N.E. Thing Co.’s Eye Scream was a restaurant and artwork opened in 1977 at 2043 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver. It did business for a year and a half, but given the renewed focus on the work of IAIN BAXTER&, which includes a current retrospective at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, its legacy is living on. Artist and art historian Mark Clintberg recently spoke with Baxter& via telephone about Eye Scream, its food service, and its potential connections to curatorial models.
Mark Clintberg: What kind of food did you serve at Eye Scream?
IAIN BAXTER&: There was a Cubist Salad. I don’t know why someone doesn’t do it again. It’s really a good name and the ordinary guy would know it and get it. I think it had maybe cut-up little bits of apple and stuff—maybe some shapes, which most salads look like, anyways, kind of, right? One of my fun things was Group of Seven Snails. It was snails in one of those little plates that usually have space for six, but we added another snail in the centre. One of the really interesting things that I did was a Filet Mignon with Wheels. It was a filet but on either side there were four mushrooms, so it looked like a little VW.
MC: Was the menu mainly made up of references to art history?
IB&: There were a few things like that. One of the real specialties was a hamburger that was served on a six-inch-high cake tray, with a dome lid. Under the lid was this really amazing hamburger. I think we sold it at $6 or $7 instead of $2, which was the going rate. It had really good meat, and other gourmet things, good cheese.
MC: In that case it seems like the frame is just as important as the food.
IB&: I also named all the plates. I was trying to make the restaurant have this other conceptual overtone to it. For example, when you entered there was tile on the floor, but in the tile was the word “TILE.” I took that same philosophy, which is about language and naming. I really like reductive things that are what they are. The saucers and plates were all named like that. In the middle of a big plate it said “PLATE.” They were done with art deco lettering.
MC: Can you describe the Eye Scream exterior?
IB&: The outside was truck siding. A bunch of architects came to me afterwards and asked, “How did you do that?” I just decided to do it. I didn’t go to city hall and ask or anything. It was cladding. It gave it a really kind of tough look. There was a big sliding door. There was a lot of mirror inside and chrome and stainless steel. When you went in the door there was a big bar area, and that’s where I put my light boxes: one on the ceiling, several on the wall, and one on the bar. That was an early time for these bigger light boxes. I had a photo lab next door.
MC: Who came to this place?
IB&: A lot of the artist guys were there. Roy Arden worked as a waiter. Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace and all those guys came in to eat. Murray Dawson and Ian Dawson were partners in the restaurant. My then-wife Ingrid too, and we all owned it together.
MC: What was the process of opening the restaurant like?
IB&: It took quite a while to design it and build it. When you open a restaurant you’re not supposed to take a long time building it. I was thinking more like an artist, unfortunately. I think it must have taken half a year or more. The real long name of the restaurant was I Scream You Scream We All Scream for Eye Scream. It was shortened to Eye Scream. Like lots of restaurants, it just didn’t make it. Because at that period, in the 70s, especially in Vancouver, we were still in that kind of ethnic mode: Greek, Italian restaurants and then hippiedom was still rolling with macramé. Those kinds of restaurants flourished. Whereas now it would probably work better.
MC: Can you say a bit about what you think will be the long-term legacy of ephemeral or performative practices like those involving food?
IB&: It’s my philosophy that there will be a new kind of curator working in museums that will interpret works like this. With all the work that is done by performance and installation artists, once they go away, how do you do them again when the artist isn’t here? This role will be like a conductor in an orchestra.
MC: Do you see Eye Scream’s selection and display of food in a relationship with curating?
IB&: You’re right that I’m often working like a curator. I’m always thinking up shows to pitch to curators. As part of my research, I go to magazine stands and look at what is going on. At my age I still look at rap and everything. If I had a lot of money I would have 300 magazines coming to my house every month. Home renovation or anything. I surf information.
MC: You developed the term Visual Sensitivity Information (VSI) to refer to art but also other visual forms of knowledge. Was there ever “TSI,” or “Taste Sensitivity Information” in that rubric?
IB&: There wasn’t, but there was one for theatre. I figure all theatre, for example, is a replay of experience, or Movement Sensitivity Information (MSI). Maybe taste would fit in there. Taste involves a sensitivity to a thing we do every day. I watch a lot of chef shows. Basically a major chef today is a performance artist because they provide the materials that keep us alive. Maybe there is a major exhibition in there about this. A show that had a chef in a booth in between each painting, where their performance and the ambience and the food became the exhibition. Move over Iron Chef—here comes the next big show: The Artist Chef!
MC: Like at Eye Scream, where you exhibited artworks and served food in one space?
IB&: I see what you mean. Food really is the art form today. We could live without the art but not without the chefs.
MC: Any advice to artists who are thinking of opening restaurants? When we spoke earlier you said, “Don’t open one!”
IB&: I think you have to figure out a major bar component because that is where you make your money. And then take a hard look at the figures. It’s almost more work than art. Maybe just write your restaurant up as a fantasy thing or make a miniature model of it or be a backer of one. Restaurants now maybe more than ever are exhibition spaces. There is a mini exhibition in every restaurant. That’s why we seek them out.