Culture  Where the artists are

Aaron Vansintjan unearths Montreal’s elusive art collectives

Finding an artist community is not a matter of stomping on the ground or waiting for the rain to start pouring and the artists to wriggle their way up to the open air. To get hold of those mysterious, elusive creatures, you’ve gotta dig deep underground; you’ve gotta get some dirt under your fingernails. Most importantly, you’ve gotta ask yourself if a fertile topsoil really does mean easier living for those slippery worms. In a city like Montreal, where rent is cheap and the galleries are plenty, you might think that being an artist is easy and even profitable. But it isn’t; in fact, it’s hard to be noticed and even harder to sustain yourself with your art.

To battle this, community groups have taken it upon themselves to organize collective spaces that others can share. “The whole idea,” says Stephen Kawai, a member of the Long Haul, an art collective in Park Ex, “is having a space where anybody can come and set up a space to create.” Some groups saw the necessity to support those that need it most. “We focus on promoting representation that wouldn’t be there otherwise, creating a space that people wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Tasha Zamudio, co-founder of Ste. Emilie Skillshare. To many artists, working together means support and motivation. “Artists need space, and they need time, and they need to be around other artists, because being around other artists is legitimizing,” says Svea Vikander, founder of Studio Beluga, an art space in St. Henri.

It’s clear that, to find individual artists in Montreal, you have to find the community: artists exist alongside each other and create networks. They seek each other out and form groups, and very often, they form collectives. And Montreal, brimming with artists, is bubbling with artist collectives.

When I set out to find, investigate, and categorize the “art collective scene” in Montreal, I started by rolling up my sleeves. “Aha!” I said to myself, “I’ll just talk to a few artists, interrogate some founders, package Montreal art collectives in a clean bundle, and hang them out in The McGill Daily to dry.” It all seemed so easy: “Take a look at this phenomenon,” I would tell the readers, “and digest.” What I found, however, turned my original intent upside down. So much for clean laundry, and so much for easy investigative journalism.

Loosely defined, an art collective is a group of people that work together, in any place, in any way, for the sake of creating art. I dove into the issue with the intent of tackling the growing art collective trend. Instead, art collectives tackled me. Collectives, claims Eliane Ellbogen, the artistic director of Eastern Bloc, another space in Parc Ex, have been around for quite a while. “I don’t think this is a trend. Artists have always come together and discussed what they are doing. It’s just maybe the settings have changed, but the loft space as a centre and focus for art has been around since the sixties…. Montreal is a very transient city. Every so often there’s a wave of interest in the gentrification of different areas.”

Though the choice to join a collective is seemingly a common one, throughout my expedition into the Montreal artist community I found that most members of artist-run centres deny the “art collective” classification. For instance, Ste. Emilie Skillshare, says Zamudio, defines itself as a “radical community art space.”

“Throughout the history of Ste. Emilie, there have been different members who don’t call themselves artists, though they do make art,” she explains. “That’s part of our mandate too – we’re not just for artists. In fact, I think we all agree that we come to Ste. Emilie first as activists who want to promote art in our activism or in the social justice movement.” Similarly, Red Bird Studios, in the Mile End, calls itself an “artist-run centre,” not an art collective. The only real collectives in Montreal, says Naomi Cook, co-founder of Red Bird, are co-ops like Right to Move, Concordia’s bike co-op, or certain printing shops and studios. “In a collective, all decisions are shared by everybody,” she says. That’s rare for artist centres; they need organization, centralized decision-making, and a small group of people to operate them. Eastern Bloc has “more of a complicated administrative and financial infrastucture,” says Ellbogen. Eastern Bloc has two full-time staff members: Ellbogen and Sandor Poloski. Red Bird studios is run by brother-and-sister team Naomi and Konan Cook, and The Long Haul is run by two full-time artists, John Tinholt and Vanessa Yanow. It seems that art spaces need a small but dedicated group of people to deal with administrative matters – otherwise they tend to fall apart.

Most artists denied the idea that an art collective exists in order for artists to inspire and influence each other. “It’s not as if you get a big studio,” said Alex Penfeld, an artist from Australia currently at Red Bird, “bang some artists together, and see what happens.”

“There’s a very strong outsider point-of-view,” he continued, pointing to the disparity between public perception and the realities of collectives. At Red Bird Studios, says Penfeld, “you’re surrounded by other people that are interested, there’s an openness to each other.” Chloe Lum, co-founder of 100-sided Die, agrees. 100-sided Die is a “loose collective of artists” that provides small studio spaces to a score of artists, mostly specializing in print media. “Being in a space is more social, just more fun…. You alert each other to different opportunities. It’s more about making our stuff happen, making it on our own funding,” said Lum, who is also a member of poster-making duo Seripop and noise band AIDS Wolf. “Artists don’t join a collective to be influenced,” said Stephen Kawai of the Long Haul. “All artists are constantly being influenced by what they see around them, what they feel, their lives, the lives of the people around them. I guess the advantage of being part of a collective rather than just renting your own space is that you’re always running into people, and you’re talking about what they’re doing and even though it doesn’t impact what they’re doing directly, it just sort of creates a creative atmosphere that helps a lot.”

Comments like these show how artists revel in their own mystery and emphasize the privacy of making art. For this reason, many people think that art collectives are a recent trend – true artists are isolated hermits and joining a collective is just the cool thing to do. Quite the contrary. We need to stop looking at artists solely as individuals and look at the networks that they exist in. Many artists probably would not have continued to make art without being part of a collective. As Aaron McConomy, a member of the YPF, an art collective that has been slowly breaking up over the years, told me, “I wasn’t making art at all when we started. The attitude [within YPF] was always just ‘Fuck it. Make something. Nobody cares if it’s the best thing ever. Just fucking make it.’ I have serious doubts if I would be making any art if we hadn’t started the YPF.” Creativity doesn’t appear magically out of nowhere; it comes from the relationships an individual forms and the way they see themself within the context of the culture they live in. Artists don’t come to Montreal because it’s trendy and ensures success. They come to Montreal because the city supports artists and the artistic life, and that’s a good thing. There is a vibrant community of artists, and there are spaces, like Eastern Bloc, Red Bird, and Studio Beluga, that function under the mandate of supporting emerging artists.

It’s clear that art collectives, given the way they operate and the nature of their mandates, get a lot of shit from the authorities. In Ellbogen’s words, the city “basically makes it very, very, very hard to start up anything that’s remotely underground or that remotely falls outside the standard protocol,” she said after receiving a call – mid-interview – from the authorities. “They see a bunch of bohemian artists partying away all night and they don’t think to look deeper than that: maybe we’re throwing a party so that we can have innovative exhibits…. It’s a superficial look from the authorities’ perspective in terms of what artists do and what art spaces should be like. If it’s not a museum, then, obviously, it must be illegal.”

Right now, it’s the process of turning commercial spaces into residential space that’s the problem, driving up the rent and making it impossible for artists to rent the space they need. Several artist-run centres, like Red Bird and The Long Haul, actually rely on their sympathetic landlords to support them – it’s often much more profitable to sell the building or even to use it as storage space. The dilemma is that artists need lots of space for their equipment, and renting a loft in a residential building for themselves is far too expensive – it always has been.

But the art collective solution is a logical one, even though it’s becoming less and less possible. Ellbogen observed that, even though a space like Eastern Bloc would not exist in any other city, Montreal is becoming more and more like New York and Toronto. “We’re on the bitter tail-end of the cheap-loft-space era,” she commented. “This idea that Montreal is a haven for artists is really not the case anymore. In some cases it is, but every year it’s less and less…. You really need money to have space.”

Some haven’t given up hope – Kawai remarked that, right now, the condo market “got saturated pretty quickly.” He expressed confidence, however, that artists can still find places and communities to help them in their work. Lum explained to me that “print-making requires a lot of space,” and the solution was to find a commercial building that offers low rent, freight elevators, and loading docks, and then share the expenses with fellow artists. “The cost of living has a big effect on artists,” observed a fellow member of “the Die,” Jesse Purcell. But Lum then remarked that gentrification definitely brings more business – it would be much harder “if there weren’t young, hip, wealthy people to buy our stuff.” She added, “Government cuts haven’t really affected us. We’re resilient if nothing else.”

But what about those artists, young and old, that aren’t part of a community and don’t have the money to afford their own studio? The thing that Montreal still lacks is a space, like a bike collective, for artists to share and use materials in a productive environment. The Long Haul is clearly working on this – artists share whatever tools they can. For example, John Tinholt is planning to construct a new carpentry workshop for several woodworkers, Red Bird actually offers a bike collective, and Eastern Bloc is planning on creating a space to edit digital media. Many of the mainstream galleries in Montreal are francophone, so artist spaces often exist to provide a corresponding space for those who don’t fit in. Art centres, however, don’t define themselves as anglophone and have made significant attempts to integrate the communities. All in all, Ste. Emilie is most promising as a modern solution, but their mandate focuses on activism more than the ideal of sharing tools or a space.

The success of the Montreal art scene lies in its inclusivity. Newer places like Studio Beluga have a mandate that deals specifically with those artists that are under-exposed. The reason – and it’s a valid one – that Vikander founded the space in the first place is that conventional art spaces like museums and galleries are too bureaucratic and commercial. In a bad economy, artists will look for alternatives, or create them themselves. What Montreal needs now are spaces that offer exposure, spaces that offer tools to create, and dedicated individuals to run them. Because there is a demand, it’s possible – and maybe even financially feasible – that such spaces will appear. On the other hand, it’s probable that the perfect art collective can never exist. Art is, after all, an intrinsically social process, and every collective has to deal with the inherent problems of coordinating a large group of creative individuals. After knocking on dozens of collectives’ doors for the past few weeks, I’m pretty psyched for the years to come – what new innovative idea will take root in a loft somewhere in Hochelaga? How will artists integrate themselves with the city, and where will they go next?