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May we suggest

Interviews / April 29, 2010

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

Laurent Grasso Souvenirs du futur (preparatory drawing) 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.

BM: What about catastrophe as a spectacle, be it natural or man-made? In your text you refer to “catastrophe’s slow, incessant, non-spectacular work” as if it has become an anti-spectacle.

SF: Right now, we’ve got the volcanic eruption in Iceland but it could be an earthquake or another major event. These are really easy things for CNN or CBC to convey. There’s a readymade narrative structure. These catastrophic events are always somewhere else but they are brought into our living rooms through television or to our mobile phones through social networking and so on. They take on this weird spatial identity. If you are in the middle of an earthquake you’re not likely to be watching it on CNN. But there’s always that spectacular image that somehow creeps into your living space.

The example that I often use for this other kind of everyday, low-level, self-catastrophe is that some of our biggest cities on the planet are actually refugee camps. You have people who are second- or third-generation refugees, people who don’t have a country, who don’t have any rights of citizenship, whose lives are permeated by a lack of life and no hope for the future. To me that is a real catastrophe. But it’s not something that we can really put a spectacular image to. It permeates every single personal and social relationship between millions of people. We can have a big building exploding and that can be really traumatic. The majority of people experience this other kind of catastrophe. We need to be able to think about them together. They are related. That is to me more of the challenge.

In the exhibition, artists Gean Moreno and Ernesto Oroza are looking at patterns of urban habitation in Miami, specifically in the city’s Little Haiti and Little Havana. With the economic crisis, big sections of Miami and other cities are being boarded up. Moreno and Oroza are using that as a model for thinking through catastrophe. It’s not so much that you have a bombing and a whole neighbourhood is being boarded up, but a viral onslaught of whole sections of cities are dying. They’re looking at the impact on people living there. How do we communicate that to each other, in what sort of image? And what is our role as producers of images to open up a dialogue about these things?

BM: To decode this complex idea of catastrophe obviously requires a high degree of visual sophistication and sensitivity. There are some big-name international artists in the exhibition—Laurent Grasso, Johan Grimonprez, Superflex, Trevor Paglen—alongside Quebec and Canadian artists. Could you give me a couple of other examples of how these artists are dealing with the complexity of catastrophe?

SF: Another piece I can mention is Johan Grimonprez’s film Doubletake that very shrewdly weaves together the history of the Cold War, Hitchcock’s use of alter egos and doppelgängers and the rise of consumerism and its impact on women in the 1950s—three things that you would think are quite disparate. Once you bring them together you create a new awareness, a new commentary that questions who really was the victim in a very different way than the traditional historical narrative does. A lot of the work in the exhibition is intensely research based. For instance, Johan worked for three years doing archival research for his film.

The exhibition also delivers a humorous dimension. The last thing you want to do if you are interested in opening up a dialogue with the public is to give them what they already know and have seen on television or to preach to them in any way. You have to open up a space where questions can emerge and I think that humour is really crucial there. That also goes back to the beginning of the use of catastrophe in Greek poetry.

Another really wonderful piece is by the artist Ahmet Ögüt who represented Turkey at the last Venice Biennale. In his installation An Ordinary Day of a Bomb Disposal Robot, he uses View-Masters, the children’s toy. But where you expect to see a tourist shot or a Disney image, the mini-slides show bomb-disarming robots. So it’s something familiar that comes with an expected narrative, then you bring it up to your eyes and you see this other image that’s also familiar but just not in that context. That critical juxtaposition triggers a whole new series of questions: Is this appropriate for children? How is this related to my previous experience? Is this related to Disney in any way? Just asking these questions is where things begin to unfold.

BM: One of the five themes you’ve identified for the exhibition is “Performing the catastrophic / performance as catastrophe / theatre of catastrophe.” How does performance figure in the works on view?

SF: Hadley + Maxwell have a couple of performance-related pieces that are very interesting. They’ve been collaborating with a dancer/choreographer from Montreal. One work they are presenting, Ritual for an Untimely Life, is a video based on the safety performances that flight attendants do to demonstrate emergency exit strategies. Again, we expect a particular context that pretty much everyone knows, but it also touches on some deep fears. Most of us have thought about the possibility of a plane going down at some point. We don’t usually talk about that, but I think it crystallizes a moment of anxiety that is deeply personal but that you also share because you’re on the plane with all of these other people. What they’ve done is recast that performance in terms of daily life. So it’s a kind of safety performance about being in the world today. The other video they’re showing is called I. It’s a study of the movements headbangers do when they’re listening to heavy metal, developing a kind of choreographed psychology for it.

BM: You mentioned the importance of engaging the public with the exhibition and with this broader notion of catastrophe. Quebec City isn’t exactly at the centre of the art world, yet Manif d’art has become a notable biennial art event in Canada. How did you manage the exhibition logistics and public expectations for Manif d’art?

SF: There are about 20 sites throughout the city. The main exhibition features works by 36 artists. Those works are shown in all of the city’s artist-run centres. What’s different here is that each centre did not program its own exhibition, they are fully sharing all of their resources and are full participants in the biennial. I think this is where we need to move. If you want to do a major event there can’t be all of these little fiefdoms. In addition to that there are two temporary sites, one in a shopping centre right next to the parliament building plus a site in the lower part of town. We have a number of outside projects as well: Laurent Grasso is doing a fantastic new major work across from the parliament building on the old city gates. It’s a major piece, his second in North America, the other having been last year in New York.

Thinking about the trajectory through the city has always been absolutely crucial for me. You can’t talk about catastrophe, disable the sensational side and then ask people to come to a catastrophic ghetto. Quebec City is relatively remote, it’s not easy to travel here. Yet it has this tremendous artist community. When I was based here at la chambre blanche in the early 1990s, one of the things that we did is give ourselves production facilities. We said, we’re not going to be New York, this is not going to be a market centre, but this is a place where artists can make new work and there can be a different kind of dialogue. You can produce anything here at the highest production levels, from new media to radio to pottery. So for the exhibition we invited very important international artists to make new work and at the same time provided local artists with support to do major works. There are less Canadian artists in the exhibition than usual, but it’s not about numbers, it’s about a meaningful opportunity. In this sense, catastrophe is uncontainable.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.