Article | Public Vertigoes | esse arts + opinions

Article | Public Vertigoes

  • Jim Holyoak, atelier | studio, 30e Symposium international d’art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul, 2012. Photo : Raymonde April

Public Vertigoes
By Joëlle Zask

Friday, August 31, 2012

Over the course of three weeks, I spent several hours a day in the arena where Baie-Saint-Paul’s 30th International Symposium of Contemporary Art was held. The 2012 event, titled I stilled vertigoes, was curated by Serge Murphy and featured twelve artists. It was mainly with them that I came into contact, chatting with them while observing and strolling around. I barely had any contact with other visitors who came in groups, most often in couples, and sometimes alone. But I was one of them and can use my personal experience to document the public experience created through the symposium. On this basis, I will tackle the complex question of the relationship between art and politics. I am writing here as a philosopher who has examined the notion of “public,” and who, in attending the symposium, found an answer to questions raised elsewhere. During the course of my wanderings, I was witness to both the successes and failures of the venture, the doubts of some and the rejections of others, which gave me a unique perspective on the evolution of the workspaces, the works, and the social nature of the event.

My first impression confirmed my initial misgivings: converting a hockey arena into a centre for artistic creation during the summer was made all the more difficult by the fact that the arena was divided into small zones in which the artists set up their studios. Many found it difficult to operate in such confined spaces, which seemed to undermine the symposium’s goal of bringing artists and public together for a five-week period. (1) In theory, the event was oriented outward toward the visitor, the city, the region, and beyond; it was therefore paradoxical that it was held in a venue completely lacking a sense of openness. The box-like workspaces that compartmentalized the arena intensified the feeling of enclosure.

I also noted an additional problem in relation to another of the stated ambitions of the symposium; namely, to show works in the process of being created by the artists rather than completed works — and this because “making public” implies making the artists and their processes visible.

Why would this be problematic? Before continuing my account, I would like to offer a partial response to this question by drawing on previous reflections. It is common to trace the origins of “public” (understood as a space of visibility) to the era of Athenian democracy and to affirm that, for the Greeks, the opposition between private and public was expressed in terms of the intimate, hidden, secret, unnameable or impure versus that which was revealed in broad daylight. Relegated to privacy were the least desirable aspects of human nature. Private acts could not be exposed in public without shame: sleeping, bleeding, defecating, dying, bathing, fornicating, eating, giving birth, nursing... Private life was one of constraint and necessity. In the dark recesses of the home, family members would recharge and dedicate themselves, day after day, to life’s vital processes. The “public” realm was quite the opposite, involving activities freed from biological necessity. The only type of liberty was public. It was outside the household and far from activities necessary for survival that humans were able to realize their fundamental essence, devoting themselves to actions that were ends in themselves. Whereas in private spaces, people would use their energy to attain a goal exterior to themselves, in public, they exercised self-mastery. What an individual would expose and make visible, tangible, and manifest were qualities that could be shared: logos and a beautiful appearance. This common association between public life and visibility resulted in a tendency to refer to that which is public in terms of space.

To state that the public and visible only coincide because of a certain political notion which also connects the private with the hidden is to question the guarantee that democracy resides in that which is “made visible.” Are transparency, accessibility, availability, and disclosure true tools of democratization? Are they not, on the contrary, an obstacle to democracy? Is it not in autocratic and totalitarian countries that they are most likely to flourish?

The 30th Symposium in Baie-Saint-Paul raised these sorts of questions. The original idea was to inaugurate a “public space,” but the inherent difficulties in making artistic creation visible to a wide audience soon became apparent. Visitors did not and could not see much of the creative process they had presumably come to contemplate. In fact, nothing was exhibited other than materials, tools, and objects, the purpose of which visitors were not in a position to judge. Was it a trace, a stage in the creative process, a complete item ready for sale, a test or an experiment? They had no idea. The artists, who were not always entirely sure themselves, noted that, initially, many visitors who had hoped to see a well-defined, tangible object were disappointed. But they adjusted their expectations. What most discovered was that the spectator stance was not appropriate in this setting.

To my mind, herein lies the most useful and “democratic” aspect of the symposium. Aptly described as a meeting ground by director Jacques Tremblay, it allowed visitors to discover a non-spectatorial relationship with artworks. A spectator is by definition someone who passively observes a situation without participating in it. Spectators take in -information and form a judgment which will have an impact on their private lives, but not on the performance itself. Classical aesthetics, which justifies the position of the spectator before a work, states that aesthetic judgments are both immediate and subjective. Kant, for example, was careful to distinguish the development of taste from any attempt to know, observe, compare, or examine. Spectators visit museums in the same way they go to the theatre. They are seeking an emotional experience that they are unable to create on their own. The community they form is based not on their encounters and exchanges, but on the fact that all members are observing the same thing with a more or less identical gaze, inasmuch as their judgment is fed by their immediate impressions.

This spectator stance also exists in politics, in face of a power that manifests itself. The classic republican position corresponds to that described above: citizens do not “participate” in government, but rather observe the actions of leaders and form judgements after the fact, which they communicate by praising, voting, acclaiming, supporting, protesting, rejecting, and refusing. As Habermas indicated in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), having citizen-spectators believe they are also citizen-participants is one of the greatest hoaxes of our time.

In art as in politics, the moment of reaction to a performance is known as a critique. While undeniably useful, it is highly doubtful that the act of critiquing is a true source of fulfilment for citizens or art lovers.

Returning to Baie-Saint-Paul, the visitors who came to attend a “contemporary art performance” (the arena, as J. Plante remarked, was also a “suitable venue for shows”), and to then evaluate what they had seen, soon realized that their expectations were misplaced. Curiosity was replaced by interest, judgment by enquiry, contemplation by attention, and sacred silence by discussion. Many returned several times. Some remarked that hastily formed judgments had given way to sustained observation.

The artists helped them, of course. They did not adhere to the practices of spectatorship either and used various means to defy the equation between visible and public. Some deliberately turned their backs on the public; others positioned their tables so as to create a separate and inaccessible space, while others at times worked in hidden corners. By using piles of books, blank canvases, an avalanche of drawings or a shower of buttons to reinforce boundaries, and by working outside visiting hours (between noon and five), they avoided becoming themselves the objects of a spectacle, like animals in a zoo. By creating a separation between the space in which visitors circulated and that in which they worked, stored their material, read their emails, listened to music, left paint or gesso to dry, filmed or recorded, organized their projects, and received visits from friends, they created the conditions necessary for artistic production.

In drawing a boundary between the two areas set up for distinct uses, they were not being pretentious or showing a lack of public-spiritedness. On a more theoretical level, this boundary conditions self-development; without it, there would be no art or science or a truly personal existence. Protecting private life while establishing a public life is the trademark of “liberal democracies.” As a rule in such democracies, there is an association between what Benjamin Constant termed “the freedom of the Ancients,” which involves active participation in the government of public affairs, and “the freedom of the Moderns” — that of enriching ourselves, nurturing our spirit, freely practicing our religion, expressing our opinions, reading and doing whatever we want, including (and this is a fundamental right) leaving associations into which we freely and voluntarily entered in the past. This modern freedom feeds on the freedom of antiquity: without the protection of common laws and in the absence of citizen participation in the creation of these laws, modern freedom would wither away. Without the projects and ideas we gain through our contact with others, this liberty would lose all of its substance. Even though modern freedom has replaced classic freedom to the extent that we sometimes need to be reminded of the importance of civic-mindedness, solidarity, a sense of collective responsibility, and patriotism, it must never be abandoned or neglected. When modern freedom is adequately nurtured through sociability and associations, it is valued by people and enriches their lives. However, the regime of visibility represents a threat to this freedom.

One might think that the symposium project was therefore doomed to failure. Without being naively optimistic, I can safely say this was not the case. The boundary separating private and “public” activities is not a line but a zone of variable geometry. The theme of the symposium chosen by Serge Murphy — I stilled vertigoes — found a forum for practice: by assembling artists whose approaches ranged from extremely minimalist to excessive, Murphy invited us to consider the many ways of negotiating the boundary between that which is revealed and concealed, given and held back, visible and non-visible. At times, the limit between public and private was starkly delineated; at others, it was less defined, more ambiguous. But at no point did it disappear, which made it possible to avoid two pitfalls: either rejecting or scorning spectators by shutting them out, or, at the other extreme, cornering them in order to please them or win them over.

This shifting intermediary zone is a favourable forum for discussion. In politics, it is the forum in which attempts are made to calmly hear other viewpoints — through social enquiry, deliberation, debate, and the media — and once an agreement has been reached, to modify the nature of the public and private in such a way as to defuse conflict. It is this type of forum that the symposium valued and sought to bring into existence. Exchanges and encounters were its life blood. Louise Viger, an artist in residence, explained that “the ‘public’ [were] not invited to see a work, but artists at work. Doing what? That is the question. They work[ed] and talk[ed] about their work. They exchange[d]. For me, this exchange went so far as to invite people to write about the specific theme of erasure and vulnerability. I found these encounters very moving. It made the experience of being cooped up in the arena for a month totally worthwhile.”

Over the course of the discussions, which evolved as visitors came and went and the works progressed, the interlocutors (members of the public and artists, who were also members of the public) tested the boundary between private and public that existed prior to their encounter. By playing with this boundary, they created a common microcosm that was mutually enlightening; a shifting boundary that separates in order to achieve better connections. It is this boundary that makes discussion possible, leading to conversation and a sharing of opinions. The encounter with an artist and his or her work no longer involves spectacle (exhibiting and seeing), but rather active attention and conversation. Quid pro quo.

[Translated from the French by Vanessa Nicolai]

NOTES
(1) Jonathan Plante, an artist in residence at Baie-Saint-Paul, suggested that “a description of the architects’ aims would be useful; for example, [their reasoning behind] the use of the colour grey and the incorporation of the diagonal beams of the arena’s ceiling. In short, a description of the architects’ attempt to turn the booths into a major in situ work reminiscent of Daniel Buren’s bold installations; their desire to create a ‘total’ work, including the phallus penetrating the arena roof to create a central ‘agora’...”

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