Veronica was running late, though she wasn’t in a hurry. It was 10 minutes past eight o’clock on a damp and dreary Tuesday in January. She was on her way east, walking leisurely through downtown, to confront a suspicious clutch of people who had recently started showing up to her weekly community art events. Escaping the weather, she walked up the short steps to the front door of a townhouse on Queen Street and rang the doorbell.
For the past year or so, Veronica has organized an event series called the Sacred heART Jam at the altar of the Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields on Bellevue Avenue every Thursday. The heART Jam is a self-described “radically” inclusive group of diffuse participants who come to the church to explore “the interdisciplinary study of being” through collaborative painting, theatre games, and discussions of social justice reminiscent of the Occupy movement.
The sound of the doorbell could be heard from within the house as Veronica waited patiently for someone on the other side of the door to greet her. A few weeks before, Mark Harris, the man she was coming to meet, had sent her an email inquiring as to whether or not she would be amenable to having him and some friends come to the heART jam to host meetings of their own. She had initially been open to the idea, but after having Harris and his associates for a few weeks, she had become concerned that they might be trying to co-opt her project.
The door opened to reveal a young woman Veronica did not recognize. The two climbed the narrow stairs to the house’s third floor while eerie elevator music emanated from an unseen speaker. Reaching the top of the stairs, Veronica was directed to sit in a chair across a table strewn with lit tea candles opposite Harris and a second unknown person. The woman who let her in sat behind her next to a wall-mounted television displaying a large red letter “T” stamped within a triangle in a circle.
The bizarre appointment was short-lived. Veronica left visibly disturbed by the strange pomp and circumstance her hosts had generated for the occasion and stayed only long enough to tell them that they would no longer be welcome at the church on Thursdays.
Over the course of the past two years, conversations in dark and smoky rooms between Harris and a group of eclectic acolytes have given birth to a shadowy organization calling itself the Toronto Group and its undergirding philosophy, Blatantism. Inspired in part by the success of artistic and social movements from the past, as well as a recognition of the pervasive and destructive influence of consumerism in artistic culture, Harris and his Toronto Group have apparently set out to subvert the art world.
Since the falling out with Veronica and the Sacred heART Jam, the Toronto Group has been meeting sporadically, almost never in the same place, to discuss and execute their plans. Each of the handouts that are distributed to those who attend their meetings — a group of eccentric artists, thinkers, and surrealists — include a short paragraph: “The purpose of the meeting is to establish a community. The purpose of the community is to host meetings. By participating in the community we can feel part of something larger than ourselves, and we can create collective will and collective action.”
Meetings of the group are difficult to describe in reasonable terms, but this is decidedly how the group wants it. During a late January event hosted, ironically, at the 8-11 Gallery on Spadina, roughly 15 perplexed and intrigued guests listened as Harris, the de-facto leader of the group, launched into what amounted to a series of answers to frequently asked questions.
Rhetorically, Harris asks whether or not the group is a cult, eliciting wry smiles from those in the know and nervous chuckles from newcomers. He reads a stock definition of cults from his notes and concedes that insofar as Blatantism and the Toronto Group are “a religious or social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices,” then yes, the organization is undoubtedly a cult.
Suppose that movements, such as Dadaism from the early twentieth century, and their resultant cultural ripples, did not occur organically, but were rather the result of a long and meticulously planned conspiracy. This is what Blatantism is at its core.
Despite being shrouded in an impenetrable oddness, a sheet of paper bearing the title “So you want to be a Blatantist…” included in the handouts distributed at every meeting actually does quite a succinct job of explaining the movement’s raison d’être.
The directives offered to those looking to participate encourage them to “tell a story that provokes and confuses the general public,” with a view to infiltrating the “‘art world’ under self-composed fanfare.” They are further pushed to “build a community around unknown principles that serve as a pedestal and function as a pulpit for those who built the community.”
Blatantism is both method and product. It is the performativity of baseless absurdity designed to generate a buzz about itself. The bizarre content of its meetings, which have included readings from the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, original poems, and manifestos, as well as the Toronto Group itself, exist only to perpetuate the movement.
Mark and his Toronto Group are creating a cultural phenomenon through a piece of performance art in the form of a pseudo-cult to further the artistic merit of its followers, and thereby increase the value of their work individually. By collecting members, spreading the word, and growing, they pull the accomplishments of others in to the mix to justify the organizers. In effect and structure, Blatantism is an art pyramid scheme.
Ultimately, however, Blatantism does not exist in reality despite the fact that it can be interacted with. It is, from a macro perspective, a piece of art itself. Having seen absurdity in the way art is created, marketed, appraised, and sold, Harris and the Blatantists are reflecting absurdity back at the art world in hopes of joining its ranks.
A small pink booklet titled “Sweet Talk Gets Harder: Blatantism for Beginners” — a manifesto presented at the most recent meeting — includes the following explanation: “Blatantism is the true university of imagination. We’re what’s around you, blatantly. We are what you are made of. We will only change the world by changing our images blatantly. We believe that a concept is useless if not followed by an action. An image in the minds is no good if not manifested in the material world thru some medium whether openly or in secret.”
While people are attending and presenting at meetings, striking “culture jamming” committees, and raising money for an art centre in Nepal — the design for which was created by a Mexican architect Harris met on Tinder — Blatantism is working.
Editor’s note (February 26, 2015): “Sweet Talk Gets Harder: Blatantism for Beginners” was written by Neal Armstrong.