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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

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


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