Despite being a celebrated contributor to Canadian art from the 1960s through 1990’s, Greg Curnoe’s reputation among the literary community is limited to the generation of writers who knew him personally or who were active within his community (see, for instance, George Bowering’s The Moustache: Memories of Greg Curnoe (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993) and the ‘We are not Greg Curnoe’ issue of Open Letter (11.5, Summer 2002)).

The majority of Curnoe’s visual work, highly celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s, has become a cultural artifact, a time capsule of the Centennial / Expo ’67 period in Canadian art. His work in little magazines Region and 20 Cents Magazine has faded from view (although, the be fair, the Forest City Gallery and the Nihilist Spasm Band, both of which he co-founded, continue).

Greg Curnoe (1936–1992) was a constant advocate for celebrating the regional arts and literary communities in southwestern Ontario (especially around London). A pair of posthumously published books which link to his passion for the local deserve more attention and should be of interest to conceptual writers. Conceptual writing centres on the ideas of transcription, selection and choice as informed by the archival, the echoed and the highly personal. I’ve written elsewhere on Emma Kay’s personal history of the world, Worldview, and Craig Dworkin’s rumination on the construction of libraries and archives, The Perverse Library.

Curnoe’s Deeds / Abstracts: The History of a London Lot (London: Brick Books, 1995) and Deeds / Nations (London: Ontario Archeological Society, 1996) are both examples of conceptual anticipatory plagiarism.

Initially begun as a means of settling a property-line dispute (a non-poetic issue retrofit to a poetic exploration), Curnoe’s Deeds / Abstracts: The History of a London Lot is a meticulous mining of the historical record for commentary on every person to have interacted with his property at 38 Weston Street, London, ON, or the surrounding community. Presented without editorial commentary or contextual remarks (beyond an introduction, as edited by Frank Davey), a typical entry reads:
April 9, 1894:

William Weatherhead [gardener 1829-1916] and Eliza Jane Weatherhead [1830-1905] to Ellen Knowles [married to Joseph Knowles {lithographer 1867-?}], sub-lot 6, Registered Plan #32 [30 Weston Street]. Bargain and sale #733. (Middlesex County Registry Office) [112]

Positioned between Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and an amateur genealogist’s recounting of a family history, Deeds / Abstracts is a curious anomaly in Canadian poetry. Many of the long poems that preceded Deeds / Abstracts similarly used archival documents and histories as found and manipulated objects, forming the backbone from which the poetic text grew. Kroetsch’s The Ledger (1975) and McKinnon’s I Wanted To Say Something (1975, 1990) both typify this long-poem trope. Curnoe has not poeticized his language or the material, in any way—he has simply gathered and transcribed the entries and reported them in chronological order.

Deeds / Abstracts attempts to trouble the Eurocentric sense of Canadian history by extending its scope to include a recording of every aboriginal and first-nations person who had interaction with the area around what would be come 38 Weston Street. Because of the nature of the documents that Curnoe draws upon for his cataloguing, Deeds / Abstracts lists only the aboriginal and first-nations people who had interaction with Europeans. Documenting a decidedly European perspective on presence, “personhood” is defined here, as having interacted with Europeans:

Nigigoonce [fl. 1843], Ojibwa Nation, possibly a relative of Ne~gig (1)?; lived on the Upper St.Clair reserve [Sarnia], January 20, 1843 (Canada 1847: no.20). [83]

Too often, to my eye, Deeds / Nations becomes a 238-page catalogue of names, and reading a European-Canadian listing of every Aboriginal person who interacted with a piece of land becomes an uncomfortable inventory. Curnoe was well-aware of this issue, and did attempt to mitigate this cultural lens by interviewing descendants of Surrender No.2 (1790) and Surrender No.6 (1796), and incorporated issues of voice into his “I am OUY” series of rubberstamp visual art.

Curnoe’s artistic practice was greatly influenced by collage, and the aestheticization of non-artistic and mundane items, and this aesthetic flows into his work on Deeds / Abstracts and Deeds/ Nations. Collage, as an art-form, includes both a non-discriminatory reach (anything can become art) and aesthetic of choice (but only those items chosen by an aesthetically-aware eye). With Deeds / Nations and Deeds / Abstracts Curnoe gathers as much information as he can about every person who had interaction with “his” property at 38 Weston Street—but the results carry with it the inherent problems of voice and historical appropriation.

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