At first glance, you'd hardly notice the change. As usual, the walls at Eyelevel are hung with interesting work---on this day it's paintings by Mark Stebbins and Art Krauss. At the back of the gallery, the administrative staff works behind a large desk. Then you hear it. "Ka-chunk." Gallery intern Chris Foster is busily typing out contracts on a small, grey typewriter. When he makes a mistake, he pulls out a vial of Wite-Out, and covers up the mistake with a gob of it. When the phone (a large, black rotary phone, beloved for their aesthetic charms, but cursed for the impossibly long time it takes to dial anything useful) rings, it does so with a loud, shrill, "BRRRRRing!" that echoes through the gallery like a retro wake-up call. There's the of-a-time swivel chair, the orange desk lamp and most humourously, a half-full glass ashtray on a corner of the desk. More significantly, there's no computer, because galleries didn't have anything resembling them in 1974.
Eyelevel Gallery is in a time warp. If you want to get in touch, skip the email, because you won't get a reply. They've taken a trip back in time until May 27. It's all part of an experiment in "low-tech and creative administration" the gallery calls Eyelevel Unplugged. That, in turn, is directly tied to a wider project currently invigorating the small Gottingen Street gallery. 35 Days of Non-organized Art is a 35-day event over the course of which the gallery is being turned over to artists---from emerging and established, local to international---for "self-organized" art activities. It's all in celebration of Eyelevel's 35th anniversary.
"We've been thinking a lot about our history and where we're going from here," says Eryn Foster, Eyelevel's director. "Not that we're necessarily being nostalgic," she adds, "but we're revisiting the past so that we can understand it." Even the retro office set-up is inspired from a photo of the gallery, circa 1974 (hence the ashtray). After all, the gallery has changed, mostly out of necessity, since its inception 35 years ago. An artist-run centre first established as a space to foster creativity and "social experimentation," Foster admits the gallery has lost some of its original spontaneity. Because artist-run centres depend on government grants for survival, they've had to lay out programming schedules years in advance and virtually squelch the creative free-spiritedness of yesteryear. "Over-organizing has deeply affected how artist-run centres work," says Foster.
So to celebrate what the gallery was---and what it still is, at heart---Eyelevel put out a call to artists, asking them to submit their ideas (by mail) for one-, two- and three-day-long exhibitions between April 23 and May 27, in any medium. Artists were given gallery space on a first-come basis, often grouped together in a way that might encourage creative collaboration. The result is a veritable cabaret of expression by 50-plus artists, from painter Mathew Reichertz's Dog Day, where he invited people to bring their dogs to the gallery, to Craig Leonard's thematically appropriate 1974 Information Station, where he doled out information about the year, to Annik Gaudet's sound sculpture.
Still to come are Mitchell Wiebe and Ray Fenwick's performance, Dweebo School of Art , and Ottawa sculptor Jennifer Macklem's Chick Art project, wherein a whack of real-life chicks will hatch at the gallery. There's Amy Belanger, Zsuzsa Szoko and David Ferguson, who plans to build a fort from scavenged materials in the middle of the gallery and camp out for the night.
The rotation of artists and ideas means the gallery has successfully recaptured some of its original energy; the space is now vividly animated by people (who drop by more frequently because of the daily changes), longer open hours and more social events, including weekly receptions. "Unplugging" the gallery has freed the staff from the daily grind of emails and phone messages, allowing them to slow down and concentrate on the art and the artists.
"It's totally changed my day-to-day experience of the gallery," says Foster, "I feel like I'm giving more of myself." Though she admits it would be hard for the gallery to keep up at its unplugged place, Foster says the experience has been invigorating. Most importantly, it's been fun---just like an artist-run centre should be.
35 Days of Non-organized Art until May 27 at Eyelevel Gallery, 2063 Gottingen, 425-6412. Check listings for the schedule.