77 - Indignation - Hiver - 2013
Sylvette Babin

We, the outraged

They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.
Slavoj Zizek, Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America

The Indignation issue was inspired by a question. In a global context dominated by financial crises, social inequalities, and various forms of repression and dictatorship, where more and more citizens are taking to the streets to express their anger, how do artists express their indignation? This question could have given rise to a commentary on the new faces of activism and engaged art, in the process reviving the debates between so-called polemic art and “art for art’s sake.” Yet more urgent seemed to be to remember that artists are first and foremost citizens. If certain individuals among them decide — occasionally or persistently — to express their indignation through their art, others choose to take political action and to participate in popular demonstrations. For this reason, rather than analyzing the aesthetic codes of engaged art, we preferred to contemplate the various motifs of indignation, as well as the strategies employed by artists and citizens to express their discontent.

Last spring, Quebec also entered into an unprecedented social crisis.  Initiated by the mobilization of students against the tuition fee hikes imposed by the ruling government, the strike transformed into a mass popular movement, now commonly referred to as the “Maple Spring.” The sheer scale of the demonstrations that ensued, as well as the involvement of various members of the artistic community in the debates, encouraged us to launch this issue with an analysis of this student crisis — notably through its visual signatures — and to make it the subject of our portfolio, thus lending a Quebec flush to parts of this issue (1).  But the causes of indignation on the international scene are clearly more varied and far-reaching, being closely linked with socio-economic and political situations that have diverse and often more dire consequences for each of the communities concerned. Consequently, the various scenarios examined in this issue, spotlighting indignation in Quebec, Canada, Russia, Syria, Greece, and China (the United States, Mexico, and the Middle East are also mentioned), must unquestionably each be read with close regard to their respective contexts.

Despite the differences between these events and circumstances and the forms of expression chosen to counter them, a few similarities and affinities remain. Mass popular uprising is the most blatant example of such. Humour (or rather irony and cynicism) is also widespread, notably in the students’ slogans, on the École de la Montagne Rouge posters, in the performances of Pussy Riot, and even in Ai Weiwei dancing Gangnam Style. There is also new-found hope in both society and democracy, as well as the conviction that, by speaking out and taking action, it is possible to bring about change. This issue, although very humble given the diversity and scope of indignation around the globe, sheds light on some examples of outrage expressed by artists and citizens alike. Among the outraged are also authors who, by choosing to analyze certain subjects, give voice to their own concerns: “If there is indeed a sign of hope in Alexis, if there is a desire to question the economic sense within our democracies, this hope cannot remain mere indignation. [...] And while indignation may seem to take precedence these days, it must not be transformed into resignation. It must thoughtfully transform itself into a fight for dignity.” (André-Louis Paré, p. 39)
“Consequently, for us, indignation marks but the stage of realization, the catalyst for the truly significant protest actions that ensued. Indignation called for action — ideally liberating action.” (Charron and St-Gelais, p. 6)

If we had to identify a final similarity between the ever-increasing number of outraged citizens in the world, it would have to be the spirit of solidarity that unites them, and which allows the voice of each individual to carry a little further and to extend the circle made up of those who are the raisers of global consciousness.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]

(1) The recurring presence of the now famous red square prompts us to consider its origins, which can be traced back to October 5, 2004, when members of the Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté (Collective for a poverty-free Quebec), in response to a proposed action plan to combat poverty and social exclusion (Bill 57), presented themselves at the Quebec National Assembly carrying a red square “as an expression of indignation against the manner with which the government has chosen to further marginalize people in the red.”

76 - The Idea of Painting - Automne - 2012
Sylvette Babin

The Idea of Painting

The assertion that painting is dead, expressed periodically over the past few decades, makes one smile all the more considering the omnipresence of paintings in galleries and museums and at art fairs and other market-related events. Indisputably, our interest in painting has not faltered despite the advent and continual advancement of cutting-edge visual technology. It is therefore not the decline of painting that will be addressed in this issue, but rather that which bears witness to its vitality and renewal. Of course, such a theme raises questions about which direction to favour, given the multitude of conceptual tendencies and myriad formal and aesthetic approaches adopted by painting today. Faced with this multiplicity, it no longer seems pertinent to simply assess artistic trends in painting, nor to revive the moribund debates around abstraction and representation.

Our selected theme, The Idea of Painting, might give one to believe that we have chosen to take a stand on painting as a medium (painting-painting) and favour research focusing on painting as subject. Yet this window on artistic practices calling upon various codes of painting, its aesthetic conventions, and historical references (photography, sculpture, performance, tableaux vivants) has clearly underlined the vivid influence of painting in every area of the arts, which by no means implies that the pictorial or the gesture of painting have been excluded from this dossier. On the contrary, it is a definitively assertive painting that comes to light here. It is evident that in many respects modernist painting — like the monochrome — still informs numerous artistic lines of thought and that many authors reference this period in art history to bring perspective to contemporary works. This leaning should not, however, be seen as an overriding aspect of present-day painting; works composed of figurative elements — and which tend to draw on various movements from the 1980s wishing to break with the dictates of modernism (for example, the international trans-avant-garde) — are also awarded significant space in this edition.

In view of the vitality of painting and the multiplication of genres, we have to admit that it is impossible to give an account of every artist’s concerns at the beginning of the twenty-first century, nor to paint a comprehensive portrait. With a few exceptions, we have therefore opted to confine our panorama to the Quebec and Canadian context, particularly in the portfolio, which provides significant insight into the variety of approaches within this geographical framework. Given the breadth of this topic, we have also chosen to set aside the articles section and dedicate the majority of this issue to the thematic dossier.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]

75 - Living Things - Printemps / été - 2012
Sylvette Babin

Inanimate objects, do you have a soul?

How do we “relate” to the objects that still play such a significant role in artistic practice? What do such objects say about themselves, about us, and about art or society? What power do they have over us and our habits of consumption? What symbolic values do we project upon them? In the previous issue, esse opened a discussion on the return — or the persistence — of the materiality of art by focusing on the topic of reskilling. The object itself now takes centre stage, not so much for its material properties but rather for its “existential” character. In light of Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory,” which is our point of departure, the present issue revolves around the precise moment in which the object becomes a “thing,” that is, the very moment it takes on a new life and thereby establishes a relation between subject and animated object.(1) By the term “animated object” we understand it to mean an object attributed with “life” rather than one that merely moves. Of course, one does not exclude the other, yet objects animated by a mechanism are examined here insofar as their movement is precisely that which bestows life on the work.

This issue’s theme is thus an invitation to reflect on the state of the object in contemporary art from perspectives as diverse as the transformation of the use value of objects into symbolic or artistic values, fetishism or the desire to possess the object, the cult of objects, and the critical power we bestow upon them. This issue also explores how the contemporary notion of the animated object differs from animism in the relationships of exchange that exist between the object and the beholder, while shedding new light on ritualistic objects and the primitivism that prevails in the way we relate to the world. The question of the object as commodity is also addressed, by questioning the commodity fetishism triggered by consumer society (and sometimes the art market), and by examining how certain artists attempt to circumvent the codes of commodity fetishism itself. We also consider the strategies whereby objects resist the process of dematerialization afforded by computer technology, despite their creative use of digital technologies and their modus operandi.

If the question of the “soul” of objects is but metaphorical, the diverse artworks examined in the following pages invite us to reflect nonetheless on the power (the aura?) that pervades such works and on the different ways in which we engage with them.

[Translated from the French by Eduardo Ralickas]


(1) “The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation… You could imagine things, -second, as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects — their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems.” Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” in Things, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 4 – 5.

74 - Reskilling - Hiver - 2012
Sylvette Babin

In Praise of Virtuosity?

Twentieth-century art, which saw the birth of readymade and conceptual art, was marked by a rupture with tradition and a questioning of the role of technical savoir-faire. During this period, practices bringing into play experience, process, and device led to the studio being abandoned by nomadic artists with a preference for site-specific or ephemeral art, while the advent of new technology contributed to the decline of the materiality of the object. Are these multiple approaches, which Yves Michaux ironically described as “the gaseous state of art,” in the process of being supplanted by a major resurgence of savoir-faire and the handmade object?

The term “reskilling,” borrowed from the domain of professional training, designates the learning of new skills in order for certain trades to adapt to the needs of the market. Recently introduced into the field of -contemporary art, (1) reskilling, or requalification, thus enhances the -prestige of manual work — most notably through the revival of essentially abandoned artisanal techniques — and attributes value to the mastery of execution and the craftsmanship of a work as well as its material and decorative sophistication. In the context of industrial production, reskilling was a direct response to deskilling, a process whereby human expertise was rendered obsolete through the introduction of new technology. However, in the artistic domain such deskilling cannot be attributed purely to the effects of industrialization but also to the willingness of the avante-garde to break with the dictates of academicism. If virtuosity has always inspired admiration — and this until the present day — contemporary art has nevertheless succeeded in turning away from constraints associated exclusively with skills. In other respects, it is pertinent to examine the motivations behind this renewed interest in traditional techniques and the requalification of savoir-faire by observing their role within the context of contemporary art issues at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The texts in this issue propose somewhat conflicting, yet complementary, opinions on the subject, expressing on the one hand the urgency “to ‘rescue’ the ‘making’ of art and its mediums” (Luanne Martineau), and on the other, highlighting the persistence of practices “in which non-knowing, emptiness, and the unforeseeable are privileged modes of being and doing destined to perpetually undermine the realm of skill, know-how, technique” (Stephen Horne).

This collection of essays thus bears witness to great diversity and a willingness to pursue a deeper examination of art as object without restricting the debate to mere dogmatism. To this effect, the analyses of reskilling presented here in no way herald the disappearance of -experimental art or procedural practices; instead, they act as a counterbalance to relatively -recent issues which contemplated relational processes, the dematerialization of the object, and even the disappearance of art works all together.(2)

By exploring works that invoke casting techniques specific to ceramics, textiles, painting, and more “contemporary” media such as photography, video, and installation, the essays also expound the various means through which artists strive to question material. The works reveal several common tendencies or preoccupations, such as a predilection for hybridity, the appropriation of everyday objects, and a variety of playful approaches without recourse to nostalgia. Also apparent is the turning away from the utilitarian value generally associated with the techniques from which they borrow. In other respects, the artists, far from confining themselves to formal or aesthetic explorations related to their -respective media, bear witness to social or political preoccupations by taking a critical look at “our post-digital age of software-specific art and design, consumerism, condensed time, and globalism” (Martineau), through moulding, “an anti-idealistic technical choice that eludes conventional (predominantly male) aesthetic pretensions through inventive and contradictory formal strategies” (Katrie Chagnon) and through “recontextualizing [the notions of] work and value” (Andrew Hennlich). These all point to the fact that the role of savoir-faire and traditional techniques shall never be confined to the -manufacture of purely decorative objects.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]


(1) In this regard, see John Roberts, The Intangibilies of Form: Skill and Deskilling of Art After the Readymade, (London and New York: Verso, 2007).
(2) I am referring in particular to issues such as Fragile (no. 65), Disappearance (no. 66), and Intercourse: art as transaction (no. 73).

73 - Intercourse: Art as transaction - Automne - 2011
Sylvette Babin

Art’s New Transactions

To begin, it is important to clear up the ambiguity that may be suggested by our title, Commerce | Intercourse. The French term clearly evokes monetary exchange, whereas the English calls to mind human relationships, even sexual ones. It is precisely this double meaning that is tackled in this current issue, dwelling as it does on the “transactions” implicit in what has meanwhile become known as relational aesthetics. More than a decade has passed since this theorization on a (perhaps less recent) practice first appeared, unleashing a truly pivotal reaction in the art world. Initially focused on the principles of encounter and community by attempting to rethink the relationships with institutions and to free itself from the economy of the art market, with the benefit of hindsight, relational aesthetics is now giving rise to new avenues of thought.

In approaching the subject, we asked several questions in order to know if — in practices so dependent on the participation of another — the individual had not become a new kind of material, if we were not demonstrating how even participation can be monetized, and whether or not these two phenomena were actually contributing to an undermining of the relational utopia. Such questions, which have their source in the many critiques formulated by certain American authors (Claire Bishop and Rosalyn Deutsche, for example), have led to extremely diverse ideas. We should stress that we in no way wish to invalidate the manifestations or work arising from relational aesthetics, nor do we wish to call into question the motivations underlying them. Rather, we would like to examine, via different voices, certain less widely discussed issues or ones that were perhaps not considered when such practices were emerging.

A transformation of the paradigms of relational art was foreseeable in order to ensure the works’ continuity and to all intents and purposes their symbolic efficacy. (1) Consequently, one notes the appearance of certain “declensions” of relational aesthetics (resulting also, perhaps, from changes simultaneously taking place in the art world, like the revival of object artworks and the rapid development of the art market). If at the root of relational practices the trace was often voluntarily absent or considered a mere archive serving as memory, new proposals are emerging in which artists create situations with the specific aim of making a plastic work. And so one observes that the meeting with the other has well and truly become a (sometimes monetized) transaction, thus restoring the economic dimension to a term that had generally been used metaphorically. Asserting and distinguishing themselves thoroughly from the pastoral intentions specific to many conviviality-based actions, these works propose a new approach in relational art worthy of observation.

Commerce | Intercourse thus takes a critical look at multiple facets of the relational economy by questioning how such works position themselves in the logic of the market, by reflecting on the ethics of these practices and the risks of involving participants, as well as by analyzing works that voluntarily adopt different financial models, be it in parody or for profit.


1. I am referring here to Jacques Rancière’s idea that the symbolic efficacy of art essentially arises from its exhibition: “The dispersal of works of art into the multiplicity of social relationships has value only when seen, whether the ordinary ‘nothing-to-see’ relationship is exemplarily accommodated in a space normally destined for the exhibition of artwork: or whether, contrarily, the production of social ties in public space is done by a spectacular artistic form.” Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé (Paris: La fabrique, 2008), 78. [my translation.]


Subscribe to the Newsletter

 Retrouvez nous sur Twitter !Retrouvez nous sur Facebook !Retrouvez nous sur Instagram !





esse arts + opinions

Postal address
C.P. 47549,
Comptoir Plateau Mont-Royal
Montréal (Québec) Canada
H2H 2S8

Office address
2025 rue Parthenais, bureau 321
Montréal (Québec)
Canada H2K 3T2

E. : revue@esse.ca
T. : 1 514-521-8597