Corporate Aesthetics: Ingrid Baxter of N.E. Thing Co.


In conjunction with a special section in Art in America‘s April issue (select articles available herehere and here) , A.i.A. presents a series of Web interviews exploring the role of corporations in contemporary art, architecture and design.

Deep Cove Canoe and Kayak Centre, of North Vancouver, British Columbia is, without a doubt, a real business. During the high season more than 60 employees facilitate aquatic recreation in the spectacular Indian Arm fjord. Deep Cove’s founder, Ingrid Baxter, has long been a skilled businesswoman, even when she was a Conceptual artist.

Between 1966 and 1978, Baxter and her then-husband Iain, working under the trade name N.E. Thing Co., produced some of the most influential art to come out of the Vancouver scene. Legally incorporated in 1969, N.E. Thing Co. had all the trappings of a commercial enterprise: official titles for its chief officers, bland stationery, a byzantine organizational structure with departments and sub-departments, and official seals for authenticating paperwork. But rather than merely aping the aesthetics of administration, N.E. Thing Co. was more like a shell company, an elaborate front that its founders used to raise broad questions about the nature of art, temporality, representation and language.

Reflecting on the company more than 40 years after its founding, Baxter downplays her motivation to parody commerce and branding. N.E. Thing Co. was instead a vehicle for the Baxters to negotiate ingrained art world assumptions, particularly about authorship and gender. The nebulous, opaque corporate structure became a site for surprising aesthetic possibilities. As one “Company statement” from 1968 read, “It is the visual Unknown that challenges the N.E. Thing researchers.”

Operating from its headquarters in North Vancouver, N.E. Thing Co. participated in landmark exhibitions of Conceptual art including “Information” (1970) at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Invited to produce the cover of A.i.A.‘s May-June 1969 issue, the company produced an assortment of 35mm slides depicting art installations, banal urban scenes and wild Canadian landscapes.

Today, the N.E. Thing Co.’s archives—and to a great extent its legacy—are controlled by Baxter’s ex-husband, who goes by the moniker Iain Baxter&. By the early 1980s Ingrid had largely left the art world to pursue a second career in the business that grew into Deep Cove. A.i.A. spoke with her by phone from her home on Gabriola Island, B.C.

WILLIAM S. SMITH When did you decide to incorporate?

INGRID BAXTER It goes back to when we first moved to Vancouver in the early 1960s. We came upon various artists who were working in their various modes. We started thinking that names on things could get to be limiting. So if you were Toni Onley—to take one artist who was a prominent part of the scene—you’d have to do Toni Onley-type things, turning out duplicates in a way. But we had ideas of doing a variety of types of projects. One of the best ways to pursue all of our different ideas was to create a company that would have different departments. There was a research department, a projects department, a photo department, a things department and so on. We had divisions for ANTs [Aesthetically Neutral Things], ARTs [Aesthetically Rejected Things] and ACTs [Aesthetically Claimed Things]. They were all fabricated for whatever purpose we wanted at the time. Then we could make or propose many kinds of projects. So it was from an aesthetic point of view that we created N.E. Thing Company, not a corporate point of view.

So, the company allowed you to get away from the idea of individual, personal authorship?

BAXTER Yes, totally. We lived on Riverside Drive in North Vancouver when we were doing most of the N.E Thing Co. work. People would stay there—critics and other artists—and sometimes their ideas would be incorporated too. But the core was Iain and I, doing things jointly.

SMITH To what extent was it a real business? I ask because speaking about an artist corporation today implies mega-artists showing with mega-galleries and making lots of money.

BAXTER Real businesses have a bottom line, right? There you go. We were legally incorporated at one point but during that period we never had a very profitable bottom line. That was not our purpose. Shame on us, maybe, for failing to see the potential of our corporate world. I always said that we should have sold N.E. Thing Corporation to Andy Warhol for a million dollars; he should really have had the name. Maybe we can still do a retroactive re-sale to Andy Warhol—that would be a great project.

SMITH Going back in time would be consistent with some of your earlier works, which often dealt with time zones, clocks and temporal experience.

BAXTER Iain and I travelled with our two kids back and forth across Canada for various jobs and exhibitions. At one point we planned to film the entire coast to coast trip [for 5,000 Mile Movie, 1967] but that proved too expensive. Canada has five time zones, plus Newfoundland is a half-hour ahead. We met artists from all the way across and we pulled together some pieces that were about this experience of travel and time changes. I also remember we did a piece where we ate half a meal then put it in the freezer so we could eat the other half a year later.

SMITH Your work could also be seen as a parody of commerce and bureaucracy. Did you perceive the corporate identity as critical of the art world and the art market? Of corporate culture in general?

BAXTER The irony or the critical aspect is for you and other critics to interpret. People say artists are ahead of their times—well, we’re not, we’re expressive of the times. We were not anti-corporations or anti-galleries and so forth. We weren’t against institutional art structures. In fact, we were appreciative when curators would invite us to show—that was a good thing for us.

SMITH You also operated in a space kind of between art and business at a few points. How did you come to start a restaurant, for example?

BAXTER We had a Canada Council grant in 1972 to travel in Europe and we had no job to come back to in Canada. We thought about applying for the job of humans at the Vancouver Zoo because then we’d have a roof over our heads and we’d be fed and taken care of. We decided to do the Eye Scream restaurant as a survival technique, because we didn’t have income. But it was also an art project—we showed art there and the menu had all sorts of references to art. It did generate revenue, until it took us under. It looked like we made $20,000 a month, but it cost something like $25,000 to do it. That trauma, in part, led to our split, and Iain and I got divorced soon after.

SMITH Where are the archives today?

BAXTER Iain has a lot of the work and the company archives are with the Art Gallery of Ontario. I moved on from what we were doing at that time and he continued on with his art, some of which involved going back and repeating N.E. Thing Co. ideas. The idea of branding was not in our mind at the time. What Iain has done—and is doing—is rebranding.

SMITH If you identify as a company the question of gender is obscured a bit since the corporate entity is not necessarily gendered. Was N.E. Thing Co. in part a way of dealing with sexism in the art world?

BAXTER I would say that was part of our motivation—not mine, not his, but ours. When Iain and I worked together, the ideas happened between our two brains. To Iain’s credit, he made sure that writers and curators understood my contribution, at least back then.

SMITH What made you want to move away from the art world?

BAXTER Well, I went back to school for my master’s degree. I bought the canoe and boat rental business in 1981, and it has since grown way beyond whatever I imagined it could be.

SMITH And it beats Conceptual art as a livelihood?

BAXTER Yeah, definitely it has. Though times have changed and I guess you could do pretty well as a Conceptual artist these days. I was always most interested in the educational side of art, questioning what it is and what it means to people. That spirit hasn’t been left behind; it’s part of everything I’ve done.