05 Aug

Props to the fairy people

Active since the early 80s, the Creemore, Ontario-based couple FASTWORMS (Dai Skuse and Kim Kozzi) have evolved an art/life cosmology that unites every creature, scrap of cultural detritus and social scene into one harmonious and hedonistic union. The arena for their aesthetic alchemy is subcultural style–working class, youth, stoner, witch, goth, queer, cat-fancier, pirate, country, anarchist, all filtered through pop mediation, camp adoration/irony and an amateur’s loving hand–and their methods are collaboration, craft, collecting, movies and manifestos. They have carved out their own burrow in the Toronto art ecology: home-spun and tactile unlike meta-media barons General Idea, cryptic and mystical unlike fellow maximalist Allyson Mitchell, and raffish and cute unlike the Dionysian John Scott. Art is not merely their life but their religion–and their apostles are everywhere. The WURMS’ breed of casual socializing-cum-performance has been a vital part of their practice from the beginning, making them not only pioneers of what is now typically called ‘relational aesthetics,’ but also catalysts in the dynamic Toronto art community as well. (As different as their styles may be, it’s hard to imagine artists like “service-oriented” collective Instant Coffee or even the prodigious Luis Jacob without the WORMS.) They have arguably served as a model for Dave Hickey’s view of art as a “mode of social discourse, a participatory republic, an accumulation of small, fragile social occasions that provide the binding agent of fugitive communities” in a scene that has changed dramatically during their three decades of production. Delighting in culture surfing and social scenic crossover, the duo mash up all manner of subcultural signifiers into a creolized, impure utopia.

The WURMS’ ethical system–which brings together the most radical and compelling elements of witch and queer cultures, or essentially, “do what you will, harm unto none”–is an animistic rejoinder to the restrictions of civilization with our humans-only burdens of guilt, shame and self-doubt. As media theorist Sean Cubitt states in his essay “Drawing Animals” (2005), “human desire is founded on loss and lack, while animal instinct is presumably ordered by presence and fullness, since it is never mediated by those prohibitions that shape humanity” Into id more than super-ego, their copious videotaping, photographing, mark-making, crafting and scavenging of objects–not to mention the excess of their display strategies–adds up to a radical art practice based on desire and pleasure. They have called into being a sprawling menagerie of plants and animals–cats, frogs, owls, bats, vultures, spiders, snakes and more–united in one voracious, polymorphously perverse supernatural clusterfuck.

In Jim Trainor’s animated film, The Moschops (2000), one of the two narrators is a female “moschop,’ a mammal-like reptile that lumbered about the earth over 250 million years ago. As is characteristic of Trainor’s unsettling anthropomorphism, she bears the weight of a soulful, articulate self-consciousness that usually only humans carry. Atone point she dryly intones, “We didn’t love each other exactly, but we all slept together in one big stupid pile.” Through accumulating nearly a decade’s worth of architectures, objects, drawings/ paintings and videos into one such “big stupid pile” at the dynamic duo’s recent survey exhibition DONKY@NINJA@WIWCH at the Art Gallery of York University (which then travelled to the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver), the artists’ similarly perverse worldview was bountifully on display.

FASTWURMS filled the long and narrow exhibition space with an overwhelming accumulation of, well, stuff. Considering how shiny and new the space still appears, two years into the AGYU’s occupation of it, the pair faced an enormous challenge in dressing it up in their fiber-accessible shabby chic, but they succeeded through sheer excess and reams of charm. Through the copious use of that old do-it-yourselfer’s standby, pegboard, they managed to transform the somewhat sterile and pristine gallery into a row of pseudo-flea market stalls that called to mind–and mocked–the booths familiar from the international circuit of art fairs. Their crafty aesthetic and practice, based on hoarding, respects no distinctions between round versus handmade or trash versus treasure in its relentless amassing of objects–talismans not tchotchkes–and their attendant pleasures. The pair’s imagery is viral: an object, symbol, figure or animal–horseshoe, pentacle, ghost or mouse–may first appear, say, on a denim patch but soon finds itself on a poster or a flag, painted on the wall or sculpted out of string (a practice called symmography), such as the monumental, grotesque bat crafted specially for the AGYU. By multiplying their elements, each FASTWURMS stall at the AGYU remixed and expanded projects from the past eight years that took place in various spaces on Queen Street West in Toronto, many of these installations-cum-rituals overseen by the strip’s grande doyenne, the gallerist and artist Andrew Harwood. (Both of these descriptors fall short, some how: “installation” sounds too formal, as they are more like the residual mise-en-scenes of crafting, socializing, play and performance; “ritual,’ meanwhile, comes off far too rigorous for the joyful libertinage of their projects.) It should be noted that the artists camped out in the AGYU in tents during the protracted month-long residency/ installation of their collection. Living space and exhibition space became muddled much like it does throughout their artistic process, with craft work at home happening in front of the TV when they are not editing videos, writing polemics, teaching at the University of Guelph or caretaking their homestead and their feline buddies.

Activating the spaces they create through a combination of socializing and performance is a key component of the FASTWURMS’ approach. At the AGYU, two projects in particular testify to the important role played by Harwood and his Zsa Zsa Gallery (1998-2005) in the FASTWURMS’ practice. House of Bangs (1999), is a hair salon of your wildest dreams, with walls covered in an assortment of wigs and implements both for hair styling–driers, curlers, blades–and seamier purposes (such as a big blue glass corncob virtually begging to be inserted into a hungry orifice). Hair clippings from the exhibition’s opening night collected on the floor are all that remain of the TLC doled out to an appreciative public by hairdressers FASTWURMS and Harwood. Blood and Swash (2002), meanwhile, is a shrine to denim and drawing, to the art brut of bored high school students doodling on their blue jeans with Bics. A tattoo parlour for dilettantes and dabblers who don’t want to commit to anything permanent–unlike the braver convicts, sailors, bikers, metalheads and punks whom the space invokes–Blood and Swash was like a clubhouse for worshipping the transformative potential of the pen and marker with Harwood, the WURMS and other friends playing badasses and inscribing the temporary tats on all takers during the show’s opening night.

Projects such as these can be seen as allegories of the role of the artist in post-everything culture; there is an eschewal of aesthetic authority and mastery in favour of the devising of stimulants for social exchange. Thus, artists become tradespeople and craftspeople, embracing nonelitist and collaborative creative forms (craft, specifically textiles, has a particularly prominent place in Toronto’s scene). They also bring to their work a very casual and mundane approach to materials that resists any lingering post-Nauman mystique around the artist’s studio and the mythic, hard-won labours that emerge from it fully formed into the light of day. “Artist” is instead seen as a role to be self-consciously performed. The WURMS playfully enact the artist as bohemian, as arbiter of cool, as party animal, as shape-shifting magician, as mediator between dangerous and exotic subcultures and a culture-hungry educated elite. They fulfil out desires for transgression with the bravado of an adolescent poseur’s game of dress-up, wielding the universal language of style and the emblems of a cult we all want to belong to.

The projects the artists undertook at Zsa Zsa were provisional, limited by what could fit into a car, and, because they took place in the summers–when the FASTWURMS have time off from their shared professorship–outside the commercial art calendar cycle, they avoided the pressure of having to make sales. Attesting to Zsa Zsa’s openness and its status as an interactive, semi-public space, its bite-size floor plan blending with the street life outside, the hair salon and the tattoo parlour were service-oriented projects where enthusiasm trumped expertise and everyone who walked in–artists, queers, mental health patients and neighbourhood residents–could depart transformed, not only by their new ‘do and Sharpie tattoo, but by the class-mixing, queer-inflected sociability encountered within.

In a 2004 article in C Magazine that was originally written for the 47th Venice Biennial, “Show’s Over Folks, More Along: The Institutionalization of Art and the Secret Life of the Underground” curator Philip Monk discussed how what were once considered transgressive subcultural expressions are now completely integrated into the mainstream entertainment industry and thus rendered banal, leaving art desperately searching for new margins: the “show really and truly is over.” (1) He suggests that “the ‘underground’ today is a “representation” and that the idea of an underground became the subject of the generation that came of age after the 60s, who began to make work in the 80s (as the FASTWURMS did): “Can an image alone sustain some reference to the underground without being its actual documentation? Are reprising roles enough to keep a dialogue with the idea of the underground at least intermittent?” These are the images and performances that compel young people to become artists and join art scenes. With the AGYU exhibition, the FASTWURMS were a perfect case study for Monk’s concerns. They employ forms of sociality and marginality that Monk associates with the suburbs and their denizens’ distance from and desire for the underground and its pleasures, for which art is a “compensation.” Like Larry Clark, for example, but with greater irony, FASTWURMS remake and re-embody the underground from a geographical and temporal distance through performing its roles and rituals. They do this not from an American suburb, but from the relatively provincial position of Toronto in relation to New York. Riffs on self-fashioning are endlessly replayed in their work, promiscuously cobbling together subcultural identities from bits and pieces of whatever is around. This form of stylistic self-creation as collage has deep roots in the FASTWURMS’ Ottawa punk youth, while Monk’s curation explicitly aligned the duo’s witch identities with the queerness of the West Queen West scene.


Some call this practice “queer world-making” and one could draw provocative parallels to the demonic invocations of avant-garde wunderkind and Crowleyan occultist Kenneth Anger, who similarly patched together a huge range of styles and scenes–from sparkly Hollywood glamour-pusses to depraved bikers–in his indelible films. In conversation, FASTWURMS point out that the definition of the word “occult” is something hidden, and their work uncovers the buried codes that make styles legible. In their videos, which have become prominent pieces of their installations, pop culture found-footage is juxtaposed with performance, thus casting every visual artifact as a kind of artifice or drag that anyone can accomplish simply by roping in one’s friends and improvising some costumes.

The animal is also central to the FASTWURMS’ oeuvre. The way we look at and represent animals cuts to the heart of our unspoken collective anxieties about the limits of the human. When I mentioned how little academic attention the phenomenon of animal cuteness receives and the oftentimes physical, gut reaction felt in the face of cuteness, Skuse dubbed the feeling a “heart orgasm” and slyly pointed out that this visceral response is precisely what many find lacking in contemporary art, a cool detachment that some blame for art’s inability to attract a lay audience. It is no surprise that animal imagery is so omnipresent in visual culture, considering how its pleasures are so instinctive and affective, or, as some see it, generic, easy, even Pavlovian. But for the FASTWURMS, cute animals are never the paradigm of pitiable innocence, fuzzy vulnerability and disempowered objectification that cultural critic Daniel Harris suggests they are in his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic (2001), but in a very real way they are treated as equals–within the heart orgasm can lie the most intense expression of empathy. Opening up their cosmology beyond the human widens the FASTWURMS’ sphere of community to all creatures. Jumping off from Commoner’s first law of ecology, that everything is connected to everything else, Cubitt proposes that drawing animals as the FASTWURMS consistently do becomes the “conduit” for “trans-species identification” In their artists’ statement, “Witch Nation: Directive from the Ministry of Information,” they declare that “in the Witch world, the ‘other’ is understood to include all peoples, animals, plants, the vast web of life, the universe.”

A “web of life” in microcosm, Gusset Nation (2004) is an ode to pussy power and pussy play–both feline and vaginal. Giant spider webs built from geometrically organized panties span the room (crotchitecture?) intertwined with colourful yarn to form a pet pussy’s wet dream. On a video monitor near a catnip crafting station, Pussy Necropolis (2004), one of the duo’s most downright entertaining tapes, plays on a loop. It is a rousing collage of post-mauling Siegfried and Roy headlines and clips, B-movie ancient Egyptian cat myths, cartoons and footage of their wickedly cute quartet of identical, yawning kittens in their own roiling, “big stupid pile” of striped ginger fur (all to the strains of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”). Animals are frequent stars in other FASTWURMS videos as well; one is unlikely to forget the vultures in their mesmerizing Red of Tooth and Kaw (2001), for example. Untrained animals rarely do what they’re told when the camera is on, permitting us to witness creatures simply being themselves, free of the burden of serving as our metaphors: at the end of Pussy Necropolis, a cat proudly tosses a delicious rodent at the cameraperson’s feet, while an enthusiastically leg-humping dog steals an already slapdash scene of rowdy pirate play in the video for the installation Pirate Head (2004). Meanwhile, trans-species communication is satirized in their short video Telepatbacats (2003). Here the FASTWURMS’ convoluted, incantatory language of hand gestures attempting to manipulate a couple of cats in the snow is juxtaposed with a scientist engaged in very similar “magic” to control the operation of a dauntingly high-tech piece of machinery. Here, science and the supernatural collide, and neither offers a satisfying prescription for dominating the Other, whether animal or mechanical.

DONKY@NINJA@WITCH served to underscore the radical uniqueness of the FASTWURMS’ practice–perhaps paradoxical, considering its relentless game of cultural call and response, and its staging of the artist as go-between for seemingly disparate subcultures and species. Their lusty, righteous, all-encompassing belief system has included and influenced many other artists in Toronto, animating much of what is most exciting about art in this city. In fact, their soaring Woodpecker Column (1997) with its two bird-priests situated near the Skydome stands guard over–and at night, illuminates–Hogtown’s pagans, queers and other artists not far from that other tower (the straight one): a bent signpost for a whole metropolis’ carnal and creaturely urges.