Michael Turner / On ti-TCR 8: N. E. Thing Co.

by Michael Turner

Number 8, Winter 2014

The cover of the current ti-TCR features a postcard picture of Vancouver (circa 1975), and atop it an N.E. Thing Co. button that reads “ART/ is/ all over.” The double entendre is not lost on us, for art is, as Marcel Duchamp implied a 101 years ago, both everywhere and obsolete. The second part of this play-on-words could also refer to what Theodor Adorno once said on the topic of art and the future: that the art of the 21st century would not be called art. Adorno wrote this at a time when artist collectives like Fluxus promoted the unity of art and life through its anti-art program: that everything is art; that we are, proprioceptively-speaking, in the midst of it; and that it is therefore “over.”

N.E.Thing Co. was big on buttons. When Frankfurt School nemesis Marshall McLuhan came to Vancouver as a guest of the University of British Columbia’s Festival of Contemporary Art in the mid-1960s, David Silcox, then head of the Canada Council, arranged for McLuhan and N.E. Thing Co. co-founder Ian Baxter (now Iain Baxter&) to have dinner together, after which Baxter presented McLuhan with one of his V.I.P. buttons, to which McLuhan said thank you and Silcox, who throughout the meal shared Baxter’s incredulity that McLuhan could have a tin eye for contemporary art, giggled. Indeed, the joke was on McLuhan, because for Baxter V.I.P. stood for Visually Illiterate Person.

The history of N.E. Thing Co. is fraught and I don’t like it. While true that the incorporated partnership of Ian and Ingrid Baxter took the notion of the artist collective beyond a dry and distant conceptualism and into retail shops (their Eye Scream restaurant) and pee-wee hockey team sponsorships, it did not end well, and it continues to not end well with respect to disputes over authorship (who did what) and the re-dating of “past” works. Of course at the same time it is conflicts like these that remind us that the 1960s and 70s were not as free as we thought they were. As Maxine Gadd once noted: “Free love? Oh sure — if you were a man!”


The image is of Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto in the 1960s.


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