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May we suggest

Features / February 18, 2020

Free Radicals

The Centre for Experimental Art and Communication was both the darling and delinquent of the 1970s Toronto art scene
Subscription ad for the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication’s <em>Strike 3</em>, October 1978. Subscription ad for the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication’s Strike 3, October 1978.
Subscription ad for the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication’s <em>Strike 3</em>, October 1978. Subscription ad for the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication’s Strike 3, October 1978.

“For those who remember it, the history of the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication sometimes is more myth than reality.” That’s how Philip Monk, writing in his history of the late 1970s Toronto art scene, Is Toronto Burning? (2016), summarizes the storied yet all-but-forgotten saga of one of the city’s earliest and most contentious artist-run centres. “For many then not on the scene,” Monk adds, “CEAC is a blank.”

Taken generally, this is not an uncommon scenario; the modern history of Canadian art is ostensibly marked by the myths and blanks of many once notable artists and events now sequestered to closet shelves and archival boxes as memories fade, protagonists (and antagonists) disappear and generational interests change. But there’s something particular about CEAC—its moment in time, its main cast of characters and its ambitious rise and dramatic fall—that resonates beyond an obscure footnote.

So what exactly was/is the story behind CEAC? Before going any further, it’s important to acknowledge that the record is not a complete blank. York University holds an extensive archive of correspondence, photos, printed matter and CEAC ephemera. In 1986, just a few years after CEAC was unceremoniously disbanded, C Magazine published “The CEAC Was Banned in Canada,” a sweeping “tragicomic opera in three acts,” by Dot Tuer. Monk’s “Battle Stances: General Idea, CEAC, and the Struggle for Ideological Dominance in Toronto, 1976–1978” appeared in Fillip almost 30 years later, coinciding with his chapter treatment of CEAC in Is Toronto Burning? (not to mention the focus on CEAC in the 2014 exhibition he curated, of the same name). And experimental filmmaker Mike Hoolboom maintains a comprehensive online archive of CEAC-related articles, rare photos and otherwise unpublished interviews with some of the Centre’s main players.

From this research and writing—the titles of Tuer’s and Monk’s articles hint at the controversy and drama—it’s possible to form a composite if fragmentary picture of the CEAC story. It begins in 1970 when Italian émigré Amerigo Marras, with American draft dodger and Rochdale College dropout Donald Suber Corley and American gay-rights activist Jearld Moldenhauer, formed the Art and Communication group and what would become the critically influential LGBTQ magazine The Body Politic. By 1973, Moldenhauer had moved on to focus on The Body Politic and Glad Day Bookshop, while Marras and Corley launched the Kensington Art Association (KAA), “a continuous collective experiment in living and in sociological infiltrations with practical demonstrations,” as Marras would later describe it.

It’s here that the Marxist-driven ideological roots and multiplatform, international interests of what would soon become CEAC began to evolve. Then based out of the trio’s 4 Kensington Avenue home, the inaugural KAA exhibition in October 1973 featured French architect and urban planner Yona Friedman, which included a manual for children on conceptual building strategies and the magazine Super Vision, which as Tuer writes, “encompassed the possibility of translating architectural language into user-friendly, computerized design, and an analysis of the relationship of architectural imperialism to conditions in the Third World.”

Following the fall 1975 exhibition “Language and Structure in North America,” organized as a “visual and literary manifesto on aspects of language, art, and structuralism” (Tuer), and the January 1976 exhibition “Body Art,” inspired in part by the extreme performance work of Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch, plus a brief move to 86 John Street, KAA became CEAC. In September 1976, Marras, Corley and a core group of artists, including Bruce Eves, Ron Gillespie (now Ron Giii), Diane Boadway, Peter Dudar and Lily Eng (a.k.a. Missing Associates), John Faichney and Wendy Knox-Leet, set up shop at 15 Duncan Street in a four-storey industrial building purchased with a $55,000 lottery grant (roughly $238,000 in 2019).

Cover for the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication’s <em>Strike 3</em>, October 1978. Cover for the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication’s Strike 3, October 1978.

In three years, Marras, Corley and company had gone from putting on exhibitions at home to being the sometimes envy of a fractious local art scene. CEAC would continue to expand over the next year and a half, bolstered by more government funding and Marras’s increasingly ideological stance on the social and political bankruptcy of contemporary art. Aside from a regular schedule of exhibitions and often daily performances, film screenings or artist talks, CEAC assembled a fully equipped media production studio (led by Marras’s interest in the hybrid-disruptive potential of video art and mass-media television), hosted artist residencies, sponsored premiere performances by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, published the critical broadsheet Art Communication Edition (later Strike), toured “Contextual Evenings” and performance events to New York and Europe, and presented a series of “Violence and Behaviour Workshops” on invitation from Joseph Beuys at Documenta 6 in 1977. The Duncan Street basement was also home to the short-lived but legendary “punk rock palace” Crash ’n’ Burn.

If CEAC’s rise was fast, though, its self-destruction came just as spectacularly. “We are opposed to the dominant tendency of playing idiots,” reads the editorial for Strike 2 in May 1978. “In the manner of the [Red] Brigades, we support leg shooting/knee capping to accelerate the demise of the old system.” Whether this brief incitement to violence was intended as anything other than rhetorical posturing—a pseudo-radical tempest in an art-world teapot—is mere speculation. But the controversy that ensued rang through the press, involved police surveillance (by some accounts) and went all the way to the House of Commons, with demands for accountability leaving a lasting mark on how and to whom cultural monies are awarded. A few months later, CEAC’s funding was withdrawn, its supporters quietly dispersed and its doors closed—its myth to be recorded in the blank left behind.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.