Hank Bull: Connexion is a vivid flashback to the collaborative, counterculture 1970s
Hank Bull: Connexion
At the Burnaby Art Gallery until April 6
The exhibition titled Hank Bull: Connexion provokes questions about itself—about how best to represent the accomplishments of this interdisciplinary Vancouver artist and arts organizer. Long associated with the Western Front, Bull has embraced a range of collaborative and networking practices, including performance, video, mail art, and telecommunications art.
As demonstrated at the Burnaby Art Gallery, he has been more a connecting figure, locally and internationally, than an outstanding individual creator. After undertaking curatorial and administrative work for the Front, and following extensive travels in Asia, he also became a cofounder of Centre A (the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art) and was its director from 1999 to 2010.
Drawn into the Front’s orbit in the early 1970s through his interest in experimental music, Bull made a commitment to being and doing rather than making and exhibiting. He was part of an alternative, anti-institutional art movement that swept across the western world in the 1960s and ’70s, rejecting the vaunted art object and embracing instead Fluxus-like “happenings”; Dada-like absurdity, playfulness, and parody; and ephemeral expressions such as performance. How, then, to make Bull’s decades of cultural activities clear and coherent to a contemporary audience?
In addition to the obvious—his collaborative videos—the answer takes the form of, well, leftovers. These include props, costumes, and backdrops from performances, films, and videos; posters from performance tours; file boxes of archival materials (correspondence, scripts, grant applications, travel arrangements); tabletops and baskets loaded with artifacts of obsolete technologies (typewriters, rotary telephones, old video monitors, film reels, cassette tapes, remnants of “videophone” experiments); and grainy black-and-white photographs.
Much of this material evidence is mounted on the walls or organized into sculptural installations, together with paintings, drawings, assemblages, and puppets by Bull’s teachers, colleagues, friends, and collaborators, including Nobuo Kubota, Heri Dono, Shen Yuan, Kate Craig, Eric Metcalfe, Rick Ross, Patrick Ready, and Charmian Johnson. A soundtrack by pioneering electronic musician Martin Bartlett adds interesting audio texture to the displays in the upstairs gallery.
Curated by Joni Low and Pan Wendt, the show was organized by the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown and toured to a couple of other public galleries before landing in Burnaby. A few installation shots in the exhibition catalogue reveal how things were originally installed in Charlottetown, in a homey arrangement that suggests a productive live-work space. (Perhaps the attraction of this installation has to do with the soft ambient lighting and the golden glow of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery’s floors.)
At the BAG, the installation of objects and archival materials is broken up over two floors, which somewhat cools the effect and diminishes the possibilities of immersion in the Hank Bull experience. Still, an attempt at hominess is made by a wooden table and chairs set next to a stack of file boxes, shelves of knickknack-ish props, and a hooked rug placed on the floor in front of a video monitor.
It’s interesting to encounter, in 2017, the Dada-esque silliness and absurdity abounding in the earlier works on view, especially in the films and videos. Some of the silliness, such as that seen in The HP Sedan Bottle, a short, palindromic, black-and-white film shot in 1975, makes for oddly compelling viewing. Other manifestations of it, along with deliberately crude animation, acting, and directing, as in 1984’s Sax Island, do not wear as well.
The show’s organizers tell us that one of Bull’s most important contributions was his role in developing the possibilities of communication as art, including his involvement in mail-art networks and his early experiments in telecommunications. What I find most striking—and poignant—in this and other recent retrospectives of alternative-art practitioners from the 1960s and ’70s is their reminder of a lost world of collectivity, collaboration, and counterculture idealism. Deep sigh.