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Superflex, Still from The Financial Crisis (Session I-IV). Courtesy: Manif D'Art.

"Quelle Catastrophe!"

An Interview with Sylvie Fortin


by Deanna Sirlin

Sylvie Fortin, Editor-in-Chief of the Atlanta-based Art Papers Magazine, was chosen to curate the 5th Manifestation internationale d’art de Québec, the Biennale of Quebec also known as "Manif D'Art." TAS's Editor-in-Chief Deanna Sirlin talked with Sylvie Fortin via email about her conception of this Biennale and the projects she selected for it.

DS: What can you tell us about the rather unusual title you've given your edition of Manif D'Art,Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe! ?

SF: When I curate a project that seeks to operate in the contexts of both Québec and Canada, I chose titles that will avoid the need for translation. So, the title has to be understandable in both languages--albeit unevenly. In French, the expression "Quelle catastrophe!" carries a range of meanings that far exceeds the literal English translation. In addition, in the title of the Biennial, it follows the question "Catastrophe?" This play of question and exclamation--or emphatic affirmation--doubly mobilizes the term "catastrophe," opening it up to a range of meanings or rather inviting the viewer to ponder this multiplicity.


I also like to play subtly with titles to instill doubt. All the more so with the concept of catastrophe. On would expect the reverse punctuation--i.e. Catastrophe! Quelle Catastrophe? Here this simple reversal unmoors both meaning and expectations. But you have to look at it. It doesn't give itself away so easily.


But to come back to the meanings and connotations of the exclamative "Quelle catastrophe!", I need to stress both its humorous and ironic dimension. We use this expression daily, for life's funny little catastrophes. Think of a cute three-year-old who looks perplexedly at the empty cone in her hand, and the ice cream on her dress. She'll look up to her dad and say, quelle catastrophe! It can also be used ironically, when your friend relate something that seems totally catastrophic as she is unable to summon up the requisite distance from the event. In that instance, to help her put things in their proper perspective, you might retort ironically, "Quelle catastrophe!"


As such, the double title unleashes a series of questions at the notion of catastrophe, which was my goal for this project.

DS: Why are art biennials important?

SF: I am not so sure that biennials are still important. At this point in time, they are a leftover from the immediate post-1989 moment when, until about 1999 or so, they did serve a crucial purpose. During this period, they did open up channels for the circulation of artists and works beyond the narrow and comfortable northern transatlantic dialogue (North America-Europe). They also helped give visibility to curating as a discursive practice. That's crucial!


However, if we think about them in the most literal way--as something of a better-funded project that happens every two years--then there might be a place for them. Ultimately, it comes down to the strength and pertinence of the curatorial proposal.

DS: Are biennials here to stay, then?

First of all, let me say biennial (triennial) exhibitions presented by collecting institutions as part of their programs--think, Whitney Biennial or Carnegie International--are only biennials or triennials in terms of their periodicity. So, I am not talking about those here.


When I use the term biennial, I mean projects presented by autonomous organizations that don't run ongoing programs or have permanent spaces.


Some will, others won't. It's a question of "ecology." In some contexts, we will come to see that biennials served a temporary function. They were a resource-efficient way to develop and educate audiences for art in locations that lacked (in the views of local politicians and local elites) art institutions and/or where art was not a thing apart--or a practice that needed a specific type of space for its presentation. In these places where there have not previously been autonomous institutions called museums--and while these institutions are being built--the biennial format is the perfect transitory format. What's more, for politicians of newly-formed countries with a more or less shiny image, it was a great way to develop cultural tourism. And to prove that they were ready for integration into the global market--or integration into the EU. Remember that global banks and large investment firms have been their main backers. In such contexts, I believe that biennials might not last because their purpose or function will be integrated into institutions.


But I am not really interested in these kinds of pronouncements. I don't really care what you call a project. That's a question of packaging, which should always come second. Nor do I care, as a critic and a curator, whether a project is institution-building. It's the other way around--institutions that care about sustainability should understand that this can only achieved through judicious artistic decision--fearless programming is what sets one project apart from the others. Institutions and organizations should only last out of necessity.

Laurent Grasso, Souvenirs du futur, 2010. Courtesy: Manif D'Art.

DS: In addition to what you said about the title’s humor and ambiguity, can you tell us why catastrophe  was your subject for Québec City?

Québec City, the aspirational capital of a state that isn't, is a peculiar place. It is peculiar because it is where I was born and grew up. But more importantly, it's peculiar in the sense that the dominant ideology there works diligently to tell people that they are safely isolated from catastrophic world events. For me, the question was "what's at stake in making Quebecers believe that they are untouched, safe? Why is so much invested in this social/political anesthesia?" But this is only half of the question. The other part has to do with the place where I live now, Atlanta, where one might ask "what's at stake in making Atlantans believe that they are in a permanent state of crisis or emergency, that, somehow, things are always worse here?" I am sure your reader will know what I mean. These are mirror images.

Catastrophe offers the possibility to think about these two realities in a continuum. It goes something like this, "what's at stake in the global distribution of anesthesia and anxiety?" How are anesthesized and overstimulated zones produced and exchanged? Catastrophe is a great concept to begin to think and question this phenomenon.

DS: Do you think catastrophe is a comic idea or a tragic one?

SF: It's both, and more.

DS: Did some of the artists approach Catastrophe as something personal? Please describe for us the works that are about the personal.

The works selected--whether already existing, reversioned, or commissioned--explore the notion of catastrophe from a multiplicity of viewpoints. To answer your question succinctly, I will mention two very different approaches to the "personal." In their film installation "The Financial Crisis (Session I-IV)" (2009), the Danish collective SUPERFLEX addresses the current financial crisis from a therapeutic perspective. The film comprises four sections (or sessions) during which a professional hypnotist leads us through our fascination with speculation and power, as well as the fear, anxieties, and frustration of losing control, economic loss, and personal disaster.


Milutin Gubash’s new video installation “Hotel Tito” pursues his focus on everyday domestic occurrences, using levity and humor to address otherwise traumatic situations. The video alternates between the early 1960s, by way of Hotel Tito, a small bed-and-breakfast in Split, in the already crumbling socialist Yugoslavia of Tito, and the present-day interior of a car parked on a street outside Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Montréal. It is accompanied by “false” abstract paintings, claimed to be portraits of Tito—who was variously regarded as a visionary architect of socialism or the ruthless dictator of Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1982. Looming in the background, catastrophe inflects everything the protagonists do, see, dream of, and reflect upon. Here, minor mishaps, misunderstandings, and accidents metaphorically allude to larger artistic and existential questions.


DS: Are any of the art works about Catastrophe in the natural world? Are some works about political Catastrophe? Which are these?

Yes, of course, and much more than these categories.


Toronto artist Gwen MacGregor's video “Going,” (2009) best speaks to the "natural world" category. In general, it reflects her close observation of time and how its passage shapes small dramas or uncannily familiar situations. In “Going,” a leafy forest in the French countryside seamlessly, and barely perceptibly, transforms into a barren plain with nuclear cooling towers. The juxtaposition is real and the only manipulation is the reversal of events. The video intentionally plays with viewers’ expectations—images of rural settings are pleasant and unthreatening—while pointing to nature’s exploitation as resource.


As for the question of the political, the show approaches it from many different points. Milutin Gubash's work, again, speaking to the legacy of the Tito period. In Luca's Buvoli's installation “Instant Before Incident (Marinetti's Drive 1908)” (2008)  and video “Instant Before Incident (Ave Machina)” (2008), the artist reminds us of modernism's birth in catastrophe. Remember Marinetti's car crash! Italian futurism, which was so instrumental to fascism, was born of his ensuing delirium. By trying to "stop" the accident, Buvoli asks us to consider what other modernisms might have (might) be possible.


Lynne Marsh’s new single-channel video installation “Plänterwald” takes as its protagonist a derelict amusement park at the edge of the city of Berlin. Here, the masses are present through absence, as policed borders isolate the park from public space. The work plays on the absurdity of the use of force in relation to the decay and obsolescence of the site. “Plänterwald” pursues Marsh’s exploration of worlds contained by an internal logic, and quietly, yet relentlessly—like the defunct roller coaster—echoes the rumbles of deep social and political fault lines and their explosive potential.


Iván Navarro’s politically-charged work addresses the disinformation strategies of dictatorships and the double-talk of liberal democracies. His light sculptures recast everyday objects as seductive yet foreboding forms with double meanings. The work selected for Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe! tackles political failure and specifically Augusto Pinochet's seventeen-year dictatorship in Chile, a reign marked by torture, murder, and government-ordered disappearances.


Navarro's haunting video “The Missing Monument for Washington, DC or A Proposal for a Monument for Victor Jara” (2008) refers to folksinger and songwriter Victor Jara, killed in September 1973 in Chile Stadium by Pinochet's forces. Two darkly dressed barefoot figures ambiguously appear in an empty space with white bags over their heads. One is on all fours, bearing the weight of the other who quietly and resolutely recites Jara's poem "Estadio Chile" [Chile Stadium], while, acoustic guitar in hand, strumming a single chord.


“Victor” (2008) recasts the video’s unfolding as a fluorescent-tube rendering of a crouched human figure bearing a stack of paper on its "back." These giveaway sheets reproduce a still from the video on one side and Jara's poem on the other. Together, these works speak to catastrophe’s dispersive work, injecting a dose of absurdity into Walter Benjamin’s view of history.


In Ahmet Ögüt's video installation “Things We Count” (2008) the camera pans slowly across a field of retired fighter planes as a male voice counts them one by one in Kurdish, Turkish, and English. While the planes are both numerous and monumental, they have obviously been put out of service. Still, they retain both a memory and a certain potential. At the first level, this enumeration emphasizes their multiplicity. But the juxtaposition of languages leads us further afield: it abstracts the planes into models or symbols of war’s tragically unique way to connect nations and their citizens. Built in the USA and other Western countries, these planes always unload their deadly cargo elsewhere. Now, they have come back home to rest. The connotative field of these foreign languages may not be understood by all—much like the political subtleties of foreign nations are often incomprehensible, if not altogether undetectable, to us here in Canada and the West. 

Doyon/Demers, Installation for Manif D'Art 2010.

DS: How is your Manif d’art different form the first four versions of this exhibition?

SF: It's different in four significant ways;

1.  For the first time, it includes most of the city's cultural institutions as full partners. In the past, the Manif's curator was responsible for an exhibition in a temporary site. The local non-profit spaces, galleries and museums programmed their own shows, based on their own (often fragmentary) interpretation of the theme. This led to a very uneven event. This year, I wanted to include all the non-profits (i.e. spaces similar to The Atlanta Center for Contemporary Art), the university gallery and museums fully into the project. We asked them to put their resources behind the project and to welcome a component of the exhibition, which I curated in relation to both the overall theme but also each institution's mandate and history.

2. While the biennial has always had an international component, it featured mostly local and national artists. This year, I reversed the proportion. I sought to give greater visibility to fewer local and national artists by selecting more ambitious projects, and to place them in an expanded international context. It's pretty much the same approach as with ART PAPERS. It comes down to one question: how do we use large-scale exhibitions like biennials to strengthen an arts community? This approach allows the participating artists (if they want to) to build relationships with artists from elsewhere, which usually leads to new opportunities. We also invited an number of international critics and curators to the opening, who accepted our invitation because of the interesting mix of artists and the fact that we premiered many new works.

3. The whole structure of the event was changed. This year, we produced a 160+ page guide in advance of the event, to help people navigate the city and find out more about the artists. No such document was produced before. The event has always included a symposium, which has traditionally been held during the opening weekend. I decided to present the symposium in January, months in advance of the exhibition, in order to launch/share a number of questions with people in Québec City. I think it's both unfair and unrealistic to ask people to take in so much art and a symposium in one weekend. Let's face it, as the curator and artists, you've had the chance to consider the question for close to two years if not more. How can we expect people to engage if we don't open up the process over time?

For me, curating is a form of learning in public. I believe that this should inform every aspect of the project from the sites that you choose to the way you structure the event. This year, our main temporary site is in a mall, between the Old City, the Parliament Building, and the Congress Center.

4. Greater emphasis was put on marketing and public relations. We decided to use already-existing platforms to increase the visibility of the event, We did a reception in Toronto, distributed announcements in Miami during ART BASEL MIAMI BEACH, held a press conference in New York during the Armory Show to launch the list of artists, followed by a reception. We have very limited resources for marketing. In this context, we decided to take advantage of the fairs because so many people find themselves there.

DS: What have you learned from curating this Exhibition?

I think I am still too close to it to draw this sort of conclusions. As with every project, I learn most from the artists with whom I am a fellow traveler for a period of time. I had only worked with three of the 36 artists before. I am not the sort of curator who always curates the same people. I maintain significant dialogues with most of the artists I work closely with, but I am very careful not to fall into the trap of always working with the same people. Don't repeat yourself. I think I learned most from Michael Jones McKean's project, which changed at the last minute--something I have absolutely no problem with. In the end, Michael bought 50 acres of land in the northwestern part of the province of Québec. That's his sculpture. When he landed in Quebec City, he rented a car and drove to see "his land." This is a very remote area, with over 5 hours of driving on dirt roads. It's forestry land, which of late has been purchased en masse by Chinese businesses.

So he went up there to take polaroid of his land, after the 24+ hour drive, he returned to Québec City where he re-sited/assembled the pictures in his space, rephotographed them, and included these prints in the installation--which also included a piano, a rug fron Qatar, a crystal, a meteorite, bags of earth, tissue packs, and a slight intervention in the space. Each of these seemingly unrelated objects crystallizes social, political and economic realities, out of which the installation creates a constellation.

His piece allowed me to think of the telescoping of far-away catastrophes whose representation exceeds--or falls short of--our representational standards, into our personal space. Whereas most of the projects are expansive or dispersive, Michael's telescopes the gigantic far-away into the here and now in a very poetic, unassuming, yet haunting way.

Sylvie Fortin is a curator, critic, and editor based in Montréal (Canada) and New York. She was Executive and Artistic Director of La Biennale de Montréal, Canada's leading international contemporary art event, from 2013 to 2017. As Editor-in-Chief (2004-2007) and Executive Director/Editor (2007-2012) of Atlanta-based ART PAPERS, she transformed the regional publication into an internationally significant organization. She was also Curator of Contemporary Art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario, 2013), and Curator of Manif 5 – the 5th Québec City Biennial (2010).

Deanna Sirlin is an Atlanta-based artist and Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

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