“Vera Frenkel: Cartographie d’une pratique / Mapping a practice” offers a small, revelatory cross-section of the work of a pioneering media artist. Featuring three of Frenkel’s substantial works—the early teleconference performance String Games: Improvisations for Inter-City Video (Montréal – Toronto, 1974), the evolving installation/web project “…from the Transit Bar,” which premiered at Documenta 9, and the recently produced video projection ONCE NEAR WATER: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive—the exhibition takes a thoughtful, multimedia approach that befits its subject. Its connecting thread is archives—not just as a recurring motif or metaphor, but also as a physical presence in the gallery and as an entry point for understanding the artist’s cyclical mode of working.
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An underlying theme of the exhibition is that performance and media-based works can endure through time, but not without loss and change—and not without archival documentation to support them. It could be said that two of the works are evoked by ancillary material without actually being present in the gallery. String Games is represented by large-format reproductions of the catalogue that accompanied the original performance. The videos from the original installation of “…from the Transit Bar” stand in for the work itself, but curator Sylvie Lacerte and the artist have ensured that these are viewed at a remove by displaying each on a tiny DVD screen. In contrast, ONCE NEAR WATER, Frenkel’s most recent work, is shown full-scale as a digital video projection. As the youngest work in the show, it seems unmediated by time or changing technology—but its appearance in an archivally themed show is an inevitable recontextualization. As a result, the “archive” at the heart of ONCE NEAR WATER takes on a particular resonance. In the company of each artwork, vitrine materials such as notebooks, photographs and drawings provide evidence of the artist’s process.
Archival vitrines seem to be in vogue in contemporary gallery spaces, but they’re not always as straightforward as they look. In the display of conceptual or performance pieces, there is always a risk of confusing document with art object and misrepresenting the very syntax of the work. Lacerte is unusually literate in this regard: we never forget that the archival material in the show is only the trace of the artwork.
This exhibition is—fittingly—well documented in a substantial bilingual catalogue. There’s also a web version hosted by La fondation Daniel Langlois. It’s clear from Frenkel’s catalogue essay that the process of having her archives exhibited has been fertile in the continuing evolution of her practice.