British Columbia in postcards

From its initial conception to its forthcoming catalogue/book, Peter White’s curatorial project “It Pays to Play: British Columbia in Postcards, 1950s-1980s” has generated great interest as it brings together a selection of over two thousand postcard views of B.C. in both a visually stimulating, conceptually inquisitive, and nostalgically rich exhibit. Presented on the gallery walls and in vitrines under a strictly gridded layout, the internal logic and dynamics of these mass-reproduced objects are underlined and point toward an archeological priority. This indexical frame provides a rare opportunity to critically survey an extensive field of visual representation that has helped to define British Columbia’s landscape in relation to constructions of nature, progress and industry.

Organized along approximately thirty categorical headings as broad as “Leisure,” “Architecture,” “Landscapes,” “Industry” and “Urban Views,” and as specific as “Roads in the Landscape,” “Cars in the Landscape,” “People in the Landscape,” “Winter” and “Trail B.C.,” these postcards at first appear to be part of an obsessively objective attempt to create an encyclopaedic archive. However, looking closer we find that this inventory also provides a conceptually interesting examination of the advent of relatively inexpensive, but technologically sophisticated forms of colour reproductions. In these “chromes,” deeply entrenched formal conventions and new aesthetic devices come into play with an emerging world of industrial development, commerce and new urban communities, revealing both banal and idealized images of leisure and tourism.

Reintroduced in the present as collected evidence for an investigation into a nearby past, these postcards appear on one level as either sadly naive, comically kitsch or highly nostalgic. On another level they also give insight into a stage in the formation of a touristic gaze that helped to define prosperity and progress in Canada’s most western province. As markers of an expansive tourist industry, these postcards are part of a larger scopic regime that helps to ensure that the field of vision governing land and leisure supports this economy alongside notions of industrial growth. While this ideological structure is formally referred to in the exhibition’s layout and the seemingly objective picturing of B.C., it is when the individual categories and the postcards are analyzed more closely that the reification of cultural commodities and sites break down most visibly to reveal both a production and displacement of social desires.

To point the gallerygoer in this direction, White has provided a number of helpful leads starting with the form and image of the invitation card for the exhibition which is appropriated from one of many unusual pictures included among the otherwise standardized and typical postcards. As if mimicking the formal composition of Manet’s L’Exposition Universelle 1867, this 1950s image presents an unabashed modern vision of nature subjugated to commerce, industry and recreation. Elevated high above the city of Trail at a picnic area, two casually well dressed couples are seen contemplating this “progressive” fusion of industry and nature as smelters pierce the landscape in front of them. Surveying the exhibition, we find dozens of other similar scenes where a landscape, otherwise defined as “empty,” is rendered productive by the incursion of industry and technology. Among the most dramatic of these must be Cominco’s Warfield Fertilizer Operation at Trail or Bennett Dam whose architectural vocabulary and utopian pictorial space resembles the technological dreamscapes of Moon-Base Alpha.

Interestingly enough, there is the odd postcard that (incidentally or not) reveals the tensions accompanying this economical expansion. For example, in Bridge to West Quesnel in British Columbia’s Famous Cariboo Country, a railway bridge traverses the Fraser River linking Quesnel’s growing community in the distance to our immediate foreground where a young native man dressed as a rancher poses contemplatively in front of a small and scraggly tree. With an analogously strange sense of narrative, a postcard in the “Rogers Pass” section of the exhibit features a pre-adolescent girl dressed in red standing alone overlooking a brand new highway that cuts through a mountain range otherwise untouched by modernity.

Back-projected onto one of the gallery walls, the postcards are magnified to provide yet another space for critical inquiry. While enlarged to the size of traditional history paintings, they are simultaneously referencing family vacation slide presentations and information/advertising strategies found at park offices across the province. Repetitiously changing the images at five second intervals, enough time has been allotted for us to get a closer glimpse at the cards while also directing our attention to their mechanically reproduced nature.

As a strategy, repetition is utilized in other ways as well. In a particular section, a set of identical postcards are displayed under their own separate heading. In another, we find botanical postcards repeated and organized in patterns that abstractly resemble landscape garden design. Dislodged from the exhibition’s otherwise consistently systematized layout, this section’s overt “playfulness” stands out as an odd curatorial decision slightly out of touch with the presentation’s general conception. More subtly, and arguably more interestingly, the postcards are often repeated in different categories. For example, a card showing a pink motel appears under the headings “Motels,” “Pink” and “Architecture,” drawing attention to an inevitable failure within indexical structures such as this archive to “contain” information.

While these self-reflexive curatorial interventions do offer very important critical insight into the visual history of British Columbia, one can not help to speculate how the exhibition could have been structured differently to provide a more historically specific analysis. Wondering what subjective reminders might exist on the flip-side of these cards (the flip-side is never revealed), this particular visitor would also have been interested in a closer historical reading of individual sites as well as the specific contexts which informed the production of individual cards. Recognizing the parameters and limitations of White’s project, one hopes that the forthcoming publication will push the socio-political tensions closer to the surface by providing a more direct discussion of the displacement caused by the economic and technological optimism represented in these byproducts of capitalism’s ever-expanding tourist industry.

Lani Maestro exhibition

As artists have negotiated through a revisionary paradigm of cultural and personal identity, adamant, critical voicings have been raised to defend and represent socially excluded groups. The soft-spoken murmur of Lani Maestro’s art work may seem to be in opposition to this critical tone, yet it provides something equally insistent and valuable – an emancipatory space of healing. Beneath her work’s minimal simplicity unfolds a complex series of reflections on the construction of difference through poetic and experiential means.

Not that Maestro’s voicings haven’t operated under a more explicitly politicized agenda. Born and raised in the Philippines under the Marcos regime, she is no stranger to real-life confrontation between political agendas and the immediacy of survival under oppression and violence. Moving to Canada, she has maintained a symbiotic exchange between theoretical agendas and living practice. This has taken many forms including teaching, running an in-house gallery as well as a small press (the latter including the now-defunct artist journal Harbour).

In relation to this more active social engagement, Maestro’s installation work can be regarded as a more internalized interrogation of identity, one whose silence encourages a self-reflexive listening. It explores a theoretical model of differentiating self from other, one that is comprehended from the presence of immediate experience. This could be seen as an oppositional camp to that of a post-colonial interrogation of social construction. Through a non-prescriptive ambiguity Maestro’s work resonates an interplay between body and space, representation and physical presence as factors in the realm of the everyday.

The first half of the gallery was devoted to Cradle. Ugoy. (1996), a clustering of irregular cubic volumes made of diaphanous mosquito netting, each suspended over a woven bamboo mat by guy wires. Metaphorically this tent-like architectural grouping resembled a model nomadic city, its organic growth arrived at within the confines of the gallery walls. However by their anthropomorphic scale, these gestalt cubes of white light could also serve functionally as shelter, as a resting place to kneel, sit or sleep. The use of materials indigenous to the Philippines recalls Maestro’s childhood home. Its soothing respite evoked the healing powers of Nanay, her family’s live-in nanny, to whom the show was dedicated. A personal intimacy resonated within this structuring of space, not through autobiographical means but through an intuitive abstraction of that experience, carefully reconstructed with the simple materials of netting and bamboo.

In cross-cultural terms the work reflects what theorist Kurokawa Kisho refers to as intercultural symbiosis. Seen in the light of Japan as nomadic intervener of the West, Kurokawa proposes that a cultural identity must assimilate with its “opponent” and simultaneously criticize the very construction of its binomial opposition. Maestro’s work takes on a similar appraoch through her provision of an intermediary space. This location can be traced to a Buddhist sense of consciousness that does not assimilate flesh with spirit, but instead understands its fluid and fluctuating interrelationship.

A more Eastern, and specifically Japanese, sensibility of continuous interpenetrating interior/exterior space is evoked as the corridors formed between these translucent containers provide a space between a space. This integration between inside and outside could extend itself to a similar model of differentiation and co-dependence between self and other. A dialogue between Eastern belief systems and Western conceptual art seems to reiterate the workings of the Fluxus movement, which was actively engaged in an exchange between artists from the West and East. Although there is a totalizing danger in collapsing cultural difference into a transcendental whole, these artists shared an unrooted state of mutation and flux, acknowledging a global transfer of values as affecting their respective cultures.

From a Western art historical perspective, Cradle. Ugoy. can be seen as post-minimal in approach. Like the work of Eva Hesse, it responds to the high formalist impersonality of minimalism with the presence of a more private, humble, self-exploratory subjectivity in pursuit of a sublime state of otherness. The heightened sense of perceptual and tactile experience of these nearly immaterial containers of their own void also recalls the spatial interventions of Robert Irwin’s scrim projects. Like that work, which takes on a phenomenological reflectivity, Maestro’s work asked the viewer to reconsider their own levels of mental construct in relation to an initial perceptual encounter. This is not to privilege a pre-language state, but instead to acknowledge the interrelation between known and unknown. Maestro’s work is a reflection of the mental processes that deduce a social and institutional organization, and in that sense it is political, proposing a radical rethinking of the construction of social meaning.

A reconsideration of the structures involved with cognitive meaning could again be found in a book thick of ocean (1994). Resting on a low-lying wooden table in the more dimly lit back of the gallery was an oversize book. Each of its some five hundred pages bore the same full-frame reproduction of an ocean surface. The turning of the book’s pages in turn reproduced the wave action caught in photographic representation. This experience of “reading” expands the field of language to the physical realm, its comprehension engaged with the body through a repetitive motion of the turning of pages, as being integral to its comprehension. The ocean, as metaphor to the abyss of the unknown, is ironically reproduced as static and contained, falling short of the infinite.

Sharing the back room was Akow Ikaw. Ang Desyerto. (I am You. The Desert.) (1994). Consisting of a coil of braided hair placed on a shallow base, it “climbed” upward like an inverted tornado, funnelling and connecting to the adjacent wall. At this juncture, a swarm of hand-written charcoal text, the Tagalog phrases of its title obsessively repeated, hovered around the linear cord of hair. By likening the text to hair, or hair to text, it suggested a physical embodiment of language, whose meaning is arrived at not merely by the comprehension of an abstract sign system. The trace of Maestro’s bodily presence activated the other works, acknowledging their seriality on more intimate, less mathematical terms.

What becomes an issue in Maestro’s work is its potential to appear culturally transcendental. The very nature of a reductive approach can pare itself down into an essentialist idealism. The iconography used in these works infer a feminine sense of place. For example the womb-like envelope of the cradles, the ocean as fluid medium, the coil of hair as female signifiers share a history as gendered metaphors of woman as nature. In a state of self-reflection it would be relevant to question the construction of this role instead of accepting it in a circular fashion as a given. What is significant in these icons is their evocation of a nonrational force that, whether gendered or not, acknowledge the presence of an unknown to consider in relation to a state of consciousness. Instead of reinstating an essentialist polemic, Maestro’s project seems to involve the simultaneous breakdown and maintenance of differential borders through a simple confrontation with the physically immediate that provides a more profound understanding of lived experience.

Cradle. Ugoy. considered immediate bodily experience and the physical presence of the unknown as neglected factors involved in the exploration of a notion of cultural and personal identity. Instead of proposing a textually privileged strategy that remains no more than a prescriptive polemic, Maestro’s work reveals a symbiotic interchange between form and content, theory and practice. Through this reflexivity it provides the means to consider a new configuration of the aesthetic in relation to cultural practice. It creates a presence of compassion, of wonder, to approach a knowledge of the world through the trusting of intuition. Unconditionally, a sense of care resonates outward to the everyday, living a sense of difference and identity through a state of reflection on the immediacy of living in the complexity of cultural diaspora.

Art and technology

The arts are very much concerned with today’s technologies. Numerous works reflect this in one way or another, even if the techniques and machines are far from apparent in most cases, and have a role only in the processes of creation. Few are indifferent to these new technologies and the issues they raise, for they force us to reconsider certain questions about art, society, the economy, the environment, communication, and our view of the world. In this respect, Eric Raymond refers to a “conditioning” of our preoccupation with machines.

WHAT TECHNOLOGIES ARE EXAMINED IN THIS ISSUE?

Video should perhaps be mentioned first, as it is the oldest of the recent technologies. This constantly evolving medium is the physical support (magnetic tape) associated with the very first conquests of the image: photography and cinema.

The subsequent technologies cannot be regarded as supports in the 19th-century sense of the world. The arrival of the computer as an artistic tool represents a break with certain modes of apprehending the world and of reproducing its image. Henceforth, its representation would be calculated and rendered interactively. Practices derived from computer technology include digital images and sound, virtual reality and on-line artwork.

The hybrid forms and intermediate phases that combine computer and video, digital images and real images, for example, are also important steps that should not be overlooked.

The medium of video is now thirty years old. This span of time may seem short compared to cinema and photography, which have passed their centenary, but long compared to the spate of new technologies that have emerged in recent days.

This seniority, as it were, has allowed video to incorporate a critical dimension that puts into perspective certain concepts that have arisen from the modern aesthetic tradition.

The methods and means used primarily in fields of communication, such as the Internet, give rise to an entirely new set of aesthetic issues; as yet, we do not have enough data to judge whether or not these will generate new artistic practices. Nancy Shaw considers this question in social and economic terms, questioning the notion of interactivity and the museological institution.

Certain sites, however, have already been explored by artists who are testing the modes and applications.

As for virtual reality, experiments are being conducted primarily in the scientific and military sectors. For artists, virtual reality would seem beyond their reach. Only those researchers affiliated with scientific experimentation centres have access to these tools and the necessary technical support. The hypermedia (CD ROM, DVD), on the other hand, were appropriated by some artists as soon as they came out. The medium of virtual reality can be viewed in terms of a certain continuity, as it was prefigured by the cassette and video installation.

The viewer is now more than ever at the centre of things. Certain technologies require that the viewer be intimately connected with the work (hypermedia, for example), while others operate according to a hybrid mode which forces the viewer to navigate between extremes. Does the interactivity mentioned in each of the articles stem from the practices themselves or is it an extension of the “place of the viewer”?

So far, technological theory has predominated over technological practices. A considerable number of articles, reviews and books have advanced the most extravagant theses, but always based on research into the specificity of the various practices, isolating them from any type of contextualization. This phenomenon has generated utopian claims – sometimes paranoid, sometimes euphoric – about tools which require manipulation and transformation, and about practices which still await analysis and conceptualization.

The theoretical texts on the subject are at the inevitable stage of defending specificities and isolating the territory from any cultural context. Parachute’s second issue on this theme looks at the problem from this perspective.

David Tomas speaks of the schizophrenia resulting from this dual attitude: a critique of the quest for progress and a search for contexualization on the one hand, and a questioning of newness and a search for specific identity on the other. As the interviews indicate, most artists pay scant attention to these new techniques, and in fact show a certain opportunism: they use them for a predetermined project with a fixed idea in mind. Rarely, these artists admit, do they engage in technological research or contribute to technical advances. It is the theoretical project, the ideas and concepts, that are of lasting significance, not the methods employed.

Visual artists like to work alone, whether in the studio or elsewhere. They are therefore generally on the lookout for technologies which are easily accessed, the less complicated the better. For this reason, the machines they use have most often reached a stage of wide commercialization, being easy to master and accessible to all.

A number of exhibitions have attempted to mark out the common ground between the visual arts and the new technologies. Without doubt, the exhibition which has had the most impact in this respect is “Les Immateriaux,” conceived by Jean-Francois Lyotard and held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985. More oriented towards the relationship between reproducible works and the visual arts, “Passages de l’Image” (conceived by Raymond Bellour, Catherine David and myself) presented eighteen photographic, cinematographic, videographic and computer-based works at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1990. “L’Ere binaire,” conceived by science professor Charles Hirsch and held at the Musee d’lxelles in Brussels in 1992, exhibited a number of art works created by computer or generated by machines. “Press Enter (Between Seduction and Disbelief),” organized by Louise Dompierre, Derrick de Kerckhove and Robert Riley for the Power Plant in Toronto in 1995, unveiled a number of potential concepts stemming from technological works. “Artifices,” an event held in Saint-Denis (France), presents every two years a selection of technological works of an artistic nature. In Montreal, “Images du Futur” has organized international exhibitions of art and new technologies on a yearly basis since 1985. The Guggenheim Museum SoHo, in New York, recently opened a program dedicated to multimedia art with the presentation of “Mediascape.”

Certain specialized centres producing and exhibiting works and engaging in theoretical reflection have also arisen over the last decade: ZKM in Karlsruhe, ICC in Tokyo, and the production centre in Banff.

The development of technologies may appear to be linked with the development of memory. Today, numerous artists explore the archives and reassemble the fragments of history. New technologies would seem to help us preserve the memory of time and history.

Instead, the reverse has occurred. The more the various media have improved and advanced, the less they have withstood the ravages of time. Papyrus is still our most reliable support. Paper, paradoxically, which was invented years later, is less stable than the papyrus of our ancestors. The same is true of technological supports: CD ROM is already considered less durable than magnetic tape. Computers have an announced life span of three years; video material, five. Ironically, these technologies which were supposed to preserve our historical memory have instead accelerated the process of amnesia.

This historical loss would seem to coincide with a territorial expansion. Network technologies, which everyone speaks of today and which many of us are starting to experiment with, denote a profound change in our sense of perceived space, which is no longer seen from the single, homogenous point of view of the Renaissance tradition. Our world-view has become anisotropic and entangled in a complex, inter-relational web.

WILL ARTISTS EMBRACE THESE NEW MEDIA?

The ideas that may result from this new vision of the world, from our permanent relationship with others, from our new presence/absence with regard to the individual body, from our conscious relationship with the environment, from the unstable economies of countries and continents – will these ideas require new artistic practices?