Forty-two years ago in Art in America, critics Thomas M. Messer and David L. Shirey struggled to define an artistic phenomenon marked by characteristics resistant to categorization: aesthetic inconsistency, indiscriminate choice of subject matter, a disdain for typical structures of commerce and publicity. Messer and Shirey titled their article, and the movement now known as Conceptual Art, the art of the “impossible.”
For the issue’s cover, the editors chose a work by The N.E. Thing Co., an artists collective from Vancouver, and contemporaneous to the conceptual art scenes of New York and Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Operating as a real-life company with multiple “divisons” (including a restaurant called “Eye-Scream”), the N.E. Thing Co. used its commercial status to pose prescient questions about the relationship between art and commerce. Founded by Iain Baxter& in 1966, N.E. Thing Co. was legally incorporated in 1969 (with then-wife Ingrid Baxter becoming co-president in 1971. The company is one of many aliases assumed by the Windsor, Ontario-based Baxter& over the course of his career.
Considered an originator of conceptual art in Canada (he conscientiously drew the art world’s attention to Vancouver, where he was an influential teacher), Baxter& has consistently resisted the dogma that circumscribed many early conceptualists. The diverse and often humorous activity he can attest to—his work as a creative consultant for the Labatt Brewing Company, the “Territorial Claim” he left and documented while in the North West Territories in 1969, and his current efforts to start a rock band—shows the mark of what might be called a particularly Canadian sensibility, or what Lucy Lippard, early in Baxter&’s career, identified as an “exuberance” that set him apart from artists she associated with in New York.
Small but career-spanning, “Canadian Perspective,” a solo exhibition curated by Chistophe Domino at the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris, seems to support this distinction. Including over 40 years of artistic production, the smart exhibition serves as a rehearsal for a larger retrospective being held at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago next year. Over the course of multiple phone conversations, Baxter& revealed how his formative interests in zoology, Zen Buddhism, and Marshal McLuhan—the odd triumvirate that led him to the singular practice he’s developed—continue to inform his art-making today.
MIMI LUSE: One remarkable work from “Canadian Perspective” is One Canada (1992), a collection of excerpts from about 100 hours of video footage you and current wife Louise Chance Baxter produced while traveling across the entire width of Canada. Elsewhere, you have mentioned the car’s windshield as a framing device for passengers. In relation to the exhibition’s title, can you discuss the importance of space and place in your work?
BAXTER&: Place and framing are all-important. The various ways we move through space, capture it, think about it… when you’re standing in a particular place yourself you’re actually placed there as a specific person or piece of information. The framing speaks to how we speak of our existence.
LUSE: You graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in biology and zoology in 1956, and worked briefly as a wildlife manual illustrator. In the early sixties, you issued a manifesto that read “an artist with the need to create original and radical works must [have] a clear field to look into… You don’t have to use accepted methods… ” I find the terms here instructive, and undoubtedly scientific. In the sixties, you shifted the onus of representation from an aesthetic realm to one that is ruled by a much wider field set by variables and controls—orchestrating, for instance, the photographers of North American Time Zone Photo, V.S.I., (1971) a piece that displayed the results of simultaneous photography captured in five different time zones.
BAXTER&: In a way, because of my scientific background you’re pointing out something interesting. It’s not there in a deep heavy way but it’s there and it’s underpinning the way that I probably think.
LUSE: The effect is an experiment. Everyone used the same kind of film, and the photos were developed more or less under the same conditions. Laying controls over these instances, you’ve mimicked what observational science does. I’m also thinking of the way you bagged every item in a four-room apartment in a plastic bag for the work Bagged Place in 1966. In each case, the quotidian is not just represented but becomes a specimen or object of study. The limits and specifications of an artistic medium are replaced with the systems of science. What led you to transpose this model?
BAXTER&: In a way we are the specimens. I’m just one of them. I’m a pattern thinker. I see lots of different things all at once and I reflect on them and I think about the ways they could be social, political, or artistic. But spirituality is also part of my life. The Zen Buddhism experience, [Baxter traveled to Japan in the fifties on an education grant] and the fact that I grew up in the United Church—these religions are searching. I have a certain drive to explore and I dragged that background into making art. So you can see how when I ran into Marshall McLuhan it was just amazing, to see how all of life is basically just information.
LUSE: Regarding your early work with the telegram and the telex, you have mentioned that turning art into pure information was a means of extending the presence of the marginalized Vancouver art scene in the 1960s. How did the dematerialization of the art object allow you to bypass the art-world power structures that were in place?
BAXTER&: I wanted to see if there was a way to work with McLuhan’s thinking and take it into the art world. The telex [an early, text-based form of fax machine] was a simple, inexpensive device and I could have one in my house. You couldn’t send images but you could send words. In 1970 Harper’s was trying to define conceptual art and I sent an editor working there a telex right to her desk. She got so excited she printed it as a lead image. I was able to penetrate the mecca of power in New York in this other way. I did that quite a bit in different places like that. Then, of course for the “Information” exhibit at MoMA (1970) and I had a telex in the gallery and I would send things. They would go up on the wall. Those were the real early things.
LUSE: With the founding of The N.E. Thing Co. you initiated a project that would photodocument ordinary objects, labeling each with a gold foil seal that either designated it an “Aesthetically Claimed Thing” (ACT) or an “Aesthetically Rejected Thing” (ART), highlighting the social arbitration of what is ultimately deemed sacred and profane. How did this project figure into your ideas about Duchamp and his legacy?
BAXTER&: He, of course, was a primary resource for all of us. My main drive is a responsibility to society. I think that’s because I never expected to be an artist. I always feel, “Oh it happened to me, I can turn other people on.” I can talk to anyone about my art, and I don’t use rarified art speech level. I’m more interested in getting the ordinary guy to change the ordinary guy’s life a little bit.
LUSE: I am thinking of a work like Animal Preserve (1999) [a visual pun made by forcing toy stuffed versions of endangered species into mason jars filled with distilled water], which is directly concerned with “raising awareness.”
BAXTER&: That’s been a burning issue for me since studying zoology and biology. Moving into the arts it gave me a global or interconnected way of thinking. And if you’re thinking that way, your message should get out there.
LUSE: Recalling her first encounter with your work, Lucy Lippard wrote that she found your work more “exuberant” and communicative than anything happening in New York at that time. And there was certainly a great deal of satire in the pseudo-bombastic legalese of your official N.E. Thing Co. founding documents. Can you discuss the importance of parody or play in your artistic production?
BAXTER&: For me it’s a major ingredient, and I’m sure you’ve read a fair amount of McLuhan-it’s one of his ways of functioning. Through humor you penetrate the individual’s persona and they let their guard down a bit. For me it always creeps into my work. I don’t know if I specifically do it. Eastern philosophy also has a way of dealing with humor. The zen koan [an enigmatic aphorism that is often irrational].
LUSE: The N.E. Thing Co. was kind of a Trojan horse. You were slipping art into the everyday by masking it as an object of consumption.
BAXTER&: The N.E. Thing Co. is an absurd and generic name. You don’t even think about those words, they are imperceptible. That’s why I also like the word “&,”and why I’m trademarking my name. Another thing I’d like to do is to move towards making more commodities. Like clothes and shoes. I’d like to work with a number of designers to come up with objects to make our lives more fun.