Editorial: Uncovering the “system of permissions” in Montreal


Why are we in Montreal, Making Art Making Politics? It’s been a unique incubator of ideas about what’s possible – not simply for artists or politicians but for our world in a time of crisis. And if that sounds massively overblown, then let me explain.

To recap: this is the third of a three-part Political Residency at Concordia University Faculty of Fine Arts, involving Alternativet (the Danish political party) and us (their UK platform).

The sequence has followed somewhat the pattern of our collaboratories. The first meeting was a Friendly - a get-to-know-you between artists and politicians. The second, an Inqiry into what occurs when artistic and political cultures and behaviours meet. And now the third: what kind of Action can we take as a result of our meeting?

The design of this last four-day intensive, all taking place within the old Canada Pavilion of the 1967 Expo (see last editorial) already captured the fruits of our collaboration well. Parts of each day were given to discussing and developing what has been created by the students in that extraordinary space, secured by the faculty and their partners Entremise.

We’ll publish the full catalogue when the ‘Seed Bomb’ of ideas finally explodes on November 17th in a two-day catalyst event. But briefly and for now, the site-specific art-works in progress ranged from trees hollowed out with carvings of entangled rats; concrete heads of humans emerging from beneath the floor; dancers performing the tension between abandonment and excited possibility; and a giant pair of plastic lungs floating from the cavernous roof asking for us to breathe.

There are petri dishes tracking the development of mould gathered in the space. Someone was filming the colony of spiders now occupying the building and projecting them onto the ceiling. Another was planting saplings in the cracks in the floor.

The energy of these pieces feels like a rising against the odds.

Elsewhere, rehearsals were beginning for a diasporic Arabic theatre group Abjad Hawse, exploring the illusion projected upon migrants that they come to their new places of residence with nothing, as if they were tabula rasa. Whereas each and every one comes with their skills, culture and experience – ready to offer those assets to their hosts. It’s an ambitious echo of the Pavilion’s original promise, to create a place where global cultures can meet each other “in mutual admiration”.

Added to that were introductions to other, older, pieces of art and research that captured that interface. For example, Lesley Johnstone introduced us to work of Martha Fleming and Lynda Lapointe whose occupation and deep inquiry into the lives of workers - first at an old fire station and then an old post office - led to those buildings (and their human histories) being fully reintegrated into city life.

In the gaps we heard about the “system of permissions” required to allow that art to be seen. Gabrielle from Convercite described the plethora of contradictory intentions from different parts of the wider Project Montreal to serve the public well. While there is always a desire to be more participatory and inclusive, Gabrielle describes, we always end up serving the privileged – those who are already engaged. Her frustration with the public - who don’t realise the power they could have if they participated more fully - is palpable.

In another meeting with the officials of Parc Jean Drapeau, the site of such huge ambitions from the past, we shared the difficulties on both sides in getting this relatively small show off the ground. Their shared their struggles with us. “You are teaching us how to do special projects. You are keeping the park – the dream – alive”.

But a week earlier, the Seed Bomb - our project - had almost been closed down. The first description of the students’ artistic plans had made the committee nervous that it would interfere with a bigger consultation document already underway. So they were offered a move to another, rather less evocative building! Eventually they could only continue at the Canada Pavilion if agreeing to keep the event private: underground.

With a lot of empathy, these officials tried to respect how the artistic impulse - to connect the unseen human experience to a public stage – becomes visible. If it can successfully negotiate with the many layers of civic bureaucracy, that artistic impulse becomes a vehicle for society to understand itself.

But even as we became more aware of what it takes to make that deep connection from the inside of hidden human experience to the outside - the fully public space where everyone can observe and partake - we were also being asked to mourn how much more difficult it is becoming to achieve that. And to note the evolution of our shared frustration.

As Jonathan Lapalme of Entremise said, informal projects and ideas are welcomed openly; participation and creativity is acknowledged as a good thing. But as soon as they take on a degree of solidity, of formality, they are obstructed. The call for more democratic procedures [from whom? About what?], do not always lead to greater participation. Instead, they often just lead to more opinion, forcibly expressed. Seeing these internal contradictions is important for understanding the nature of our human systems.

That evening we sat down to watch Mission Impossible together. No, no the Tom Cruise, but the truly mind -boggling film of how a team of ten men (later honoured by the Canadian government) took on the task of building the international event in two years less than the computer said it was possible to do so. Which included building an island on the river from scratch.

It was an extraordinary feat by any standards and required plenty of hard power in terms of money and directive leadership. But it also needed soft power: one of the chief actors was an advertising executive whose task it was to fly around the world, capturing the imagination of all the governments who had to invest substantially to make it happen.

But after being swept away by the sheer ingenuity, secondary thoughts arise. In 1967, it was normal for men-only teams to lead the nation into feats of extraordinary expenditure to capture dreams. There’s almost an invitation to be nostalgic about what could be achieved before we had a more developed social consciousness and more regulation. Yes, we can still point to the Olympic committees and the World Cup events as similar achievements, but rarely under the same conditions. And still with the same externalities – the huge waste generated by construction.

We have to ask ourselves: what kind of feat of organisation could rise to the climate crisis we now face? This is also under extreme time pressure, but operates within a far more complex and global social space. And in what ways are we, ourselves, saying yes and no – and not yet – to what now needs to happen? This became the subject of our Alternative collaboratory, the journey of which I’ll explore in the next editorial.

In this event, so intelligently co-created by the Making Art Making Politics team of students, faculty and partners, we are beginning to make the system of permissions – whether from within ourselves, or in the larger society – visible to itself. (See our blog this week - from a Montreal participant - introducing the field of agnotology, which aims to show how ignorance as well as knowledge is actively constructed by the powerful).

As sculptor, Eduardo Della Foresta said, “calling this event political made me think in a more personal way about how I am part of, not just a network of artists, but a wider social sculpture. One that produces the discourse of powerlessness that we are in. But could also, with more attention, produce the discourse we are looking for.”