Sometimes you can't tell exuberant self-expression from mere mean-hearted aggression. It's a fine line I contemplated two weeks ago when a crowd of frenzied art students suddenly ripped apart and utterly destroyed a gallery to the hammer beats of digital hardcore.The evening started innocuously enough. Two shows were being staged in the same venue at Art System, the Ontario College of Art and Design's student union gallery on Spadina. One was Art System's final show, an eclectic arrangement of work paying tribute to all past exhibitors.
The other, in an interior space within the gallery, was the creation of a group called the Art Firm. It consisted of a bar and turntables, the minimal essentials for a party. The installation attempted to ask if people attend art openings to party or to appreciate art.
Upon entering the gallery, people were forced to decide whether they'd come for the art opening or the party. If self-identified art-goers were found drinking or smoking outside the permitted area, they were politely handed a piece of paper that read, "If you have been given this notice, then you are not engaged enough by the art. If you are usually this distracted at art galleries, then maybe you just need new art.'
These missives were received with reasonable equanimity at the beginning of the evening, but after a couple of hours the mood turned. Attendees started to get testy and crumple their notices, throwing them back at volunteers.
By 11 pm, full-scale wrecking had broken out. Soon, clothes were covered with plaster dust and hands were bleeding. A cluster of young people were gouging a couch, a parking meter was rupturing a wall, rubble was being used as into wrecking tools and partiers were hanging upside down from the rafters. One of the volunteers yelled, "We're all going to die!" when a wall fell and nearly crushed her. The Art Firm installation was absolutely demolished, as was the other exhibit.
The gallery resembled a bomb site, but a happy one. Dancers stripped to their underwear, DJs spun music, a naked couple splashed around in a giant vat of wine, and some poor soul puked against a wall.
Who fomented this fury of destruction? No one seems to know. And when asked whether he thought the wrecking was an artistic expression or simply drunken, out-of-control mayhem, Jubal Brown, director of the gallery (and renowned upchuck artist) replied, "What's the difference?"
Was he at any point worried about his own safety, I ask?
"Well, a hammer came through the wall and almost hit me in the head,' he says. "I was worried about an electrical fire when the lights started exploding. A few people stepped on nails, and there was blood splattered on the floor, but the excitement and energy overshadowed any pain."
Looking back, he deems the show "the most exciting, most successful art event in recent memory. The eruption that occurred was a veritable throbbing gristle of creative/destructive energy, an energy spontaneously and collectively generated and experienced, a rare and precious thing."
When I ask Dan Rocca, an active destroyer, why he participated, he says, "Some drunk guy gave me a hammer. I figured since I had a hammer in my hands I might as well tear down a wall." Yet, Rocca adds, "I heard after I left that people started destroying the art work. I wouldn't have gone that far."
Members of the Art Firm express conflicted feelings about the happening. They agree the response was natural and full of raw emotion, but it can't be respected as artistic. Mark Sprott says, "If human desire and basic instinct reactions dominate (over an artistic statement), then you end up losing control over any meaning that society can grasp."
Their installation, he says, was an experiment to show contemporary galleries their responsibility not to let the social aspect take over the focus of an opening. And ultimately it was a perfect way to comment on Art System's history.
"They've always had parties that have gone late into the night and have almost nothing to do with art," says Sprott. Perhaps the remains of the exhibit demonstrate the Art Firm's point, that Art System was more of a "party palace then an art gallery."
The Art Firm's Jason MacIsaac adds, "What kind of statement are you making by wrecking a couch?"
It's possible the uproar was just the the outcome of an alchemical mix of drunk students and a gallery closing. But both sides agree that it was a kick-ass party -- and apparently so does the guy who paid $20 for the last beer.
In the end, the Art Firm was left without a decent show, and Art System has the biggest mess in Toronto on its hands. Landlord Danny Silverstein seems unfazed. "They have to clean it up,' he says.
Art System director Brown says he'll continue to mix art with fun, energy and emotional participation.
The Art Firm? Well, they want to tell the world, "Make better art."