(Brick Press, 2020)
N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act, published by Brick Press, is a “reinterpreted facsimile” of a 1978 book project by the N.E. Thing Co., a corporation that served as the umbrella for the activities of the Vancouver-based artists Iain and Ingrid Baxter. While corporations frequently obtain cultural reach through collaborations with artists, the Baxters inverted the typical model, using corporate structures to further their artistic goals. From 1969 to 1978, the N.E. Thing Co.’s (NETCO) operations included ownership of the Eye Scream restaurant and the N.E. Professional Photographic Display Labs Ltd., sponsorship of a pee-wee hockey league and a synchronized swimming performance, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada that converted the museum space into a corporate headquarters, and a photographic catalog of sites and objects “aesthetically claimed” or “aesthetically rejected” by the company. Though NETCO disbanded in 1978 with the dissolution of the Baxters’ marriage, the project stands as an engrossing example of how artists can co-opt corporate power.
The original book project was spurred when Jean-Christophe Ammann, curator at the Kunsthalle Basel, selected NETCO for inclusion in his 1978 show of Canadian art and decided that “a sort of telephone book, in volume as well as in kind (data bank)” was needed to present the scope of the company’s activities. He visited the Baxters’ home/headquarters in Vancouver and collaborated with the couple to produce a 359-page accounting of their lives and NETCO’s activities. The 1978 tome, which has a distinctive cobalt cover that contrasts with the black and white pages inside, was produced in an edition of 500 and is now rare. The 2020 printing of Companies Act, also produced in an edition of 500, was created with the goal of increasing access to the publication, according to the informative introduction by Brick Press co-founder Ryan Smith. The resulting edition is a fascinating hybrid that succeeds as an informational compendium, a “reinterpreted facsimile,” and an artistic project in its own right.
The book unfolds chronologically and includes newspaper articles, writings, studies, and photographic documentation of pieces and installations, all neatly labeled and arranged on a gridded background per NETCO’s corporate aesthetic. Companies Act begins not with NETCO’s first appearance in 1966 nor its official incorporation in 1969, but with Iain Baxter’s 1936 birth certificate. The following documents chronicle Ingrid’s 1938 birth, Iain’s turn to watercolor painting after a car accident jettisoned his competitive skiing career, Ingrid’s participation in the “Silver Mermaids” synchronized swimming group, and Iain’s post-collegiate painting fellowship in Japan. The mild, laudatory tone of local newspaper articles about the Baxters’ transitions into outrage as Iain’s art takes a turn towards the contemporary, particularly in his 1966 show at the University of British Columbia, which featured a domestic space in which each element, from the toilet to the bed, was encased in a separate plastic bag.
In the context of the volume, there is no hard line drawn between this early work and the official formation of NETCO, though corporate documents are more frequently interspersed between articles and artworks as the book goes on. Among the eclectic range of NETCO projects documented in Companies Act are several Aesthetically Claimed Things (ACTs) and Aesthetically Rejected Things (ARTs), which appear as labeled photographs of places and objects; Iain’s written “self-portrait from memory” telexed to MoMA’s 1970 Information show; a postcard survey which asked participants to define art; and images of outdoor sculptures. There is also documentation of NETCO’s more formal business activities, including memos and essays outlining its philosophy and terminology, a map showing the company’s booth at the DPMA 1970 Business Exposition in Seattle, and a 1970 ad in Vancouver’s Citizen Newspaper listing the entire NETCO project for sale for the cool price of $1.2 billion.
This edition is drawn from Brick Press publisher Smith’s personal copy of the 1978 book, purchased at MacLeod’s Books in Vancouver in 2012. Accordingly, it includes the individual quirks of that copy: smudges and flecks, a price notation on the first page, and distinctive cracks on the cover and spine. The choice to include these traces of time and wear indicates that the new edition is not simply a repository of information on NETCO, but is drawn from a particular copy with its own history of use and circulation. Other interpretive alterations to the first edition were made which emphasize the change in mores between the 1960s and today. Several of the press clippings reproduced in the volume contain blatantly sexist, dismissive references to Ingrid with one, for example, referring to her as “Iain’s pretty blonde wife.” Smith ran the point of a thumbtack across such phrases when the pages were still in plate form, leaving a faint line across the words. The articles are still fully legible in their original form despite these slender markings, with Smith’s intervention subtly highlighting his contemporary interpretation of this particular edition of Companies Act.
NETCO’s prescient work, as chronicled in the volume through primary sources, appeals to a wide readership interested in site-specificity, performance, artistic partnerships, and the relationship between corporate structures and art. Brick Press’s “facsimile-like” edition, as it is described in the copyright page, carries the contents of the 1978 book forward while distinguishing itself through self-conscious engagement with questions of reproduction, materiality, and collaboration. The copyright on the original edition reads, in part, “The material in the N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. Book can be used by anyone, anytime, anywhere,” a generous invitation reflected by and now circulating further in this compelling publication.