Sunday, August 26, 2007

La Biennale de Montréal - à la Baerwaldt

It's been months now since the Montreal Biennale of Contemporary Art ended on July 8, and as summer too, draws to a close, so do many people's memories of the event. Thankfully, some are still reflecting on it. Montrealers Don Goodes and Ed Janzen, both former Winnipeggers, as is the biennale's curator Wayne Baerwaldt, have expressed their views in print and on the web. Goodes offers a three-part interview with Baerwaldt featured on both YouTube and (linked below). Janzen, for his part, has written a response to the Goodes/Baerwaldt interview, and published it in the independent Concordia Fine Arts journal, Les Fleurs du Mal, out this September. An un-abridged version of his text appears below.

With an exhibition like the biennale, in a city like Montreal, it's easy to let ones' expectations of this grand event rise to lofty heights. We want it to be spectacular. We need it to be. However, previous incarnations proved rather underwhelming (2004 especially comes to mind) . Lack of cohesion, clear vision, funds, whatever, it seemed like the biennale - as far as galvanizing art events go - had nowhere to go but up. Enter Wayne Baerwaldt.

For those who have followed his career since his Plug-In Gallery days in Winnipeg during the 1980s and '90s, Baerwaldt quickly developed a reputation as a visionary curator who challenged audiences with his brand of contemporary art programming, and who, arguably more than any other curator before or since, put Plug In on the map, and helped give Winnipeg a reputation as a city where wierd and wonderful creative things were happening during those cold, interminable winters. Later successes, such as his turn at curating the Canadian pavillion for the Venice Biennale, with an award-winning installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, further established Baerwaldt as a Canadian curatorial force. A few years later, and after a brief but nonetheless controversial stint at Toronto's Power Plant, Baerwaldt has now settled in at the Alberta College of Art and Design's Illingworth Kerr Art Gallery.
Understanding his knack for discovering new talent, and also his incredible ability with 'spin' (I've often described him as someone who could convince you the contents of your ashtray made the most interesting piece of conceptual art you'd ever imagined), it looked like this biennale might present a some nice surprises. And while my impressions of the biennale as a whole were mainly positive (save for some questionable installation tactics in some questionable venues), one of my biggest surprises was revealed in the interview with Baerwaldt conducted by Don Goodes. Ed Janzen shares my surprise at this revealing interview, and articulates it well. To know more about it, see the interview on, then read on:

Interview by Don Goodes on

Toward a Canadian Biennale
Wayne Baerwaldt and the Politics of Faith

by Ed Janzen

Listening to Biennale de Montréal curator Wayne Baerwaldt speak about his curatorial vision for the exhibitions and performances of more than fifty artists in ten different venues is a harrowing pleasure. Harrowing, because his vision is indistinct and sometimes contradictory. A pleasure, because he seems comfortable with his vision being incomplete — maybe even wrong. An inversion of the image of the curator-as-control-freak, Baerwaldt appears utterly comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Montreal artist and art commentator Don Goodes interviewed Baerwaldt and posted the edited videos of their conversation on YouTube and (search for “Baerwaldt”). The remarkable results comprise the quotations that appear in this article.
“I was interested in coming here to think about the context of a Canadian Biennale — in Montreal, in Quebec,” Baerwaldt explains, “as part of Canada, but in a very unique cultural milieu that’s been established here over the last 400 years.
“We don’t have our own [Canadian] biennale, at this point. The Biennale de Montréal has played that role to a certain extent, but a very limited extent. It’s been about Montreal … about its connections to Europe. It’s been about a certain political dynamic. And so, it wasn’t really operating in a way I thought a Canadian biennale might.”
“One of the themes, in a very loose way,” he continues, “was dealing with borders and … there are many ways of approaching that, from physical to geographical borders to political borders and those that are absolutely imaginary … transgressing borders, acknowledging borders … most of the artists could conceivably fit in … whether they want to or not.”
Whether they want to or not? Wait a sec…
But there’s more: “[An exhibition concept] can be on a very publicly accessible level. But beyond that, you can really throw caution to the wind … work very intuitively, and hopefully surprise yourself, both through failures and successes. And I’m interested in that sort of fine line between failure and success.”
Exploring this success/failure tension, Baerwaldt discusses how some artists’ works were positioned so that the sound from a particular video could bleed into another space, creating a new environment and producing an unpredictable recontextualization of another artist’s work. (Maybe this is what he means by “whether they want to or not.”) “Somehow, although we think that … sound bleeding from one artist’s work to another can be detrimental, it’s suddenly working on a different level,” says Baerwaldt. “Or I think it is, anyway. Enhancing or impacting upon another artist’s work in some sort of way that works, stimulates the imagination…. Maybe that’s the producer in me thinking … ‘This is the way it should be.’ So, it could be absolutely delusional.”
The success/failure tension was perhaps amplified by the fact that the Biennale only received $500,000 in funding — unlike similar events in other countries, which, Baerwaldt observes, operate “with budgets from $3 million to $300 million.” Five hundred grand “doesn’t go very far,” he observes.
“Everything from the didactic panels, which are incomplete or sometimes non-existent, to the lighting of one piece or another … to some degree it’s about practical limitations, not having staff … or time to finish.”
It sounds like he’s complaining — but get this: “On another level it’s probably seeing fifty per cent of the artists change the titles of works that are created right up to the last minute. And I think that’s legitimate, of course, that’s their every right to do so, and it’s now up to us to respond by changing the didactic panels within a reasonable amount of time and correcting lighting, if possible….”
At this point, many curators would lose their minds. After all, isn’t it the curator’s role to envision and advance a well-defined, theorized concept? Is it really so difficult to print off decent labels, even at the last minute? Shouldn’t the audience — a paying audience at the main venue — expect as much? As chief artistic officer, the curator, even in the most iconoclastic exhibition, remains responsible to the artists and the audience. Ideally, much is demanded of all parties.
Baerwaldt seems to agree: “Producers usually like to know what they’re getting in the end.” But he quickly turns around and upends the traditional relationships: “I’d like to think that some percentage of the presentations here would even confound the producer, and ask for a leap of faith. And I think I, as a rule, put myself in that position wherever possible.”
He’s talking about a big leap of faith. It wouldn’t be difficult to conclude that Baerwaldt’s biennale simply suffered from overreach, that he and his associates failed to bring off a professional-level event owing at least in part (with some justification, granted) to the lack of money. Moreover, Baerwaldt positions himself on the line between success and failure — but, since he appears rather comfortable with failure, even failure becomes success. What does it mean to make a leap of faith when you can’t lose?
What will confound many — has — is that Baerwaldt may be right. Anyone who has followed his career through the years will recognize that he has always worked this way. And, while controversy has dogged him, for all kinds of reasons — programming his friends, frivolous expenditures, exploiting shock value — so has success, and not just his own. While curator at Winnipeg’s Plug In artist-run centre (now Plug In ICA), Baerwaldt “discovered” young artist Marcel Dzama and brought him to the L.A. International show, launching his career. Baerwaldt may promote a handful of “art stars” — sometimes his friends — yet few disagree that the artists, like Dzama, deserve their success. Moreover, many have done far less with far greater resources than Baerwaldt to promote national and international recognition of a relatively small art scene like Winnipeg’s.
Similarly, many remember when Baerwaldt brought the “World Tea Party” event to Plug In back in 1999. Does anyone recall what the week-long event was actually about? Maybe not — but not because it was unmemorable. Quite the opposite, everyone who went remembers it as a magic moment. This is what could be called the “Baerwaldt touch.” It’s not producing gold from base metals; the gold is already there. But he makes people believe in the gold. There’s the leap of faith — and it’s not a bad quality in a curator.
So, was the “Canadian biennale” a golden success — or a racket?
It’s a Canadian predicament. In older industrialized countries, with much longer histories as nations/empires and with internationally recognized roles in the master narrative of art history, big-ticket art events can exude a sort of cultural bravado, a sleek, programmed vision of a nation’s artistic ethos. This would be difficult to achieve in Canada, more or less a massive, colonial resource-extraction project built upon the dispossession of the country’s First Nations. Further, the English colonial project’s primacy was contingent upon the conquest of the French colonial project. That is, Canada is a result of colonization, not a “first cause” (certainly a “secondary cause,” though). And it is a follower, not a source, of art trends.
If Baerwaldt’s “Canadian biennale” seems like a bit of a racket, well, so is Canada, an aggregate of nations interwoven with colonial relationships and animosities in which unity — don’t even mention uniformity — is an unlikely, maybe silly, goal. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Baerwaldt’s vision of a biennale “about borders” is so vague. There are no certainties, here.
Despite Canada’s troubled “national” landscape and despite the government’s (perhaps especially the current government’s) disinterest in prioritizing support for art, Baerwaldt feels that the experiment, the leap of faith, is worthwhile — and that the government and the private sector must necessarily step up to bat with funding. “There should be some sort of celebration, I think, [that] comes close to … a cultural flashpoint for the making of a contemporary art history here,” he says.
“I’m hoping that we come to a point with this biennale where it suggests, ‘Okay, we’ve done that — what wasn’t covered?’ Or, ‘Where else is this going?’ So, either a biennale is an extension to the next step — or the doorway being opened to a biennale that’s absolutely contradictory in terms to the current one.”
Perhaps Baerwaldt’s vision of a Canadian biennale represents an attitude that might work for the country as a whole. If we could be a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable — a little more failure-friendly, and for a reasonably long time — who can say what productive, experimental spaces might open up?
And then again, “it could be absolutely delusional.”

Ed Janzen is a founding publisher and editor of Montreal’s Les Fleurs du Mal magazine. An earlier, condensed version of this article is published in that magazine’s September, 2007 issue.

Official Biennale de Montréal website

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