About Us
The Thorn
Current Projects
Past Projects
Future Developments
Why We Are Doing This
Service to Broader "Communities of Interest"
Cultural Programming
From Ideology is Fiction (1985)
Relationship to other Artist-run Centres (1993)
Where we are now (2001)
More About Us

We include this section in order to provide the visitor with a deeper introduction into the philosophy behind Syntax. The texts below are generally abridged versions of statements we have released in order to explain ourselves to the community. Most go back a decade or more, but apart from specific (now historical) references, still represent the ongoing vision of the organisation.

For more information on Syntax and our projects contact us by e-mailing:

From Why We Are Doing This (1983)

Syntax was established as a support facility for groups in the alternative arts, the social services and our local community (Hillhurst/Sunnyside, an inner city community in Calgary, Alberta). Our objective has been to provide cultural programmes and support services which encourage the demystification of media and which promote minority perspectives through their presentation in print and electronic media. We have provided alternatives to the cultural and political status quo as represented by mainstream press, radio and television monopolies.

In a society which continues to undergo radical and accelerated changes, we believe that our hope for the future and our realistic expectation for meaningful change must come from an involvement at the local level. Significant changes to present social and cultural environments must be realized at this local level as a result of people dealing with real situations. Closed systems of value, such as those based solely on aesthetics, can never create meaningful impetus for change. This local commitment demonstrates our belief that a community's cultural growth depends on more than providing "fine arts" facilities and programmes.

Although our commitment to working within a local context may limit our activities, Syntax, is convinced that local action is essential if our work within a global context of human rights and social justice is to be authentic.

Today, in the Western industrialised countries, graphic and electronic media are primarily used to promote consumerism through advertising. We see these mass media as promoters of wasteful mass consumption, irresponsible exploitation of the earth's resources, and of industrially "under-developed" nations. Meanwhile, the news and current affairs, the public's right to be informed, are given a subordinate role to this promotion of consumerism.

We are clearly identified, within the Canadian political spectrum, with the left, since the left has assumed responsibility for the presentation of minority issues concerning human rights and social justice. As a group, we understand the limitations of such an identification: the "left" and the "right" define each other, are mutually dependent, and neither would exist in their present form without the other. However, we are less concerned with ideologies than with the encouragement of community autonomy by involving people at the community level.

Syntax proposes an active participation in all aspects of society. We advocate a philosophical practice whereby we take responsibility for involving ourselves in community life, not because we feel obliged to participate in "public service" activities separate from our professional lives, but because we view our work as an integration of all our social activities, including "making art".

As artists trying to broaden cultural activity beyond accepted boundaries, we recognize the valuable contribution that can be made to cultural development by other groups such as teachers, social workers, skilled and unskilled workers, lawyers, etc. - individuals with specific interests and abilities that they can contribute in order to help a community's cultural expression mature and develop.

We have been accused many times by different branches of government of being a political rather than a cultural organization. We have no defence and make no apology. Syntax was established in order to engage ourselves as artists in broader social issues, including politics and economics, and to work directly in these areas of social exchange rather than to allow our work to be mediated through the existing fine arts structures. This decision was instrumental in the formation of Syntax and is fundamentally political, but it neither diminishes our creative work nor isolates us from the cultural history we share with other institutionally trained artists.

Our membership embraces a commitment to issues affecting women, race, health and welfare, the third world, community development, social justice, the environment and culture. Many members work in the arts, and/or live in the community, but many don't. Collectively we do not represent any specific ideology, other than the "generic left".

We are a truly radical alternative to the isolating ideologies of contemporary art and their dependence on an alienating cultural infrastructure.

We are not all what we would like to be, and we do not like everything about what we have become (perhaps isolated and alienated?), but we have demonstrated that there are options for cultural workers to consider if their consciences prod them towards an alternative cultural practice.


Syntax Arts Society has operated as a cultural facility since January 1st, 1980. Starting originally as the cultural activities committee of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Association, the Society was established by members of Calgary's visual arts community who were interested in developing media facilities for use by Calgary's arts community and other interested persons or local non-profit groups.


Syntax is located in Hillhurst/Sunnyside, an inner city community in Calgary with an active community association, non-profit housing association and various NGOs and social service organizations. Our commitment to and involvement in the community is essential for any meaningful development of the Syntax program. Syntax Board Members have served on the board of the Community Association, the Non-profit Housing Association and various sub-committees. Syntax Board Members are also actively involved in networking with other groups in the community.

Service to Broader "Communities of Interest"

We are aware of the limited resources that organizations have for the promotion of their programs and services. In order to assist these groups, and in order to generate operating and program income, we offer low cost graphic design and typesetting services to individual and group members.

Cultural Programming

Our orientation is to community involvement and our program reflects this. We offer video and graphics workshops; a visiting artist program; on-going presentations and lectures related to alternative media; community participation in major visual and theatrical productions; and a publications program which documents our activities and backs up our practice with philosophical documents.

Most of our program activity has been workshop based, where we bring artists to our facility from Canada and around the world to make presentations and work with local artists and community residents.

Over two decades of mainly volunteer commitment we have demonstrated that there are options for cultural workers to consider if their consciences prod them towards an alternative cultural practice. We also work as activists around social and cultural issues which have an impact on the community.

The philosophical development of Syntax has been influenced by Jan Swidzinski's theory of Contextual Art, John Latham's idea of the 'Incidental Person', and Robert Filliou's theory of 'Permanent Creation'. Our publishing program has produced original works by these artists. See publications section for details.

From Ideology is Fiction (1985)

The two major ideological polarizations in the world today, represented by the Soviet and U.S. spheres of influence, have very little in common with the original impetus which produced them.

They have, structurally speaking, simply become mirror images of what they replaced. Thus we are confronted with two ironies - the Russian Revolution being usurped by Stalinism and State Capitalism, and the American Revolution being replaced by economic adventurism and exploitation abroad, and a corrupt representational democracy at home.

Both systems are enveiled through a system of media propaganda which is totally controlled by a dominant minority. The greed and self-interest of a few are served at the expense of the majority.

The U.S. propaganda machine is as all-pervasive and manipulative as that of the Soviet Union. I refer here not only to the editorial bias of U.S. media, but to the phenomenon of consumerism as an integral part of this propaganda machine.

Both systems are based on a superficial materialism. Both systems are dependent on the colonization of resources, either through foreign policy, as in the case of the U.S., or within its own ideological borders, as in the case of the USSR.

Both systems exploit the labour of their own citizens. Both systems offer an inflexible status quo where social mobility is the major "carrot" (the US two-party system notwithstanding), either through the corporate structure or through the party hierarchy.

Having said this, I intend to focus on the particular ideology which directly affects Canadians

  • Western Capitalism in its most materialistic manifestation, Consumerism.

In the West, governmental, institutional and cultural expressions of a grossly inflated economic system are glossed over, and their true nature is hidden from the population through the complicity of the media.

The commodification of Western Society produces a number of contradictions and inequities, among them:

  • a work force whose members are forced to spend the majority of their productive lives processing raw material into objects of consumption for others, in order to earn enough money to buy these things for themselves.
  • the rise of a privileged class of professionals who exploit, through the specialization and compartmentalization of knowledge, the potential well-being of the work force and disenfranchised groups attached to it - blacks, women, the poor and the elderly, for example.

This life style orientation towards which the producer/consumer is directed, based on a very superficial understanding of materialism, and being oriented towards upward social mobility, results in cultural alienation where 'consumers' are reduced to a passive role, where superficial experience is purchased like a bar of soap.

This emphasis on life style, this creation of role models which are clearly unattainable by the majority of the work force, can be seen in the development of a new liberal philosophy of co-option and containment of marginal cultural expression. This can be traced back to the hippie hedonism of the 60s and the New Wave subculture of the 70s, and culminated in the 80s cult of health and fitness as personal responsibility.

The Yuppie-driven NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) phenomenon, motivated by the need to protect property values rather than a sincere effort to adopt environmentally responsible attitudes, is another example, which manifests itself ultimately in the success of the International Peace Movement. Nuclear war places the Front in everybody's back yard.

In fact, the threat of nuclear war is but another smoke screen, providing a simplistic focus for society's anxieties, drawing attention away from their real causes, which are rooted at a local level in direct experience. Social stability, the traditional role and responsibility of government, no longer exists. The cracks in Western ideological thought are widening. The devolution of the Eastern Block will only serve to widen them further. Institutional paranoia, beginning with the Cold War and exemplified by the Reagan administration, is totally misplaced and increasingly recognized as such. In the immediate future such a simplistic "us and them" politic will require a focus closer to home, on the domestic policies which will have to be developed to address the United States' urban crises.

At the same time, there is a conflict between power and privilege on the one hand, and a move towards participatory rather than representational democracy on the other, beginning at the local level and manifesting itself eventually at the national and international levels, in issues related to the environment, peace and racism. The demand for a truly participatory democratic social structure, promoting cultural autonomy, economic self-sufficiency and appropriate stewardship, and manifesting at the local community level, is a more appropriate focus for the paranoia of the power-mongers behind government at this time.

Our current economic system provides a means of making large amounts of money for a few at the expense of the majority, rather than of generating social and cultural wealth cooperatively. The artificially inflated economics of Western Capitalism, using Consumerism as its propaganda base and social driving force, has to be replaced by a more sensitive and responsible collective focus. Changes required are not intrinsically material, simply applied to an existing infrastructure, but are essentially changes of mind, of perception, of individual and political will... minute yet significant changes in consciousness... changes in culture.

A Comment on our mandate in relationship to other Artist-run Centres (1993)

For some years now artist-run centres have been displaying issue-oriented work related to gender, colour, sexual orientation, cultural appropriation, and so on. We support this initiative. Pressing social issues require as much exposure as possible.

However, we feel the problem with exhibition-based cultural facilities is that they can only offer inclusion-and then only when enough fashionable clamour is made from without. Attempts at outreach have generally been superficial in analysis and commitment; a rather vain attempt to stay 'on the edge' of avant-garde programming.

We believe we need new models to deal with these issues: that we should reach out for direct, sustainable inclusion in the wider world of existence, particularly in relation to questions of emotional stability and spiritual well-being, which are threatened continually by concerns for economic survival, shelter, professional status, etc.

We think it is time that artists embrace these issues as their own, not by providing culturally pre-loaded platforms for social injustices (this culturally pre-loaded baggage actually diminishes these issues) but by recognizing certain basic social inequities which we share with many other members of society. We should take a more pro-active role in addressing these issues, recognizing them as our issues in terms of the larger community, and not just our issues in terms of 'we artists', or in terms of minorities within our own artistic community. We must create a forum which accommodates sections of society with which we have much in common.

Problems in securing adequate, secure shelter, both for individual artists and collectives, are not exclusively ours. Most artists are members of the working poor. Benefits packages, to give one example, are not only unavailable to most artist-run centre workers and freelance artists, but to any short-term, part-time, and even full-time worker or unemployed person.

Government subsidies are no more 'cash cows' to culture, than they are to academia, or health care delivery or basic education. These are essential social services, necessary to achieve a mature, confident society.

Producing artists, the primary social creators, are not part of this equation and should be. Most government cultural subsidies do not go to the encouragement of local creative talent. They subsidize large physical infrastructures which ultimately support the construction industry, or subsidize the seat the affluent patron sits in.

Meanwhile, artists work at minimum wage jobs to support their commitment to cultural production. And, at the same time, government agencies and elected officials eat well at the public trough while distributing crumbs to grass roots cultural production, and, between generous mouthfuls, spew polemic and propaganda against us, offering us as scapegoats for funding cutbacks.

This situation is not unique to the arts; think also of daycare centres, women's shelters, food banks, and so on. Issues relevant to the cultural community, yet of interest to a very broad social base, are clearly not hard to find.

Our attempts to find relevance and continuity (no less survival) in a rapidly changing world should not only address questions of concern to the arts, but should embrace those sectors of society which are facing the same problems. We must totally rethink how we relate to the world and what function we perform in it, both as individuals and as collectives: that, like other disenfranchised 'minorities', we exert our right to meaningful inclusion, and work for that right collectively, not just on behalf of our own special interest group but with and on behalf of all institutionally devalued people.

Where we are now (2001)

"The post-Duchamp artist naturally will no longer be interested in continuing art formalism but in questioning the very nature of art. That is to say that since one cannot change anything in the room, it becomes necessary to try to change the room itself, or to leave the room entirely."

Ben Vautier

Whilst the Artist-run Centre phenomenon in Canada was established to "change the room itself", Syntax was established in order to "leave the room entirely". Where this places us historically, we are not sure, but we are the longest surviving collective with such a broad cultural focus.

The local/global axis around which we have operated is becoming more and more significant. We feel we have a role to play in this development, particularly in relation to Internet development and its implications for the "Global Village".

The organization has developed through three transitional phases:
1980-85. Community-based cultural activism addressing issues of survival during the Calgary building boom of the 1980s: developing community solidarity, addressing issues of transportation, environment, planning and housing. (See LRT, and City Limits for example). This period included collaborations with other 'communities of interest', dealing with issues of employment, poverty, gender and health.

1986-90. After the unavoidable confrontational aspect of phase one, a pro-active program was developed to provide locally produced cultural initiatives. This period involved original events including a fireworks-and-music presentation The Bridge of Fire, an original pantomime dealing with the environment Under a Cloud, and the development of a community garden in Hillhurst/Sunnyside, the Community Garden project.

1991-present. Through the 80s the community demographics changed from a blue-collar family orientation to an affluent area of infill housing and commercial boutiques. In response, our focus has moved more to the inner city, and to developing a broader interest in electronic environments (See ArtScape/CityCore, a conference on artists' potential in revitalizing the downtown, and a transit billboard project, "Is the Fear of Poverty a form of political control?") and Calgary Stampede trading cards project.

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