Exhibition view from “Art Hisotires” at VOX. Courtesy of VOX.
VOX is a Montreal-based artist-run centre founded in 1985. After relocating many times within different areas over the years, VOX settled in March 2012 to its permanent home, in the brand new culture complex building 2-22, situated at the heart of downtown Montreal. The inaugural exhibition of their new space entitled “Art Histories” was curated by VOX artistic director Marie-Josée Jean and showcases a total of 16 international artists which all in their own way attempt to deconstruct art history and challenge this great institution. Jean talked to M-KOS of the history of VOX and their inaugural exhibition.
M-KOS [MKOS]: Can you start by introducing VOX, its mandate and its decision to move to the most central location of Montréal?
Marie-Josée Jean [MJJ]: The history of VOX is quite long because this is a group that was formed in 1985, and it’s interesting to know that at the onset the original name was Vox Populi. It was a communications collective predominantly using photography as one of many means of communications, but also radio. The origins of VOX were socially quite active, notably to the extent that VOX gave itself the mandate to defend the rights of youths. Over the years the group specialized into an exhibition space for photography. Nonetheless, our origins are clearly associated with social activism. In fact, the son of the founders of VOX, Marcel Blouin and Lucie Bureau, is now one of the key leaders of Québec’s current student protest (Leo Bureau-Blouin) [laugh].
What we did essentially was to follow the needs of artists, obviously we originally presented a lot of photography, then videos and films produced by photographers. We first had a small gallery in the 4060 St-Laurent building, then another on Ste-Catherine Street, and then we worked in collaboration with the city of Montreal, a two-year program in a fairly large space, measuring 3,500 square feet. Quietly over the years we presented Le Mois de la Photo, an exhibition program oriented towards issues relative to images. Things really started to happen when we moved to Marché Bonsecours, an episode people often forget. This allowed us to make really big projects here and internationally, and this is when we became an image-focused centre.
When we left [Marché Bonsecours], we moved to Boulevard St-Laurent just next to the unfinished 2-22 space we were building. This move was temporary while we waited for the work on our permanent space to be finished. We decided it was absolutely essential for us to remain in downtown Montreal, along the axes of universities*. This was because of the mandate that we gave ourselves – to focus on present day paradigms of contemporary art – certainly our audiences would be composed of a lot of university students and teachers, with whom we developed projects, and so on. But also, our intention was to move to a central location, where is indeed the entrance way of the Quartier des Spectacle [Montreal's entertainment quarter]. Our aim wasn’t so much to go against this showbiz industry, but rather to advertise that other organizations also exist, supporting more experimental artistic research like us and our co-founders of this new building, Artexte and RCAAQ. Certainly this is the central reason that motivated our decision to settle here in what is now called the 2-22.
Gerard Byrne, A thing is a hole in a thing it is not, 2010. Exhibition view at VOX. Courtesy of VOX.
MKOS: So in grouping with RCAAQ and Artexte to become owners of this new building, completely in the city centre, is there no question of moving again?
MJJ: This is permanent [laugh], we’re not moving anymore! Unless we go bankrupt, but the good news in that case is that another cultural organization would simply take over the space. That’s the way for us to move forward with VOX, not only from new possibilities with our new premises, but also from new infrastructures and a larger scale, which is after all rather complementary to what other contemporary art spaces in downtown Montreal are offering. Of course, we stayed an image-centric organisation but the fact remains that all of a sudden our artist-run centre can offer museum-like exhibition conditions. We are certainly the first in Canada in this context and this opens up new possibilities, but one must understand that at its onset, we didn’t know what shape this building project, now called Art Contemporain 2-22, was going to take. We wanted to be downtown, our working title was called Imago and originally our group was composed of Artexte, Vidéographe and ourselves [VOX]. This was in 1995 and over the years plenty of smaller groups joined-in organically, so that at one point we were 20 contemporary art organisations, then we became four, then five, and at the end only three remained; Artexte and VOX who were in from the beginning and RCAAQ joined the project later on.
MKOS: Still in the way you function and operate, do you define yourself as an artist-run centre?
MJJ: Yes, we are self-run by artists, with a slightly different operating mode.
MKOS: Is it because your exhibition projects involve curators?
MJJ: Not only that. This is what people wrongly perceive of us. Certainly, we do include curator projects, but in fact the way we function is that I’m artistic director, and work with an advisory committee who are Angela Grauerholz [artist/professor], Jonathan Plante [artist], Barbara Clausen [professor/curator/researcher], Vincent Bonin [author/curator/ researcher] and Anne Benichou [professor/ researcher]. The important thing for us is that our committee members do not handle the exhibition program but they are involved in the program’s development. For example I work with these committee members, and each one is involved in a specific project. Sometimes it’s a curated project, like Angela Grauerholz’s mega web project which we produced together. This project is taking all sorts of shapes. So what makes us different [to other artist run space in Montreal] is that we work much more like Or Gallery and Artspeak, artist-run centres in Vancouver, for instance, really work on their creative direction. We do this to give some form of coherence to our programming, by developing lines of research that simultaneously come from our management but also from different players in our committee. Some will be interested in addressing the status of performance documents, another axis is in developing the history of exhibitions. These are all long-term projects, we have been working on these for the past two or three years.
Rodney Graham, The Gifted Amateur, Nov 10th, 1962, 2007. Exhibition view at VOX. Courtesy of VOX
MKOS: Now that you have a new space, you also have this inaugural exhibition, Art Histories, about re-writing or deconstructing the history of art, how does this show demonstrate your mission in this new space?
MJJ: Actually the one thing that particularly interested me for an inaugural exhibition was to take this issue of art history as the great institution that we know. It is a depository of knowledge, even canonical knowledge that is studied in school. However it’s important to remember especially from the perspective of an artist-run centre that this body of knowledge is created by artists. We wanted to give artists the opportunity to revisit the institution of art history, so all of a sudden this history becomes plural, a narrative construction that isn’t solely owned by historians and theoreticians. What is also interesting is that institutional critique has very much questioned [art history], which is also questioned by the art market, the art system in general, museums, and so on. But quite seldom have artists truly worked in exhibition contexts to revisit and challenge this great institution. This way I’ve gathered more than a dozen artists, whom each in their own manner offer a new vision that often unveils a political agenda, an ideological construction hiding beneath these grand narratives, for example surrounding the work of Malevich or surrounding the work of American painters.
MKOS: You said that history written by artists is really different from what is written by historians, but also because this exhibition is not in an institution but an artist-run centre, does this also take part in the re-writing exercise?
MJJ: Yes absolutely. It is also an interrogation exercise on how to review a great infrastructure like this one, which determines the transmission of knowledge over generations. Obviously we understand that artists are different to art historians, even if sometimes their work is extremely comprehensive on the subject, they are privileged in not being required to tell the truth or to be objective. Surely their position also brings forward all kinds of queries, whether it regards those who are excluded from the history of art, or conversely if such positions have been used to push themselves into international awareness.
Marcel Duchamp, La BoÎte en valise (G SERIES, 47 copies), 1936/1968 Outside green leather, Cardboard box containing 80 items : miniature reproductions of works, photos, facsimiles. Private collection.
MKOS: Does it come from a desire for control, this exercise to make relevant one’s own history?
MJJ: Certainly in the case of Marcel Duchamp, with his portable museum, a miniature version of his oeuvre is on offer.
MKOS: Just the fact of incorporating Duchamp’s La BoÎte en valise in an artist-run centre is a tour-de-force.
MJJ: Some people told me how much they were impressed to see it here, they did not expect that.
MKOS: Is it the one from MoMA in New York?
MJJ: No of course not. It’s not the one from MoMA. But still, we did use some good contacts to get this one [laugh]. But what is also fun with the whole experience of this show is to come face to face with a real Duchamp and then turn around and see The Last Surrealist Show from Kazimir Malevich but this time it’s Malevich from 1985 Belgrade. There is a lot of challenges to the authenticity of this piece, in a inverted context to validating Duchamp’s work on the other side. That was the play for today.
MKOS: The show also welcomed a play of irony, as a cunning tool used throughout the exhibition in a way to erect a great mockumentary.
MJJ: You see this with IRWIN. Obviously they use irony in the context of their progress within former Yugoslavia, a communist social context, which has been marginalized outside the mainstream, outside of the grand art history narratives. Therefore one of their extensive desires, which contain both critical and ironic aims, is to re-inscribe themselves in these narratives. So IRWIN reinvented an avant-garde for themselves along with other self-development tools, and what is phenomenal is that it’s working! Over the years, they have succeeded in repositioning Eastern European art, as with East Art Map, which is a publication and a mega website, but also an encyclopedic production on artists from this region. This shows how art history can be a pure construction and also how we can paste on new narratives that will seep into the mainstream.
Exhibition view. Retro Avent-Garde by IRWIN [left]; The last Surrealist show, Kazimir Malevich (Belgrade) [right]. Courtesy the artists and VOX.
MKOS: And for continuity’s sake, what will follow this show?
MJJ: It’s an exhibition from Melanie Gilligan, a Canadian artist living in London and New York, whose stakes are truly planted in political and economic issues. She has a really interesting stance on the current capitalist situation, and the great political narratives that support this market infrastructure. Her works are mostly video projects, but she is also an art theoretician, interested notably in many economic issues. In parallel to Gilligan’s show in our main room, our screening room will host Jan Švankmajer, a Czech film director who also lived in a communist context. In fact he’s an experimental animator, who developed a subtle critical discourse that went unnoticed from his country’s enforced censorship, which he was confronted to, to express a sense of political repression. He’s also linked to political issues, but within a very metaphorical approach. We are presenting two films from him, one from 1968 and another from the 80s. In the future we will often show two exhibitions in tandem, one in the main room changing every two to three months, and in the smaller projection room alternating every four to five weeks. We will also hold performances and lectures there, of variable duration.
MKOS: So is this the continuing thread for VOX, to address political issues after the current show raises the politics of history, the upcoming shows on one side speak of totalitarian censorship, on the other, of abusive market driven capitalism? Is this trend to continue in the long term with VOX?
MJJ: Such issues refer to situations that resonate in our present times and these inspire us, and I think in our social predicament, politics as a subject matter is finally becoming interesting again. Therefore it can become something worthwhile for us to explore. But to be honest, in September we will show Raymond Gervais, the first part of this body of work has been presented at Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery. Here we are coming back to more conceptual considerations, under an exhibition that is more retrospective in nature. Certainly we are staying around the same interests, people who come to VOX will know what kind of exhibitions to expect, but these will still entail a lot of variety. ■
* Université de Québec à Montréal, McGill and Concordia Universities
Interviewed by Oli Sorenson (originally in French)
Art Histories, Exhibition view at VOX, 2012. Courtesy of VOX
401 – 2 St-Catherine Streat East,
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Upcoming Exhibitions at VOX
8 June – 11 August 2012.
Opening: Thursday 7 June at 5:00 pm