Project Description

“Breathless Days: 1959 – 1960” is the title of an academic conference, art exhibition and online project taking place May 1 – 2, 2010, hosted by the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory of the University of British Columbia. The artists, filmmakers, writers, and thinkers of 1959 and 1960 grappled with their rapidly changing world, and their efforts left them breathless. These breathless days are intimately connected to our contemporary situation and we will revisit this understudied moment to make fresh connections between politically charged events and cultural production of the time.

Looking behind the mask of contemporary scholarship, “Breathless Days: 1959-1960” will direct a radiographic analysis of a brief historical moment in order to make sense of the complex relationships and intersections in the formation and flux during the period. Focusing precisely on these years, a deep examination will be produced that allows for broad lateral connections and comparisons of many artistic scenes that were nevertheless resolved differently. Presenters will explore cross-disciplinary topics related to postwar Europe and “Las Americas” (Canada, USA and Latin America), to map the geopolitical specificities and sharp contrasts that define each region and national situation.

North America and its international relations in the postwar period have begun to receive close scrutiny in the past decade and the increased scholarly interest is reflected in several international symposia and conferences that have taken place in recent years. Two examples are “Conflict and Community: Transatlantic Relations During the Cold War” that met at the University of Tampere, Finland (May 2008) and the “2009 International Graduate Student Conference on the Cold War”, at the University of California, Santa Barbara (May 2009). However, most scholarship has failed to address the important role of art and cultural production in the post war period. “Breathless Days” will expand upon the strictly historical focus of these conferences by producing multi-disciplinary research pertaining to art, film, literature and architecture within their historical context.

Scholarship of the mid-twentieth century tends to focus either on the postwar period of the late 1940s, the early Cold War years of the 1950s, or the volatile, revolutionary years of the 1960s. Scholarly accounts of the years 1959-1960 often seem to be glancing sideways, as if regarding a transitional line between two discrete decades. Rather than a mere end or beginning point, these historically decisive years merit more focused attention as the political, social, and cultural ruptures of this time anticipate a new understanding of globalization, feminism, and the postmodern. The Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power, the establishment in France of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, the Kitchen debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, and intensified consumerism in Europe are but some of the political and socio-economic events that will be brought together in order to produce a critical cartography of this crucial moment.
Current transnational flows of information and capital emerged from technological developments of these years, such as innovations in satellite communication and the invention of the microchip. Space-age technologies produced intense fear and anxiety in the wake of the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, heightened in January 1959 when the Soviets launched their Luna Program. Cultural phenomena must be understood in light of such events. The emergence of New Wave filmmaking, the early signs of what came to be known as Third Cinema, the spread of the Abstract Expressionist ethos and its critique, and the popularization of Jazz culture, opened ways for the imagination of alternative world orders injecting twentieth-century culture with utopian ideals.

This conference and its related initiatives comprise the Canadian installment in a larger transnational project. In June 2009, a large international seminar was organized by Dr. Serge Guilbaut and held at La Fondation Bergman Hartung in Antibes, France, bringing together scholars from Cuba, France, the United States, Canada and Argentina. In November 2009, the French Government sponsored two important French scholars to speak at UBC for a preparatory discussion about the larger conference in May. Richard Leeman, former director of the Institut Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Art (Paris) and professor at the University of Bordeaux will speak alongside Ludovic Tournes, a specialist of the history of Jazz in France and Professor at Nanterre University. In 2010-2011 the Getty Centre will host a final gathering of this ambitious transnational research project.

The conference “Breathless Days: 1959 – 1960” will be comprised of a number of initiatives:
1. Conference: The conference will be a two-day event with over 20 presentations given by local, national and international artists, critics, curators, and scholars of history, communications, art history, film studies and English Literature.
2. Art exhibition: In connection with the conference proceedings, the faculty and graduate student organizers are working collaboratively with the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC to stage an exhibition from their collection curated by Scott Watson. This exhibit will include works from 1959 and 1960 produced by significant artists such as Kenneth Coutts-Smith, Jess, Roy Kiyooka, Toni Onley and others.
3. Online project: In collaboration with UBC’s Office of Learning Technology, the organizers have created an international forum that fosters connections between disciplines, geographic areas, and methodological approaches. This site was created in order to facilitate communication between emerging and established scholars and students whose work investigates the cultural production and international events of these years. The site offers its members the opportunity to pool their knowledge, make new connections between their research and the work of others, and discuss issues that emerge from these connections.
4. Podcasting and audio taping: The proceedings will be podcast in real time. Questions will be accepted via email in order to include the international members of the larger project as well as members of the online wikispace.
5. Conference Website: A website will be produced that archives the conference proceedings and related initiatives. The audio recordings of papers will be archived here and additional content will be developed by graduate students and faculty organizers who will compile content from the proceedings, the wikispace, the poster session and the art exhibit. The site will be a static, stable and reliable document of the conference that will be a valuable resource for students and teachers of this period of twentieth-century history. There has been significant international interest in the event and this site will be an excellent outreach to that community. It will be produced with funding requested from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund in collaboration with UBC’s Web Communications department in the Office of Public Affairs.