Finding The Capacity To Be Proud Of Who We Are

I think we can do better as a community in getting that word out there, that’s for sure. And I know that these were some of the conversations that we were having with the MURAL Festival guys. And know that that was what was driving it was like cool, great party in Miami, great party here all over the world, but we have this in Montreal. We just have to kind of build it up a little bit better.

We have to kind of find a capacity to be proud of who we are and know that we definitely, not only do we compete, we’re actually at the top of the game in so many ways relatively speaking. It doesn’t replace living in New York or bigger cities where the level of necessity just goes up, where the level of ambition, and hunger, the power stakes as you go closer to the periphery of art world power. Obviously, the stakes are higher. There’s more at play. But I think we can generate something here in Montreal and are in a present tense and future tense doing very good work.

I guess here’s the rub. It’s not expensive to live here so it’s also easier to have a better lifestyle and work less intensely to achieve the same thing, whereas if you live in Toronto, it’s business time and you have a lot less personal time. Making more money perhaps, but to what end? So you can get trapped in that sense of scraping by but having a good life, or you can kind of look at saying let’s work a little bit extra and really give us reason for better celebration down the road.

Montreal’s Magnetism Is What Lead Me Here

I grew up in Winnipeg so Montreal was that city that everybody talked about, I think in the same way people talk about Berlin. It was this place where artists could be. It was very bohemian. Still is. And it had this incredible kind of magnetism as a cultural landscape. I moved here with the woman I was married to and a small child. At the same time, my mom moved here with her new partner and so we had family. This was an obvious place to land.

Starting A New Career Path In Montreal

It wasn’t long after I moved here that I got divorced and then had these two small children to take care of and also these questions as to my own personal identity and path forward. And at that point, just given the complexities of a divorce, and the ages of the children, and just all of the pain that that encompassed, I realized in that place that I needed to go back to art because I had given it up for many years. I just let the practice die completely, and through that process of divorce, was able to reinvent myself, and was able to become somebody very different and that included being an artist.

Montreal was a perfect diving platform for that to happen. It just meant I sat around. I went to vernissages. I went to openings quite a bit by myself and forced myself to just sit in a corner. I was very shy. I was intensely shy at that point in my life and realized that in my process of becoming an artist, that I had to move out of that space, that I had to become somebody very different. Going back to that idea of going to openings by myself, I would force a kind of glass of wine into my hand and a wall to perch on, some corner, and just hope that somebody would trip over my feet or that I would bump into somebody and a conversation would start.

That was a way for me to confront becoming more extroverted, becoming more part of a community, and then I ended up finding a small gallery that hosted my work. I got this platform where I could start making stuff and kind of selling it. I didn’t really sell anything but I kind of picked up every small job that I could so that included telemarketing, construction, renovation, taught myself Photoshop, taught myself Illustrator, learned how to just take everything on that I could so that I could balance those precious spare moments of life to put that into art knowing that I had to become an artist not just for myself but for these two kids that I had and just was like a no fail situation.

I patched it all together, had this show at a gallery called Pangée at the time. And then through that show was given the space, the gallery space for about four months. And from that space, we created the En Masse project which was a real turning point in my own career in the sense of it being able to launch me into a whole stream of activities that very much defined the work that I do today.

The En Masse Project

The whole En Masse project was born from conversations I was having with a very good friend who was living here at the time named Tim Barnard. How can we create a platform whereby we can get corporate donation or money, but so it’s mutually beneficial? ‘Cause he was selling t-shirts, he was busking t-shirts at Metro Mont-Royal and we were like let’s go to American Apparel and get some sponsorship of t-shirts, and we created a whole project for them which was an international roll out. Very interesting, very exciting.

When I was given the space at Galerie Pangée for like four months, I said we’ll create a show. So Tim and I thought all right, this is an amazing opportunity to give the artists in Montreal that we were a part of, this community, a very kind of urban arts collection of tattoo artists, illustrators, designers, street artists, graffiti artists, all these people who didn’t really have gallery representation or who didn’t really explore that kind of world. This was a place for us to bring that to light, this emerging underground community that now we kind of, we get. Now, we celebrate it in this MURAL Festival capacity and stuff. But back then, there was one gallery in town that hosted that. So for us, we had this space.

We wanted to create something that was really dynamic in a sense of how do we get community involved? How do we create conditions in Montreal whereby the community in itself is so powerful that the larger market has to pay attention to it, has to look and say at least what the hell is going on in there? That’s cool. So that was the birth of the En Masse project was that sense of taking different players from very different communities, different groups or crews, collections, all over the city, and taking the best from each and we put about 30 artists in a gallery over the course of a month, covered the thing in paper as a one time experiment to say you guys get to do what you want to do in here. You just have to make it black and white. That’s the only rule. Everything else is open.

And it was immediately successful as a project. We launched it during Nuit Blanche in 2009 and from there, it exploded. It very organically grew into four expressions of activity, museum and gallery, public events and festivals, private and commercial contracts, and then what became a pedagogical branch of activities which we call En Masse For The Masses or En Masse Pour Les Masses.

I mean in a nutshell, the short version would be that En Masse is really a collaborative drawing project designed to explore shared creativity. What happens when people come together to work on something greater as a whole than they could achieve individually?

Mobilizing Community Through Collaboration

The En Masse project kind of rises and falls as I pay attention to it. I mean, it is in a very funny kind of way a body of my own work. As an artist, I was interested, I mean, Tim and I were interested in issues surrounding artistic authorship, issues surrounding shared creativity, a number of the issues that the En Masse project is mandated to explore.

I never expected to use collaboration as a tool, as an artist, using collaboration as a tool of expression. When I’m not paying attention to the En Masse project, when I’m off on more personally directed work, it just goes dormant. It kind of falls asleep. There’s still a lot of interest. A lot of projects come in but that’s a kind of reflexive activity where I’m just like great, this project, yes, that project, no, but there’s no outward expression. We’ve not really done any reach. And so it’s been alive for about 10 years now, but I think five of those 10 years have been rather dormant.

Under the conditions right now in the world which I think are of enormous mutual concern when we talk about environmental and political issues, my interest in the En Masse project and seeing it expand and develop again is renewed in the sense that it has an enormous capacity to mobilize community. And mobilize community not necessarily in an overtly political way while it contains in itself a very powerful political and sociological message, it never has to wave a flag.

Montreal Offers Opportunities To Artists

I think Montreal contains a huge amount of opportunity for artists on an ongoing way because it’s so cultural diverse. I think because of the historical and contemporary context of Quebecois life. You know, Quebecois culture is surrounded by this ocean of anglophone identity which is Canada and America.

There’s a connection to culture here in Montreal that runs deeper than so many of the other cities I find in Canada. And I don’t mean to say like where I grew up in Winnipeg was very dynamic. It’s very culturally rich, but Montreal’s much more extravagant in how it celebrates culture and how it invites people to that table. It’s a feast here.

Understanding The Cultural Value Of Art

It’s not an excellent market, I find, for what I do. My type of work doesn’t sell that well here and I enjoy my success internationally quite a bit. The En Masse project is different. Perhaps the En Masse project could only have been born in Montreal. It is a community that supports itself and each other very well, and has huge and deep interest in what’s happening.

I think Montreal is also a city that has become at least from an international perspective kind of like one of the crown jewels of Canada’s cultural industry. I mean, if you look at the circuses that have come from here, like the performance arts, the visual arts, the creative arts, the writing. I mean, Montreal has always been a hot bed and I think part of that successful formula is having a public that understands the role and value of art in society, and contributes to that. When you look at more perhaps conservative societies and communities in Canada for example, that’s a harder sell.

When I’m doing the same type of work here that I do here in Alberta for example, it’s an uphill battle. Whereas here, the door was open. We didn’t have to have the conversation as to why is art valuable? Like what is its meaning beyond something that will decorate your wall, or you put on your shirt, or what’s the deeper story here? And everybody resonates with that. When you talk to them about that, they’re like oh okay, but we take that for granted here.

The Importance Of Preserving Your Culture

I think the bigger issue of why there’s such a rich cultural landscape in Montreal has to do with, again, those issues of identity. I mean, when you’re legitimately facing kind of an erasure of your language and who you are because you are such a vast minority in a place, I think your first line of defense is culture, is to create a thriving cultural atmosphere which the arts are included, the visual arts and the other artistic expressions of the other humanities are ultra important in that sense and have to be encouraged, have to be lavished upon perhaps so as to not only capture these stories, these identities, these narratives, but also to bring them forward into the future in a way that lives, breathes, and is relevant because languages do die, cultures do die, they do change, they shift, they become other things.

Diversifying Your Client Base As An Artist

I did pursue the grant hustle for a while and it was just an unsuccessful process. And as like it was with most artists, it’s a pain in the ass, right? But I think for those who successfully go through that system, it’s great. It’s not without its own work and effort. But for my own trajectory, I was not interested in going through the grants or having to answer to that system.

What I created with Tim through the En Masse project and the participation with so many other artists was something that could bypass that system completely. We could work with the agencies that preferred grants or we could work with corporate entities, we could work with community groups, we could work anywhere.

And so the En Masse project also introduced so many other artists and our own colleagues to these different ways of working within the community, of touching the community in very intimate and expressive ways.

Serving The Community Through Art

I think MURAL Festival had a lot to do with the acceptance of Under Pressure, for example. Graffiti is still something that is rooted in vandalism and as such has perhaps more anarchistic implications as an activity. People are uncomfortable with anarchy in the fuller sense of how that word is defined. I don’t mean just violence and wrecking shit. I mean like really challenging power structures.

That goes back to why I wasn’t applying for grants and stuff like that is well, I’ve wanted to make a type of art that wasn’t necessarily tethered to sales and things. And that’s unfortunate because we need to learn again how to become citizens, how to become responsible for our communities.

I think,call us filmmakers, or as nurses, or doctors, or garbage men, or whoever, to understand our vocation in context. I’m an artist so I create community events and community platforms using my tools as an artist.

Being Part Of A Community Is Invaluable

You know, I think for younger generations, for younger artists especially looking to get involved in the community here in Montreal in meaningful ways, just can’t overemphasize that word community which means finding ways to get out, finding ways to connect with other people. I think it’s a really timely conversation about artistic authorship and creating things together not necessarily like just En Masse project style, but really looking at how we can fortify each other to strengthen each other. Little groups.

I really believe the solution starts with us at the ground level within our communities, and I mean like five or 10 people dedicated to showing up every week and hanging out and figuring out how they can do something cool.

Art Has The Capability To Mobilize Communities

We have to come out of the shell. I think we have to sort of drop some of the narcissism that our society promotes. I don’t think that’s a born human value. People would rather work in a coal mine than they would take a government handout. They know it will kill them, but they don’t want the handout. They want to be part of something bigger. We want to be part of something bigger. We’re not lazy. We’re not creatures who live off of comfort but yet that’s what the advertising industry pushes us.

More of us, more of us as artists need to rethink our strategies. Do we want to sell shit to people that we don’t care about or do we want to use those tools as communicators because there’s nothing really more powerful than art to speak to these issues. I would be open to the challenge, but people don’t care about facts. People don’t care about science. They’re not moved by rational thought. Belief does. Art speaks to us on very deep unconscious levels at times whether you understand it or not.

And so I think we need to challenge ourselves. I think when you as a young artist are looking at coming into this industry, what is meaningful to you?

Montreal Has The Capacity To Lead By Example

One of the things that excites me the most about living in Montreal right now is the conversation on the political left that happens here. That conversation is alive here and I think in very real ways, it is the one province and the one city within this country that has the capacity to change the rest of the country in leadership by example. So I’m very excited about that. I’ve just spent two weeks, actually this month, I spent the last two weeks basically making protest posters and banners for a recent Earth Day protest that just went by.

And I think artists here in Montreal actually are absolutely taking the lead. And so that’s what I want to see. That’s what I need to see. Like I’m kinda ready to give everything for that. Just to sort of create the conditions whereby we as artists get to lead the process of change through creativity and not something enforced, not something that we push on people, ram down their throats, because authoritarianism, it’s risky territory. We can’t have that. I think we need to lead by creative example.

Promoting Healthy Dialogue About Political Issues

There’s never ever been a generation on this planet that actually gets to decide on the fate of its organized humanity as we do. So the future question is a great question. I think the future, by 2050, there’s conservative projections of over 200 million global refugees, climate change refugees. We got how many millions out of Syria and how much chaos did that create? 2050, it’s within my lifetime. It’s not far away. So if we’re not having the conversations about that kind of stuff as artists and in every vocation, we’ve missed the point.

We only have as of today’s date roughly 10 years to make the change because otherwise, we miss the Paris Accord, we miss our agreements, we miss those targets, the degrees rise, and we’re toast. So we get to decide. Like we get to decide on the fate of civilization. Kids are coming up with powerful voices. They need our support more than ever. We have to check out. We have to check out. We have to wake up. We have to get back into the streets and we have to push back hard. Otherwise, we’re part of the problem.

Creating Valuable Networks In Montreal

New York is like Montreal in the sense that there’s a bunch of people from all over the place that are kind of slammed into this little city and hungry for connection. So as long as you can get over your introversion, it took me a long time to do so, you can get over yourself and get out into the community with a bit more generosity to self and to others. And say hey, I’ve got an idea. Can we talk? You’re ahead of the game.

Montreal is a place where relationships are very important, and I think that’s true everywhere honestly. I think that’s very true everywhere. Montreal, it’s a small enough community that relationships are really meaningful and should be honored as being extremely valuable as they are in that sense of we open doors for each other. And that’s a professional component but there’s a bunch of other things that are really important emotionally and spiritually when talking about how we can surround ourselves by people who see us, who understand what we’re doing, and who want to see us grow and be better because they know that in helping another do the same, they encourage a similar process in themselves. It’s of mutual advantage to us all to do that kind of stuff.

But in Montreal like New York is one of these very exciting places where you can kind of put your hand out into the street. Someone’s gonna come by and shake it and speak to you in some other language and it’s gonna be really interesting. And everybody gets that you’re gonna go through this funny dance, but you’re gonna get somewhere, and it’ll be exciting.

The Way Montrealers Enjoy Their Space

Montreal for me is always home. I’ve never lived anywhere longer than I have here. My French is pretty crappy still. I have a capacity to deliver the basic information but I’m not nearly as fluent as I would like to be. And in that sense, I’ve always felt like a bit of a stranger in this place. Every corner and every conversation has this potential for wonderment and the bizarre as you feel when you’re traveling. It’s like oh, everything’s still shiny and new even though I’ve been here longer than anywhere else in my life.

Now, home base because I travel so much, when I come back home, I have a little path that goes into Parc La Fontaine and I spend a lot of time there and as much as I don’t get out into the country as much as I’d like to and feel and connect with nature, I get to go to Parc La Fontaine and connect with a lot of ducks and a lot of beautiful people who are sitting in the park picnicking and just having a great time together as a group chillin’ out and enjoying the weather, whatever that is. It’s rain or shine.

So that for me is one of the things that was an immediate initial draw to Montreal, but it’s one of the true lasting pleasures I derived from this city It’s the way that people love their space, the way that they use public space, and parks, and environments where they just get out and have a good time and it doesn’t have to be a concert, or a sports game, or anything other than an excuse to drink wine on a picnic blanket.