Culture | Art from the ground up

Joan Moses recounts the culture of Occupy Montreal

The washtub bass is generally categorized as a string instrument. It’s made of a washtub, a broom handle, and a rope, and is played by planting one’s foot on the base of the instrument, and plucking away at the taut cord connecting the tub to the broom handle.

At Occupy Montreal last Thursday, this categorization was all but ignored. In the midst of a spontaneous, rhythmic, musical and dance performance – in which a collection of around 15 individuals danced, sang, and played instruments near the entrance of La Place du Peuple – one woman simply banged enthusiastically on the washtub, reimagining the instrument as a drum. The strings, it seemed, were too cumbersome and too quiet. Only the pure, loud, steady beat of a drum could adequately express the energy of the protest.

The entire performance seemed motivated by this kind of vigor. Unstructured, spur-of-the-moment, and entirely freewheeling – much like the Occupy movement itself – it was nevertheless awe-inspiring. Guitarists ignored the instruments strapped across their backs in favor of beating on recycling bins; Dancers twirled impulsively with scarves (and, somewhat less expectedly, a cord tied to a baby shoe); Protesters sang shapeless but strong notes – the entire spectacle exuded a contagious kind of enthusiasm.

The occupiers seemed to be almost buzzing as they greeted and danced with each other; high-fiving, laughing, and smiling despite the cold grayness of the Place and the chilly October weather. While the dance may have had an explicitly political dimension – for a time, the protesters chanted “solar power” – what was more powerful about it was its implicit social message.

As participant Christine Gahwi, who has been at the camp “since the beginning,” said to The Daily, this kind of “[artistic] creation, and participation in the larger creation of life [that is happening at Occupy] go hand-in-hand.” The space created by this performance mirrored that of the larger Occupy movement – it was uninhibited, friendly, and open. Any one can join and start to bang on a drum, twist with the other dancers, or sing into the megaphone. There was no clear leader, and, unlike a more traditional manifestation of protest, no one individual got up to give the longest speech. The performance was permeated by the non-hierarchal values of the Occupy movement, and, for that reason, it seemed both vital and unique.

This was, however, only one of many occurrences of this sort of free-wheeling musical protest. Gahwi attested to this, saying “just about every day we have creative, spontaneous experiments!” What’s more, the presence of a designated performance space suggested the existence of more structured artistic displays. A brightly coloured bus with the words “Jam Mobile” painted on the side of it, and with musicians almost spilling out of it, further indicated that musical performances are not rare.

Indeed, La Place du Peuple seems to be overflowing with creative energy. Just walking into it, one is greeted by a dada-esque image of a dark stone statue of Queen Victoria, on an at least 20-foot-tall pedestal, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Depending upon your point of view, this could be taken as either hilarious or defamatory.

The base below her is covered with protest signs, as occupiers have scaled it to put them up. The signs are visually striking, occasionally belligerent, and covered with slogans (in English, French, and various other languages) that range from “Revolution, It’s Happening,” to “Pour Love on the Broken Places,” to “Plate Club in Solidarity with MUNACA.” They seem to bring the statue to life, converting it from mere stone to a lively expression of collective passion.

The area around the statue is also covered with this kind of improvised artistic work. A makeshift Dia de los Muertos alter stands near a sign that says “¡Viva Mexico! ¡ Muerte al Neoliberalismo Financero! ¡No Sangre!” A small boat, clearly homemade from a cardboard box, rests on the ground, floating adrift on this sea of artistic detritus – a number of occupiers seem to have scrawled messages on its brown paper hull. “Resist the new world order,” it reads. “Think outside the box,” “Free Bradley Manning.” This entire space seems to be a public work of art, expressing the hopes and messages of the budding Occupy community.

These kind of collective works can be seen all over La Place de Peuple. As an occupier, who wished to be referred to only as Michael, said to The Daily, “It’s not only signs themselves but different forms of expressions of art.” Referencing the large white banners strung up in several prominent locations in La Place du Peuple, he described places “where people are invited to sign or to leave a little message or to do whatever they feel that they need to be able to do to express themselves.”
These banners appear to be canvases meant for people to write or draw about their feelings on the Occupy movement. One, for example, is covered with pictures of faces, peace signs, yin-yangs, hearts, handprints, and half-legible sentence fragments such as “talking to a stranger and getting a SMILE back”. Another has written across it – boldly and in both French and English – “List of Changes We Want To See in our Society (WHY ARE YOU HERE?).” Underneath, many protesters seem to have taken up the challenge to make this list, cataloging both broad (“We need a greener lifestyle”) and more specific (“Save the romaine river”) suggestions.

The multiplicity of voices that shout out from these works, and from the art of Occupy in general, is striking. There is no one clear message that comes from these works, but, rather, all of the voices seem to blend into a powerful shout of resistance. The performances, the protest signs, the canvases – these various expressions of human activity seem to gush naturally out of the occupiers, almost out of the ground of the camp itself. They exclaim their resistance to the status quo, to social norms, to hierarchy, to anything at all that is oppressive. And they converge at the corner of Beaver Hall and McGill to form an example of artistic defiance that cannot be ignored.

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