If you want to experience Montréal's local art scene, leave the well-worn tourist path between the Contemporary and Fine Arts museums and head for the city's artist-run centers. You may find yourself standing in front of a 10-foot-tall pink elephant with a kitten on its lap, or a group of boys with Mr. Potato Head faces beating a cone of French fries, or video footage of the Kennedy assassination with a Herzegovinian folk-dirge soundtrack.
Artist-run centers, all of them open to the public, are a uniquely Canadian response to the challenge of artistic freedom. While the American art landscape is dominated by commercial galleries and privately funded institutions that receive little to no government support, Canadians expect their government to fund the arts, and it does. Created and governed by artists and supported almost entirely by city, provincial and federal governments - with an average $250,000 each - the artist-run centers have a mandate to propagate visual culture and ideas.
"The phenomenon has given the artists the freedom to produce whatever they really wish to produce, because there is no commercial drive behind it," says Mathieu Beauséjour, coordinator at Centre d'Art et de Diffusion Clark. "There's a lot of experimentation."
Jennifer Campbell, exhibit coordinator at Dazibao, says visitors from the United States assume artist-run centers are co-operative, but this is not quite right. While they're run by artists and often exhibit pieces by their members, the centers also present work by non-members - emerging, international or local - who are creating forward-thinking work. The emphasis is on the intrinsic value of art. The community that forms is not exclusively for its own benefit.
An artist-run center is "a place where people can come and work their way through things, whether it's projects or desires or whatever," says Anne Bertrand, artistic coordinator at Centre des Arts Actuels Skol. "People aren't here to just serve their own interests. Their interests must meet the larger interests, which is to promote and ensure a place for non-commercial artists to be able to connect."
Publishing is another important byproduct of the centers. In Off Printing: Situating Publishing Practices in Artist-Run Centres, contemporary Canadian art icon A.A. Bronson describes the country like this: "Canada is effectively 5000 miles long and 100 miles deep, nestled against the American border. As Canadians, we are brought up observing American culture, because we are immersed in American mass media. But this media environment is not, for the most part, ours: it is distanced from us. Everything we know about art in particular has come to us through the printed media; we are used to the idea of an artwork existing on the printed page."
The centers produce everything from exhibition catalogues to collections of essays on theory and practice, and they help foster a sense of Canadian connection. "The country is so wide, but we manage to know most of what's happening from British Columbia to Newfoundland because of those publications and the magazines," says Beauséjour.
No province has embraced the artist-run center more than Québec. Montréal alone has 22 such places. Each has a unique focus and approach, some organized around a specific medium, others around a philosophy or shared values. None of them has to justify itself in the American sense, but the members are professional artists, not hobbyists.
Installation and performance art have come to dominate the art scene in Montréal. Six artist-run centers have joined forces to present "Viva! Art Action," a festival through October 8 focused on "live art practices." Organizers will present more than 30 works throughout the city, though the hub of activity is Bain Saint-Michel, which is hosting a "daily meeting place for artist talks, theoretical discussions, practical workshops and festive evenings."
Here's what's happening at just one of the artist-run centers, the Centre d'Art et de Diffusion Clark:
In "Teenage Kicks: Ça Plane Pour Moi," through October 7, artists celebrate the center's 18th anniversary with works that explore themes of adolescence. Beauséjour curated this collection of 11 works by seven artists. The multimedia exhibit includes video, sculpture and works on paper.
Opening the show is "Fascist Fruit Boys," a sculpture installation by Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallinson. It shows five boys beating and kicking another boy. Each piece is approximately 3 to 4 feet high, made of plastics and painted with acrylic. The attackers' heads are vegetables; their hands are banana bunches. On their feet are red boots. Their victim is a white-and-blue-striped paper cone of French fries. He lies in a fetal position on the ground, one hand covering an eye.
"Fascist Fruit Boys" evokes a complicated emotional reaction. At one level the piece is humorous, and even righteous - fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us, the right nutritional choice. But like a good political cartoon, it muddies these feelings. The sad, wounded cone of French fries reminds us of rhetoric that demoralizes and isolates the "other."
Also on view is the graphite-on-paper work of GB Jones, who was inspired by the imagery of Beefcake magazine to create lesbian pulp images of busty, butch women being naughty: getting tattoos, shoplifting, flirting with each other. Jo-Anne Balcaen's black-and-white video, "Screaming Girls," is a testament to the ecstatic, near-religious experience of young women in front of their rock idols. It plays on a television monitor across from her neon piece entitled "The End."
Artist-run centers are temples of artistry, bastions of expression. Occasionally, you can live without the show on view, or perhaps their recent book might be a little esoteric. But often, they work brilliantly. And you can't deny the significance of a place where art and ideas reign supreme.
Where To Go
Centre de Photographies Actuelles Dazibao
4001 Berri Street, Suite 402 Montréal H2L 4H2 514-845-0063 http://www.dazibao-photo.org, noon to 5 p.m.
Centre des Arts Actuels Skol
372 Saint-Catherine Street West, Space 312 Montréal 514-398-9322 http://www.skol.ca Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.
Centre d'Art et de Diffusion Clark
5455 Avenue de Gaspé, Room 114 Montréal 514-288-4972 http://www.clarkplaza.org Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.
VIVA! Art Action
September 28 - October 8 http://www.vivamontreal.org Taking place around: Bain Saint-Michel 5300 St-Dominique Montréal
All artist-run centers can be found at http://www.rcaaq.org/membres/region/06 (in French), and in Directory of Artist-Run Centres in Quebec and Canada, $15.