Art

From Montreal to the world

The magazine’s ambition “to develop a critical language” for a borderless discourse on current art practices was signalled by Poulin’s design for the craft-paper cover of Issue 1: a reproduction of Vladimir Tatlin’s sketch for a Monument to the Third International (1919-1920). A “hybrid criticism” was sought using tools developed by writers from both sides of the pond. Pontbriand explains that the magazine’s critical tool kit was developed out of the work of French thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, as well as that of Anglo-American critics working in the long shadow of Greenbergian formalism, such as Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michaelson (whose journal October would also appear in 1975). In the 70s, the formalist criticism of Clement Greenberg and Roger Fry was, according to Pontbriand, “begging to be challenged at the insistent demand of new theoretical and practical approaches in art.” The medium-specific bias of formalist criticism came up short in an art world increasingly characterized by internationalism and ephemeral artworks. A worldwide market of ideas circulated by multiple media was decentring the traditional structures of the museum system and challenging the assumptions of object-centered art-writing practices. The best way to address these changes was in print. Pontbriand explains that while the parallel system was a step in the right direction, a magazine could “respond much more quickly to developments in the expanding art world than could exhibition spaces.” In an editorial essay for Issue 90 entitled “Prolegomenes a une nouvelle critique,” Pontbriand characterized the magazine’s project as follows: “It is in the dialogue of cultures that the community of the future can be born … it is this voice that we have tried to find with Parachute.”

Over the course of its 31 years, Parachutes “voice” had become
decidedly polyphonic. By 2000, after 25 years, the magazine became
a fully bilingual publication. In addition to bridging a divide
between European French and Anglo-American criticism, Parachutes
translations mediated between two linguistic communities within
Canada. Additionally, after 2000, the magazine adopted a new
formula. Thematic focuses of broad social interest would structure
the content of three out of four issues every year, (i.e.
Democracy, Resistance, Work, Community, Violence) and the remaining
issue would be dedicated to covering an “emerging city.” For
the city issues, articles were solicited from leading art writers
   and cultural critics in Mexico, Beirut, Shanghai and Havana, to
name just a few. These articles were often submitted to Parachutes
editorial staff in the writers’ native languages. Parachutes
bilingualism then, was part of a more ambitious multilingual
campaign of translation.

THE DEATH KNELL

Amid the chorus of voices that Parachute generated, there were, toward the end of its prodigious three-decade run, murmurs of an executive decision to “halt.” Rumours about Parachutes “suspension” were confirmed on November 21, 2006 in a communique circulated via e-mail by Parachutes board of directors. The news was not taken lightly. Stephane Baillargeon, writing on modern art, identifies the “lethal formula” offered by the board’s communique that sparked a furor among the magazine’s contributors and readers worldwide: “when the bell tolls, the adventure should come to a stop, at least in the way it has been led until now.” This death knell was circulated again with the magazine’s final issue (#125, January 2007) in a letter addressed to Parachutes readers and contributors. The letter, entitled “halt” begins with a charming (if somewhat mythologizing) autobiographical note about Pontbriand’s precocious first publication: “Parachute was my fifth magazine … My first, dating from when I was nine years old, the age of innocence, was a school notebook copied over and over in lead pencil and distributed to classmates.” The magazine had travelled from charmed beginnings to a rather ambiguous end.

The board’s official reason for folding: a lack of funds. The
magazine was run on a $400,000 annual budget, half of which came
from The Canada Council for the Arts, the Quebec Council of Arts
and Letters and The Montreal Council for the Arts, and the other
half from subscriptions, ad revenues and sales. (A Canadian
Heritage subsidy, based on a minimum 8096 Canadian-authored content
requirement, was not available due to Parachutes resolutely
international focus.) By Pontbriand’s estimation, the magazine was
in need of approximately $100,000 more per year in order to
continue. At the time of closing, Parachute was running between a
$40,000 and a $60,000 deficit, partly as a result of scaled-back
public funding and increased production and distribution costs
after the magazines’s format change in 2000. These difficulties
were detailed in the board’s communique and the “halt” letter.
Responses to the letter were to be sent to halt@parachute.ca for a
petition.

A rash of articles in Modern Art Website followed the November 21st communique. The headlines reflect the magnitude of the news: “Parachute Ferme,” “Chronique d’une mort annonce,” “Petition pour sauver Parachute.” The public debate began with a close reading of the language in the announcement. In their communique, the board was careful to announce hOt a definitive closure, but rather a “suspension.” This tentative language was turned over in the press by several astute observers. Marie-Josee Lafortune, the director of Optica, asked in an editorial for Le Devoir whether the arts community ought to mobilize to continue the publication. “Normally,” she wrote, “large public institutions are bequeathed to subsequent generations.”  Over the course of its publicly funded run, Parachute had come to be regarded by members of the Montreal arts community as precisely this–a public institution. Eduardo Ralickas, the magazine’s last English editor, describes the community’s claim to the magazine as a “moral” one. This moral claim, however, was trumped by the board’s legal title to the magazine’s registered name.

This legal status of the magazine was a point of contention in
the public debate. Parachute is a non-profit organization under the
direction of Chantal Pontbriand and a board of directors whose
composition changed over the years. In 2006 the board included
David Joanisse, Jean-pierre Gremy, Celine Poisson and Chantal
Pontbriand. Johanne Lamoureux, a former Parachute board member and
current professor in the Department of Art History at l’Universite
de Montreal, was quoted in Le Devoir as saying, “the brand is not
personal, and nobody is irreplaceable.” The implication, which
was plainly delivered at a town hall meeting in February of 2007 at
La Sala Rossa, was that Parachute’s director ought to be replaced.
Dr. Christine Ross from the Department of Art History at McGill,
Louise Dery from Galerie UQAM and Steven Wright, Parachute’s last
Paris correspondent, were all suggested as candidates for the
position. The town hall was one of several measures intended to
facilitate public debate about the fate of the magazine and
consider the possibility of starting a new magazine or negotiating
a transfer of the magazine’s three subsidies to a new team. On
December 5th, 2006, in response to the board’s communique,
Ralickas, Lamoureux, Charron and Therese St. Gelais from UQAM’s Art
History Department set up an online petition to “save Parachute”
and “pass the torch”.

While both petitions , for the record, lamented the loss of
the magazine, only the “passez le flambeau” petition presented
immediate alternatives to the suspension. For Ralickas, the “passez
le flambeau” petition was to act as a counterpoint to the November
21st communique and the “halt” petition, in which the financial
difficulties the board detailed in their communique were presented
as insurmountable. To Lafortune, the board’s communique and
petition seemed to suggest that the suspension was a fait accompli.
Ralickas, Lamoureux, Charron and St. Gelais organized the Sala
Rossa meeting and the “passez le flambeau” petition in the belief
that the magazine’s financial problems could be adequately dealt
with by a new administrative team. The “halt” petition, which
generated over 400 responses (and counting) from Canada, the US,
Germany, Spain, France, Mexico and beyond, was, in Ralickas’
reckoning “a mobilization of affect” on the part of
Parachute’s board-in short, a PR campaign waged in anticipation of
a bitter local response to the news of the suspension.

This often vitriolic (local and international) debate was covered for about a year in the local press and has still not been fully resolved. Two of the organizers of the Sala Rossa town hall declined the invitation to speak on the matter for this article, one claiming that the incident was “derriere moi.”

Blouin remarks that in the local press the fallout reads like a
family drama in the vein of Tennessee Williams. Quebec pop-music
legend, Robert Charlebois unwittingly provided an equally
good-humoured headline for the debate in the press: “une chute, une
cri(blip) de chute en Parachute.” In spite of efforts to “save
Parachute” a crash landing seemed imminent. On January 12, 2007, in
Le Devoir a tongue-in-cheek announcement was made about a “vente de
garage” at Parachute’s St-Laurent offices with “tres bon prix!”

A single set of reasons for the suspension is difficult to
decipher amidst this (often personal) crossfire. But one of the
generally agreed upon factors is a lack of public funds. Ponthriand
explains that the Canada Council intended to withdraw their support
for the magazine in stages–ultimately by $50,000 over 10 years
(beginning in 2000). Melanie Rutledge of the Canada Council
confirmed this intention in a statement given to Le Devoir on
December 2, 2006. In her statement, Rutledge explains that Canada
Council is encouraging magazines to diversify their sources of
revenue; the goal is autonomy. The Council’s goal hasn’t
always been achieved however. Artichoke Magazine folded in 2005
after seven years of support was withdrawn.

For Pontbriand, the “suspension” was unavoidable after several “palliative” measures were taken to raise funds and reduce operating costs. The board’s decision to suspend was taken “before things had gotten so bad that writers would not be paid.”  Indeed, in its last years the magazine seemed to be doing rather well. The new colour format developed for Issue 100 was a resounding success. Sales were up by 200 percent over the three-year period from 2000-03, and the magazine had been selected along with 80 other international periodicals to be represented at the Documenta 12 Magazines Project held in Kassel in the summer of 2007. In a recent interview published in CV Ciel Variable magazine, Pontbriand explains that “the new way of working, emanating from a transversal axis based on a specific concept, enabled us to broaden our network of writers and artists around the world considerably.” The magazine also benefitted from an expanded international market.

The coincidence of the magazine’s international success and the
suspension of its publication seems odd at first glance. But as
Lamoureux remarks, the problem of “articulating a local base and
international diffusion” (is a longstanding one. For
Pontbriand, the public purse enables the art press in Canada to
some extent, but it ultimately creates a culture of complacency and
dependence. The alternative model is obvious for Pontbriand.
Magazines such as Artforum, Parkett and Frieze are entirely
privately funded and their offices are located in major
international cities where robust collecting cultures generate
possibilities for increased ad revenues. Reflecting on Artforum’s
recent issue on the international art market, Pontbriand concludes
that, “the question of the art market is to today’s cultural
workers what the question of museums was to artists of the 60s and
70s.” (26) The international market has, according to Pontbriand,
completely changed the stakes for the art press: “The situation is
not what it was in the 70s … back then public funding was a
necessity since collectors were not interested in contemporary art
… but today it is driving the auction houses–the market for
contemporary art is thriving.” When asked whether she would
re-launch the magazine, Pontbriand replied that, “it is possible in
the next couple of years, but not on public funds which I have
definitively rejected” Pontbriand imagines private backing would
increase the magazine’s print run to 50,000 copies from the
4,0005,000 that public funds enabled.

THE “IDEA” OF COMMUNITY

To usher in the millennium, Parachute released three issues
(100-102) on the theme of “community.” Jean Ernest Joos tables the
philosophical problems associated with the theme in the opening
lines of his essay “Community and Plural Relations: A Conversation
between Philosophers and Artists” for Issue 100: “Were I to select
a single word to characterize the political history of the 20th
century, it would have to be ‘community’ … a type of sociality
intermediate between the individual and the State that could
fulfill two opposing desires–one for recognition and singularity
and another for belonging to a collective entity that could
preserve one from solitude and anonymity …” This fraught
idea of community seems to be well illustrated in Parachute’s
history. That is, “community” was for Parachute both an object of
theory–a philosophical problem–as well as a vulnerable empirical
reality. How was Parachute’s community constituted? Its readers and
contributors form a strictly international network–one of
Parachute’s communities. But its headquarters on St-Laurent had, by
2006, become a repository of local cultural history for the
Montreal arts milieu. Parachute constituted a local community as
well then–one that became especially conspicuous after the news of
the magazine’s suspension. The difficult question is: how are these
communities to relate to Parachute as a private enterprise made
possible by public funds? As an “object of consumption,” Parachute
circulated within communities but did not itself constitute one. As
a forum for an international art discourse however, Parachute is
the very structure that keeps an artistic community thriving, what
Brian Holmes calls an “architecture of engagement.” in his
essay for Issue 100 on the artist and media theorist Jordan
Crandall. What happens to this architecture under the logic of the
international art and art press market? Must Parachute’s
international expansion (if it is pursued) come at the expense of a
local public asset? These are the stakes for Parachute’s future.

In Parachute’s seeming drift toward privatization, a couple of bright consequences can be discerned–life rafts (or maybe just water wings) in a sea of controversy. Parachute’s considerable archive of periodicals and books was generously donated to various Montreal research institutions, such as Artexte, (UQAM’s) Bibliotheques de l’universite du Quebec a Montreal, Concordia University and the Bibliotheque et archives nationale du Quebec. Finally, in the wake of Parachute’s suspension, three Quebecois periodicals–CV Ciel Variable, Espace Sculpture and EST–acquired funding from the Quebec Council of Arts and Letters for translation. Parachute’s bilingual format had set an important precedent and moel for the local art press and its benefactors in government. C Magazine’s own review exchange with Espace Sculpture, inaugurated with the Summer 2008 issue, continues Parachute’s legacy of intercultural dialogue within Canada.

With its physical holdings dispersed, what exactly is Parachute
now? It is history or, more to the point, it may be inscribed in
several histories: it is a part of the history of Montreal’s
artist-run centres and their print culture, it is a messy chapter
in Quebec labour history and it is a major player in the history of
the Canadian and international art press. The list could and should
go on. This is work for historians. Pontbriand, however, has not
cooled her heels since the suspension. Parachute’s history in her
hands is very much still unfolding. She has secured a deal with the
publisher CENDEAC to release a Spanish translation of the anthology
Parachute: Essais choisis (1975-2000) and is currently pursuing
publishers for the English translation. In May 2008, Pontbriand
organized the International Association of Curators of Contemporary
Art (IKT) congress in Montreal–the congress’ first-ever meeting
outside Europe in its 40 years of existence. On a $200,000 budget
provided in part by the Ville de Montreal, private partners and
host institutions such as the Music d’art contemporain, Pontbriand
coordinated gallery visits across Montreal for about 150 attendees
from Europe, the US and Canada. A special International Art Market
Development Seminar was also organized for a “VIP group of Canadian
galleries” and a handful of international curators. A synopsis of
these proceedings is forthcoming on Parachute’s website. Pontbriand
is also in the process of organizing an exhibition for the Jeu de
paume on the German filmmaker and media theorist Harun Farocki and
the BC artist Rodney Graham. (This event, however, will not be a
Parachute production.) The exhibition, entitled H.F.R.G., will
relate the work of these artists under four thematic headings:
“archive;’ “non-verbal,” “machine,” “montage.” Pontbriand’s
procedure is to provide continuity between this exhibition and
several of the thematic focuses of Parachute’s last 25 issues. The
general approach is consistent: Pontbriand has endeavoured over the
course of her career in publishing, curating and art criticism to
“observe trends and generate the critical categories required to
synthesize them.”

As Pontbriand remarked in an interview for this article: “when I announced the suspension, it was not the death of Parachute.” The “brand” remains a key part of the country’s cultural fabric. But of course, it is just this status of Parachute as a brand that accounts for the Montreal arts community’s ongoing griping.

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