Transparency

Clearly, the word “transparency” is increasingly present now in the discourse of public administration, business ethics, and in all forms of goods and services. Not a day goes by without this notion being applied to remind us of the primary importance of trust in communications between diverse public or private sectors of society. By all accounts, in this context, transparency is a “relational value.”1 Moreover, it is not surprising that with the advent of public space in the eighteenth century, the idea of transparency gradually became established as an ethical-political viewpoint. A noble goal: if civil society is to be emancipated towards the rule of law, it needs transparency to develop. And by transparency, we mean free access to information in order to make clear decisions. Indeed, in a democratic society, where everyone should have the power to freely declare their opinion, nothing needs to be hidden or suspected. Yet, are things really so clear? Within a democratic system in which the notion of communication has moved towards the digital, could the ideal of transparency hide other intentions?

In a book titled The Transparent Society, published in English in 1992,2 the philosopher Gianni Vattimo foresaw a promising future for transparency, principally for the exchange of knowledge. With the advent of the information society, he thought that new technologies could thwart the abuse of authoritarian political regimes and their control over communications. Well before Edward Snowden’s actions taken to denounce State abuse, revealing details of numerous mass surveillance programs, Vattimo lauded the alternative power of communication networks within a pluralistic culture. Yet, a few years later, he would have to agree that these new technologies could not fulfill the promise of free circulation of information. Quite the contrary, since public space is increasingly digital, private and public companies bene t through intensifying the possibilities of monitoring our habits and behaviours. Ideally seen as a tool for emancipation, digital public space now is a means of domination in its metamorphoses into a network of control. At least, that is what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han denounces in his book-cum-political-tract.3 For him, the assumed relational value of transparency is transformed into a commercial value, which is manifest at the heart of a society that he describes as “pornographic.” Computerized transparency, this thorny digital exchange, encourages the obsession of establishing continuous visibility of reality with no regard for private life, as well as for the “negativity of the secret and hiddenness.” In this context, what are the concerns of art practices?

Certainly, in the eld of aesthetics, the relational value of a work in which there is also a question of transparency does not necessarily mean it is political. However, a key event in modernity was the development of industrial glass. As a construction material that lets light pass through and reinvents the relation between inside and outside, glass profoundly revolutionized our way of living in the world. Numerous thinkers at the start of the last century, notably Walter Benjamin, saw the “house of glass” as a site in which the idea of transparency was in accordance with the community and the exterior environment. In this massive use of glass, he was among those who saw a new way of expressing the desire to share and a favourable opening up of tomorrow’s society.4 However, as mentioned earlier, there is little doubt that this translucent purity also hides oppressive effects. Along with this obsession to show everything came a desire to control our way of being in the world; this is to forget that the image of the house of glass also symbolizes a cunning control over our lives.

Accordingly, for this collection of essays, Taisuke Edamura proposes a critical reflection on the relationship between transparency and architecture. Building on select works by artists Wyn Geleynse and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Edamura analyzes “the paradoxical reality of glass architecture that combines visual openness and physical confinement.” The critical aspect of transparency also plays out in Darian Goldin Stahl’s text. By way of Marilène Oliver and Laura Ferguson’s works, Goldin Stahl demonstrates the importance for these artists to extract the transparent body from the realm of health, as “singular purpose MRI or CT scans fail to capture the movement, emotion, context, or liveliness that the ill or disabled body contains.” For her essay, Véronique Millet proposes an analysis of certain works of artist David Spriggs, for whom it is essential to reflect on how visibility, by way of the phenomenon of transparency, can be “an obstacle not only to privacy but, more importantly, to freedom.” In her text, Millet also considers several of artist Stanley Février’s installations that aim to bring to light “issues that authorities would, no doubt, prefer to conceal.”

If transparency is associated with visibility and opacity with secrecy, this dichotomy, according to Bruno Nassim Aboudrar, forms two systems of visibility that refer respectively to the Western and Middle Eastern worlds. In this cultural context, the author examines how the veil became Muslim. Moreover, for Aboudrar, it is Iranian artists, notably Shokoofeh Alidousti, Mehraneh Atashi and Shirin Neshat, who “best express these paradoxes of the Muslim veil, a remnant of opacity in a world which otherwise has been completely overcome by transparency’s system of visibility.” From an entirely different viewpoint, Aude Launay writes about various artistic practices, notably those of Jonas Lund and Harm van den Dorpel, who work with Blockchain technology. For Launay, it is “through artistic practice that the advancements of blockchains can be most strongly felt,” even if only a few artists “are really exploring its potential.” Finally, my text briefly recalls the development of transparency at the heart of modern aesthetics. Looking at some of Michel de Broin’s works, wherein electric light is key, and in reference to François Lemieux’s video concerning the notion of transparency through the use of glass, I propose to examine ways of circumventing the ideology of transparency. To close this reflection, you can read Josianne Poirier’s article in the “Public Art and Urban Practices” section on Sheena Hoszko’s and the New York collective Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: Illumination Against Gentrification art proposals “who have turned to light in order to reveal gentrification and its harmful effects.” And lastly, Élisabeth Piot’s interview with Ghislaine Vappereau focuses on sculpture and transparency in Vappereau’s work, as well as other artists who have influenced the history of Western sculpture.

In addition to exhibition and book reviews, this issue of ESPACE art actuel includes Ji-Yoon Han’s interview with artist Valérie Blass, whose work is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until the 1st of December, 2019. Also, in the “Events” section, Julie Richard and Marie Perrault report on the high points of the Venice Biennale and the Manif d’art 9 in Québec City, respectively.

 


1. Pierre Bernier, “Transparence,” in Le Dictionnaire encyclopédique de l’administration publique, edited by L. Côté et J.-F. Savard, 2012. [On-line]: http://www.dictionnaire.enap.ca/fr/accueil.aspx
2. Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society (London: Polity Press, 1992).
3. Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
4. Léa Barbisan, “Vivre la transparence,” Sens public. [On-line]: http:// sens-public.org/ article1257.html