Leila Pourtavaf, ed., Féminismes Électriques (Montreal: La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, 2012).
Review by Sara Rozenberg
This past fall, Montréal’s La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse released its latest publication, a collection reflecting on the last ten years of activity at the feminist artist-run centre. I had a lot of big questions when I picked up this book. I wondered what a coherent publication around the topic of feminist art would look like at this moment, and what it would mean for it to come out of an artist-run centre. I was also excited to read about the type of work that was taking place at La Centrale. As I learned, the centre was founded in 1973 and is considered one of the first women’s galleries in North America.
At the time of writing, just two months after the Toronto launch of Féminismes Électriques on 28 September 2012, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, an institution with a similar history of emergence in the 1970s, announced its closure. The loss of this space raised issues of sustainability and direction, over generations and through permutations of the ideas of feminism and politics, as well as the current possibilities and challenges of maintaining feminist resources, all of which resonates clearly with the themes and concerns developed in La Centrale’s book.
The introduction to Féminismes Électriques opens with a consideration of La Centrale’s inception, written by the editor of the collection, Leila Pourtavaf, who locates the gallery’s emergence within the context of a growing number of both women-run initiatives and artist-run centres in North America. It’s a context that highlights the historic relationship between the realization of a feminist politics and the organizational model of the artist-run centre (decentralized, not-for-profit, participatory and non-hierarchical) as a critical site for the promotion of experimental and politicized art.
While Féminismes Électriques is on the one hand an archive of a decade in La Centrale’s history, the focus of the collection is the pivotal shift in official mandate that took place in 2007, to better reflect the commitments of its members. Most notably, the new mandate seeks to prioritize solidarity, trans-inclusion and inter-generational dialogue, focusing on local and global struggles and relationships of power, while continually engaging with, and critiquing, feminist discourses and debates.
The collection is made up of essays, conversations, programming notes and photographs that document the works, interventions and practices of featured artists, as well as the centre itself — its recent move positions the gallery’s storefront as a public intervention site, strategically located to interact with the direct surroundings of the centre at a given time. The contributors, variously involved with the centre, offer insights and descriptions of material practices and art processes amidst dense theoretical discussions, organizational criticisms, self-reflections and historical documentation. This attention to creative practice is refreshing, totally engrossing and highlights these works as interventions that reach well beyond this publication.
Many readers will likely encounter a challenge when presented with such a multi-faceted text based around a particular organization’s history. Namely, it’s a challenge of entry points — to understand what issues, discourses and institutional histories are being addressed by La Centrale’s members, what the centre’s community is concerned with in terms of local struggles and practices, and how these fit within broader concerns, both globally and within feminist art. I keep returning to Trish Salah’s statement in “An-Identity Poetics and Feminist Artist-Run Centres,” a brilliant, two-part essay on trans-inclusion and identity politics in the context of queer feminist utopias: “It makes a difference when and where we think about these questions of identity” (86). Based on talks given at La Centrale during the self-reflection process that led to the 2007 mandate change, the piece offers clearly situated points of criticism and insists on definitions that break down terms like “post-feminism” into their practical meanings. It also features great attention to language and the logic of rhetoric, extending to specific examples where utopian visions have failed.
In “GENDER ALARM! Queer Feminist Exhibitions in the ‘Year of Feminist Art,’” Helena Reckitt considers a group exhibition put on by La Centrale to mark their new direction, and does so in relation to other exhibitions that took place around the same time: small queer feminist art shows that influenced the centre’s inaugural event, and two large-scale museum exhibits (WACK! and Global Feminisms) that received institutional recognition in the US. It’s a thorough consideration of contemporary queer feminist art practices, their pleasures and limitations, and their historical and generational influences.
Thérèse St-Gelais also takes up the subject of generational continuity by comparing works by contemporary Quebec performance artists to those from the 1970s, at the level of aesthetics: performing acts of cleaning, recasting kitchen appliances, &c. The essay brings attention to parallels in imagery and actions used in performance works across generational lines. This framework ultimately leads to a consideration of how incessant, disturbing and continuous actions might perform a contemporary feminist subject.
The second half of Féminismes Électriques is made up of conversations offering organic discussions about art production and issues that come out of this type of work. The first piece in the section offers a detailed look at aesthetic approaches and influences in works by Stéphanie Chabot and Dominique Pétrin, who reflect on the impact of colour saturation, how visual fictions disrupt logic, the use of clichéd motifs and the figure of the witch.
Reena Katz opens her conversation with Jumana Manna with the words: “Let me begin by saying that your work gives me chills…” (147). I have the same visceral response to her work just reading descriptions of Manna’s material and aesthetic practices, not to mention the images of the pieces included with the text. The conversation moves on to the question of love as political act and to a profound description of existential loss stripped of politics and geography in the video work Familiar (2007). It’s a brilliant conversation around knowledge production in art and strategies in presenting directly and indirectly political art; the text addresses the questions of urgency as well as commodification of the Palestinian cause, knowledge sources in cultural production in relation to Palestine, and how aesthetics communicates affect and relates to the political imagination.
I’ll end with a bold suggestion made by Chris Kraus in a conversation about Semiotext(e) that frames publishing as a curatorial practice. In the context of music, literary and experimental film markets that marginalize so many artists and practices, Kraus suggests that “the art world has become the last real cultural venue” (174). In the context of La Centrale, I think it’s worth considering this statement in relation to the gallery’s transdisciplinary programming, its focus on critical art practices, its formal re-evaluation of its commitments to social justice, and its history as a feminist artist-run centre.
Sara Rozenberg is a writer, editor and administrator living in Toronto. She holds an MA from the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, and is currently developing a collaborative project that addresses labour issues amongst Toronto-based artists. She is also a member of the FUSE Board of Directors.