There is admittedly a little bit of confusion when one arrives at La Biennale de Montréal’s main venue, the Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC), for a great part of the biennale does not in fact take place at the MAC. With eighteen satellite venues beyond walking distance and inaccurate information from its front-line stewards, trekking through extreme winter conditions in the land of the tragic 19th-century poet Émile Nelligan becomes a daunting mission. What emerges are the growing pains and logistical issues of propelling this baby biennale into one that is world-class.
The challenge continues with curator Philippe Pirotte’s verbose yet perspicacious statement. Titled Le Grand Balcon [The Grand Balcony], the biennale is drawn loosely from Jean Genet’s play Le Balcon [The Balcony]. Part of a luxury brothel, the balcony of Genet’s play is “a space of contestation between revolution and counter-revolution, reality and illusion,” where the power elite and other seemly characters engage in role-playing. Pirotte remarks, “Le Grand Balcon invites us to rethink both the (im)possibility of an emancipation through pleasure—and its urgency. Asserting a hedonist politics far from the easy rewards of consumption, in an environment of potentially economic or political instrumentalization, the exhibition opposes a via negativa of alienation, skepticism, discomfort, and loss.”
A tiny, dark room, which feels like an abandoned space in a near sci-fi future with the last surviving single-channel video, houses David Gheron Tretiakoff’s A God Passing (2008). The video opens with various shots of men waiting and staring. An intense suspense gradually builds up, with the weight of gazes matched by careful shots of worn city scaffoldings and slow, seeping water. The crowds of men are awestruck—many on each other’s shoulders, dancing and chanting “Long live Egypt.” With particular cinematic cutting style, the video finally reveals that they are witnessing the historical 2007 move of the 11-meter statue of pharaoh Ramses II from a Cairo train station to the Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza Plateau. Meanwhile, a man screams that Egyptians are not deserving of this regal inheritance—that they need to clean their nation first. A God Passing shows Pirotte’s interest in spaces of “revolution and counterrevolution, reality and illusion” and is framed by our present foreboding knowledge of the imminent and similarly fanatic cheering of the unfulfilled Arab Spring. Spectral, ominous, and morbid, A God Passing exposes a phantom limb and offers a cool balcony from which to ruminate on this surly hedonism and its malformed smile guided by the eternal cycle of political instrumentalization.
In the spirit of opposing “a via negativa of alienation, skepticism, discomfort, and loss,” the biennale’s opening night featured Anne Imhof’s operatic performance, Angst III (2016). In a fog-filled gallery, dancers convey anti-theatrical intimations of a contagion, wearing facial expressions of flat affect as they attempt to make their way toward an undefinable something over objects like a Beuysian sled. Carrying falcons on their arms (a sort of augury?), the dancers make unreadable hand gestures, mumble to themselves, sing subtle, psychotic choral music, and mimic the sound of a hovering drone. Despite its youthful “Instagrammability,” Angst III creates “new rites.” As the body is increasingly controlled under social and political regimes, Imhof shows new ways the body attempts to navigate vis-à-vis these powers. In Angst III, rites of freedom and co-optation are all displayed at once. Through dance, we see these new rites elaborated, as the body seeks to find new forms in conversation with issues of contemporary concern.
Within Pirotte’s choices to populate his Grand Balcon, we find several pieces that push representation a little further, “where representation itself can be perversely troubled […] and where a person can dramatically stage herself with power and vulnerability on display.” This is seen in Celia Perrin Sidarous’s gorgeous “new materialist” multimedia collages of the old and new; in Shannon Bool’s mysterious digitally designed tapestries Looshaus, The Five Wives of Lajos Bíró and Untitled (Marble Floor); in Isa Genzken’s haunting family of mannequins; and in Jacob Wren’s endearing durational performances, among others.
Nowhere do we see more of Pirotte’s intentions fulfilled than in his presentation of Eric Baudelaire’s AKA Jihadi (2016). Here, viewers are on the inside and outside. A theatralization is set up through the film’s demand for our patience in accompanying the unraveling of image after image of locations: alleys, schoolyards, city streets, hotel rooms. “Representation is perversely troubled” to the umpteenth degree, as Baudelaire does a retake of Masao Adachi’s 1969 AKA Serial Killer, in which “location-scouting images for a film inspired by a real-life serial killer become the film. AKA Jihadi operates on the same principle, retracing the itinerary of a young French man known as Nabil who travels to Syria in support of the Syrian people’s struggle against Bashar al-Assad, and allegedly joins ISIS.” The slow unpacking of time creates a hovering animism, forcing viewers to ponder landscapes with no particular narrative—a haunting present that we know will never have any climax. There is then the swelling up of a feeling that we might be complicit with Nabil, who we never see. As viewers, we feel a depth of “vulnerability on display”—a time to give alms and meditate, not be mediated. Le Grand Balcon’s most pressing contributions are indications of new vectors to confront our mediated world, couched in the world of political instrumentalization.
La Biennale de Montréal: Le Grand Balcon is on view at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal through January 15, 2017.
 Philippe Pirotte, Curatorial Statement for Biennale de Montreal 2016, Le Grand Balcon. http://www.bnlmtl2016.org/en/the-grand-balcony/curatorial-statement/
 One can see a similar depth of exploration of “new rites” (movement and dances that position themselves vis-à-vis social, political, and ontological regimes) in the work of filmmakers like Claire Denis (J’ai pas Sommeil, Beau Travail, Les Salauds), Philippe Grandrieux (La Nouvelle Vie, Malgré la Nuit), and Lucile Hadžihalilović (Innocence, Evolution).