Being Thirty

Sylvette Babin
An anniversary usually affords us a moment to stop and look back at the road travelled since the beginning and to try to envision the road ahead. Such reflection is always undertaken from the position of the present — in light of what makes us who we are right now — but without glossing over past obstacles and challenges. And so, in 2014, how does a contemporary art magazine fit into a society in which arts and culture are rarely on the political agenda? Obviously, there is no answer to this rhetorical question, but if there were one, it would probably be the same as on our twenty-fifth anniversary, in 2009 (“Once a Killjoy, Always a Killjoy,” no. 67, Killjoy), our twentieth anniversary, in 2004 (“Persiste et signe,” no. 51, 20 ans d’engagement), and, probably, every anniversary before that. What is there to say? That despite the state’s historical commitment to funding the arts — which we must acknowledge, in Québec and Canada at least — the financial situation of artists and cultural organizations hasn’t improved much over the years. That despite the amazing abundance of art activities, despite remarkable expansion and apparent robustness, a great number of non-profit organizations in the prime of life, including magazines — and among them esse — are pessimistic about living into their later years. At this juncture, we worry about the future: we wonder if the next generation will have the energy and the financial means to carry the torch; we tell ourselves that artists will get tired of seeing creators’ rights shunted aside, and that soon we will have had enough of always asking for help from people in the same boat as us, and exhausting our human resources, freelancers, authors, and artists.

On our thirtieth anniversary, we must also think about what role we play in the arts and culture landscape, in light of new technologies and communications trends. What reach does a print publication featuring theoretical essays and critical analyses have at a time when digital platforms are taking over and reading habits are changing? Is this an era of information rather than research, an era of promotion rather than reflection? By making a virtue of short texts published quickly, blogs and web forums immerse us in the moment, and this develops behaviours and expectations among readers that are incompatible with print magazines. And at a time when many publishers are assessing the consequences of moving (fully or partially) to a digital platform, Canada Post has saddled them with a draconian increase in mailing costs — a brutal blow to ­periodicals publishers. From now on, mailing a magazine in Canada will cost 80 percent of its newsstand price; mailing it abroad will cost more than 300 percent. This has a huge impact on an organization whose mandate is to increase the influence of art by publishing a wide range of authors and content and addressing an international readership (as long as they can read French or English).

Despite everything, this anniversary is also an opportunity to see how far our efforts have brought us. This makes us realize how important and many are those who have joined us in shaping this magazine over the years. When we add it all up — the hundreds of articles published, the thousands of works analyzed — we are proud to have helped bring so many authors and artists into the public eye. And when a reader, student, curator, or collector tells us about discovering new artists in our pages, about learning something new or finding unexpected facets of a work or an artist’s practice, we tell ourselves that it is worth it to persevere, to continue to fight (because sometimes, in fact, we have to battle) to highlight the importance of magazines in the art ecosystem.

Finally, for esse, being thirty means benefiting from a mixture of ardour and wisdom, taking advantage of our long experience to confirm our convictions, and continuing to blend elegance with a touch of irreverence. There’s no doubt that, thanks to the support of people who make our magazine their passion, esse at thirty still has many dreams and intends to find ways to bring them to fruition.

For this anniversary issue, we have departed from our usual thematic section to give carte blanche to a number of authors whose work we particularly appreciate. Our only guideline for them was to look at twenty-first-century works or practices that have particularly caught their eye. Of course, given our limited space, this was not an invitation to rank the best works of the past decade, as this still-young century has already seen a spectacular flourishing of art. But the need to make choices nevertheless led us to consider issues related to access to visibility and fame; hence, this issue starts with an interview with Alain Quemin, whose recent book Les Stars de l’art contemporain. Notoriété et consécration artistiques dans les arts visuels looks at how the ranking lists work.

The challenge presented to the authors was nevertheless a difficult one, in the sense that our invitation implicitly asked them to choose to write about certain artists, thus putting them involuntarily in the traditional position of modernist era art critic. And yet, when we read their essays, it is particularly interesting to observe the extent to which the voices and forms of writing on art today are plural, non-consensual, and — just like the practices that they describe — each relevant in its own way. Thus, you will find a widely diverse portrait of art and art criticism as practised in 2014 — an adventure in images and words, a brief but exciting voyage into the world of a dozen curators — offered in this issue celebrating esse’s thirtieth anniversary.

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]

This article also appears in the issue 81 - Being Thirty

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