Visual art galleries are typically places of quiet, reserved for personal interpretation and introspection. Montreal’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, however, is challenging this notion with its current exhibition, Romeo Gongora’s ‘‘Just Watch Me,” a new project shaking up Montreal’s contemporary social scene. With the help of other Montreal artists, Gongora has put together a program that allows the gallery to act as a disco bar, a fair-trade cafe, an artists’ residency, and a venue for workshops, shows, and screenings.
A visual artist and UQAM media arts graduate, Gongora describes himself as a researcher. Half Canadian and half Guatemalan, the artist works closely with different communities throughout the world, and has been invited to collaborate with Aux Recollets in Paris, Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, and the cultural center of Neumünster in Luxembourg. He explained via email that the purpose of his art cannot be found in an object, but in the process of ‘‘a project that materializes [itself] in a transdisciplinary manner (installations, performance, photography, meeting, writing, etcetera).’’
With “Just Watch Me,” Gongora has first and foremost aimed to foster an environment for dialogue and collective creation, which resonates with the gallery’s purpose: to ‘‘be a place where art specialists, the public at-large, and youth are able to experience art as a way of thinking and being in the world.”
“Just Watch Me” is inclusive and accessible, welcoming all who are interested free of charge. One of the project’s goals is in fact to attract diverse communities in order to encourage creative and thought-provoking dialogues. As the project is situated amongst Concordia locals, Gongora is particularly looking to attract students, whom he calls the ‘‘leaders of our future society.”
While it may be less common in the current Montreal visual arts scene, Gongora’s social club is reminiscent of historical salons of modern revolutions – social gatherings of eminent intellectuals often associated with artistic, philosophical, and political movements of the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, “Just Watch Me” is inspired by artist collectives of the Quiet Revolution: Fondation du Théâtre d’Environnement Intégral, Fusion des Arts, and Mousse Spacthèque. The sixties in Quebec were a hectic historical period marked by the secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state, and many ideologies and movements. Most importantly, the Quiet Revolution is when French-Canadians became Quebecers. Abandoning conservatism, they embraced their differences with pride in Canada, reshaping the identity of the province. This notably led to the burgeoning of a sovereignist movement, with the election of a separatist party in the government. Artist collectives and social clubs were a big part of the development of this consciousness and Quebecois identity.
The name of Gongora’s social club is a witty reference to Pierre Trudeau’s famous response to an interviewer during the 1970 October Crisis, when Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act in response to kidnappings by the separatist Front de libération du Québec. When CBC reporter Tim Ralfe questioned Trudeau on how far he would go to maintain order by suspending civil liberties, the politician answered, ‘‘Just watch me.” Gongora wishes to ‘‘give a new meaning’’ to this well-known phrase, and is also sending a straightforward invitation to all to ‘‘come and watch what you and I can do.”
Today, the renaissance of Quebec identity is becoming more current and more controversial. The question comes up constantly, brought to public attention by events as diverse as the 2012 student protests, the fall of the remaining separatist parties in recent provincial and federal elections, and the infamous Quebec Charter of Values. As younger generations gradually supersede the baby boomers that experienced the Quiet Revolution, Quebec’s face is changing once again. “Just Watch Me” hopes to provide a space where Montrealers can discuss these questions and changes, both orally and through art.
“Just Watch Me” is not, however, the first contemporary art melting pot where poetry ateliers are juxtaposed with experimental films. Just this month, Montreal has been home to the OUMF interdisciplinary art festival and POP Montreal – mashing everything together seems to be all the rage on the cultural scene. Nevertheless, Gongora seems to be proposing a deeper exploration of culture than just the mixing of media. This social club, if not capable of answering the big questions about Quebec’s future, may still provide an important space where inquiring minds can explore and challenge ideas of identity, in between a yoga workshop or a DJ set.
“Just Watch Me” is open Wednesday and Thursday from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.. The project runs until October 11. Check out clubjwm.com for event listings.