CALGARY HERALD Thurs., July 28,1983
For Syntax, art is not in objects alone
"I'm more interested in culture than art," says artist and former curator Brian Dyson. "Culture is broad enough to cover what we do. Art isn't."
By "we" the 38-year-old Calgarian means Syntax, a small and unusual visual arts organization that has abandoned traditional art practice for activities aimed at melding the practice of art with the conduct of daily life.
The artists at Syntax, a non-profit society founded in March 1980, by Dyson and University of Calgary professor and artist Paul Woodrow, don't make art objects or have shows. Their interests lie in communication, social action and cultural development, not only for artists but also for other special interest groups in the community - from school teachers and lawyers to construction workers and store keepers.
The society was set up initially to provide access to media facilities, such as audio/video production and graphic design, to artists and others to give them a voice in the community.
While it has done this, Syntax has also run a low-cost professional graphic design service for non-profit city groups. The service turns out everything from posters for community and low-budget cultural events to full-color posters and catalogues for public art gallery exhibitions.
Its clients are numerous and various: What other visual arts group can show service to both the Walter Phillips Gallery and the Tenant's Alliance of Calgary?
The design service has kept Syntax alive and now brings in enough work to keep three people busy full time. But this still isn't enough to pay three full-time salarles. Dyson, the organization's driving force, has made do with fees for services and a federal grant from the Canada Community Development Project, under which he is teaching graphic design and word processing to co-workers Jeanine Robey and Benny Benas.
Cultural programming in the Hillhurst-Sunnyside community is the organization's other primary aim, but programs have suffered from lack of funds as Syntax struggled to its feet. In the three years of its existence, Syntax has existed with only about 10 per cent of its over-all budget funded by agencies such as the Calgary Region Arts Foundation and Alberta Culture. This year, more grants earmarked for specific programs have been acquired, but the organization will have only about $8,000, expected from Alberta Culture, to depend on for operating expenses such as rent.
"How well we can develop our program will be the key to getting grants for operating in the future," he says.
Many people who have heard the name Syntax wonder what the organization and its programs are all about. Things are further complicated by the fact that Dyson became very visible as the community spokesperson during the 1981 protests against the proposed LRT route through Hillhurst-Sunnyside.
Because of his outspoken opposition to the destruction of four blocks of homes in one of Calgary's older neighborhoods, he has been looked on as something of a radical. "I don't know what they mean by radical," he says when this comes up in conversation. "I think right-wing politics in this province are as radical as anything."
About Syntax Dyson says: "We are not a group of political activists. As artists, we're interested in social justice and giving people access to media they don't have, to provide individuals and groups with a voice through which to express their points of view."
"We want a broad community base that includes minority and ethnic goups as well as fine artists. We want to work with people of different political stripes to achieve the mutual goals of the community. Partisan politics has nothing to do with what we are about."
"We take a critical attitude as artists toward specific local issues and that's where controversy arises. I think that's our right. I don't think we're any more political than the Performing Arts Centre group."
Through Syntax, Dyson would like to see cultural programming become as important to the Hillhurst-Sunnyside community as recreation.
"I think it's important for any neighborhood to develop a cultural identity," he says. "And I think an organization like this needs a strong community base. It's vital, otherwise we're just another self-interest group like any other bunch of artists."
"This is also the only community that can support what we do. It's the most active in terms of the residents' involvement with the community association. It's close to downtown cultural institutions, to the art college, to the university, and a large number of Calgary artists live here."
"It's also the only community that's trying to develop a cultural program to complement the recreation program. We're trying to find an alternative to the art systems that exist-art is either spectator-oriented if it's theatre or dance or object-oriented if it's visual art."
"I'm more interested in process than product. If a community is going to survive, it needs a place to get together to discuss things, whether it's to produce a carnival, a dance or advocacy posters."
Dyson places importance on the voice of the individual or minority finding a medium of expression because the powerful machine of the contemporary mass media "doesn't do justice to people."
Neither, he says, do the agencies that fund arts and cultural organizations. "If you've got political clout or know the right people, you might be treated fairly. This applies not just to ethnic and minority groups but to the cultural community as well. I'm critical of Alberta Culture because it's not at arm's length from government and it makes funding decisions for political reasons. In order to correct that inequity, we're forced to become political ourselves."
Syntax, then, is pro-community, pro-people and anti-bureaucracy.