Conceptual Nationalisms

The abstract for my doctoral thesis! Successfully defended the 29th of September.

Conceptual Nationalisms: Conceptual Book-Works, Countercultural Imaginaries and the Neo-Avant-Garde in Canada and Québec, 1967-1974

Felicity Tayler, Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Humanities
Concordia University, 2016

Recent exhibitions have redefined conceptualism as a global movement that emerged alongside locally situated experiences of national liberation movements, New Left social activism and countercultural world-making. This thesis proposes an art historical term, “conceptual nationalisms,” as a contribution to the historicisation of conceptualism as the movement emerged in Canada and Québec. The term retrospectively describes book-works and magazines produced by an overlapping artistic and literary neo-avant garde, which evince the symbolic value of print media forms during the post-Centennial period (1967-1974). As funding for the arts increased and converged with labour policy in this period, the relationship between state ideology and a conceptualist critique of the art object as a commodity became intrinsically intertwined. Many conceptual book-works and artists’ magazines were produced alongside publications issued by literary small presses, as such, this thesis also recognizes parallels taking place between the linguistic turn in conceptual art and literary movements such as concrete, visual and sound poetry that emphasize the materiality of the signifier in language.

This thesis introduces three primary case studies: Roy Kenzie Kiyooka’s Transcanada Letters (Talonbooks, 1975); the Image Bank International Image Exchange Directory (Talonbooks, 1972), which parallels the publication of the first three issues of General Idea’s File magazine (1972-1989); and a utopian “linguistic space” produced in the early days of Véhicule Art gallery, with reference to several publications including the magazine, Médiart (1971-1973), Quebec underground, 1962-1972 (Éditions Médiart, 1973), and Bill Vazan’s Contacts (Véhicule Press, 1973). I also refer to two foundational works: Joyce Wieland’s True Patriot Love/Véritable amour patriotique (National Gallery of Canada, 1971) and Michael Ondaatje’s long poem, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: The Left-Handed Poems (House of Anansi, 1970). These case studies draw from wide range of interdisciplinary thinkers including art historians, theorists of utopian thought and the creation of counterpublics, and scholars of literature and print culture, with particular reference to the national publics documented through the encyclopedic, History of the Book in Canada project.

Combining visual analysis, bibliographic and archival methods with research-creation, this thesis argues that works of conceptual nationalisms arise from countercultural social scenes where a politics of eros challenges fixed identity dispositions imposed through media, both domestic and imported. Invoking the affective state Herbert Marcuse described at the time as, “polymorphous perversity,” these case studies disidentify with a sense of nationhood based in shared language, blood or territory, relying instead upon the psychological drive of libido as a universalizing biological trait. The visual symbols underpinning national identity are simultaneously internalized and reinvested with an erotic ambiguity that manifests as Romantic irony and self-parody. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s media theory, one could say that these case studies use communications media to produce a “counter-environment” within the nation. As works of conceptual nationalism, they reflexively engage an aesthetic transformation of the social imaginary that constitutes a nation-state.

With thanks to my Examining Committee:

Dr. Andre Furlani (English), Chair
Dr. Johanne Sloan (Art History), Supervisor
Dr. Jason Camlot (English)
Dr. Daniel O’Leary (English)
Dr. David Tomas (École des arts visuels et médiatiques, UQAM)

External Examiner:

Dr. Elizabeth Legge
Department of Art
University of Toronto

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