Robertson’s one-man museum

Retrospective exhibit Then + Then Again showcases video and sound art from professor Clive Robertson’s expansive career

Robertson, who became a Queen’s professor in 1999, listens to his work at Modern Fuel.
Robertson, who became a Queen’s professor in 1999, listens to his work at Modern Fuel.
Robertson selected the exhibit’s video content from 40 hours of material.
Robertson selected the exhibit’s video content from 40 hours of material.

Fine Art Review: Then + Then Again @ Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, until Feb. 17

Then + Then Again is a difficult exhibit to take in upon entering the exhibition space at the Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre.

The collection is an archive of Kingston-based artist and Queen’s University art professor Clive Robertson’s work since the mid-60’s, making it, perhaps, more suited for a museum space than
a gallery.

Created in a mere six weeks, Then + Then Again showcases the video and sound art of Robertson’s
expansive career, and also questions the nature of the space in which it is shown. Although he
acknowledges the convenience of putting his material on the web as an alternative to exhibiting it in a
fixed space, Robertson delights in the idea of the gallery as a space where people can come together
and share their thoughts. “All this material could have been put on the web—I almost did,” Robertson said. “But not everyone has a computer. And this discourse couldn’t happen,” he said, referring to several groups of people milling about the gallery.

“People meet each other and talk about the art. With an opening it’s not really just about the show, it’s
also about meeting with friends.” That said, Then + Then Again is not designed to be contained simply within the walls of Modern Fuel. A small station has been set up within the gallery space to burn CDs of Robertson’s sound art.

There are also four DVDs available to be loaned by visitors. Clive Robertson has worked with artist-run centres like Modern Fuel for most of his career. “I think [artist-run centres] are very important because they do create a certain amount of flexibility.”

The ability to respond to others’ work and have artists respond to your own work is a valuable resource, Robertson explained. “It’s an attempt to deal with others the way you want to be dealt with.”
But Robertson admits there are contradictions within the artist community and similar alternative communities. In his song “Rhetoric on the Run,” the lyrics of which are posted on the door to the
exhibition space, Robertson points out that “artists want control of their own lives / artists want other
people to take care of business.” “These places [artist-run centres, community radio stations,
etc.] exist because people want to do something different, but they are also places where people gain
training. But they can be infantilized too much, because not everyone wants to use that training in other, more mainstream outlets.”

Then + Then Again is comprised of four viewing stations for Robertson’s video art and two stations to listen to his sound art, which include electro pop, dub poetry, ’80s new wave and soundworks, as well as a new disc of work by a New York City-based sound art duo, Nerve Theory. Placards and display cases of stills from Robertson’s work, as well as responses and other memorabilia decorate the gallery, adding to the museum-like quality of the exhibit.

Videos in the exhibit are divided into four categories—music videos, documents on documentation, performance video and installation, and works that stem from Robertson’s involvement with the artist group, Fluxus.

“They were a generation ahead of us,” said Robertson about Fluxus. “They mentored me in the 1970s.”
One of the videos belonging to the music videos category is a hip hop video called “Nuclear Breakdown”. The video, which Robertson suspects is one of the first of its kind, includes the work of Queen’s writer-in-residence Lillian Allen. Robertson also worked with Allen on her first EP, Dub Poets. The EP was produced on the Voicespondence label, another of Robertson’s projects, which was a free-access recording studio for people who had never worked with recording.

A fellow Queen’s professor was involved in many of Robertson’s projects. Robertson’s partner Francis Leeming, who teaches in the film studies department, starred in and helped to produce several of Robertson’s video projects.

“Trade Winds”, which is part of the documents in documentation category, was made in six days in 1992 and features Leeming and Robertson as news “anchors” giving a broadcast in a row boat.
Robertson, whose work often deals with political and social themes, made “Trade Winds” as “a commentary on NAFTA.” “Art isn’t a social movement, but it usefully relies on energy from other social movements.”

Then + Then Again is a travelling exhibit, and will visit artist-run galleries in Quebec,
Ontario and Saskatchewan. Then + Then Again will be at Modern Fuel in Kingston until Feb. 17.

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