Finding the right way to discuss the show currently on at Satellite Gallery, “Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage 1972-1982” has been difficult. I’ve opted to split my review into two parts, the first part dealing with individual works, the second part offering broader reflections. It seemed reasonable to devote two reviews to this show, as it is clearly a major, multi-party undertaking whose contents require and deserve sustained engagement. Still, this review is much longer than I intended.
First, some background. The Mainstreeters (Kenneth Fletcher, Deborah Fong, Carol Hackett, Marlene MacGregor, Annastacia McDonald, Charles Rea, Jeanette Reinhardt and Paul Wong) were a self-described “art gang” who grew up around Main Street in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. They became friends in high school and, during the decade covered by the exhibit, they were active participants in Vancouver’s art scene. They worked mainly in video and performance. They also led art workshops, hosted “drag balls,” and dabbled in fashion modeling. Paul Wong and Charles Rea went on to have solo careers as artists, while other members pursued other paths.
I’m going to limit my discussion here to four works: “In Ten Sity,” “Murder Research,” “Prime Cuts,” and “4”. These are, in my opinion, the pieces in the show that are most clearly intended as works of art. Much of the content of “Taking Advantage” is more like documentation of the gang, giving us glimpses into what their lives were like. But the dividing line between ‘art’ and ‘ephemera’ is, I admit, not always so clear.
“In Ten Sity”
“In Ten Sity” is a video of a performance staged at the Vancouver Art Gallery on December 3, 1978. The Mainstreeters constructed an 8’x8’x8’ cube with padded walls, each with a small peep-hole and a camera looking in. The performance was recorded on five video channels that have now been compiled into one video (four of the channels have been scaled down and overlaid on the bird’s-eye-view channel). Paul Wong enters the cube and slam dances for 25 minutes to songs by Patti Smith, Sex Pistols, and Avengers. Near the end, people begin throwing objects into the cube, then, several people jump in with Wong and thrash about with him.
“In Ten Sity” is dedicated to Kenneth Fletcher, who had taken his own life earlier that year. The dedication makes the piece difficult to watch and, moreover, difficult to discuss. Expressions of grief do not require or easily abide judgments of taste. In the “Taking Advantage” documentary (available at takingadvantage.ca), Wong becomes visibly restrained when recalling the work. He offers little commentary. He mainly describes the facts—when it happened, what songs played, how big the room was, then he concludes “…and that’s it.”
At the risk of dishonouring grief and memory, I will try to say something about this piece as a work of art. What struck me most was the elaborate set-up, the sheer audacity of building a cube where every gesture might be observed from every angle. The performance itself was, if not quite banal, then at least familiar to anyone who has been to a nightclub or a concert. Wong is ‘guy-dancing-on-the-speaker’ or ‘guy-zoning-out’, the guy so entranced by the music that he forgets himself, loses all self control, and submits himself completely to the music and/or his reckless whim. Dancing as a way of self-forgetting has a long history related to mysticism. The technique is common to shamans, Sufis, or the Ancient Greek Corybantes. But simple self-forgetting doesn’t quite suffice to describe the experience. Self-forgetting is achieved through union with the non-self, a sort of flowing energy that takes the dancer outside of himself, the better to perceive the wholeness of which he is a part. Wong describes it as “going into myself… or out of myself.” Looked at slightly differently, the guy-on-the-speaker feels that all eyes are on him, that his audience is enthralled by his every gesture and notices and understands every subtle decision he (or the music, speaking through him) makes. He and his audience are one. He and they are consciousness itself. His movements ripple outward into them, moving them, just as every cosmic shudder finds its way back into him and through him, making him dance.
Wong in “In Ten Sity” seems to struggle to achieve that state of self-forgetting, largely, I think, because of all the cameras. He seems too much aware of the cameras, playing to the cameras, occasionally addressing them directly (sometimes spitting on them). He seems at pains to record a moment of genuine absorption (to use Michael Fried’s distinction), perpetually thwarted by the inherent theatricality of the performance. Even if Wong did achieve an ecstatic state during the performance, video would not be able to capture it. That being said, I think we can understand the desire to record something raw, genuine, true, or unselfconscious. Particularly in moments of grief, the strangely theatrical character of almost all human activities becomes intolerable. “In Ten Sity” shows us the paradox or dilemma of the “genuine”—the more intensely one seeks it, the greater the risk of theatricality and sham. This double bind may be why people prefer to pass over painful earnestness in silence, and why a piece like “In Ten Sity” seems to harbour something unspeakable.
I was reminded of this passage from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals:
“What really arouses indignation against suffering is not suffering as such but the senselessness of suffering: but neither for the Christian, who has interpreted a whole mysterious machinery of salvation into suffering, nor for the naïve man of more ancient times, who understood all suffering in relation to the spectator of it or the causer of it, was there any such thing as senseless suffering. So as to abolish hidden, undetected, unwitnessed suffering from the world and honestly to deny it, one was in the past virtually compelled to invent gods and genii of all the heights and depths, in short something that roams even in secret, hidden places, sees even in the dark, and will not easily let an interesting painful spectacle pass unnoticed.”
Bearing witness to suffering seems to give it meaning. And the desire to have one’s suffering witnessed is related, in a way, to the fear that one suffers senselessly. Why did this have to happen? What can come of it? What must come of it? More generally, having an audience, or being acknowledged, seems to make one’s actions meaningful. That feeling of oneness sought by the-guy-on-speaker is also a feeling of godliness, of seeing things from a god’s perspective. In this regard, the slight favour given to the bird’s-eye-view video in the compilation is telling. “In Ten Sity” speaks to that ancient compulsion “to invent gods and genii of all the heights and depths”, except that in place of a god, the Mainstreeters built an observation room. Instead of divine spectators, the Mainstreeters had their video cameras. I do not mean to trivialize. The power of a god is not diminished for having been created. Video seems to have been a way for the Mainstreeters (and not only them) to make sense of their lives, and also to imbue their lives with significance and value.
This all-too-human desire to bear witness to suffering and to give suffering a purpose was, I believe, also motivating the piece “Murder Research”. In this body of work, Wong and Fletcher research and document a murder that took place outside of Wong’s apartment on February 26, 1976. Early that morning, Wong and Jeanette Reinhardt, roommates at the time, found the body of Eugene Lloyd Pelly lying dead in the street in the snow. Wong photographed the body and the crime scene as police arrived and removed the corpse. These photographs became part of “Murder Research,” accompanied by texts, as well as a performance, a video, and a book. Speaking to the piece, Wong recalls, “Rather than sitting back and doing nothing, there was an inquiry. And that inquiry was collaborative between Ken and I. We played with file cards… said, you know, keep this piece of information that… in a file. Y’know… we opened a file! And we went about putting things in that file, sorting through those things, trying to construct a narrative out of it.” The impulse seems to have been to resist the senselessness of the murder by telling the story. The alternative—which they found intolerable—was that “nothing” would come of it, that the murder would be lost to memory, one more crime forgotten in a flood of statistics. Indeed, their implicit judgment was that research and documentation (journalism) were not enough. To make the event truly lasting, it would have to be immortalized in a work of art. At the same time, you can see the mistrust they had in any particular medium becoming “immortal”. They tried instead a broader basis—a mixed regime of arts.
There is some indication that the event was traumatic, and that the near-obsessive documentation of it was a kind of Freudian ritual re-enactment of a primal scene (that is, an attempt to come to grips with it, to control it). Here as well, Wong and Fletcher try as much as possible to stick to the facts, yet the video also includes a jazz soundtrack and references to pulp fiction and film noir, aware, no doubt, that they were implicating themselves in the widespread fascination with murder. A similar dilemma seems to be at work as in the earlier piece, on the one hand trying to convey something truly raw and intense, on the other hand coming across as sensationalistic. A text in the “Murder Research” video states, “This research was an emotional experience, visiting the morgue, the coroner’s office, police files and libraries. The further we got, the more we were aware that this case was statistically the most common kind of murder in Canada. We became alarmingly aware of the social injustices inflicted on Native Peoples in North America. We were concerned with the sensationalistic aspects of this research and sought to explore the situation in more sensitive ways. This the videotape [sic] contains the bulk of our research. In addition streamlined version [sic] of this work are available as a book and as a photo-text exhibition in which the facts, quotes, statistics and opinions are edited to maintain a carefully controlled distance.” In this piece, as in “In Ten Sity,” there seems to be a desire to get at the real thing, to uncover the ugly truth, but also an awareness—not fully comprehended—that the real itself can never be re-presented—it must always don a mask. Beneath the sterile exterior there is a sense of frustration, even incredulity, at injustice, not just the injustice of this or that crime, but the accumulation of crimes, the injustice of human existence, the injustice of being forgotten. The very existence of injustice seems unjust, recalling those old theological questions concerning the nature and existence of evil.
There is a lot of anger in this exhibit that may be lost in the party atmosphere of celebrating Vancouver’s art history. That youthful rebellion can look pretty romantic from a safe distance. These works, at least, speak to a pain that was not just teen angst. But how to characterize it? Would it suffice to say that it was something unlivable? Wong, near the end of the documentary, describes reaching a limit, turning back from a dangerous path. “I think it’s interesting that you guys have decided to kind of end in 1982, ‘cus I think I did too. I think the production of “Prime Cuts” was a move into a lighter sense of the work. ‘Cus I think I knew that—or the work like “In Ten Sity” and “4”—there was nowhere else to go, but into a really horrible place. I mean, I think I was quite conscious about that. I was in a difficult place. You know. That road. You know. You know. I didn’t want to go there anymore in that kind of way. I wanted to turn the camera away.”
“Prime Cuts” and “4”
We should be aware of this limit condition as we look to understand the videos “4” (1981) and “Prime Cuts” (1981). The latter video, according to Wong, represented another path, an escape from something that had become unbearable. Wong states, “It was the lifestyle on the other side of the bridge. It was Eric Hamber and beyond. It was in the glossy magazines. It was Bruce Weber’s world. It was GQ. It was Vogue. It was the soap operas on television. It was the yacht magazine ads. It was the car ads. Nothing that I grew up with, in fact. It was the opposite of “4””. I’ve grouped my discussion of “Prime Cuts” together with “4” because the two videos do seem to be opposites. They are structurally similar. For instance, both videos begin by introducing characters with a series of close-up head shots. More broadly, both lack any narrative structure, showing instead vignettes that give us glimpses into the lives of the characters depicted. Both are aimed at depicting a sensibility. Yet the one is frivolous and light, while the other is heavy and wretched.
“4” announces in its final credits, “script based on real experience”. But it’s not quite fair to say that “Prime Cuts” is the fantasy and “4” the reality. “4” seems, rather, a final, desperate, violent attempt to get at the real. Things start off innocently enough. While images of houses and buildings flash on the screen, Wong describes, in rapid succession, who lived where, who moved where, who lived with who, who slept with who. There’s a sense of mobility and adaptability—also instability. Things start to break down in the subsequent scene. What begins as a planning session for the “4” script devolves, as the Mainstreeters become increasingly drunk and are visited by more drunk friends. The dialogue is a cascade of taunts, derision, and abuse. Carol Hackett arrives to the scene fall-down drunk, after driving over from a party downtown. She leaves shortly thereafter, though people are concerned about her state. Then we hear that “Carol fell through Abe’s window” (Abe’s was a nearby second-hand store), which, astonishingly, gives some of the Mainstreeters the idea to steal from Abe’s. Wong seems particularly thrilled by the idea, while Reinhardt seems less enthused, even questioning his “morality”. The scene is edited choppily. At some point we realise the burglary has taken place. Someone cut their foot and spilled blood everywhere. Reinhardt and Wong start hurling drunken insults at each other. Wong throws some liquid into Reinhardt’s face, then storms off, screaming, “I’m gonna fucking strangle her!” Reinhardt is visibly shaken by the ordeal, but her friends don’t seem phased. The scene ends with the girls discussing orgasms and Bonnie taking off her pants.
According to the “Taking Advantage” website, the scene is a “fictionalized re-enactment.” That being said, the ‘actors’ do not appear to be working from a script, and their acting abilities are, in this scene alone, conspicuously improved. They appear to be genuinely drunk and the insults genuinely hurtful. In any case, as a re-enactment of real events, something like it took place. I think it will be a familiar scene to anyone who has lived through alcoholism or family dysfunction.
The next scene is taken from the “4” stage performance. Each of the 4 girls take turns standing on stage, while the voices of the other three describe her. A common theme among all of them is their rebellious indifference. “She don’t take no shit.” “I talked with her on the phone while she was fucking!” “She used to be so quiet.” Then the four girls appear together in a living room, swapping witticisms and insolence. They speak with a strange affectation, like characters on Dynasty.
Cut to a scene of Hackett dancing naked on the beach, while the girls describe fighting off a knife-wielding boyfriend, something to the effect of: “Carol grabbed his hair and threatened to cut off his balls. When the police arrived, he tried to press assault charges. The police just laughed. It was great.” Another voice chimes in, “Actually, it wasn’t great. We had to hide out for a while ‘cus the guy was so crazy.”
Then more shots of Hackett dancing naked to Streisand’s “People”.
In the penultimate scene, the girls discuss their difficulties finding work. They shift, imperceptibly, to discussing their experience touring the “4” stage performance and berate Wong as an “egotistical fascist.” “Some collaboration—he makes all the decisions!” The film ends with the S.S. Girls’ theme song over a series of photographs from punk shows and drag balls.
I’ve described this video at length because I doubt many will watch it in its entirety. The film is over 40 minutes long, and it is playing on a small TV right at the entrance to the exhibit. There is nowhere to sit and watch, and the sound is so low that, even when I was alone in the gallery, I had to strain to hear it. It is as if the curators felt obligated to include the piece but did not want anyone to dwell on it. You literally have to pass it by to see the exhibit. (By contrast, “Prime Cuts” is projected around nine feet across on a wall in the main room, and the sound is so loud you can hear it everywhere.) Their discreetness would be understandable. The contents of “4” are ignominious if not outright incriminating. I will characterize the sensibility of “4” with a word that may strike some as old-fashioned: lawlessness. Burglarizing Abe’s is only the most blatant instance; but laws have a less rigid existence as conventions, and the Mainstreeters seemed intent not only to flout conventions but to aggressively attack them. Conventions as conventions have no substantial reality. They are occasionally arbitrary, occasionally oppressive, but without the necessity that characterizes their opposite number—nature. Returning to my general hypothesis, I think this desire to break with conventions is related to the desire to tear away everything false and artificial, and to get at the gritty stuff. Only here, we discover that there is no hard core, only a downward spiral, a perpetual tearing apart without end. When Aristotle says that human beings are the worst of all animals when separated from Law and Justice he means something like this: only human beings are capable of cruelty and malice, for these things require intelligence and the intention to harm. How we may find ourselves in these vicious cycles is a long question. But at least we know that at some point, for the Mainstreeters, it came to an end. We have now, lastly, to consider that other path forward, namely “Prime Cuts.”
Jane Austin writes in Mansfield Park, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.” This sentiment, I believe, is the one Wong arrived at but circuitously, by experiencing the alternative. He could not simply adopt Austin’s light touch without a sense of irony or parody. Life may be construed as light and frivolous by a conscious omission of the odious, but that does not remove the darkness entirely.
Watching “Prime Cuts” for the first time at the show’s opening, I had the expected reaction. I was repulsed. I was incensed. “Prime Cuts” is a series of vignettes displaying well-dressed, half-dressed, attractive youth enjoying their youth and beauty and their leisure-class pursuits. They dance on the beach, frolic by the poolside, mingle on a patio overlooking the water and the mountains, feast on opulent spreads, sweat together in the gym, shower together, laugh, grope, kiss, and flaunt. It comes across as unbelievably smug and self-satisfied. Standing there in my tweed, clutching my drink, I looked around the gallery, desperate to commiserate with someone over the travesty unfolding before us. No one seemed to notice or care. I saw a few men turn away as if suddenly bored when the sweaty boys on screen got in the shower. Filled with righteous indignation, I returned home and began to describe the “so-called art” to my partner. But by this time, I had seen the exhibit and knew that this was not the reality that the Mainstreeters had lived, and my anger gave way… and I could not stop laughing! “Prime Cuts” is hilarious when seen in the right light—as parody. Wong’s way forward seems to be parody, or, if you prefer, drag. It means adopting those once-hateful Laws and conventions, the better to ridicule them.
I will offer one more pearl of wisdom from Aristotle, then I’m done. In the Poetics, Aristotle traces the origin of tragedy and comedy to the “natures” of the poets. He says that “grander people” preferred to represent fine actions and were attracted to epic and tragedy, while “ordinary people” (the word he uses is φαῦλος, which could plausibly be translated as “common” or “poor”) wrote at first “invectives”. These invectives were later transformed into the laughable, which is “a sort of error and ugliness that is not painful and destructive.” It is not difficult to see that comedy is a kind of respectable insult. Comedy, too, flouts conventions, plays with conventions, unburdens us through laughter, but it is “not painful and destructive”. Put slightly differently, comedy is a way for the common, oppressed people to challenge the rules that are imposed upon them, to insult authority to its face and get away with it. The show, then, ends on a hopeful note: “It gets the giggles, which wipe away its tears”.