As I was wandering around in Parc-Extension, with my iPhone and GPS to guide the way, I finally found the nondescript door of a seemingly barren building of Eastern Bloc. It seemed slightly odd that an artist centre would seem so desolate, but the intriguing graphic design on the door quickly began to change my initial impression.
Eastern Bloc is a multidisciplinary art and production centre that focuses on new media and interdisciplinary art. The centre seeks to support young emerging artists and those trying to get started after graduation. Their mandate is to fill the void between art school and professional galleries by providing a platform where people can display their work, become exposed to a larger body of spectators, and become connected with more established artists.
As I waited to begin an interview with Eliane Ellbogen, co-founder and artistic director for Eastern Bloc, I stared in awe at the surrounding graphic design and event posters that covered the wall.
Before establishing anything else, I had to clarify one thing that had been gnawing at my mind: “What exactly is new media and digital art?”
“It is the way that artists are reinterpreting the mediated language and how they are using these mediums, whether they be digital or electronic, offline or online, analog, et cetera,” Ellbogen said.
In the past, new media used purely analog technologies, but current artists are reinterpreting and reevaluating these technologies, Ellbogen explained. Current new media art focuses on how these systems are being used in our lives today, and what role they play with contemporary digital art.
“A lot of this new media art kind of situates itself in relation to the internet, and through power structures and political structures that are prevalent in our daily lives,” Ellbogen said.
According to Ellbogen, the internet has become such a ubiquitous tool that is so ingrained in our daily lives that we do not recognize or question the power that it has today. “New media and digital art is really about reinterpreting the media and the mediums that are present in our day-to-day lives.”
While the theatre and music communities have spaces dedicated to young and emerging artists, the new media and digital art community did not have structure or a professional space, whether a private gallery or a non-profit artisan centre, before the Eastern Bloc was founded. “Before we existed, there was no professional arts space that was dedicated to showing emerging artists’ work, in the visual arts or in new media digital arts,” Ellbogen explained.
Perhaps unknown to many, Montreal is recognized internationally as a hub for new media and digital art. With the two major festivals, Elektra and Mutek, as well as Sight and Sound, a spring festival created by Eastern Bloc that is now forging its way into the international community, Montreal’s scene is definitely thriving.
In line with Eastern Bloc’s mandate, Sight and Sound levels the playing field for young artists. “We really do not make a distinction when we invite an established artist or an emerging artist, because they are all being promoted in the same way,” Ellbogen explained.
By reaching out to the universities in Montreal, Eastern Bloc is able to establish direct professional relationships and work with students directly. Due to these privileged connections, students are then able to display their work, participate in festivals, and become better known in the professional world.
Alongside Sight and Sound, Eastern Bloc runs a number of programs for young artists. Ellbogen explained the Data Salon series as “a bi-monthly event where artists are invited to showcase some progress, so it’s really informal and very accessible. [It] is a really good example of a way an artist can have first experience with a professional art gallery and open up their network.”
However, this is not the only way an artist can become involved. “We have two major exhibits per year, in the fall and the winter, and those are about a month long each. Eastern Bloc also runs a residency program that helps young artists, who are otherwise excluded from institutionalized art spaces, to establish a foothold.
That is not all, for Eastern Bloc is constantly working on new projects. A bilateral residency exchange program with Latin America is currently in the works as well. The lab is showing equal potential.
“A lot of the development here I think is going to happen with the lab,” Ellbogen said. “This includes expanding the workshop programming and discussion activities.”
While Eastern Bloc has been forging its way into the international network and community for new media and digital art since its establishment five years ago, the centre struggled in the beginning. “Funding right off the bat was a huge challenge and remains so to this day. The [government arts] funding system is not set up for [a] new organization to come to life. Any new organizations have a hard time getting into the funding circuit and when they do it’s for measly amounts of money.”
For the first few years, the centre focused on doing music-based events and parties, so it came as a great shock when they decided three years ago to shift from these events to focusing on arts and exhibition-based programming. It was a challenge to establish that shift with the public that the centre was now a professional art space. “In terms of creating a reputation for ourselves within the local and international arts community, it was a fun challenge,” Ellbogen said. “However, the financial challenge was not.”
Eastern Bloc is located at 7240 Clark. Visit easternbloc.ca for information about upcoming events.