Public space, art and activism: ATSA’s Fin novembre

ATSA marks the 20th anniversary of Place Émilie-Gamelin with Fin Novembre, an event exploring the history and significance of the square.

Fin Novembre 2011, photo by Martin Savoie

China has Tiananmen Square. Egypt, Tahrir. The Spanish use Puerta del Sol. The Greeks shout “Ochi!” in Syntagma. And Montreal? Most recently, Place Émilie-Gamelin.

The public square served as the beating heart of the Maple Spring. At other times, festivals, events and art installations make use of it. But in contrast to many similar squares worldwide, Émilie-Gamelin doesn’t have a day job as a posh commercial or political centre. Instead, it spends most of the time as a roost for the city’s homeless and a reliable destination for recreational pharmaceuticals.

Action terroriste socialement acceptable (ATSA), an organization dedicated to marrying interventionist art and social activism, is holding its Fin novembre festival in Place Émilie-Gamelin. The festival celebrates the importance of this public square, presenting works on history and social issues through a variety of media and performances, including five monumental installations that will be open around the clock.

Annie Roy, co-founder of ATSA says, “It’s the 20th anniversary of Place Émile-Gamelin, so it is an ideal time to look at this territory in particular. We want people to be inspired by the history of the square, starting in the 20th century up until now. Visitors can learn about this place in either an impressionistic or direct way, with archives of newspapers, petitions and portraits of people.”

Five installations capture different aspects of the square’s history and use, among them the piece Du verger au carré rouge. Eighteen bushels’ worth of apples are placed in a wooden box, referencing the square’s history as an orchard. Embedded in the box are field recordings of the recent protests.

“Red is the colour of apples and the squares of the protestors,” Roy says. “I really like this one, because it works on many levels. For example, it addresses education. Apples are what you give to a teacher. Also, the apples are to take and eat. The square was used to provide soup to the poor.” (Émilie Gamelin, the Roman Catholic sister for whom the square is named, gave out 5,000 bowls of soup each day to the hungry.)

Gamelin’s work is carried on in the piece l’Oeuvre de soup, a reconstruction of the original asylum for the poor that stood in the square. The forecourt of the reimagined structure serves as a stage for circus and musical performances during the festival, while the building is used for digital projections of archival material about the square. Surrounding this are two huge projections that juxtapose Gamelin’s soup kitchen with images of contemporary poverty.

One piece, Parking, addresses the construction of the metro in particular. The piece consists of an old car with TVs inside showing videos of the inauguration of the subway. Roy adds, “The videos show the arrival of modernity. You see Mayor Drapeau walking around. Everyone is so excited. Everyone wants to speak, to be part of voxpop. They say how the metro is so clean, that there is no noise. People are so proud of their city. Now, given recent events, we feel so much shame about our city, and the public mood is bad.”

“The mission, of course, is to create a feeling of empowerment,” Roy explains. “We get to know our city better and feel its powers so we can make a difference. We make art so people can recognize that they can make a difference in their environment.” ■

All sorts of things are happening for ATSA’s Fin novembre festival — musical performances, guided visits, street theatre, storytelling, panel discussions and more. For programming info, visit their website. For info on Nov. 22’s Soirée rouge, featuring 25 speakers, see here.

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