editorial | Page 8 | esse arts + opinions


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]

63 - Mutual Actions - Printemps / été - 2008
Sylvette Babin

This issue on “Mutual Actions” is an exploration of two overlapping notions: interactivity, which refers mainly to the relationship between a person and a machine—notably in technological pieces calling for the viewer’s participation—and interaction, which elicits a connexion between individuals, i.e., the artist and members of the audience. In both cases, we can turn to the word “spect-actor,” a neologism which despite its sometimes arbitrary use raises exactly this question of active participation on the part of the viewer in contemporary artistic practices. This participative aspect, although it goes back a long way, still deserves to be questioned not only in terms of its constitutive modalities, but also with regards to its genuine efficiency in opening up to the Other.

Our theme was put forward to writers as a series of questions, and some of our contributors drew directly from them for inspiration. Here are some examples. Has technology become a necessary interface to address interactivity? How can the artist’s role be differentiated from that of the participant or the work itself? How can we rethink the public sphere and intersubjectivity under the sway of technique? Is the image a passive or active entity? Does it accept the gaze or is it a vehicle for subjection? Can it be grasped as a pragmatic entity, i.e., as the subject of mutual action? In a society of the spectacle, what does participation mean? Does the sphere of mutual action go beyond the sphere of representation? Has contemporary art succeeded in renewing mutual action as effective political action?

Deliberately open to various perspectives, this issue tries to answer one or several of these questions. It features essays reflecting upon practices that use so-called relational strategies or questioning the idea of interactivity as such, as well as analyses of various media and web art practices. The writers also examine more indirect or symbolic types of participation, with mirrors and reflection acting as forms of engagement with the viewer. From the practices studied here, be they interactive or interactional, a constant seems to emerge: the desire to develop a less autarchic form of art. It is in fact the main objective of mutual actions. Do these so-called interactive technological apparatuses make it really possible for the viewer to interact with or even modify the work? Do interactional works truly open zones of significant exchange between artist and viewer? These questions remain open.

[Translated from the French by Colette Tougas]

62 - Fear II - Hiver - 2008
Sylvette Babin

The Other Fear
By Sylvette Babin

From the thoughts shared by authors and artists alike, it’s hard not to notice how widespread fear is in our lives. The publication of this second issue on the theme of fear allows us to further examine the vast expanse of human anxieties. Designed as a diptych, the issues graphically mirror and complement one another (beginning with the reversed translation of the word on the covers) with texts and images that explore fear in various social and emotional manifestations through a vast array of artistic mediums. Aside from film and video (more readily associated with the theme), painting, installation, performance and web art have been addressed in both issues.

Of all the fears that overwhelm us—death being the ultimate one—fear of the other seems the most common. It is at least the most worrying, judging by the multiplicity of conflicts that stem from it. It’s an insidious fear, often based on ignorance, that hits us at our most vulnerable—cultural identity, for example—and that finds social justification in collectively acknowledging some sort of “threat.” Fear of the other is increasingly accepted, even encouraged as a normal attitude towards otherness. In such a context it’s not surprising that fear of the other is mentioned in most of the essays published in this issue. Thus, strangeness is evoked as an artistic means of disruption (Albano); fear as well as citizens’ and artists’ reactions to it are observed in various political and economical contexts (Llevat Soy, Krpic); the doctoring of information to create panic situations and the role of the media in fabricating fear are also analysed (Cramerotti, Paris). On the latter, the notion of “creative propaganda” suggests that fear campaigns are not the prerogative of the media or of power structures but that they are also used as means of persuasion by organisations involved in “noble” causes.

But fear is not solely political, writes André-Louis Paré, it also has to do with our being-together. The fear of death and of the everyday, the difficulty of life in society, and the fear of difference or the fear of rejection for one’s own singularity are some of the affects that artists explore in these pages. Moreover, whereas most of the essays deal with various attitudes of mistrust against the Other, Alberto Aceti expresses with a wry sense of humour his own fear that religious fundamentalisms might become obstacles to freedom of expression. His position certainly has the potential to rekindle the debate on intolerance but it also reminds us that embracing the other is not just a nice theory. The almost clichéd example of reasonable accommodations in Quebec shows us that the much needed recognition and respect of differences requires first and foremost the ability to recognise one’s self in order to defeat the fear of loosing one’s identity. From all of this, let’s remember how important encounter and presence are in bringing down the culture of fear. Being-together not only opposes isolation and the formation of media fed opinions, it also gives us the opportunity to learn directly about and from the other.

[Translated from the French by Colette Tougas]

61 - Fear - Automne - 2007
Sylvette Babin

Fight Fear
By Sylvette Babin

Never until now has fear been such an intriguing subject of research. A natural reaction that was once triggered by the presence of a stranger or when facing danger, fear has considerably changed through civilization. Brand new fears have surfaced. Existential angst and modern phobias, fear of the Other and of difference, psychoses and paranoia—all are more or less grounded anxieties and terrors that are nevertheless more devastating than the ancient defence reflex. Today fear has become a tool for manipulation and propaganda, and an excellent means of social control. By exploiting social fears such as xenophobia and the fear of terrorism, those in power have at their disposal all the necessary pretexts to use defensive or offensive strategies that often serve economic rather than common interests. In the name of public security, considerable amounts of money are invested in armament and the deployment of “preventive” forces. Incidentally, the Canadian Forces have developed this year an important and costly recruiting campaign. In ads on T.V. and the web, one can read, “Fight fear. Fight with the Canadian Forces.” Somewhat of a media stunt, the slogan is efficient and can adapt to any situation. No need to question the relevance and foundation of an armed conflict; the “enemy” that needs to be defeated—fear—is inside each and every one of us. Who would dispute its existence? Who would question the army’s participation in any conflict when fear is the new enemy we all hope to defeat?

Fortunately, other individuals, less prone to use arms or engage in combat, have found fabulous antidotes to fear. For example, there is art and, through it, poetry and humour. It is noticeable in Nedko Solakov’s work Fear, presented this year at the Documenta in Kassel. This series of 99 drawings illustrates various fears felt or observed by the artist, accompanied by captions that are both funny and bitingly cynical and lucid. This caustic humour is also present in the anagram Run from Fear, Fun from Rear, a neon sign by Bruce Nauman, recently on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Although the meaning of the work is open-ended, I find that suggesting pleasure rather than flight in overcoming fear is a far more interesting solution, and I would irreverently propose that the Armed Forces adopt it as their new motto.

Writers were quite stimulated by the theme of fear, and so we have decided to make it the subject of two consecutive issues. This first issue examines the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, the fear of the Other—or the fear of not being recognized by the Other—and offers analyses of works, actions and places dealing with fear and terror. Moreover, with this 61st issue of esse we are introducing our new bilingual format. After twenty-three years, our publication having increased international presence, we felt we should accommodate English-speaking readers. Welcome!

[Translated from the French by Colette Tougas]


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