editorial | Page 4 | esse arts + opinions


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]

82 - Spectacle - Automne - 2014
Sylvette Babin
Kent Monkman, Boudoir de Berdashe, vue d'installation | installation view, 2007. Photo : Edward Kowel, permission de l'artiste | courtesy of the artist.
“In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle is the model of the prevailing way of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production.” In 1967, when Guy Dubord wrote these words in The Society of the Spectacle, it was difficult to imagine what proportions this “model” would take in the twenty-first century. Yet, although not everyone necessarily endorses Debord’s idea that the spectacle is synonymous with alienation of the individual, an examination of its various forms in society today — and particularly in the field of contemporary art, where the appeal of the spectacular is increasingly unrelenting — is nevertheless relevant.
In preparation for putting together this issue (which, in fact, bears some similarities with No. 58, Extimité ou le désir de s’exposer, published in 2006), we explored the phenomenon of reality television, which has recently extended into the field of art — notably with the American program Work of Art and its Québec version on this fall’s TV schedule, Les contemporains — and the growing abundance of international art fairs, biennales, and “blockbuster exhibitions,” all with the goal, admitted or not, of expanding the audience for art. In an era in which proliferation itself abounds, with competing cultural offerings and multiplying means of communication, managing to stand out has become a huge accomplishment. In this environment, there is pressure in cultural fields to develop new strategies for promotion and dissemination. But at what price? Is the imperative of expanding publics and circulation (ratings, numbers of visitors and collectors, sales made, number of website visits, and so on) influencing artists’ choices and orientations? For instance, were it not for the instant popularity of TV shows such as Work of Art, the works produced during that series might not have justified an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
When it comes to publishing art criticism — particularly in newspapers and journals — the spectacularization of culture and transformed expectations associated with new reading habits have led to changes in direction that, though sometimes obviously positive from the point of view of opening new markets, nevertheless create the risk of dumbing down content (articles shortened to “friendlier” formats, taking inspiration from the model of mainstream magazines such as People, more glamorous content, and so on). A categorical refusal to operate this way might lead ineluctably to isolation. Such deliberate isolation would no doubt affect critical discourse by encouraging prefabricated thought about art. And so the question arises, who actually controls art production? Do artists and presenters succumb too easily to market demand or to the desires of the masses or of publics more interested in entertainment? Will political leaders, with their priorities oriented toward productivity, success, and financial autonomy, win out over artists and organizations privileging more comprehensive, more conceptual, or less conventional analyses, risky art practices, and profound reflection?
Although the leisure society is now a thing of the past (work having gradually regained its title as supreme value), the fact is that behaviours and tools initially linked to entertainment are now infiltrating all spheres of production and dissemination. In the name of communication and promotion, the use of social networks and the Internet 1.0 is now integrated into all cultural enterprises. These days, it’s all about outreach. Given this perspective, could new modes of communication be envisaged as vectors of social emancipation?
The spectacular in art could be the subject of many thematic issues, as it raises many questions. At this moment, we thought it would be a good idea to offer, among other things, a reinterpretation of The Society of the Spectacle in view of current social and artistic debates, and to take a fresh look at new communications networks in the era of globalization. Thus, while reflecting on the utopia of the end of art announced by the Situationist International, we examine the potential that the spectacle might have to create social links and initiate mediation, especially in participatory practices and political projects. But in observing the different facets of the spectacular through the prism of a number of the artworks and analyses included in this issue, we must admit that not all positions are optimistic, and that criticism of the spectacle is still among the preoccupations of contemporary art.
In our last issue, Michel F. Côté wrote his final Affaires de zouave. He returns, in tandem with Catherine Lavoie-Marcus, for a new column, Schizes, which presents an interview with a “special guest” (alive, dead, or fictional) related to our theme. In this issue, Guy Debord has been invited to give his comments on the Quartier des spectacles de Montréal.
[Translated from the French by Käthe Roth]


81 - Being Thirty - Printemps / été - 2014
Sylvette Babin
Being thirty

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]


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