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Manif d’art 5: Sylvie Fortin Talks on Curating Catastrophe

Various locations, Quebec City May 1 to Jun 13 2010
Laurent Grasso  <I>Souvenirs du futur (preparatory drawing)</I>  2010  Detail Laurent Grasso Souvenirs du futur (preparatory drawing) 2010 Detail

Laurent Grasso <I>Souvenirs du futur (preparatory drawing)</I> 2010 Detail

From 9/11 and Guantanamo Bay to terrorist bombings in public spaces across the globe to the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, our era has come to be defined by a culture of fear. But what are the consequences of this general state of personal and collective anxiety? Curator Sylvie Fortin, who is also the editor of the Atlanta-based journal Art Papers, takes a closer look at this complex dilemma in her exhibition “Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe!” for the fifth edition of the Manif d’art biennial opening this week in Quebec City. Canadian Art’s Bryne McLaughlin spoke with Fortin in advance to check in on the history of catastrophe and its many implications in contemporary art and life.


Bryne McLaughlin: To begin, I’d like to get a better sense for the theme for this year’s Manif d’art, “Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe!”

Sylvie Fortin: “Quelle catastrophe!” is a colloquial expression in French. So if you drop your coffee, you might say “Quelle catastrophe!” It’s kind of dramatic, but there’s also the humourous dimension, which is crucial. Going back to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and his notion of the “whatever singularity,” “Quelle catastrophe!” is a kind of “whatever.” So the theme is pointed to that philosophical trajectory as well.

BM: In your introductory text for the exhibition, you write about catastrophe as a hyper-visible yet invisible condition of contemporary life, that everything has been made a catastrophe at some level while “its real work remains elusive.” What’s the history behind this paradox and how has that informed your approach to the exhibition?

SF: For me, curating is always about two aims: to interrogate critical notions that are central to Western thought and to be absolutely contemporary, if not contemporaneous—to identify something that has a long trajectory and that is of particular interest today. Catastrophe is one of those things. We can look back to the beginnings of Greek drama, where catastrophe is this climactic moment when things shift. In the Middle Ages, catastrophe played a pivotal role in religious and political movements. Since 9/11, it has been used to make us believe that we live in a state of exception. We’re in this constant state of emergency that has allowed governments—not just in the US but Western governments as a whole—to foreclose on the rights of citizens.

I think that because this state of exception is based on images, we as producers of images and as people who think about images have a particular responsibility. We haven’t really gone far beyond the notion of private spectacle. We haven’t understood the trajectory of that idea in the past 35 or 40 years. So it is really important for artists and thinkers to say, “Okay, we all know that things are completely messed up, but what are we doing to use and produce images in a different way?” This is a key question for me.

Another pivotal idea is that catastrophe is intimately linked with the birth of modernism. Think of Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto, which was born out of a car accident and this fabulous text that he then hallucinated. Basically the whole trajectory of the 20th century and since begins with this catastrophic moment.

BM: At a recent panel in Toronto, one of the things that kept coming up was this idea of coming to terms with trauma—post–Cold War, post-apartheid, post–Hurricane Katrina—as a pivot point for cultural change as well as a critical foundation for biennial exhibitions. Is there a difference between “trauma” and “catastrophe”?

SF: I’ve worked a lot on trauma theory. The problem for me with trauma is that it has this psychoanalytic dimension that no one has been able to carry over in terms of social or political considerations. It always falls back on the traumatic experience of the individual, which I think is crucial, but there is an important difference between the individual and the group. It’s very interesting that you point that out because catastrophe for me was a way to go the other way, to focus on the catastrophic event as a mass event.

I’m not belittling the importance of trauma to the individual. I’m talking about a challenge to theory and to thinking that comes with moving from the individual to the group. That is crucial, and it’s something that trauma theory can’t do. I think it’s also why we keep having these cultures of violence that repeat themselves because we haven’t really been able to make that kind of collective jump. So for me, catastrophe and the catastrophic event are places where you are simultaneously an individual with a number of people. It has a social, political and economic dimension. We need to be able to think about that.

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This article was first published online on April 29, 2010.

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