The word anarchy has different connotations for everyone. For some it’s a sinister threat, for others it symbolizes a complete rejection of norms. Over the past month, in a small studio down the street from the Basilique Notre Dame, an exposition called “Dissident Art” displayed the work of artists from around the world, hosted weekly activities, and asked questions about the existence of government and the meaning of freedom.
The art ranged from endearing to disgusting, but never failed to be compelling. The show started last year as part of the Montreal Festival of Anarchy and featured the work of 230 local and international artists, but this year it was scaled back to only 15 artists.
Anarchy in this case means more than just resistance to organized government. The art in the show makes statements about human rights, feminism, poverty, war, and persecution, and varies from the strange to the poignant.
In the domain of strange art was Diana Arce’s piece “Politaoke” and Dayna McLeod’s “HotBeaverWetPussy.com.” Arce inserts the viewer into “Poitaoke” by making them watch themselves in a mirror and giving them a microphone to speak into. Arce created this project with the People’s Party for Participatory Democracy and the Advancement of Karaoke to give the average person a chance to make a speech, just like any politician.
Both of these pieces aim to shock the viewer, but McLeod’s piece is quicker to do so. A feminist artist, McLeod’s aim with “HotBeaverWetPussy.com” was to address the way women are viewed and the words that are used to describe women. To do this, she dressed up in beaver and cat costumes. Her art could easily be dismissed as the work of an overzealous feminist, but when it’s considered seriously, it’s clear there is merit in her message.
An especially poignant piece is “The House that Herman Built” by Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace, a multimedia presentation that answers the question: “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-by-nine-foot box for over 30 years dream of?” A video takes the viewer on a three-dimensional tour of a house. The narrator is Herman Wallace, who has been in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for over 36 years after being convicted of murder based on false testimony. The house is surrounded by gardens and the bathroom holds a tub bigger than Wallace’s cell, moving the viewer to think about injustice and freedom in the modern world.
Other notable pieces include “The Maid” by Freda Guttman, “The Stands” by Michael Rakowitz, “Public Faces” by Kathryn Delaney, and “Seeds of Victory” by Tania Willard.
Guttman’s piece is particularly effective. It features a series of photographs displayed in a dark room with a light moving behind them from left to right, showing the pictures successively. Each photograph is of the same scene: the artist’s 13th birthday party with friends and family gathered around. The maid who prepared the party appears and disappears – she is both present and absent at this gathering. “The Stands” is a collection of sketches depicting protestors in the stands of baseball games, holding signs that do not encourage the players but instead communicate political messages. In one case they hold signs and chant “bring them home,” referring to soldiers overseas rather than the baseball players. In “Public Faces” Delaney puts sketches of the faces of female sex workers on the streets where the women work. “Seeds of Victory” is a piece that shows a child blowing the seeds of a dandelion in front of a row of armed soldiers.
The majority of the works part of “Dissident Art” were not radical displays of disobedience to government, but instead articulated the desire for equality and freedom from the conventions of society. The exhibit emphasized grassroots movements and the importance of the most victimized people who cannot speak for themselves without the help of artists and activists.