Montreal's Momenta Biennale and the unreliability of the image

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For its 15th birthday, North America’s leading photofestival takes on a new name. Momenta: Biennale de l’image is designed to denote a more studied approach than the previous Month of Photography identity and is entirely in keeping with the direction of the festival – in recent years, under the creative direction of artists, curators and academics including Joan Fontcuberta, Paul Wombell and Marie Frase, it has addressed themes such as the ‘post-photographic’ condition and the impact of automation in image-making.
This year’s invited curator is Ami Barak, a French visual authority who has overseen regional collections and produced several cultural happenings, including Nuit Blanche in Paris. He wants to go back to basics in terms of theme, asking: “What does the image stand for?” In other words, since a picture can be manufactured, manipulated, constructed and deliberately composed, what is its relation to reality? “That photography is a mirror of the real has been an enduring and tenacious misconception, and an ongoing personal preoccupation,” he says.
This concern prompted him to feature Taryn Simon’s The Innocents series at the Jeu de Paume in 2015. “She went to meet the victims of wrongful conviction based on photographic evidence. They were condemned because of the blind faith we place on the veracity of images. That was the starting point of the reflections that resulted in this year’s biennale theme,” adds Barak.
(Grocery) #7, from the Urban Indian series, 2005. Jarusha Brown © Terrance Houle
While Simon shines at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal – one of the marquee venues – projects by a variety of local and international artists spread across a dozen spaces further demonstrate the illusory nature of photography’s promise of objectivity and truth. Barak’s hope is that the public will grasp that artists direct their gaze in a certain direction rather than functioning as copy machines.
Take the practice of Nadia Myre, a Quebec-based Algonquin artist from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, for instance. She asked people to draw a scar, which she then converted into beaded work before making a photograph of it. “Ultimately, what is her image of?” says Barak. “The scar, the sketcher’s interpretation of it, a beaded artefact, all of the above? Or something else entirely: a metaphor, a symbol that the audience may or may not discern?”
Frédéric Lavoie’s installation offers another way to approach the issue at hand. Using a picture of Montréalers clearing a Notre-Dame street after a snowfall in 1887, he imagined and created what the corresponding soundscape would have been. “By adding a fictional audio dimension, he also simultaneously reinforces the impression of truth,” says Barak.
The works of the 38 selected artists thus constitute a body of argument supporting Barak’s idea that there is a disconnect between what photography shows and what actually is. At a time when everyone is a photographer, posting their best images on social media, he feels that it is important to remind the public to be critical, that the author has an intention in mind and that ultimately “what you see is not what you get”.
Momenta Biennale de l’Image is open from 07 September – 15 October. This article was first published in the September issue of BJP, available via
Keeper’s Crossing, from the Wanderings series, 2015 © Meryl McMaster, courtesy of Katzman Contemporary (Toronto)
My Deepest Sympathies, 2014 © Hanna Liden, courtesy of Maccarone (New York, Los Angeles)
Laurence Butet-Roch

Laurence Butet-Roch is a photographer, writer, PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University, and Graduate Research Associate at the Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology. Her research unsettles mainstream representation of environmental contamination in Canada through participatory visual discourse analysis and collaborative photographic approaches.