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For a group of artists who work primarily with images, as opposed to text, a lot of fuss is being made over a few words.

The term in question is "the Vancouver School." The label has been used to describe a group of artists from Vancouver whose work is based in photo-conceptual practices (and who often photograph the city itself).

Using the term can spark murmurs of derision - particularly from some of the artists categorized as belonging to the so-called School.

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"We want to kill that expression," says Roy Arden, one of the artists associated with the group. "We'd just like to be seen as individuals."

The Vancouver School, if it exists, is generally understood to include Arden, as well as artists Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum and Rodney Graham.

When a group of artists develops through collaboration, discussion and friendship - and when those artists are partially formed by and often speak to the geographic and socio-economic quirks of their surroundings - can that be defined as a school?

The question may be answered today as the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) stages a symposium bringing together Wall, Arden and Wallace to discuss contemporary artistic photographic practices and the evolution of the photo-tableau from the conceptual art practices of the 1970s. They will be joined by photographer Mark Lewis, a London-based artist who studied at the University of British Columbia in the 1990s, and curator Dieter Roelstraete. Both Arden and Lewis have shows at the VAG. Arden's show, which opens today, is guest-curated by Roelstraete, a curator at Belgium's Museum of Contemporary Art of Antwerp.

The gallery calls it a "historic" panel discussion - and the event is creating buzz. Art-world types are expected to attend from as far away as Toronto and New York. And word has travelled even farther -when VAG director Kathleen Bartels was in London last week for the contemporary Frieze Art Fair, she says she was approached repeatedly by people who wanted to talk about the event.

Wall, without doubt, is the most well-known of the group. His large backlit transparencies, often staged cinematic-type tableaus, have won him international acclaim and made him a superstar in contemporary art circles.

"His work has had a huge influence, contributing to the widespread proliferation of fictional photographs and large colour prints," wrote Peter Galassi, chief photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the catalogue for Wall's show at MoMA earlier this year. "The more we learn about Wall's best pictures," he concludes, "the more we see how exceptional they are."

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As a group, the impact of the Vancouver collaboration has been significant - on contemporary art and on the city. "They certainly were instrumental in putting Vancouver on the artistic map," Galassi said in an interview this week.

The movement can be traced back to Wallace, who, as a teacher of art history at UBC, taught Wall in the 1960s - and went on to teach Arden, Douglas and Graham as well.

Wall, too, became a teacher, and taught Arden, Graham and Lum.

The Wallace-Wall relationship was the key one, quickly moving from teacher-student to a collaborative dialogue between peers, establishing an incubator for this developing movement.

At the time, Vancouver was not the visual-arts centre it is today and its remoteness in art-world terms likely contributed to the connectedness of these artists. Vancouver also became a backdrop and a central character for their art.

So when did these loose collaborations become a School? It's the way the term "school" is defined in an art context that some of its members find difficult.

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"I accept the term," says Wallace, now 64. But he is not comfortable with its generally understood definition. He believes the term should be used to describe not just the exclusive group of artists listed above, but also the next generations of artists who have developed out of the movement Wallace was instrumental in establishing.

"When you talk about the Vancouver School, it's more than a one-act town," he says. "Why can't the Vancouver School be more than just four or five or six artists that have international recognition?"

Arden, 50, says he too can accept the term - but only grudgingly, and only if the definition is expanded to include artists who work not just in photography but with all forms of new media. His main concern is the oversimplification that comes with throwing a group of different artists into one category. "It's like any label that ever gets applied," he says. "People always end up loathing it, because it obscures. Labels tend to promote or easily classify, but they're destructive too, to a more considered look at things."

In New York, Galassi says there's no doubt the group's collaboration was instrumental in the artists' development, but he agrees applying the term "Vancouver School" may be oversimplifying things. "It's reducing something that's enormously complicated - you know the whole artistic history and individuals and all the rest of that - to a yes or no question. You can't do that. Life isn't like that. Art isn't like that."

There is no question Wall, Wallace, Arden et al. were central in establishing Vancouver as an important centre for contemporary art - and in establishing photography as an important medium for contemporary art. Whether they are grouped together as a capital-s School is probably beside the point - but a fascinating point nonetheless.

Events today at the VAG: exhibition tour with Roy Arden and Dieter Roelstrate: 1 p.m., Vancouver Art Gallery; In Conversation: Realisms, Genre and Photo Art with Roy Arden, Ian Wallace, Mark Lewis, Jeff Wall, Dieter Roelstraete and moderator Nancy Tousley: 2:30 p.m., Saturna Theatre, Hotel Vancouver; public lecture: Jean-François Chevrier: 7 p.m., Saturna Theatre, Hotel Vancouver

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