A Conversation with Vincent Trasov.
It was a huge honour to sit down for coffee with artist, Vincent Trasov in his long-time collaborator Michael Morris’s apartment on a Saturday afternoon. Trasov’s accomplishments are many and he is well known as a patriarch of Vancouver-based correspondence and performance histories as well as a founder of the legendary artist-run centre, Western Front and the Image Bank (now Morris/Trasov Archive). Since the '70s, he has also produced a vast body of paintings, drawings and text-based images, a thoughtful selection of which are now on exhibit at his retrospective at Trench Gallery (until June 17, 2012). Like all this isn’t reason enough for my excitement to speak with him, his work has been very informative to my own art practice in performance, archives and my work as a publisher. He is a true archetype of the interdisciplinary artist.
And, of course, he ran for Mayor of Vancouver in 1974, as Mr. Peanut.
William S. Burroughs – Endorsing Mr. Peanut. 1974. (Photo: Jim Chohanik)
...There’s nothing more boring than getting some kind of a link in an email without it being personal. That’s a big difference. I don’t think it has the personal touch to it anymore...
Lauren Marsden: I started doing performance art in the last 3 years and what’s funny is that I was taking on these personas that were kind of official characters in the wrong place at the wrong time, mostly in some kind of ridiculous costume, before I knew about Mr. Peanut. And then I discovered that project. It has informed, almost in a retroactive way, some of my own work.
Vincent Trasov: So Mr. Peanut had been one of your influences?
Yes. Very much. Especially the idea of playing with those official rituals in public space and making fun of them and using them to make ambiguous what’s actually happening because there’s some kind of freedom in that, I think.
We call these projects Art City projects. A way of animating your surroundings so even before the mayoralty campaign, we would just go on walks like a group of artists, some in costumes, others taking photographs, also with the use of props. Props were very important in terms of giving your surroundings perspective and including the people walking on the street as part of the theatre. Not necessarily poking fun at anything but just going out to Queen Elizabeth Park and standing next to the Henry Moore sculpture, that sort of thing.
It’s reactive to the environment.
How did the idea for the Mr. Peanut for Mayor project come up?
That came from a fellow artist, John Mitchell, who’s no longer with us. But he was very much into Joseph Beuys’ idea of social sculpture. So he was a sculptor and he had the idea of having Mr. Peanut being on a monumental level like the Sphinx in Egypt or the Statue of Liberty in New York. He thought, well, every city and civilization has its monuments and Vancouver has its Mr. Peanut. That was his artistic premise. And in that particular election in November ’74, there were no real issues that would have taken our scope away from us. If there had been important things, we would have been out of place. But there weren’t, so it was a bit of an anarchistic performance in which I was larger than life so the candidates did have to deal with me at all-candidates meetings and there were a lot of TV interviews and stuff like that.
Mr. Peanut at Vancouver Court House (Photo: Bob Strazicich)
And you didn’t ever actually speak?
No I didn’t. So, John Mitchell was my campaign manager and spokesperson. We had a platform of course. Michael (Morris) gave the idea for the platform, the letters PEANUT: P for Performance, E for Elegance, A for Art, N for Nonsense, U for Uniqueness and T for Talent. That program, I live with to this day.
If you had been elected mayor…
Uh oh, yes….
What do you think would have happened? What would you have done?
I think I would have just kept it on a diplomatic level, like the artist as diplomat and not gotten into the daily routines of politics. I would have been much more interesting as a figurehead, welcoming people to the city, taking them around, which is what I do anyways.
Do you think that Mr. Peanut did become a monument in Vancouver?
Yes. Especially in terms of the work that I’ve done since. That was kind of the ultimate performance in terms of me being Mr. Peanut. I was Mr. Peanut for five years and at the end of the mayoralty campaign, it seemed like I couldn’t do anything more in terms of wearing the costume. I’ve outgrown the costume anyways. (Laughter) Since then, I’ve been working on these drawings such as this Mr. Peanut sphinx….ink on paper. That was the first one, back in ’77. My favourite medium is ink drawings. So I keep those up and they fall into different fields, there’s the monumental drawings, the First Nation drawings where Mr. Peanut is at a totem and that refers to my anthropomorphic research in the beginning. And then there’s Mr. Peanut in daily life situations. Mr. Peanut and Mrs. Peanut and child, that sort of thing, some erotic Mr. Peanut drawings. This I keep up as I’m moving around and if I don’t have much workspace, it’s quite a neat way of being able to carry around a pad of paper and couple of pens and pencils. I don’t need anything more to continue work. I don’t need a studio space.
Vincent Trasov. Ink on Paper.
There’s something about the relationship between performance – the actual event, the time and place and that only certain people could actually be there and then how it circulates in the world over time, beyond just the official press photograph. And this part of the project has some legs that keep walking throughout time.
And we were always interested in media art. I won and John won, posthumously, the first mayor’s award for media art.
Which is appropriate.
That Mr. Peanut campaign was a tremendous effort by many people involved in the media. They got off on it creatively. So whenever one does a work, one wants to try and get it out there. Whether it’s your own publications but if you can get the straight media to pick up on it, all the better. So, it’s worth such a lot, if you had to buy commercials and what have you. And they want input, they don’t just want to be telling us bad news.
It makes me think of the Media Burn project, which was happening around the same time.
We know Ant Farm very well. And they’ve gone long way. They get lots of exposure now in Europe.
And that particular work really got traction because the media came to the performance.
Is that the one where they drive the Cadillac into the burning TVs?
Yes. And Doug Hall performed as John F. Kennedy, with Bostonian accent and all.
That was before your time.
Yes it was.
And then they did that fantastic Cadillac Ranch. That’s an amazing piece!
That’s a monument too. So, we see these different kinds of monuments, one is mediated through the circulation of images and one being an actual physical object planted in the ground that people will make pilgrimages to see. When I think about Mr. Peanut and that project and how it’s influenced me, what I think about is a kind of political ambiguity. I want to hear your thoughts on what that means and why that’s important. One of Mr. Peanut’s political platforms was “No Comment”.
Another comment was, “Life was politics in the last decade, life will be art in the next decade.” So, we are trying to steer people onto the idea that art is life. If you want to call that political, that’s fine. I continued doing the word paintings in Berlin and this was when the wall came down in 1989 and I noticed that, in East Berlin, they were changing the street names, mostly of communists, freedom fighters, political street names. And so I did this large painting on separate pieces of paper but all coming together of all the old street names and new street name changes in East Berlin to continue this idea of making a statement about politics but not taking a stance one way or the other, leaving it open so people can form their own opinions about whatever.
I use that same strategy in my own work because I think that there’s something very important in it. We have enough politicians or there are things happening with development in the city that do take a stance and you can be reactive to it but maybe artists have the ability to just pry open a space where you’re not being told what to think and I think Mr. Peanut really exemplifies that. That figure is ridiculous but maybe that’s how you can break down all these expectations of having to take a stance.
Nothing’s black/white anymore. It’s a mess…I don’t know the answer either. I’ve survived as an artist up ‘til now and I hope I survive a few more years but it hasn’t been all that easy all along. That’s another statement to make about ‘what are you doing to ensure your survival?’ That was what John was trying to get across in our platform…to empower the citizen to make his own destiny and not be relying on politics.
We are kind of in our “Bush years” in Canada. It’s so conservative. One can’t avoid it, even as an artist, even if one doesn’t engage directly with politics. You use a lot of abstraction and intervention in your work, you’ve used ambiguity and not taking a stance. Do you think that there’s anything that can be done with that kind of abstraction in a conservative climate. Does it actually do anything?
It becomes harder and harder to be an artist, I think. Even if you are an artist, it’s a very conservative time we’re living in. That it’s expected that an artist get a Bachelor of Art and get a college degree, is absolutely ridiculous but that’s the time we’re living in. It’s the same in Germany. Just being left up to some kind of chance private enterprise to support the arts. It’s a difficult time and especially if you’re a young artist.
How have you survived as an artist all these years?
Fortunately, I’ve been supported financially by my wife, Silvia Krankemann, in Berlin. I haven’t supported myself on the sale of my work. There are a few sales coming in now and again and one’s not a complete non-entity. It’s hard having a relationship with a gallerist. And maybe this is the start of a new era with Craig (Sibley of Trench Gallery) because he sounds like he wants to try it on a long-term basis. Maybe that will be a turning point for me. I hope so.
I hope so too because, in a lot of ways, I think through your work and also the whole Image Bank project, you’ve been invested in the circulation of images freely where it’s not the case that when the artwork moves from one place to another there is a financial transaction involved. There is so much access to your work online and you provide access to so many other artists’ work through the Image Bank and so I think there is integrity to how you exist as an artist in a network but then how do you pay your bills?
Maybe after all these years there will be a bit coming our way. That would be nice. I’m not a very good business person.
That’s why you were able to do something like the Image Bank!
We were in an altruistic time when we were doing the Image Bank and sending out the mailings and having people come to Vancouver to live and work at Western Front and take them up to our summer place on the Sunshine Coast and continue the celebration up there. We still live that way today of course. It gets a little more difficult getting around these days physically. I’m not into traveling all here and there. With the Image Bank, we knew the people through the mail and then we went and met them. We went down to California and New York and Toronto and they came here. I don’t know if that’s happening so much anymore. Not for me anyways.
The Image Bank has been written about as a precursor to artists sharing images over the internet. Do you think that the Image Bank as a correspondence network had qualities then that you can’t find with the internet now?
We would send out so many letters a day. Communication was a fairly banal thing but there’s a different sense to getting a piece of paper and doing a work on a piece of paper than there is doing it in front of your computer. Often the things we sent were little works of art. We did the Image Bank Postcard Show, which was asking people for their original designs which we published as postcards. The postcard was the perfect format. You could do a work on it and then you posted it. Again, it was necessary in order to survive because we weren’t going the route of institutions and we had to create a public and that public is hard work. We did it one by one and I still do it on a one by one basis when I, for instance, send an email invitation I don’t just send it to twenty people, I send it to one person at a time with a little message. There’s nothing more boring than getting some kind of a link in an email without it being personal. That’s a big difference. I don’t think it has the personal touch to it anymore.
I think about the relationship between the mail art practices of the '60s and '70s and Twitter today. Yoko Ono is a good example because she’s basically doing the same kind of work she did back then with mail art but now on Twitter. She’s a Twitter superstar. She carried it over to a new form but it’s still different because what you’re talking about: that intimacy and physicality of the mail.
And it’s got everything to do with time. We thought we were pretty fast back in those days to get a letter off…air mail, special delivery. For instance, we didn’t have to use letraset anymore for designing a page, it was typesetting. We thought we were like Speedy Gonzales (laughter), you know with rapid offset or Polaroid. It was fast then but it’s faster today. It doesn’t really affect the end result and they all say it’s so physically time-saving. It’s bullshit.
Image Bank business card, 1972. Accession no. 32.12.2 letraset layout (Photo: Morris / Trasov Archive)
I don’t really miss out on anything when I’m not on the internet.
Exactly. But I like Google, where you can look something up and verify something that you’ve been working on. I like that a lot. It’s about whatever you’re doing, being aware of time and your existence and you’re not going to be around forever. I don’t like stress situations because I don’t have that feeling anymore about my life. Which I need, I need to have that sense of order and I’m aware of time and existence and art is life.
Do you think that the internet moves too quickly and things get missed along the way?
Well, you can waste a lot of time that’s for sure. I don’t think it’s made things any different in the long run.
I really like the idea of telepathy. That is one of the words that is used to describe Image Bank.
Robert Filiou’s statement about telepathic music. Exactly that.
Do you still experience telepathy?
Yes, with many things and I know how to shut it off right away too if it’s not appealing.
When does that happen?
I don’t know it’s just always amazing when it does happen. Then I think of Robert’s idea and reaching out in the eternal network.
Can you explain telepathic music?
I just did as much as I could. It’s a phenomenon. You don’t expect something or somebody and suddenly it’s there. I had a Russian grandmother who lived to almost 100. She died about 20 years ago and she was a great cook. One of her recipes was for borscht, which is a soup. In our case a vegetable soup and that’s been passed on to her great-grandchildren. I make borscht at least once a year. My nephews and nieces make borscht and they’ll pass it on. I don’t make borscht that often but whenever I do it’s like making telepathic music with my grandmother.
So it doesn’t always happen simultaneously?
It’s like the lifespan of an artwork, it’s not just about artists or people thinking the same thing at the same time it actually goes across time. So that’s a conundrum to hold in one’s head, right?
Yes. That’s very good, yes. Are you into telepathic music?
Well, it’s kind of a new term to me. I guess I could say that I had a telepathic experience with Mr. Peanut because I was working in that tradition and didn’t realize it and then when it appeared to me, I saw the connection but it was from 40 years ago. So it’s kind of like time travel.
I think I had the same experience with Mr. Peanut too because, how did that come into my head? I remember as child having a Planter’s Peanuts colouring book where Mr. Peanut’s taking you on a tour of the Planter’s Peanuts factory. And I think I remember a few Mr. Peanuts in parades going back to those days so that was my telepathic music when I decided I would animate Mr. Peanut. Drawing was my first project as an animation and that was very tedious and so I thought if I made a costume, I could animate even further. Once I was in the costume, people started calling me Mr. Peanut and I assumed the alias.
It’s almost like you or I or anyone could just be a vessel for all of these latent memories and images and then at some point you have the will to activate it. Mr. Peanut came alive through you at a particular moment but it was always there.
Other people fill the vessel too. I turned it into 3-dimensions because, if you know Robert Fones, he’s a Toronto artist and back then in the late-60s early-70s, he was also interested in anthropomorphism and he did this book on anthropomorphiks. Can-D-Man, Michelin man, you name it. But he was only interested in the 2nd dimension. In fact, when he came out here we actually made a costume with him, a candy man costume and he wore it once and that was it. He never wore it again. And that was a big difference. He never got off the page.
Art Rat, Candiman and Mr. Peanut at Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver 1972 (Photo: Morris / Trasov Archive)
So back 40 years ago, you got the impulse to wear the costume and make a live spectacle in front of people. Do you still have those impulses today?
It’s much more simplified now. I feel that just being with people in whatever situation is like a performance. To me it’s like carrying on a conversation that’s half interesting, trying to animate a conversation. Which is much different from Mr. Peanut because Mr. Peanut didn’t talk. It took me quite a while to come out of my shell.
Are there similarities in your performance work and your paintings? Some of your painting is performative in how it comes to be.
Especially the ones that were done with fire or with heat. That was definitely a performance, heating the works and seeing that they weren’t being destroyed and using fire and heat in a non-destructive way. Nowadays, I’m more into the privacy of my studio and working in a contemplative, personal way.
So you’re still doing work up at your cabin in Robert’s Creek?
Yes. That’s another most contemplative form of work, sitting up in the second floor in my cabin. I have a nice look out the window towards the garden.
That is the romantic image of the artist in nature and isolated. Which is such a contrast to you as a public, political figure. So this property we’re talking about was called Babyland, which was a communal space back in the day. What is it like now?
If I can get up there in the summer, coming from Berlin. Mick Henry, a former potter, lives up there all year round. I have all respect for him. He used to make pots, now he makes earth. He lives off his own garden all year round. He has huge garlic plots and potatoes and beans, which keep him going all winter. It’s totally an oasis up there really. There’s a creek and there’s over 15 acres and now all around, it’s pretty well subdivisions. Back in those days it was communal, we used to live up there all summer and almost everybody that came to Western Front, we invited up to Babyland. That’s not really the way anymore.
It was back when it was more of a utopian, young, communal environment.
Culture meets nature
What do you think will happen with that property?
It would be nice if it became a park but who knows. Mick will live there until he’s 100.
What was it like at the Western Front when you first started?
Sometimes you were not even wanting to run into people in the building.
Because you were too close to each other maybe.
Yeah. But then there would be other times when it was just the opposite and there would be life-giving celebrations where everybody was right on track which was the utopian experience. It was pretty phenomenal. I remember when Hermann Nitsch came and did an action. It was a creative act that almost everybody felt the effects of.
What was the action exactly?
It was the first action he ever did for video tape and he usually gets from the slaughterhouse, a steer. And goes through the rituals of cutting the animal open and the entrails spilling and the blood spilling out. At Western Front, we did it with fish so we got this huge ling cod, which was so big that it could fit over the performers’ torsos like a cover. He got fresh blood too. I’ve seen a couple of his performances where they really do make you aware of the forces. They do have an affect on you. And the music too, it’s sort of primitive noise and simple, and not even with instruments. It brought us all together.
Were those events open to the public?
Usually Nitsch’s performances are for the public. This particular one was a special production for video. It was different. But that was our forte there at Front, video production. He came to the right place.
It’s different when you invite artists to a space where a group of people are living. It’s something that doesn’t happen as much anymore.
It could be 24/7
So you have lots of good and lots of bad.
And there’s even more responsibility. You have to consider that the person is a person and has needs and to make sure that the bed sheets are clean and make sure there’s towels. Living with people…
That’s ‘art is life’.
You touched a bit on how this could be a new era of you selling work, is there brand new work in your show at Trench that no one’s ever seen before?
Oh yeah. The drawings go right up until this year. I’m still working on that format of unit pieces, making up a larger whole.
So it’s still the text work?
No. It’s the same kind of process. Not so much the heat process, just painting process. Without the text.
Have you stopped doing text based work?
I did those paintings of the street name changes and then I thought that was time for a change and that was 20 years ago. That was about a 10-year time of doing word paintings. Now, it’s basically drawings and paintings but without text.
So you are making unpunctuated fields.
We were talking with Craig Sibley about some of your text work from the '80s and how some words are more relevant today than others and so, do you feel like this work changes over time?
Vincent Trasov, Terrorism/ArmsRace/Drug Wars (detail). 1987. Gouache on Paper. 19.25′ X 59″
I hadn’t thought about that until I had a look at that green drug painting. It was before the time of these drugs that are in fashion nowadays…
Like crack and ecstasy…they’re not in there.
No. And so now it’s romantic.
They’re like time capsules.
Would you say that there’s any work that you’ve done that was a total failure?
I’ve thrown so much away, I’m ashamed. Absolutely.
Maybe to fully burn them is the most logical conclusion for those works.
Tons of failures. I’m sure everybody has tons of failures. That’s the resilience we have….that’s the one thing about me going from one medium to the next. I get bored with one medium and when I’m bored I now it’s not going to help to keep working on them. I go from painting and then I go on to several drawings and then I go back to painting. And the archive (Morris/Trasov, formerly Image Bank) takes up quite a bit of time too.
And this archive is not just your and Michael’s work. It’s a huge community worth of work. And right now it’s accessible a little bit online but mostly you have to go to the physical archive and request to see the work.
Yes. It should be more online. It’s a lack of employees. It’s kind of a disaster that it isn’t. But hopefully it will be soon.
Do you think it was more accessible when it first began than it is now?
It’s coming along. People can research it but it’s best when I’m there and we can go from one box to the next and just go through the stuff.
That’s a very special experience for someone to have because you can’t always be there.
There have been some very good visits that way. Luis Jacob from Toronto and went through the entire archive and produced a catalogue called Golden Streams about the period. And Felicity Taylor did a project for the National Gallery on that period. So there is that potential and I hope that can be developed more and more now that there’s an education officer at the Belkin. We have to give people a sense that there’s something interesting there. Make them curious.
Sometimes I wonder if you give up too much and make it too accessible, something gets lost. I sit on the fence with that. Should the whole thing be digitized? Should every archive be digitized so that potentially the whole world could at least lay eyes on it? Or is there something important in actually making the effort to go and see it in person.
There’s a big difference.
There’s a library in San Francisco called the Prelinger Library. Rick and Megan Prelinger had such an extensive collection of obscure books that they decided to open up this library. I spent a lot of time there and I remember speaking with Megan Prelinger one day and she said something that will probably stick with me forever. She was talking about how there’s all this pressure with the internet to make everything instantly accessible, universally accessible and there are undertones of democracy in that. And they’re only open one afternoon a week, and they haven’t digitized everything, it’s a huge collection. And their idea is that, when you are there in person, there is no catalogue to orient yourself within the collection and the discoveries you make as a visitor are mostly accidental. They are hoping that you’ll find the thing next to the thing that you thought you were looking for. And that’s a very special experience and that there is something very valuable to restricted access. She blew my mind with that. And we are so used to hearing that everyone should have a computer and everyone should have access to the internet and that everyone should have equal access to the internet but maybe that’s not really democracy.
I think that’s only one possibility.
Because if you can slow things down, and be in person with the collection, you can’t just skim through it quickly like you would with the internet. And you do end up finding things you wouldn’t otherwise find. I really value that experience.
I know exactly what you mean and with the Morris/Trasov archive, you could come up with any one of many topics and write your doctorate on it. It’s open in that way.
But it comes down to time.
Michael and I were the ones who created it and there’s been very little written about it. The accession list is supposed to be descriptive. And we’re the only ones who can describe this and that. And we’ve got a huge task on our hands trying to get that developed and it’s very very slow. I try to do a little bit of writing each year on different subjects.
It’s a beast! It makes me think about your capacity for memory and how it might shift. You’re responsible for memorializing these works but you might be wrong and misremember something.
I’m pretty good with dates. When I write it’s more like documentation. Like a list of events and Michael’s very good at filling in concepts and links but together we don’t do too bad a job. He’s so interested in re-examining his earlier work for a new public. His busy doing that while I have the opportunity with Craig to re-examine my recent historic work for a new audience.
How old are you?
I’ll be 65.
Do you have any wisdom to impart to young, struggling artists?
Well…good luck to every person who wants to be an artist. It’s hard work ahead. But it’s worthwhile. Thank goodness we can do it and we’re not living in Syria or someplace like that or a dictatorship. I’m married to a woman from East Germany and she got out before the wall came down but boy, I’m glad I wasn’t having to grow up behind the Iron Curtain. I think artists have to be non-conformists. There’s no way that you can conform and be an artist. That’s what’s unique about it.
Art is the thing that is not anything else. You can’t always put your finger on what it is but at least you know it’s not anything else.
If you’re going to be unique you’re not going to read about it first of all in an art magazine.
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