Sylvie Fortin is the Executive and Artistic Director of the 2014 Montreal Biennial. Czech artist Klara Hobza’s Diving Through Europe project is emblematic of the possible futures envisioned in L’avenir or What Is To Come. Presented in partnership with the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the multi-venue exhibition reinvents the city’s Triennial, juxtaposing the work of 25 Canadian artists with that of their global peers. The environment, geo-politics and artistic agency are explored by artists such as Hobza, Kevin Schmidt, Susan Norrie, Taysir Batniji, and Krzysztof Wodiczko, and the activist collectives Arctic Perspective Initiative and Adaptive Actions.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie | Episode Sound courtesy Klara Hobza | Photos linked to artist and biennial websites
CATHY BYRD: Today, we’re on the top floor of a hotel in Manhattan with Sylvie Fortin, the artistic director of the Montreal Biennial. To set the stage for our conversation, Sylvie describes Montreal’s cultural landscape.
SYLVIE FORTIN: Montreal is a city that is linguistically divided, so I think that your listeners in the States will understand the presence of racial segregation in some cities. We don’t have that so much. What we have is linguistic separation, so to bring together the Francophone communities, in the plural, and the Anglophone communities, is a tall order. Thankfully, I think we have the desire and also the knowledge and the kind of fluidity to navigate both of these communities. Within each of these linguistic communities, there are also great variations. For example, in Montreal, in the last decade, there’s been massive immigration from France and Belgium because of the dire state of the economy in these countries. We’ve witnessed this massive immigration of people from Paris and Brussels. There’s also, since the late 1970s, massive immigration from Western Africa and Northern Africa. That has shaped the linguistic landscape in terms of French communities. Typically, cultural institutions tend to not address themselves very much to these immigrants. For us, that is very, very important.
CB: Anglophone communities will add a dimension to the biennial.
SF: As far as the Anglophone community, it tends to be a mostly transient community. People come to Montreal because of our four universities. People come from all over the world to go to McGill University and to Concordia University, so they tend to stay anywhere between four to seven years and then move on. It’s a very different dynamic, so we are working with the universities as well to try to engage those transient communities.
CB: The title of the exhibition is completely on point with today’s politics in Quebec.
SF: Quebec politics are always very interesting. We just had an election a couple of weeks ago. When I moved back to Montreal in September, I thought all this sort of nationalism was behind us, and this place had gone forward, and was poised and very open to the world. But, as soon as I moved back, there was an election, and the PQ [Parti Québécois] government got back in power. The PQ government is, at this point, fairly outdated in its views of possible futures for Quebec. Working with a theme like L’avenir is a perfect platform right now. The exhibition is “L’avenir,” which translates as “what is to come,” so it’s not just a future, but it is that which is just coming. The subtitle is Looking Forward, so it’s not about some fantasies or some kind of “future from the past.” It’s not about jetpacks and moving to other galaxies. It’s about having feet firmly grounded and looking. This is about visual art practices, so it’s about looking at a range of possible futures that we can debate. Fifty artists are going to allow us to do that.
CB: The biennial explores complicated subjects.
SF: It’s a very generous exhibition that deals with, of course, topics like the environment, but not in a way that is kind of pointing fingers or saying this is doomsday and we’re beyond the point of no return, which I don’t think is very useful as a position. Yes, it’s good to sound the alarm, but unless you can also offer some possible solutions, then it’s like my hands are tied; why should I bother? Right? I think most of the artists that we’ve selected are coming to these big problems. The economy is another one, of course. The political landscape is another one. The future of art, it efficacy, what can art actually do. Lots of claims are being made all the time about activism, about efficacy, and about community work, and questioning what is actually possible. We have a team of four curators and, in a way, this is a result of this year-one and this collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art. And, in collaborating with the Musée [museum], it became obvious that we needed to integrate people from the inside for many reasons. Building this team allowed us to make sure that we could cover a lot of ground. These four curators brought all of their knowledge and research, over a number of years, to this project. And it really shows.
CB: In the way that you’re approaching the biennial, artists from Montreal or from Canada will be seen as major players on the international scene.
SF: Yes, and also I should mention that, in the collaboration with the museum, what it meant concretely is that there was a triennial of Quebec art that existed. And so, the collaboration with the biennial means that the triennial will no longer exist. The resources that were allocated to this vast operation that focused strictly on Quebec artists is no longer there. So, in this first year, I thought that it was really important to be particularly attentive to that reality because that’s history that we have inherited, and to do some solid research about what was actually going on in Quebec. What I should also say is that what’s really healthy about working with curators who are not from a place is that they can really see the scene differently. The Quebec artists who are in the show, many of them have important international careers, but they’ve never shown in Montreal. They are completely unknown locally. In this Year One, yes, there is a particular attentiveness to the local, but it’s also presenting a different view of the local, a view of the local that addresses what we were talking about, the diversity of people who are in the city, this kind of linguistic messiness, but also the presence of aboriginal peoples, which is very important, but often overlooked.
CB: We talk about Krzysztof Wodiczko’s community-based concept. The Polish artist is known internationally for his monumental projects.
SF: We’re working with Krzysztof Wodiczko, who is doing a great new piece for us. For this piece, when I was talking about broader collaboration, there is a kind of entertainment district in Montreal that programs a number of things. We collaborated with them because they have the best projectors, and they have all the equipment in place. But sometimes, the content can be a little on the light side. It meant coming together, saying we can deliver a really potent work, and you have all the equipment. It’s a co- production, so they’re also investing half of the money in this new piece. The piece will ultimately become part of the collection of the museum. It’s a win-win situation.
CB: What will unfold over these 76 days?
SF: Madness! Intensity! Delight! We are working right now on the public programs, and we are, as I mentioned, partnering with a number of institutions like the Canadian Center for Architecture, the Museum of Fine Arts, and universities. We’ll have, at our disposal, a variety of spaces and their readymade connections and communities, but also working with other communities like through Krzysztof. He’s working with the Native Friendship Center and with the homeless population right around the neighborhood. So, we’re working very closely with them as well. There will be a combination of talks, screenings, and performances. In addition, part of the public programs that we’re presenting are developed by our partners. So, when we’re working with transient populations, we’re basically becoming a platform for them to develop programs around the exhibition for us. Because we’re talking about l’avenir, no one holds all the knowledge, and no one can articulate all of the questions, so part of the money in the envelope for the public programs is geared towards these community-generated programs.
CB: In one of the statements I read, there are other reference points to Montreal’s presence in the universe; the city is where the World’s Fair took place and the futurist architecture of Buckminster Fuller. I’m wondering what artists have seized on that topic or are looking back at history as a way to see the future of Montreal.
SF: Well, there’s one artist, a young man from Montreal. His name is Etienne Tremblay-Tardif. He is working around…I don’t know how you say it in English, but in Atlanta it’s called “Spaghetti Junction”…you know, where all the highways kind of converge. Well, this was very much a symbol of that Montreal futurism. It’s called the “Échangeur Turcot,” and it’s a many, many, many level grandiose structure that is now falling apart and actually is being taken down. His work connects that form and that thinking about the urban fabric with the Canadian identity quest and the sovereignty movement and its demise now. Looking at both of these as things that are not too far away, but no longer valid. Of course, growing up with a Buckminster Fuller dome in your backyard changes very much the way that you see the world and see your place in the world, and that is a reference that is picked up in a number of works.
CB: We consider the meaning of artist Klara Hobza’s diving practice.
SF: In her multi-year project, she is scuba diving through Europe. She started a couple of years ago in Rotterdam and will follow the rivers all the way out to Constanta, Romania. So from the North Sea to the Black Sea. It’s that sort of total commitment project that humorously and quite playfully is rehashing the whole territorial conquest, the whole histories of Europe, but also a project that is very much asking questions about the future of art. What does it mean if someone embarks on a project that may take 50 years? How does it shape, then, what we think of as contemporary practice? Does it have to be performative in this way? Does it have to be durational in this way?
CB: At least two of the projects are venturing to the North Pole.
SF: Kevin Schmidt has a project that he started in 2010, and it’s called In Search of the Northwest Passage [a sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago]. He created a billboard and set it out on an iceberg in the Northwest Passage, and the project will be finished when he finds it again, if he ever finds it again! We’re also working with an artist collective called Arctic Perspective Initiative, and that’s Matthew Biederman from Montreal and Marko Peljhan from Slovenia. Their project has, of course, a manifestation within the realm of art, but it’s premised on something much, much greater, which is the empowerment of populations around the Arctic Circle. They are developing technologies, such as drones, other kinds of imaging technology, but also hydroponic structures to have food diversity, as these people move forward. It’s really working with communities, of course, in Northern Canada, but around the globe, around the Arctic.
CB: I notice that you’re working with Adaptive Actions, whom we have featured on Fresh Art International.
SF: Yes, we’re working with Jean-François Prost and Jean-Maxime Dufresne, and this will be a project in public space. For them and for another artist, Abbas Akhavan, the works are very site-responsive and very context specific. These are homeless proposals. They will find their space, their time, and their forum, as we get closer to the event. Again, this is a very important part of possible future practices.
CB: What kind of portrait will the exhibition create of art that is to come?
SF: What I hope is that we come out with a sense that art has great agency, but something that’s a bit more lucid than the grand political dreams that we perhaps sometimes would like to make for it. I hope it’s open. I hope we make discoveries and we’re able to articulate modes of agency that are a bit different. I think about what biennials can do because they are not so connected to a physical space and to real estate that needs to be filled. A museum or even an artist run space or even a university gallery, although they can be laboratories and a site for experimentation. At the end of the day, there are so many square feet that need to be filled. I think that there is a certain predetermination of practice that happens this way. I think, also, finding alternative spaces or kind of warehouse spaces is still about real estate. Hopefully we can, not negate the real estate, but understand it in an expanded field that allows us to think of variously sited, spatial and temporal interventions in a different way.