The Hal­i­fax Con­fer­ence

Canadian Art - - Contents - by Craig Leonard

What makes an era, a scene, a rep­u­ta­tion? To re­pro­duce a smooth and rea­son­able pic­ture of the past is to be com­plicit with ex­ploitable nar­ra­tives in the present. While the back­ward gaze can seem glo­ri­ous when past events achieve mythic im­por­tance, it is only through his­tor­i­cal cri­tique that we gain a Þrm foothold to chal­lenge the in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tions of es­tab­lished be­liefs.

Take for in­stance the tan­ta­liz­ing whis­pers of some­thing called the Hal­i­fax Con­fer­ence. In the Nova Sco­tia Col­lege of Art and De­signõs his­tory, the con­fer­ence is within a vaunted canon that in­cludes the Projects Class, Lithog­ra­phy Work­shop and NSCAD Press. For some, th­ese ref­er­ences point to an­other time when ne­olib­eral ra­tio­nal­ity did not dom­i­nate and an en­light­ened ad­min­is­tra­tion was in lock­step with sub­ver­sive con­cerns; for oth­ers, they are only dusty ci­ta­tions that are ir­rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary mat­ters. Against the hy­per­bole of the for­mer and the my­opia of the lat­ter, a re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the con­fer­ence pro­vides a reßec­tion on the lim­its of in­sti­tu­tional dis­course, while ex­pos­ing the con­tem­po­rary art worldõs po­lit­i­cal am­biva­lence.

On Oc­to­ber 5 and 6, 1970, the con­fer­ence hem­or­rhaged aes­thetic and ide­o­log­i­cal conßict dur­ing its gath­er­ing of renowned artists, or­ga­nized by gal­lerist, pub­lisher and im­pre­sario Seth Siege­laub. As de­scribed in the orig­i­nal press re­lease: Òthe Hal­i­fax Con­fer­ence was con­ceived as a means of bring­ing about a meet­ing of rec­og­nized artists rep­re­sent­ing di­verse kinds of art from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, in as gen­eral a sit­u­a­tion as pos­si­ble. Ôwhat will hap­pen is im­pos­si­ble to fore­cast,õ says Seth Siege­laub.ó Siege­laubõs ac­cu­rate anti-prog­nos­ti­ca­tion is matched by the ob­scu­rity of the con­fer­enceõs go­ings-on, due in large part to the poor au­dio and video qual­ity of ex­tant doc­u­men­ta­tion. Even still, there has been am­ple in­sti­tu­tional use-value in cit­ing its ros­ter of par­tic­i­pantsñ Joseph Beuys, Lawrence Weiner, Michael Snow, Carl An­dre, Robert Mor­ris and N.E. Thing Co., among oth­er­sñwith­out ex­ca­vat­ing the ac­tual sub­stance of the de­bates. The video­tapes ver­ify what is known of the con­fer­enceõs leg­end: dis­cus­sions were held in the col­legeõs board­room, while stu­dents and other in­ter­ested par­ties watched on a video mon­i­tor in the gallery be­low; and the sep­a­ra­tion of pan­el­lists and stu­dents, which re­mained con­tentious from the out­set, dra­mat­i­cally in­cited stu­dents to pour into the board­room, in ef­fect, bring­ing the con­fer­ence to an end.

Yet, be­yond set­ting and story, the video­tapes also con­tain a record of rich, though frag­men­tary, di­a­logue that pro­vides Þrst­hand rev­e­la­tions of some of the par­tic­i­pantsõ com­mit­ments re­gard­ing art and pol­i­tics at the time. Beuys crit­i­cizes An­dre for demon­strat­ing an un­di­alec­ti­cal Òone-sid­ed­nessó (Ein­seit­igkeit) while An­dre ac­cuses Beuys of en­dors­ing ex­actly Òthe po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness that gets you the war in Viet­nam.ó Weiner badgers painter Richard Smith to see art as his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­fact in­stead of some­thing with tran­scen­dent value. Mor­ris de­nounces the fal­sity of the con­fer­enceõs po­lit­i­cal and artis­tic claims, warn­ing stu­dents and his peers about the im­por­tance of con­text and the power of in­for­ma­tion. And, in a cli­mac­tic dis­rup­tion, a telegram ar­rives from the Womenõs Art Work­ers (sig­na­tures in­cluded Lucy Lip­pard), con­demn­ing the ab­sence of women at the con­fer­ence (mi­nus In­grid Bax­ter as one half of N.E. Thing Co.). It states: Òpay your dues. We are due for ours.ó

When one re­plays the con­fer­ence to­day, its dor­mant sub­stance comes to light, along­side the chance to re­dress its glar­ing blind spot­sñits hubris, hero­ism and hi­er­ar­chy. By dra­mat­i­cally em­body­ing th­ese con­tra­dic­tions it be­comes pos­si­ble to Þnally cast them aside. ■

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