Yes, the word gang has acquired highly negative and violent connotations in recent decades—in the Lower Mainland and beyond. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a group of creative teenagers came together in an art room at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School on Vancouver’s East Side, gang meant something else altogether. It meant, says renowned video artist Paul Wong, “a sense of belonging… a certain kind of energy, a certain kind of attitude, a certain kind of perspective”.
That perspective was shaped by growing up in a working-class and multicultural neighbourhood, on the other side of Main Street from the more middle-class West Side. And the attitude? Well, it emerged from an enthusiastic embrace of counterculture values and the exploration of sex, drugs, vegetarianism, Fluxus-like social events, and gender-bending identities.
Speaking with the Straight by phone from his Main Street home, Wong is surprised to be reminiscing about a time, place, and cohort of friends he never imagined would come under art-historical scrutiny. “We were never incorporated, we never had any kind of structural plan, there was never a strategy,” he says. “We were young and innocent and just doing our thing.”
After graduating from high school, the group who became known as “the Mainstreeters” pursued a range of alternative art practices together and gained a reputation for being socially and creatively adventuresome, assertive, and, well, out-there. Now, thanks to a collaboration between grunt gallery and Presentation House Gallery, an exhibition, website, and video documentary have been dedicated to capturing the avant-garde activities of Wong, Kenneth Fletcher, Deborah Fong, Carol Hackett, Marlene MacGregor, Annastacia McDonald, Charles Rea, and Jeanette Reinhardt. A publication is also planned, for release later this year.
Curated by Allison Collins and Michael Turner, the show titled Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage, 1972-1982 opens at the Satellite Gallery this Friday (January 9) and runs to March 14. (The 53-minute documentary of the same name, researched and created by Turner and Collins and produced by grunt gallery program director Glenn Alteen, can be found at vimeo.com/gruntgallery/takingadvantage/. Throughout the exhibition, Mainstreeter videos will also be presented in storefronts along Main Street.)
While previewing the exhibition with the Straight, Turner indicates the wealth of video art, still photographs, correspondence art, collage, assemblage, paintings, altered found objects, magazines, handwritten notes, and ephemera that various combinations of the Mainstreeters produced during the decade of their group activities. He also points out the significance of the newly accessible portable video camera, something that the group used to record many of its activities, from washing, dressing, and gardening to picnicking at Wreck Beach and blowing bubbles after dropping acid in Stanley Park.
The Mainstreeters also documented some of their more orchestrated social events, such as their famous drag balls. “Every time we turned around, we threw a party,” Wong recalls. “Halloween parties, Valentine’s Day parties, birthday parties, dinner parties—a great amount of creativity and spirit went into these things.”
Walking through the exhibition, Turner observes, “The Mainstreeters acted as a connection between the [late groundbreaking artist] Roy Kiyooka kind of interdisciplinary salons of the early 1960s and the social-practices action of the digital-natives generation of today.” Although they took part in an experimental art program at their high school and a community-based extension program of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which operated out of the then-moribund Nat Bailey Stadium, group members did not pursue postsecondary education in the visual arts.
“At the Stadium Gallery we were given creative space to learn and simultaneously give workshops to the public,” Wong says. “So we were already learning and teaching—to and from each other.” After they’d left school and home and settled in apartments and houses in the Main Street area, he adds, they were conscious of exploring “alternative ways of seeing and being”.
Turner says, “They took up art on their own terms and on their own turf.” And they began to create more scripted and directed—although still highly experimental—video works. On view at the Satellite Gallery are “The Mainstreet Tapes”, including Wong and Fletcher’s 60 Unit; Bruise, Wong’s On Becoming a Man, Fong’s Last Week, Rea’s Bachelor Prince, Fletcher’s Ken’s Coffee, and 4 by Wong, Fong, Hackett, McDonald, and Reinhardt. “We played with ideas, we responded to what we saw in the world, to music, to film, to TV, to each other, to alternative and Main Street signals,” Wong says. Much of the video work is experiential and some of it is disturbing. In 60 Unit; Bruise, made in the pre–AIDS era, Fletcher withdraws blood from his arm and injects it into Wong’s shoulder, creating a spreading bruise. Pleasure, danger, intimacy, trust, and homoeroticism are folded into what now reads as a shocking blood-brother ritual.
Also on view is what Turner sees as Wong and Fletcher’s masterpiece, Murder Research, a multimedia project based on the 1976 stabbing death of a young man in East Vancouver. The murder occurred in the snowy lane behind the house Wong was then sharing with Reinhardt, and the work is distinctive for both its brutal immediacy and its carefully researched and culturally complex investigation of the crime. “It’s one of the great works of Vancouver art in the last 50 years,” Turner says, pointing out an autopsy table, still photographs, and videotape files whose contents are narrated by Fletcher.
A more personal tragedy devastated the Mainstreeters in 1978: Fletcher’s death by suicide. Among their responses to this immense loss is in ten sity, a performance and video work in which Wong climbed into a two-and-a-half-metre-tall cubical structure and slammed himself against the walls and the floor for 25 minutes, to the music of the Avengers, Patti Smith, and the Sex Pistols. Eventually, as the video reveals, he was joined by the other Mainstreeters inside the cube, all of them thrashing and wrestling in an expression of their pain, rage, grief, and confusion. “It was a very impactful tragedy,” Wong says simply, “and we dealt with it the best way that we could, which was closing ranks.”
The curators suggest that Wong’s 1982 video Prime Cuts marks the Mainstreeters’ dissolution as a collective. In this work, which satirizes wealth, privilege, and glossy lifestyle magazines and TV, Wong is clearly the auteur. Although they remain friends, members of the art gang went their own ways, Turner and Collins write in their curatorial statement, “no longer preoccupied with what danced in the cracks of their city—or Main Street itself”.
Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage, 1972-1982 runs at the Satellite Gallery from Friday (January 9) until March 14, along with storefront exhibits along Main Street.