Bardier and Coderre. Photo by Cindy Lopez

OK LÀ is an alternative to corporate summer music festivals

The setting: a concrete monstrosity in Verdun. The sound: experimental, avant-garde. The cost: free.

If you don’t live in the Plateau/Mile-End/Mile-Ex area, then you probably get where Michaël Bardier and Charles-André Coderre are coming from: they live in Verdun, and sometimes they’d rather see a show across the street than schlep to a venue across town.

That’s why they created OK LÀ, an experimental music and visual projections festival set in the unlikeliest of places: not just Verdun, but the multi-storey monstrosity Éthel parking lot just off the busy Wellington commercial stretch. The concrete garage would otherwise be a perfect demolition target for condo developers, so OK LÀ isn’t just about bringing international music acts to their pocket of the city, but also about keeping Verdun, well, Verdun.

“The parking lot feels a little bit illegal in a way, but in reality we’re working with the Societé de Développement Commercial (SDC) Wellington,” says Bardier. “We want to keep it as minimal as possible so it doesn’t feel like you’re being sold a product. We try not to have any sponsors and we curate everything from music to alcohol. It’s important to us that it’s not a corporate event. The type of music we’re showcasing is pretty experimental and alternative, but this isn’t only for people who listen to that kind of music. This event is for families, old, young, kids, and it’s free. We want to reflect that openness in every aspect.”

Bardier says the non-profit SDC Wellington has been totally cool with their strange music selections. Just to reinforce how non-corporate OK LÀ is, the last two years their pamphlets were so inscrutable even organizers could barely read them.

“Because there isn’t much happening here, it’s a chance to try something a little different,” says Bardier. “It would’ve been easy to invite the same local artists that play all these outdoor shows, but there aren’t really any free, experimental festivals happening anywhere in North America.”

Coderre says they originally took inspiration from similar come-one-come-all type shindigs at Hotel2Tango (Coderre does projections for Jerusalem in My Heart) and the Pines in Griffintown.

For a little fest with a modest backing and only two guys that lug all the gear up to the garage’s roof, OK LÀ has managed to snag a number of exclusive acts over the fest’s three dates.

On June 14, with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe headlining, New York-based audiovisual artist Rose Kallal (presented at MoMA PS1) will make her Montreal debut, while Swiss artist Martina Lussi will make a North-American premiere.

On July 13, bassist Joshua Abrams (who played on Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O.) will perform with Natural Information Society in Montreal for the first time, alongside hometown favourite Marie Davidson and Italian spoken word/electronic act Francesco Cavaliere.

Finally,’70s/’80s New York minimal electronic artist Michele Mercure will headline the closer on Aug. 9, with Montreal drone pop act Météo Ciel Bleu making their live debut. And just because people kept assuming OK LÀ was an ambient music fest, organizers threw a curveball and booked a string quartet for that night.

And as always, some music acts will be accompanied by 16mm analogue film projections.

To give an idea of what to expect when the sights and sounds and musty garage smells combine forces into one intoxicated night under the stars, last year American experimental artist Bruce McClure played a 16mm projector like an instrument. Bardier calls it one of the coolest things he’s ever seen.

“He asked us for a projector but the show was pitch black the whole time,” Bardier recalls. “The whole performance is him basically turning one button, but you could feel the stress and tension.”

With gentrification occurring in St-Henri and heading west, it’s inevitable the venerable Éthel, built for another time, could come down and be replaced with condos. For now, OK LÀ can take solace in knowing they’ve turned this neglected bit of real estate into a pretty cool venue: a seeding and planting event was held there, a dance troupe has a residency there and Bardier says even Quebec pop star Marie-Mai asked about hosting a launch there.

“I think the city wants to keep it like this and wants to do more stuff. There’s so much potential here,” says Bardier. “I like the fact that it doesn’t feel too cool. Hopefully it’s going to stay like this.” ■

OK LÀ is happening at the Éthel parking lot in Verdun (Rue Éthel) on June 14, July 14 and Aug. 9, free, all ages