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Film Scenes: Paris, New York, Toronto
ii. Warhol's Stars
The history of cinema is tied to the experience of the modern city. As a popular culture that crossed language, gender and class barriers, the cinema offers that which is most common and therefore vulgar in mass culture. Some fifteen years into its history, after "the ripple of leaves" had ceased to have effect, film stars were invented. Stars would help to offset this vulgarity and to sell it at the same time (Morin 1972; Dyer 1998). The star's dialectical existence takes its shape between the film character and actor's role, and "points beyond the film" to a place that spectators believe to be reality or wish it to be, to places of experience (Kracauer 1970, 99). This is the space of Emma's fantasy, "between heaven and earth, in the midst of storms, having something of the sublime."
There was no artist more adept at creating that space than Warhol. Warhol entertains the commodity status of everyday life, appropriates images from commercial culture, inhabits spaces and makes scenes. The end of the New York underground has been attributed to Warhol, to his ambition to be out in public. Warhol refused to be underground, he screened his films at a mainstream cinema, most famously The Chelsea Girls at the Regency in 1966, and in so doing attracted a great deal of attention. He broke the rules, he crossed scenes: high art museum patrons with the transvestites and sex workers of 42nd Street, art and consumer culture, sexualities and genders (Acker 1989). This is why his fame was so immediate.
Influenced by the music and dance scenes in New York, especially John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer as well as the Fluxus group, he is struck by the idea that art might be open to life, by 'art as action: In Lefebvre's vocabulary, action art prioritizes time over space so that time comes to inscribe itself in space, thus replacing domination by appropriation. The fête is a central emblem for Lefebvre of a space of use rather than exchange value, transforming the urban centre through creative corporeality, opening space up to the eros and poetics of unpredictability-to the utopia of the city street as spontaneous theatre. What better way to describe the happenings of the Judson Church in New York where artists 'occupied' the city (Sukenick 1988). But this doesn't describe Warhol's shiny surfaces: "I never wanted to be a painter, I wanted to be a tap dancer." (1989, 56).
For Lefebvre (1991) the spectacle colonizes everyday life, circumscribes its temporality to the abstraction of the clock. In Warhol's world, clocks are dissolved into silk screens of serial photographs of stars and disasters not as the critique of abstract time but as its performance. In fact, the colonizing alienating effects of the spectacle are reanimated by the scenes that Warhol creates. Like Kracauer, Warhol's interest in Hollywood films is in the ornamental quality of their surfaces. For Warhol, the privileged site of this quality is the Star. Trained by the advertising industry, he understands that their economy is about one thing and one thing only, that thing Flaubert's Emma failed to find, l'amour. And we know with love comes danger.
Warhol brings the spectacular aspects of transgressive sexualities into the banality of the domestic realm in an unlikely combination of camp and minimalism (Wollen 1989). He lives in a factory and invites others to make his art (not their own) out of everyday incidents and out of themselves. His early 'eventless' films reflect this impetus, Sleep, Eat, Haircut, Blowjob (1963). These can be read as documentaries; long takes with a stationary and distant camera, documenting not the experience but the staged experience, the experience staged for the camera and its passive director/voyeur Warhol-a kind of "ocular vampirism"(24). The films themselves are environmental and often last the duration of the event being filmed, they can be seen as both belonging to an earlier experience and lending a distinctive shape ('moving wall paper') to the scene of the screening. Warhol experiments with expanded cinema and different projection techniques: single, double, superimpositions, different speeds mixed in with live music. Interestingly, unlike his serial paintings, his films were not repetitive because no one ever saw the same movie twice. Arguably Warhol's art has no object, it is the art of the scene as a space of experience from which most are excluded.
Art for Flaubert was everything. This was his mythology: he sacrificed his life and his love (Louise Colet) for his writing. He spent years secluded from the world, locked away in libraries or in his study writing. Perhaps this is why there is in fact no life in Flaubert's novels but work itself, the labour of writing-his own painful compositions and those appropriated discourses (scenes) in the construction of fictional worlds. Similarly, there is no life in Warhol, everything is work without the suffering or seriousness. His style is famously dissociative: "I think we're in a vacuum here at the Factory: it's great... it leaves me alone to do my work" (1989, 57). His life is a film, he lives in a scene that he endlessly documents: tape recording all phone conversations, photographing all parties, subjecting everyone in the scene to a screen-test. This is the life of la star as Edgar Morin has described it: "Their private life is public, their public life is publicity, their screenlife is surreal, and their real life is mythic" (1972, 13). Warhol's work is directed toward the production of mythology. He is more than just an art star though, he is a superstar because his stardom is built upon making stars: "He will shine. He will be remote, majestic, untouchable, simultaneously adored and self-contained... he is one who is seen because he sees, one present because absent, a star who is in fact a stargazer" (Koch 1985, 17). Famously, Warhol like a Hollywood mogul would select from among a crowd of people camped outside the Factory, those who gained entrance, who were 'taken up' to the parties and those left standing below the elevator. Those left standing outside could only imagine what they were missing, hear the music, read about the event.
In his production of stars and in his own status as a star, Warhol performs the contradictions of commodity culture-this is why there are so many contradictory interpretations of his art (Whiting 1997). Even as his filmmaking moved closer to the grammar of Hollywood production and commercial screenings, Warhol's project never changed because his innovation was "displaying the display" (Wollen 1989, 25) and his art was the scene. Warhol's work can be placed alongside French writers like Flaubert and Baudelaire, not as a comment on the impersonality of the commodified personality, on the impossibility of imagining something new. But rather, as Adorno has written of Flaubert and Baudelaire, because he makes "art through mimesis of the hardened and alienated" (1997, 21, 2, 85). The spectacle of commodities is not resisted nor simply endorsed; it is multiplied, serialized and even exhausted and outdone. This may explain the continued interest in, and force of Warhol's theatricalization of distraction.
But would we remember Warhol if he had not lived in New York? His art is so intricately tied to the counter-culture scene of New York in the sixties, it is difficult to imagine him anywhere else (although L.A. was the city of surfaces he truly loved). His mythology, the story of a young gay artist who fled his provincial background to reinvent himself in New York is connected to a narrative of that larger scene, built up through the years in reviews, reports, interviews, photographs, publicity, films and art. Could he, for example, have lived in Toronto?
iii. Ideal Scenes
When I imagine the Toronto film scene, one picture rises up above all the possible others. It is one with which most Canadians, and all Torontonians are familiar: a 1998 photograph of film director Atom Egoyan and his wife/lead actress Arsinée Khanjian at the Academy Awards dressed in evening attire and sunglasses basking "in the cinema's biggest spotlight." We've seen this cliché one thousand times before. It is the image of success, of making it in the big city, big time, "the parties were exactly what you'd dreamed of" (Egoyan 1998). I don't want to simply reduce this photograph to a cliché, to exchange value or to spectacle. It is all of those things. But it is also a photograph that has a use value beyond simply promoting a film or a star director. It is tied to an economic and cultural context in Canada, and to a local scene in Toronto.
Fredric Jameson has argued that a national film culture needs its stars in order to take root in a culture, to become part of a common imaginary.' If this is so, then I would add that it also needs its scenes and its cities, the settings where stars come into being. Culture scenes form structure, of sociality that can encourage a productive and diversified cultural economy in the context of globalizing homogenizing forces. Scenes give citizens a sense of agency both as spectators and as 'players.' As an analytical concept, the scene is more fluid, more exclusive and far less purposeful than the notion of community (Mouffe 1992). Yet it is more materially grounded and less abstract than the concept of "subaltern counterpublics" (Fraser 1990) and more public and stylized than the individualized aspects of vernacular space (Zukin 1992). Scenes which have always been part of everyday life and the "stage of history" (Lefebvre 1991, 135) take on particular characteristics in the society of the spectacle. By virtue of their structures of publicity, scenes might be read as cultural responses (not necessarily forms of resistance) to globalization because scenes, which are at once social gatherings and the on-going accumulation of impressions, are relational. Scenes make the city visible in particular kinds of ways often linked to tourism and leisure. In this respect scenes make the city a place, they are both universal to the discourse on cities and differentiated experiences in them (Blum, this issue). It is the unique local character of a scene in a city that is its appeal, yet it is a uniqueness defined in relation to scenes present or not in other cities. The uniqueness of a scene, also depends on its being totally current which is its affinity to fashion and music. This infuses scenes with an ephemerality that makes them difficult to track and analyze. This is not to say that scenes are without history. One could in fact study the way in which some scenes, the performance scene in New York or Berlin for example, are built upon and appropriate an infamous art history or city's mythology to fashion new forms of transgression. Their importance in the history of cities, and certainly in the history of art movements is without question. But what of younger and smaller cities that do not have that art history or mythology? Do the scenes in these cities simply emerge out of nowhere?
There is a story that Canadian artist Joyce Wieland recounts to Toronto filmmaker and archivist John Porter about walking through Toronto in 1950:
I could walk with my girlfriend Mary from Broadview and Danforth to Keele St. and we wouldn't see anything. We made suicide pacts. We would say 'This is life and this is what happens to you so you might as well jump off the bridge' (Bloor Viaduct), and we were considering it because there was fuck-all! There was an art gallery and a few people but no feeling (qtd, in Porter 1984, 26).
Wieland's sense that she couldn't "see anything" in Toronto is not entirely without foundation. Throughout the fifties and well into the sixties, the inner municipality of the city was reconfigured to accommodate an explosive metropolitan growth in which the urban region's population more than doubled. The demolition of historic buildings in the city's old business district, the destruction of older residential pockets within the urban core (amounting to the displacement of some thirteen thousand people) were a reflection of Toronto's municipal planning policies which favoured development and saw history "as an impediment to 'progress"' (Caulfield 1994, 18). This kind of urban renewal was transpiring on a larger scale in Robert Moses' New York but neighbourhood communities led by Jane Jacobs would challenge this lack of history. Famously, Wieland along with Michael Snow and countless others after them fled to New York to join the culture scenes there. (Toronto got them back along with Jane Jacobs in the seventies.)
Those who stayed in Toronto, those who like Emma Bovary could only read about what was going on elsewhere, created their own scenes. As if the perceived absence of an art scene in Toronto came to define the very core of the scene, performance was its central aesthetic preoccupation. Most of the Toronto art scenes in the sixties and seventies were formed around the night-time economies of exhibition spaces and bars designed for performance and socializing: the Bohemian Embassy, Isaacs Gallery, Cinecity, Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC), the punk bar Crash'N Burn, the Rivoli, A-Space, Trinity Square Video, The Funnel Experimental Film Theatre to name but a few. While the arts councils (federal and provincial) were helping to fund some of these spaces and consolidate a community infrastructure that would become visible for almost two decades around Queen Street West, the scenes were created by individuals or small informal groups. The early art scenes took shape around often sexually explicit, often homoerotic gestures and images that sought to challenge the "let's not cause a scene land of the beavers" (C.E.A.C. 1977; qtd. in Tuer 1986, 21) along with the city's highly conservative views of art and rigid provincial censorship/fire regulations. One thing is certain, New York's cosmopolitan performance scenes (perhaps Warhol combined with Joseph Beuys in particular) served as model in the imaginary registers of Toronto's avant-garde culture. This mirroring was not simply derivative but largely self-conscious. Not only was New York the port to an international art scene (France, Germany and Italy mostly), it had two interrelated characteristics that Toronto did not have: a market for art and a history of artistic contestation. That is, an art scene. The Toronto artist group General Idea would mockingly refer to this in their now infamous Warholian account of an 'idea':
We wanted to be famous, glamorous and rich. That is to say we wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamorous we could say we were artists and we would be. We never felt we had to produce great art to be great artists. We knew great art did not bring glamour and fame. We knew we had to keep a foot in the door of art and we were conscious of the importance of berets and paint brushes (1975, 21).
General Idea became famous for its imitations of successful artwork, setting up Art Metropole as a bookstore and artist distribution centre in a defunct art gallery from the twenties in 1974. Here, a scene (for a while a café) and importantly an archive of scenes would grow. Other groups were far less overtly self-serving but equally concerned about being part of a history that was seen to be lacking in Toronto (Monk 1984, 14; Tuer 1986, 24). A magazine culture grew up around these scenes, with newsletters, catalogues and small independent presses helping to create a critical interdisciplinary discourse around art and culture. Now Magazine was modeled on the Village Voice and was meant to serve a similar function featuring portraits of local 'stars' on its cover each week. All these publications and networks of interconnected scenes in art, music, theatre and literature created a common narrative and with that narrative came vitriolic debates and political clashes, that in turn gave rise to new alternative cultures in the city. A process of shifting boundaries and meanings that Alan Blum's delineation of the scene as "fundamental ambiguity" provocatively evokes:
The scene is the fundamental ambiguity which its name and connotations arouse in collective life. This is the symbolic order of the scene. And the scene is the myriad courses of action directed to solve the problems released by such ambiguity, including the ethical collisions and forms of collectivization which it inspires. This is the imaginative structure of the scene. The scene is both symbolic order and imaginative structure, a locus of collectivization and a catalyst of problem solving... (this issue, 33).
Central to the imaginative structure of the scene is the discovery/creation of mythologies which supersede the production of art works. Indeed the question of whether a good scene produces good art is particularly appropriate here. Arguably, some scenes do not produce art of lasting significance but engender founding myths that may generate a sense of possibility, the "opportunity of drama." We find that same "opportunity" and creativity in the scenes, in all their variety, that people make out of the city. Thus Ross McLaren, a co-founder of The Funnel Experimental Film Theatre (1977-1988), can state in retrospect that "the films were not important. The Funnel was about social interaction" (interviewed in Lypchuk 1991, 46). The Funnel like other scenes of the time was very connected to New York, to performance, to Warhol and his mentor Jack Smith (who performed there). It is an interesting example of how a scene survives in popular memory as a point of reference from which new actions are built (Liaison of Independent filmmakers and Pleasure Dome Screening Group for example grew out of The Funnel), even though there is not a large body of work that stands as its legacy.