82 - Spectacle - Automne - 2014
Sylvette Babin
Kent Monkman, Boudoir de Berdashe, vue d'installation | installation view, 2007. Photo : Edward Kowel, permission de l'artiste | courtesy of the artist.
“In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle is the model of the prevailing way of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production.” In 1967, when Guy Dubord wrote these words in The Society of the Spectacle, it was difficult to imagine what proportions this “model” would take in the twenty-first century. Yet, although not everyone necessarily endorses Debord’s idea that the spectacle is synonymous with alienation of the individual, an examination of its various forms in society today — and particularly in the field of contemporary art, where the appeal of the spectacular is increasingly unrelenting — is nevertheless relevant.
In preparation for putting together this issue (which, in fact, bears some similarities with No. 58, Extimité ou le désir de s’exposer, published in 2006), we explored the phenomenon of reality television, which has recently extended into the field of art — notably with the American program Work of Art and its Québec version on this fall’s TV schedule, Les contemporains — and the growing abundance of international art fairs, biennales, and “blockbuster exhibitions,” all with the goal, admitted or not, of expanding the audience for art. In an era in which proliferation itself abounds, with competing cultural offerings and multiplying means of communication, managing to stand out has become a huge accomplishment. In this environment, there is pressure in cultural fields to develop new strategies for promotion and dissemination. But at what price? Is the imperative of expanding publics and circulation (ratings, numbers of visitors and collectors, sales made, number of website visits, and so on) influencing artists’ choices and orientations? For instance, were it not for the instant popularity of TV shows such as Work of Art, the works produced during that series might not have justified an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
When it comes to publishing art criticism — particularly in newspapers and journals — the spectacularization of culture and transformed expectations associated with new reading habits have led to changes in direction that, though sometimes obviously positive from the point of view of opening new markets, nevertheless create the risk of dumbing down content (articles shortened to “friendlier” formats, taking inspiration from the model of mainstream magazines such as People, more glamorous content, and so on). A categorical refusal to operate this way might lead ineluctably to isolation. Such deliberate isolation would no doubt affect critical discourse by encouraging prefabricated thought about art. And so the question arises, who actually controls art production? Do artists and presenters succumb too easily to market demand or to the desires of the masses or of publics more interested in entertainment? Will political leaders, with their priorities oriented toward productivity, success, and financial autonomy, win out over artists and organizations privileging more comprehensive, more conceptual, or less conventional analyses, risky art practices, and profound reflection?
Although the leisure society is now a thing of the past (work having gradually regained its title as supreme value), the fact is that behaviours and tools initially linked to entertainment are now infiltrating all spheres of production and dissemination. In the name of communication and promotion, the use of social networks and the Internet 1.0 is now integrated into all cultural enterprises. These days, it’s all about outreach. Given this perspective, could new modes of communication be envisaged as vectors of social emancipation?
The spectacular in art could be the subject of many thematic issues, as it raises many questions. At this moment, we thought it would be a good idea to offer, among other things, a reinterpretation of The Society of the Spectacle in view of current social and artistic debates, and to take a fresh look at new communications networks in the era of globalization. Thus, while reflecting on the utopia of the end of art announced by the Situationist International, we examine the potential that the spectacle might have to create social links and initiate mediation, especially in participatory practices and political projects. But in observing the different facets of the spectacular through the prism of a number of the artworks and analyses included in this issue, we must admit that not all positions are optimistic, and that criticism of the spectacle is still among the preoccupations of contemporary art.
In our last issue, Michel F. Côté wrote his final Affaires de zouave. He returns, in tandem with Catherine Lavoie-Marcus, for a new column, Schizes, which presents an interview with a “special guest” (alive, dead, or fictional) related to our theme. In this issue, Guy Debord has been invited to give his comments on the Quartier des spectacles de Montréal.
[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]


81 - Being Thirty - Printemps / été - 2014
Sylvette Babin
Being Thirty

An anniversary usually affords us a moment to stop and look back at the road travelled since the beginning and to try to envision the road ahead. Such reflection is always undertaken from the position of the present — in light of what makes us who we are right now — but without glossing over past obstacles and challenges. And so, in 2014, how does a contemporary art magazine fit into a society in which arts and culture are rarely on the political agenda? Obviously, there is no answer to this rhetorical question, but if there were one, it would probably be the same as on our twenty-fifth anniversary, in 2009 (“Once a Killjoy, Always a Killjoy,” no. 67, Killjoy), our twentieth anniversary, in 2004 (“Persiste et signe,” no. 51, 20 ans d’engagement), and, probably, every anniversary before that. What is there to say? That despite the state’s historical commitment to funding the arts — which we must acknowledge, in Québec and Canada at least — the financial situation of artists and cultural organizations hasn’t improved much over the years. That despite the amazing abundance of art activities, despite remarkable expansion and apparent robustness, a great number of non-profit organizations in the prime of life, including magazines — and among them esse — are pessimistic about living into their later years. At this juncture, we worry about the future: we wonder if the next generation will have the energy and the financial means to carry the torch; we tell ourselves that artists will get tired of seeing creators’ rights shunted aside, and that soon we will have had enough of always asking for help from people in the same boat as us, and exhausting our human resources, freelancers, authors, and artists.

On our thirtieth anniversary, we must also think about what role we play in the arts and culture landscape, in light of new technologies and communications trends. What reach does a print publication featuring theoretical essays and critical analyses have at a time when digital platforms are taking over and reading habits are changing? Is this an era of information rather than research, an era of promotion rather than reflection? By making a virtue of short texts published quickly, blogs and web forums immerse us in the moment, and this develops behaviours and expectations among readers that are incompatible with print magazines. And at a time when many publishers are assessing the consequences of moving (fully or partially) to a digital platform, Canada Post has saddled them with a draconian increase in mailing costs — a brutal blow to -periodicals publishers. From now on, mailing a magazine in Canada will cost 80 percent of its newsstand price; mailing it abroad will cost more than 300 percent. This has a huge impact on an organization whose mandate is to increase the influence of art by publishing a wide range of authors and content and addressing an international readership (as long as they can read French or English).

Despite everything, this anniversary is also an opportunity to see how far our efforts have brought us. This makes us realize how important and many are those who have joined us in shaping this magazine over the years. When we add it all up — the hundreds of articles published, the thousands of works analyzed — we are proud to have helped bring so many authors and artists into the public eye. And when a reader, student, curator, or collector tells us about discovering new artists in our pages, about learning something new or finding unexpected facets of a work or an artist’s practice, we tell ourselves that it is worth it to persevere, to continue to fight (because sometimes, in fact, we have to battle) to highlight the importance of magazines in the art ecosystem.

Finally, for esse, being thirty means benefiting from a mixture of ardour and wisdom, taking advantage of our long experience to confirm our convictions, and continuing to blend elegance with a touch of irreverence. There’s no doubt that, thanks to the support of people who make our magazine their passion, esse at thirty still has many dreams and intends to find ways to bring them to fruition.

For this anniversary issue, we have departed from our usual thematic section to give carte blanche to a number of authors whose work we particularly appreciate. Our only guideline for them was to look at twenty-first-century works or practices that have particularly caught their eye. Of course, given our limited space, this was not an invitation to rank the best works of the past decade, as this still-young century has already seen a spectacular flourishing of art. But the need to make choices nevertheless led us to consider issues related to access to visibility and fame; hence, this issue starts with an interview with Alain Quemin, whose recent book Les Stars de l’art contemporain. Notoriété et consécration artistiques dans les arts visuels looks at how the ranking lists work.

The challenge presented to the authors was nevertheless a difficult one, in the sense that our invitation implicitly asked them to choose to write about certain artists, thus putting them involuntarily in the traditional position of modernist era art critic. And yet, when we read their essays, it is particularly interesting to observe the extent to which the voices and forms of writing on art today are plural, non-consensual, and — just like the practices that they describe — each relevant in its own way. Thus, you will find a widely diverse portrait of art and art criticism as practised in 2014 — an adventure in images and words, a brief but exciting voyage into the world of a dozen curators — offered in this issue celebrating esse’s thirtieth anniversary.

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]

80 - Renovation - Hiver - 2014
Sylvette Babin
Temporary Architectures for Ephemeral Construction Sites

Numerous works and artistic practices are linked with the field of renovation not only through the use of particular materials and tools, but also by having recourse to devices that emphasize site, (re)construction, or the process of project implementation. For this issue, we asked our authors the following questions: Do works that draw on renovation revive the key issues and challenges of the in-situ intervention at specific sites charged with history or a non-artistic vocation? Do they somehow strive to challenge the conception of the artwork as a finished object? Do these practices problematize a relationship with the past, a return to a former state, or the restoration of an initial situation? Or, on the contrary, do they convey the desire to transform and renew? And finally, do artists approach renovation as a means to lay emphasis on recycling and salvaging, or is their focus turned towards the consumption of the new, calling to mind the excesses of overconsumption in the process?

In response to these questions, our 80th issue brings together analyses of works by artists who, by occupying and transforming buildings condemned to demolition, or by elaborating ephemeral structures — functional or not, broach the subjects of social space, gentrification, and urban renewal policies. At the cost of excessive modernization, the last often ignore the contexts and inhabitants affected by their measures. This issue also brings to light interventions motivated by the playful desire to invest existing architectures by reactivating the stakes of in-situ art through hospitable and practicable works in which the public is invited to relax, circulate, or even climb. While some structures created by artists-renovators are based on traditional construction models, others constitute utopian proposals in anarchic forms and are integrated, like appendages, prostheses, or grafts, into existing architectures. In all cases, the introduction of constructions in the public realm, as well as the transformation or diversion of various spaces and buildings by obviously questioning their use value, draws attention to tensions deriving not only from the domains of carpentry, art, and architecture, but also from our social fabric and political concerns. Several pertinent examples serve to illustrate these reflections.

Far from limiting this exploration to installations composed of beams and frames, and thus avoiding the cliché of an issue devoted to “virile” matters,(1) the notion of renovation has also been adopted in works bringing into play materials that are, to say the least, rarely used in this context (ceramics, fabric, paper). In some cases, renovation was more a subject that artists explored through paintings, prints, and photographic works — all of which bear witness to various architectural or urban construction sites — as well as sculptures evoking the tools used in the construction domain. Thus, some of the works analyzed in the essays and presented in the portfolio have in common their temporary and ephemeral status, whereas other permanent works retain traces of the building sites that led to their creation.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]


(1) In this regard, apart from one or two exceptions, the artworks discussed here were produced by men. The articles, on the other hand, except for one, were written by women.

79 - Re-enactment - Automne - 2013
Sylvette Babin
Re pour « réplique »

This issue on the theme of re-enactment arose from the desire to cast a critical eye on the not-so-new but very current trends of restaging cult exhibitions or re-enacting historical events, on the one hand, and “reproducing” performances that have marked art history, on the other. Whereas in the art world re-enactments are frequently motivated by a reactualization or critical rereading of a social or political event, restagings of exhibitions or performances seem more oriented toward the valorisation of an artist’s work or of a significant moment in art history — toward an homage of sorts. Two quite distinct directions therefore emerged as this issue was put together.

The most eloquent cases of restagings of historical performances are certainly the renowned re-enactments of Marina Abramović. Although frequently motivated by the desire to uphold the memory of mythical works, the practice of re-enactment raises numerous questions concerning the resulting repetition, representation, and spectacularization — theatrical specificities initially questioned by the performers — and the inevitable decontextualization of the works and their reinterpretation by another artist. The latter aspect also serves to relaunch the debate around authorship and intellectual property, as Amelia Jones clearly emphasizes: “By redoing earlier works, the artist draws on the previous artist’s name to further her own career.” These re-enactments also give rise to the commodification — real or symbolic — of the traces of “new” performances, a phenomenon exacerbated when original archival material (sometimes missing or of questionable quality) is overshadowed by the highly polished documentation of the re-enacted works.

Providing deeper insight into the challenges and pitfalls of re-enactment, the critical analysis offered by Jones seemed sufficiently enlightening to be the sole text to examine the re-enactment of performance. In this issue, we have chosen to give precedence to writings on artistic re-enactments that revisit moments in history — moments of political, military, or judicial import. We also shine a light on the terminology used to distinguish the numerous manifestations of re-enactment from forms of replay, in which the critical impact usually associated with re-enactment tends to get lost. Referring to the ideas of philosopher R. G. Collingwood, Jacinto Lageira reminds us that re-enactment involves “re-thinking the ideas and conceptions of the past and, above all, reading them critically, making value judgments, and bringing forward historical proofs of what we are claiming.” To explain, he quotes Collingwood: “[The] object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought expressed in it.” It is exactly this perspective that the authors published here have chosen to present, by selecting re-enactments that, for the most part, (1) offer a critical — or even satirical — view of the events being re-enacted. Serving as a source for re-enactments, archival documents, whose contents are themselves often biased by subjective choices or the limits of documentation, are often revisited to either question their accuracy and restore their veracity, or to counter propagandist leanings, or to give them new meaning. The results are works of fiction that, despite being dependent on the events at their origin, undeniably acquire their own distinct identity. It therefore becomes interesting to examine the theme of re-enactment from the point of view of the French term réplique, (2) which, by force of its two-fold meaning of replica and retort (in response to uncertainties surrounding the original event), implicitly intersects with the various stances taken by the artists and authors published in this issue.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]


(1) The exceptions are the re-enactments of performances and the reconstructions of artworks, such as those by Adad Hannah, presented in this issue.

(2) Elitza Dulguerova, “L’expérience et son double, Notes sur la reconstruction d’expositions et la photographie,” Intermédialité, no. 15 (spring 2010): 53 — 71, www.erudit.org/revue/im/2010/v/n15/044674ar.html.

78 - Hybrid Dance - Printemps / été - 2013
Sylvette Babin

Hybrid Forms of Dance

Dance and the visual arts have a long history of common ground, which, through diverse fusions, has given rise to an array of interdisciplinary works drawing on their respective fields of expertise. Today, the profusion of interdisciplinary collaborations bears witness to a renewed interest in hybrid practices. In works born of such collaborations, at least those of interest to us here, it is not simply a question of adopting or investing in the usual presentation contexts of each discipline, by presenting choreographed works in a museum, for example, or by using works of art as decorative elements in a theatrical production. Rather, it is an opportunity for artists, dancers, and choreographers to reflect on different forms of collaboration that will open up new horizons for their practices. It is from this perspective that we wished to approach this issue, by examining contemporary dance and its encounters with the arts, with performance, with theatre, and even with circus arts and cabaret.

The role of new technologies in the domain of dance — several articles touch on this — certainly contributes to the mixing of genres, while the body, real or suggested, is called upon as much for its presence on stage as for its part in the construction of images. Yet if the digital arts have served to blur the boundaries between disciplines, there is still widespread interest in “traditional” forms, drawing on all but “rudimentary technology,” resulting in choreographic works in which the rapport with materiality and the object is an essential element. In this vein, the works that captured the attention of our authors reveal several commonalities, such as the desire to defy the codes and conventions of representation and spectacle, collaboration between practitioners and encounters with the public, human-machine interaction, and the relationship of the body with the object. The artists featured in these pages create spaces or situations in which the body is no longer the sole actor; images and both material and immaterial artistic forms (video, performance, installation, drawing...) also play a central role, superimposing “written forms” to offer decisively multidisciplinary works.

The thematic dossier and complementary sections in this issue on dance confirm the longstanding interest of esse in practices whose scope lies beyond that of the visual arts. Additional essays as well as exhibition and event reviews, including several briefs on the performing arts, also underline esse’s interest in broader multidisciplinary practices. Other articles in our regular review section document the participation of numerous Quebec artists and galleries in major New York art events this year, while another author reflects on sound art in his report on the second edition of the esse/OBORO residency.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]


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