87 - - -
Sylvette Babin
Abbas Akhavan, Fatigues, 2014. Photo: Paul Litherland, courtesy of the artist

Abbas Akhavan, Fatigues, 2014. Photo: Paul Litherland, courtesy of the artist

Undeniably, mises en scène of the living are fascinating — even spectacular. Whether the works are charming, provocative, or downright shocking, the presence of living beings always exerts a strong attraction.

The best-known examples in contemporary art use animals as materials. In such works, animals are natural­ized, decontextualized and recontexualized, reproduced, genetically manipulated, and sometimes even put to death, live or recorded. The reification of the living poses major ethical and moral questions that cry out for debate. However, we thought long and hard before devoting an issue to the subject, out of fear that we might be participating, involuntarily, in the overexposure and sanctioning of ethically disputable works. For there is no doubt that the displacement of living beings into the field of art often implies concealing their intrinsic value in favour of the artistic, symbolic, or market value that is bestowed upon them.


Due to art historians’ recent interest in the field of animal studies, as well as esse’s desire to contribute to awareness and transformation of humans’ relationship of domination with nature and the realm of the living, we were nevertheless encouraged to take a closer look at this phenomenon. We decided to address the subject through a non-anthropocentric perspective.


The thematic section opens with an interview with Giovanni Aloi, editor-in-chief of Antennae, an academic journal devoted to nature in contemporary art. Aloi emphasizes the importance of rethinking the sphere of the living, using a holistic model such as a rhizomatic network of interconnectedness among all species, plant and animal, including the human species. This line of thought, which steers away from the Cartesian notion of humans’ superiority over all other living creatures, imbues most of the essays presented in these pages. Thus, much attention is paid to the encounter between humans and different species — an encounter that invites us, for example, to distance ourselves from both anthro­pocentrism and zoocentrism to consider plant actants more closely, or that calls for an ecology of reconcilia­tion to replace the criticism and denunciations that often lead to a fruitless sense of guilt.


In short, rather than examine the aesthetic approaches chosen by the selected artists to stage the living, we wanted to explore the philosophical and ethi­cal reflections underlying their works. In most of the essays, the risk of magnifying the instrumentalization of the living through art seems to have been avoided. However, some essays are situated close to the sensi­tive border beyond which the exhibiting of the living (or of what was once living), in works whose purpose is to highlight situations provoked by humans, may also cre­ate discomfort. This is the case for works that show ani­mals victimized by their contact with civilization, such as those abandoned after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, or those recovered in the art practice known as “ethical” taxidermy. It is also the case for works that put humans on display to denounce the many forms of domination (social, economic, racial) perpetrated by other humans, but that also raise controversy on their own account.


Whatever aesthetic and conceptual strategies are used, we are immediately aware of the importance of not overestimating the moral (or immoral) value of art. Just as it is essential to contest the choices that humans make in their environment, we must not hesitate to chal­lenge artistic authority when it involves working with the living, or with materials that derive from the living.


It is obvious that these offerings challenge the thesis of human exceptionalism with that of anti-speciesism. Since Darwin, we have recognized our animality. And yet, our modes of consumption help to create distance between us and the other — whether animal or plant. This distinction between “I” and the other is at the heart of I am in animal, which closes the essay part of the thematic section and could, in a way, act as its synthesis. This poetic text underlines the general idea behind this issue of esse: “[Humans need] to change what isn’t right about the world that our species has constructed — only in our image.”


[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]

86 - Geopolitics - Hiver - 2016
Sylvette Babin
Alfredo Jaar, The Cloud, Valle del Matadar, Tijuana-San Diego, U.S.A.-Mexico border, 2000. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Alfredo Jaar, The Cloud, Valle del Matadar, Tijuana-San Diego, U.S.A.-Mexico border, 2000. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Geopolitics deals with interactions between politics and geographic territory. These interactions, when subjected to extreme force and abuse of power, become synonymous with conflicts that leadas we are seeing todayto the migration of populations, the hardening of borders, and the instituting of various forms of surveillance. It is difficult for art, when inserted into this context, to disregard these tensions that spontaneously call for activist practices. Some of these practices are analyzed in our thematic section, which underlines the dominance of politics over geography when it comes to the rights of Indigenous peoples, the indiscriminate force of globalization, the usurpation of nature by mechanisms of power, and the gentrification that leads to homogenization of populations. We also see how symbolic borders and historically meaningful regions, such as the Green Line in Beirut and the Canadian Far North, spur artists to propose a rereading of history beyond the usual signposts of the dominant discourse.

It is true that the notion of territory has taken on a completely different dimension since the advent of the Internet. Because of the Internet, traditional geographic spaces now include extraterritorial entities comprised of multiple digital networks. The Web, the cloud, and data centres have become important players on the international geopolitical chessboard. On the one hand, the Web enables us to see the world in its entirety, and thus to create a better-informed mapping of it. On the other hand, the Web can also be used for surveillance and controlling citizensnot only via the U.S. National Security Agency, among other bodies, but also through analytic systems that build consumer profiles. This surveillance economy, which consists of identifying, cataloguing, and painting portraits (termed “a geopolitics of personalization” in this thematic section) can also be observed in light of cognitive mapping, which enables us not only to recognize these power relations but to become aware of our position as objects, or as data, on different geopolitical maps (economic, political, ideological, and others).

In this issue, we also take a look at the new coexistence of geographic space, which is defined by borders, and virtual space, which is constructed, instead, in the form of interconnections. This coexistence leads to a reconsideration of the architecture of public spaces and the infrastructure of certain centres of technological control and power (the head offices of corporate Web giants, for instance).

It is a fact: the natural and political phenomena present in the global landscape have an impact on the field of art and to a greater or lesser degree influence its diverse manifestations. So do economic phenomena, if one judges by the trend toward the commercialization of art. Thinking about the connections between the art market and tax havensanother form of geopolitical territoryis enlightening in this regard.

What remains to be uncovered is the impact of art on major geopolitical issues. Is it still possible to imagine that art might adopt a critical stance with regard to what seems unacceptable to us and be a real vector of change; that it might influence political and economic decisions; that it might make the borders drawn by the different forms of power more porous; or that it might encourage us to hold a hand out to migrants seeking asylum?

“Although the power of globalization has invalidated the very concept of a boundary, people still die simply trying to cross borders between two -countries,” writes Lina Malfona. Whether it is through art or through politics, it is important to think of territory as a site of encounters and exchanges motivated by respect for differences and democracy, rather than as a zone of conquest and oppression. More than simply a geo-political option, it is a necessity for the future of humanity.

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]

85 - - -
Sylvette Babin
VSVSVS, Drift, détail de l’installation, Centre Bang, Chicoutimi, 2015. Photo : permission de VSVSVS
VSVSVS, Drift, detail from the installation, Centre Bang, Chicoutimi, 2015. Photo: courtesy of VSVSVS

Despite the power relations that structure their field, are those active in the art world able to freely take a stand?

This question motivated the call for contributions to our thematic section, which follows critical lines of thought first explored in the Indignation and Spectacle issues on the economic, political, and institutional contexts that, to varying degrees, influence the art scene. But this time, we also wanted to look inward — for, although taking a position seems to be self-evident in the fertile ground of freedom of expression, some are of the opinion that a code of silence has settled in. In an open letter addressing this omertà, a group of artists and intellectuals rebelled against the growing role of financial interests in the art world, stating, "The new masters of the art market have been able to make the most reputable experts and curators redundant by making golden overpasses for them, thus contributing to the intellectual impoverishment of our public institutions."(1)

The situation that led to this declaration ties in with one of the major areas of focus in the opinion essays published in this issue: "the luxury industry" assaulting the art sector — the other areas in this group being the discourses devoted to art theory and criticism, the persistence of colonialist discourses, and the public funding of culture. The positions taken on these questions will no doubt enable us to broaden our reflection, and perhaps open new debates. But underlying questions, raised by other points of view absent from these pages, are also worth considering. Is it really the financialization of art that causes the above-mentioned intellectual impoverishment? Don't other factors contribute just as much, if not more? Do closer ties with the public or private sector systematically transform the orientation or the rigour of theoretical or artistic content? The reviled "evil" may also come from elsewhere — for example, from the public's lack of interest in art, which directly influences the vitality of the field. If the state, in these times of "austerity," is shamefully disengaging from the funding of culture, it may also be because there is no public pressure expressing disagreement, as the popular discourse tends more to condemn the use of the public purse for works judged hermetic or pointless. Who, in fact, wants this art on which we generate discourse, aside from the circles that creates it, a small number of spectators, and the handful of maligned speculators?

We must also emphasize what it means for us, as a publisher, to take a position. The role that esse has assumed is to observe and transmit the ideas that are circulating and to make space for multiple opinions. Usually, the voices in these pages tend to come from the left. It is important, nevertheless, for us to recognize, on the one hand, that we are contributing to the production of a discourse legitimized by the art institution, and, on the other hand, that we, too, depend on various forms of public and private funding. Some will be happy to point out that organizations like ours have a finger in every pie — partially funded by grants, but publishing essays that point out the faults in the system; partially dependent on advertising and fundraising campaigns directly linked to the decried "marketization." And yet, we persist in believing that it is possible for us to remain independent and critical — recognizing the importance of the bodies that fund us, while remaining alert to the direct or insidious influences that our different funding sources might have on the orientation of the magazine. And if our positions diverge sometimes from those expressed in the texts that we publish, we assume full responsibility for our editorial choices.

In the wake of the critical reflections presented in this issue, but also those that led to this theme, notably the discourse around the transformation of art into a luxury product, let's not forget that other practices exist, that more discreet forms are also always active in the art field. Although we cannot deny the existence of a speculative bubble, we can remember all the same that criticism from a posture of authority also contributes, by the brilliance of its distractions, to the spectacular aura around the subjects contested, and that if it is necessary to take a position against what outrages us, it is also essential to take a position for the practices that we feel it is important to make known.

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]


(1) "L'art n'est-il qu'un produit de luxe ?," accessed July 1, 2015, http://blogs.mediapart.fr/edition/les-invites-de-mediapart/article/201014/lart-nest-il-quun-produit-de-luxe (our translation).

84 - - -
Sylvette Babin

The exhibition has been the subject of much analysis and many transformations in recent decades. Numerous artists have rethought the relationship between the artwork and the exhibition, notably by treating the latter as a medium or device. The result is a multiplication of ways to manage or appropriate the museum space, not only through exploration of new formats or modalities but also by the reactivation of more classic museographic apparatuses (dioramas and period rooms, among others) or the restaging of historical exhibitions in faithful or revisited reconstructions. Liberated from being simply a means of display, the exhibition has become an artwork in itself. As a consequence, today it is practically impossible to separate the exhibition from the curator’s work (or the artist as curator). The thematic section in this issue is thus a natural extension of the special sections in two previous issues of esse: Curators (no. 72, Spring/Summer 2011) and Re-enactment (no. 79, Fall 2013). 

As an introduction, Marie Fraser, professor of art history and museology at UQAM, who proposed this theme, presents an inventory of seven possible exhibition models. While not exhaustive, her overview gives an idea of the many directions taken by exhibition curators and the impact of critical reflection on the staging of artworks. Aside from the particular cases presented in Fraser’s survey, illustrations of some of these models can be seen in the exhibition analyses published in this issue. But in doing this, are we in the process of contributing to the creation of a canon of exhibition models? If, as Jérôme Glicenstein proposes, “a canon of exhibitions—that is, a body of shared references, which might serve as a reservoir of models for apprentice curators”—exists, it is nevertheless worthwhile to remember that canons are often selective, or even exclusive, as Griselda Pollock emphasizes in her book Differencing the Canon.(1) Glicenstein concludes, in his article here, “It is also a question of the manner in which this writing issues from an ‘institutional inscription’: the form of knowledge that legitimizes it and that it addresses.” This question remains on the table.
As a complement to this section, we are publishing a series of articles on the presence of Québec artists at the Venice Biennale and the Havana Biennial. Special attention is paid to the BGL collective, which is occupying the Canadian Pavilion in Venice this year with the installation Canadassimo. Thierry Davila interviewed the artists and the curator, Marie Fraser, and takes a look back at some of the collective’s most noteworthy works. Katrie Chagnon examines Jean-Pierre Aubé’s performance and sound-art projects presented in Venice and in Rome by Galerie de l’UQAM, and, again in the context of the Venice Biennale, Pierre Rannou writes about the works by Simon Bilodeau and Guillaume Lachapelle presented first at Galerie Art Mûr and then in the Personal StructuresCrossing Borders exhibition mounted by the Global Art Affairs Foundation at Palazzo Bembo. Finally, Aseman Sabet presents her interview with curator Ariane De Blois and artist Stéphane Gilot, whose work will be shown at the Havana Biennial.
These four articles are nevertheless related to the theme Exhibitions, to the extent that the artists discussed are specifically interested in strategies for occupying the gallery space, architectural devices, and the spectator’s position. More radically, the work and its shaping are also considered through immateriality, when “a responsible approach by the curator [results]... in a project without a footprint” (Chagnon). This issue as a whole thus highlights artists and curators who are working in common to expand the boundaries of the exhibition and offer spectators a very different experience.
[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]
(1) “However, if artists—because they are women or non-Europeans—are both left out of the records and ignored as part of the cultural heritage, the canon becomes an increasingly impoverished and impoverishing filter for the totality of all cultural possibilities generation after generation.” Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Writing of Art’s Histories (London: Routledge, 1999), 4.
83 - - -
Sylvette Babin
Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, Paradis incertain, 2014. Photo : © Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, permission de | courtesy of Galerie Dix9 Hélène Lacharmoise, Paris

By turns repressive and repressed over the centuries, even today religion continues to provoke numerous debates, and esse decided to explore how these ideas are reflected in the field of the visual arts. In this context, we have deliberately bypassed questions concerning "spirituality in art" or the experience of the sacred to look instead at the political, social, philosophical, and aesthetic issues that religion raises in contemporary art practices. The artists featured in this issue create fictional works with a critical or humorous slant; borrow, subvert, or combine religious codes; make direct or symbolic references; or reproduce certain rituals. They address the theme of religion through situations that reveal the nature of its current significance.

In the opening essay of the thematic section, Boris Groys emphasizes that "every religion functions as a social and political representation of individual, private non-knowledge"—that is, religion is based on a faith that is impossible to prove, as "there can be no knowledge of God and His will." Describing a parallel between religion and technology, Groys notes that the digital image is built by means of invisible codes that are as intangible and immaterial as God and that the image's identity thus "remains a matter of faith." The concept of faith is found elsewhere, in different forms, in a number of the essays in this issue: a faith that is confined neither to its religious sense nor to the meaning of belief—from which it is clearly distinct, according to philosopher Bruno Latour—but that maintains a relationship with the invisible and, by extension, the immaterial. This idea provides an opportunity to take a new look at how faith in the image is articulated in abstract works—in this case, faith in the relationships that unite images and their supposed referents (Rosamond).

The notion of ritual is also addressed in this issue—not through the sacred or cathartic dimensions that are often attributed to it, but through an exploration of the mechanisms of codified gestures and acts that, in a way, trace the territory of those who perform them (Desmet). Considering their wide coverage in the media these days, the thorny question of territory and the affirmation of a cultural and religious identity might have featured prominently in an issue bearing on religions. Instead, they are inscribed very subtly, through practices that, although imbued with a certain critical positioning, also demonstrate a desire for intercultural or interreligious dialogue. The work of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, presented in the portfolio, offers a good example of this intermingling of religious, cultural, and sexual identities.

The thematic section ends with an in-depth look at the religious foundations of the contemporary imagination. In this regard, the artists and authors who reflect on the present reveal that our uneasy relationship with time is still anchored, in part, in theological thought, notably by the appropriation of ancient mythologies (the goddess Gaia) or through the themes of apocalypse and paradise lost, notions that certainly convey today's anxieties and the collective fantasies to which they are joined. However, if we follow the thought of Bruno Latour, whose positions are analyzed in Bordeleau's essay, the most profound meaning of apocalypse is not necessarily catastrophe, but "the certitude that the future has changed shape, and that we can do something."

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]


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