editorial | Page 2 | esse arts + opinions


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

92 - - -
Sylvette Babin
Lygia Pape, Divisor, 1968, performance, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2013. Photo : permission de Para Site, Hong Kong

Or perhaps capitalism, modern democracy’s nonidentical birth twin and always the more robust and wily of the two, has finally reduced democracy to a “brand,” a late modern twist on commodity fetishism that wholly severs a product’s salable image from its content.
— Wendy Brown

The idea of democracy is reassuring. It evokes a sense of justice and helps give the impression that citizens are an integral part of power, that their voices are heard, and that their rights and freedoms are represented. Reality, however, shows us that far from belonging to the people, power rests in the hands of a few CEOs and owners of corporations. In Democracy in What State?, a multi-authored collection of essays published in 2011, Wendy Brown reminds us that “if corporate power has long abraded the promise and practices of popular political rule, that process has now reached an unprecedented pitch.”(1) Five years later, the American presidential election and the methods of the new government have amplified this reality even further.

In the face of the great upheavals of democracy, can art still play a critical role? By formulating the question, we are obliged to consider the eventuality of a negative answer or at the very least to reflect on the validity of artistic attempts to prevent the erosion of democratic values. For if capitalism “has finally reduced democracy to a ‘brand,’” it may be that culture, also subject to market logic, faces setbacks. Marc James Léger opens the feature section by asking whether art has become an aspect of neoliberal governance or whether the aesthetic resistance to capitalism has simply died out. Konstantinos Koutras puts forward the idea that critical art is based on pedagogical motives that are incompatible with democracy, since despite the objectives of social equality, pedagogy reproduces the hierarchical relationship of the master — student dynamic. While these assertions reveal a certain skepticism with regard to art’s power to bring about societal changes, our intention is not to invalidate art’s critical or subversive potential. On the contrary, by bringing together multiple, open, and possibly divergent positions, the feature section addresses the urgent need to better understand art’s role in the current political context in order to potentially foster a desire to participate in a new democracy. One cannot engage in such thinking without calling into question the neoliberal hegemony reproduced by political and cultural institutions and, by extension, becoming aware of the various forms of systemic discrimination. This is what Justine Kohleal proposes by addressing the phenomenon of (white) spatiality, namely the existence of an invisible centre that, despite the attempts made to include racialized persons, contributes to serving the values of whiteness. These ideas are further explored outside the feature section in a review of Amandine Gay’s film Speak Up/Make Your Way.

Speaking out is certainly a key element of a functioning democracy, sometimes to the detriment of listening. Lamenting politicians’ lack of a dialogical ethics, Anik Fournier analyzes the interdependence of speaking and listening by relying on works and artists who make active listening a central concern. Along the same lines, Didier Morelli’s critical analysis of the reperforming of Lygia Pape’s 1968 work Divisor (Divider), which was created in the context of Brazil’s military dictatorship, explores the notions of community and the march as a “kinaesthesia of protest.” The re-enacting of this march on Madison Avenue in New York, along a contained and supervised route sponsored by the Business Improvement District, clearly raises questions about reclaiming political works for the benefit of spectacle. Yet the idea of the rally inherent in this action, this “choreographed collective movement” that suggests eventual revolt, persists. This is connected to the concept of the swarm, which Georges Didi-Huberman explores at the end of the feature section: “As a model of collective intelligence without hierarchy, the swarm offers a model for revolt and, even more importantly, for all types of urban guerrilla warfare.” Admittedly, the author subsequently reminds us that this model is possibly an illusion, that the swarm as a formation (in the military sense of the term) has been taken up as a strategy even by major contemporary industries, and that it is difficult to apply it to the notion of community. However, we could choose to believe that all concepts and metaphors belong to those who employ them and that, ultimately, the strength of our rallies, revolts, and democracy rests, above all, in our willingness to act. After all, in the words of Didi-Huberman, “life belongs to us if we succeed in constituting or, rather, “self-instituting” the we as such: as a relationship between subjects that is founded on a freely chosen with.”

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

(1) Wendy Brown, “We Are All Democrats Now…” in Democracy in What State?, Giorgio Agamben et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 46.

Lygia Pape, Divisor, 1968, performance, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2013. Photo: courtesy of Para Site, Hong Kong

91 - - -
Sylvette Babin
Brandon Brookbank & Kyle Alden Martens, Peel, 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artists

Following our last issue, on the theme of feminisms, we are continuing with our reflection on the question of gender and sexuality by delving into practices and theories of artists who seek to transcend the idea of a binary, patriarchal society that is heteronormative and cisnormative.

In this context, we look at practices emanating from the LGBTQQIP2SAA communities. The initialism stands for people who identify and celebrate as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexual, pansexual, two-spirit (or niizh manidoowag), or asexual, and one last letter: the A for allies. It should be noted that by choosing the initialism LGBT+, we are seeking not only to simplify things but also to be open to a plurality of sexualities — and hoping to contribute to the social and artistic recognition of people who form part of and identify with these communities.

To recognize diversity within society, one must first consent to see and hear it. One must also admit that discrimination exists, and that it still generates both physical and psychological violence against marginalized people. In this issue, a number of authors look into different forms of stigmatization and social exclusion, with some drawing on notions of visibility and invisibility, the semantic nuances of which are important to understand in context. Visibility is often presumed to be intrinsic to presence and self-representation in the social space (being seen and heard), but it is also linked to the judgment and stigmatization that arise from the gaze directed at the “other.” Conversely, invisibility refers both to marginalized people — often deprived of the power of being seen and heard — and to “normalcy,” which makes it possible to pass unseen. Andrea Williamson addresses the question from this angle in her view of “‘invisibility’ (meaning ungraspability, elusiveness) as a possible recuperation of social invisibility — racism, sexism, and other forms of categorically based exclusion.” And Clinton Glenn raises a thorny question: “When can making oneself visible be politically potent and when might it lead to potential violence? ” Glenn quotes feminist author Peggy Phelan, who states, “Gaining visibility for the politically under-represented without scrutinizing the power of who is required to display what to whom is an impoverished political agenda.” Although they highlight the complexity of the social and political issues involved in LGBT+ rights, these analyses should not be interpreted as a recommendation not to rise up against different forms of oppression in heteronormative society. This thematic section certainly does not contain prescriptions for the best model for encouraging a more open society. The authors here describe existing situations, and the practices in these pages seem motivated by a desire for change. Hence, most of the artworks presented convey demands and activism, in forms ranging from the subtlest — by addressing universal subjects such as pain and mourning, or by turning to abstraction and nonrepresentation — to the open use of resistance and agit-prop. Stating that LGBT+ art is engaged art would be tantamount to creating a new form of categorization. That being said, claiming a queer space is perhaps, in the end, the connection that best brings together all of the differences.

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]

Caption: Brandon Brookbank & Kyle Alden Martens, Peel, detail, 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artists

90 - - -
Sylvette Babin
Joscelyn Gardner, Accubah, 2007. Photo : Normon Colton, permission de l'artiste

Joscelyn Gardner, Accubah, 2007. Photo: Normon Colton, courtesy of the artist

Although more than a century has passed since the first feminist actions, debates regarding equality between men and women are far from over. Many forms of inequality, oppression, and exclusion still exist and continually propel us to reflect on feminism. Yet today, we can no longer conceive of a female universalism that groups all women under the same one category. The intersectional approach, first used in the 1960s, has revealed many aspects of the stigmatization (racial, sexual, economic) that different groups of women experience and leads us to take into account a variety of possible experiences. It is therefore more appropriate now to speak of feminisms.

Observing feminisms in art also leads us to consider actions taken in society, namely in politics and the media. Jennifer Griffiths’ opening analysis of nudity in feminist demonstrations shows how, on the one hand, the commodification of the female body in visual culture strips it of its activist function and, on the other hand, various struggles for political and cultural power appropriate the female body. The example of Femen is significant, judging by the spectacularization of images in the media, which sometimes distract us from the initial issues at stake. The wearing of the veil is another wellknown example that encourages us to look at the impact that recent debates on the subject have had on feminist groups and society at large. Valerie Behiery reminds us: “Feminist positions that deny agency to visibly Muslim women inadvertently replicate colonially rooted dominant discourses on the veil.”

The art milieu is no exception and has its share of disconcerting situations. Despite the higher presence of women in the study and practice of art, women remain a minority in institutions. The place given to female artists in major exhibitions is often the outcome of positive discrimination (women-themed exhibitions, représentation quotas, etc.). Our current issue, authored entirely by women, could appear to be adopting the same position; the fact is that few men showed an interest to collaborate. Are feminist concerns still considered to be “a women’s issue”? Gender specificity is certainly not absent from the arts, in which certain tacit conventions are evident. The development of curatorial practices, which gave a voice to curators initially working in the shadows, has perhaps also played a part in exacerbating the secondary role of positions usually occupied by women. In this respect, Nanne Buurman emphasizes that by “applying masculinized models of creative artistry, curators thus became heroized…, whereas the relocation of feminized reproductive, maintenance, and care labour into the public sphere most often results in precarity and low wages rather than in glorification of exceptional achievements.” Becoming aware of these situations and recognizing them as facts certainly constitute the first steps towards a paradigm shift. Furthermore, isn’t the underfunding of the cultural sector — one of the main obstacles to fighting economic instability — just another means used by political powers to stigmatize women?

The questions related to feminisms in the field of art are numerous. As this forum has limited space, we decided to expand it online in order to make more voices heard. We asked various individuals known for their contribution to feminism to briefly discuss their views by answering the following question: “In your opinion, what is the single most urgent feminist issue that the arts community is facing today?” Their insights are published on our website at esse.ca/en/feministsopinions.

The entire issue and portfolios offer a sélection of female and feminist art practices, activist or not, based on diverse approaches and communities. In this context, the (re)presentation of the body is undeniable. Yet to counterbalance the commodification mentioned earlier, we present artists who use the body as means of emancipation or affirmation of one’s identity. According to Thérèse St-Gelais, “the body has both a private and a public aspect and may, despite itself, be the focus of demands.” The type of protest, position or affirmation comes in as many forms as artists are diverse: subversion, uprising, reconsideration of gender archetypes and heteronormativity, post-colonial feminist theory, revival of ancestral practices, representation of the self, conscious and active use of seduction. These are among the many ways of expressing, again, the necessity of feminisms.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

89 - - -
Sylvette Babin
Blinken OSA Archivum, Concrete Exhibition, 2008, détail. Photo : © Marta Rácz

Blinken OSA Archivum, Concrete Exhibition, 2008, détail. Photo : © Marta Rácz

The democratization of libraries, begun during the Enlightenment, flourished in the twentieth century when public libraries came into existence. Far from being implicitly reserved for a bourgeois or intellectual elite, these facilities have become sites of convergence for increasingly diversified publics. In fact, for the past twenty years, the spread of digital media and devices providing access to the Internet, with its proliferation of available books and archival documents, has forced yet another reconsideration of the role of libraries as physical spaces. Can we still conceive of the library as an institution for the deposit and preservation of written memory? Aware of the need to adapt quickly to this change of paradigm, most public libraries have paid particular attention to developing “third places” (1) that enhance user experience (fab labs, or digital fabrication workshops, are a good example of this). At the same time, citizens themselves have contributed to different forms of democratization of knowledge by circulating books through a wide variety of participatory library projects and ephemeral libraries based on the notion of exchange and sharing. (2) Thus artistic interventions around the theme of the library are inscribed within a world bursting with interactions.

Although this thematic section originated with an invitation to examine both the idea of the library and the new forms of digital archives and big data, it seems that many authors and artists are drawn, rather, to the “traditional” library and its book collections. These are not nostalgic approaches aimed simply at deploring the death of the printed book, but expressions of a desire to explore, among other things, the unifying potential of the library as an agent of mediation, a social space, or a performance space. The book itself is considered as much for its relational power as for its role in the transmission of knowledge. A number of the artists featured in this issue, in fact, have assumed the role of librarian or archivist by producing works or formulating classification systems that provoke reflections on the value granted to books and the consequences of certain choices on what will become official knowledge. Remember that the content of a library is based on a collection formed through a series of selections and rejections. While new books are published, the obligation arises to slough off some older or “less pertinent” ones; the effect is to influence the construction of cultural memory. As Zsófia Bene and Olindo Caso note, “The scope and mechanisms of a library’s mission and programming cannot be dissociated from the current ideological context.” These abandoned, forgotten, or discarded books — as well as those that, to the contrary, have resisted the passage of time by continuing to feed the collective imagination — provide the underlying motivations for the practices highlighted in these pages.

All of the essays and portfolios in this thematic section feature books, archives, and collections (of words, texts, and even water!). The projects, infiltrating practices, personal libraries, and book-like works presented here are an invitation to rediscover and read books forgotten in the stacks of libraries. “The death of reading has been as pervasive a fear as the death of the book,” Paulina Mickiewicz emphasizes. Thus, reinventing the library of today and tomorrow brings reading back to its proper place, at least for a time.

Translated from the French by Käthe Roth

(1) “In the early 1980s, Ray Oldenburg, professor emeritus of urban sociology at the University of Pensacola in Florida, conceived of the ‘third place,’ which he distinguished from the ‘first place,’ the home, and the ‘second place,’ the workplace. The third place is a complementary space devoted to the community’s social life and refers to places where individuals may meet and have informal exchanges.” Mathilde Servet, “Les bibliothèques troisième lieu: Une nouvelle génération d’établissements culturels,” Bulletin des bibliothèques de France, no 4 (juillet 2010), p. 57-63.

(2) Examples include the Occupy Wall Street movement’s People’s Library and the Nuit Debout movement’s BiblioDebout


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