Viewpoint (November 01, 2008)

Occasionally, the avant-garde is able to provide insight into how media and popular culture can be manipulated to affect our daily lives. An example of this came in the form of Vincent Trasov who, in 1969, transformed the famous icon from Planters Peanuts, Mr. Peanut, into the lead character in an ongoing performance art spectacle. Trasov’s version of Mr. Peanut reached the pinnacle of efficacy during the 1974 Vancouver mayoral elections, when the dandyish nut overshadowed other political candidates in the name of art. Remaining silent throughout, Mr. Peanut would merely pose “visual questions” to the other candidates via tap dancing and other gestures. Mr. Peanut ran on a simple political platform: Performance, Elegance, Art, Nonsense, Uniqueness, and Talent (PEANUT). With the campaign slogan of “elect a nut for mayor,” Mr. Peanut received a respectable 3.4% of the vote, but ultimately lost the election. Trasov’s artistic statement could be viewed as a source of inspiration for architects who are under constant pressure to brand and assert themselves within a competitive system of politics, economics, and creativity.

The story and cover image of Mr. Peanut that ran in the April 1972 issue of FILE, a magazine founded by General Idea that same year, was recently featured at the Vancouver edition of Clip/ Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X, a travelling exhibition that was cleverly adapted for and exhibited at the Contemporary Art Gallery of Vancouver (CAG). Produced by Princeton architecture professor Beatriz Colomina and her doctoral students, Clip/Stamp/Fold explores the shift in the dissemination of architectural ideas during the 1960s and ’70s. Vancouver architecture critic Adele Weder was largely responsible in bringing the exhibition to the city.

From the exhibition, it is readily apparent that the global production of radical architecture magazines during this period was uneven. Countries like the UK and Italy produced wonderful magazines like ARse and Contropiano, while other nations such as France remained relatively silent. When looking to the US, many architects and editors were instinctively drawn to the West Coast, despite the emergence of an East Coast architectural elite that included Peter Eisenman and Kenneth Frampton, among others. Despite varying degrees of effectiveness contained in each individual magazine, viewers can apply the spirit of the ideas explored to present-day circumstances.

And so, to complement the exhibition held at the CAG this fall, an ambitious series of talks and discussions relating to the exhibition was organized, in which many ideas were debated. For instance, in the context of Vancouver today, Clip/ Stamp/Fold offers an opportunity to do a little bit of soul-searching regarding the history of the West Coast avant-garde. In the opinion of some, like Andrew Gruft, the enthusiastic but irascible retired professor of architecture, there were no radical architecture magazines on the West Coast during the ’60s and ’70s–possibly because many practitioners were too busy running their thriving offices. However, if one looks beyond conventional forms of architectural media, other aspects of the West Coast avant-garde surface.

For instance, what about the work of Robert Kleyn who, along with Rodney Graham, Duane Lunden and Frank Johnson produced Architecture of the Fraser Valley (1972), a publication intent on documenting the disappearing pioneer buildings of the Fraser Valley? The magazine was radical insofar as it revealed a “culturescape” that was one part psychogeographic drive, one part heritage preservation treatise. Magazines such as FILE or Architecture of the Fraser Valley suggest radical interventions in the public realm, inspiring architects to engage, politicize and provide alternative positions to the status quo.

Including Trasov’s Mr. Peanut within the context of Clip/Stamp/Fold demonstrates how surprisingly effective performance art can be in not only garnering tremendous mass appeal, but in allowing us to reconsider the formal constraints of local politics. This and many other lessons contained in the exhibition remind architects to think laterally, to reach beyond the strict boundaries of architectural media and to be inspired by a variety of forms of creative expression that can be applied to daily practice.

Ian Chodikoff