One Saturday afternoon in early March, I boarded a school bus parked outside the Art Gallery of Ontario at the behest of Toronto performance duo Life of a Craphead. The bus was full, though no one was quite sure what our participation in this project entailed; we only knew we were headed to a private golf course in Mississauga and should dress warmly and expect a relatively fun time. As the bus departed, Jon McCurley and Amy Lam—the artists that comprise Life of a Craphead—began to explain their intentions. We were told we were travelling to the year 2020 to play “yelf,” a sport they are to invent that year.
McCurley stressed the need for secrecy in getting to the location while distributing hand-drawn maps of the convoluted route. We were told to walk in pairs, keeping talk to a minimum, as we slipped past a nunnery, through a wooded area, across a hydro field and finally down a steep embankment to the golf course. “Don’t even look at the nunnery,” McCurley warned, “what we’re doing is extra-legal; if anyone asks you what you’re doing, just tell them it’s a project for the AGO.” Taking liberties with their temporary institutional association (they were artists-in-residence at the AGO at the time) we set out.
When the 40-or-so participants assembled on the fairway, we were told to play a modified version of tag that focused on “deviousness” and yelling the word “yelf” as we raced over snow-covered sand traps. Within a few minutes of arriving, we were producing enough noise that any previous measures to hide our presence were rendered null. Further, this fairly elaborate excursion, requiring considerable coordination and planning, was done to produce a single 4-by-6-inch photograph which was attached to a caption in the artists’ current exhibition at the AGO. Let this possibly futile and strange excursion be a preface into the often backward, offhand, absurd-yet-somehow-poignant logic at the heart of Life of a Craphead.
Lam and McCurley have been presenting work as Life of a Craphead since 2006. They began working in what seemed like comedy’s equivalent of Arte Povera, a dematerialized and potentially dangerous assemblage of ideas and gestures that challenge the very genetics of humour. Since then, their practice has expanded through performance, film, installation, theatre, sculpture, social sculpture and intervention, producing irreverent, deceptively naïve and always entertaining works.
There is a strange degree of translation in bringing these DIY, no-permit-no-problem antics out of independent art spaces (such as Kensington Market’s Double Double Land, where they host their monthly comedy/performance night) and into the city’s largest art institution. In declaring their current exhibition—located in the basement hallway that is the AGO’s Weston Family Learning Centre Community Gallery—to be a 50-year (2006 to 2056) “retrospective,” Lam and McCurley fully embrace this new context, repeatedly overemphasizing its grandeur through an elongated joke-cum-critique.
The exhibition is made up of captioned photographs that document projects executed throughout their “50-year” career.
Among the “early work” in the exhibition is Free Lunch (2007), a project in which they used money from a small grant to purchase of one of each item on the menu of a local Chinese restaurant and provided free lunch for anyone who saw their classified listing or visited by chance. Also from 2007 is Musical Road, a project that entailed Lam and McCurley dressing as construction workers and using an industrial concrete saw to cut a series of lines into the surface of Yonge Street. They claim that the vibration produced by cars driving over this obstruction creates music, and that thereby the work is a public service.
In these and other projects executed before 2013, the photographs function in a familiar way: they stand in for the dematerialized happenings and actions, acting as a record rather than an objet d’art.
When we look to works allegedly produced between 2013 and 2056, the relationship between the photographs and the actions becomes less clear, at times seeming like an inversion. There is an implication that—for the purpose of this exhibition—actions depicted in the future are staged to produce the photographs, thereby substituting constructions for documents. As we enter the sliding temporal scale Life of a Craphead lays out for us, we see its already present interest in art-and-commerce relations grow and, around the year 2025, shift towards an examination of object-oriented practice.
The first of the projects in the retrospective that fully embraces this new ideology is There’s a Better One in the Shed (2025), a project for which the duo will ostensibly produce (or, in this time-warping show, has ostensibly produced) two large sculptures. There is, of course, a catch—only the poorer of the two sculptures is allowed to be exhibited, standing bumpy and bulbous in the gallery and staring at visitors with its crudely rendered face. Meanwhile, the second sculpture—a smooth and polished-looking work—must be housed in a nearby shed. Visitors to this work will be unable to find satisfaction in the gallery knowing that there is a better sculpture in the shed.
By 2032, Life of a Craphead proposes a move to a more radical foil for art-commerce systems. With Drugs in Our Stuff, they alienate almost all potential markets for its works by adding illegal substances to all costumes and props from past performances. Anyone wishing to buy these artifacts will have to sign a legally binding document that simultaneously acknowledges they are purchasing drugs and so guarantees they will be punished by law (provided that Canada’s drug laws don’t get considerably more lax in the next 19 years, of course).
In 2056, Lam and McCurley will supposedly emancipate themselves from Life of a Craphead forever through The Good Towel. In this work, they replace themselves with an object, declaring that they are no longer physical representations of Life of a Craphead and completing a cycle from total dematerialization to pure plasticity. The object, The Good Towel, is an apparently ordinary towel, though it is housed in a protective humidifying cabinet and wheeled to speaking engagements by handlers.
Strangely, these “future” works seem both refreshing and familiar—particularly in the context of the AGO, where in their own early works and performances General Idea also played with the boundaries between DIY and high-art, past and present, fame and failure to the effect of both elaborating and confounding an antagonistic relationship with the museum. GI’s construction of elaborate fictions in works such as the Miss General Idea Pageant—and the tensions between those and more present realities—also came to mind.
Overall, Life of a Craphead’s self-appointed retrospective offers a somewhat dizzying and chaotic deadpan series of critiques; Lam and McCurley dissect and baffle small parcels of art-world logic through a series of roundabout excursions, experiments and gags. The form of the exhibition—a constant negotiation of image and caption through past, present, and future—leaves intentional blanks that keep viewers at arm’s length, uncertain whether they are included or excluded from the joke.
The exhibition’s wall texts seem to engage most directly with its anomalous presence in the AGO’s basement. The introductory panel begins: “Yo, before you is a lifetime of work from the exciting performance art group Life of a Craphead” and goes on to say “for half a century they have been trying to get people into their sense of humour. If you’ve never heard of Life of a Craphead, you’re in the right hallway.”
The artists’ informal tone—they also provide their phone numbers and ask visitors to text them feedback directly, sidestepping the museum—and put-on juvenility in these exhibition writings seem as out of place as their art does in the pristine institution. They acknowledge the fiction of their retrospective by openly admitting the exhibition is in an out-of-the way hallway—yet there are also incongruous signifiers of grandeur and importance, like the large, honorific portraits of Lam and McCurley that flank a giant all-caps wall text that reads “Life of a Craphead.”
These signifiers of authenticity lead to moments of suspended disbelief for viewers as the duo’s fiction becomes, indeed, a reality.