance at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and then was reprised in the pages of Texts. Walking down the corridor at Plug In there is wallpaper of Texts pages featuring that work of Denis’ and just as you round the corner, you see the same piece in the flesh. There’s a bit of an ‘uh-huh’ moment. I also really adore Gallery 2, the space we’ve been using for all the activity accompanying the show. In that room I’ve collaged a wall with numerous photocopied pages from all of the magazines to act as a backdrop. There’s also the huge reproduction of the cover from Boo 11 that features an image from Brian Jungen’s Anonymous Drawings series. Two walls of that room are all windows facing Memorial Blvd. and Portage Ave. I’ve also translated a number of artists’ graphics from the magazines into vinyl decals and put them into the windows to blur the inside/outside gallery/street potential of the show. These vinyls include works by Carl Skelton, Annie Martin, and Christine Freidman. That room is full of great sightlines.

H-Do you have any advice for aspiring arts critics or publishers?

K-Stop waiting and get started. While researching this material I had many conversations with Ann Dean about how she started Flower in ‘93 with David Buchan and her husband, the artist, Tom Dean. She said time and again that I really needed to make a zine as part of this show. And so I’m working with a team here in Winnipeg and together we’re launching a new magazine to close the show next week. It’s called Group Text, and it will be printed and circulated in unconventional ways as tribute to those who have inspired us. So, if someone is reading this and thinking they want to write criticism…then start writing! What’s holding you back?!

H-Best of luck with Group Text and thank-you, Kegan!

Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool) closes May 24, 2015 and will tour to Artexte (Montreal) this fall.

Kegan McFadden is an independent curator and artist/publisher whose projects often explore the intersection of visual and literary arts. Numerous periodicals as well as artist-run centres and public galleries throughout Canada have published his critical texts engaging and reimagining contemporary art practices. Over the last two years McFadden has conducted research concerning magazines produced by artists in Canada during the 1990s. This research has led to residencies with The New Gallery (Calgary) and Artexte (Montreal), resulting in the exhibition Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, A Brick is a Tool), which premiered at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (Winnipeg, 2015). McFadden will be taking part in the upcoming conference, This is Paradise: Art and Artists in Toronto at the University of Toronto from May 28th to 31st, where he’ll be presenting his research on Flower magazine as a case study for a larger understanding of artist publishers in Canada.

Images, top to bottom:

The Harold
Gallery 1 installation view
Denis Lessard, Banff**, 1991, black and white photographs, with lecture artifacts (slides and note cards). Collection of the artist.
All images courtesy Plug In ICA.

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