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102 - (Re)seeing Painting - Printemps / été - 2021
Sylvette Babin

In a talk given in 2019 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, art historian Isabelle Graw observed that painting enjoys enormous intellectual prestige and that it has been the subject, in recent years, of many analyses and theories. (1) The ongoing reaffirmation of painting’s vitality through different independent exhibition projects or through its valorization in museum collections likely helps to strengthen this perception. However, works offering in-depth reflections on the most current issues are rare, at least in the Canadian academic context.

The decision made by Esse to present features dedicated to painting (2), though our themes are often based on social issues, is part of an attempt to encourage critical analyses of painting practices. The idea of (re)seeing painting invited writers to move away from recurring considerations of its death and resurrection, which, as Daniel Fiset emphasizes, “don’t go too far beyond the polemical or rhetorical: their constant references to previous art discourse turn their own arguments into a kind of living-dead.” It is important, however, to caution those who might expect this issue to offer a report on the state of painting today. While presenting a selection of articles that attest to the diversity of aesthetic and conceptual approaches to this art form, above all this issue puts forward some considerations of the different strategies deployed in art practices or dissemination networks. We note, for example, how the digital era has substantially transformed the modes of circulation and reception of painting, a transformation that has been exacerbated by the lockdown. The Web has not only enabled an unprecedented access to works, but has also contributed to their reappropriation by Internet users and their renewal outside of the art field. The mass culture conveyed by social media also feeds the imaginaries of many artists who, by channelling it into their work, create a kind of back and forth between the materialization of the digital on canvas and the dematerialization of painting in the virtual world where it is presented.

We also notice a renewed interest in figuration, as well as in a style sometimes characterized by popular or more marginal iconography associated with social movements (particularly queer culture) and sometimes, by a reactivation of genres from classical or modernist art history. Yet the attempts to develop new pictorial genres by reproducing previous ones (what critics call the zombie style) raise questions about the originality of the works or the intentions of the artists, who are suspected of falling into the trap of commercial considerations. The fact is that for a long time the transactional aspects of painting, reinforced by its unique or non-reproducible character, have placed it at the forefront of debates on the capitalization of art. This issue is no exception. A careful and sensitive reading will prevent us, however, from perceiving merely a virulent criticism of these aesthetic trends. As Connor Spencer states in reference to technical virtuosity, used perhaps as a gimmick to counteract representational ease in certain figurative works, “the gimmick can be a ‘survival strategy’ for vulnerable subjects” seeking to avoid capitalism’s grip.

In light of such controversies, we realize that painting hasn’t lost any of its ability to raise the theorists’ interest in putting forward engaging considerations. Though pictorial research may remain central to painters, some of them use their works as formidable tools of empowerment or protest, while others consider them as a means to critically examine society. The words of Thomas Fort apply to many artists: “They take a transverse path in order to elude the inherited conservative dogmas of narratives and academic hierarchies whose overriding power persists.”

Ultimately, assembling the works by discipline rather than by theme offers a chance to appreciate the profusion of ideas being developed by painters. It also helps us to realize that painting has always maintained the ability to talk about itself and the world around it at the same time.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) Drawing on Graw’s book The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium, published in 2018 by Sternberg Press, the talk “The Vitality of Painting — Notes on the Success of a Medium” is available online.
(2) See in particular issue 76 of Esse, The Idea of Painting (Fall 2012).

101 - New Materialisms - Hiver - 2021
Sylvette Babin
Conversing with Matter

With its acknowledgement of agential matter, neo-materialism questions the anthropocentric narrative that has underpinned our view of humans--in-the-world since the Enlightenment, a view that posits humans as makers of the world and the world as a resource for human endeavors. The new materialist discourse derives its urgency from the ethical, ecological and political imperatives that loom as a consequence of this view of the world.
— Barbara Bolt, Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts

Ethics is not simply about responsible actions in relation to human experiences of the world ; rather, it is a question of material entanglements and how each intra-action matters in the reconfiguring of these entanglements, that is, it is a matter of the ethical call that is embodied in the very worlding of the world.
— Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning

The importance of representation that has long characterized a work of art has made us give form and meaning to matter, sometimes to the detriment of its intrinsic materiality. Yet if we allow matter to assert itself over and above the metaphors that we impose on it, we realize that it has a life beyond our gaze and interpretation and even a capacity to act autonomously. The gradual oxidation of bronze statues tells us in another way about the alloys concealed in historical figures. Gold work expresses itself as much through the socially-constructed meaning of gold (wealth, power, prestige) and its material qualities (shine, hardness, thermal conductivity) as through the historical, environmental, and colonialist weight of mining processes. What do cobalt, lithium, indium, and other rare metals tell us if we follow their journeys from subterranean China to our smart devices and their accumulation in landfills? Simultaneously hidden by layers of soil and sustainable development strategies, how do biogas and leachate express themselves?

By focusing on the expressivity, dynamism, and agency of matter, neo-materialism (a term independently developed by philosophers Rosi Braidotti and Manuel DeLanda) seems to oppose classical philosophical materialism, which tends to regard matter as essentially passive and inert. However, considering that new materialsms call for a reconfiguration of the human/non-human, nature/culture, subject/object relations by critiquing this dualistic conception of the world, it does not appear worthwhile to approach these two schools of thought as a conflict between the old and the new. Instead, we are interested in looking at the reconfiguration of these relations, or to put it another way, these complex entanglements through a materialist consideration of forms, but also places, temporalities, and memories. To do this, we turn to the notion of intra-action introduced by philosopher and physicist Karen Barad, a notion that refers to a material-discursive relation between human and non-human agents, (1) as well as to the concept of agency, the capacity to act that is not restricted to human beings but that belongs to the entire living and non-living world.

In this issue, we see how material agency is exhibited in works that use organic, mineral, synthetic, or weather-sensitive substances, more traditional techniques such as tapestry and embroidery, or cutting-edge technology such as shape memory alloys. The materiality and performativity of objects, for example the artist book, as well as the study and handling of archives and found photographs also reveal the discursiveness of matter, while strategies of play and assembly prompt us to reflect on the transitional aspect of objects and the types of relationships we have with the world. Lastly, visibility and invisibility are also considered, in light of the fact that what cannot be seen is not necessary non-existent or immaterial — hence the violence and discrimination of biopolitics and biopower in which control over materials and control over bodies overlap. Responding to this violence through art, by giving materials political power, is an avenue with a strong potential for healing.

The abundance of artistic research that identifies with new materialisms offers insight into our relationship to the world and participates in the development of new ontologies. Throughout this issue, these considerations encourage us to radically rethink our anthropocentric and humanist approach. Allowing matter to speak gives rise to encounters and conversations at once complex, illuminating, and meaningful as long as we consent to listen and comprehend differently.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) In contrast to interaction, in which bodies interact while maintaining a certain independence, intra-action assumes that bodies are never completely separate, but rather intertwined.

100 - Futurity - Automne - 2020
Sylvette Babin
Our Future Present(s)

Futurity is tied to questions of liability and responsibility, to attentiveness to one’s own lingering pains and to the sorrow and agonies of others. Futurity marks literature’s ability to raise, via engagement with the past, political and ethical dilemmas crucial for the human future.
— Amir Eshel, Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past

As we were assembling this one hundredth issue, in which we were trying to envision the future from a non-dystopic angle or one marked by a more optimistic vision, the present was confining us by an unprecedented health crisis. Concurrently, this same present continued to be a site for racism that remains deeply rooted in society and that has led to the brutal death of many Black and Indigenous people in Canada and the United States. Ahmaud Arbery, shot and killed on February 23 near Brunswick, Breonna Taylor, shot and killed on March 13 in Louisville, George Floyd, killed by asphyxiation on May 25 in Minneapolis, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, died under suspicious circumstances on May 27 in Toronto, Chantel Moore, shot and killed on June 4 in Edmunston, Rodney Levi, shot and killed on June 12 in Metepenagiag, and Rayshard Brooks, shot and killed on June 12 in Atlanta, join the too-long list of victims by law enforcement officers in North America and elsewhere in the world. Yet many people, including leaders, shamelessly continue to claim that systemic racism and state violence do not exist or are merely exceptional. (1)

The pandemic of the past few months has unquestionably lifted the veil on the extent of social inequality, and in so doing, obliged us to face our total ignorance of the structural violence existent in our institutions. The cultural milieu is not exempt from this discrimination, unintentional or unconscious though it may be. Yet, considering the anger that is rumbling in the streets and that is at last starting to be addressed by the media and the general population, many of us are torn between adding our voices in solidarity and listening in silence. However, we must bear in mind that simple moral support is not enough. We need to do a considerable amount of introspection to identify our shortcomings and develop concrete solutions, not only to expose and combat racism, but also to address the lack of cultural diversity in our institutions.

Without being a direct response to current events, the present issue is interested in different ways of deconstructing racist stereotypes in order to consider the future from a decolonial perspective. Practices such as Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurisms, which address these issues in a specific manner, are therefore central to the considerations of futurity. The term, recently introduced to the field of art, perhaps requires some clarification. According to a chronological mode of conceptualizing time, the past influences the present, which then affects the future that, as a result, always remains dependent on the colonial past. Futurity, on the other hand, proposes that the kind of future we anticipate determines our present actions. In the field of social sciences, professor Jean-Jacques Gislain explains it in the following terms: “While in [the physical world] the causality of events moves from the past toward the present, in the world of human action, the principle of causality moves from futurity/cause toward the present/effect.”(2) The future we imagine acts directly on the present by shaping our actions.

In an art context, therefore, futurity is a performative conception of the future, leading to practices that can “[generate] forms of representation and sovereignty alternative to those existing in the present” (Desmet). To do this, several artists rely on fiction, which, according to Aliocha Imhoff and Kantuta Quirós, is envisioned as a means of composing possible worlds. Anne-Marie Dubois further argues that “the evocative power of science-fiction and its capacity to mobilize identity-related futures emancipated from history … thus paves the way for yet unimagined futurities.” We thus discover works that exist outside of temporal frameworks and that combine traditional knowledge and technology, ancestral myths and speculative fiction — works that are decidedly critical and committed to what’s to come.

True, the linear conception of time contributes to the apprehension we feel about the future (uncertainty, eco-anxiety, fear of death). Given the extent of climate change and the overexploitation of resources, this uncertainty has never been more palpable. Considering the future therefore necessitates appealing to an optimistic imaginary so as not to remain trapped in an apocalyptic vision of what’s to come. The exercise might seem perilous, particularly in these pandemic times and, more generally, in the era of the Anthropocene (or even the Plantationocene or the Capitalocene) when we can no longer deny the negative impact of human activity on the environment. Gwynne Fulton reminds us that the economy is also based on a linear concept of time, in which the endless expansion of capitalist power makes all other possibilities invisible. We therefore urgently need to envision new forms of power and the futurity that will shape our present next.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) On this subject: Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to Present (Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2017).
(2) Jean-Jacques Gislain, « Futurité et toposité : situlogie des perspectives de l’action », Géographie, économie, société, vol. 6, no. 2 (2004), p. 212, (Our translation).

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


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