Then + Then Again – Practices within an artist-run culture, 1969-2006

Clive Robertson

January 6 to February 5, 2011

Then + Then Again – Practices within an artist-run culture, 1969-2006 is an archival retrospective exhibition curated by media artist and artist-run centre pioneer and theorist, Clive Robertson.

This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to revisit the “how’s” and “why’s” of artist collectives networking within an ever-changing alternative culture and the productivity of intergenerational exchanges. Robertson himself worked as an artist and emerging curator with various members of the 1960s Fluxus movement including Robert Filliou, Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, and Joseph Beuys.

Highlights of this exhibition that successfully toured Ontario and Québec in 2007 include genealogies of the 1970’s Calgary-based performance and publishing collective, W.O.R.K.S.; the cultural journalism activisms of Centerfold/Fuse magazine; curatorial contributions to the start up of Canadian performance and independent video festivals; and new re-editioned CDs from the indie cassette and vinyl Voicespondence label including albums from De Dub Poets, The Government, the Gayap Rhythm Drummers, Clive Robertson, and Nerve Theory.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

“Other people just aren’t going to do this work,” answered Clive Robertson when asked why he chose to keep and publicly present evidence of 40 years of artist-run culture in Canada. His answer speaks to the do-it-yourself mentality that is the lifeblood of artist-run centres: “You start a space, and then … there’s nobody writing about it, so you start a magazine, and … [your practice expands and] you’re making videotapes, and then you start a distribution centre, and it goes on and on and on … Up to and including planning and building a retirement home for artists. It just never stops …” [1]

And it hasn’t stopped.

Then + Then Again is Robertson’s retrospective of his work in and with artist-run culture in Canada. Robertson—an artist and educator, among other roles—has lived the history of artist-run culture, making it difficult to distinguish between the person and the larger movement of artists organizing and advocating for themselves. Although accurately described by Vera Frenkel as a “catalyst,” and even credited with coining the term “artist-run centre,” Robertson remains aware of the problems that accompany a self-generated exhibition: “Inasmuch as the project could be misread as creating a self-history I was and am concerned … This all said, a key question that informs much of my work is how is art spoken for, and who or what does the speaking?” [2]

First exhibited in 2007, the show—which is modified for each different venue—has some poignant connections to Calgary. Robertson moved to the city in 1971, where he cofounded the magazine Centerfold (now Fuse) and started his Voicepondence audio label. It is also where Robertson had one of his first Canadian shows, which featured documentation of the performance and audio works he completed as part of his MFA. Then + Then Again takes much the same format as his show of some 40 years earlier, with the materials of a lived history mounted on the walls.

With four decades of experience in artist-run culture, how does Robertson see the future of these organizations? He talks about the possibilities of temporary spaces, about entrepreneurship, and about reinventing infrastructure to best fit contemporary needs. He talks about how community arts organizations existed long before the formalization of public funding through bodies such as the Canada Council, and will continue to exist, in some form or another. Then, with his trademark degree of self-criticality, he smiles, shrugs, and adds, “I don’t know … I don’t know what should happen … It has to fit the time in which people feel the need to share resources and the need to access them.” [3]

– Johanna Plant

Notes

[1] Clive Robertson, in discussion with the author, December 7, 2010.

[2] Clive Robertson, quoted in Vera Frenkel, “Then + Then Again: Talking with Clive Robertson About Artist-Run Culture,” Fuse 30, no. 3 (2007): 30-31.

[3] Robertson, discussion, December 7, 2010.

Audio: Johanna Plant’s complete interview with Clive Robertson.

Biographies

Clive Robertson is a media artist, cultural critic and publisher who first emigrated to Traynor, Saskatchewan in 1957. Completing an art college education in Plymouth, Liverpool and Cardiff and at the University of Reading (UK), Robertson re-emigrated to Calgary in 1971 and has subsequently lived and worked in Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal and Kingston. His recent book, Policy Matters – Administrations of Art and Culture was published by YYZ Books, Toronto in 2006. He is the co-editor with Alain-Martin Richard of Performance art in/au Canada 1970-1990, Éditions Intervention, 1991. Clive Robertson currently teaches contemporary art history, cultural policy and performance studies at Queen’s University.

Johanna Plant is a Calgary-based art historian living in Kingston while studying artist-run centres under the supervision of Clive Robertson.