Some reflections on being an artist at Graceland

text of panel presentation by Tim Westbury

Glenbow, Calgary - April 24, 2014

Before getting underway, I want to come clean right away and let you know that I actually wasn't out at Graceland for very much of the 1990s at all. What I know of Graceland is essentially from its "middle period", or the end of the 1980s. Bart [Habermiller] had already done a great deal of the heavy lifting - both literally & figuratively - by the time I came onto the scene at the Yard in the fall of 1987. And soon after he returned to Calgary from Chicago in the summer of 1990, I moved my studio practice back into the city, to the Burns Visual Art Society, until I started work up at the Banff Centre the following spring. 

It's actually really hard for me to believe that a quarter century has already passed since my studio was out at Graceland; that's perilously close to half of my lifetime away. To help you to perhaps better understand some of my personal experience as a studio artist working out there, I think it's first necessary to go back a decade even earlier in time. 

I came of age in the late 70s. As an aspiring musician, the punk rock revolution was probably completely unavoidable for me. In retrospect, it's clear that my exposure to punk - at least how it eventually came to be defined as a subcultural movement in North America - came at a significant point in my personal development, and the attendant philosophies still continue to color my worldview to some degree to this day. So I think that there were these three things that were already quite deeply engrained in my psyche for some years before I was in the enviable position of working out at Graceland. 

First of all and probably most obvious was a firm commitment to an overall Do-It-Yourself aesthetic. Often, and this was certainly the case out at Graceland, the DIY attitude initially grows out of basic economic necessity - any project is going to be that much cheaper if you can just factor out the costs of paying for other people's labor. It also reflects what might occasionally be interpreted as a "can-do" attitude, a sense that even though one may not necessarily fully possess all of the required skills to undertake a given task, you can gradually acquire some proficiency through the good, old-fashioned way - by just going ahead & doing it. 

Punk also managed to instill a healthy disregard for authority in me. I'm not talking about lawlessness here. Just the sense that individual, personal self-determination is absolutely fundamental to the enjoyment of the many freedoms that are afforded us living in a free society. Obviously I'm not suggesting that Graceland was in any way "outside of the Law" - though it may have sometimes veered close to the edge of it at times. 

The last thing that I believe came along with me to Graceland, and very much arising from the preceding two, was an admittedly naive if not downright irrational belief that to actively exercise your freedom of expression in contemporary society, to self-identify as an artist of whatever stripe, can in itself be regarded as fundamentally a kind of political act. I think it's fairly safe to say that almost all the studio work that ever took place at Graceland by anyone was being pursued very much as an end in itself. It was only rarely clouded by hazy misconceptions of it being a significant point on some road to future fame and fortune ... first and foremost it was almost always about recognizing and celebrating the simple, inherent value that resides in the activity of making art itself. 

As another sculpture major at ACA, coming up a couple years behind Bart, my own introduction to Graceland first came through some of our shared instructors. Taking students on field trips down to the Yard was soon becoming a pretty regular occurrence. After wandering around and trying to take it all in, these visits would inevitably end up with a few of the less bewildered students standing at the studio door, bartering with Bart for some object or other they'd encountered there. I remember that he was always incredibly generous, often letting students take away whatever interesting stuff they'd managed to find out at Graceland for a song. 

What ultimately cemented my own deeper relationship with Graceland was not actually my own never-ending search for potential sculptural materials, but my dalliance with video art. I was working on a project as part of an assignment in Katie Ohe's class that had also fortuitously coincided with me being awarded the resource access scholarship at EM MEDIA. So I decided to make a short video as one component, documenting the destruction, by fire, of a sculpture that I'd made; essentially it was a terrestrial globe atop a pyramid, loosely modeled on the masonic emblem of the radiant eye on a pyramid on the back of American money. 

Well, this was also when I first learned about Chris Burden's performance in the ACA parkade stairwell several years earlier. The probably somewhat unnecessary historical fallout of that event was that it was virtually impossible to work with open flame any where near the College anymore. So then-sculpture department head Wally May very wisely suggested that I approach Bart about possibly staging my proposed action at the Yard, "out of sight & out of mind." 

Bart not only enthusiastically encouraged me the do the piece out there; once we'd identified an appropriate location, he used the lawnmower to mark it out for me in what I soon came to recognize as a time honored aspect of establishing a working space out in the Yard. And ultimately he even got press-ganged into a starring role in that video, eventually known as Dead Reckoning, allowing me to concentrate on my already severely limited skills as a budding videographer. 

Quite soon after this, Bart was accepted to the MFA program in Chicago. To this day I'm really not quite sure how or why he ended up asking me to take over his studio - Frank's house - while he was down there ... but I remain grateful for what truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an emerging artist here in Calgary in 1988. 

I think that there were a couple of months overlap for us that summer, while Bart moved some stuff into the storage trailers at the Yard and I moved other stuff from my basement studio in Hillhurst out to Graceland. Bart also encouraged my kind of weird desire to try and turn the studio space into a bit more of a traditional white cube type of environment for my tenure. I remember we went down to the Cloverdale paint shop one morning and picked up a bunch of different white miss-tints to mix all together for the walls; another one of the ultimately significant tricks of the trade that Bart passed along while I was gradually assuming my stewardship of Graceland. 

Generally working conditions out at the Yard were pretty primitive. There was no running water to the property at all and both of the two original studios - what had previously been Grace & Frank's houses - were only heated by wood-burning stove. So it really could feel like you were going back in time when you were working out there - especially so in the winter. 

In the two years or so that I worked at Graceland, I staged two public events myself right inside of the studio space - in the fall of 1988 I exhibited a series of pieces I'd been working on surreptitiously for a couple of years then, replicas of several early works by Marcel Duchamp. That show, entitled Readymade Forgeries, was conceived to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his death. The evening actually culminated in a seance, as we attempted to establish contact with the original post-modernist in the spirit realm; I don't quite recall whether we were successful or not. 

The second was an installation and accompanying performance work entitled A World In Yellow, to mark Earth Day in 1989. This group of works picked up where the performance/video Dead Reckoning had left off, and solidified the use of globes as symbols in my work - which would eventually culminate a few years later in my installation at Stride Gallery in 1992, entitled Savage Fields. 

There were obviously a lot of really fantastic things for me about having a studio to work in out at Graceland. Because it was quite out of the way, you were very rarely disturbed while working there, and so could usually get relatively big blocks of uninterrupted studio time in all together - something that I still crave. The Yard itself also provided many possible sources of distraction. Whenever I found myself bored or otherwise at some kind of a creative impasse working in the studio, I'd just go outside and walk around for a bit. Sometimes I'd find something that needed doing in the Yard - there was almost always something to do, even if it was just aimlessly pushing the afore-mentioned lawnmower around a bit, until it either ground to a smoky and noisy halt in the tall grass ... or often, just ran out of gas. Inevitably I'd return to the studio with renewed interest, if only as a benefit of having had some temporary distraction out in the fresh air. 

If the studio was a place of relative quietude for much of the year, it obviously took on a very different flavor in those summer months, leading up to the first two Graceland Art Rodeo events in August of 1989 and 1990. Then it became clear that studio activity was virtually indistinguishable from yard activity. The studio buildings themselves were no longer able to contain all the artistic activity that was taking place, and it literally spilled out into multiple unique temporary studio-type settings that began to blossom throughout the Yard. The buildings themselves also assumed new temporary lives, serving as green rooms, musical gear storage or places just to get out of the relentless summer sun for a little while. 

When I started thinking about what aspects of my studio experience at Graceland I might try to address this evening, I realized that notions of the steady persistent passage of time were actually always a major aspect of my experiences there, not only while looking back at that time now through a maybe somewhat hazy lens of nostalgia. A lot of things about Graceland were already pretty antiquated by the 80s. Not just all the piles of incredible stuff that had been accumulated by Frank over all those years and was spread around the Yard. But for me that collection seemed to encapsulate the effect of the incredibly rapid development and expansion of the city of Calgary - a kind-of anti-Heritage Park, I guess; a collection representing what was scrapped as junk, not what was deemed worthy of preservation and remembrance. 

I felt it was pretty much implicit in the name itself that Graceland was destined to be only a temporary situation. If you stood on the northern side of the Yard and looked across a couple of fields you could see that new housing developments were slowly but constantly edging their way southward. It was clear evidence of what we now recognize to be Calgary's population doubling - growing from one half to one million people between 1975 and 2006. It was pretty obvious that the city would engulf the increasingly valuable real estate of the Yard eventually; it was only a matter of how quickly that would happen. 

I've generally always resisted any inclination to try and force the artistic activities that took place out at Graceland into some kind of a theoretical straightjacket. But a few years after I'd left the Yard I actually encountered an inspirational piece of writing that not only helped me to understand a great deal about what I felt had transpired at the Yard, but also, I think, helps to contextualize the several artist-led initiatives that have been widely lauded here in Calgary more recently. This is the concept of the “Temporary Autonomous Zone”, a term coined in a 1991 essay of that name by American/Sufi philosopher Hakim Bey. In closing tonight I'd like to read you a brief excerpt from this short yet I think significant essay.

Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom? Logic and emotion unite to condemn such a supposition ... To say that "I will not be free till all sentient creatures are free" is simply to cave in to a kind of nirvana-stupor, to abdicate our humanity, to define ourselves as losers ... I believe that by extrapolating from past and future stories about "islands in the net" we may collect evidence to suggest that a certain kind of ''free enclave" is not only possible in our time but also existent. All my research and speculation has crystallized around the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (hereafter abbreviated TAZ). Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don't intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay ("attempt"), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma. In fact I have deliberately refrained from defining the TAZ - I circle around the subject, firing off exploratory beams. In the end the TAZ is almost self-explanatory. If the phrase became current it would be understood without difficulty ... understood in action.