74 - Reskilling - Hiver - 2012
Sylvette Babin

In Praise of Virtuosity?

Twentieth-century art, which saw the birth of readymade and conceptual art, was marked by a rupture with tradition and a questioning of the role of technical savoir-faire. During this period, practices bringing into play experience, process, and device led to the studio being abandoned by nomadic artists with a preference for site-specific or ephemeral art, while the advent of new technology contributed to the decline of the materiality of the object. Are these multiple approaches, which Yves Michaux ironically described as “the gaseous state of art,” in the process of being supplanted by a major resurgence of savoir-faire and the handmade object?

The term “reskilling,” borrowed from the domain of professional training, designates the learning of new skills in order for certain trades to adapt to the needs of the market. Recently introduced into the field of -contemporary art, (1) reskilling, or requalification, thus enhances the -prestige of manual work — most notably through the revival of essentially abandoned artisanal techniques — and attributes value to the mastery of execution and the craftsmanship of a work as well as its material and decorative sophistication. In the context of industrial production, reskilling was a direct response to deskilling, a process whereby human expertise was rendered obsolete through the introduction of new technology. However, in the artistic domain such deskilling cannot be attributed purely to the effects of industrialization but also to the willingness of the avante-garde to break with the dictates of academicism. If virtuosity has always inspired admiration — and this until the present day — contemporary art has nevertheless succeeded in turning away from constraints associated exclusively with skills. In other respects, it is pertinent to examine the motivations behind this renewed interest in traditional techniques and the requalification of savoir-faire by observing their role within the context of contemporary art issues at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The texts in this issue propose somewhat conflicting, yet complementary, opinions on the subject, expressing on the one hand the urgency “to ‘rescue’ the ‘making’ of art and its mediums” (Luanne Martineau), and on the other, highlighting the persistence of practices “in which non-knowing, emptiness, and the unforeseeable are privileged modes of being and doing destined to perpetually undermine the realm of skill, know-how, technique” (Stephen Horne).

This collection of essays thus bears witness to great diversity and a willingness to pursue a deeper examination of art as object without restricting the debate to mere dogmatism. To this effect, the analyses of reskilling presented here in no way herald the disappearance of -experimental art or procedural practices; instead, they act as a counterbalance to relatively -recent issues which contemplated relational processes, the dematerialization of the object, and even the disappearance of art works all together.(2)

By exploring works that invoke casting techniques specific to ceramics, textiles, painting, and more “contemporary” media such as photography, video, and installation, the essays also expound the various means through which artists strive to question material. The works reveal several common tendencies or preoccupations, such as a predilection for hybridity, the appropriation of everyday objects, and a variety of playful approaches without recourse to nostalgia. Also apparent is the turning away from the utilitarian value generally associated with the techniques from which they borrow. In other respects, the artists, far from confining themselves to formal or aesthetic explorations related to their -respective media, bear witness to social or political preoccupations by taking a critical look at “our post-digital age of software-specific art and design, consumerism, condensed time, and globalism” (Martineau), through moulding, “an anti-idealistic technical choice that eludes conventional (predominantly male) aesthetic pretensions through inventive and contradictory formal strategies” (Katrie Chagnon) and through “recontextualizing [the notions of] work and value” (Andrew Hennlich). These all point to the fact that the role of savoir-faire and traditional techniques shall never be confined to the -manufacture of purely decorative objects.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]


(1) In this regard, see John Roberts, The Intangibilies of Form: Skill and Deskilling of Art After the Readymade, (London and New York: Verso, 2007).
(2) I am referring in particular to issues such as Fragile (no. 65), Disappearance (no. 66), and Intercourse: art as transaction (no. 73).

73 - Intercourse: Art as transaction - Automne - 2011
Sylvette Babin

Art’s New Transactions

To begin, it is important to clear up the ambiguity that may be suggested by our title, Commerce | Intercourse. The French term clearly evokes monetary exchange, whereas the English calls to mind human relationships, even sexual ones. It is precisely this double meaning that is tackled in this current issue, dwelling as it does on the “transactions” implicit in what has meanwhile become known as relational aesthetics. More than a decade has passed since this theorization on a (perhaps less recent) practice first appeared, unleashing a truly pivotal reaction in the art world. Initially focused on the principles of encounter and community by attempting to rethink the relationships with institutions and to free itself from the economy of the art market, with the benefit of hindsight, relational aesthetics is now giving rise to new avenues of thought.

In approaching the subject, we asked several questions in order to know if — in practices so dependent on the participation of another — the individual had not become a new kind of material, if we were not demonstrating how even participation can be monetized, and whether or not these two phenomena were actually contributing to an undermining of the relational utopia. Such questions, which have their source in the many critiques formulated by certain American authors (Claire Bishop and Rosalyn Deutsche, for example), have led to extremely diverse ideas. We should stress that we in no way wish to invalidate the manifestations or work arising from relational aesthetics, nor do we wish to call into question the motivations underlying them. Rather, we would like to examine, via different voices, certain less widely discussed issues or ones that were perhaps not considered when such practices were emerging.

A transformation of the paradigms of relational art was foreseeable in order to ensure the works’ continuity and to all intents and purposes their symbolic efficacy. (1) Consequently, one notes the appearance of certain “declensions” of relational aesthetics (resulting also, perhaps, from changes simultaneously taking place in the art world, like the revival of object artworks and the rapid development of the art market). If at the root of relational practices the trace was often voluntarily absent or considered a mere archive serving as memory, new proposals are emerging in which artists create situations with the specific aim of making a plastic work. And so one observes that the meeting with the other has well and truly become a (sometimes monetized) transaction, thus restoring the economic dimension to a term that had generally been used metaphorically. Asserting and distinguishing themselves thoroughly from the pastoral intentions specific to many conviviality-based actions, these works propose a new approach in relational art worthy of observation.

Commerce | Intercourse thus takes a critical look at multiple facets of the relational economy by questioning how such works position themselves in the logic of the market, by reflecting on the ethics of these practices and the risks of involving participants, as well as by analyzing works that voluntarily adopt different financial models, be it in parody or for profit.


1. I am referring here to Jacques Rancière’s idea that the symbolic efficacy of art essentially arises from its exhibition: “The dispersal of works of art into the multiplicity of social relationships has value only when seen, whether the ordinary ‘nothing-to-see’ relationship is exemplarily accommodated in a space normally destined for the exhibition of artwork: or whether, contrarily, the production of social ties in public space is done by a spectacular artistic form.” Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé (Paris: La fabrique, 2008), 78. [my translation.]

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.


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