When bric-a-brac was part of a revolutionary politics

Artists Gregg Simpson and Al Neil and others, photo by Michael de Courcy

Vancouver curator Scott Watson’s essay Urban Renewal: Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos and Squats is part of the impressive and totally compelling Vancouver Art in the Sixties website project. It’s a well-organized archive of Vancouver’s 1960s art production and it’s far too large a topic for one post. What I found immediately interesting though was Watson’s historical contextualization of residential architecture and interior aesthetics in the 60s, especially its turn away from modernist minimalism and toward more baroque historical styles. He suggests that the Edwardian bric-a-brac and Art Nouveau styles that were adopted by Vancouver’s arts and hippie communities in the 60s were a reaction against the City of Vancouver’s move to demolish the crumbling inner-city Edwardian houses, which housed its art and social protest, and replace them with corporate architectural brutalism and strata-controlled condos. This was no doubt replayed in cities all across North America. Watson’s essay is particularly interesting in light of the current revival of Edwardian/Victorian granny chic in interior design and craft. It seems to me this is revival without any politics, but I could be wrong. In many cases it seems the farthest thing from radical, however you understand that word, but it could also be an echo of a similar problem in urban planning. Photo above by Michael de Courcy shows a screening on December 31, 1969 of a collaborative video at Vancouver’s Intermedia art centre.

The following are excerpts from Watson’s essay (click the link at top for the whole text).

“At the advent of what we now call postmodernism, the doomed Edwardian building inventory that provided bohemia’s living, studio and event spaces also provided an aesthetic opposed to Brutalism, the heavy concrete fortress style of public buildings that had arisen in response to the riots and demonstrations of the 60s. Late Victorian and Edwardian furniture and bric-a-brac furnished communal houses. In these spaces Art Nouveau was revived and deployed to advertise concerts and events. Rejection of the “brutality of the new” was, in essence, a very real concern about the disappearance of places to live, eat, congregate, exhibit and perform. In defnse of a crumbling inventory of modest, poorly built pioneer-era wooden and brick structures, the art community of the day rejected not only the Brutalist idioms of the 1960s and 1970s, but the gentler suburban modernism of the 1940s and 1950s. Or to be more precise, the authoritarian, normalizing, “design for living” modernism, with its unarticulated suppression of libidinal circulation, was an anathema for the generation of the 1960s and 1970s. The hippie movement as appropriated by fashion and popular music adopted Edwardian and Art Nouveau as its style of protest and renunciation of consumer/spectacle society.” [This excerpt was the last paragraph of several excerpts below. Click for more.]

Doors poster by Bob Masse, Vancouver, 1967Art Nouveau-influenced Doors poster by Bob Masse, Vancouver, 1967. Below, Bob Masse, William Tell & the Marksmen Great White Light, Vancouver, 1960s.

Bob Masse Poster, William Tell & the Marksmen Great White Light, Vancouver, 1960s

Will your home be next? Poster by Don Gutstein, poster, Vancouver, 1975Will your home be next? Poster by Don Gutstein, poster, Vancouver, 1975

“Vancouver has been periodically mythologized as the leading art scene in Canada. In the 1950s, abstract painting derived from British and European (more than from American, as one might have expected) examples along with the establishment of a Los Angeles-influenced West Coast modernist architecture inspired some enthusiastic observers to declare a “renaissance.”  Art travellers, largely commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada, discovered a small coterie of artists, architects, musicians, and teachers who had plunged themselves in to twentieth-century aesthetics. But in an international or even national context, one would have to admit that the advent of modernity in domestic architecture was very late in arriving in Vancouver. The first post and beam homes with flat rather than gabled roofs were built in 1939, just on the eve of the war that forestalled any further such development until the late 1940s. From that time until the early 1960s, modernism seemed to flourish. Most of the city’s painters (we are talking of about 20 people) lived in architect-designed suburban homes [see here]. While it is unusual to to think of the work of these painters as involved with nature and the motifs of forest, mountain, ocean and atmospheric efect, utopian and dystopian images of the city abounded in their work. Although often described as basing their abstractions in the landscape, a strong figurative and expressive current is found in their work. It is as though they imagined a city that was yet to come into being. The second “renaissance” was in the 1960s, and the third began in the 1980s.

….

From the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, there was not a great deal being built in the downtown and inner neighbourhoods of Vancouver…. The artistic flight to the suburbs that occurred after the war was part of that economic picture and indeed a symptom of the “problem.” The suburbs were expanding, and the city’s tax base was languishing. Vancouver was subject to the global trends of capitalism and especially those that affect port cities. In the 1960s almost every major city in the capitalist world saw enormous demolition, reconstruction projects. .. This urban transformation at once spoke of changes in how capitalism worked and in how, to use Henri Lefebvre’s term, the “production of space” revealed the inroganic abstractions of capitalism in the deep excavations and walls of grids and glass of the new downtown cores. On a more quotidian leve, these changes undermined and eventually destroyed the infrastructure of avant-garde art and and the other undergrounds that intersected art productino. The transformation of the city is also a major subject of avant-garde work, as if by witnessing the death of so manys trangs of the urban texture, art witnessed its own death or the death of its bohemian lifestyle and revolutionary ambition.

By the late 1960s, the large Victorian and Edwardian building stock that existed on almost every street in the city had deteriorated, much of it held by offshore interests. It was in such locations that one found [many of the key experimental art centres]… Old vaudeville theatres housed performance art, while artists lived in old urban houses, unlike their elders – the generation of modernists who lived in suburban post and beam houses. The older building stock was conveniently cheap and not in demand from other users. But it stood for values. It was excoriated by modernist planners who declared it “illiterate.” Thus, the older buildings, especially houses, stood for improvised communal living in buildings constructed before the war; development stood for “planning” and hte organization of daily life by the state. Schemes began to float to reconstruct the downtown and inner neighbourhoods. Many of these were blocked by citizen activism. The battles were ferocious, pitting developer politicians and their access to police force against squatters, hippies, rioters, and an emerging militancy among ethnic groups. Even with such victories, the city lost a large inventory of Edwardian buildings, and transformation from Edwardian outpost of Empire to what Jeff Wall has called “the generic city” began in earnest. The inexorability of this appearance of the generic city occupied the interest of some artists; other artists focused on the signs of resistance to this phenomenon.

At the advent of what we now call postmodernism, the doomed Edwardian building inventory that provided bohemia’s living, studio and event spaces also provided an aesthetic opposed to Brutalism, the heavy concrete fortress style of public buildings that had arisen in response to the riots and demonstrations of the 60s. Late Victorian and Edwardian furniture and bric-a-brac furnished communal houses. In these spaces Art Nouveau was revived and deployed to advertise concerts and events. Rejection of the “brutality of the new” was, in essence, a very real concern about the disappearance of places to live, eat, congregate, exhibit and perform. In defnse of a crumbling inventory of modest, poorly built pioneer-era wooden and brick structures, the art community of the day rejected not only the Brutalist idioms of the 1960s and 1970s, but the gentler suburban modernism of the 1940s and 1950s. Or to be more precise, the authoritarian, normalizing, “design for living” modernism, with its unarticulated suppression of libidinal circulation, was an anathema for the generation of the 1960s and 1970s. The hippie movement as appropriated by fashion and popular music adopted Edwardian and Art Nouveau as its style of protest and renunciation of consumer/spectacle society.

– From Scott Watson, “Urban Renewal: Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos and Squats.” Read the rest of this excellent essay here.

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One Response to “When bric-a-brac was part of a revolutionary politics”

  1. ii-ne-kore Says:

    as ever, a really informative and interesting post. thanks.

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