Dossier | The Fortuitous Celebration

  • Les Fermières Obsédées, La fête gâchée, 2003. Photo: courtesy of the artists
  • Patrick Bérubé, Banc public aérien, 2004. Photo: Julie Villeneuve

The Fortuitous Celebration
By Patrice Loubier

According to the latest reports close to a billion people are going hungry, global warming is threatening to accelerate irreversibly, and the rate of extinction for living species has led scientists to speak of a “sixth extinction.” (1) With this in mind, is it still possible to celebrate? Faced with this anticipated disaster the joyous exuberance of celebration has something almost inappropriate about it. Is it time to put the confetti away? Nevertheless, despite the gravity of the situation, it would be absurd to consider all festivities as suspect or to pronounce a merciless indictment of celebration, and this for at least two reasons.

First, the question associates celebration with a frivolous leisure activity, which is by nature guilty in the face of reasoned and responsible conduct. “To party” suggests a particular manifestation—to enjoy oneself, or in colloquial terms to “have a blast”—something to which celebration cannot, however, be reduced. For to party also means to celebrate, notably to commemorate. There are thus two types of celebration: if commemoration is part of celebration, then the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks partially includes “celebration” though there is evidently nothing festive about it. If, on the one hand, festivities allow one to have fun, to get drunk, or even forget, on the other, the commemoration exists above all to make us remember. To sum up, there are celebrations where one amuses oneself, and others where one fulfils a duty to remember. But a celebration can also be improvised outside of any public or civic framework: the feast, a dinner party washed down with plenty of wine, a night of bar hopping. This celebration has no fixed place in the calendar and can have no other meaning than that of a break based on leisure rather than worship. Contrary to celebration as a social institution, as a civic or religious event, there are also open and “free” festivities—in other words, there is celebration and there is the festive. Celebration includes merrymaking, but the more vague festive is in no way limited to official celebrations: it designates a behaviour, mood or atmosphere, it is the intransitive celebration that can erupt under any circumstances without need or justification.

But the initial question is also not worded right, since celebration is, to a large extent, dead—at least so in the secular, postindustrial Western world where it is a “thing of the past,” to speak sententiously like Hegel did on the subject of art, because, traditionally, it cannot be viewed without a form of transcendence that it is linked to. No matter its subject, the celebration is inextricably bound to a cultural reference that gives it its meaning, to a worldview which it affirms and reactivates through its periodic repetition, and the authority it exerts over all those that adhere to it. In inviting each and everyone, the celebration links the living to a particular founding or exemplary event, and unifies the community by having it commune with a value schema that transcends its immediate existence.

In its simplest form, the celebration thus appears as a collective ritualized transport. One can advance the hypothesis that, for a secular, disenchanted and individualist society such as ours, the celebration has tended to become an empty form, deprived of the transcendence on which its traditional community force was based. Seized by the market, drafted by tourism and the cultural industries, packaged as a mass product, contemporary celebration is no longer onto-theophanic, for it has been debased to become a cog of consumerism. The omnipresence of the festival, which Philippe Muray inveighed against, is perhaps the surest sign of this (2).

It should come as no surprise then that many artists who focus on celebration do so under the sign of the tragic or of transgressive irony. In an untitled installation by Claude Lévêque, shown at Optica in 1993, this celebration appears to take the shape of a corpse or a wreck. In the otherwise empty gallery, glitter and confetti are strewn on the floor, paper garlands and streamers hang pathetically from the ceiling or lie about on the floor—the joyous liveliness that these accessories were intended to foster is here transformed into a sad mess. During the 1990s the French artist used the entropic form of scattered refuse to create several of these installations with their “end of party” atmospheres. In each case there is a deserted, chaotic, decaying space. In I Wanna Be Your Dog (1996) party novelties, broken bottles, electric wires and microphones lie haphazardly on the floor making up a ballroom that is still lit by disco balls and animated/punctuated by canned applause. In reference to this work Richard Leydier speaks of a “rave iconography that is the metaphor. . . for a melancholy ‘no future’ atmosphere.” (3)

Les Fermières Obsédées mix the grotesque and the misshapen into celebration so as to better deconstruct it. During the Fête de l’art the four performers, dressed in their usual dirty skirts and blouses, were buried under an accumulation of streamers. In this piece entitled La fête gâchée, the coloured decorations no longer invoked a healthy and fun party mood, but instead degenerated into a chaotic accumulation through an excessive and disturbing proliferation, which threatened to bring down the entire structure. All this was further amplified by Les Fermières’ dripping makeup, which, beneath the refined elegance of contemporary makeup, gave rise to the savage power of body painting that is at its origin.

In their work Le Carnaval, presented during the 2008 edition of Paysages éphémères, Les Fermières revisited another form of celebration: the procession. Both through its staging and its scale the event evoked a triumphant pageant of stars. Preceded by motorcycle police who cleared the way, the performers paraded down Mont-Royal Avenue in a shiny white convertible, throwing candies to the crowd while three cameramen captured their every gesture as paparazzi would. The procession was completed by a group of black youth waving white flags and an Italian marching band from Montreal. Here everything indicated the pomp of a large-scale celebration, yet at the same time the whole thing was imbued by a trash atmosphere, by caricature and mockery. Though children were parading enthusiastically and the marching band played for real, they were, nevertheless, incorporated into a performance that discredits the celebration and undermines its seriousness. Behind Les Fermières the black youth carried a large papier-mâché mound that they exhibited like a ridiculous trophy with undeniable scatological connotations. For their part, the Fermières played their femmes fatales part, but dressed in sullied costumes throughout the parade, and dirtied their faces and lips with chocolate pudding when they were not using it to bask the mound. As for the white flags brandished by the black youth, they were blemished with a brown stain reminiscent of bibs: we are placed before a disfigured parade, reduced to a biting masquerade, where the magnificence of the procession is reduced to a grotesque buffoonery—a misshapen celebration, indeed. And yet, fascinated onlookers followed the procession and joined in the parade. Les Fermières made an attack on celebration but it proved resilient, and survived the blows and fed off the profanation that was thrown at it.

Affranchir suffisamment (2005), an action by Jean-François Prost and Marie-Suzanne Désilets, did not directly focus on celebration, but it made one reflect on its transmigration to other social activities. For several days the two artists travelled through large suburban shopping centres with transparent balloons, bearing absurd or out-of-place messages (for instance, “gratuit”), that they spread in the stores or tied to cars in the parking lots. The balloon was here diverted from its festive function; in its transparency it was stripped of its colours and lost its merry overtones. It was more a source of bafflement than amusement. Through the unease or confusion it at times caused among shoppers this infiltration in megastores actually revealed to what point frequenting these complexes is like a ritual, as if consuming were a tacit celebration that is unaware of itself, but made palpable precisely through the interruption and distancing Desilets and Prost perpetrate.

The Opening as Celebration
Artists can also tackle the opening—this celebration specific to the art world—by harnessing its energy or administering it with an electroshock.

When Picabia was suffering from ophthalmic shingles that prevented him from painting, he invited the guests of his “réveillon cacodylate”—new year’s eve party—to write whatever crossed their minds on his canvas, thus turning his painting into the emanation and precipitate of the celebration. L’œil cacodylate is effectively covered by signatures and notes which translate the wildness of the party through the imaginativeness and variety of their inscriptions. In a different vein, when the Argentinean Graciela Carnevale sequestered viewers by locking them up in the gallery during the opening of her Ciclo de Arte Experimental, on October 8, 1968, it is the opening itself as a situation that was seized upon and subverted in a decidedly more political vein. The momentary captivity inflicted by the artist on her viewers not only spoiled the party but also sought to make them aware of the violent control exerted by the dictatorship in power at the time: don’t count on the artist for your “escape” from reality.

The situation orchestrated by the QQistes in Le luxe du vernissage at the Centre d’art Amherst in 2005, seemed more perverse, and more compromising for the visitor. The opening as social event—documented by photographs—here became the main attraction of the subsequent exhibition. It was about “taking the opening as a high-society event and turning it into a burlesque and flamboyant happening. For three hours, visitors were invited to a powwow in the presence of dwarves, a mascot, a transvestite, a third-degree burns victim, a homeless person (a real one) and a motley crew of various characters. There was a subscription counter for a hunting and fishing magazine, a giant cake from which a pretty girl emerged, a painter using an airbrush to paint caricatures and a kitsch buffet that combined every conceivable cliché about Quebecois cold cuisine.” (4) This description of the event bears witness to the QQistes’ taste for kitsch and humour. But, above all, the artists took pleasure in undermining the codes of contemporary art openings to disconcert the viewer, which the evening’s photographs showing visitors’ expressions of surprise, amusement or unease, testify to.

Another approach would be to seek transport rather than irony, in an attempt to reinvent celebration and restore its power. The feasts to which Massimo Guerrera periodically invites the public during his Darboral presentations are a telling example of this. Bringing together sculptures, sketch books, photographs, food, plants and other elements, Darboral is primarily about doing and living through the manipulation of objects, tasting and the encounters that they bring about and which nourish its creation. This work in progress thus supports the very theme of the work (an active reflection on the opening and porosity of beings and bodies, the resistances to the Other, etc.), which grows in an altogether organic manner thanks to these gatherings. The referent here is no longer extrinsic to the work, and the celebration is less an end than the product of the artistic activity itself and its reception. It is actually not surprising that a nostalgia for celebration can be inversely diagnosed in relational or participative practices, since many of them, to a greater or lesser degree, seek to restore community and being in the world.

The Festive as Emergence
The phenomenon we have just described in regards to Darboral is no doubt closer to the festive than to celebration strictly speaking. If the vernissage turns out to be one of the circumstances that is most conducive to the emergence of the festive, it can also occur when people get together and a break with the ordinary is created. And it is no doubt through the spark of the festive that artists are rekindling celebration.

If celebration is a collective ritualized transport, the festive for its part has cast off the prescriptive ritual and the civic, religious, commemorative references that defined it. In art it is becoming manifest in the various convivial and enthusiastic atmospheres that are generated by the “rallying” contexts such as creative symposia, art events, and even street theatre, which unfolds the stage and extravaganza of festive disguise directly within the urban fabric.

It is in this spirit that the activities of Pique-nique, an informal collective of Montreal artists who, once a year, leisurely occupy a given city public park to present sculptures and actions. One group of accomplices, wearing red T-shirts, was directed by Edouard Pretty to mimic a mobile guard of honour which moved and reformed around astonished passers-by who were warmly applauded; another (Patrick Bérubé) caused a fake park bench to rise in the air, much to the surprise of onlookers; yet another (Thierry Marceau), a credible cross between a guru and a Club Med GO (Gracious Organizer), invited the crowd to Beaver Lake to join in a improvised tai-chi session with karaoke background sounds. (5) The force of this formula paradoxically resides in the unpretentiousness fostered by physical proximity and a laid-back attitude in which the passers-by and strollers unexpectedly gather to discover unannounced and unexpected works and activities, emerging spontaneously here and there along their way.

A similar group activity is evident in the visual jumble of the C.L.O.M. Trok monochromes organized by Joël Hubaut, who invited the citizens of Deauville (France) to bring a red object to a public place at a set hour (La Place rouge à Deauville, 1996). This kind of hare-brained idea anticipated the flash mob phenomenon, where new technologies and collective bodily presence embody another sort of virtual community in urban space. Contrary to events organized by cultural industries, flash mobs are initiated by users themselves.

If it appears the we are moving further and further away from celebration in its familiar sense, this more diffuse understanding allows us to distinguish the multifaceted effervescence of the festive precisely when it emerges in circumstances where it is neither foreseen nor sought after, where no spectacular or particular event calls for it or seeks to produce it—and where it is so much the more “transporting” and authentic because it is entirely unpredictable, and given and received freely.

For instance, the festive emerges in spontaneous gatherings triggered by some of the Hypothèses d’insertion by the SYN artist collective, notably during the improvised excursions they undertook in 2007 with a wheel-mounted football table in the multi-ethnic Parisian 18th arrondissement. Of course the project draws on the familiarity of this game for a European public as well as the “rallying” virtues of soccer, something made manifest by the spontaneous manner in which passers-by joined in the game and the diversity of groups which gathered around it (mixing youth and the elderly, immigrants of various origins, and Parisian and French “natives”). By creating an unusual circumstance outside of any instituted event, the artists harnessed the collective enthusiasm triggered by the game and leisure sport to produce a break with everyday order: having become mobile the football table moved from the bistro to the street, where it brought strangers momentarily together thanks to the happenstance nature of pedestrian traffic.

This fortuitous festive provides another image of celebration: an evanescent and sporadic, but powerful celebration, precisely because of its unpredictability as well as its capacity to rebound suddenly and to thereby create precarious interstices of euphoria, of fragile collective transport. One could interpret the relation of the celebration in light of Deleuze and Guattari’s molar/molecular (6) opposition, and as a form of everydayness as defined by Maffesoli (7) : on an everyday level one can oppose a diffuse and impromptu effervescence to the mass events programmed by the state or the cultural industries.

From a customary, instituted celebration, we have progressively moved to an immaterial, unpredictable and ephemeral celebration. Curiously, this has led us to “undefine” celebration, to liberate it from its structure, mooring and specific space-time. It hence tends to dissolve in the festive, to merge with any circumstance where the momentary fervour of a joyous atmosphere glitters, even when the celebration disappears within life at large and is revealed almost as a “total social fact,” analogous to the gift omnipresent in Mauss’ famous analysis. (8)  It indeed seems that certain artistic practices work to open up such interstices, as though to relaunch and revive the being-together of public space. (9)

A survival of the festive, in which art also takes part, would thus be the response to the decline of celebration. Contemporary celebration emerges and surprises us—we were no longer preparing it. Neither transcendence nor death of god, from now on simply the acuity of the present and the celebrated here and now, which will delight us for a brief instant, before leaving, before the disaster.

[Translated from the French by Bernard Schütze]

NOTES
1. Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction: Biodiversity and Its Survival (London: Orion Books, 1995).
2. Philippe Muray, Après l’histoire (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1999).
3. Richard Leydier, “La petite musique de nuit,” Art Press, Claude Lévêque. Le Grand Soir. Venise 2009, supplement to issue no. 357 (June 2009): 32. [Our translation.]
4. Aseman Haghsheno-Sabet, “Dialogue avec les QQistes,” Espace, no. 77 (Fall 2006): 24. Also see, Manon Tourigny “Ceci n’est pas une plaisanterie: l’irrévérence chez les QQistes,” esse, no. 56 (Winter 2006): 44-47.
5. For more on the collective’s actions see: Julie Bélisle, “Quand faire c’est dire: l’acte artistique dans l’espace urbain”, esse, no. 54 (Spring/Summer 2005): 52-55.
6. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, tr. Brian Massumi, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 229-256.
7. Among other things see his essay La conquête du présent: pour une sociologie de la vie quotidienne (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1998).
8. Marcel Mauss, tr. Ian Collinson, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1954).
9. But not only art: see citizen movements such as Reclaim the Street or initiatives such as the one the CCA presented with the exhibition Actions: What You Can Do With the City.

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