Momenta: Recycling the Montréal Biennial

momenThe last official Montréal Biennial was trashed by most critics and gallery-goers as an incoherent mess. Putting the icing on the cake, its curator rightly pointed out, to a crowd of MFA students and their irritated instructors no less, that Montréal art really has nothing to do with the rest of the world, however much its practitioners may provincially fantasize otherwise. Rather than reading it as an incoherent mess, one could have read that biennial as a sporadically impressive troll on the most blatantly indefensible idiocies prevalent in Canadian Contemporary Art norms. This would, after all, explain the hostility it received from CANCON’s proselytizers. Not long after, it was made clear that the event would not be back in two years. (more…)

Wyndham Lewis and the epistemology of comedy

Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Reading of Ovid (Tyros)

 “Modernism, which is merely the nervous jingo exaggeration of the more futile novelties of the Zeitgeist, has enucleated it: we see it possessed of a meretricious colour more reminiscent of the revivalist or salvationist army-technique, than of a more scientific, impartial and catholic temper, for all the prestige of the classical disciplines invoked.”[1]

“It is ‘anti-God’ and nihilist. God is overthrown. But soon the features of another divinity, this time pantheistic and Spinozistic, are seen to emerge. Tomorrow we shall see sprouting a naturalist theology.”[2]

Wyndham Lewis’ early theoretical writing appeared within (and against) a current of writing on ‘romanticism’ or what was also termed ‘degeneration’ or ‘decadence’, positioning him somewhere in the ambient space of Mario Praz and Max Nordau. Unlike them, and Lewis pays homage to Praz but not the other, Lewis filters his work through the influence of Wilhelm Worringer and his theories of art as the psychology of style or expression of an age. Written in a hyperbolic and often jarring style that appropriates and parodies dialectics and other strategies, Lewis’ work did (and continues to) confuse people. His friend, the poet Roy Campbell complained that while Lewis insisted on opposing himself to the ‘hot’ and irrational discourse of much of the avant-garde, he frequently wrote like the romantics he attacked. But beneath the often highly-mechanical quality of this rhetorical ruse of performative passion, pulses what Jessica Burstein has termed Lewis’ ‘cold modernism’.[3] (more…)

Notes on Ressentimentality

If Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism at the Canadian Centre for Architecture asks some interesting questions but probes them in a flawed way, a few recent exhibitions in Montréal did so more successfully but purely by accident. Each one commands an affectively manipulated interaction with the past, projecting it into the present and a possible future.

At Diagonale, a wistful incapacity to face reality by sneaking into an over-cured aesthetic comparable to that of the CCA show is at work with Marie-Andrée Godin‘s (Im)possible labor which re-presents women’s art from the 1960s, here primarily given through three of its primary clichés: edifying text, ‘feminine’ abstraction, and the kind of interactive but primarily anti-septic tactility celebrated by Lucy Lippard in a variety of her essays on feminist art from the period. The first of these clichés is represented by a posted reading list of texts from the period, Betty Friedan included, to inform and filter your experience. By the entrance to the gallery, and doubling up on the filter to experience, one finds a set of low-rise seating material reminiscent of a snobby kindergarten classroom. A note on the wall prompts you to take off your shoes and put on the disposable shoes provided “before experiencing the piece” (avant de marcher sur le tapis the French says, giving it a very different connotation). These condoms for your tactile experience of the work are echoed by the generic capsule shapes that dot the various pieces of colossally over-inflated knock-off Bauhaus materials that the show consists of. (more…)

Neoliberal Socialism in the Age of Empathetic Capitalism


Design: OK-RM / © CCA

“Self-care displaces care for the common good, and happiness, once a tenet underpinning the post-war social-democratic project, becomes a commodity. Navigating the shift from collective welfare to individual well-being, this issue presents a “happiness industry” as expansive as its evasive subject.”[1]

November 2011: The United Nations recognizes the inadequacy of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of well-being. Happiness research is refined, codified, catalogued, and studied on a global political scale as the essential/unavoidable goal of every human being.[2]

Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism at the Canadian Centre for Architecture is in some ways a follow-up to an earlier exhibition at the Centre, Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture (2011-2012). It was also heavily influenced by William Davies’ The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (Verso, 2015) and various conversations that the curator, Francesco Garutti,[3] had with artists, as well as his own research. The slightly obnoxious title for the exhibition is reminiscent of both Alain de Bottom’s The Architecture of Happiness (2006) and Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), mashed together with a certain coquettishness, like what you find among grad students authoring the academic equivalent of click-bait journalism. It assimilates all these things into an uneven show that is more thematically intriguing than it is curatorial successful. Curiously, it is precisely the architectural component that makes it falter the most. Curator Garutti has stated that “[In] highlighting the values of all these things, I’m very interested in asking architects, ‘How do you reposition yourself?’ It’s not anymore the idea of master planning, of the city being the scope of only planners and architects. Corporations like McKinsey & Company are planning cities in India. Rather than the master plan, architects today work at a close-up space, in the flatness of interior space, which is also a space of meaning. That is not a position of losing.”[4] Yet, this is the element that is treated the most superficially. “Happiness rules are defining spatial values,” reads one wall text. This is largely done through imperatives: to vote, to laugh, to be involved with the arts, to keep up with technology, to cultivate friendships, to recycle, to recreate, etc. and this, however crudely, is the primary theme of the exhibition. (more…)