I have always been puzzled by the courage and audacity of the DIY scene – the idea of working on a project while knowing that you will always be classified as “indie” and appreciated only by a small group of friends. There has to be a certain drive, an ideology, that supports life more than the meager income does.
Marc Bell is the driving force behind a network of Canadian cartoonists, artists, and zinesters that prefer the DIY ethos over anything else. At his art show at Drawn & Quarterly last Tuesday small groups of friends chatted amongst each other in a cozy environment – not quite the poverty-stricken and hollow-cheeked “starving artists” that one might expect. Also on display was a large majority of his work in book form.
Bell’s newest work is a book called Illusztraijuns For Brain Police, and compiles many of his black and white drawings, including some collaborations with other artists.
At the art show, I admired his works, as others approached him to chat. After seeing me snooping and lurking around for a bit, he approached me and drew a cool doodle in my copy of the book, after which he asked me to email him some questions instead of asking him on the spot. He was certainly not the assertive character that I thought he might be, and maybe that’s because judging by his art, I expected him to be a lot crazier.
Even though Bell’s drawings might seem pointless at first glance, they do have an objective beyond DIY for DIY’s sake. As the title of the book states, they are meant to illustrate certain ideas, and those ideas are everything that Bell deems fit to scribble onto a page – from totemic figures to multi-legged sausages, mindless short stories and lots of feet. His art is all over the place; he draws improvisational pieces that demand as much attention to make as they do to take apart.
With so much going on in his art, Bell is able to describe the world around him in the minutest detail, and transforming it into his own creation. He calls himself absurdist, and this raises the ever-present question: can absurdist art tell us more about reality than realism does? And is realism more pointless than absurdist art? Somehow, I am reminded of Nikolai Gogol, who wrote absurd, almost postmodern stories, that commented on society by describing its most minute and inconsequential details.
“I read this great line once from Mayo Thompson,” says Bell in response to the subject of art, “where he said that he thought it was important to be a failure some of the time so that people don’t expect too much from you. I think these big famous fancy-pants serious-artist types usually end up disappointing ‘cause they’re so lionized and blown out of proportion.” This reinforces his DIY ideology: he prefers to undermine his own work with absurd humour and spelling things wrong on purpose.
Bell’s artistic process is expressed not only through the content of Illusztraijuns, but also by the book’s mode of production. “It’s the same process they use to create these cheap promo copies of books that go out to press,” said Bell, “I just thought I’d make it a ‘finished’ book.” Inverting publishing norms, it appears, is Bell’s joy.
Why make a book for full price when you can pay half? Why spell things right when you can spell them wrong? Why buy a car when you can walk? The downside of our capitalist system, says Bell, “is that we are a little spoilt by excess.” Influenced by counter-culture cartoonists like R. Crumb and Julie Doucet, inspired by Chicago “Imagists” and Ray Johnson, Bell wants to use his “weird stand-alone drawings” – he doesn’t like terms like cartoons, comix, art, or illustrations – to show the other side of culture.
Because Bell is part of a very small scene, he has room to work on many projects and not feel threatened by competition. But according to Bell, “Canada seems to be stuck in a bunch of yammering,”he says: the U.S. is far more open to underground art.
Regardless, Bell seems to enjoy his niche here in Montreal, making a precarious living off of his own art. When asked if he would like to move away from the DIY scene, he responds, “I’m A-okay where I am, really. [It’s] a pretty good place to be, I think.”