It’s All About Good Timing: Goodwater at the Plumb

HaeAhn Kwon, "Credit Card - VISA," 2018. Courtesy the Plumb.

For the ancient Greeks, the division of time was represented by a separation of chronos from kairos. To symbolize durational or cyclical time, Greco-Roman mosaics personified chronos as a god turning the zodiac wheel. In contradiction, kairos—from keirein, to cut—signaled change, crisis, and compression, the moment a shuttle passes through thread on a loom.

While we might prefer to measure time sequentially, x before y and summer after spring, our experience of time is quite different. With the fraught anxiety of living against a ticking clock, we write toward deadlines, find history in revolution, and make space for apologies on deathbeds. Quantity versus quality.

From October to November 2022, John Goodwin installed goodtime, a group exhibition in which I participated at the Plumb—a plucky noncommercial gallery “administered by an ad hoc collective of artists, writers, and curators” and located in the labyrinthine basement of an office building accessible through an alleyway near the intersection of Toronto’s Dufferin Street and St. Clair Avenue West. With low ceilings, exposed wiring, and beige ceramic tiles, the gallery invokes a liminal non-place, never intended for public visitation. It has quickly become one of the most vital spaces in the city, running critically against the conservativism of Toronto’s artistic ecosystem that too often positions art as little more than an accruable commodity, instead of a relational node of affiliation, friendship, and community.

goodtime offered a spatial extension of Goodwin’s ongoing curatorial project, goodwater, which he originally established in 2001 with Roger Bywater as a storefront gallery. Since then, the project has shifted shape several times and in 2018 was reconceptualized in Goodwin’s modest home at 10 Bright Street. Between Goodwin and the Plumb, a strong sense of ethical commitment to community runs deep, as does their shared affiliation with the University of Guelph’s School of Fine Art and Music. (In 2009, the university partnered with Goodwin to create G: Guelph Goodwater, an art space on Queen Street East, and several of the Plumb’s members are former students of the program.) Flipping through books laid out in the goodtime resource area, I encountered an image of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991)—a silvery-Speedoed muscular body, singular and beautiful, wearing headphones and grooving to music only they can hear. Goodwin came over and explained: “Oh yah, I was there. At Andrea Rosen, May ’91, the height of AIDS. People would visit the gallery and fall down weeping, it was so beautiful. That’s the world I come from. Those are the stakes.”

I think kairos is what Roland Barthes meant when he described punctum as a “sting, speck, cut, little hole” that traumatizes the unity of chronological universalism to sting the personal, the me.

Kairological time catches us off guard. Like finding HaeAhn Woo Kwon’s expired, brass Credit Card – VISA (2018) sliced into the wall, or suddenly being transported back to fervent protests during the second Gulf War with Jens Haaning’s schoolroom clock, titled Baghdad Time (2005), set to Arabian Standard Time (GMT +3).

While their friends and lovers disappear, the dancer dances eternal. In silent dedication.

YAMMY, “Clock prototype – phase one version,” 2022. (A clock that ticks both up and down the day’s 86,400 seconds). Courtesy the Plumb.

I was drawn into goodwater’s fold in the fall of 2018, on the promise of writing for a two-part exhibition of works by the artists Moyra Davey and Sally Späth. My parents had both died some few months earlier, my father in March from pneumonia and my mother from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in June. I felt a deep sympathy for both Davey and Späth’s works and hoped the text would retether me to my professional world.

Visitors to goodwater are received with the tour. A full afternoon of forgotten histories and claimed injustices narrated by Goodwin—“Why does no one remember the Dorothy Cameron Gallery!” Sprawling gossip and anecdotes, like the time he received a tour of the National Gallery of Canada from the late curator Brydon Smith, made famous for acquiring Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967), which caused a subsequent media uproar over what art even is—“After we walked through the gallery and he told me stories (people were following us and listening in) we walk over to get lunch, which he insisted on buying, and at the end of lunch I told him how much he influenced me, he started crying a bit, so I stopped talking, silence, but beautiful silence, which I’ll never forget . . . ” Conversation is buffered by choice refreshments (beer, coffee, or apple juice, maybe an occasional joint) and woven with detailed observations of the building’s idiosyncrasies, its wonky angles and custom renovations. The floors painted Benjamin Moore’s Dorian Gray, warm and inviting. But most importantly, you experience a behind-the-scenes view into Goodwin’s longstanding working relationships with artists. Davey famously credits him with sparking her longstanding project of folded Mailers, and Nestor Krüger maintains an ongoing text thread in which he and Goodwin explore a potential project to its extreme logical ends until the exchange becomes so absurd it devolves into hilarity.

There are two very large ferns.

If a philosophical through line to goodwater’s programming exists, it is an emphasis on the new—a desperate belief in pushing artists to work against the grain of their usual habits. To work outside the high-gloss conditions of big-money production. To recapture some feeling of the underground, the weirdos, the Beats. To make visible the line connecting Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg to Lawrence Weiner and Laurie Anderson. The anti-establishment anarchy of jazz, punk, rock ‘n’ roll. According to Goodwin’s stories, artists like Richard Prince and Rodney Graham were happy to play around in goodwater’s world. Relieved to escape the boredom of bankers, bureaucrats, and blue chips. To remember what’s possible with low tech, low budget, and low radar. To risk failure because nothing is riding on the exhibition, save quality of the art and respect of your friends.

(Texting back and forth about the histrionics coming out of those affected by Canada’s recent institutional staff shakeup, we wonder, “How did the art scene end up like this? Geezus.”)

Jens Haaning, “Baghdad Time,” 2005. Courtesy the Plumb.

With assistance from artist Anthony Cooper, a member of the Plumb collective and longtime friend of Goodwin, goodtime came together quickly after an unexpected opening in programming. Many of the artworks drew from previous collaborations at goodwater, but within the new conditions of their exhibition, they were transformed. Some changes were subtle, like a multiplication of Brian Groombridge’s unassuming three-quarter-inch stainless-steel tubes inserted into the gallery’s walls (Tubes, 2022) or the unfolding of Andrew Reyes’s Daily Mailer Project, ongoing since May 18, 2019, across 1,251 pages in eight three-ring binders. Others were logistical, such as transporting and reassembling Krüger’s seven-by-four-by-six-foot writing shack (SHACK, 2022) from Goodwin’s basement at Bright Street, where it had been squeezed for the previous two years.

Some works previewed future production. Ella Gonzales’s Prototype for a painting to be installed at goodwater (2022) gave a behind-the-curtain look into Gonzales’s studio process for a work that will subsequently be installed later this winter. Whereas in José Andrés Mora’s wooden prototype of Eight Foot VAT (2022) a flick of the hand animated the message “REMEMBER I AS CHANGES AS I REMEMBER” in waves of milky white water, an action that Mora hopes will someday be carried out mechanically.

Then there was Späth’s Five Acts (2022), an altogether special experience. Except for one strikingly vertical black slit sketched directly onto the wall (Act Two), the work spread across the gallery’s two long rooms with swaths of confident gestural marks in paint and graphite applied to extended sections of Mylar. When I try to separate the work from its surroundings, the word operatic springs to mind, but held within the cavernous space of the Plumb, the installation was visceral, less fancy, earthier. As I walked the length of the work, its colors, lines, and shapes shifted as well, like bodies moving together in luminous choreography—a kind of visual call and response that exposed how experience rearranges itself in barely recognizable form.

Sally Späth, “Five Acts,” 2022. Courtesy the Plumb.

Whenever I returned to goodtime, the exhibition was somehow changed, better and weirder. Brennan Kelly’s hilarious bookmarks were replenished, and new editions added.

A few weeks into the show, a stereo appeared to play the audio version of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1968). Graham’s Getting it Together in the Country (2000) leaned enticingly against the wall—after the sudden news of the artist’s death was announced, Goodwin described a touching moment spent listening to the LP for the first time with the artists Holly Ward and Kevin Schmidt. And, on a particularly dark November night, when a group of us gathered to drink cocktails and homemade red wine as Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s improvisational classic film Pull My Daisy (1959) looped in the background, time seemed to fold and split. Kairos at work.

All to say, Goodwin has a capacity to reconfigure the gallery as an (intra-)active process. This process is difficult to pin down. It involves trust, on both sides. goodwater’s improvisational, “Yes, and,” curatorial methodology fulfills Sol LeWitt’s maxim that “Conceptual Artists are mystics. . . . They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” With this in mind, I imagine how a wooden pipe Dustin Wilson included in goodwater’s previous exhibition Tools ‘n’ Shit (Round Three) (2020), which was quickly broken in with some high-quality indica, might have become the five-foot-tall drawing of a Manitoba maple, titled Local Tree Study (tree no longer there) (2022), that Wilson included in goodtime as if by the magic of transmutation.

“goodtime” resource areas at the Plumb, courtesy the gallery.

During my initial visits to goodwater in 2018, Goodwin shared with me daily charcoal drawings he developed following the death of his mother. I had recently learned how to make charcoal from grapevine and brought him a few sticks to try out. Immediately, he was all in, exclaiming, “Make as much as you can. Fill a trunk with the stuff!” I had been knocking my head against the writing for Davey and Späth for what became months, and he seemed to know I needed a task. A way to keep my hands busy. We decided that I should make enough charcoal to last forty years, each stick measuring one day, until I reached my mother’s age when she died, just shy of seventy-six—approximately fourteen thousand six hundred pieces. I got to work, cutting vine from my front porch, alleyways, and friends’ backyards. Over the next two winters, I fired them in small batches using metal cookie tins in goodwater’s fireplace. We piled the fragile black sticks on the mantle where they slowly amassed both weight and time.

As I worked, grief slipped naturally into our conversations. Goodwin recounted stories of friends lost too soon to cancer, drinking, and of course AIDS. He moved to New York in 1988 to take up the executive-director position at Printed Matter, Inc., landing in the epicenter of the AIDS crisis fueled by the cruel and violent public-health policies marshalled by the city’s then mayor, Ed Koch, which forced a level of devastation not bracketed by history. As an HIV-negative gay man on the other side of retirement, Goodwin survives within a generation gutted and hollowed. While life-saving antiretroviral therapies have since utterly changed the survival rate, the crisis’ effects remain a living reality, destabilizing communities and systems of intergenerational kin.

When Goodwin returned to Toronto in the early 1990s, he began working as an administrator for various AIDS-related organizations. Recalling this period, he is quick to describe Ontario’s response as comparatively supportive. Whereas New York’s Department of Health closed bathhouses and porn theaters, referring to them, as Goodwin put it, as “AIDS breeding grounds,” Toronto’s AIDS service organizations (ASOs) provided funding for outreach workers who visited these spaces informally, offering assistance, information, and counselling, thus working to reduce stigma while reaching closeted men as well. The marked difference is thanks in large part to early activism from groups like AIDS ACTION NOW! whose lobbying instigated the creation of the Ontario AIDS Bureau in 1991—an arm of the government that funds all the provincial HIV/AIDS programs for Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The Bureau’s priority funding status provides stable year-to-year financial support to ASOs, regardless of who holds government office.

Goodwin describes his work in AIDS outreach as “relatively low-pressure jobs with regular paychecks” that supported his financial commitments to goodwater. While he maintained a formal separation between the gallery and his administration work, living through the urgency of the AIDS crisis is deeply enmeshed within his curatorial ethos. Even when an artwork had absolutely nothing to do with the virus, or even obvious societal issues, the work was pushed until it embodied a critical sense of immanence. As Davey explained to me over email, Goodwin “is an idea person who loves nothing more than to see an idea take an object form. He loves to produce, to see something through.

Whenever I feel exhausted by the art world and its bureaucratic or commercial machinations, a visit to goodwater—or for that matter, the Plumb—restores my commitment through an opportunity to communally trip out on how certain artworks approach a state of strange liveliness. That special radiance when a work (or exhibition) seems as though it is being made and unmade at the same time. What Paul Chan describes in his 2010 essay “A Time Apart” as “kairological art”—art that embodies the feeling that “what is given is not good enough but will have to do”; art that “seize[s] time the way a beat holds a song.”

Euan Macdonald, “Two Stars,” 2020 (detail). Courtesy the Plumb.

Ella Dawn McGeough, “The Witch_1942,” 2019-22.

In goodtime, my pile of charcoal (The Witch_1942, 2019–22) moved restlessly around the gallery in an open copper box, each day repositioned in a different location following cryptic instructions I sent to the Plumb members over text: “Put The Witch on top of something. Put The Witch behind the corner. Put The Witch over there. Put The Witch in the wall.”

At the opening, two drawings by Euan Macdonald hung above my work—twin circular forms glinting hazy white and empty. Like stars reflected in a wine-dark sea, hollow negative shapes sit within backgrounds filled black using twenty-four pieces of my charcoal. (Ostensibly taking nearly a month from my own productive life.)

A question was scrawled in red pencil crayon underneath the drawings, split into two segments. On the left, “does the.” On the right, “time bother you?” The line was lifted from a 1978 George Carlin routine where the comic grasped at the imprecise language by which we try to tell time. In classic wisecracking style, he drew attention to the idioms “lickety split, drop of a hat, nothing flat, in a jiffy” and “two shakes of lamb’s tail,” but more compellingly, to the vagueness implied by “now,” “moment,” and the baffling “present” . . .  “Welcome to the present, whoosh, gone again.” Dividing the question into two nonsensical halves, Macdonald disrupts the sequential logic of the sentence’s structure and, as a result, the subject/predicate relationship falls apart, reiterating the drawings’ inversion of figure/ground.

Such a simple gesture, but, like comedy, or art, it’s all about good timing.

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