Punk-Rock 101: The Work of Doreen Grey and the Battle between Idealism and Defeatism in the Vancouver Punk Community

by Jason Smythe

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASatellite Gallery window display. Image courtesy of Morris and Helen
Belkin Art Gallery

Doreen Grey’s work and her archive of art punk touches on the great debate that existed within the Vancouver punk community of the late 1970s and 1980s: Was it possible for those in the mainstream to be woken up and challenge prevailing norms?  Grey’s collection of art punk from this time period shows a community that had a burning desire to bring about lasting change to all facets of society, but at the same time seemed to be admitting that such lofty goals were impossible to achieve.  Did Doreen believe this?

Despite the plethora of posters and buttons calling for the end of nuclear weapons and war, and for greater protection of the environment, the overall feeling of the community that is present in her collection of art punk is captured by the Dead Kennedys’ album Too Drunk to Fuck.  The punk community viewed itself as being escapees from the mainstream, and this album title is not only symbolic of the punk community’s view of mainstream society—as something that is disappointing, soul-sucking, debilitating and unfulfilling—but also speaks to the near impossibility of those still trapped in the mainstream from ever escaping it.  The Dead Kennedys view alcohol as being symbolic of all means of societal control that result in people becoming impotent and unable to bring about necessary change.

MetroNewsBW_low-resMetro News poster created by Lenore Herb

Building on this theme of defeatism is a poster for the band DOA, with the words Dawning of a New Error splashed across it in bold font.  The band seems to have recognized that most people are Too Drunk to Fuck, and that despite all the punk community’s anti-nuclear, anti-war and pro-environment rhetoric, their efforts are ultimately futile—for even if people become aware of these issues and start to act, the result will just be a paradigm shift where a new “error” becomes dominant.  Although none of the work suggests that the punk community should stop trying to wake people from their mainstream slumber, it recognizes that most people simply cannot be woken up and will remain Too Drunk to Fuck until they die.

Doreen’s own work, however, does not buy into this Too Drunk to Fuck motif.  Starting from the precept that music makes people come alive and “their [brains] start to think,” her work shows a steadfast dedication to challenging prevailing norms, and demonstrates her belief that the majority of those in the mainstream are capable of being woken up. This is evidenced by her success in helping bring about blue-bin recycling in the GVRD, and helping prevent the construction of the hazardous-materials incinerator in Ashcroft/Cache Creek.  Her visual work is not only poignant but is an obvious call to arms for viewers to bring about change to all aspects of society.

lenore_herbLenore Herb in one of her videos.

Grey’s video interview, Tear Down the Walls: A Conversation with an Escaped Convict, shows her anger at the Canadian legal and penal systems.  The video begins with the lyrics, “I’m bad company until the day I die,” and as these lyrics play she slowly focuses her camera on the armed guards stationed along the walls of a prison, forcing us to ask: Is this necessary?  What does this gain other than to dehumanize the prisoners inside?  This question of dehumanization is explored even further as the video switches to an interview segment with an escaped convict who describes the abuse he suffered at the hands of prison guards while in a BC penitentiary. Her thesis is obvious: the camera continually pans in and out of a sticker, posted on the wall between the prisoner and the interviewer, that reads, “BC Penitentiary Contravenes Canadian Bill of Rights.”  It is clear who the real “bad company” is in this situation.

lenore-videosThe video tapes on display at the exhibition

The exhibit ends with a video Doreen made of numerous punk bands performing live, and these performances are interspersed with a video of a cat eating a rat. The video is unflinching and macabre, and is the antithesis of today’s cat memes, which are obsessed with celebrating the supposed cuteness of cats.  Again, Doreen is trying to shock us into becoming awake. She strips the cat of any perceived cuteness or beauty the mainstream may believe it has, and instead shows us its true nature: a ruthless killer.  Ultimately, this is what Doreen and the rest of the Vancouver punk community were attempting to accomplish: to show us the truth.

I cannot guarantee that this exhibit will enable you to see the truth about mainstream society, but I do guarantee it will leave you with a greater appreciation for Doreen Grey, and that alone is half the battle.

(e)Merging Art/Music/Poetry: The Artpunk Archive of Doreen Grey is on view at Satellite Gallery until January 18, 2013.

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