For an unassuming former Knights of Pythias lodge tucked away on a leafy Mount Pleasant Street, the Western Front has exerted a disproportionately large influence on Vancouver’s artistic imagination. Over the years, it has been a pioneering video-production facility; a research lab for the interdisciplinary arts; an incubator for all kinds of musical activity; and the ground from which much of the local dance scene has sprung. All of those aspects of the venue will be celebrated this weekend, when it throws open its doors in celebration of its 40th anniversary—but they’re not, executive director Caitlin Jones stresses, all that should be honoured.
“Everybody knows about how important the Western Front has been in the city of Vancouver, and also Canada, and even internationally,” she says, on the line from Vancouver’s most durable artist-run centre. “The founders have definitely left their stamp on our Canadian art history. And for me, and I know for the other curators that work here, our challenge is always to pay homage to the heritage, but also to really look forward in what we’re doing now. The story of the Western Front in the 1970s has been told a lot, and we’re excited to start telling the new stories.”
No matter what transpires in the years to come, some things won’t change, one of them being the idea that art-making is both a serious matter and an occasion for fun. Jones links this to the French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, a Western Front regular during its first decade. “He was very interested in this idea of a ‘poetical economy’,” she says. “This idea of merging art and labour, and renegotiating the relationship between play and work, art and work, art and labour.…Really trying to bring the idea of play and leisure up to the top of that hierarchy, as opposed to being something that you do after work.”
So it’s unsurprising that play features largely in what’s being laid on for the Front’s big birthday party. Interdisciplinary artist Germaine Koh will be mounting her League project in the street in front of the venue: it’s a neighbourhood-oriented undertaking based on the playing of invented games. Also outside, the Front’s new-music department is mounting Sonic Playground, a hands-on audio installation. Inside, the multimedia Scrivener’s Monthly will screen in the EDAM Dance studio, while upstairs the Grand Luxe hall hosts Fancy Dress Party, a screening of costume- and performance-oriented art videos featuring such larger-than-life characters as Dr. and Lady Brute (aka acclaimed painter Eric Metcalfe and the late innovator Kate Craig).
“And then out on the back deck we’re going to have a big barbecue for everybody,” Jones promises. That, too, is in keeping with the old Western Front tradition of gathering around the supper table to discuss art-world issues of the day, and for once Jones is untroubled by any nostalgic implications. “We really want to celebrate our heritage and celebrate the presence of the Western Front’s founders,” she says. “But we’re also really excited about artists that are working in the same way now.”