Underground in the Aether is a one-day symposium responding to the themes of collectivity, selfhood, and communication circuits in the exhibition Hank Bull: Connexion. It will take place Saturday, April 8 at VIVO Media Art Centre, as the closing event for Spring Fever: Vancouver Independent Archives 2017.
Assembling speakers from across Canada, the United States and Europe, Underground in the Aether launches itself into the entanglements of technology, fantasy and sociality as engaged by an informal and international community of artists from the 1960s to present day.
Seizing upon the terminology behind our present network economy, keynote speaker Hannah B. Higgins, Professor of Art History, University of Illinois (Chicago), presents “Aether/Or: The Place of Things and Beings in the Eternal Network,” proposing a rehabilitation of these terms following their use by artists in the 1960s. Presentations by Vincent Bonin (Montreal), Allison Collins (Vancouver), Luis Jacob (Toronto), Jee-Hae Kim (University of Cologne) and Felicity Tayler (University of Toronto), will respectively investigate the stakes and sources behind artists’ turn to the imaginary during times of crisis, how forms, identities and communities are transmuted as they circulate through networks, and how artists’ subcultures convened within mainstream and national communications circuits.
With the underground transposed into the aether all is up in the air: upturned and diffuse, yet also aloft, unfixed and in movement. Together these presentations look to artists' practices as a means to consider possible ways of living in and through mediation today.
Aether/Or: The Place of Things and Beings in the Eternal Network
Underground in the Aether evokes a simultaneously schematic and poetic framework. The non- commercial art world (the underground) has been characterized by a process of the dematerialization of art (an ether) since the 1960s. This underground has thrived for a half century through a highly adaptive, non-hierarchical, informal system of artists. In 1968, French poet Robert Filliou called this informal system the Eternal Network. Other artists at the time called it Intermedia, Fluxus, Happenings, the New York Correspondence School, and Mail Art. In the intervening decades, however, the language of international global networks of information culture has been appropriated and monetized by corporate capital. In both contexts (the art world and industry), the common language about networks (their flatness, their universality, their adaptability in space and time), obscures specificities of location, historical processes, and personhood. This homogenizing process creates distortions with regard to center and periphery, even as the language of networks seems to promote inclusion. By exploring the ‘the place of things and beings in the Eternal Network’ of the art counterculture in the 1960s, this talk performs an archeology of terms and praxis that rehabilitates the language for continued use.
Badiou meets Filliou
We can gather from the curators’ statements and some artists’ works in the exhibition Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures (Vancouver Art Gallery), that there is a recent surge of interest in the imaginary as a rubric to renew autonomy during a time of economical over-determination. At first, it seems that artists’ reinvestment in surrealist tropes is an escape attempt to distance themselves discursively from methods of analysis based on the understanding that the imaginary in psychoanalysis is always tethered to the symbolic and the real. Although a politic of representation is still at play, cultural misrecognition and value attribution, at the core of the making of so many critical works in Vancouver, seem to no longer represent the starting points of these practices.
Concurrently on view in neighbouring Burnaby is Hank Bull: Connexion (Burnaby Art Gallery). Bull is one among many local artists closely associated with a loose international network whose common project in the 1970s through 1980s was to rehabilitate the vocabulary and subject positions of the historical avant-gardes. During a period less economically depressed than today, they played with signs and myths in order to carve out an imaginary space of autonomy for the establishment of “institutions of the possible.” In this presentation, I will suggest how methodologies can intersect to reappraise these utopias of the recent past and understand a “return” of the imaginary in contemporary art.
In Fall 2016 TERMINAL was launched at Western Front as a four-part installation and web project that holds as its challenge the examination of single-user interfaces, and the influence of technologies on the adaptation of artistic forms. The project addresses itself to an idea of what different hardware units, operating systems, and user environments have offered to artists and to the viewers, readers or users of their work. Each iteration has considered a different computer interface, and related artworks (text-based programming of poetry, graphical user interfaces and early digital animation, online peer sharing and virtual space formation, and media 2.0 multi-platform ‘saturation’).
Nothing by Mouth: Networked Artist-Communities in Vancouver and Toronto During the 1970s.
Michael Morris’s Nothing by Mouth (1971) was made as a contribution to Dana Atchely’s correspondence-art project, “Space Atlas.” As its title suggests, Morris’s work suggests a new conception of community defined less by proximity (the nearness of mouth-to-mouth communication) than by mediation (the network of the mail system). This insight on the mediated character of networked communities proved crucial for the artist-collective General Idea. In their performance Towards an Audience Vocabulary (1978), mediation opened the way towards performed identities and art-scenes that we the product of artifice – a scenario where ‘form follows fiction.’
“Is it dinnertime yet in Wiencouver?” Some Notes on Entangled Thoughts and Cables
In the work of Hank Bull encounters are fostered in real life as well as in the electronic space of telecommunications networks, and in the realm of the imaginary envisioned in the aether or through the screen. Those situations emerge within the mutual entanglement of people, technologies, shared ideas and also meals. Binary divides between artist and non-artist, human and nonhuman, theory and practice, art and the quotidian are playfully ignored in favor of a more integral approach that focuses on the aesthetic potential of cooperative action.
The Spirit of Those Spaces Where Networks Overlap
Taking Hank Bull’s article “The Relican Wedding,” (Centerfold, July 1979) as a case study, I will address the politics of publicity that are enacted in a transitional moment for news media, intermedia art, artistic subcultures and national culture. “The Relican Wedding” parodies news reporting, exploiting the print culture form of the magazine for the documentation of a live peformance event, which was also recorded using the electronic medium of video. We could think of it in today’s terms as a cross-platform event that took place between more than one networking technology and/or social imaginary. Initially published as a tabloid newsletter by Arton’s, an artist-run gallery founded in Calgary in 1975, earlier issues of Centerfold (1975–1979) covered the activities of artists, musicians and poets who, like Hank Bull, identified with Robert Filliou’s post-national concept of the Eternal Network. Centerfold was distributed for free amongst this affinity group, using mailing lists similarly activated to circulate correspondence and video art. Bull’s Relican “reporting from Vancouver,” on the other hand, was published shortly after the magazine had relocated to Toronto, a city that was positioned as the communications centre for a networked national geography. Following the move in 1979, Centerfold was reinvented as a subscription-based artists' news magazine, FUSE (1979–2014).
Robin Simpson is an art historian, curator and student based in Montreal where he works as the public programs and education coordinator at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University. A PhD candidate in art history at the University of British Columbia, his dissertation investigates video art of the 1970s through to the early 80s, re-examining the socio-political stakes in the critical and clinical framing of video’s narcissism.
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As part of Spring Fever: Vancouver Independent Archives 2017 and in response to the exhibition Hank Bull: Connexion