Vancouver is much lauded as an important centre of photo-based art and Presentation House Gallery on the North Shore has put together a small but compelling show about the way artists in this city have worked with photography during a critical moment of development for the media here, aptly titled C. 1983. Curated in 2 parts, the exhibition looks at the self-reflexive nature of photography during the period, and more specifically in Vancouver, at the nascent seeds of the conceptual strategies towards image-making that have contributed to the city’s celebrated ‘Vancouver School’ of photography. Curator Helga Pakasaar has brought together a thought-provoking group of works in Part 1 evidencing experimental approaches to image-making and investigations into light and perception, resulting in some surprisingly impressionistic and abstract images. As Part 2 opens this week, with a special screening of Rodney Graham’s epic Two Generators, Helga kindly shared her thoughts on why this period was such an exciting time for photography in general – and in Vancouver in particular:
Here and Elsewhere: What was compelling to you about the early 1980s as a period of art production – what was the impetus for this exhibition?
Helga Pakasaar: The shifts in photographic discourses during the 1970s seemed to come to a head in the early eighties. By that time, photographic strategies were prevalent in significant art practices and photography had become a dominant mode for thinking about images. Artists were retooling images from various sources (mass media, histories of photography and art, vernacular forms) to critically examine the meaning of photographs as visual language. Photographic works produced at that time were often informed by theoretical perspectives and an awareness of the social role of cameras – how photography was interwoven with history for example. This was a time when departments of visual culture opened up and more theories about camera images were generated. So in terms of the ideas that were percolating in and around photography alone, the eighties was a vibrant time.
This period was especially important here as Vancouver artists were contributing to an international discourse and the vitality of this context seemed to buy a confidence, evident in the emergence of new exhibition venues, artist initiatives, publishing, critical writing, and the impact of influential educators. I was interested in bringing aspects of this unarticulated cultural moment to light.
H&E: Do you think there was something very specific about the way artists were working with photography in Vancouver during this period?
HP: I think there were certain proclivities and a way of posing critical questions that were not being expressed in the same way elsewhere, but I would hesitate to suggest that there is a particular regional style. Think of the so-called Vancouver school of photography which is by no means recognizable as such. Here, conceptual thinking about photography was digested by individual artists in quite different ways through distinct sensibilities.
At the same time, I would say that there were common concerns, like how to represent the social which, given our setting, often meant in relation to nature. Many of these artists had considerable erudition about social theories, especially post structuralist politics. Perhaps one of the more distinctive tendencies here was based in literary sensibilities, thus we see a lot of narrative experimentation often inspired by avant-garde cinema. Most of the artists in C.1983 seemed to be in some way wrestling with the discourses of modernism and art history. Unlike the common attitude in eighties art that media culture was a false reality to be countered, here there was more of an interest in the intersections of received reality and experience, and photographs as social artifacts. Fiction and illusion were understood as inherent to seeing the world through a camera apparatus. In addition to art historical references, popular culture (detective novels, soap operas) was treated as rich source material. While quotation and citation were at the heart of so much art from this period, I would say that many of the artists in this exhibition used these strategies with an understanding of the discursive qualities of visual language.
H&E: For many of the artists in the exhibition, the work in C.1983 represents very early work in their practice. Did you find while working on the exhibition that many of the same concerns in the artist’s work during this period have continued to be reflected in their practices to this day?
HP: Yes some artists have continued to investigate similar concerns albeit often through different means of course. Some works were selected with the intention of providing insights into nascent concerns. I was interested in bringing to light lesser known early works; many had not been seen since they were originally exhibited, in part to identify seminal formations of what would become ongoing inquiries, as in the case of Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, and Marian Penner Bancroft. I also wanted to suggest the importance of what might be called minor and ephemeral pieces, like how an artist book might more concisely embody an artists’ ideas than the “major work”.
There was a group of artists here that emerged in the eighties that had been taught to be skeptical of traditional systems of distribution. A strong concern with public life of images was translated into making artworks for the public realm and mass distribution. (Non)Commercial Culture dedicated to producing public projects was indicative of the idea that meaningful art comes from direct social engagement. My approach to the exhibition was to present this cultural moment not as a singular narrative thread but rather as a kind of knot of narratives that crossed mediums and generations.
H&E: We noticed you included a strong mix of women artists along with male artists in the exhibition, which was fantastic to see! We don’t want to be inflammatory but it seems that, very generally speaking, the female artists in the exhibition are not quite as prominent and have not exhibited as widely as the male artists in the exhibition. Looking back on things, is there any way to explain this phenomenon?
HP: Well, I think this is a difficult question to answer and relates to wider issues beyond the conditions and politics of art worlds, but I think it is a pertinent question, especially for art institutions that write canons. Perhaps one of the reasons these women artists are not as prominent today has to do with how they realized their practices, what they considered important. While the eighties were a time of lots of discussion about gender power relations and patriarchal art histories did gaining access actually become easier? Why are the Guerilla Girls still operating?
It’s interesting to consider this question in light of the fact that women artists were so prominent here during the eighties. It was very easy to include a number of women in C.1983 because they were exhibiting widely, running galleries and collectives, organizing symposiums, writing, publishing and were highly engaged. Growing out of seventies feminist alternatives, during the eighties, more established initiatives and opportunities developed, fueled perhaps by strong feminist role models who came to Vancouver as well as by widening international art networks. Returning to your question about recognition, art history has taught us that these narratives are ever shifting.
H&E: The strategies used by artists in Part 1 of this exhibition include appropriation, sequencing and collage – the works are quite self-reflexive, almost questioning representation. Can you talk about this aspect of the works?
HP: Yes, Part 1 does have a focus on questions of representation as a process, as a relationship between an apparatus and photographer, and on the material construction of images. Generally speaking, I think that the self-reflective approaches to the medium offered ways to express what was at stake when using camera images. While there were elements of formal experimentation, these artists were responsive to the highly theorized discourses on photography that were circulating at that time. The realities of making pictures were no longer just in taking them. Many of the works foreground materials, traces of process, and call for intense observation to decipher what is represented. Many of the images are quite painterly and abstract, highlighting the nature of the photographic. These questions of legibility reinforce the very act of looking and unveil that photography is literally traces of light on surface, as say in Ellie Epp’s film of light playing on a surface, Laiwan’s camera-less projection, and Elizabeth Vander Zaag’s micro study of a television screen. This concern with the specific qualities of the medium is less evident in Part 2.
H&E: What does Part 2 of the exhibition hold in store for the viewer thematically that differentiates the works from Part 1?
HP: One of the focuses in Part 2 is on collage as a way of understanding different realities as with image and text montage (Mark Lewis), images constructed from a collage of photographs, notations, and language (Cheryl Sourkes), sandwiching of found images (Vikky Alexander), spatial installation of fragments (Ian Wallace), and the city seen as a collage of disjunctive spaces (Christos Dikeakos). I would say that in Part 2 meaning is carried more within the image relationships rather than in their making. Questions of representation are treated in different ways. For example, Rodney Graham’s work questions how we apprehend and imagine the very existence of an image. He considers the essential problem of representing nature through a camera apparatus. His Two Generators film which will be screened at Presentation House Theatre during the opening reception so succinctly expresses these ideas. So there are links between the two parts and some artists cross over, but the artists in Part 2 engage more directly with questions of depicting the social, whether generating their own pictures or working from existing ones.
H&E: Thanks so much for all your insights, Helga!