Word from curator Sylvie Fortin
Catastrophe? Quelle catastrophe!
We all live in a catastrophic world!
Catastrophe is a rather strange and puzzling concept. The catastrophic event is always distant, at something of a remove on our television screen or repressed by our psychic coping mechanisms. But catastrophe is also always here—variously present. Catastrophe’s battlefield is exceptionally vast, encompassing mathematics, physics, biology and their applied fields, in addition to philosophy and the arts. Simultaneously here and elsewhere, catastrophe’s dual, paradoxical nature makes it all the more politically potent.
Catastrophe is also absolutely central to Western thought, where it has worked its ravage through the millennia, uniquely able to refresh its appearance to meet the needs of each new era. But this does not mean that catastrophe is ahistorial or transhistorical, however. Each of its reinventions has just the right balance of conformity and excess to seemingly fit pre-existing narrative structures while it operates deep social, economic and political reconfigurations. As such, catastrophe’s quotient of universality lies precisely in its historical specificity—an intimate tango of state and event. But this is also its Achilles’ tendon or the faultline in the edifice—which provides fertile ground for artists.
But what might this have to do with contemporary art? Or with Québec City? Why use catastrophe— with its inevitably spectacular connotation—as a prism to measure up contemporary art and to open a platform for dialogue and debate with you?
While catastrophe dominates the contemporary imaginary and mainstream media, its real work remains elusive. Its hypervisibility safeguards its foundational, requisite invisibility. Which is to say that the omni- presence of the catastrophic event acts as a smokescreen, ensuring the very invisibility of catastrophe’s real work. Politically, the catastrophe is used to legitimize the enactment of states of exception. But in recent years, catastrophe has also been put to preemptive use. We no longer need a catastrophic event to be subjected to the logic of catastrophe. As such, its temporality has shifted, its operational terrain expanded to the entirety of time and space. So much so that catastrophe has become the condition of contemporary life.
A few thousand years ago, catastrophe was the climax of Greek drama. In the midst of WWII, Walter Benjamin famously defined history as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage.” More recently, Slavoj Žižek has demonstrated that catastrophe has expanded to the future, “the true catastrophe already is this life under the shadow of the permanent threat of catastrophe.” Daily life is now the playground of low-level, yet dreary, incessant, inescapable catastrophe. It is also the theater of excep- tion where democracy and equality are reduced to mere form. Or, to put it another way, catastrophe is the wallpaper of our daily lives, the score of our everyday drama.
For Manif d’art 5, this year’s edition of the Québec City Biennial, some 30 artists are investing sites throughout the central part of the city, installing new works or adapting recent projects in order to discern and present strategies of resistance to the wreckage of catastrophe’s slow, incessant, non- spectacular work. They explore various aspects of the question. Their projects have shaped my reflection and will undoubtedly make you think of the world—and your place in it—differently. To me, that’s why art matters.