A ‘State of Emergency’ in Montreal

0 Posted by - November 22, 2010 - Features, Installations, Performance, Public art, Visual art

In just a few days (on Nov 25) begins one of the most remarkable festivals in Canada, Etat d’Urgence, a cultural gathering for the homeless in the heart of one of North America’s finest urban playgrounds – Montreal, Quebec. The event – as this year’s promotion suggests – is an all inclusive vacation for Montreal’s homeless. And, for the other 14,000 regular Montrealers expected to attend, Etat d’Urgence is a cultural festival that is entirely unique.

For four days, the homeless of Montreal will have access to three large tents offering 24-hour food service and medical aid, psychological counseling, more than $50,000 in donated clothing (including some nice all-weather gear from Mountain Equipment Coop), haircuts, sleeping facilities, information tables for services offered year round by community organizations, three hot meals daily and a surprisingly world class roster of cultural and musical performances by artists and musicians.

All inclusive indeed.

Now in its 12th and sadly final year, Etat d’Urgence is the creation of Quebec’s Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable (ATSA: the Association for Socially Acceptable Terrorism), one of Canada’s foremost public art troupes. Their modus operandi is to shock and charm people into experimenting with their capacity for taking action – to make it fun, provocative, and meaningful through art, and then hope that some of it spills out into the real world.

Like many of ATSA’s interventions, Etat d’Urgence turns common sensibilities inside-out. This year’s theme is the “all-inclusive” vacation package” (“Tout Inclus” in French), a play on the “glossy, squeaky-clean view of the world championed by travel agency brochures” complete with faux swimming pool, palm trees, deck chairs and parasols. The twist is that this “Tout Inclus” is for some of the poorest and most destitute living on the streets of Montreal.

“We like to play with aesthetics in the clash of symbols,” explained ATSA co-founder Annie Roy from her bustling Plateau office. “You show an image and you reverse its function. Normally when you go on an all-inclusive, the local population in the south are not included – most are excluded. But in our ‘Tout Inclus’ it’s the opposite.”

The Politics of Poverty

ATSA learned last week that Heritage Canada had withdrawn their funding. It was an unprecedented and remarkably mean-spirited cut coming so close to the event without warning and after years of successive and uncritical support. Said Roy, “Heritage Canada cut our funding from $43,000 to zero, and we don’t know why because our funding has increased over the 12 years we have organized the event. I think it’s ideological.” In a press release issued earlier today,  the organizers have confirmed that the festival will proceed but will necessarily face challenges.  They have turned to the public asking for donations to make up the shortfall.

A refugee camp in the heart of a wealthy city like Montreal does provoke certain sensibilities. The first Etat d’Urgence in 1998, was a recreation of the conditions refugees experience in camps where large populations have fled their homes because of war, environmental disaster, economic and political persecution (according to UN estimates there are some 12 million people worldwide living in refugee camps). It was built with help from the Canadian military complete with sandbags and military tents and was intended to give Montrealers a first hand glimpse into the world’s refugee crisis. But what happened was completely unexpected. The camp was overrun by local homeless people.

“For us,” says Roy, “it was a revelation because maybe you see a homeless person here or there, but it made us realize how bad the problem is.”

ATSA followed their lead. The project was transformed from a symbolic camp into a real one, a place of temporary refuge for Montreal’s street population.

Interesting Human Encounters

Other than a certain heartless kind of bean counting, it is hard to imagine the grounds for ideological opposition to Etat d’Urgence.  More than 350 volunteers are involved in providing essential services to a large homeless population for four days often times in freezing temperatures. In addition to the homeless, last year more than 13,000 regular Montrealers came to the festival demonstrating widespread participation and approval.

The bringing together of these two populations – the housed and the homeless – is one of ATSA’s stated goals. “So people not in the street,” explained Roy, “can come and feel at ease when they encounter this population which sometimes is barbaritif, you know? It helps the common population come to the homeless population and to understand in human terms their distress.”

For the artists, musicians and performers involved, it is an opportunity to encounter an audience who rarely has access to cultural events. “The artists are afraid,” said Roy. “Will their show touch people? How different are the homeless? They are super unsure sometimes, even more nervous than performing on big stages. This is a human encounter that is very interesting.”

This year’s festival includes art and performances by Toxique Trottoir, Emilie Clepper, Dominique Blain, Patrick Bérubé, Stéphane Bouthillette and international artists Leonel Luna, Winfried Baumann and Hans Winkler among others.

New Social Architectures

Etat d’Urgence is what ATSA calls “social architecture” a created playground for real life events but within unprecedented conditions. Guests play the role of themselves, but in a utopic arrangement. “It’s like a big cinema plateau – a plateau that is real and not real. We are setting a mechanism to bring people together. What they do with this encounter is up to them. We like to play in this fine line between real and not real – a kind of hyperrealism aesthetic.”

The festival with its sleeping facilities, never-closing kitchens, clothing handouts and celebratory welcoming of Montreal’s homeless certainly falls outside of the day-to-night hostilities and life threatening realities of living on the street. And because it does, new social possibilities can arise.

“I’ve lived very poetic experiences through these encounters,” says Roy. “I’ve seen young soldiers from the street exchanging survival skills together around the fire. Those people would spit at each other normally in the street, but because of the relational context of the camp they see each other differently.”

A History of Challenges

The camp has a rollercoaster history of successes, challenges and outright cancellations. The year following 1998’s transformation of the symbolic camp into a real one, the City withdrew support forcing organizers to create a make-shift camp – still with military help – on private property. In 2000, both the municipality and military refused to help and camp was cancelled. The following year, Roy and co-founder Pierre Allard put up a tent to protest the closing of a homeless shelter and dished bowls of hot soup from a downtown spot in -25 weather for three days.

In 2002, things took a turn for the better. A more sympathetic City government newly elected gave them three weeks to set up camp in Place Emelie-Gamelin, a park centrally located above Montreal’s main subway station and what remains today the festival’s location. In 2003, chefs from two Montreal gastronomic institutes agreed to provide haut cuisine for the crowds attending the camp which also attracted the attention of politicians, the media and other cultural glitterati. From 2004 forward, the festival consistently grew into its present high-profile form involving hundreds of volunteers and artists, cultural programming, health amenities, etc. serving thousands of visitors.

The camp now enjoys significant support from the city and even from local police. “The city comes to get the garbage, plug in the water, provide electricity, block the street – it’s a village, it’s a big logistical challenge. You need to have people who want to help you at the city or otherwise you can’t do it,” says Roy. As for the police, she explained, “they are there, and they are not there. We have a tacit understanding that if we need the police, they’ll be there. But we have our own security with our own instructions how to deal with people at the festival.”

But the police do seem to appreciate what Etat d’Urgence offers the streets of Montreal.  Roy said that during the event police sometimes use the festival as an impromptu and infinitely more humane drunk tank by bringing people they pick up on the streets to the camp rather than to the police station.

“They bring them to us because they know they’re going to calm down and get taken care of,” says Roy, adding astutely that such a gesture “really shows that something is missing from the system.”

The Final Year

ATSA has decided that without independent and stable funding for the festival – a possibility even more remote in the wake of Heritage Canada’s funding cut – that this will be the last year for Etat d’Urgence.  The event has grown so large, Roy explained, that it is threatening to consume all of their energy and resources.

Having made the decision to end ATSA’s involvement, Roy and Allard are not ones to give up hope easily.  They are asking the public for their thoughts about how Etat d’Urgence might continue more independently.  Interested parties are encouraged to send their comments, expressions of support and ideas to ATSA, preferably by signed letter (4430 Drolet, Montreal, Quebec, H2W 2L8).

Protest Without Anger / Research Without Fear

Everything that ATSA does is designed to provoke.  Etat d’Urgence is just one of many challenging and thoughtful public interventions created by ATSA over the years. Bombed out cars in high-profile public locations to provoke debate about the nature of environmental and economic terrorism. An illegal warm sock dispenser in front of Montreal’s Contemporary Art Gallery. A guerilla recycling plant for urban waste. An abandoned factory filled with thousands of pairs of empty shoes. Among many others. Their images – the symbols they work with in their public manifestation – are intended to attract attention, shock sensibilities, and to provoke new ways of seeing the world.

Roy agrees that ATSA’s work including Etat d’Urgence is a form of protest. But the driving agent, she says, isn’t anger. “You don’t have to protest all the time by being angry,” she explained. “In the world right now one of the biggest problems is fear and anger. With fear an anger you get war. But we can protest with a lot more positive energy and be more generous and welcoming and open. I think it’s intelligent to put out a bit of that to compensate all the fear and anger.”

As artists, Roy and Allard describe their interventions – their art – as a way of researching new territories, new ways of seeing the world, and being creative about changing the world. This is, perhaps sadly, one of the features that most distinguishes art from politics. Experimentation. We could also include playfulness, humour, self-reflexion and beauty.

And this is the endearing legacy of Etat d’Urgence, one of the very few cultural festivals specifically for the homeless and not about them or about their conditions. It is ultimately a festival about joy, belonging and caring. That this amounts to political provocation and an apparently ideologically disturbing (at least for some) form of cultural expression is indeed sad and insightful commentary.

As Roy and Allard explain, “There is always a bridge spanning the divide between the sad acknowledgement of a situation and its solution, and that is the shift into action … ATSA incites people to experiment with their capacity for taking action [and] is an invitation to begin the process, to take a stand like we do in real life, to perform an ‘aesthetic’ action that can later spill over into real life.”

Life imitating art imitating life. It is an artistic practice that dares to challenge – and more importantly, to allow us to challenge for ourselves – some of our most deeply held prejudices and to perhaps encounter some of the intellectual and social habits that implicate many of us in the structures of social injustice, all the while actually doing something about it by challenging those structures in the material world.

Etat d’Urgence runs Nov 25 – 28 at Place Emelie-Gamelin above the Berri-UQAM Metro Station. Open 24 hours.

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