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Shallow sentiments in deep space

Cirque de Soleil founder’s exhibition scratches the surface of sustainability

What would you do with 35 million dollars? Give it all to the needy? Take your whole extended family on vacation? Or maybe just settle down in a small cabin in the rolling hills of wherever? To me, those three answers seemed fairly obvious, but I suppose I don’t have the curiosité of Guy Laliberté.

A Quebec native, Laliberté began his career as a street performer in Quebec City. A short stint in university only solidified Laliberté’s feelings that he belonged in the entertainment business. In 1984, he joined a rag-tag troupe of jugglers and fire-breathers in Baie Saint Paul. It was then that Laliberté convinced the Quebec government to fund a celebratory project for the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in Quebec, and the illustrious Cirque de Soleil was born. Now, 27 years later, Laliberte, according to Forbes, has a net worth of 1.5 billion and Cirque de Soleil has 22 shows spread out across the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia. This Canadian clown turned billionaire, however, had bigger dreams outside the of circus tent.

Originally inspired by Montreal’s Expo 67 and how one could “travel” from booth to booth to different countries, Guy Laliberte’s dreamt of going on a space mission to take photographs of different countries of the world from space. This $35 million dream took off in 2009 under the tagline of a “Poetic Social Mission.” The series of photographs –taken over an 11-day period in which he orbited earth 176 times going at 28,000 kilometres per hour – makeup Laliberte’s current exhibtion “GAIA,” outside of Place des Arts. Gaia, referring to the ancient Greek earth goddess, seems an appropriate name for the whimsical exhibit. Sounds of bongo drums and children lightly singing in different languages hum from speakers over the bright photos, whose immensity and coloration appear more like abstract paintings from a distance. A small booth surrounded by tourists grabbing at $68 hardcover books sells GAIA merchandise.  The photographs are grippingly beautiful, but can they really be worth the $35 million photoshoot?

All of the proceeds from GAIA, as the promotional posters state, will be given to Laliberte’s One Drop foundation. Throughout his career, Laliberte has supported organizations such as Oxfam, as well as other charities for the homeless. Most recently, his One Drop foundation develops “integrated, innovative projects with an international scope, in which water plays a central role…in generating positive, sustainable effects for local and foreign populations,” as their website states. Yet, without reading the captions, the photographs hardly evoke the sense of urgency that  should be felt regarding the world’s safe water supply.

It was with these questions in mind that I asked an employee of the exhibit about Laliberte’s purpose in his “Poetic Social Mission.”

“Well, people told him after the fact that [the photographs] were so good, so I think he decided afterwards to make ‘GAIA.” Recovering from the initial shock of her answer, I ventured to ask whether she thought such a trip was worth the money he had spent. “I don’t really know what to say,” she responded.

The GAIA employee raised an interesting point, considering that Lalibertés One Drop was founded only two years prior to his trip to space. The only logical conclusion I could come to was that One Drop served a convenient purpose in allowing Laliberte to guiltlessly travel to space. Besides the $35 million, the energy used to travel for 11 days was seriously detrimental to environmental sustainability. Flipping through the opening pages of Laliberté’s book only reinforced my ill feelings. In the book’s four to five page preface, Laliberté only touches on One Drop towards the end. The beginning statements are filled with colorful language describing Laliberté’s thoughts just before taking off. He writes, “Up there, I will be like a private explorer…I will be the artistic producer. I will be like a sponge, a child filled with wonder. I will be the eyes of my children.” Sensationalism is to be expected from the leader of the world’s largest performance circus, but feels out of place when addressing a project solely geared towards awareness of water issues.

Yet, critical reception to Laliberte’s trip seems remarkably positivite. Media outlets have praised it, and during a U2 concert, they skyped live with Laliberté during his journey. He was wearing a red clown nose and a graphic “Poetic Social Mission” tee.

I do not mean to completely denounce Guy Laliberte. I applaud his entrepreneurial achievements and philanthropy, but I cannot help but feel this trip to space had primarily selfish motives, and it can hardly have been an effective way to address the world’s water problems. GAIA, albeit beautiful, satisfies the onlookers’ environmental conscience more than it induces any real change.