the id is: 3195

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Collective Simplicity and Global Mass Artput

By Flick Harrison

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It's Wednesday night, and the members of the Royal Art Lodge have gathered in their Winnipeg studio for the weekly work session. They quite casually hand the phone to one another, letting me fire off questions almost endlessly, refusing only to call on Hollie Dzama ("I'm just too shy to talk to strangers," she later emails). Every time they speak they reveal new connections, new side projects, new art forms at which they excel. I can't quite keep up.

Are Neil Farber and Micheal Dumontier the two members of the depressing rock-band Eyeball Hurt and the Medicine? Is it Drue Langlois who writes the infinite-character, nonsequitur storyline superhero comic Protoprize, or his brother Myles? Is the new 16mm movie "Micro Nice" by Myles and Michael about the kitten who gets trapped in a grocery store and meets a vampire or is that the short story by Hollie and Michael? Which one does the sound sculptures? Who built the kite with a free-swinging microphone and a speaker, so that as the wind blew it around, the thing would make screeching feedback? Is it Hollie's brother Marcel that paints with root beer ("It should last forever because it is a non-acidic root beer base.")? Who had the show in Dusseldorf, who's in LA next month, when was the Padova, Italy show? And who am I talking to right now, again?

The RAL is a Winnipeg-based drawing collective, ranging in age from Hollie at 17 to Marcel at 28, that's pushed their folksy, insane and irreverent group drawings into the Western European and North American art spotlight as if through the sheer power of numbers. During the recent RAL group show in Vancouver, a man bought a drawing from the incredibly large selection of work on display, but when he came back to get it, he couldn't remember which one he chose. The drawings tend to blur together, consisting as they do of modular pop-culture iconography, such as definite if unplaceable cartoon characters, all rendered in childlike line and colour from the primitive to the sublime. It's a cornucopia of vampires, flappers, cowboys, lizards, period children, fantastic creatures, electronic cats, superheroes, robots, babies...most of which turn up again in videos, dolls, drawings, comics, and whatever other medium you can think of. The Royal Art Lodge's output is not unlike what future police sketch artists might create if they were trying to reproduce 20th-century culture from tattered artifacts and scans of petrified brain cells but without violating copyright. (Well, Marcel did draw a Tin Man and George Burns for a while, but has since chosen to retire them--the group also sneaks in the Fantastic Four now and then.)

The pop-culture-as-art tidal wave of post-Warhol imagoguery seems a little desperate, as if art fears for its significance if it doesn't lay claim to the geiser of icons which blows through our daily lives. Artist as warper and juxtaposer in a world too full of visuals to warrant any original creations. But if post-printing-press popularity is inversely proportional to artistic merit, is there some alchemical formula of pop + art = mass enlightenment sans sellout? It's with their tongues firmly in those cheeks that the Art Lodge reaches bargain-basement Nirvana. Only half-jokingly does Marcel refer to Kalas Puffar (http://w1.871.telia.com/~u87125105/honey.htm) as the "Picasso of cereal."

In Lahore I once met the great Sufi poet Najim Saeed Sahim, who skillfully avoided all questions by claiming to know nothing about Sufism. It was a maddening and obvious guru trick, yet 100% foolproof: whoever denies he is the messiah must be the messiah! I couldn't help recalling that moment when Marcel told me, via email, why he'd had more publicity than the other Lodgers:

"One time when I first met Dracula, he introduced me to some people who introduced me to some other people. It's hard to explain really how it all happened. At the time I didn't even believe it was really him. It was not until later that I realized that it really was. He's much taller in reality."

The humility and honesty in this answer is as obvious as the tension and the old dodgeroo; but being in a collective means that all benefit from the success of one. The group has soared to fame partly in the wake of Marcel, whose lunatic cultural extractions are currently in the lead. When the fickle public drops him, there's five more to pick up the banner. However, they only officially call it RAL when a work is a collaboration amongst all of them.

"We were all in the same art school," Michael says, referring back to 1996 when they first assembled, "Because there were a lot of people that were doing narrative, figurative drawings that kind of related to each other... we thought we could get together and see what would happen... The name Royal Art Lodge was sort of a joke."

"One person would draw a background," Drue explains, "and then one would draw a car or a person or an action." In a typical evening session, they can pump out 50 drawings.

"We quit a month ago, we're taking a break," he continues. "Marcel and Neil have shows coming up they have to draw a lot of their own stuff for."

He also worried about the fast-pace, freeform style. "I didn't feel like I was doing the best work when we were doing those, I feel like I was getting worse. You can get too loose; and then maybe your own work will suffer. But being loose can help you too."

"Anything where you spend a lot of time on it is going to be better. I guess it's just two different ways to make things, when you're drawing really fast drawings, it's just coming straight out of your subconscious. One's as good as the other, but I prefer things to be thought out more. When I don't think about it, it's okay but I don't feel very proud of it."

On the other hand, the group authorship is liberating - the artist can feel a release of responsibility.

"You can do whatever you want and your name's not on it - and that's why we end up doing more experimental [stuff]... they get pretty gross, sometimes, too. But we don't show people those ones...usually."

There's a policy in place now whereby the Lodgers assess their work at the end of each session and chuck lesser efforts into a large suitcase marked with a skull and crossbones: the to-be-destroyed box. Myles hesitates to mention it, but confirms that it is now bulging and the destruction will soon have to be actually carried out.

"At the end of a meeting we sit around and do a rating system," Myles says, "of the best quality, the middle and to-be-destroyed. It's just really bad jokes, anything that somebody went for the easy joke, or the tasteless joke, we don't want them to end up in shows... We talked about a bonfire. It's been around for a while."

I would have to imagine their older comic series called "Living with a drunk" would fall into the to-be-destroyed category if it were created today. Imagine the following with scratchy, quick sketches as illustration:

Larry: Tipsy, why are there 2 women in my house?

Tipsy: Hey, it's cool Larry, this ones for you. But watch out, she's already pregs!

Or another one:

Tipsy: Pretty cool, hey, Lawrence, I can write my name in the snow!

Larry: No it's not so cool you wrote it all in red letters Tipsy

Myles concludes: "If someone broke in here to steal electronic things, and then they accidentally grabbed [the suitcase]... knowing that was out there would be pretty horrifying. You just reminded me... we should probably get that stuff destroyed."

In a kind of inversion of this concern, Michael finds the group drawing/creative process liberating.

"I'm rigid, I work in a certain way. But when collaborating, your part is anonymous... it lets you go places you wouldn't go, wouldn't be brave enough to go on your own."

Like all the Lodgers, his creative dance-card is pretty full - the kitten/vampire story is his with Hollie and will become a comic. His sound sculptures have included a table with a record-player arm built into it, so that whatever happened to the table would get translated through the arm into a speaker system. Sewing machine pedals, bits of string, a bullhorn, dried peas, paintbrushes, and a spinning rubber wheel all contributed to the cacophony. He recorded some of the sounds but preferred the live performance, since the physical making of the noises was visually important.

"I've struggled with it, whether I should be doing so many things," he says. "But by doing so many things, I'm always doing something, and that makes me happy. [If not] I end up getting stuck and depressed... as a group, we don't have an agenda, we're committed to working nonstop."

And the Lodge banner has been helpful in other ways.

"Because this name that's associated with us whether or not it's collaborative, a banner over everything, it's obviously helped us - it's helped expose people to our individual work."

Then he gets reflective:

"It's pretty complicated I guess...I can see it being difficult to shake...uh...if I ever wanted to."

He and Farber, by the way, made the above-mentioned squawking kite together and sold a picture of it on Ebay for 25 cents. It was to a kite collector who felt guilty and gave them $2 instead. The kite tore itself apart regularly, and is still in R & D turnaround.

The Lodge seem to want to play down the commercial aspect of art, and Drue expressed annoyance at a gallery in Toronto, for example, buying their art low ($75) and selling it high ($300). "We wanted to sell them so people like us could afford them - people who don't have much money... That's just a rude thing to do - to buy something from somebody and sell it for three times as much."

He also found having an agent annoying. "I used to have an agent, I don't anymore. They become sort of possessive of you... they won't allow you, say you were showing stuff in their gallery, and say you wanted to show stuff in some other, like a student gallery in the same city, really small, and charge whatever you want, they wouldn't let you do that--I just thought that was annoying. I'd rather be poor and happy."

"Most of us are living off of our artwork," Drue says, "although for some of us, the standard of living is so low that it's not saying much." He'd rather concentrate on his multiple creative projects than the business side - making homemade comics and photocopying them, for example.

"Everything's connected for me. Michael and I make songs together, we also make dolls together so we have sort of a doll company. And then the comic books I make, I make those characters into dolls too, so those dolls are different. And my brother and I make comics together and also this movie."

He's referring to MicroNice, a 40-minute 16mm film based on their own comic - funded to the tune of around $30,000 by the City of Winnipeg and the Canada Council. It's not about a kitten and a vampire - it's about superheroes." He actually went for full-on effects, opting against ironic cheeziness. When the protagonist tears out a barber pole and flies away, they'll use a computer to take the strings out. Ditto a scene with a medusa's writhing snake hair.

Drue's brother Myles made the film with him. Myles also makes comics, films and videos, and anatomical drawings that fold out in transparent layers to see under the costume, skin, down to the skeleton. He also writes fiction and scripts. Collaborative work is important; that's why he's in the Art Lodge.

"It's a big social thing," Myles says. "And I'm not a social person. It's a lot of fun, too. Being able to laugh and just have fun. Filming the movie, too, is a lot of fun."

The group-work aesthetic seems to be influential on individual work; Protoprize, Drue's nonsequitur superhero comic, is grounded in the hand-off writing techniques which made their earlier group-stories so strangely compelling. Michael once wrote a story by cutting out sentences from books, then Drue illustrated it. In "a pack of Reading Fun," a zine-ish comic wherein someone would draw the first panel and another Lodger would draw the second, they seem to try stumping the next person with either a hopelessly oblique panel or a painfully obvious set-up. In one, a long-nosed, toothy character named Jeffrey arrives on the shore in a giant ship, proclaiming "I'm back from my long voyage." A similar creature on shore responds, "Do you have the keys to our house?"

Protoprize contains like-minded twists. As a black-hatted villain escapes from his foiled bomb plot, he takes a sudden detour to pick up his dog from the vet. Then the door busts open and a man yells, "There's seventeen of us outside and we're here to kick your ASS!" Radiana, the hero with bosom envy, chases the villain with the aid of a passing kid who has a tracking device hidden in his guitar "for some reason". And so on.

"Well, the characters should have freedom," Drue understates.

Everyone talks about the various arguments for and against Winnipeg, where the bunch is based - their studio is west of Main. Hurricane blizzards, small town blues, cheap rent, geographic centrality, lively arts scene are all bandied about. Drue finds parts of Winnipeg pretty depressing. "There's way too many panhandlers on the street lately. I went outside the other day and this lady collapsed on me and she was bleeding. I brought her in here [to the studio] and she went unconscious...stuff like that's been happening to me a lot."

Michael insists I take note of Jon Pylypchuk and Adrian Williams, two founding Art Lodge members who have since left Winnipeg for L.A. and Montreal respectively. When he says it, the fact of the rest of these world-class artists sticking to Winnipeg really hits me. Perhaps I can explain it by quoting Dorothy, since the RAL often visually quote the Tin Man:

"No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home."

The Scarecrow sighed.

"Of course I cannot understand it," he said. "If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Manitoba would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Manitoba that you have brains."

Okay, so I stuck Manitoba in for Kansas. But the vision of a simple Prairie girl aching to blow mystical Oz for a lonely, boring farm resonates with the simple art collective resisting the bright lights of New York and L.A., and perhaps adds to their folksy appeal.

They also collaborate with other artists on occasion; in Vancouver they've done group drawings with artists Jason MacLean, Marc Bell (who runs the Hollie Dzama fan club) and Robert Dayton. And who knows how many others they've encountered in their travels?

And just as I think this article is finished, chock full of goodies, I get an email from Farber, who prefers to be interviewed textually rather than by phone. He directs me to his girlfriend's website, http://www3.mb.sympatico.ca/~prance/home.html which sells 80's toy artifacts and videos (care bears, transformers, my little pony, Jem, and on and on) and includes an amazing collection of Italian toy ads from the same period. It's surprising how abstract these ads feel, removed in time, space and cultural context in such minor ways. Their design and imagery are directly from the memory-backup of my youth, but to see so many familiar American mass-market toys at once saturating some non-English country leads to a cultural dizziness; Italy, America and Canada merge as Corporate Post-national colonies in my head.

In this hyperculture context, and in light of Farber's statement that cartoons were his first attraction to art, it's worth quoting the Perugi artecontemporanea art gallery catalogue from Farber's show in Padova, Italy (which incidentally lists him as being from the "state of Manitoba"). Writer Guido Bartorelli expounds:

"One of the aims of industry and mass media is to break out of localization. Given that this tendency has been going on since the Sixties, years of economic boom and Coca Cola, whoever was born after, like Farber and me (1975 & 72), has grown up in an environment for a good part shared by peers scattered over the five continents... the industrialized countries. Beware of undervaluing these distant experiences, because they leave a lasting impression on a child's soul. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is not important. It's extraordinary, a radical innovation, that Farber - and he isn't the only one - should become an artist by following a reflective path directed not towards art in its strict sense, but to comics."

It may be a stretch to politicize the simple childlike work of the Royal Art Lodge, though I guess one can (and should) think about the politics of any expression. The fact that they are often hilarious - and every joke, as we know, is a tiny revolution - is a welcome breather from the seriousness of most art. If you try to describe their work to someone, you'll both chuckle, and the pop references are like a shorthand within that dialogue. The drawings themselves pretend at pointlessness, isolated moments, useless knowledge, but the critical mass of a dozen or so of the images viewed in any sequence begins to create something entirely other, an Eisenstein montage which maps itself onto your subconscious. As watching a full season of The Simpsons can produce a sharp joke for every conceivable occasion, so consuming all the RAL's work could subvert every image you ever see again. They've created an expansive visual collage but also a medium montage of zines, books, films, music, puppet shows, and dolls. The pervasiveness of their ideas and forms, combined with the humility and wit of the execution, is what lets them strike a chord with nearly everyone - they're as accessible as Kraft Dinner.

The collective process is also quite an anarchist approach to art - no auteur egotism in the group drawing sessions ($1 bets not withstanding), and the group must stand together in defense of their works. The deceptive simplicity and tiny size of the work suggests a populist sensibility, an announcement that complexity of technique and spectacular production values are not the be-all and end-all of creative expression.

Though it would be boobishly incorrect to characterize the Lodge's work as low-quality, their massive output evokes brilliant hacks like Picasso and the assembly-line ethics which run our society, almost suggesting that artists must compete in quantity in order to have an impact on our image-infused, crowded and cacophonous social landscape.

It's hard to say whether there are more of the RAL's actual original drawings, or photocopies of their zines and comics. Contemplating their prodigious productivity, I think of the Art Factory in the 1972 Mexican film "The Holy Mountain," where the artist-corporation creates "A new line of art every season." Rows of workers splotch paint across a naked ass in front of them, which then sits on a piece of paper. They pass it to the next ass-painter team, which repeats the action in a different colour. It's a scene The Royal Art Lodge would appreciate, if not emulate and joyously subvert.

Contact the various denizens of the Lodge at: royalartlodge@hotmail.com

Flick Harrison is a filmmaker and writer in Vancouver. His new digital feature Longshot better get accepted into the Toronto Int'l Film Fest and lots of other fests besides. He maintains Stockwell Dork.com and Armed Rabble.com

The Royal Art Lodge spreads its tentacles from Winnipeg

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