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Why I am suing La Biennale de Montréal (Montréal, Canada)

August 21, 2015
Isabelle Hayeur, "Murs Aveugles" (2014)

Isabelle Hayeur, “Murs Aveugles” (2014)

On October 22 2014, my site-specific video installation Murs aveugles (Blind Walls) was withdrawn from La Biennale de Montréal. The work had been launched two weeks earlier and was supposed to have been shown until November 23 – as per the contract I had signed with the organization. Since this projection had been designed specifically for the site where it was presented, its withdrawal meant the work has been totally lossed.

After several unsuccessful meetings in view of getting some compensation, I filed a suit at the Small Claims Division of the Civil Division of the Court of Quebec. I was supported in my actions by the Regroupement des artistes en arts visuels du Québec (RAAV), the professional association representing and collectively defending the interests of Quebec artists.

This withdrawal without notice was done the very evening of the official opening of this art event. I first heard about it during the opening, through journalists who wanted to film the work and were wondering why it wasn’t there anymore. This decision was made by the Biennale management; neither the artist, nor the curators were consulted.

This original work was a commission from La Biennale de Montréal: I designed it especially for this art event. I worked on it from the winter of 2014 and I finished it towards the end of the summer. Many tests were made in the presence of the organizers and its content was approved before the beginning of projections.

Murs aveugles was shown on the Esplanade of Saint-Laurent metro station, in partnership with the Quartier des spectacles de Montréal. This public square is a permanent projection site: videos and animations have been featured there for many years already. The work was put together on that square, like a canvas or a mural. The video was fashioned with a template to fit the wall’s shape with its particulars and textures, but also with specific, non-standard video equipment. Relocating it would have been impossible.

The unilateral, hasty decision to withdraw the work was taken following a complaint from the owner of the building on which the video was projected. The lady in question had agreed that these videos be projected onto her wall and had never demanded a right to oversee the content of projections. On the other hand, I was perfectly willing to meet her to try and find a solution.

Following the work’s withdrawal, a week went by before a meeting between the Biennale, the Quartier des spectacles and myself was set up in order to consider alternatives. In a crisis situation, this is much too long. I was being told there was nothing to do, that the projection could not be put back, that it was an unforeseen situation and that the owner refused to meet us to discuss it. I came out of this meeting somewhat perplexed.

Following this, I published a text through my personal newsletter to announce to the public the withdrawal of my work. Without this text, there would have been no official press release, nor any mentions on social networks. On two occasions, in the course of phone conversations with people at the Quartier des spectacles, I was criticized for publishing this text. As for the Biennale, it preferred to put a rather vaguely worded mention on a low-visibility page of its Internet site (to reach it, you have to click on the list of artists, and then on my name). Clearly, hushing up the whole affair was the preferred course of action.

Living outside the city, I had to get to Montréal on many occasions to try to settle the situation as well as to meet journalists. On November 27 2014, coming out of the offices of CIBL community radio station, I passed in front Mrs. Chow’s shop and I entered. I was expecting her not to want to talk with me, but it was quite the opposite. When a meeting had been suggested to her, she just was not available, but another day would have been possible for her. She also told me that a slight alteration to the work would have suited her, something I would have agreed to. To my knowledge, I am the only person to have met her.

Since that time, I have written a letter to the Biennale’s Board members, I have met some of them, the RAAV has circulated a petition to reinstate the projection and has proceeded to send this organization a letter of formal notice; a mediation session was finally set up by the Small Claims Court in July 2015. La Biennale still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge having done any wrong – without giving any reason or acceptable arguments.

Murs aveugles was my fourteenth project of its kind. I have done public works in Canada, but also in the United States and in Europe. The more significant works were commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad, Nuit Blanche Toronto 2011 and Denver International Airport (2012). I have had problems in the past in connection with the presentation of public works, but the organizations settled this type of situation correctly; they always checked beforehand and knew how to manage crisis situations. What I have gone through on account of La Biennale de Montréal is quite unusual. What is an art organization’s role and mandate? La Biennale should have honored its contract by defending the work and the artist.

It is normal for an art presenter to expect an artist to hand in projects in time, to provide images and explanatory texts, and to be available for interviews. In return, an artist can legitimately expect a presenter to give her respect and to make the arrangements needed for her work to be adequately shown.

Isabelle Hayeur, artist

The work Murs aveugles / Blind Walls may be viewed on the Internet at this address: https://vimeo.com/104032665 

La Biennale de Montréal responded to the artist’s intention to sue their institution:

La Biennale de Montréal is a non-profit organization.

In October 2014, La Biennale de Montréal signed a contract with the artist to show four of her works in total.

This exhibition lasted for 10 weeks, from October 8 to January 4, 2015.

The artist has received the amount of 2000$ for the works exhibited which exceeded the minimum fare recommended by CARFAC.

Two weeks after the beginning of the exhibition, the owner of the building on which the work “Murs aveugles” was shown asked that it be removed. This was the decision of the owner of the building, not that of La Biennale de Montréal, and it represents a case of “force majeure.” La Biennale de Montréal cannot be held responsible for it.

Moreover, the right to present a work does not imply an obligation to do so, if the circumstances warrant it. 

La Biennale de Montréal has proposed other alternatives to Isabelle Hayeur. Isabelle Hayeur has had more visibility in the media than the other artists. 

La Biennale de Montréal has paid Isabelle Hayeur and if someone has suffered damage, it was La Biennale de Montréal, not Isabelle Hayeur. Isabelle Hayeur didn’t suffer any damage to her reputation, therefore her appeal is unfounded.

Finally, this legal action against the biennale is inadmissible, because Ms. Hayeur waived her right to sue by signing the contract, as mentioned in Clause 11.

Christian Bédard, general director of the Regroupement des artistes en arts visuels du Québec (“RAAV”) gave this statement:

For its part the Biennale does not recognize its mistakes and says it was confronted with a case of “force majeure under the Civil Code”, preventing it to respect its contract. La Biennale de Montréal added that the artist was well paid and the contract signed with the artist does not require the organizers to present the work during the 10 weeks. La Biennale de Montréal blames this withdrawal to the owner of the building who “unilaterally and without notice, withdrew their consent to the work of the projection home.”

From the perspective of RAAV, which supports the artist in this case, it is a breach of contract affecting the reputation of the artist, restricting her right to freedom of expression and depriving the visibility of the work, which she was entitled to expect under the contract. This situation seems to have been rather badly managed by the Biennale. The Biennale should defend a work that it had not only controlled but also pre-approved, with the risk of suffering the wrath of the owner and the Quartier des spectacles, which would have been unlikely.

For more information please read:

Boyce, Maryse, “La projection Murs aveugles est suspendue”, BaronMag, October 28, 2014
Clément, Éric, “Biennale de Montréal: une œuvre retirée”, La Presse, October 31, 2014
Fortier, Marco, “L’art qui dérange a-t-il encore sa place?”, Le Devoir, October 31, 2014
Sutton, Benjamin, “Occupy-Themed Light Projection Removed from Montreal Biennale“, Hyperallergic, October 31, 2014
Bédard, Christian, “Cas de censure politique au Quartier des spectacles?”, RAAV, November 5, 2014
MFX, “Le Quartier des spectacles complice de la censure d’une œuvre d’art?”, 99%Media, November 6, 2014
Ledoux, Julie, “Aux frontières de l’espace privé et de la liberté d’expression”, Voir, November 6, 2014
Petrowski, Nathalie, “Le mur, le feu et Mme Chow”, La Presse, November 15, 2014
Clément, Éric, “Biennale de Montréal: bilan positif… mais peut mieux faire”, La Presse, January 7, 2015
Lelarge, Isabelle, “Art et illusions”, ETC Média, February 15 – June 15 , 2015
Delgado, Jérôme, “La Biennale de Montréal menée en cour”, Le Devoir, July 24, 2015

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