editorial | Page 3 | esse arts + opinions


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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

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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

88 - - -
Sylvette Babin
Isabelle Hayeur, Chemical Coast 02, 2011. Photo: courtesy of the artist & Galerie Hugues Charbonneau

Isabelle Hayeur, Chemical Coast 02, 2011. Photo : courtesy of the artist & Galerie Hugues Charbonneau

"For the frame cuts and recuts; on its own it conquers the infinite of the natural world, takes away the too-full, the too-diverse. The limits that it sets out are indispensable to construction of landscape as such. Its law rules the relationship between our point of view (singular, infinitesimal) and the multiple, monstrous thing. And so not only do we interpose the frame of the viewfinder between the world and us, but we double and triple the veils, the screens."
— Anne Cauquelin(1)

In the interview that opens the thematic section, philosopher Anne Cauquelin, author of the well-known book L’invention du paysage, reminds us that landscape is traditionally a product of pictorial and perspectival research and that the relationship between landscape and nature stirs up confusion, which might contribute to distancing us from nature. Cauquelin notes that the frame that cuts out the landscape transforms our vision of nature, somehow subduing the wild. Yet, considering an environment increasingly damaged by human interventions in this epoch that we are now calling the Anthropocene, can we still conceive of landscape as a distancing of the world? Can we ignore the state of nature, which has been circumscribed, cut out, or framed to become landscape? It must be admitted that the disinterested contemplation traditionally associated with pictorial landscape is now imbued with an ecological and socio-economic conscience, which acts as a powerful filter in the representation and perception of nature in contemporary art. Does this mean that today’s landscape is helping to amplify the dystopian imagination? Although a feeling of uneasiness sometimes surpasses the grandiose in our experience of the sublime, it may also be that the dark beauty of the artworks associated with the industrial sublime diverts us from the reality behind the image.

Without necessarily attributing an ecological scope to all art practices in which the notion of landscape is used, many of the works and essays published in this issue seem to challenge human hegemony over the environment and the dualist approach to nature that prevails in Western culture. Chloé Roubert and Gemma Savio, for example, writing about our responsibility in the ecological destruction of the planet, underline that humans are no more equal in this respect than they are in our capitalist system — a situation that they would label, justly, “Capitalocene.” Thus, the picturesque landscape’s powers to seduce, to convey stereotypes, and to encourage speculation and consumption are also propositions explored in these pages.

This section does not, however, paint a sombre portrait of landscape in art. In a particularly broad panorama, there are also gardens, encounters, voyages, wanderings, and, by extension, the multiple relationships that we have with nature. If we can observe that, as Cauquelin states, ambiguity persists between the notions of nature and landscape, it is perhaps due to an ultimate attempt to remove landscape from the frame to bring it back to experience. Alexis Pernet puts it in these terms: “The landscapes that are being created would thus embody the paradox of existing only in experience in order to evade the logics of depletion that have affected previous representations.”

[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]


(1) Anne Cauquelin, L’invention du paysage, 3rd ed. (Paris: PUF (Quadrige), 2004 [1989]), 122 (our translation).

87 - The Living - Printemps / été - 2016
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]

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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]


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