Krzysztof Wodiczko spoke about the Canada Council in 1983

In 1984, Krzysztof Wodiczko published an essay in Parallelogramme based on his lecture, “The Bureaucratization of the Avante-Garde” given at Rivoli Cafe in Toronto a year earlier. He warns against the dangers of integration with “the present central bureaucratic process of political, social, or cultural incapacitation and moral capitulation of the entire artistic culture”. He sketches out a comparative analysis between the artistic climate of the Warsaw coffee shop and the Toronto bar.

My own and my friends’ lives in my native Poland of the sixties and seventies consisted to a large extent of conducting, as a daily routine, a continuous critique of the cultural policy of the central bureaucracy. The main place of the exercise of our opposition was, of course, the coffee shop, an important cultural site of intellectual and artistic discourse in Poland. […] The more liberal and flexible in their strategies the “state ideological apparatuses” were (the coffee shop is one of them), the more difficult it was for us to see to what degree our sharp, restless, and detailed critique was adopting the enemy’s linguistics and subjecting us deeper and deeper to its seductive site, to its mastery at indoctrinating our souls, and awakening our unconscious drive for collaboration, and desire for bureaucratic habits, style, language, aesthetics, philosophy, and power.

The statements and complaints made in the coffee shop were appropriated by the Polish state (through monitoring, recording and informants) “as an illusion of its liberalizing process, to reinforce their operational capabilities, and, in the end, to serve the mechanisms of bureaucratic legitimation.” The contrast between the authoritarian one-party system and that of a ‘liberal’ stoic democratic organization becomes increasingly blurred as we focus on the similarity of the ‘artistic’ atmosphere and ‘cultural climate’ in Poland and that of the Canada Council, a country within Canada.

One learns that within the capitalist-liberal state of Canada, this bar belongs to another state (a state within the state), that is, to the aristocratic “state” of the Canada council. The Toronto site of the romantic dialectics of capitalist madness! This is a Canada Council bar, in which the trapped spirit of a middle-class artist is tossing between a desire for democratic egalitarian capitalism and that of a postcolonial bureaucratic aristocratism. 

Institutions and bureaucracies inevitably try to perfect the mechanisms that will perpetuate themselves through information control and ‘feedback’, acting superficially in a self-controlled way, in ‘opposition’ to themselves.

The Canada Council, as in Poland and in every authoritarian machine, must neurotically produce its own “coffee shops,” alternative publications, and spaces, in order to control its own position and direction and to serve itself as a medium of critical discourse on its own future.

The ultimate victory of the Canada Council lies in a perfect camouflage of its main cultural effect: “a total bureaucratic pacification of the intellectual creative power of the artistic intelligentsia and artistic culture”. The language and gestures of the artists and bureaucrats becomes indistinguishable

Looking closer, one will be able to disclose a horrifying phenomenon: what was for Warsaw a nightmare or an imminent danger (not yet reality) received its total three-dimensional realization in Toronto. Finally everyone appears to be both the artist and the bureaucrat. In the happy and comfortable atmosphere of life in this state-hi-cultural-bureaucratic musak, in the climate of final reunion of old enemies, artistic (antibourgeois) and modern state (bourgeois) avant-gardes, in the aura of communion of the bureaucratized artist and the aesthetisized bureaucrat, the Toronto artist intelligentsia elevates itself to a much higher level of collaboration than artists in Poland. It approaches the conscious level, the level which I shall call cultural corruption!

The Canada Council contributes and supports the existing political balance by remaining politically silent and still. “By not saying anything, on the one hand, the Canada Council reinforces the modern liberal state, and on the other hand, by overstating the romantic notion of ‘creativity’ it degenerates art to cathartic kitsch and separates it from any political, social, or philosophical sense.” The cultural bureaucracy functions as a modern aristocracy and high priest that “protects, coordinates, steers, governs and understands for everyone” the climate of spirituality that is necessary for democracy. Changing the Canada Council from an oligarchic system into a democratically elected one would only serve to further assimilate the left avante-garde into the existing democratic corporate/capitalist system, resulting in a completely balanced one, a

“back-and-forth movement of two terms” (“artistocrats” versus “cultural workers”), a permanent spectacle which will not be the spectacle for us – we will be the spectacle.
Once again (as if nothing ever happened in the 60s), we are living the time of a corporate/commercial and bureaucratic incapacitation of art. This time it manifests itself culturally in various forms of dissolution or capitulation of the artistic intelligentsia and takes the form of a decadent revival of pseudocritical, anti-intellectual “expression” in art and the ornamental, skating irresponsibly on the surfaces of history – “postmodern” design manipulation.

Wodiczko concludes with a clear recommendation for “the formulation of self-governing artist’ economic organizations and agencies, the gradual detachment of the artistic cultural community from the centralized state bureaucracy, and the organization of nonbureaucratic, small and flexible ‘Intelligence”-like working institutes and other, yet to be defined, artistic-educational institutions”. Contrary to the state bureaucratic, these organizations are always ready to dissolve themselves, and could actually help “to rescue and revive our stolen souls from bureaucratic protection, annexation, assimilation, and appropriation; to return to collective or individual constructive critical knowledge, independent and systematic artistic research, and a sense of social place.”

Interestingly, the NFB produced a film about Wodiczko’s projections.

Wodiczko quotes are taken from: Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews. MIT Press, 1999

Critical vehicles: writings, projects, interviews, For the Incapacitation of the Avante Garde in Canada (1983), p32-34
full-text at Google Books

[Edited from Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Feb 24, 2007]