PRINT January 2005


Art Metropole

CANADA, IT USED TO BE SAID, is a place with more geography than history. But that old joke about a place where nothing happens desperately needs retiring. Vancouver has been a major international city since World War II, a multicultural hub of Pacific Rim business that swelled with wealth and power following the influx of rich Hong Kong Chinese in the mid-’90s. Toronto, too, is a bustling, big-shoulders town, with new steel-and-glass developments muscling upward on practically every downtown corner. If the cities as a pair epitomize two sides of a vibrant northern economy, they also fall back on one or two iconic figures in the visual arts—in Vancouver, Jeff Wall; in Toronto, Michael Snow. Like nineteenth-century industry barons, these titans have long towered over the Canadian art scene.

But in Toronto, in a second-floor walkup that Maclean’s magazine described as an “island of apparent sanity above the plastic porno wasteland below,” a scrappy, catch-as-catch-can underground arts scene developed around the artist-run center Art Metropole and the ideas of the three-person collective General Idea. The latter disbanded after the AIDS-related deaths in 1994 of Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz, but Art Metropole (directed off and on by General Idea’s surviving member, A.A. Bronson) carries on, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary late last year with the pithily titled exhibition “Evidence of Thirty Years: Selected Works from the Collection of Art Metro- pole, Both Real and Imagined: Audio Tapes, Books, Buttons, Catalogues, Correspondence, Drawings, Ephemera, Film, Flyers, Kitsch, Mailers, Multiples, Manuscripts, Poems, Porn, Postcards, Posters, Photographs, Records, Stamps, T-Shirts, and Videotapes.”

The show made apparent the intimate relationship between General Idea and Art Metropole from the very start: A wavy black time line, applied to a wall of the Art Metropole offices, wound its way from 1971 to the present. Underneath the line, issues of General Idea’s FILE magazine in plastic protectors were tacked to the wall. Above, various ephemera associated with Art Metropole played a contrapuntal role. If the postcards, artist’s books, T-shirts, and other items traced something like the official history of the space, it was FILE in all its manifestations that anchored the display, designed by artist Nestor Kruger. The curvy time line might be taken as a representation of a radio wave, broadcasting the prescient work of General Idea from the distant past of ’70s Toronto.

In the group’s early days, for example, it pursued transformations in the dissemination of art emerging from the odds and ends of popular culture. As much a record of General Idea’s existence and activities as it was a magazine, FILE registered the implications of mail art, nascent video production, and multiples. Indeed, the group’s Yonge Street address became a relay station and archive for artists working in ephemera, so much so that the files of FILE quickly outgrew General Idea’s physical capacities—at which point Art Metropole was founded to house the accumulating work.

Art Metropole mirrored the early concerns of General Idea: an archivist’s mandate, an unabashed (and forward-looking) embrace of queerness, and a fascination with establishing networks, first throughout Canada and then abroad. Those concerns are made plangent in the thirtieth-anniversary display, which includes a sliver of the archival material donated to the National Gallery of Canada by artists including Lawrence Weiner, Alan Belcher, and Rodney Graham. But the exhibition also documents a sea change in the visual arts in the mid-’70s, as the interest in editioned material met up with the video camera. When Peggy Gale joined the Art Metropole staff in 1975, the space became an early promoter of video, establishing a videotape lending library and publishing Video by Artists, the first in a series of “by Artists” titles surveying artist’s books, museums by artists (Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum, 1972, for example), and performance work.

In a sense, Art Metropole’s new roles in video advocacy and publishing transformed the vision of General Idea, whose members were also lifetime appointees to its board of directors. But it also carried forth the kernel of that vision, one that today may be occluded to generations who have grown up with video as a ubiquitous background to the fabric of everyday life and would have a difficult time recognizing that it once looked more foreign than paint on canvas. The installation might have done a better job of effecting the time-warp sensation necessary to appreciate not only the institution’s past and evolution but also the connections across time that link it today to its “island of sanity” era.

Like New York’s Printed Matter, Inc., which recently appointed Bronson its executive director, the scope and ambition of Art Metropole necessarily have had to accommodate the changed landscape of how artist’s books and ephemera find their way into and around the world. As I looked at the last decade of the Art Metropole timeline, I couldn’t help but feel that the center could exist anywhere—as a sort of clearing house for a transregional lineup of artists and performers—or nowhere at all, if it existed virtually online. That’s not a knock against Art Metropole or the exhibition but an acknowledgment that the wares it distributes have changed so radically in nature. How do artist’s books function three decades down the road? How can the history of video be considered without making it, well, history? Though “Evidence” can’t really provide answers, these questions would certainly be less pertinent without Art Metropole’s three decades of dedication to the fray.

Eric Banks is editor of Bookforum and a senior editor of Artforum.