“How great was that show Dennis?” Public Energy artistic producer Bill Kimball would ask artist Dennis Tourbin.
“Billy there was video and performance art and holograms and a band and it was so totally multi you wouldn’t have believed it, not for a minute!” – Public Energy
On a Friday night in August we crowded into the Garnet to hear a Public Energy event called Readings From The Port Dalhousie Stories by artist, writer and musician Dennis Tourbin (1949-1998) who graced the streets of Peterborough in the ’70s and ’80s. While the text of the underground classic, banned from broadcast on CBC, was sprinkled with a few profanities it seems innocent by today’s standards. Originally published in 1986 by Coach House Books, it featured illustrations by John Boyle. There were performers reading from the stage and from the middle of the room and from behind the bar and they were reading Tourbin’s stories like a Peterborough version of On the Road. There was a rare video clip of Tourbin playing drums in a band called Billy K and the Vomets (not to be confused with Bill Haley and the Comets and with a tip of the hat to Bill Kimball’s old Ford Comet*) with a rock-a-billy Kimball as front man, followed by a set with a girlish, hair-tossing Susan Newman at the mic. And there were people in the room who knew and worked and performed with Dennis Tourbin and had even more wonderful stories and lies about him, and this was all happening in a bar on the same street where this all began more than 25 years ago. The event felt like it could have been happening then, but it was happening now.
I’ve been getting to know Dennis Tourbin through the eyes of people who knew him and I’m really starting to like him. He was a multi-media artist long before computers were part of our lives. He was a snazzy dresser with an easy smile, boundless enthusiasm, a passion for fishing and fantastic taste in eyeglasses. Rob Winslow of 4th Line Theatre remembers that Tourbin really liked to party. Wild Ideas arts consultant Su Ditta remarked that many Ontario towns claim him as their own; Tourbin was the man who believed important artists could work and show anywhere and who shone a national spotlight on parallel galleries. He and Artspace co-founder David Bierk spent hours on the phone sharing ideas and forging opportunities for artists. He encouraged emerging and senior artists alike and made his mark as an arts activist and champion of regional arts. If Tourbin were around today, I think he’d be hanging out at the Garnet, the Only and the Spill, cooking up an event just like this.
Artspace has been a mainstay of Peterborough’s art scene for 40 years since David Bierk burst on the scene with his nothing-is-impossible spirit. The sheer scope of the project that he and Tourbin undertook when they renovated a derelict Market Hall to become one of Artspace’s most memorable homes is a study in vision, bravado and never taking no for an answer. We shouldn’t forget the time Christo exhibited at Artspace and 700 people came to the opening. Or the time Joe Stable’s dog relieved itself on Michael Snow’s shoes. Or the time Su Ditta, Ian MacLachlan and David Bierk defied the Canadian censorship laws to screen a film at the Canadian Images Film Festival and were led away in handcuffs. We need to know that Paterson Ewen had a solo exhibit in the gallery with its 40′ ceilings; that Noam Chomsky gave a lecture here on human rights to an audience of 400 in the middle of the afternoon. Flip through the Artspace archives and you will discover its vital role in the inception of contemporary art and the parallel gallery system across Canada.
You could say that these are amusing coming of age stories from a time when Canada’s cultural identity was only beginning to blossom or nostalgia for our local past, but they form an important crucible for our arts history. No matter if Tourbin, Bierk and their collaborators are considered Canadian icons or mad, impractical dreamers, these are the people whose spirit lives on in the organizations they founded, the artists who continue to give Peterborough its secret sauce. There is much here that has not been, but should be, recorded and only a generation or two before those stories will be lost. Archives are like a prism and without multiple voices there is hardly any story and certainly no truth.
2014 marks the 40th anniversaries of both Artspace and the Art Gallery of Peterborough and the 20th for Public Energy and several events are planned to celebrate the memories of these brightly burning artists who have illuminated our streets and whose cultural legacy we will continue to enjoy for decades to come.
Alex, Jeff, Nick, Charlie & David Bierk
Work by David Bierk and 4 of his sons; make sure to visit the upper ramp to view photos of some of Bierk’s downtown studios over the years.
Art Gallery of Peterborough
June 28 to September 14, 2014
The Language of Visual Poetry, an exhibition of Tourbin’s work
Presented by the Art Gallery of Peterborough and hosted by Artspace
Curated by Marcie Bronson and organized by Rodman Hall Art Centre/Brock University
Artspace, 3/378 Aylmer St. N.
September 12 to November 2, 2014
Paris, La Nuit by Dennis Tourbin
Presented by Artspace and Public Energy
September 12, 2014 at 8pm
Artspace, 3/378 Aylmer St. N.
A re-creation of one of Tourbin’s “painted plays.”
The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival has posted all of its programs since 1980 and you can find this blurb on Paris, La Nuit in the 1986 edition:
Paris, La Nuit is a comic, colourful romp through the streets of Paris written in the form of absurd letters home to friends in Canada. It is a multi-media performance work involving: slides, video, text, paintings and sound. In it, Tourbin describes his impressions, his fantasies, his curiosity, his obsession with The City of Light. Paris, La Nuit was originally performed at the Centre Culturel Canadien in Paris in 1982.
Totally Multi: Dennis Tourbin’s World of Art and Performance
Presented by Public Energy and Artsweek Peterborough
September 13, 2014 at 8pm
Market Hall Performing Arts Centre, 140 Charlotte Street
Tickets $5/Donations accepted
With performances and appearances by artists from Peterborough, Ottawa and St Catharines, including: The Art Tarts, The CeeDees, Elizabeth Chitty, Michael Dennis, Catherine Jenkins, Ryan Kerr, Marion Lewis, Ward Maxwell, Ian McLachlan, Bob Nasmith, ScratchMouth, Sue Nelson & Christine Nicholson, David Ramsden, and Robert Winslow.
*Dennis Tourbin’s band from his teen years in Port Dalhousie was called The Evil.
Cover photo credit: Nadia Laham (prominent Ottawa arts activist and Tourbin’s widow)
More photos of and conversations with Dennis Tourbin and David Bierk on the beginnings of Artspace and Market Hall:
Bierk, David. David Bierk: In the Absence of Paradise. Peterborough: Art Gallery of Peterborough, 1991.