Under Pressure is under pressure

Cult MTL talks to Sterling Downey about the new pressures faced by Under Pressure for this year’s edition.

From Under Pressure 2012. Photo by Allison Staton.

When Sterling Downey co-founded Under Pressure in 1996, graffiti writers were pariahs. In addition to graffiti being considered vandalism, writers contended with the popularly held perception that their art was gang-related.

Under Pressure, a two-day event celebrating graffiti and other elements of hip hop culture, was conceived as a way to educate Montrealers on its merits. By organizing a sanctioned event, writers were free to talk to the media without bandanas and masks — protections Downey and others had previously worn when speaking with the media, which he concedes didn’t help to allay any public misconceptions.

While the festival has generally benefited from increased city support since then, Downey says this year’s different. “It feel like we’re right back where we used to be in 1996. Right now, we’re having major difficulties with the city.”

Those troubles are taking a toll on Downey, who looked tired when he took a break from last-minute preparations to speak with Cult MTL about this year’s challenges and the emergence of Mural Fest, a new street art event that debuted in June.

Downey’s frustrated that the city hasn’t arranged to close a section of Ste-Catherine to accommodate Under Pressure, something it’s done for the last four years. He says the festival’s organizers began reaching out to the city three months ago but was ignored until very recently, when they were told that the matter would have to wait until city council’s next executive meeting — which happens after the festival.

Downey, who entered the political arena as a Projet Montréal municipal candidate earlier this year, speculates that there are political forces at play. He also notes that the upheaval at city hall — the city’s on its second interim mayor in less than a year — hasn’t helped.

Whatever the reasons, Downey says that permit or not, the festival will use a section of Ste-Catherine.

“We will occupy sections of the street,” he says. “We’re forced to, now.” [Since publication, the City has made concessions to let UP have more legal street access -Ed.]

The other festival

The fact that Mural Fest took over a large section of St-Laurent after receiving  $260,000 from the Société de développement du boulevard Saint-Laurent (SDBSL) isn’t lost on Downey. And though he says the Mural Fest is “cool for what it is,” he’s quick to draw a distinction between it and Under Pressure.

Mural Fest, Downey claims, is the latest incarnation of a St-Laurent sidewalk sale. He’s dubious that its financial model will allow it to last for long. “The goals for Under Pressure are not economic,” he says. “The goal is to get the community out.”

Downey’s other Mural Fest critique is that it didn’t rep enough local talent. “We have a responsibility to export our talent and make sure they become famous well before we start spending money on people who are already famous who aren’t from here.”

Yan Cordeau disagrees. “By that logic, that means our artists wouldn’t be able go elsewhere,” he says. Cordeau founded Mural Fest alongside Alexis Froissart, Nicolas Munn Rico and André Bathalon, who maintain that their line-up included a lot of local talent, including members of the En Masse collective, who painted the largest wall in the festival.

They also say they’re committed to the festival’s long-term viability. “That’s why we’re working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. This festival is important to us. We want to see it continue,” said Bathalon.

Whatever the Mural Fest-Under Pressure politics may be, a bunch of walls are going to get painted next weekend. People are going to hang out and connect, and the city’s street art, graffiti, hip-hop and b-boy scenes will benefit.

For the last 18 years, Under Pressure has given a venue to the city’s graffiti artists, educating three generations of Montrealers at the same time. The fact that a new festival has popped up, Downey admits, was inevitable.

“People learn from what you do. And when they’re ready, they’ll do their own thing. But the fact is, there has to be a foundation that exists, ” he says. ■

Under Pressure takes place Aug 10–11 at and around Foufounes Électriques (87 Ste-Catherine E.), free

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