Whether studying academic art history or preparing an artist statement, it’s hard not to feel responsible for knowing a certain litany of twentieth-century philosophers and writers. From Jacques Derrida to Gilles Deleuze, so-called French theory has long guided some of the most prominent strains of contemporary art and its critical apparatus.
It’s with this admittedly cerebral context that Montreal curator Vincent Bonin launched his new two-part exhibition, “D’un discours qui ne serai pas du semblant / Actors, Networks, Theories,” which saw its first half recently close at Concordia’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery and sees its second open at Dazibao later this year. With archival materials, canonical artworks, and contributions by emerging Montreal artists, “Actors, Networks, Theories” traces the institutional germination and dissemination of French theory as both artistic inspiration and art world vernacular. It’s not a surprising topic of investigation for Bonin, whose curatorial experience includes the landmark “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980” and the well-received 2012 Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art.” Here, Bonin talks hard theory, stolen bicycles, and the role of putting together shows on the more analytical side of things.
Joseph Henry: How did the Ellen exhibition come to be?
Vincent Bonin: The starting point for this project was the problem of envisioning site-specificity within my curatorial approach. I wanted to address it and the linguistic issue in an oblique way. I thought that French theory was a good starting point, especially since the first part of this exhibition was happening in an Anglophone university gallery. The exhibition is not about French theory but French theory used as a structural device or organizational principle.
JH: When you say French theory, you mean the standard roster of philosophers and thinkers such as Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault?
VB: What I have in mind is more like the construct of French theory. It doesn’t exist; it’s a gathering of authors or philosophers that actually worked together, collaborated with each other, and were under the same rubrics of structuralism or poststructuralism, but are very different. Without going into much detail, there’s this process of packaging that happened in the US, starting at the end of the 1970s and through the ‘80s, and [one that is] still current today in making that work digestible. There’s different translators or editors that made this possible, like Sylvère Lotringer of Semiotext(e). So it’s kind of a gathering together of very different approaches.
It’s kind of abstract, [but] in most of the works of the show, there’s an intersubjective dimension, there’s a theorist in the middle. Like for Andrea Fraser’s piece, the structure of it is largely based on [sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu’s methodology in [his 1984 book] Distinction. Gareth James’s piece is based on [philosopher Louis] Althusser’s notion of “interpellation,” and Althusser’s eviction from the pantheon of French thought after his murder of his wife and his trial. Obviously for Mary Kelly, it is Lacan. Peter Halley embraced [philosopher Jean] Baudrillard in his work to define the notion of the “simulacrum,” and then Group Material curated a show against Baudrillard and Peter Halley.
JH: Given its influence, has French theory implicitly organized how we understand even the most well-known histories of contemporary art? Kelly and Fraser are canonical figures in feminist art and institutional critique, for example.
VB: That has to be nuanced. There are some instances or early examples of assimilation of theories that were somehow linked to certain political urgencies. For instance, Mary Kelly and other peers reading Lacan in the mid-70s were linked to a desire to rethink feminism and the women’s movement, to have tools that would enable them to address desire and the unconscious. They not only read Lacan translated into English, but they also translated some of his texts. Obviously there are circuits in which these theories were transmitted in institutions. I think of the Whitney Independent Study Program, and there are lots of artists in the show that were taught there. Artists received these texts very early on in their [education], and it had an effect on their work for sure. Today, every student is reading [French theory]. It’s completely embedded into the curriculum.
This is where the network part of the exhibition is kind of alluded to, but not addressed. At first, I had a very different project that was much more archival, where I would bring in a lot of these backstories about the institutions in which these theories were taught and disseminated. I decided not to do that because I worked very closely with each of the artists and I hoped to give a certain level of autonomy to each of the projects.
JH: Is the centrality of theory a bad thing, perhaps? What does it mean to have an admittedly difficult canon of texts central to artistic training?
VB: I first thought of curating with a much more sociological approach and having discussions with artists. I [then] realized that their relationship to theory was much more complex then I envisaged at the start. For instance, an artist can read theory and use it as a trigger or material within his or her process of making a work. I think it’s very difficult to be general to [make] these kind of statements about whether theory’s good or bad. I would say it’s not interesting when a work is just an illustration of a theoretical concept or when artist statements are saturated with buzzwords. But that is part of what I would describe as “art discourse.” It’s there, and we have to deal with it. It’s a certain language through which we articulate our position within the field.
JH: What does it mean to curate this kind of information instead of purely writing about it?
VB: I feel that there’s a discrepancy between the experience of the exhibition and absorbing and reading all the didactic material that gives the key and backstories and links things together. But the works are autonomous: for instance, Gareth’s project is very opaque. Obviously, the viewer has to do a lot of work, but there’s visual pleasure, and there’s a point of access to the work beyond all these layers of theory and references that you can use to make the experience more complex.
JH: In terms of audience, there is a sentiment that this can kind of work can become specialist or even obscurantist in some way. That dynamic often seems to represent an anxiety in contemporary art production.
VB: I would say that for myself, I have heterogeneous tastes in art. I’m not an austere person, in general. But I think that having these shows is just an element within an ecology of an art milieu. I think it’s important to do these projects, even if they’re difficult. But all the material to understand is available. There’s no real obscurity, it’s just a lot of homework.
JH: I think it’s because people working in an art world consider themselves to have some kind of knowledge or expertise of a subject matter, even if its not academic knowledge but connoisseurship, for example. So when that knowledge is faced with a new kind of requirement, it’s challenging on multiple levels.
VB: Absolutely. I would say that in a university gallery, the issue of mediation is very important. A mediator is an in-between person alleviating a conflict between several parties. [I wanted to] curate the right kind of linguistic context so that two parties that are very different or are in a conflictual situation can understand each other.
One of the reasons why I showed May I Help You?, Andrea Fraser’s performance, is to bring in this issue of mediation and competence within the exhibition. In the piece, she’s addressing that directly by collaging all of these voices of privilege and disprivilege. She shifts from someone who feels excluded in a museum to a collector who is able to possess the work and have a very intimate relationship to an art object and the artist.
JH: I attended the opening with some friends and we got in something of a dispute about the Gareth James piece, where he claims to have stolen a bicycle and planted it in the gallery. One friend thought it was unethical and irresponsible at the expense of its artistic content. What are your thoughts on it?
VB: Gareth’s work has to do with the construction of artistic subjectivity. The statement that is the title of the work, Untitled Stolen Bicycle, basically describes a state of affairs that the viewer has to take into account – is it true or is it false? That remains to be proven and negotiated by all of the individuals [in relation to] the artist. So it’s a constellation of statements and also it opens up a debate about the borders between ethics and aesthetics. I think one big reference is the quote from [nineteenth-century socialist Pierre-Joseph] Proudhon: “Property is theft!” All of these things are there.