72 - Curators - Printemps / été - 2011
Sylvette Babin

The Curator’s Power

The presence of a curator at the origin of an exhibition is now accepted in the art world. Nonetheless, a flurry of discussions, symposia and debates regarding the discipline shows obvious commotion around issues of curatorial practice.(1) Sometimes mercilessly criticized, other times played up to a fault, the curator endures in various forms: from professional curator to cultural practitioner occasionally taking on the role, independent curator to institutional curator, curator-author to artist-curator — the role seems to adapt to every kind of exhibition and artistic event, and of course, to various institutional settings. After forty-odd years punctuated by the arrival of several star curators, what has become of curatorial practice? We thought it appropriate to take a closer look at some of these recent happenings, whether from a historical perspective or in view of current artistic preoccupations.

We need to clarify some terminology before engaging with the texts in this issue. While the English term “curator” (from the Latin curare: to take care of) denotes both the curators of museums and collections and the creators of exhibitions, in French, different terms are used. In France, influenced by the English, the terms curateur and curatrice (and sometimes even curator) are employed to denote the creators of exhibitions, while in Quebec, we use commissaire. Elsewhere, preferring to avoid anglicisms, esse has favoured the latter in all texts published in French. In this particular issue, however, we’ve chosen to respect the diction of each of the authors, who’ve opted for one or the other term according to context.

This issue’s objective isn’t to provide a detailed overview of curators’ various exhibitions, nor is it to profile the trendiest personalities. Rather, we are presenting thoughtful reflections that propose critical readings and analysis, along with texts by curators giving a more intimate look at their approaches and realizations. The proposed essays naturally raise questions about the strategies of curators and institutions, and are not above criticizing some of the less “honourable” manifestations. On the other hand, everyone appreciates the work of those “ants” who strive to develop a reflection on the exhibition of artists’ productions. Might there be good and bad curatorship? It is all a matter of perspective. Let’s remember that one of the most enduring criticisms directed toward certain curators is that of substituting themselves for the artists and of using their work for their own ends.(2) History repeats itself to such an extent that, as Jean-Philippe Uzel points out, “the argument hasn’t aged a bit” since the 1970s.

Whether in response to this situation, or simply as a logical conclusion to the opening-up of disciplines, we’ve seen a proliferation of curatorial figures over the years, including artists who occasionally take on the role. This certainly shows they are fully capable of reflecting on the staging of art practices other than their own, but their status as artist does not free them of the conceptual obligations of their curatorial mandate, nor of the economic and organizational imperatives tied to the events and institutions hosting them. The same applies to all the art historians, critics, or cultural practitioners who regularly or occasionally conceive exhibitions. As for the institutions that invite them, might they have a role to play in certain curatorial tendencies? Several aspects of the functions and challenges of the curator are explored in this issue, whether through their presence and role in these institutions alongside museum or corporate curators, or through the different strategies they employ, leading to occasional excesses. Criticisms directed at them are closely examined, enabling us to better understand the system in which they revolve. Some exhibition arrangements are also examined, particularly through the curatorship of ephemeral works.

The visual documentation of a thematic issue generally rests on works by the artists examined in the essays. Here, the topic leads us, above all, to show “works by curators,” that is, exhibition setups and curators at work. The Portfolio section has also been revisited. Since it made no sense to add artists’ works related to the theme, we instead proposed that a young Quebec curator conceive a portfolio especially for this issue. Going beyond a simple selection of works, Marie-Eve Beaupré draws inspiration from the authors’ texts as a premise for a reflection on the curatorial act, while commenting on sampled excerpts. Thus, one may go back and forth between the authors’ essays and Beaupré’s comments by virtue of page references adjoining the excerpts (in red).

By putting the curator centre stage in this issue and in the portfolio, have we, too, used the works to our own ends? Aware of this problem, we presumed to push the examination of the curator’s power—and, in this case, that of the publisher, since we are somewhat acting as curators of this edition—a little further, by giving our graphic designers free reign to fragment, superpose, or process the images and texts to take the layout to limits that might seem irreverent to some. Just this once, and we’ll not make a habit of it.


(1) For instance, one thinks of two recent symposia in Canada: Manufacturing Exhibitions, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in March 2011, and Are Curators Unprofessional?, at the Banff International Curatorial Institute (BICI) in November 2010.
(2) It would be appropriate to direct the reader to issue 57 of esse, on the “Signatures” theme (Spring-Summer 2006), where texts by Anne-Marie Ninacs and Jérôme Glicenstein dealt specifically with the curatorial signature. To this effect, to complement this issue, we have decided to republish both their essays on our website.

71 - Inventories - Hiver - 2011
Sylvette Babin

Ever since artists have sought to bring art and everyday life closer together and turned the “mundane” into an important material of their practice, collecting — a part of many people’s activities — has frequently been transformed into an artistic gesture. The collection of worthless objects, of diverse traces, or even concepts, has become the raw material of numerous artistic productions in which the observation and dissection of the real, inventorying and archiving play a dominant role. For many artists' this is not just another project, but rather a distinct tendency. It is evident that the staging of everyday and private life has not lost its attraction over the years; on the contrary it is displaying a renewed vigour, especially since the advent of new technologies and social media. Many artist inventories are thus collections of images made possible by the profusion of digital photographs uploaded on the web, which has undoubtedly become an inexhaustible supply source for image gleaners.

However, the object has not entirely disappeared from the collections regularly proposed by artists. The current issue is a testimony to this and it can in a way be viewed as a cabinet of curiosities where one will discover the traces and archives of these practices, which at times border on the obsessive. There is perhaps something contagious about this, for I myself got caught up in the game by inventorying and cataloguing the collections of several esse colleagues and friends. Let us also point out that the magazine’s graphic design is once again directly inspired by the theme. This time around it provides readers with a methodical grid, which they will certainly have fun in deciphering.

70 - Miniature - Automne - 2010
Sylvette Babin

Things tiny and things gigantic — or every entity that greatly differs in size from that of humans — have an immense power to fascinate. Perhaps it is because small-scale objects inevitably call to mind the world of childhood and the numerous miniatures it contains (dollhouses, scale models, figurines) and, by association, the phantasmagorical universe of such fairy tales as Little Thumb, Alice in Wonderland, and Gulliver’s Travels. Or perhaps it is these miniature works’ fine details and apparent perfection that create a sense of wonder. As John Mack notes in The Art of Small Things, “Enlargement magnifies imperfection; reduction diminishes it. One aspect of the miniature is that it erases such physical defects and resolves them, in the eye of the beholder, into fragile beauty.”(1) But what lurks behind such frail beauty? Are miniatures really about ideal and marvellous worlds?

The small scale of miniatures allows one to take in that which in normal circumstances would exceed one’s visual capacities. Beyond such a utilitarian function, which makes models useful in such fields as architecture, cinema, and theatre, small-scale representations afford the possibility of a panoptic vision of things normally lying beyond the visual field. As a result, new perceptions of the world are sometimes engendered. When Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver observes the customs of the Lilliputians from his “giant’s” vantage point, that society’s shortcomings come into sharp focus. Although such microcosms, be they literary miniatures or small-scale artworks, seem merely to contain wonderful kinds of worlds, a closer look reveals, in many cases, that they are in fact the stage on which particularly sombre situations are played out.

This issue’s thematic section is devoted to the analysis of a few cases of miniaturization in contemporary art. Be it due to chance or to the nature of current artistic preoccupations, the majority of projects covered are three-dimensional or photographic. Here, the works’ delicate natures will no doubt initially catch one’s fancy, and to the inattentive viewer they might remain bucolic landscapes, quaint genre scenes, or even pleasant utopias. However, in many instances a more attentive eye will discover hidden dystopias. In fact, the works at hand are a far cry from the world of fairy tales, as these miniatures reproduce very real situations. Ecological disaster, the excesses of industrialization, historical conflicts, or the undermining of modernist architecture — such are some of the issues addressed by these works — which openly sustain a form of social critique. Moreover, the essays’ respective authors argue the case for the pertinence of the miniature in contemporary art from diverse vantage points. Thus, their potentially expansive readings of these minute constructions make use of such categories as the playful, the deceptive, and the simulacral; some texts also address the beholder’s relation the intimate.

In the final analysis, to broach the question of works in miniature is to change one’s relation to space. It may well be that miniature worlds have little impact on our understanding of them when we regard them from our human scale. A closer look is often insufficient. Since we cannot become tiny at will like Alice in Wonderland and enter into these small universes, we are compelled to make use of our imagination. We are thus required to constantly shift our attention to-and-fro: as giants we seize the work in totality; as Lilliputians we take part in the situations they present.

[Translated from the French by Eduardo Ralickas]

1. John Mack, The Art of Small Things, Harvard University Press, 2007, 12.

69 - bling-bling - Printemps / été - 2010
Sylvette Babin

The interest for bling-bling art, like kitsch art which it resembles in some regards, is far from unanimous, since the aesthetic of excess, flash and glitz is generally viewed as superficial. Fron the outset, it bears mentioning that there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a bling-bling trend in contemporary art. The term, which was initially associated with the hip-hop movement, has been taken up to describe various forms of ostentatious behaviour on public or artistic stages. It is often employed to name works that use a profusion of flashy materials, or make reference to fashion or pop culture. It also designates the phenomena of celebrification or life politics. Even though nowadays such practices abound in artistic projects presented in galleries and large international art fairs, most of the artists who make use of “glitz,” on occasion or regularly, do not call themselves bling-bling artists for that matter. Furthermore, it would be incorrect to limit the bling-bling phenomenon and works derived from it to a mere display of wealth. Although the approach proposed in this issue provides an analysis of bling-bling's aesthetic manifestation, it also widens the horizon to include various reflections on different so-called bling-bling attitudes in contemporary society.
Several texts in this issue directly examine some of our postmodern behaviour by focusing on commodity fetishism, cynical mercantilism, the excesses of contemporary art and its cult of celebrity or of financial speculation. A number of artists presented here also take up this critical position, sometimes through works whose style has nothing flashy about it. Conversely, other artists personally use bling-bling codes or exuberant staging strategies to question the figure of the artist or certain of the art market's excesses. This approach also raises questions regarding the pitfalls of using such strategies. All things considered, the use of glitz as a parody or as a means to critique the tactics of art’s mediatization reaches (or attempts to reach) similar goals to those of the works it denounces, more specifically that of receiving recognition by way of an exacerbated showiness. Whatever the case may be, it is of course with much humour that such bling-bling parodies insinuate themselves in the art system, and if they at times succeed in reaching the market they parody, their market value will most likely be closer to that of zircon than diamonds.
This publication, overflowing as it is with golden bling-bling glitz and chains, provides plenty of space for texts that are unrelated to the issue’s theme. Approximately fifteen essays or critical reviews covering various works from many disciplines and exhibitions presented in Canada and on the international scene thus complement the magazine.

[Translated from the French by Bernard Schütze]

68 - Sabotage - Hiver - 2010
Sylvette Babin
Alain Declercq, Make-up (detail), from the series Security, 2002. Photo: courtesy of the artist & galerie Loevenbruck, Paris

Despite a resurgence of art focused on the commodifiable object, practices favouring experience and politically engaged interventions are not completely absent from twenty-first-century artistic production. Among those practices often marked by social critique one finds some willing to shake up various value systems (including that of the arts) and disrupt public order, sometimes by attacking it directly, sometimes using more discreet—or barely visible—methods. The dossier presented here addresses the diverse forms of sabotage perpetrated by artists, both within and outside of the art world, and across disciplines as varied as performance, painting, installation, architecture and cinema. The infiltration of political and commercial structures, détournement, cultural dissidence, image-parasitism, questioning the notion of the signature, or scuttling one’s own project, are just a few of the strategies adopted by those practicing artistic sabotage.
The works analyzed in this issue generally have little to do with acts of material destruction or iconoclastic gestures. They are more subtle, but no less pointed, forms of sabotage in which the artist amuses him or herself with circumventing generally accepted rules—sometimes flirting with illegality, or sometimes blurring artistic codes and thus inviting us to question their role and range. Completing the idea of the artist as killjoy explored in the preceding issue, the artist-saboteur may have an even more negative image and thus one that is heavier to take on. Nonetheless, one notes that these practices lack neither humour nor a playful spirit. Moreover, it takes a certain measure of such to attack one’s own image. And, while on the subject, we opted to not merely bear passive witness to a variety of artistic sabotages, but to put them into practice ourselves by sabotaging this issue. This gesture of collusion with our graphic designers is, like all forms of sabotage, a little risky. Readers will likely find themselves disoriented to discover here, an incoherence in the normal order of pages and sections, and there, a graphic alteration of an image. This is not an attempt to trick the reader by obscuring our intentions (which would, in any case, be a mere hoax) but is rather one of trying out the concepts considered in these pages by shaking up the aesthetic comfort into which a magazine can all too easily settle.

[Translated from the French by Peter Dubé]


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