97 - Appropriation - Automne - 2019
Sylvette Babin

Cultural appropriation takes place because a cultural trait, practice, or object is used in a way that decontextualizes instead of complexifying it, that simplifies instead of enriching it; ultimately, it’s an act of power.
Stéphane Martelly, p. 63

Appropriation art, for its part, seeks not to erase relations of power but to underline them.
Jean-Philippe Uzel, p. 17

The first instances of artistic appropriation in contemporary art go back to the 1960s and 1970s and the work of Elaine Sturtevant, who set the scene for artists interested in questions of authorship and intellectual property. Fully embraced, though not without legal consequences, these acts of appropriation are generally part of thinking critically about the art world. In contrast, cultural appropriation refers to the takeover of cultural codes, for commercial profit for example, or to the gestures of artists who intend to pay homage to a culture yet do not realize or recognize the resulting appropriation. By juxtaposing these two notions here, we wish to reveal what sets them apart.

The frequent debates on cultural appropriation have raised important questions on a wide variety of subjects such as the autonomy of art, the responsibility of the artist, freedom of expression, and censorship. These considerations are crucial in a society whose fundamental values are constantly transforming. However, the polarized discourses that have come out of these debates have glossed over the mechanisms of cultural appropriation and have led us to trivialize the consequences. As Jean-Philippe Uzel points out, “one of the most common strategies for defusing the political charge of cultural appropriation is to radically shift the meaning by giving it a positive connotation. It then becomes a synonym for ‘cultural exchange’ and is presented as a principle of artistic creation and ferment.” In parallel with such a romanticized and decontextualized conception of art, many opponents to the criticism of cultural appropriation claim the emergence of a victim-led censorship. Yet any discourse that seeks to discredit the claims of underrepresented communities contributes not only to denying the discrimination and existing power relationships, but also to reproducing them by divesting these communities of their right to express their outrage and of their power to act — in other words, it deprives them of their agency.

Stéphane Martelly rightly reminds us that “you have to be in a position of power to exercise censorship … So, reversing the very meaning of censorship to say that minority or dominated voices are the ones exercising it — and to say this, paradoxically, from every platform — is a powerful gesture of denial.” Many have in fact spoken out in the media, magazines, and publications by well-established publishing houses both to defend the freedom of expression and to denounce political correctness or the rise of a new moral order. Although artistic freedom of expression should clearly be safeguarded from the slip-ups associated with a simplistic reading of artworks or the application, without any nuance, of an ideology motivated by empathy, the slippery remarks on its alleged disappearance are surprising. The idea that artists can no longer tackle delicate or controversial subjects often seems to be based on dystopic theories such as the advent of an art controlled by morality or the militant left, the disappearance of art’s autonomy, or even the end of transgressive art. Must we point out that criticism is not meant to be a gag order, but rather an invitation to examine the meaning and scope of our actions and our relationship to others?

Many misunderstandings persist among the most high-profile cases of cultural appropriation, particularly when they involve the appropriation of collective memory, intangible cultures, and ways of sharing such cultures. Caroline Nepton Hotte, one of the signatories of the open letter on Kanata, resumes the debate to discuss the background of this controversy, which has been by and large stripped of its context. The group’s criticism builds on the important process of decolonization and “cultural reappropriation” (biskaabiiyang, or “re-creating the cultural and political flourishment of the past”) of First Nations. Hotte emphasizes that although this reappropriation can and should be made by all citizens, it should first be inflected by Indigenous voices.

Ceasing to speak for the Other is likely a good place to start in thinking critically about cultural appropriation and decolonization. The idea of debating “among us,” that is among people who have privileged access to the main discussion forums, underlines another reality that involves access to visibility, dissemination venues, representation, and funding. In the art milieu, this also forces us to recognize the existence of an aesthetic framework defined by Western culture, to which artists from other cultures must (still) conform. Eddy Firmin calls “the directive, whether tacit or otherwise, to conform with the cultural canons prescribed by a group in a position of authority” the cultural imperative. This aesthetic framework has also led us to take what we please from a culture and neglect the rest, to choose a story, but rarely the people who are in the best position to tell it. This same framework also contributes to shaping the discourse when, in order to justify an act of appropriation, we replace the term with “borrowing.” Yet, we forget that for something to truly be borrowed, the person from which it is borrowed needs to receive something in return.

The ethical questions raised by cases of cultural appropriation cast a veil of mistrust on appropriation art, hence the importance of starting an analysis to better understand all forms of appropriation and identify different contexts. Certain examples examined in this issue consider the impact of the advent of digital technology and artificial intelligence at a time when the mass circulation of images and the creation of works made by machines lead to a confusion on the status of the author. The legal question of copyright is a notion that is interpreted in different ways and sometimes even used to legitimate misuse. A case in point is that of Mexican architect Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín, as the Swiss foundation representing him has appropriated his work in a way. The issue also looks at the appropriation of spaces (or at expropriation as the theft of property rights, particularly in cases of urban development), and at the practice of misappropriation from the perspective of its potential to give back to citizens that which was taken from them. Perhaps in these cases, we can give appropriation a positive connotation.

The various legal disputes arisen from appropriation clearly lead to a calling into question or a withdrawing, and sometimes even to situations that seem unfair. Yet ultimately, the question of responsibility is what stands out. In appropriation art, this primarily involves facing the consequences (particularly, legal action) of one’s choices. However, in the more controversial and highly sensitive cases of cultural appropriation, responsibility has a completely different meaning. Defining the scope of this meaning is a challenge that still remains. For some, the artist’s responsibility means no longer ignoring the social and political context around a work. For others, it means embracing their position and defending the autonomy of art at all costs. Yet in all cases, while it is true that art does not necessarily come out of peace and consensus, we must nevertheless hope that it doesn’t become the expression of self-absorption. Being open to dialogue ultimately remains the best example of artistic and civic responsibility.

[Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei]

96 - Conflict - Printemps / été - 2019
Sylvette Babin
Leila Zelli. Terrain de jeux, exhibition detail, Galerie de l'UQAM, Montréal, 2019. Photo : Galerie de l'UQAM

“While ‘conventional warfare’ places society under complete political control, new warfare completely merges the social and the political. The warring society penetrates the intimate daily life of every individual, without however being ruled by a political order.”

The new type of war discussed in Nouvelles guerres. Comprendre les conflits du XXIe siècle [New Wars: Understanding the Conflicts of the 21st Century] (1) has gradually emerged in the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War, and 9/11. Less driven by territorial expansion, these wars are characterized by wars of independence and a southward movement of conflicts. According to Bertrand Badie, “the ‘new wars’ reflect the situations of severe social crisis happening in the societies concerned. Far from being the result of intergovernmental competition, they stem from a failure of the state, from its weakness, its inability to assert itself, its lack of legitimacy, its incapacity to deal with social breakdown.” (2) The articles published in this issue convey this finding, according to which conflicts around the world seep into the daily life of individuals, as they examine works that explore and reflect civil wars — internal armed conflicts that destroy communities and displace entire populations — as well as forms of social conflict characterized by the control of hegemonic systems or the impact of global capitalism on the lives of individuals. The essays discuss the trauma or alienation experienced by the members of different groups — extreme vulnerability, distortion of cultural identity, depoliticization of life — but also their daily attempts to transcend the violence of conflicts and even turn it into a cause for action, resistance, and resilience.

Talking about the conflicts experienced by others is a delicate matter. Most of the authors and artists in this issue live in relatively peaceful areas and see wars through the lens of the media. Some, however, have personally experienced war or are aware of its consequences (diaspora and uprooting, identity issues, etc.) through the experiences of their loved ones. The artistic strategies used are therefore as varied as the forms of conflict that inspired them. Images of war are examined, for example, through a rereading of the media’s role and the phenomenon of manipulating information characteristic of many conflicts. Some artists have chosen to reappropriate these images in order to construct new narratives that both criticize and redress. Others refer to recent or still active wars (Kashmir, Russia-Ukraine, Colombia, Iran-Iraq, Israel-Palestine, the former Yugoslavia, and Syria) by revisiting the remains or symbols (borders, walls, bunkers, etc.) or by observing how affected populations manage, despite everything, to have a daily existence.

Since conflicts are not limited to wars, we are also interested, to quote one of our writers, in the “struggle fought at the heart of existence” and the works that attest to the trials and social inequalities created by colonialism, authoritarianism, and biopower. In these essays, we see how these clashes manifest themselves through body language and collective action, for example through the use of passive resistance as a means of infrapolitical action.

Many works ultimately remind us that despite conflict and war, people continue to live their day-to-day, and that life, play, and humour find a place in spite of everything. Those who have come close to death also have a desire to keep the memory of the past alive and a capacity to remain resilient, which, expressed through rituals or songs, contribute to an ode to life. To conclude the feature section, filmmaker Juanita Onzaga tells us that “I build my work around sparks of hope.” She also adds that “we have to fight for this possible future, for this view of what peace could be.”

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) Bertrand Badie and Dominique Vidal (ed.), Nouvelles guerres. Comprendre les conflits du XXIe siècle, (Paris: Éditions La Découverte/Poche, 2016).
(2) Ibid., « Introduction », p. 16 (Our translation).

Caption: Leila Zelli, Leila Zelli. Terrain de jeux, exhibition detail, Galerie de l'UQAM, Montréal, 2019. Photo : Galerie de l'UQAM

95 - Empathy - Hiver - 2019
Sylvette Babin
Sylvie Cotton, Perruques, 2016. Photos: courtesy of Sylvie Cotton & 3e Impérial, centre d'essai en art actuel, Granby

Although initially, the word “empathy” (Einfühlung) indicated the aesthetic relationship between a subject and a work of art that allowed the subject to emotionally identify with that work, the term’s current usage, simplified to the extreme, denotes the ability to feel and understand the experience of another. In 2013, Barack Obama declared in a speech that contemporary society suffers from an “empathy deficit,” an assertion that has been taken up many times since. Yet, we have rarely seen so many collective actions being taken against injustice, actions that seem to be motivated by the impetus of empathic solidarity (anti-bullying campaigns, the #MeToo movement, the denouncing of systemic discrimination, the emergence of anti-speciesism, etc.). What is actually happening? In this society mainly fuelled by social media, are we facing a rise in empathy or are we in fact experiencing a disturbing excess of individualism?

The answer probably depends on the causes cham-pioned and especially on our varied empathic biases. In fact, as noble as the intentions of empathic people may be, feeling (and vicariously experiencing) the emotions of another is always done through the filter of our own experience or emotions. Therefore, we more easily develop empathy for what is close to us, for what resembles us. Hence the multiplicity of biases, which raises important ethical questions about our relationships to other people, particularly since understanding the pain of others does not make us more likely to act to improve their lot. In terms of art, especially work with a social purpose, the danger in soliciting empathy from viewers also lies in the fact that the empathic reaction to the subject of the work often occurs at the expense of its context, either because it is ignored or because it is transformed.

All these conclusions have led many intellectuals to question the role, the scope, and sometimes the drifting off course of empathy, and in this regard, the current issue is no exception. The notion of aesthetic empathy, for example, is discussed here in terms of the distancing or alienation effect so central to Bertolt Brecht. This effect allows one to avoid a purely emotive reading of an artwork and break away from the process of identification (with a character or work, but also sometimes with a political or marketing strategy), which all too easily leads to a loss of critical thinking. Furthermore, the notions of domestication and foreignization shed light on the affective translation process caused by empathy. Domestication is tantamount to an appropriation of another’s suffering, as opposed to foreignization, which transforms empathy into an actual altruistic tool by focusing on “the untranslatable as a sign of political resistance” (Page). We can see this idea of the untranslatable in the notion of not knowing, that is the ability to be open to the unknown (Dezember), or in the appeal to the right to opacity, which refers to “zones of unknowing irreducible to any attempts at categorization” (Boyadjian). In fact, the categorization of a situation or an individual necessarily leads to a form of judgment and quite possibly, of discrimination — ideas that are discussed in some of the articles here.

With this issue, we wish to determine whether art can contribute to building sensitive bridges between people that are geographically, socially, and culturally distant and whose experiences differ — and from this perspective, whether the embodied perceptions and bodily moorings of empathy could actually sharpen critical thinking rather than curtail it. We are not -placing empathy on trial, but rather highlighting its pitfalls. Nevertheless, in intellectualizing the flip side of empathy to the extreme, one need not necessarily arrive at an excessive distrust of the actions and works that solicit it. The works discussed in this issue show that it is possible to demonstrate empathy while also being aware of the challenges.

Various studies have shown that empathy is a source of pleasure and that it contributes to the appreciation of a work of art. We might consider that it also motivates an attentive listening to the other and that it instills a real willingness to respond in an ethical manner. In this sense, empathy could be, in some way, a step on the path towards an active form of benevolence and altruism.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

Caption: Sylvie Cotton, Perruques, 2016. Photos: courtesy of Sylvie Cotton & 3e Impérial, centre d'essai en art actuel, Granby

94 - Labour - Automne - 2018
Sylvette Babin
Adrián Melis, Surplus Production Line, video still, 2014. Photo: courtesy of the artist & Adn Galeria, Barcelona

The working world has clearly changed. Since the 1970s, we’ve shifted away from the Fordist model toward a so-called “flexible” approach to work, according to which we grant workers more autonomy and demand that they be more adaptable while offering less job stability. This flexibility has not freed us, however, from the iron cage of industrial capitalism (Weber), and we continue to be haunted by old moral maxims such as “time is money” and “idleness is the mother of all vices.” Twenty years ago, sociologist Richard Sennett wrote that “revulsion against bureaucratic routine and pursuit of flexibility has produced new structures of power and control, rather than created the conditions which set us free.” (1) In the era of the Internet and Workplace 2.0, this situation has only amplified. The working space has never been as nomadic or the working hours as flexible as today, with the result that the border between professional activity and private life is inexorably crumbling away. Therefore, flexible individuals find themselves even more constrained by work that now accompanies them at all times.

The art milieu is not exempt from this society of endless work. We must not forget that for a long time artists and cultural workers have been demanding status that would give them access to the same benefits as anyone else in the job market and by the same token allow them to escape the common misconception that creation — a “labour of love” — is an extra-economic activity. Therefore, including art (not the object, but the practice itself) in the work economy necessarily places it within a logic of productivity that forces us to invoice the actions. While the theory of art’s exceptionalism (according to which art is not a commodity like any other and is therefore exempt from the labour theory of value) seems valid for artists, we would have difficulty claiming the same for cultural workers, who are the actual workforce of the art Business. Nevertheless, for both artists and cultural workers alike, the proliferation of tasks related to the rapid development of new forms of flexible work is increasingly encroaching on the research and creation time particular to their professions. As a result, the “unproductive” time necessary to developing ideas (contemplating, daydreaming, drifting, casually researching, taking breaks, and being silent) is often abandoned for the benefit of more productive tasks, or ones that meet economic or organizational requirements.

The current feature section reflects on the issues of work time and unproductive work, the exceptionalism of art, the mechanisms of bureaucratic power, and the voluntary or self-exploitation of artists. As we might expect, the findings are not encouraging. Although the demands of artists and cultural workers are starting to be heard in the political arena, the responses all too often remain at the level of promises. For example, Québec recently adopted a cultural policy that includes the following measure: “Implement concrete solutions addressing the issues of employment, remuneration, and social safety net of professional artists and cultural workers.” (2) However, the main action proposed for implementing this measure is “increasing the knowledge of socioeconomic conditions” — political jargon that certainly shows good intentions but that does not engage with anything concretely. While “knowledge” of artists’ conditions should have been acquired a long time ago, not taking them into account is an act of bad faith.

The economic instability of the entire art milieu is at the source of many operational problems of organizations, ranging from a blatant lack of financial resources to the inability to adequately valorize the skills required of those working in the art sector. Therefore, the delicate question of the exploitation of cultural workers even by art institutions was worth including in this issue. Art projects address in a sensitive and engaged manner the tensions raised by these challenges, whether in relation to power dynamics, unequal working conditions, or the use of an unpaid workforce. These works and their accompanying analyses lay the foundation for a crucial rethinking of how the art system functions. Yet to carry the thinking even further, it is crucial that all the parties concerned participate and that they keep all the elements needed for discussion accurate and informed (transparency regarding the financial situation and hierarchical structure of institutions, consideration of governance models, necessity of a workforce and policies in this area, etc.). In all debates, it is especially vital to avoid separating the stakeholders of the cultural sector — society’s poor cousin — while all around, other sectors of the capitalist world keep getting richer, sometimes thanks to the cultural sector.

We also discuss some art practices that have chosen instead to shed light on the situation of other workers — their pay conditions, their daily tasks, their physical or mental experience, as well as the materials that accompany their labour — so many examples reminding us that while this issue focuses on the precarious status of artists, exploitation, unfair wages, inadequate conditions, and overwork, it also reaches well beyond the art field.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 47.
(2) Gouvernement du Québec, Partout, la culture : Politique culturelle du Québec, ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec, p. 9, (bit.ly/2HH5HwP).

Caption: Adrián Melis, Surplus Production Line, video still, 2014. Photo: courtesy of the artist & Adn Galeria, Barcelona

93 - Sketch - Printemps / été - 2018
Sylvette Babin
Louis-Philippe Côté, Étude pour Flux-schizo, 2005. Photo : permission de l’artiste

Draft, outline, rough copy, diagram, study, or sketch are some of the forms evoking a work in the act of becoming. Although what sets them apart matters little in the context of this issue, what brings them together definitely concerns us. These various modes, which we convene under the term sketch, have a common preparatory function and consequently, a status of incompletion. The history of contemporary art has shown that by giving the creative process a certain autonomy, avant-garde movements have marked the end of the supremacy of the finished work. Even the recent interest in reskilling, (1) based on revalorizing skills while paying particular attention to the object, does not appear to have cast a shadow on the artistic preoccupation with the work in progress, and all informal practices indicate paths that traverse this preoccupation.

Maintaining its role of first form, the sketch leads to a wide range of strategies and gives rise to new research on the materiality, temporality, and spatiality of a work. To do this, it still takes the traditional route of drawing, painting, and sculpture, and sometimes of new technologies, while also referring to the outline of a movement, the brief posture, or the tenuous attempt to communicate an idea in words. From the English sketch, we get the performative aspect of drawing, that is its connection to theatre and by extension, to dance and performance, as well as to narration and orality, which are expressed in comic books and satire. Therefore, we designed this issue to reflect the abundance of possibilities and deliberately break away from an essentially discipline-based approach to drawing, focusing instead on the creative intention found in the sketch and the fluctuations of its outcomes.

While the sketch often refers to its own existence as gesture, material, or form through the questions it raises about incompletion, it does not lack an engagement with and consideration of the outside world. Perhaps this is precisely what unites the practices discussed here, however different they may be. Many of the projects presented, as well as the analyses underpinning them, take a critical view of art and the world. We see, for example, how the incomplete can reflect an ideological stance that is debatable and sometimes restrictive, but also how some artists use the power of action to undermine conventions or reappropriate history. Inuit drawings rooted in a long, satirical tradition play a subversive role; they are informed by strategies of decolonization that aim to deconstruct stereotypes still all too present in contemporary art. The notions of redress and healing are emphasized several times in this issue, as the sketch bears all the elements conducive to renewal. In an interview with François Morelli, which focuses on art education and knowledge sharing, the artist-teacher points out that “non-judgmental, [the sketch] should not be laboured with planning or hindered by censorship. It can be thrown away and started over. Its ultimate value is in its ability to ask questions and stir things up.” This aspect of stirring things up is precisely what we wish to expose or even provoke through this issue, assuming that the sketch can also be a call to action. For this reason, movement, performance, and dance are also considered as extensions of the sketch and are discussed in several articles.

Lastly, we could see the sketch as a promise — the promise of a future work, certainly, but above all, the promise of a dialogue between the idea and its realization, between the outline and the eventual work, and ultimately, between art and those who engage in it.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) See Issue 74 of esse, Savoir-faire/Reskilling (Winter 2012).

Caption: Louis-Philippe Côté, Étude pour Flux-schizo, 2005. Photo: courtesy of the artist


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