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99 - Plants - Printemps / été - 2020
Sylvette Babin

We change through our collaborations both within and across species. The important stuff for life on earth happens in those transformations, not in the decision trees of self-contained individuals.
– Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

At the root of this issue is a love of plants, most certainly, but also a desire to green its pages with lush works. Despite the rewilding trend, as demonstrated by the abundance of houseplants on social media, this love is not new in people’s lives or even, more specifically, in the field of art where flora has always had a prominent role. What seems to have changed, however, is how we look at plant life, a gaze that aspires to shirk the anthropocentric blinders it has had for centuries. As science demystifies the complex universe of plants, we become more open to their sensitivity, intelligence, and agency. In other words, humanity is slowly daring to change the status of plants from utilitarian or decorative objects to fully-fledged living things.

Our issue appeals to interdisciplinarity more than ever before, taking its references from the fields of science, anthropology, and botany. Although artistic research is not abandoned — as evidenced by the diversity of works — plants draw our attention to their chemical composition, evolutionary history, and modes of adapting. Inevitably, environmental concerns and the impact of human intervention on plant biodiversity have a significant presence in the topics covered. As for the artworks, by closely observing the non-individualistic behaviour of plants, they propose, without moralizing, various ways of communicating with nature. Furthermore, since working with something alive is highly unpredictable and impermanent, they raise the issue of authorship and reintroduce the idea of collaboration, so important to new approaches to art.

The issue begins with a reconsideration of ecosophy, a notion developed by Félix Guattari thirty years ago that groups together three forms of ecology — environment, social relations, and subjectivity. Ecosophy calls for a global understanding of the world and introduces the relationship of interdependence, which comes up in several articles in the issue. The reciprocal relationship between species, as well as between ecosystems, stands in contrast to individualism and the general belief in the absolute superiority of human beings. In this regard, it is important to remember that the understanding of an interconnected world is intrinsic to the thinking and traditional way of life of Indigenous people. Lastly, -reconsidering our interactions with plants, by thinking of them as sensory beings, also opens the way to more radical ideas, particularly an ethics of consent, which could be invoked when using plants in agricultural production, monocultures, horticultural trade, and even art.

The plant world is considered through works that focus on the nutritional and healing role of plants, on their migration during periods of colonization, on the impact of conflicts on agriculture and vegetation, and on the behaviour of plants that are genetically modified or contaminated by chemical and nuclear industries, among other issues. Thus the plantain, Thale cress, Damask rose, peony, shea tree, corn, and potato are among the species artists have selected to reflect on the many upheavals that human and plant communities have suffered so that the desire for territorial, political, and economic expansion of a handful of individuals seeking power could be satisfied. Generally solicited for what they are, but also for their metaphorical meanings, the stalks, roots, flowers, fruit, and leaves that appear in these pages sometimes evoke human exploitation, domination, and the collapse of ecosystems, but also, more optimistically, resistance, solidarity, collaboration, and hope for renewal.

At the time of publication, humanity is facing an unprecedented pandemic that will necessarily make us rethink the way we live in the world, in this era of the Anthropocene or, more accurately, the Capitalocene. (1) We are already beginning to see some collective collaborative movements and much calling into question of the capitalist system. Will we also reconsider how we exploit all living things? In his book The Life of Plants, Emanuele Coccia writes: “The world is, above all, everything the plants could make of it.” (2) Perhaps the time has come to listen more closely to what they have to tell us.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) “The most convincing Anthropocene time line begins not with our species but rather with the advent of modern capitalism, which has directed long-distance destruction of landscapes and ecologies.” Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 19.
(2) Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, trans. Dylan J. Montanari (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019), 21.

98 - Knowledge - Hiver - 2020
Sylvette Babin
Edito - Shared Knowledge

I do not hark back nostalgically to the 17th century; to privileged amateur men sustained by colonial adventures, indentured laborers, vast estates, and arrogant entitlement — but I do want to keep a hold of two of their formulations; the value of “experimental philosophy” and the edict to “take nothing on authority.” And I think that “creative practices of knowledge” are some of the ways in which we might grasp these and ensure that they do not cede to the endless pragmatic demands of knowledge protocols: outcomes, outputs, impact, constant monitoring of the exact usefulness of a particular knowledge or of its ability to follow the demands and the imper-atives of cognitive capitalism — demands to be portable, to be transferable, to be useful, to be flexible, to be applied, to be entrepreneurial and generally integrated within market economies at every level.
— Irit Rogoff, Practicing research: singularising knowledge

Having access to knowledge is a fundamental principle of democracy. Thinking about this notion means considering the different modes of learning (theoretical, scholarly, practical) as well as the forms and places of knowledge production and transmission (schools, museums, sharing of experiences, writing, orality, etc.). While the dramatic growth of information technologies and massive data sharing have made all types of knowledge more accessible, they have also increased the development of a real economy of knowledge — the cognitive capitalism that irrefutably affects educational institutions and the art world. Furthermore, knowledge transmission is not only about questions of access — to information, resources, or educational institutions — but also about people’s ability to see themselves reflected in the spectrum of knowledge offered, which is still very much “guided” by the dominant Western thought. In this context, philosopher Seloua Luste Boulbina opens the feature section by proposing “disorientation” as a means of shifting us from the hegemonic references imposed by European colonialism. The interview lays the groundwork for a series of reflections that emphasize the power relationships inherent to the social field of knowledge. We thus propose to observe a little more closely the strategies that artists and curators adopt in order to introduce new pedagogies or ways of thinking. Without all being entirely new — some of the references cited go back to the early institutional critique of the 1970s — the research involved in an educational turn in art or in a participatory museology reflects social concerns that are undeniably current.

The interest in developing alternative forms of knowledge acquisition is not limited to sharing theories or practices; it also seeks to transform individuals’ view of art and society by providing them with the tools they need to think critically. In the wake of identity or feminist theories, which have been increasingly critical of how gender, race, and class are represented, artists strive to make the public aware, through their work, of the androcentric or colonialist focus of many museum collections. Others challenge the curriculums established by educational institutions by offering different didactic approaches.

Ultimately, the essays in this issue recognize and put forward knowledge and know-how derived from daily life or from the traditions of diverse communities, as well as valourize the role that not knowing can play in methods of learning by transforming it into know-how conducive to emancipatory social action. Overall, the approaches proposed here by artists and curators are chiefly supported by notions of sharing, collaboration, and the pooling of all knowledge.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

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


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