Recognition and Reckoning: Montreal’s Alternative Art Spaces at the Crossroads

Detail of work by Ludovic Beillard in a section of Épisode Laurier curated by Mégane Voghell. Image credit Simon Belleau.
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On a sunny weekend in June, a multigenerational crowd of artists and art enthusiasts flocked to a series of vacant storefronts and office spaces on Montreal’s Avenue Laurier West for what was billed as a “mini-biennial” or “micro-fair.” The event, titled Épisode Laurier, brought together a handful of small galleries, project spaces, and independent curators for pop-up exhibitions, which overlapped and ran into each other within the site’s rambling, semi-derelict environs. This vacant real estate also rubs shoulders with a number of upscale boutiques, fine restaurants, and trendy bars – Laurier West was once a high-end shopping strip and, thanks to Mile End’s rapid gentrification, is well on its way back to its former status. As a temporary intervention in the midst of simultaneous decline and development, Épisode Laurier was a telling barometer for Montreal’s thriving culture of independent art spaces, which, after several years of fertile growth, has arrived at a moment of recognition and reckoning. Insofar as Montreal’s DIY scene echoes that of many other places on the fringes of the contemporary art circuit, this moment also presents an opportunity to take stock of “alternative” art spaces generally: how they operate, where they’re headed, and what kinds of art they support.

While some of Épisode Laurier’s participating venues were relatively new on the Montreal scene, such as Calaboose, which opened this past winter in a garage in St-Henri, others – such as soon.tw, Raising Cattle, and L’inconnue – have been pillars of Montreal’s community of upstart and DIY spaces for a couple of years. Another participant, MAW, has been presenting a roster of Canadian and international artists in New York since 2016. In April 2017, some of these spaces banded together for a one-night collective event at a local hangout that was cheekily dubbed the Bruno Sport Bar Biennial. Épisode Laurier was, in part, an expanded version of that earlier effort, but it was organized and sponsored by a third party: restauranteur and collector Hubert Marsolais (aided by artist and curator Mégane Voghell). Marsolais, in addition to operating hip, upscale restaurants including Le Serpent, Le Club Chasse et Peche, Le Filet, and Il Miglio, is hoping to break ground on a boutique hotel project (with business partner Sarah Altmejd) on Avenue Laurier West as early as next year. Épisode Laurier thus functioned as a kind of promotional run-up-and-meet-the-neighbours party, though the hotel was nowhere mentioned in the event’s own promotion and circulated mainly as rumour throughout Épisode Laurier’s proceedings.

Meanwhile, across town at René Blouin’s venerable commercial gallery in Old Montreal, the four artists and organizers behind a young art space included in Épisode Laurier, soon.tw – Simon Belleau, Nicolas Lachance, Jean-François Lauda, and Jérôme Nadeau – were exhibiting together in a group show titled Du côté de chez Soon. The show’s press release hailed them as the inheritors of a tradition of artist-run endeavors that dates back to the Automatistes in Quebec, whose historic Refus Global manifesto turns seventy this year. The exhibition also included a provocative text by curator Eli Kerr, who is the cofounder (with Daphné Boxer) of another project space, Vie d’Ange. Vie d’Ange itself was just coming off two ambitious, back-to-back group exhibitions guest-curated with galerie antoine ertaskiran – arguably Montreal’s savviest commercial gallery. All in all, it’s clear that artists and curators from Montreal’s DIY milieu are being welcomed into established commercial spaces and enlisted to put their cultural cachet at the service of larger financial interests.

Dena Yago, “Remove the Outside and the Inside Remains,” 2016. From the exhibition “Title II,” at galerie antoine ertaskiran. Image courtesy of Art Record.

What, then, is the relation between independent spaces and established commercial galleries, especially at a moment in which many small and mid-sized galleries are struggling – not just in Montreal or Canada, but globally? And what is the relation between artist-run DIY galleries and the established, pre-existing network of professional artist-run centers in Canada, which also face questions about their function, funding, and future? What lies in store for these young spaces themselves – most of which were conceived as short-lived or transitional experiments – as their profiles rise?

These questions are the subject of Eli Kerr’s short but timely text, titled “The Tradition of the Untraditional.” The essay had an unusual position within what was, for gallerist René Blouin, an unusual exhibition. As Kerr explained to me, “René doesn’t usually have writing in his shows, and for me as an Anglophone who grew up here it’s a huge deal to be writing for this gallery. I needed to take in all of these circumstances while being cautious yet adventurous.” His gesture was to write about the larger frame within which spaces like soon.tw (and, of course, Vie d’Ange) are operating.

Kerr begins his text with a disclaimer about the supposed newness of today’s project spaces and alternative venues. As the framing of Du côté de chez Soon reminds us, artists exhibiting outside mainstream institutional venues is hardly new. Asserting the Automatistes as a moment of origin serves a number of specific functions in this case: firstly, it argues for the primacy of Quebec in the history of Canadian artist-driven initiatives; secondly, it draws an entirely logical connection between the work of Belleau, Lachance, Lauda, and Nadeau, and the history of formalism and abstract art in Quebec. (It’s hard to avoid the observation that these artists are, like the Automatistes, a group of predominantly white men making predominantly abstract art – though the Automatistes’ radical assertion of anti-establishment and anti-religious sentiment has no parallel today.)

This is, however, neither the historical period nor the genre of art that generally arises when discussing “artist-run culture” in Canada. For that, we should look to the early 1970s, when artists working in conceptual modes and in performance, video, and photography – forms that, at that time, lacked representation in museums and established commercial galleries – began to set up the independent galleries that became, thanks to the largesse of the federal government and a long process of professionalization and institutionalization, the network of Canadian artist-run centers (ARCs) as we know it today. With regard to this system of established ARCs, Kerr writes: “It would be too simple, cynical, and reductive to say that nearly fifty years later they have become the forms of bureaucratic power that they set originally set out against, yet for our generation they do stand as an inherited ideological infrastructure of professionalization that we have been trained for and are expected to practice within.”

So, is Kerr arguing that his generation of DIY projects represents an alternative to this infrastructure, a rebellion against professionalism and the constraints imposed by the established system of non-profit galleries? Is he railing against the risk-averse nature of entrenched bureaucracy or the domesticated results of curation by peer-review? Not really. On the contrary, the central issue of Kerr’s essay is the difficulty of establishing what “alternative” might mean in 2018, a question that goes hand-in-hand with the inescapability of “professionalism” in a culture that fetishizes entrepreneurial initiative.

Installation view of “Du côté de chez Soon,” at Galerie René Blouin, 2018. Image courtesy of Art Record.

The problem, as he describes it, is that “we operate at an anxious point in history where it is increasingly difficult to imagine, let alone invent the new.” Whereas earlier initiatives were born out of rebellion, advancing a critique of existing systems that incited institutional change and promoted new forms of art, Kerr admits that none of these things are necessarily true of contemporary DIY venues. He notes that some new art spaces are mobilized in the service of diversifying and expanding art’s publics and producers, though I would argue that, at least in Montreal, politicized programming along inclusive, feminist, and anti-racist lines has been taken up much more extensively within the pre-existing networks of ARCs and non-profit galleries. For example, consider: the Wood Land School’s year-long takeover of SBC Gallery; the incredibly diverse programme at Montreal arts interculturels (MAI); the explicitly anti-oppression institutional structure in place at Articule; the ongoing activities of stalwart feminist venues like La Centrale and Studio XX; or even the exhibitions of BIPOC artists that have recently appeared at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, such as Nadia Myre and the current survey of Black Canadian art.

What contemporary DIY venues do share, both among themselves and with the larger stream of the attention economy, is the pervasive commodification of creative work. As Kerr put it, “Our projects exist at the same time as the ethos of the disruptive startup.” Unlike predatory companies like Uber and AirBnB, emerging artists aren’t exactly making bank by skirting the regulations and protections of their industry. They are simply subject to the pressures facing every kind of precarious freelance worker. In Kerr’s words, “we will work longer and more hours, in more irregular conditions, for less pay, and we believe that we deliver more creative solutions.”

In part, this pressure is a function of how the internet mediates contemporary art (and everything else) today. Today’s artists are the last generation to remember life before the internet and the first to experience technological connection in place of earlier modes of constituting a scene or community. This specific relationship to digital networking is the other ground that contemporary project spaces share, whatever their differences in terms of focus and programming (and we should be careful not to homogenize the actual art they show). Anecdotally, it’s interesting to recall that, circa 2010-11, when Brad Troemel was touring his “Free Art” lectures during the most utopian phase of post-internet art – when it was possible to believe that digital distribution and social networks were in the process of upending the entire museum and gallery system – he referred to the emerging variety of brick-and-mortar art spaces that operated primarily for the sake of online viewership as “parallel galleries,” the same phrase that was widely used in Canada (especially Quebec) before the term “artist-run center” took over.

From the exhibition “Title II,” at galerie antoine ertaskiran. Image courtesy of Art Record.

Many of today’s independent project spaces and studio galleries emerged out of the ferment of the post-internet moment, and all of them exist in its less utopian, more pragmatic aftermath. What the internet offers to alternative art spaces today is a competitive edge: these venues offer a way for artists to network with each other locally and internationally and a chance to catch the eye of potential gallerists and curators that could funnel them up to larger commercial galleries, museums, or international exhibitions. To a large extent, this is the same function that ARCs already served. Rather than an alternative, DIY spaces simply offer additional (and potentially more accessible) avenues to the same goal. In the process, most tend to automatically replicate the given conventions, formats, and professional standards of mainstream institutions: white walls, fluorescent-lit and well-photographed installation views, regular hours, a clean website, and a properly groomed social media presence all contribute to the desired air of legitimacy.

Of course, many spaces don’t have the means to meet all of these standards, and often compensate with innovative curatorial approaches or eccentric presentation – Vie d’Ange, for example, has made the most of their old auto garage by occasionally thematizing fossil fuels in their programming. See also After the Rain, a recent exhibition organized by artist Garrett Lockhart staged “for snails” in a vacant lot. Experimental as these ventures may be, they are usually ephemeral on purpose and rarely represent a dissenting idea of how art ought to be produced or circulated, or an expanded idea of who its audience should be. In most cases, DIY venues are actually more exclusive than mainstream institutional venues, in that their self-selecting audience is composed of an already-informed subset of the existing artworld, with all the demographic factors that entails (ie. mostly young, mostly white, mostly middle class and up). More experimental projects are exceptions that prove the rule: whatever capital is accrued from original curatorial propositions is ultimately meant to be streamed back into the dominant art system.

Aude Pariset, “Promession® #1,” (detail), 2016. From the exhibition “Title II,” at Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran. Image courtesy of Art Record.

This brings us to the moment that some Montreal spaces have found themselves in today, as success has led them to be courted by more established institutions: what are the possible paths forward, and who stands to benefit? As an illustration of how DIY spaces interface with established commercial galleries, consider Our Thing and Title II, the two exhibitions at galerie antoine ertaskiran, to which Eli Kerr and Daphné Boxer of Vie d’Ange lent their curatorial skills. These shows coincided with the gallery’s announcement that it would be representing Christopher Kulendran Thomas – a Sri Lankan-born, London/Berlin-based artist whose work was exhibited in the 9th Berlin Biennial, among many other venues – and served as a kind of introduction to the artist’s work, placing him in the context of his peers. Given that it is exceptional for a Canadian gallery to represent an international artist, it is all the more interesting that Kerr and Boxer – who had a pre-existing relationship with Kulendran Thomas – were brought on board. In a way, it was a form of institutional recognition for the innovative work their project space has done in tracking the trends that have emerged in the wake of the post-internet moment.

Our Thing and Title II were the largest-scale projects that Kerr and Boxer have worked on to date. The former featured Kulendran Thomas alongside Jon Rafman and Aude Pariset, and the latter (for which Kulendran Thomas is also listed as an organiser) added Nina Canell, Simon Denny, DIS, Goldin + Senneby, Jason Matthew Lee, Catherine Telford-Keogh, and Dena Yago. Taken together, they composed a miniature survey of post-internet art with some major artists – a kind of show that, to date, had not really been mounted in Canada. As such, it couldn’t help feeling a little belated, and it’s clear that the logistical complications – guest curators soliciting work for a commercial gallery exhibition on a tight schedule – impinged on the selection of artworks, many of which were not the newest or most exciting that the artists had to offer. Despite its ambition – a culmination, in a way, of their work up to now – the end result felt less fresh than many of the smaller-scale exhibitions that have been presented in Vie d’Ange’s own space. What saved these two exhibitions, however, were the cogent curatorial texts penned by Kerr and Boxer – the first on collective behavior and the contemporary crowd, and the second on the demise of net neutrality. The texts revealed a web of rewarding ideas, knitting the two shows into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Our Thing and Title II demonstrated that, if the curatorial freedom and flexibility of a project space may not translate easily to the demands of a commercial gallery, it wasn’t for lack of seriousness, ambition, or professionalism among the participants. Épisode Laurier, by contrast, was run with a collegial informality exceeding even that of the invited studio galleries. Despite its well-heeled sponsor and its large size – five galleries and three independent curatorial projects presenting a total of twenty-five artists – it was an almost aggressively unprofessional event. None of the spaces that the organizers had rented for the weekend seemed to have been altered in any way, to the extent that some were still stocked with the furniture, fixtures, and detritus of their previous tenants (a luggage store, in one case). Advance promotion was limited to an Instagram account and a press release that arrived only days before the event commenced. Though billed as a mini-biennial, it had no overall thematic frame or conceit, and none of the participating galleries and curators attempted to impose one on their own selection of works. In this regard, the event felt more like an open studio session. (This also points to a distinction between Vie d’Ange, which is run by two curators, and most other DIY art spaces in Montreal, which are run by artists.) The “micro-fair” description was perhaps more apt, though no prices were posted and, while some sales were made, the overall atmosphere was too casually shabby to feel very commercial. It did, however, feel very “Montreal.”

From Épisode Laurier, works (left to right) by Pierre Dorion, Simon Belleau, and Marc Knowles. Photo by Simon Belleau.

That said, there was a certain aesthetic coherence to the art on offer. For one thing, it was almost exclusively object-based – sculpture, drawing, painting, photography – without a single video or performance work, though this could be partly explained by logistical concerns. The event was also dominated by humble, non-flashy materials (multiple artists contributed rustic ceramics and rough-hewn assemblage sculpture) and earthy, opaque abstractions. While I hesitate to speculate too much based on an obviously casual event like this one, I can’t help but see a parallel between the restricted ambitions Kerr noted among the present generation of alternative art spaces and the overriding mood of the art at Épisode Laurier, which we could maybe call “post-contemporary formalism.” It’s a depressed aesthetic uncommitted to the critical impulse, much less the utopianism, that animated earlier alternative movements. Faced with the encroaching neo-feudalism of the cultural economy, it retreats from its own lack of solutions. One would have little idea, from looking at such art, that we are living through a time of epochal political instability. Abstraction and obscurity could be seen as a way of disguising a lack of things to say. More charitably, they could be the manifestation of gnawing anxiety and uncertainty, the literal impossibility of getting a coherent view of the world. From another angle, formalism hides the embarrassment of “just wanting to make art” when that impulse can only speak of tremendous privilege. It’s hard not to sense a kind of contraction in present art, a retreat and resignation. “Keep your head down, maybe you’ll weather the storm.” It’s hard not to see bad faith.

I should clarify that I’m not talking about selling out. My concern has more to do with how the startup mentality forestalls the ability to think beyond the immediate present. There’s no utopia, no alternative, when you can’t count on the future: models emerge that are geared towards burning-out strategically. The capital that’s required to found a stable, long-term venture is out of reach for most artist-driven projects, and so it’s hardly surprising when the commercial sector picks up the slack, as in the case of spaces like Never Apart (a queer-centric art and performance space founded by tech mogul Dax Dasilva), or e-commerce fashion giant SSENSE’s forbiddingly hip new retail location, both of which employ art alongside music and fashion to add cachet to their primary businesses.

Épisode Laurier was only very indirectly a promotion for a real-estate venture. Based on the precedent of the Bruno Sport Bar Biennial, it’s easy to imagine that an event like this could have come together without Marsolais’s sponsorship, and it likely wouldn’t have looked dramatically different if it had. All the same, Marsolais and Voghell are both optimistic that the event could recur, perhaps as soon as next year. The future for individual project spaces varies: soon.tw is secure and booming while Raising Cattle is on indefinite hiatus. L’inconnue is on a break until the fall and Calaboose is about to announce a new location. But turnover is inherent to these kinds of venues. If one folds, another pops up – TAP Art Space, for example, is yet another recent addition to the Montreal scene. It’s only in rare cases that this kind of space sticks around long enough to transform into either a professional non-profit (a “real” ARC) or a proper commercial gallery.

As for Vie d’Ange, the future of their building remains uncertain, though they hope to expand into a seasonal exhibition-driven residency program. Kerr complains of how the demolition of the old abattoir across the street shakes their building as they work on upcoming shows. “We also now have a showroom for condos in our parking lot,” he adds. “The pressure is coming from all sides. The building feels like a loose tooth in an empty mouth, all of a sudden.” But their curatorial outlook has always taken uncertainty into account. It’s about “the impulse to create amidst an imminent outlook of collapse.” In a jointly-authored statement, Boxer and Kerr write: “For us, suspense and a distilled paranoia colors the medium of time, and that’s what we want to express. We want the project to exist as a story, one where we knew the ending before it began.”

2 Comments

  • K.I.A. ... says:

    great article; super informative, interesting insights. thanks.

  • Lance Broodthaers says:

    Since when does a serious art historian/critic write about a particular zeitgeist moment by using quotes directly from the agents he is scrutinizing? It just comes across as lazy ventriloquisms and not critical. The critic is informed by “interested testimony” and uses a bad methodology for not taking a distant observation from what the players are saying about their work. One should know better for all the october like prognostications.

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