By Bart Gazzola
There’s a dearth of self-congratulatory rhetoric in cultural communities about being uniquely “different”: but I favour Theodor Adorno, whom acerbically observed that when confronted with something genuinely groundbreaking, most people fall back on the shameless assertion that they “don’t understand”. Look at the accolades filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is garnering, internationally, and the silence he endures, in his native Canada, to see this illustrated.
I suspect this attitude – a virulent discourse in Canada, where academic groupthink is more subtle, and quieter, but insidiously pervasive – is why bill bissett is not widely proclaimed as an odd, difficult genius, though he clearly is one. His collections of poetry include Th influenza uv logik, Loving without being vulnrabul, Scars on th seehors, narrativ enigma, and northern wild roses. Many cultural historians are obsessed with labeling and compartmentalizing artists: bissett breaks and defies that sloth.
bissett treats language and speech as a mutable, protean thing, writing phonetically / frankly. The idea (or certainty) that language is surely a virus (perhaps you saw Eric Schmaltz’s Babeltech Industries™ presents The Assembly Line of Babel last year at NAC that explored this “disease” beautifully), a form that confines more than it communicates, and must be treated with creative skepticism, is a stream in bissett’s work.
First, praise to Gregory Betts, the Director of the Festival of Readers here in St. Catharines, whom had a major role in mounting bill’s exhibition. We chatted at the opening reception for lunarian life (at NAC) amid “paintings n drawings in konkreet vizual pomes.”
NAC’s Dennis Tourbin Gallery space is filled with bissett’s works: they’re grouped together loosely by formal distinctions, but these aren’t excluding. The hand of the artist, in the free and focused marks made in the paintings, are echoed in the smaller black and white drawings, and even in pieces where the “typewriter” text builds layers letter on letter like architecture or blended voices that fight and focus and reform into something else. A square work, black text amassed and a mess on white is nearly illegible in rich dark typeset; a line at the bottom clearly says if we find ourselvs missing weul find each othr aftr all.
The larger paintings are bright in flat rich colour (yellow dominates) with simplicity of form and mark: figures gaze out of at us, and the circular “sun” motif repeats. I associate the latter with Barbelith from The Invisibles (“the name of the “placenta” for humanity…a supernatural moon seeming both intelligent and benign..it connects the hologram of our subjective reality to the realm outside of our space-time, the domain of the magic mirror, and helps humans to realize their true nature beyond the subjective concept of ‘self’…”)
This isn’t overtly projective on my part. bill’s words: “bill bissett originalee from lunaria ovr 300 yeers ago in lunarian timesent by shuttul thru halifax nova scotia originalee wantid 2b dansr n figur skatr became a poet n paintr in my longings after 12 operaysyuns reelee preventid me from following thinishul direksyuns – bill bissett garnered international attention in the 1960s as a preeminent figure of the counterculture movement in Canada and the United Kingdom.”
There’s a more symbolic than “realistic”quality here. bissett influenced one of my favourite poets, bpnichol (author of The Martyrology, so perhaps bill’s the patron saint of concrete poetry? nichol’s ABC: The Aleph Beth Book impressed me greatly, as a teenager). bissett explores the same fluid interactions between letter and shape, word and form.
The smaller black and white drawings are a separate body of work, and the textual pieces, that seem to be the detritus (or evidence) of a typewriter gone mad, aroused and angry in its repeated “striking” of the “keyboard keys”, could be described as a third. The monochromatic drawings have a playful quality, and sometimes seem like growths, as though bodies have sprouted new and different organs, and other times the same figures that look out, or embrace, or kiss or otherwise entangle with each other, reappear.
Let’s step away from the artworks and return to bissett, who in “1964…founded blewointment press, which published the works of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery, among others. bissett’s charged readings, which never fail to amaze his audiences, incorporate sound poetry, chanting and singing, the verve of which is only matched by his prolific writing career-more than seventy books of bissett’s poetry have been published. A pioneer of sound, visual and performance poetry – eschewing the artificial hierarchies of meaning and the privileging of things (“proper” nouns) over actions imposed on language by capital letters; the metric limitations imposed on the possibilities of expression by punctuation; and the illusion of formal transparency imposed on the written word by standard (rather than phonetic) spelling-bissett composes his poems as scripts for pure performance and has consistently worked to extend the boundaries of language and visual image, honing a synthesis of the two in the medium of concrete poetry…exercising his native tongue dissent, bissett continues to dance upon upon the cutting edge of poetics and performance works.”
This exhibition closes Saturday, October 15th, and bissett will be performing the last evening of the show.
I want to make one final point, using bissett as a means to an end, here: in the 1970s, bissett was maligned and slandered by several politicians, whom targeted the funding he and his publications received. This was the same ignorant mantra we saw with Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, and in other examples I’m too tired to cite (does this happen once a decade, like a recurrence of herpes?). I won’t name the deservedly forgotten politicians that abused bissett. I will echo what I said to someone recently about Voice of Fire: its value has only skyrocketed, financially and artistically, since some overpaid, ignorant and hideously expensive (with their salaries and gold plated pensions) politicians failed to make political hay of what “offended” them. The ardent queerness (as in gay) of bissett’s work surely offended many: and as lunarian life at NAC demonstrates, he continues to contribute to the larger cultural dialogue, pushing boundaries and causing (appropriate) trouble.