Tuesday 09/03

From the Art Spaces Online Directory: Talking with Western Front’s Caitlin Jones

by Lauren Cornell, Curator, 2015 Triennial, Digital Projects, and Museum as Hub, tagged with Art Spaces Directory, The Western Front
Cover Image:

From left: Reece Terris, The Western Front Front: Another False Front, 2010. Architectural installation: wood, steel, paint, 8 × 54 × 6 ft (2.4 × 16.5 × 1.8 m). Photo: Courtesy the artist. The Western Front at purchase, 1973. Photo: Courtesy the Western Front113

Founded in 1973 as a live/work alternative space dedicated to “non-objective art practices,” including performance, poetry, video, dance, and all manner of interdisciplinary experimentation, the Western Front in Vancouver has, for decades, been one of the leading centers for contemporary art in Canada. Until 2009, when the board appointed curator Caitlin Jones as its first Executive Director, the organization was collectively run—a style of governance that reflected the ethos of its early days when eight founding artists collaboratively facilitated new artworks by their peers and offered informal residencies. Throughout its history, the Front has grown, accumulating an archive that now serves as a public resource, adding proper exhibition spaces, and siphoning its dance program off into an adjacent, independent space called EDAM Dance, all while retaining an emphasis on time-based and emergent art forms.

I reached out to Jones to discuss the Front for Six Degrees since the organization’s history makes for an illuminating case study in an evolving map of international art spaces that the New Museum’s online publication seeks to support. Our conversation focuses on her stewardship of the organization, specifically her balance of its radical founding mission and program with the issues—be they artistic, curatorial, or financial—that inspire the staff’s curatorial work today.

Jones previously worked at the Guggenheim, with a specialty in the exhibition and conservation of media art. Our interests have often dovetailed; as the former director of the New Museum affiliate Rhizome, I am fascinated by the many lives a single organization can cycle through, a tendency discussed by Jones below and shared by most alternative spaces that endeavor to maintain relevance and sustainability in shifting cultural and economic climates.

LAUREN CORNELL: You’ve been the Executive Director of the Front for nearly four years now. New directors are often charged with honoring an organization’s founding mission while simultaneously taking it into a new phase. This challenge was something I thought deeply about when I became Executive Director of Rhizome in 2005. So I’d like to start off by discussing your programming there in light of the institution’s legacy. What was it like to take the post and how have you worked through the organization’s history while developing your own program?

CAITLIN JONES: To answer your first question, “What was it like?,” I would say daunting—but also incredibly exciting. I was coming to work at this legendary institution that was Fluxus-based, interdisciplinary, with a gallery, as well as heavy media arts and new music components. It was a dream come true.

As for the legacy issue you raise, it is strangely amplified by our physical space: Our building was formerly a lodge hall of the Knights of Pythias, an old fraternal service organization similar to the Shriners or the Odd Fellows, which makes the space that we work in unique and a bit mysterious. Built in 1922, the building has many rooms that house offices, studio spaces, two performance spaces, a gallery space, and two residential quarters. There are strange peepholes throughout, vestiges of a time when there must have been certain passwords to gain entry to different rooms, and there’s even a former coffin storage area on the ground floor. The façade is a Western-style false front, which is partially where our name came from (the organization’s name was also an allusion to its position as a far west outpost of an international avant-garde). Programming has, in many ways, grown out of this peculiar structure. Also unique is that two of the artists associated with the Front during its early days, Eric Metcalfe and Hank Bull, are still part owners of the building and live in it, so this keeps our origin story very much in the present.

One of the results of our particular situation is that when people write about or refer to the Front, it is almost always in regards to our early history. This is a testament to how prescient the founders were, but has also been a challenge for curators and artists who have worked here ever since then. Our Media Arts Curator, Sarah Todd, referred to the Front recently as a haunted house—not necessarily in a negative way, but maybe referring more to the adrenaline-fueled way in which you always have to look behind you in order to push forward.

LC: It seems that artists often get pinned to the decades in which they emerged and institutions get held accountable to the ideals and ethos of their founding moment. How do you work to expand the perception of the Front and keep it an artist-centered institution?

CJ: As much as the Front’s history presents a curatorial challenge, it’s also an incredible gift and it’s interesting to see how, in almost everything we do, you can follow a thread back to the beginnings of the organization. In the early years, the Front hosted large home-cooked dinners in the dining hall that is now our gallery space. There was also a custom bar that became a social center, not just for Front artists but a broader community as well. In this way, the Front can really be seen as a precursor to the relational and social practices that are a major thrust in contemporary art practice now.

Playing on this connection, last year I curated “Feeling So Much but Doing So Little,” an exhibition of the collective Instant Coffee to coincide with their eleventh anniversary. Instant Coffee is known for a particular brand of aggressive social practice: With slogans like “Get Social or Get Lost,” they manage to simultaneously celebrate and be critical of social practice. For the show, they completely took over our space to host their own curatorial talks, wood whittling workshops, a book club, plus lots of drinking and spaghetti dinners. Their takeover paid homage to our legendary past, but also reframed the Front as an institution to be questioned.

“Instant Coffee: Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little,” 2012. Exhibition view: The Western Front. Photo: Courtesy the Western Front

LC: This constant questioning and reinvention is often essential for the longevity of nonprofit art spaces. Continually criticizing their programs is a way of working against the possibility of ossifying around parts of their original mission that may no longer be tenable, or becoming “the art world” they were founded to critique. Does this process ring true with the Front?

CJ: That’s exactly why I felt that Instant Coffee’s occupation of our space was so important. The Front is no longer the freewheeling, live/work space that it used to be, but, rather, an institution to be challenged. Now we have a large budget, a big staff, liability insurance, etc.—we even show painting and sculpture!

When I first arrived, people were pretty wary of me. Not me personally (although maybe), but me as an outsider and as the first Executive Director—I heard the word “professionalization” thrown around a lot, and not in a good way. There was the sense that my presence marked a very significant shift in the way people saw the Front and the way the Front saw itself. So I think it’s really important to ask these questions.

There are many venerable spaces in the US that have had to re-examine what their role is in relation to dominant or for-profit cultural spaces and the same is definitely true in Vancouver. In British Columbia, we are part of Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres (PAARC), which includes a range of art organizations, including more established artist-run centers, like ourselves, as well as younger, smaller organizations. In addition to advocacy, for funding mostly, there is ongoing consideration within PAARC about the role of artist-run culture in our city, how it functions, and why it’s important. There was a really interesting conversation about precisely these questions (perhaps argument might be a better word) in the Vancouver-based publication Fillip. Over the course of a few issues they considered: How do artist-run spaces respond to a changing contemporary art world, one we are no longer necessarily in resistance to, but an integral part of? Who is our community? Who is our audience? Does professionalization and institutionalization necessarily equal philosophical compromise?

LC: I know that the French Fluxist artist Robert Filliou was also a longtime friend of the Front and I often think about his conception of “the eternal network”: The idea of a sovereign, interconnected network of artists around the world resonates with the ways artist communities form today. Can you talk a bit about his involvement and his work at the Front?

From left: Michael Goldberg, Glenn Lewis, Robert Filliou, and Paul Wong on sidewalk in Vancouver, 1975. Photo: Courtesy the Western Front

CJ: The spirit of Filliou looms large here. He first visited in 1973, but then returned many times as an artist-in-residence, making a lot of video work here including Telepathic Music no. 7, Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts, Part II, and others (all of which are in our archive). His early involvement brought us international attention but his conception of the eternal network also serves as kind of a founding principle for the Front. As you mentioned, this network, according to Filliou, was not attached to any established or institutional art world or avant-garde, but rather described open connections between artists within a broader international cultural ecology. So when you’re an artist living in Vancouver in the late ’60s, early ’70s—pretty far away from Paris or New York—this notion of connectivity is extremely attractive. Your practice becomes aligned with a network of like-minded artists linked through mail art, video distribution programs, publications like General Idea’s FILE, and others.

LC: The idea of an independent artist network was also proposed and hashed out by the first artists to work with the web in the ’90s. They saw the possibilities of an open, networked format as allowing them to get away from entrenched art world institutions or “gatekeepers.” This is a period we both were involved with preserving and documenting when we met in 2005.

To go back, I believe we first worked together around “Net Aesthetics,” a panel I organized at Electronic Arts Intermix in 2005, which intended to convene key curators (like you and Michael Connor) and artists (like Cory Arcangel, Marisa Olson, Michael Bell-Smith, and Wolfgang Staehle) to discuss how social media was impacting the tradition of internet art. Something I felt we always had in common was an interest in contesting the term “new media art” and redefining its boundaries, as well as seeking to historicize emerging media work. I’m curious how you’ve carried this interest over to your work at the Front?

CJ: Media art has always been a huge part of the Front so my background has not been at all out of the ordinary here. The focus on media has partly been because of Filliou’s notion of the network, but also because of the way funding structures operated during the early years. Grant money was available for video equipment, and the Front capitalized on this by purchasing a lot of equipment—we had one of the earliest Portapaks (still do!). That’s not the only reason of course, working with media aligned clearly with the dematerialized ethos of the time and, so, from the very beginning we were a video production space and we created video and audio documentation of almost all of the performances.

But as I mention, Filliou’s eternal network found a direct articulation through much of the work at the Front. First in mail art systems of the early ’70s, which later begat experimentation with telematic work using slow-scan TV, faxes, and video phones. We have a publication, Art + Telecommunication, that outlines this fascinating period. And then, even though the Front shared one email account until the late ’90s, artists and curators were looking to the web as early as 1996. Our New Music program, in addition to the program’s range of contemporary music practices, has been a center for electronic music for almost forty years. Laurie Anderson, Gordon Monahan, and Christian Fennesz performed here—it’s been a major programming stream.

Western Front Cofounder Kate Craig in front of the Western Front, 1974. Photo: Courtesy the Western Front

An interesting aside to this media history is that there were a lot of women working with media here. A cofounder, Kate Craig, made some of the Front’s most famous video works and was camera operator for a majority of the performances in the early days. Another artist, Elizabeth Vander Zaag, made some incredible and early digital animations, and there were many other women working here with technology. Again, our origin story, at least the one that gets repeated, is pretty dude-heavy, so it’s good for us to tease out these other narratives.

Since I’ve gotten here, and in particular since Sarah Todd became a curator, there definitely has been a renewed focus on the internet and internet-based practices. Some of the first artists I invited here were Aleksandra Domanović and Oliver Laric. Last year we hosted a big conference called “Pro-Am: Art and Culture on the Internet,” which looked at how artists use the internet as a tool, as a platform, as inspiration, and as a network. This was presented in conjunction with Sarah Todd’s show “IRL” and had work from Domanović and Laric, as well as Olia Lialina, Dragan Espenschied, Nicolas Sassoon, Sara Ludy, and Sylvain Sailly. These projects exemplify the historical trajectory of the Front in a way that is true to our current vision of the Front now.

LC: To go back to this question of networks, the ones we described above had a newfound desire to be global, but in recent years, particularly now that international collaboration is often a given, we see artists, curators, and institutions limiting their networks in provocative ways. As part of the recent Museum as Hub conference, we had a conversation organized around the term “strategic regionalism,” or the idea of how cultural organizations might be able to curtail the broad goal of being globally “international” as an institution by strategically “choosing our neighbors.” This might be through temporary relationships around particular histories, instead of ones defined geographically. That discussion inspired me to think through New York’s own regionalism and how that might be defined. How does the Front relate to the city of Vancouver and the larger international context? Are there particular organizations you have made a strong connection with in Canada or outside of it?

CJ: One reading of “strategic regionalism” as a concept can be located in Canada’s artist-run center model—especially early on in its development. AA Bronson, in his 1983 essay “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists,” refers to the “connective tissue” that held artists and artist-run institutions together in mutable but strategic ways. For Bronson, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, “a pattern of cultural convulsions, personality cat-and-dog fights, occasional collaborations, and multitudinous fragmented relationships” developed across the country. These strategic collaborations, between institutions and between institutions and government (in the Canada Council), were essential to the development of a Canadian alternative “scene,” which was unique from mainstream Canadian institutions and the dominant American art scene to the South.

There is a practical side to the regionalism question and that is, as always, funding. The amount of money we are able to raise directly correlates to the number of international artists we can bring to the Front, and that’s not always a bad thing. Budget limitations hamper our ability to work “globally,” but as a result, we collaborate in interesting ways with arts organizations, community groups, and educational institutions that are geographically closer. But again, because the national connection is so deeply engrained, as an institution we’ve also made a conscious decision to try and bring more artists from outside Canada to the Front. This is why the eternal network, as manifest by the internet, has emerged as an important platform for us. For example, as part of the Pro-Am conference, we were able to have Arcangel here a few months ago to do a performance and he didn’t even have to leave his own living room.

Cory Arcangel, Untitled, 2012. Performance at the Western Front: “Pro-Am: Art and Culture on the Internet.” Photo: Courtesy the Western Front

LC: What are you looking forward to at the Front this year?

CJ: All of our departments have great programs coming up in the next few months: There’s an exhibition by French artist Sylvain Sailly, a talk by graphic designers and theorists Will Holder and Kaisa Lassinario, and a conference about the enduring legacy of Fluxus practices on contemporary music. Myself specifically, I’m excited about a project that deals with the role of the arts in urban development and the importance of community consultation in our built environment. This came about due to our proximity to a controversial high-rise tower (which is kitty-corner to our building). The Front, along with two other artist-run organizations, 221A and Other Sights, are collaborating on a number of projects that try to imagine alternative ways to develop a livable city. Rather than always being forced into a reactionary position vis-à-vis developers, we’re hoping to flip this model on its head and force developers and city planners to react to artist and community lead proposals for urban development. It’s thrilling to immerse myself in a topic that’s so new to me and I’m really excited to move forward with it.

LC: Thanks Caitlin…

Additional Materials

A two-part essay on the history of the Western Front by Liz Park:

The discussion that Caitlin referenced on the role of artist-run culture in Vancouver that occurred across several issues of Fillip in 2010-11:
Artist-Run Centres in Vancouver: A Reflection on Three Texts R
Upon Further Reflection R
Responses to ‘On Further Reflection’ R

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