HICK VS SLICK
[This review of Bill MacGillivray's I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, an 82-minute colour film distributed by Atlantic Independent Media, first appeared in Vancouver's Vanguard magazine, 17:6, Dec./Jan.,1989]
I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art is filmmaker Bill MacGillivray's way of marking the centenary of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The NSCAD faculty chose to celebrate their School's anniversary in 1987 with picket-line struggles for unionization and better pay. What began in the late sixties as Garry Neill Kennedy's admittedly contradictory idea about an art college institutionalizing constant change, came full circle in this strike by NSCAD's Faculty Union, which opposed and opposes constant change of staff (one ex-NSCAD administrator privately calls the recently-created FUNSCAD a "yuppie" union encouraging fine art students to think that there are jobs waiting for them in the art world).
Early on, the film insinuates an idea about local down-to-earth art practice, represented by artists like Dorothy Ellis-Jackson (an anatomy teacher fired by Kennedy in 1968), which opposed (and continues to oppose?) an "American" avant-garde take-over. In an interview, ex-Nova Scotian artist and NSCAD alumnus Ian Murray defends the school against accusations of colonialism. Despite Murray's clarification, the film seems to ride on an undercurrent of mistrust for contemporary artists and practice as if the stuff were a virus from outer space. Through films and video clips, and excerpts from more recent events like the last Documenta, Boring Art's attitude seems to be mildly xenophobic, even at times philistine in its quick takes on art world flakes and odd-balls.
MacGillivray follows a culture of impressive names through turbulent years (late sixties to early eighties) at NSCAD. The film introduces, interviews, or makes reference to: Joseph Beuys, Michael Snow, David Askevold, Dan Graham, Krysztof Wodiczko, Joseph Kosuth, Les Levine, Eric Fischl, Dara Birnbaum, Robert Frank, etc. etc. etc. - all of whom visited, studied. Or taught at the school. Many of these artists were able to exhibit or even make work like a print or video tape while at the college: Joyce Weiland chose to make a print, Claes Oldenberg's project turned into a book; Dan Graham made historically important video tapes. The involvement was novel and the visiting artists' participation made it unique. Visitors did not pass so quickly as at other art colleges; they stuck around long enough to get a little work done, or perhaps have their first solo exhibition.
There are many amusing moments in this film - a video clip of a younger Joseph Kosuth in sunglasses, chewing gum and babbling about art like a teenager on acid. (For kicks, read Kosuth's "Art after Philosophy" after you've seen the film.) Receiving an honourary degree, Joseph Beuys begins an acceptance speech after thanking almost everything: "I endeavour not to throw the dollop of fat on the table." Richard Demarco, Scottish art impresario, rambles hysterically about NSCAD's "one brief shining moment". David Askevold's description of one of the projects carried out by his 1973 Projects class is amusing in another way: Douglas Huebler proposed that students set up an imaginary art school in East Dover, a nearby fishing village. Ads were taken out in Artforum, with famous faculty members listed. Frank Stella's lawyer followed up the ad with a threatening letter.
Sometimes the film seems not to take humour seriously. MacGillivray mixes up goofy shenanigans with serious sixties art, incongruously at times. Situations which grew out of Askevold's Projects class developed a pedagogical method that got artists together with students to make work. John Baldessari's piece I will not make any more boring art, the film's namesake, was originally a proposal for a show at the Mezzanine Gallery. The installation was produced by students with instructions for writing the sentence over and over on gallery walls. The circulation of a work through stages and participants dovetailed with late-sixties thinking about the distribution and fabrication of art.
Unposed questions simmer as the lives of successful artists flit across the screen. Why have things tightened up so much in the art world? The atmosphere at the college during the Boring Art years was anything but jovial, but the seriousness was tempered by an attitude of acceptance of non-traditional media and new ideas. Why do Garry Kennedy and Les Levine (for different reasons) characterize NSCAD's heroic years and administration as being "conservative"? The characterization is false.
Many of the artists profiled deserve attention, but at what price? Some of the unspoken resentment of MacGillivray's look at the college may be simple frustration at having to pay attention to art stars who seem so remote. Because the art-world is so little known outside its own circles, Boring Art must spend most of its time speaking about Joseph Beuys et al, or else (film backers must believe) its potential audience will be severely limited.
Left out of the patchwork of sixties survivors is the daily life of an art institution, the boring truth of the film's subject. This daily life is not often very interesting. Gerald Ferguson, Garry Kennedy's colleague/key-player at NSCAD (who refused to be interviewed on camera for the film) tells me flatly that the film focuses on "extracurricular'" activity by (at the time) peripheral art figures. This work happened at night and on weekends. Meanwhile, ordinary art college activities droned along.
MacGillivray could not have included everything in his film, and video/film works are obviously going to be easier to include than illustrations of paintings (evidenced in the Eric Fischl interview conducted in front of one of his paintings at Documenta: grainy student video tape excerpts are easier to experience.) Daniel Buren, Martha Rosler, Alan Sekula, Benjamin Buchloh, Charlotte Townsend, and, most glaringly, Gerald Ferguson, were absent or quickly passed over, affirming an idea a viewer might have been nurturing about the film's off-hand treatment of NSCAD characters: none of these people could have been portrayed as flakes.
MacGillivray's previous film Night Classes, a fictional account of a young Cape Breton mother's introduction to art school (NSCAD) life, can be seen as a visual pendant to Boring Art. In both films MacGillivray is ambivalent about his alma mater. NSCAD is the art world in Nova Scotia: nobody has made significant art here who does not have some connection to the college (Alex Colville perhaps?). MacGillivray knows this, but perhaps feels that his generation of artists, as Nova Scotia's first home-grown cosmopolitans, wilt in the shadow of NSCAD's past. Nonsense. The hick-versus-slick art college dichotomy hinted at in these films is an unnecessary expression of insecurity. MacGillivray's sentiment is understandable, but he shouldn't let his intimidation show.