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Manif d’Art Critiques Capitalism—But To What End?

Various venues, Quebec City May 3 to June 1, 2014

Capitalism kills love. That’s one way to boil down the sprawling socio-political unrest and polarized ideological drama that has in many ways become the sign of our times. Yet, even while Paris-based art duo Claire Fontaine doesn’t hedge words in their 2008 neon-text sculpture Capitalism kills (love), which presided over the central exhibition in the seventh edition of Quebec City’s Manif d’art biennial, the work also raises some nagging contextual questions: What does the sentiment mean parsed as it is in the high-concept neutrality of contemporary art? How is protest agitprop different from brand name sloganeering? When do words translate into action? And, most importantly, what comes next?

These are exactly the sorts of lingering uncertainties that curator Vicky Chainey Gagnon tapped into with her multi-part Manif d’art exhibition “Resistance. And Then, We Built New Forms.”

With works by more than 120 national and international artists and artist collectives in exhibitions, site-specific installations, performances, film screenings and workshops staged throughout the city, the biennial proposed to take a wide-ranging measure of an anxious age. The seismic energy of recent mass protests—whether on the global scale of the Occupy movement and Arab Spring or, closer to home, the G-20 Summit in Toronto, Idle No More and student marches of the Printemps québécois—was one key touchstone, as was the revived interest in “socially engaged” art practices (i.e., “people working with culture in the realm of the social,” as New York curator Nato Thompson defines it via an essay by Brian Holmes in the Manif d’art catalogue).

The most promising bit of Chainey Gagnon’s curatorial rubric, though, came by way of the exhibition’s subtitle. With a slight punctuational pause, it aimed to move beyond the uneasy impasse so often left in the wake of protest and toward the possibility of a radically charged and changed future. It’s a hesitation that is indicative of the inherent conundrum faced by movements for social and political upheaval—the dilemma of how to maintain a force of change that outlasts the barricades and bonfires of protest. Still, the tone is hopeful. “And Then, We Built New Forms has developed around the idea of building a transfer of critical art to a zone of intervention,” Chainey Gagnon writes in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue. “The goal here is to reclaim public spaces for discussion and action and to make room for social cooperation, shared proposals, and collective experiences, while also making space for dissent.”

The biennial’s central exhibition at Espace 400e Bell operated as a kind of didactic primer filled with clever curatorial connections and suggestive prompts for this proposed “zone of intervention.” In the exhibition’s main hall, for instance, a trio of supersized toy soldiers constructed by American artist Jarod Charzewski from discarded books on war added exaggerated martial and material meaning to Claire Fontaine’s Capitalism kills (love). An elevator ride away, on the third floor, Quebec City artist Jean-Robert Drouillard’s counterforce of carved-wood teenaged activists, some wearing gas masks and standing amid gas canisters, stood adjacent to a second work by Claire Fontaine, the motion-deactivated neon-text sculpture STRIKE, (K. font) (2005). Like pawns on a protest chessboard, Charzewski and Drouillard’s figures stand ready under the cold light of ideological directives. Whether or not the implications of these dogmatic catch phrases are fully understood by the divided forces they represent remains an open-ended question.

Indeed, many of the works Chainey Gagnon drew together here grapple in one way or another with a conditional analysis of not only what mobilizes dissent but also the unresolved meaning that is often a result. Quebec City artist Richard Martel’s video installation POÉTIK SUBTERFUGE (1988), which documents a performance at the Banff Centre that questioned RCMP officers on the meaning of contemporary art; Austrian artist Oliver Ressler’s video triptych Take The Square (2012), which features protesters considering the repercussions of mass uprisings in Madrid, Athens and New York; and American artist Mark Boulos’s three-channel video installation No Permanent Address (2010), which explores the heartfelt conviction of Maoist paramilitaries in the jungles of the Philippines, were all prime instances of the inherent confusion between political doctrine and personal belief across the spectrum of resistance.

In Quebec City artist Martin Bureau’s installation Roasted Globalization (2014), a looped video of a stock car emblazoned with the logos of various global financial institutions burned rubber in a figure-eight “smoke show” of arguably pointless (and infinite) machismo spectacle, while Montreal artist Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s This sleep, full of folded dreams (2014) filled another gallery with a kinetic installation of balanced and counterbalanced sculptures built from IKEA furniture and interspersed with cryptic allegorical forms (a taxidermied crow, a burning lamp, a set of brass weights, an origami-like poster treatment of the red square motif of the Printemps québécois). Both works may hint at an absurd collision of consumer culture and protest symbolism, but what came across foremost was a sense of bemused curiosity (the rural Quebec audience seen in Bureau’s video and the gallery audience in the case of Ortiz-Apuy’s sculptures) rather than agitated reaction.

And herein lies the unavoidable trouble with Chainey Gagnon’s main Manif d’art exhibition. While the works gathered managed to acknowledge the conditions of resistance, ideas of what could come next remained elusive. Considering the subjective distances of time and place in the works and amid the conventions of an institutionally modelled exhibition, there was a persistent divide between spectatorship and participation. Most of all, the exhibition lacked the spark of spontaneous urgency—the unpredictable radical intervention—that inspires resistance.

There were works in the show that pushed beyond the static confines of that institutional box, in particular Quebec City artist Alain-Martin Richard’s Le bloc que j’habite (2014), a real-time surveillance project sited in the apartments of a local subsidized housing project (which unexpectedly spiraled into a meta-work on resistance when one of the tenants hacked the artist’s camera system in protest just before the exhibition opened), and Vancouver artist Justin A. Langlois’s pop-up workshop on everyday anarchism The Academy of Tactile Resistance (2014). But overall, this was an exercise in calculated persuasion, not provocation.

Yet, even if it was clear that this notion of “Resistance. And Then, We Built New Forms” might only be realized outside of the passive standards of exhibition making, that’s not to say that Chainey Gagnon’s Manif d’art was without its provocative moments. Montreal artist Mathieu Beauséjour’s opening weekend reprisal of This is Not A Riot (2011), his loud-speaker broadcast performance of the raucous sounds of protest marches from the roof of Quebec City’s Méduse artist-run centre complex, hit the still-raw nerve of the 2001 Summit of the Americas protests, garnering an immediate response from the local police. Also on opening weekend, Quebec City art collective Les Fermières Obsédées took to the streets with a musical “ambulatory performance” Le marché du zombie (2014) (the filmed version screens at Galerie de l’UQÀM in Montreal on June 11) while Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo broke up the street with her jackhammer-assisted performance Expansive (2014). That’s to say nothing of the potential viral effect of the many public workshops and symposia on resistance that took place throughout Manif d’art’s month-long run.

In the end, though, perhaps the best iteration of Chainey Gagnon’s “zone of intervention” was left to Toronto artist Abbas Akhavan’s Untitled Garden (2014). Installed in the now vacant site of what turned out to have been a Peoples’ Summit protest rallying point in 2001, the work subtly disrupted the “desire path” used by local residents with a shifting phalanx of 50 cedar trees. Without notice over the course of a few weeks, the trees were planted and replanted in stages, at first surrounding the ad hoc path and then eventually blockading it. Here was a true provocation. As a shifting and finally impassable barricade to the taken-for-granted free movement of public space, it left passersby with two simple options: either concede to the resistance, or push through with force to the other side. The choice, and what happens next, as Akhavan would have it, is up to you.

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