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Biennale Beyond Borders: Interview with Wayne Baerwaldt

"Biennale Beyond Borders" by Christine Redfern, Spring 2007, pp. 60-64

Reportage, shifting identities, hybridity and the return of the museum of curiosities”— images flood into my head as the curator Wayne Baerwaldt uses these words to describe the themes of the upcoming Biennale de Montréal. Baerwaldt was formerly director of the Power Plant in Toronto and curator at Winnipeg’s Plug In ICA and is currently the director and curator of the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta College of Art and Design. We met in Montreal last November to discuss his ideas for the fifth edition of the Biennale de Montréal, titled “Crack the Sky” (“Remuer ciel et terre”), which opens May 10 and runs to July 8, 2007.

Christine Redfern: How do you find working in Montreal? I find that there is a completely different culture in Quebec. There are so many people in French culture whom everyone knows, but if you said the name in English culture no one would know who they were, and vice versa. When Pierre Berton died, the Globe and Mail noted that Quebec barely reported his death. At the time, I was in a room with francophones and I said, “Are any of you familiar with this name?” And they said, “Who??? No!!!”

Wayne Baerwaldt: There is definitely a gulf. It takes investigation; it takes collaboration. I do want to work with other curators across the country; so it is not just one curator knowing everything and doing everything for this biennale. I always think that my intention is to make whatever happens in Montreal known elsewhere, beyond our borders. I think that is going to be the challenge. And I think that maybe one quality I am looking for in the work is the truly experiential, so that viewing and being in Montreal becomes essential. But what does that mean? The work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller provides that shift of consciousness. But can you look at a pot, a piece of ceramics, and have that happen to you? That is what I am questioning and exploring as a curator too.

The upcoming biennale is mostly Canadian; I think I want to skew the boundaries of that label, Canadian. However, that said, we are working with some foreign artists. I think the foreign ones we are working with are using strategies for visual languages that are familiar here or somehow informed by a Canadian context. Bill Smith, for example, from near St. Louis, has shown in Canada three or four times to small audiences. Scoli Acosta— who happens to be the cousin of Beck, the pop musician. His father spent summers in Winnipeg. So there is a weird Canadian connection, but I am not really relying on that. There is some sort of aesthetic allegiance or even strong difference. We want to have some sort of consideration of what it is to have Canadian curators and Canadian creators involved.

I’ve been thinking about all of the artists, thinking about how they relate to our themes of reportage or to ideas of hybridity in art forms—the inter-arts approach that a lot of artists in Canada and around the world use. And to ideas of post-nationalism or boundaries: how do artists think about national boundaries at this point? There are artists from Central Asia whose national boundaries are being shifted by oil interests. I am interested in that. I am also interested in the theoretical alliance between Quebec and Alberta: these very independent-minded provinces linked across boundaries by energy and raw resources.

I see Annie Pootoogook will be in the biennale as well as Documenta in Kassel, Germany, this year, on top of winning the Sobey Art Award.

Her winning might send a strong message to the people who are organizing commercial artistic activity in the Arctic, as well as to the younger generation of artists. And Zacharias Kunuk [the director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner]: he has broken through and is not an “ethnic” filmmaker any more. That is very significant, because I think he has been labelled as such until quite recently. I like the idea that maybe, in museums, we don’t have to see Inuit work shunted off to the side in its own little ghetto. The North seems a lot closer now, not so far away. The whole area is changing due to awareness of the environment or because of all the diamond and oil companies. Given that sense of economic development, I think the artists are trying to reflect that change in many ways, including very abstract ways. One is not so stuck within those traditional representations of Inuit life, based on spiritual matters, images of nature and hunting. It is great to see that forms of representation and the choices of media used by artists in the North are opening up.

Who else is coming?

Susan Turcot. She has been coming back to Canada from London, where she now lives, every summer and doing these drawings of the forest north of Quebec City. They are clear-cutting the boreal forest, and she is up there documenting it like a reporter. I am very interested in that sort of approach, where the media hasn’t focused on what is going on in the boreal forest, yet an artist has. I find that really intriguing. There are some good surprises like that—artists we should know as Canadian artists, but who just haven’t been shown here very much.

We are also collaborating to produce two or three nights of art performances with Peaches, Les Georges Leningrad, Carole Pope… We want to encourage people to come on the opening weekend and see the performances from Thursday to Sunday, like at any biennale, Venice or elsewhere. That’s when it is crazy and there is parallel programming and parallel art events of all kinds going on.

In regards to the work, I am thinking performance, but also performative in various media. I see BGL that way; they are very performative, even in their installations. Like that hole burnt through their Sobey piece at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal that leads you to the doorway to that other world. It is really kind of fantastic. So the biennale is about work that is very engaging too. Even if it’s a painting—for example, a very small painting by Paul P. can be absolutely transfixing.

Who came up with the biennale’s title, “Crack the Sky”?

I did, but it is the name of an Ohio Valley band that started playing in the 1970s. We are using just the name itself; none of the music or projects has anything to do with the band. I think the mix is going to be amazing. The juxtaposition of very different works, sensibilities, mostly Canadian—which might be surprising for people, especially in Quebec. I am trying to bring in people who haven’t been overexposed here, but who have spent time here, such as Susan Turcot or Peaches, who just isn’t maybe thought of in the art-biennale context. What does that allow us to do? How can we refocus on these people and recontextualize their practices with all these other artists within Montreal?

Who will be here from Quebec who is perhaps not well known in the rest of Canada?

BGL is still not so well known outside Quebec. Julie Doucet: she is known within a certain context, but is she really known for her prints?, Numa… At Galerie de l’UQAM, Louise Déry is showing David Altmejd, who is representing Canada at the Venice Biennale this year. I should mention too that the curator Sylvie Gilbert is bringing her show “Comic Craze” to the Saidye Bronfman Centre under the umbrella of the biennale. The comics are so well drawn; the narratives are so sophisticated—many, of course, from Québécois artists. Comics are a fantastical, imaginative means of breaking open creative borders. You just have a lot more freedom to be irreverent, to go beyond the predictable even in the comic genre. I think I can really treat the narrative and artwork that go into the making of a comic book just as I would treat a painting.

It is the 40th anniversary of Expo 67. Are you doing anything with that?

Yes, we are thinking about Expo 67 absolutely. I’ll probably write about that moment, but in terms of directly commemorative works I don’t think so. But again there are a lot of works still in production right now, so I don’t really know what we are going to end up with in terms of video work or installation. It is still a bit preliminary in terms of a final checklist.

What other Canadian artists will be here?

Chris Cran and Luanne Martineau from out west. Stephen Andrews from Toronto; he makes great drawings and animation work. Graeme Patterson from Woodrow, Saskatchewan, population ten—I suggested he invite the rest of the residents of the hamlet. He produces sculpture and animation works. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia curator Ray Cronin is bringing nine of Graeme’s sculptures and one video work here. There are some good surprises in terms of artists who aren’t so well known yet, like Graeme, or the photographer Sarah Anne Johnson. She is originally from Winnipeg and is now teaching at Yale. She has been going down to the Galapagos Islands and documenting young people who are volunteering there benefiting the environment. Really odd photo-narrative work: the fantasy and idealism of National Geographic meets Larry Clark; for Montreal she will produce new work.

What other photographers?

Who else would be considered directly photo-based? Scott McFarland from Vancouver. Some of them have approaches that are so mixed/intermedia. Iran do Espírito Santo from São Paulo, Brazil—he is more of a minimalist sculptor who uses photography and etchings. For the most part they are all very mixed-media artists.

What is the most important thing for the public to know about the Biennale de Montréal?

You need to be here, in Montreal. We want to encourage people to come. We want them to feel that they are invited, from Nunavut to Newfoundland, to come and experience it. That shouldn’t be too hard…who doesn’t love being in Montreal?

This is a feature from the Spring 2007 issue of Canadian Art.

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