Posted September 26, 2007 by John Menick
© Mario Garcia Torres. What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax, 2004-2006.
Courtesy Jan Mot, Brussels.
In certain circles, the visual arts program of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax, Canada achieved a near-mythic status. Not unlike 1920s Frankfurt for students of cultural studies or 1960s Berkley for the American left, NSCAD’s 1960s and 1970s program is known by generations of artists for the works it produced and for the pedagogical community it fostered. To list the school’s visual arts faculty from the period is to name-check a lengthy list of postwar international artists — Robert Barry, Joseph Beuys, John Baldessari, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenburg only begin a partial list. The school’s press, begun by curator Kasper König, published close to thirty books, each contributing inestimably to our understanding of North American postwar art.
One course in particular, David Askevold’s Project Class, greatly added to the school’s reputation. For the class, Askevold asked several artists to send instructional works to the students in order for them to produce a collective work within the given parameters. Many artists from across North America and Europe contributed proposals, including the New Jersey-based Conceptualist, Robert Barry. His work, Telexed to the school in the fall of 1969, asked the students to decide upon a “shared idea” that would be kept secret from Askevold and Barry. As Barry wrote: “The piece will remain in existence as long as the idea remains in the confines of the group.”
Like many conceptual works from the period, the Barry project’s documentation is scarce and any follow-up is scarcer. A number of questions are begged: Did the students participate in the work? If so, were they successful in keeping the idea from the teacher and the artist? More generally, and perhaps more crucially, how did they feel about a class so obviously devoted to erasing their own authorship and replacing it with a number of artists who were enjoying increasing success in the contemporary art scene?
Close to forty years later, Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres became interested in the work’s incomplete storyline. In 2004, he set about trying to track down what effect this work had on the students of the 1969, and his research culminated in the work What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax. The work, a reunion of the 1969 Project Class as well as an installation of 35mm slides and text, was created on the occasion of the IX Baltic Triennial, and showed most recently at the Venice Biennale. Recently, I was able to speak to Mario about this work via email.
John Menick: How did you first learn about the Barry piece? What made you select that work, as opposed to other social and conceptual works from the period?
Mario Garcia Torres: I first learned about the piece from the gallerist Jan Mot. He casually mentioned it to me because I had done a few works that were somehow related. Like the Barry piece, my project also lacked a preconceived conclusion, and was based on not knowing (or seeing) what the finished work was going to be. I didn’t know about Barry’s piece, I guess it’s rather obscure. For some time, I wondered if the secret existed, and, if so, what happened to it. That’s why I started trying to locate the students who were present in the class. In a way, I didn’t really choose to make a project about the Barry piece until later. I was also really doubtful at the time whether doing research about something so unknown, and about which you are not allowed to ask, could have a publicly presentable form.
Your doubt seems to be an intended byproduct of Barry’s work. His piece is obscure — not just as a little-known work in art history, but also because the students’ idea is impervious to historical research. Do you think obscurity was a way for Barry to frustrate historicization?
I guess he was indeed interested in re-thinking the art object, and in that way he probably saw his work as an everyday negotiation. He probably did not intend the piece to be written down, at least in a linear and genealogical way. That was one of the most interesting things for me while researching the piece: how to think and talk about a series of connections and subjectivities that all together might illustrate the actual work. Later on, when I went to the class reunion of the students and Askevold, I found it impossible to speak about this one piece in isolation, because most of the students’ memories were linked to other activities and persons. This piece was not the one they remembered the most, because Barry was not at the school then. During those days Barry was producing a series of works that had a certain amount of definition without showing or giving away the actual subject of the work. I think this is what makes this piece so interesting: to be on one hand a very concrete work, but on the other, to have an incredible amount of variability.
Several times in your correspondence with the classmates you referred to yourself (somewhat facetiously) as a “detective.” At other times you work more as a historian, then as a social connector, and, ultimately, as an artist. How do you see yourself in relation to Barry’s work? How did you negotiate these different roles?
When I started contacting people, I figured out some of the information I was getting did not coincide. I also found some people were not really willing to give information out. That is why at one point I mentioned feeling I was doing some sort of detective job. I was trying, at the time, to match up pieces of information from here and there. At one point I thought maybe there was something even darker to the story that nobody wanted to say.
In one way, yes, I am interested in history, and in rethinking the construction of history. But in another way, I knew I wanted to go first to the people who were actually an essential part of the piece in order to discover what they specifically remembered about it. I was also interested in discovering what lasted over the years and why. I guess from that perspective the Barry piece is incredibly interesting. To respond more directly to your last question, I think he did not intend to frustrate historicization, but he managed to configure a set of parameters that gave the piece larger resonance and greater ambiguity.
I hope my approach to the matter could be seen as a critique of the way history, and art history specifically, is constructed. I often found that while reading about historical works the information is superficial, and then that information is just passed on from text to text. I guess historians sometimes are more concerned with projecting a thesis on the work and creating some sort of genealogy, rather than thinking about the impact it has on the people who might be in close relation to the work.
Now, I want to say, I am not intending to write history. I am trying to call attention to some interesting marginal stories that I think could be relevant today, but I don’t want this piece in specific to be read as a definitive account of the work. I guess my project could be seen as an account of Barry’s piece today. Maybe if somebody were still interested in Barry’s work in 20 years, it would be a different story from the one in my work. Hopefully it will. That is why I finish my presentation by saying that the story I told is the one of my research, not the one of the piece, and that there might be others, the ones “I was looking for.” In that regard, I feel like my piece is not necessarily about Barry, about Barry’s work – at least it does not intend to create links between his works or analyze his context, etc. It is a story about the group of people that happened to be part of a work of art.
Although your work seems to be more about the classmates, and not the artist and his work, was there ever an attempt to contact Barry during the research? If not, would you be interested in doing so now?
Yes. I did contact Barry, but later on in the research. It was actually quite a strange situation, since during the time I was exchanging letters and emails with the students and Askevold, I think Barry sort of knew somebody was doing this – or I want to believe so. I was in contact with people who where talking to him, and indirectly I got some clues from him that allowed me to bring in new issues to the work. Barry was the one that mentioned that there had been a problem with the piece; that it was not carried out properly; and that was what led Askevold to confess he had bugged the conversation. When I finally spoke to him, I basically asked him questions regarding how he saw the aftermath of the piece and if that was relevant at all to the work itself today. I knew he kept showing the piece as an instruction, even though he knew that maybe the secret was not a secret anymore. For me, the piece was what had happened in Halifax and not the instructions by themselves. In that telephone conversation he denied knowing exactly what had happened and told me he was interested in doing a second part of his piece. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a really great piece and I really respect his work, but, for me, the most interesting thing about the research is how the instructions become just the beginning of a story way more complex than one can imagine at first sight. I think it’s the potential of the story that makes the work to be so appealing, don’t you think?
Definitely. There is an unacknowledged oral history circulating around conceptual and social works, one that is filled with urban legends and rumors, and, in a way, I feel like the most compelling works are those that contribute to this history. As you say in your correspondence, your work has a lot to do that hard-to-document subgenre of oral history: rumor. What is interesting is that rumor is often seen as a degraded version of “real history.” It’s lumped together with hearsay, conspiracy theories, paranormal sightings, etc. It’s regarded as sub-literary fiction, always barred from entering official history.
In this work, though, you don’t really debunk rumors with the documentarian’s voice of authority. Instead, Konrad Wendt suggests your method early on in your research when he asks, “What is reality but an event that at least 2 people agree on?” The documentarian Errol Morris, whose work relies heavily on interviews without narration, has a similar theory of truth that he calls “psychological triangulation.” In his theory, a more cohesive picture emerges if one builds up enough subject points of view. Do you think this is the case with your work? And has Wendt’s suggestion guided you in other projects?
Konrad’s commentaries led me a lot in my research. When I started, I really did not have a clue as to what I would find. I think I was searching for a story, one that could keep the work circulating, and not necessarily the truth. I guess as an admirer of those conceptual art stories, probably unconsciously, you seek the stories around the works. Hopefully, by getting those you understand better the real impact that these works could or probably still can have. A lot of those early 60s works are really cold, and they limit themselves to a list of information, but when you dig in, you discover there are actually people behind them, memories mixed with their subjectivities and the context in which they happen. I am interested in how a bunch of facts, memory and subjective readings of facts, and probably the real story, collapses. In that regard, Konrad’s commentary did illuminate my view a lot while talking about the piece. Since the beginning of the research there was still the feeling that this was an almost impossible task, to find the students. I imagined there were thirty of them, which was not the case, so I was already resigned to gather a few stories and not make an exhaustive investigation. This would have created my version of the facts.
Actually, during that time, I found a couple of people that I felt did not want to participate. Someone else consciously mentioned she did not wanted to participate in my research because she felt somehow betrayed and used by the school and the way the rules of the piece had been set up. So, in a way, the work is a certain reality on which at least three people agree. In this specific case, I am also betting they are the ones that still feel a certain sympathy for the work, and are the ones that are still able to carry the secret or the details of the story.
On the other hand, my project is influenced a lot by contemporary documentary thinking, and in that sense, Errol Morris plays a big part, although I am not seeking a specific truth. I do like Morris’ work a lot. The Thin Blue Line is a film that I appreciate, not just because it is one of those works that actually had an immediate impact on society, but also because of the way he uses reenactment, something that was seen skeptically at the time. What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax, pretended to be some sort of reenactment, to try to bring the participants to the place where everything happened in order to see if this would help recreate the story.
Not to bring the issue up again, but its funny that Errol Morris was a detective for sometime, just before doing The Thin Blue Line…
Since you mention this former student who did not participate, I wanted to change the subject slightly for my last questions. Why did she feel “betrayed” by the school? And what are your thoughts on NSCAD’s pedagogical program at the time of Askevold’s Project Class?
She was one of the last students I was able to contact. She had changed her name, so I contacted her quite late in the research. Apparently, people had told her I was looking for her, but she didn’t want to deal with it, so I only got one email from her. She felt the class, and more precisely the Barry project, was an imposition that had little to do with them as students. She felt the work was “precious and tiresome” and that she was being “used.” She was also in disagreement with the then new administration of the school. I wish I knew the exact details, but as I understand it, there was also a feeling of the school being taken over by a group of US faculty. I think this last feeling could have been true of other students as well. As I understand it, there was not only new faculty, but also some students they brought with them from the US, at least in the beginning.
Nevertheless, I think it was a great program that really understood teaching and school administration from a different perspective. It seems the Project Class was very different from other classes. I think there were still other more technical classes being thought about, while the Askevold class was more the hang-out-together kind of thing. Instead of hiring more faculty, the new administration led by Garry Kennedy and Jerry Ferguson spent part of their budget on bringing visiting artists, and this program created in the school an open space where conceptual practices could flourish.
It’s really interesting to talk with the Askevold students, since they did, or where closely involved in, a series of works that now are presented as key conceptual art works of the period. Richards Jarden shot Dan Graham’s From Sunset to Sunrise and participated in several other works. One that stands out, is a project by Ian Baxter, Trans VSI Connection NSCAD-NETCO Sept 15 – Oct 5, 1969, which was another long series of instruction works, this time using the then new communication devices like the telex and telecopier. The Baldessari work I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art was done there a couple of years later, as well as Bas Jan Ader’s Thoughts Unsaid, Then Forgotten. They were all instruction-based and made specifically for that educational context. On the other hand, most of the students would say, they just happened to be there. They didn’t really know this would become something of such relevance. I think it was definitely a very interesting way of thinking about a school, more as a platform for things to happen, especially taking into account the kind of work that was being discussed at the time, and more so since it all happened in a small institution in a faraway place.