Photo by Kyle Berger

Archive Contemporary holds its inaugural vernissage

A new Montreal gallery comes out of Instagram and into the world.

Archive Collective Magazine was founded by Maela Ohana four years ago as an online gallery/zine, as well as an Instagram gallery, but this Friday marks the gallery’s inaugural vernissage as a bona fide physical space called Archive Contemporary. The first show is Awakening, featuring seven photographers (Synchrodogs, Benoit Paillé, the Live Wild Collective, François Olivier, Nanne Springer, Kyle Berger and Frédéric Tougas) as well as two painters, Montreal’s own (Beaver Sheppard and Christie Brunet).

Ohana grew up in India, lived in Berlin and went to art school in Italy, but she’s established herself in Montreal these past five years. It makes sense that her international connections were first established digitally, but how do you make that leap from omnipresent virtual space to somewhere you can actually greet people with tiny glasses of free wine and perhaps a plate of cheese and crackers? (Quality of cheese and crackers directly correlating to the size and funding of the gallery in question.)

For those of us who follow “galleries” and “magazines” on Instagram, it can be hard not to scoff at those words being appropriated to describe a tiny series of images, so often curated based on laughably simplistic criteria: e.g. the presence of sultry teens (almost exclusively cis women), excessive mist (often in “retro” Americana type scenarios in which shafts of heavenly light filter through Midwestern diners and across the dusty interiors of motels, and particularly motel signs, ad nauseum), frame within a frame as a major compositional element (thousands of rear view mirrors, security mirrors, bathroom mirrors and still puddles in which hydro lines and pouty lips shimmer) and a hefty dose of visual irony. (There’s also the cooler but just as ubiquitous variant of feed/gallery that comes in a highlighter iGen-type neon palette: top-flash images that you know the photographer in question hopes (and who can blame them?) will win them a hip contract with Adidas or Nike or Calvin Klein. You know the ones.)

Take for example one gallery I follow, @25bluehours (with 21.4k followers) which accepts, yes, only images taken during blue hour. Look, I’m not a monster. I think motels (and motels at blue hour) are as beautiful as the next guy. I’ve even taken this type of photograph and been pleased with the result. En masse, however, the effect of these images can be laughable. Even conceding the obvious beauty of a lot of these photos, one such picture, alone in a book or a gallery, serves a wildly different function than 500 posts of the same, mashed unintelligibly together. What these Instagram accounts really are, of course, are mood boards, one of countless intellectually teenage terms that have entered mainstream discourse and which otherwise respectable adults use unironically to describe something as fundamentally vapid as hundreds of buildings and women in supple azure light as if they were somehow part of our collective “visual culture” and not just the artistic equivalent of a selection of paint samples. Yet, they are part of our visual culture, influentially so. Think about what mood boards connote for a second: a source of… inspo. Not inspiration, no, just its inane abbreviated cousin. And then think of the kind of person who derives their inspo not from the news or their community or from Kafka or Freddie Gibbs or Clouzot or the sight of an ocean or a skyscraper but from images of babes under a gloaming sky as vaporous as the aesthetic conceits that drove some photographer-turned-marketer to take and then promote that image in the first place.

Not to excessively hammer home this McLuanite argument for the numbing sameness of Instagram’s gallery content, but the message on Instagram cannot escape its media. Placing the loveliest, or most critical, or most intriguingly peculiar all-blue image next to 1,000 of its bland cerulean kin is like plunking down a big Rothko coffee table edition in your living room because it matches the colour of your drapes.

With regards to Archive Contemporary, it’s very encouraging that Ohana is not at all naïve in this respect. She concedes “it’s very difficult” for a curator to escape from the intrinsically solipsistic loop of Instagram (despite how useful many artists find the platform). When asked about the impetus to move into a physical gallery, she remarked that part of what compelled her was putting herself “in a position where [she] really had to do intellectual work…When I first started the magazine I was really putting a lot of time and effort into creating these long, elaborate articles [but] towards the end you get caught into this trap of oh, I know this picture’s going to do better on social media.”

Even in its online iteration, Archive Collective Magazine was (and is) concerned with “work at the intersection of art and environmentalism” (and in this spirit Archive Contemporary’s next open call pertains exclusively to art engaging with this theme). Awakening, while not devoted directly to environmental themes, calls heavily upon Magic Realism. Ohana sees this as correlating with her larger environmental interests by “giving a supernatural power to nature…elevating it to a magical force that is awe-inspiring and overwhelming and larger than human life.” In fact, Archive’s first offline foray was through a print magazine also examining art and environmentalism: The Earth Issue.

Additionally, each artist presenting at Archive Contemporary will have the opportunity, during the month-long shows, to conduct workshops and talks related to their work. Building upon and tangibly engaging with the existing artistic community in Pointe-Ste-Charles, where Archive is opening, is clearly on Ohana’s mind.

It will be interesting to see where this project succeeds and how it develops in its own right, beyond the ‘gram. Consider Kyle Berger, certainly the greatest humorist of the photographers featured in Awakening, and someone whose abundant irony have made him an Instagram star. His work functions through nimble digital collages of animals and corporate iconography, only unlike the manipulations of, say, Jeff Wall, his aesthetic, as joyful and broadly critical as it can be, feels a little too tied to the very corporate entities he’s critiquing. And surprise, he’s done a commissioned series for Adidas.

There is after all a collective goofiness that thrives on social media, a tone suited to bright and easy rejoinders both on behalf of, and railing against, brands. I for one will be keen to see how this particular iteration of online culture comes to manifest in the world. It’s only fitting that Ohana describes Awakening as “exploring…dreams and consciousness, nature and artifice, reality and distortion.” ■

Awakening opens at Archive Contemporary (2471 Centre St) Friday, June 21, 7 p.m.-midnight. Free