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Biennale de Montréal: The Edge

I’m on the phone with Claude Gosselin, who founded the Biennale de Montréal and is co-curating—with David Liss—the 2011 edition. He’s laughing, wryly. “When I first mentioned the 2011 biennale theme, ‘chance,’ my colleagues in the Wondrous World of Art scoffed: ‘Bah, it’s just Gosselin’s latest crazy idea.’ But chance is the furthest thing from an eccentric premise. Chance has shaped the 20th century.”

The inspiration was “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice will never Abolish Chance),” by Stéphane Mallarmé. The 1897 poem pushed formal boundaries by allowing its readers to choose a starting point and reading order; each person’s experience of the poem is therefore unique—and a matter of happenstance. Since its publication, the text has inspired many works of art, but it was a new and exhilarating subject of investigation for both Gosselin and Liss. “Even the very systems that sustain us—think of the stock market—are based on chance,” Liss says, emphatically. “Or genetics! The distribution of chromosomes and what makes a person this way or that way—we owe our very existence to the forces of chance.”

But this year’s biennale will not be a gathering of works that exclusively depict rolling dice. Set in the historic École des beaux-arts building on rue St-Urbain, the exhibition will stretch the theme to its furthest limits, featuring Canadian artists and international greats like John Bock, Sophie Calle, the New York group FARIMANI and the legendary—and 81-year-old—Daniel Spoerri. (He’ll be visiting in the flesh to stage one of his mysterious “dinners of chance.”)

“There are some works that will unambiguously, directly invoke chance, but I also want to do what I always do in my curating: to see how far we can take the idea,” says Liss. “Things that make people scratch their heads and think about it for a while. To draw the line from the certain and the obvious to the more challenging and mysterious.”

For Gosselin, that makes a lot of sense. “Chance touches on the very idea of freedom,” he says. “To give yourself over to chance is to embrace freedom, the unknown, total openness. And today, with the popularity of co-productions, collaborations and works-in-progress, that’s exactly where contemporary art is going.”

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