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68 - Sabotage - Hiver - 2010
Sylvette Babin
Alain Declercq, Make-up (détail), de la série Security, 2002. Photo : permission de l'artiste & galerie Loevenbruck, Paris

Despite a resurgence of art focused on the commodifiable object, practices favouring experience and politically engaged interventions are not completely absent from twenty-first-century artistic production. Among those practices often marked by social critique one finds some willing to shake up various value systems (including that of the arts) and disrupt public order, sometimes by attacking it directly, sometimes using more discreet—or barely visible—methods. The dossier presented here addresses the diverse forms of sabotage perpetrated by artists, both within and outside of the art world, and across disciplines as varied as performance, painting, installation, architecture and cinema. The infiltration of political and commercial structures, détournement, cultural dissidence, image-parasitism, questioning the notion of the signature, or scuttling one’s own project, are just a few of the strategies adopted by those practicing artistic sabotage.
The works analyzed in this issue generally have little to do with acts of material destruction or iconoclastic gestures. They are more subtle, but no less pointed, forms of sabotage in which the artist amuses him or herself with circumventing generally accepted rules—sometimes flirting with illegality, or sometimes blurring artistic codes and thus inviting us to question their role and range. Completing the idea of the artist as killjoy explored in the preceding issue, the artist-saboteur may have an even more negative image and thus one that is heavier to take on. Nonetheless, one notes that these practices lack neither humour nor a playful spirit. Moreover, it takes a certain measure of such to attack one’s own image. And, while on the subject, we opted to not merely bear passive witness to a variety of artistic sabotages, but to put them into practice ourselves by sabotaging this issue. This gesture of collusion with our graphic designers is, like all forms of sabotage, a little risky. Readers will likely find themselves disoriented to discover here, an incoherence in the normal order of pages and sections, and there, a graphic alteration of an image. This is not an attempt to trick the reader by obscuring our intentions (which would, in any case, be a mere hoax) but is rather one of trying out the concepts considered in these pages by shaking up the aesthetic comfort into which a magazine can all too easily settle.

[Translated from the French by Peter Dubé]

67 - Killjoy - Automne - 2009
Sylvette Babin

With this issue we chose to clearly mark our 25th anniversary, not by producing a commemorative publication but by focussing on the present rather than the past. A celebration of the present? Yes, but what’s there to celebrate in 2009? Aside from feeling proud of what has been accomplished, underlining an anniversary requires additional work and investment—the size of this publication proves it—yet with the same limited resources. In the context of a crisis that has ramifications in the cultural sector, the desire to celebrate is certainly not as strong. Moreover, how is it possible to rejoice when our leaders are progressively and slyly withdrawing their support to culture?(1) In such circumstances, celebration takes on a more sour, cynical twist. And so, it is under the sign of anti-celebration that esse marks 25 years of activities.

The double theme of trouble-fête (party pooper) and killjoy seemed the perfect locus for this kind of event. From a citizen perspective, we assert a critical stance against the multiplication of celebrations that tend to get lost in increasingly trivial considerations; as a cultural organization, we proclaim our indignation concerning the withdrawal of state funding in culture. As a publisher, what we want the most is to open our pages to committed texts exploring the meaning of celebration. For this reason we’ve brought together eleven authors whose writing we particularly appreciate. Some are faithful friends and contributors to the magazine, while others are first-timers. They have been invited to consider the theme not only of celebration, but also of commemoration, which is often inherent to anniversaries. In these essays, celebration is at times analyzed for its unifying potential, at times for its deceptiveness. Among others, it has a critical power that numerous artists have decided to exploit, while others prefer reactivating the festive in art—celebration for celebration’s sake. Different forms of commemoration are also studied, critiquing in passing the duty to remember that sometimes tends to make the present seem better. The resulting works and actions—re-enactments, transient memorials, spontaneous monuments or anti-monuments—testify to the multiplicity of forms possible and foreground some attempts at preserving memory through the use of the monument—a practice we thought worth questioning.

We are also publishing an impressive portfolio bringing together fourteen artists whose twenty works are particularly in synch with the theme, be it by the various codes of celebration they employ, a commemorative impact that evokes the monument or anti-monument, or a critical or ironic approach using killjoy strategies. Also, Michel F. (T.) Côté, who has always accepted the challenge of basing his “Affaire de zouave” column on our chosen themes, proposes five tried-and-true killjoy rules. Once a killjoy, always a killjoy—that’s the esse spirit.

But let’s be frank. Beyond its deliberately ironic and provoking title and its diverse critical expressions, Trouble-fête/Killjoy still underscores esse’s lasting presence on the artistic scene. After all, this 25th anniversary also acknowledges our enduring involvement in contemporary art, which would not have had the same impact without the support of our financial partners and, most importantly, of our readers. We also owe the evolution of our magazine through the years to our numerous contributors who have ensured its success, be it by participating in one issue, for one year, a decade or two. We sincerely thank you all.

1. It is impossible not to mention, aside from the important cuts in a dozen or so cultural programs a year ago in August, the obtuse policy of Canadian Heritage in regard to funding cultural magazines, which led recently to their withdrawing their financial support to esse.

66 - Disappearance - Printemps / été - 2009
Sylvette Babin
David K. Ross, Martha Fleming/Lyne Lapointe: 50,400 seconds, 2008. Photo : David K. Ross

In this issue on the theme of disappearance it is no way our intention to announce the death of art, which has been repeatedly predicted for several decades. At most we will, once again, confirm the recurrent tendency to forego the art object in favour of the artistic device, encounter or experience, an attitude which certainly marked our previous thematic issues (“Waste” and “Fragile”) and which we could have combined with this one to form a trilogy. Do we thus dare to proclaim the disappearance of the object or more precisely the end of the art object’s reign? It is notably this question that some authors took up in their reflections on many artists’ choice “of producing no tangible object while remaining within the system” (Desmet). This is perhaps the first observation to be made here: with or without an object, visible or invisible, and promoting the ephemeral, the so-called artists without works persist in taking a place in the system, in leaving a trace, an image, a story. Furthermore, the following pages are not without works; for the most part, very high definition digital photographs. If there is not always a presence of “objects” (in many cases one is indeed confronted with empty rooms), this is not any less proof that artistic acts were carried out. Nobody questions that these traces, which artists or dealers take great care of, now serve as artworks to be displayed in various exhibition places after the experience has dissipated. The inevitable process of the preservation of memory is such that the intangible is inexorably materialized in the archive. The art object thus resists its disappearance.

The theme of disappearance has not only been explored in terms of the absence of works or objects, but also in relation to the immaterial, impalpable and evanescent. Devices that work on perception, works erased before the gaze, poetic fictions on death or the decomposition of matter are part of the propositions, which in this issue, refer rather to the disappearance of the subject. Moreover, aside from the main thematic we here include a more politically informed and consequently more disturbing essay on the disappearance of the citizen in totalitarian regimes (Vera). However, in this case, not a trace has been left.

The active participation of viewers is also one of the recurrent elements in this thematic issue. In order for the “disappeared” works to regain their status as artworks and find themselves within these pages, one certainly had to undertake a “reconstitution” task that was in several cases left to those who took part in the experience. Whether by walking through a work to make it effective (Schneider), by looking for it (Fridfinnsson), by memorizing it (Pope) or by literally inventing it (Tiravanija), the viewer has become the one through who the work has been granted existence. This Duchampian affirmation, which does not appear to be waning in twenty-first century art, perhaps confirms that if the artist tends at times to make the artwork disappear, s/he nevertheless entrusts others with the mandate to make it reappear.

[Translated from the French by Bernard Schütze]

65 - Fragile - Hiver - 2009
Sylvette Babin
Patrice Duhamel, Molsk 25, Petit Carnet, 2007. Photo: Patrice Duhamel

This issue is published in continuity with the themes of “Mutual Actions” and “Waste” that were previously explored in our publication. The current theme of “Fragile” allows us to examine how art’s various parameters, materials, apparatuses and production modes, even the figure of the artist itself, have been weakened. Contributors have answered our invitation in the same spirit and have expanded their consideration of the fragile in physical terms—the friability of the object or the fleetingness of the artwork and, subsequently, their modes of conservation—to its various ontological underpinnings. Fragility thus finds its way in an essay on the sublime and the aesthetics of inadequacy where photographic still lifes are paralleled with the Renaissance vanitas (Falvey), while another essay opposes individual singularity (and, by extension, fragility) to the notion of plasticity, with a particular emphasis on attempts to go beyond matter (glass and plastic) “to reveal its ‘spirit,’ that is, its cultural and civilizational import” (Poulin).

Numerous analytical avenues are based on works dealing directly or indirectly with fragility. We’ve noticed that writers in this issue have been particularly driven by the artworks, by their delicate aspect, precarious presentation or symbolic materials and subjects. The fleetingness of Chih-Chien Wang and Joanne Poitras’s installations, the figurative import of sugar in Aude Moreau’s work, Patrick Beaulieu’s immaterial projects and Sophie Calle’s intimist approach have all offered a solid basis for the formulation of various theories and contributed to striking a balance between the work and its analysis, which certainly adds to the strength of this issue.

The works brought together in the portfolio section also reveal how diverse the perception of fragility is in art. Here too, we must take into consideration the materials used, such as glass, porcelain, ice and ashes. But beyond their risk of being broken, the works reproduced ask us to contemplate life’s impermanence, our fragile relationship to the other, to disappearance, loss or death. Thus, the breakable leads to the precarious, the tactile to the evanescent, the material to the spiritual.

In choosing this theme, we hoped to elicit thoughts that would go beyond artistic fragility and address, among others, human fragility. We certainly did not anticipate having such a close experience with death. We would have preferred watching it from afar, simply evoking its role as an essential source of inspiration in art and literature. It turned out otherwise. The untimely death of a colleague and friend, artist, writer and curator Patrice Duhamel, has confronted us abruptly, violently, with our fragility as human beings. In an unpublished text entitled “Les seuils de l’inquiétude” [The Thresholds of Restlessness], Patrice wrote: “I’m listening because I’m a restless subject in a state of alert. It’s already a sort of suspense. I’m trying to understand the place that’s been given to me, the place I occupy in this world. I’m listening because I want to decipher, because in so doing I ‘gather’ and I ‘read’ according to the etymology of this word, and so I record. I’m listening because, as wrote Roland Barthes, I’m also saying, imperatively, ‘listen to me.’” The greatest tribute that we could pay this artist who was active in every aspect of art will certainly be to “listen” to him through his work and to continue to disseminate his voice. So we’ve invited Jean-Pierre Vidal, who wrote a brilliant piece on a Patrice Duhamel exhibition in issue no. 51 of esse, to take a fresh look at his recent work, as beautiful and rich as what preceded it. We hope that these few pages will contribute to keep Patrice Duhamel’s work alive in our collective memory.

[Translated from the French by Colette Tougas]

Image: Patrice Duhamel, « Molsk 25 », Petit carnet, 2007. Photo: Patrice Duhamel

64 - - -
Sylvette Babin

The presence of waste in contemporary art certainly doesn’t have the same provocative impact as when the avant-gardes used it at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, the debunking of the art object through the use of “poor materials” instead of “noble materials” makes little sense at a time when garbage bins, landfill sites and drop-off centres have become the new suppliers of artists’ materials. However, the collection of discarded items, the transformation of rubbish, scrap or refuse—pick your designation—and the use of waste as subject matter for photography are recurrent practices in today’s art. What does this gesture mean nowadays? Has provocation been replaced by exposure?

Now that waste accumulation has become an increasing source of worry and that recycling is no longer just an option, the ecological question certainly stands out in the association between art and waste. Moreover, one could read in this encounter a critique of consumer society. In the last decades, we have witnessed the production—in excessive quantity, at infernal speed and, moreover, at a cheap cost in Chinese factories—of objects that are more readily discarded than repaired. As a result, the supply in material resources is particularly easy for the gleaner artist—a sad privilege. Our intention is not to state a situation of which we are all aware.1 Twenty-first century citizens, including artists, are certainly the most informed in the history of humankind. However, they continue to consume massively as if this state of affairs were unsolvable or as if it were the price to pay for our species’ comfort. Obviously, we cannot blame the sole production of waste for all our environmental problems—even if the word refers not only to domestic garbage but also to industrial and toxic refuse, etc.—but neither can we entrust the task of finding a solution to citizens only. As mentioned in a excerpt from Libération quoted by Éloïse Guénard on page 16 of this issue, “While attributing culpability to citizens and in proposing a facile expiation of their sins by means of small, individual gestures, we forget to explain to them that a good number of the public policies to which we subscribe are anti-ecological.” While we should not, at the risk of destroying any sense of individual responsibility, give the impression that personal gestures have no impact on the environment, can we expect significant change to happen if our leaders don’t take drastic measures?

The previous paragraph might suggest that this issue has a strong ecological content. It is not however the main perspective privileged by our authors. It doesn’t mean that such preoccupations are not echoed in their essays but rather that they chose to consider waste for what it is, i.e., a meaningful object, with an important cultural and historical background, which has the potential to make us think and the capacity to be transformed into an artwork. Some examples of such work can be seen in our portfolio section, where artists, in the descriptions they give of their work, show that beyond aesthetic concerns they want to question lifestyles that lead to the overproduction of waste. In her book Quand les déchets deviennent art, Lea Vergine writes: “Trash is a direct, meticulous and indisputable document of the habits and behaviours of those that produce it, that goes even beyond their own convictions or self-perception.” [2] This sentence encapsulates rather well this issue where waste, in its multiple forms and locations, and the artworks derived from it show us a bit more who we are.


1. Those who are not that aware might want to consult a very lucid book written by astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, Mal de Terre, a dark yet realistic portrait of the current state of the Planet, with a rather exhaustive description of various forms of waste that have disastrous consequences on the environment. Hubert Reeves (with Frédéric Lenoir), Mal de Terre (Paris, Seuil, 2003).
2. Lea Vergine, Quand les déchets deviennent art. Trash, rubbish, mungo, (Milano: Skira, 2007).

[Translated from the French by Colette Tougas]


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