“I have always preferred spending my creative time in the grey zones.”
Editor of CAROUSEL Magazine, creator of 4Panel, controversial zinester and prolific artist Mark Laliberte joins us to talk beauty, scandals, comics, and more! Read our exclusive interview here.
Subscribe by November 10 to get our latest print, a small booklet featuring two collages by Mark Laliberte and the short tory “The Ten Frequently Asked Questions After Death” by Liam Hogan.
Hi Mark. Can you briefly introduce yourself?
Hello to everyone in the Papirmass community. My name is Mark Laliberte, I am a Toronto based artist / designer / project architect. I was born in Windsor, ON and spent my formative years there. I completed an MFA at The University of Guelph in 2005, and have been living in the west end of Toronto for the past eight years.
Currently, I curate a project called 4PANEL, an online space where a range of talented artists creatively explore the four-panel comics format in a formal and/or literary context. I’m also the manager, arts editor and designer of CAROUSEL, a biannual hybrid literary & arts magazine.
Your practice is varied and broad, encompassing publishing, sound, installation, projected video, collage and drawing. There’s probably more that I’ve left out! Have you ever felt pressure, either internally or externally, to narrow your focus?
I suppose I’ve noted moments in my career where the obvious choice would have been to narrow focus. There have been times when I could have run to a door opening ahead of me, entered it at the price of declaring myself pinpointed into a specific zone, and reaped the rewards that come with this kind of declaration, commercially speaking. Unfortunately, that goes against my nature; I need to move around creatively. It’s not necessarily a good career move to ignore what others want to embrace in favour of what feels right internally, but that’s how my creative compass works. Brian Eno speaks about artists tending towards one of two camps, existing as farmers or prospectors: either you work the same plot of land over and over, or you constantly seek out new territory, never staying in the same place for long. I guess I’m a good example of someone in the latter camp.
Having noted all this, I do my best to frame my art practice in a way that accommodates these tendencies. I see myself as a project-based artist concerned with the interdisciplinary hybridity of forms; I try to see all the work I produce as project or capsule-based, and I see these capsules as fitting into overlapping production zones. Though divergent from project-to-project, the artworks I create share certain formal qualities and conceptual concerns, and over time I have developed my own cosmological system as a way of constructing and organizing meaning within my practice.
Can you tell us more about ‘The Headtrip Scandal’? Do you have a sense that our cultural relationship to censorship has changed? When contrasting the rise of easy information via the internet against increased surveillance and a general culture of fear, it’s hard to tell if open and honest cultural expression is gaining or losing ground.
Headtrip (subtitled ‘For The Tainted Intellectual’) was a photocopied zine that focused in on all of my interests as an 18-year old: bizarre forms of music, comics, movies and art. I published the first issue in September 1989 in my hometown of Windsor, ON, and with it, established myself within the DIY community that was developing internationally around early-wave zine making. A weird series of events thrust Headtrip into the centre of a censorship battle just after its third issue was released — the details of which are really too convoluted to describe in detail here. Suffice it to say an officer with no formal training in interpreting obscenity laws was led to investigate my work on the basis of a single complaint (by a parent who had lost control of their teenager and was looking for something in their lives to blame) and, on his supposed authority, I was charged with five counts of obscenity. Of course, I disagreed and decided to fight. I accessed Legal Aid and found a Toronto lawyer named Dan Brodsky, who took the case on as a special interest project — he is the same lawyer who had cleared the Canadian punk band Dayglo Abortions of a similar problem a few years earlier, a man with a genuine concern for freedom of expression in this country. I’ll spare you the details of what occurred over a slow-moving, two and a half year court battle, but suffice it to say that in the end I came out on top. In 1992, I was found not guilty of all charges in a 41-page written decision — and in doing so, my remarkably tiny high school zine project set a weighty historical precedent for future obscenity cases throughout all of Canada. Personally, the experience also put me on the path to maintaining a serious, self-directed lifelong art practice.
As to your larger question about censorship as it currently relates to our culture, I think that on the surface we live in a pretty open society, although most people — and this includes most artists — in their desire to fit in, are conditioned to be politely self-censoring; to say the right things and avoid unpopular positions. I really dislike the standardized worldviews that dominate contemporary expression, and find programmatic inclusiveness quite oppressive in its own way. Instead, I admire people with a strong, authentic voice, even if they sometimes revel in the unpopular. Someone like David Hickey excites me because he isn’t afraid to cross those polite lines and insult a few people in order to make a point. I don’t always agree, but I appreciate that unique fire burning inside.
Your two images we are publishing in Papirmass come from the series The Fantasia Morose, which uses collage to deconstruct images of models from beauty magazines. Can you tell us more about the process and ethos of that series?
The Fantasia Morose is a body of work that is more than a decade old — I did the bulk of these collages between 1998 and 2000, though a few of the prototypes that led to the series date back to 1996. The series began as a surface study aimed at a particular kind of photography; it directly referenced the mainstream culture’s daily photographic manipulations of the female form — a repetitive act that may be seen as an outward document of the society’s internalized desires and dreams. That’s the well that I chose to drink from here; I positioned myself in the middle of that subject matter by choice and with an uncomfortable awareness of my own youthful libido. For the project, I took on the role of artist as immoral creator, a kind of Frankenstein/Modern Prometheus figure working with paper as a metaphor for flesh. I was already interested in collage as an action, but with this series I was also invested in looking at the act of assembling bodies metaphorically, of playing a male version of a game of paper dolls. In my quest for body parts, I knew I didn’t want to make work that declared a moral or political position in relation to this public acceptance of the body as fetish object, commodity, unit of display — I have always preferred spending my creative time in the grey zones, and am of the opinion that works of art with a political message sitting in their forefront are too didactic and often flatly transparent. Still, as the series developed and as I puzzled these composite forms together, I knew that what I was presenting positioned itself outside of the then-present definition of comfortably accepted beauty. There is a surface tension to the works in the series that makes them hideous at their core despite their flirtations with the beauty, and this is intentional.
Now, looking back, I’m of mixed feelings about these pieces to be honest. At the end of making this series, I had already declared that although I had attempted a kind of gentle transgression, The Fantasia Morose project could be merely predictive, providing an arm’s length glimpse of the mainstream tastes of the future. A decade later, this has certainly come true: they are much more aligned to the pliable, almost collagist beauty standards of the day. I accept that. I think a basic truth is revealed here; in a world where we have the option to treat our bodies like objects that can be changed by will and science, the relentless idealization in commercial photographic imagery can be looked at as evidence that we as a human race do indeed prefer culture over nature. In the breakdown of things, we are all caught up in a process where skin-becomes-photograph-becomes-collage-becomes-a-map-for-new-skin. If anything, I think this work was pointing to this.
You recently completed a sound residency. What was that experience like?
I used to be involved with Thinkbox, a six member new media collective that undertook a variety of projects over about an 8 year period — exhibitions in galleries; countless laptop performances at festivals; outdoor projection pieces; we even released several CDs. Eventually, as is often the case with collective effort, the energy just ran out, and for each of us the call of our personal practices and lives moved to the forefront. So, noting that history, it was great to be given an opportunity to bring sound back into the forefront of my practice for a short time. The Noise Project, organized by Labspace Studio, took place over the summer here in Toronto. As a participant in this “nomadic noise residency”, I had the opportunity to spend time on weekends with a group of artists to approach sound playfully and from many different directions. It culminated with an exhibition at 99 Gallery in July, where I chose to explore sound in a purely visual way. My piece, Like a Switch Being Clicked, was a large-scale graphic wall work that explored noise and its internalized relationship with the body. I described it as “a cartoon sound-effect sonogram, a violent visual sound-poem, a migraine made visible; the work reminds us that sounds express themselves inside the head — passing through the complex mechanism of the eardrum, the world can whisper to us or it can scream, depending on the mood of the meat.”
And finally – what is on your horizon for the next year?
Next year opens with a show of collages at Rotunda Gallery in Kitchener, ON — that’s happening straight away in early January.
After that, I’ll be in the studio focusing on developing a secret collaborative project with commercial leanings — which I can’t say more about at the moment; as well as completing the work for several personal publications planned for release in 2014 — these I can talk about …
I am currently working on developing source material for an artist book that Paper Pusher will release, which we will began preparing for press in the spring — I don’t have a title for that one worked out yet, and indeed there are a lot of question marks here. Rather than micromanaging the entire book work from cover to cover, I’m seeing this as an organic collaboration with a skilled printer whose work and aesthetic I admire, so I want to leave plenty of room for possibility. I know the book will reference the linear cartoon aesthetic of the collages from my series The Simple Sampler, but it’s going to be a completely new thing made specifically for print. I’ll show up with a skeleton of a book, which we’ll then plot out together and adapt to risographic colouring techniques. This open-ended approach is atypical of how I work; yet I’m really looking forward to the play of the process.
I have another artist book on the schedule, Dig Cadaver, which I want to self-release under my own Popnoir imprint for the fall; it’s a pop meditation on mortality. I’m including a sneak peek at the cover design with this interview— it’s about the only thing I’ve completed as of yet. Like many of my recent books, the title does not appear on the front cover; instead, it’s positioned on the back.
And of course, two new issues of CAROUSEL will be completed cover to cover during the course of the year.
Mark Laliberte is our November 2013 artist.
This is a taste of what’s to come when we release his print at the beginning of the month.
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