Traffic, attempts an overview of conceptual art in Canada between 1965 and 1980 focusing on ideas specific to areas as well as addressing the “traffic” across the geography. Roy Kiyooka’s piece Long Beach to Peggy’s Cove, 576 images, literally covers geography.

The nature of conceptual art—that it is based in concept rather than object—creates a challenge as to what can be presented so many years after the fact. Many of the pieces are performance based and therefore must rely on documentation of the actual. Due to this, the immediacy of involvement which creates the juice of live performance is missing. In its place there is a faded resemblance, a two dimensional memory of a three dimensional spectacle and much like a dried flower pressed in a book; it has indeed faded with time. Add to this the disconnect that comes about between the duration of the historical act and the time taken for the present ‘reading’ of the documentation; time, which was often intrinsic to the concept, is shaken from it’s fleeting, fragile roots to be transplanted into a new context where current awareness blurs the perception. Traffic begs a follow-up exhibition to sharpen the focus.

There is an obfuscated presence, an iceburg-ian sense that Traffic is only revealing a small part of a larger entity. Like archaeological relics that have been dug up from the past, museology overrides the contemporary. Traffic has been directed by the curators. It could be asserted that the exhibition itself is a piece of conceptual art and as a primary battle front of conceptual art was waged on the question “what are we able to call art?”—the case for exhibition-as-art can be waged.

As one who was there for much of the action (I was Miss File), I can attest to the poignancy of conceptual art during these times. I type-set the first three issues of FILE Magazine on an LIP Grant. It was not just personally informative; the effect that conceptual art had on the overall art landscape was incontestably great. Traffic educates. The didactic panels are a necessary part of the impact and it is worth a careful reading which in turn requires an investment of time.

The glamorization of personage is evident in Robert Walker’s 1975 photographic performance, Is Politcs Art?, where Walker is shaking hands with famous personalities. Concepts that are tangential to the original piece such as the outdated fashion or the eventual decline or rise of the dignitary come into present play. There is a “ho-hummm” response to the outdated proof of proximity to fame in light of facebook. Nonetheless, the pride of captured association is nostalgically endearing.

Dichotomy is at play within the exhibition. Whereas many pieces have elements of social outreach like the humour of Gathie Falk cavorting in red angel wings in the film documentation of Red Angel or eating a boiled egg in Some are Egger than I, the campy conviviality of the Miss General Idea Pageants or the connective agenda of The New Era Social Club and The Western Front, there is also an aura of selectively exercised in targeting the audience. Michael De Courcy’s panel cites his contribution as print based with Intermedia. Intermedia eventually grew to become a bona-fide publishing company. Back in the day, they did a mail send-out called “junk mail” , an LIP grant intiative, that consisted of small prints of art works solicited from individual artists to be distributed through the mail. It was printed on a mimeograph machine. I was there. Postcards were flying around the world to artists and art groups with names like Correspongedance, Mr. Peanut or Flaky Rose Hip decorated with art stamps and drawings on envelopes.

It was like a hand-made, hand-picked internet long before it’s time. There was an IN group and it was cliquey. Artists were hosting dinners in public galleries and calling them performance pieces while other artists were doing latex-paint-on-wall art pieces like Gordon Lebredt’s Get Hold of This Space advocating that the artist claim the gallery.

We didn’t think it was anything special. It was just life, our milieu. Traffic gives a sense of the vividness of conceptual art in Canada between 1960 and 1980 but, really—you had to have been there. 

Curators : Grant Arnold, Catherine Crowston, Barbara Fischer, Michèle Thériault with Vincent Bonin, and Jayne Wark
Vancouver Art Gallery
September 29, 2012—January 20, 2013