Hyperrhiz 06: Artist statements
Entre Ville: This City Between Us
In 2006 I was commissioned to create a new media work in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Conseil des Arts de Montreal. It was an honour and a challenge for me, as an English-speaking immigrant to Montreal, to collate the cacophony of voices and contradictory histories of my community. I lived on the same block Mordecai Richler grew up on. The tour busses still came by looking for him, even as gentrification tossed out the old tenants. I wanted to represent my neighbours within a matrix of community, to explore the intimacies born of our proximity. The resulting work, Entre Ville, is an intimate view of the neighbourhood's jumbled intimacy of back balconies, yards and alleyways. Entre means between. Entre Ville is a walk through an interior city. Poetry is not hard to find between these long lines of peeling-paint fences plastered with notices, spray painted with bright abstractions and draped with trailing vines. Though Montreal is well known for its language issues, I tried to present Entre Ville in a neighbourhood vernacular, where cooking smells, noisy neighbours and laundry lines criss-cross the alleyway one sentence at a time.
I was twelve years old when I decided to move to Montréal. I was living in rural Nova Scotia at the time, and no one I knew had ever been anywhere. I procured a cartoon map of the city, depicting giant caricatures romping Godzilla-tall through the streets. Mordecai Richler loomed large over Saint-Urbain Street, his mug familiar to me from the back cover of Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang. This map thumb-tacked above my bed, I read every Montréal author I could get my hands on, which is to say, every English author. All through high school I immersed myself in the literary Montréal Irving Layton evoked in his 1985 autobiography Waiting for the Messiah, where there was only, "writing poetry and breathing poetry and talking poetry and nothing else had any reality" . I got no extra credit whatsoever for memorizing A. M. Klein poems. I fell in love with, and secretly wanted to be, the nude girl in Leonard Cohen's 1958 poem Snow Is Falling:
She is eighteen.
She has straight hair.
She speaks no Montreal language.
What was a Montréal language? I was dying to know.
I was 17 by the time I finally made it to Montréal, and convinced I'd already fallen hopelessly far behind in life. I'd read, in Mordecai Richler's The Street that: "On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all. Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply, astigmatic 14-year olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at MIT" . It turns out that I now live on Saint-Urbain Street, on the same block Mordecai Richler grew up on. And, 17 years after moving to Montréal, a web-based poetry project about this literary landscape that I had now come to physically inhabit, finally led me to MIT . On April 27, 2007 I presented Entre Ville at MIT's Media in Transition Conference Series.
Though ideas of "place" have long figured prominently in my writing and web art projects, Entre Ville is my first major piece about Montréal. It was commissioned in 2006 by OBORO, a Gallery & New Media Lab in Montréal, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Conseil des arts de Montréal. To mark this anniversary the Conseil solicited commissions of new works in each of the artistic disciplines that it funds. Tasked with selecting the New Media commission, Daniel Dion — Director and Co-Founder of OBORO — felt that a web-based work had the most potential to be accessible to a wide range of Montrealers for the duration of the anniversary year and beyond. The commission included a four-week residency at the OBORO New Media Lab, where I edited the 17 short videos included in the project. The resulting work, Entre Ville, launched at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal on April 27, 2006 .
Entre is the French word for "between," as in: entre nous, "between us". Ville is the French word for city. Montréal is an old city. It was founded in 1642 and was called Ville Marie until the 18th century. Driving into modern day Montréal, all signs point to centre ville, downtown. For the past 15 years I've lived north of downtown in a neighbourhood called Mile End. I work at home. My office window opens onto a jumbled intimacy of back balconies, backyards, and back alleys. Daily my dog and I walk through this interior city sniffing for stories.
Neighbour, poet and classicist Anne Carson, writes in The Life of Towns: "Towns are the illusion that things hang together somehow" . Montréal is both literally and figuratively a French-speaking island. The second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris, it floats in North America where only 2% of people claim French as a first language. The second largest city in Canada, after Toronto, only 17% of its population claims English as a first language. It's a complicated place to live, especially if you come from away. But things hang together somehow. Montréal's been very good to me.
Entre Ville was a long time in the making. I sketched the line drawing that became the user interface — a block of typical Montréal apartments — in 1992, while apartment hunting in the Mile End. I spent the next 15 years learning the vocabulary of the neighbourhood. I don't mean the vocabulary of French, English, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Yiddish or any of the other languages spoken in the Mile End. I refer rather to the cumulative vocabulary of neighbourhood: the aural, audio, visual, spatial, tactile, aromatic and climatic vocabulary of community.
I have attempted to present Entre Ville in this vernacular. To tell it like it is: Ours is not the nicest alley in the neighbourhood, but it's not the worst one either. Kitchen gardens and garbage heaps coexist with wildflowers and dog shit. Graffiti and grape vines vie for attention. Hand-painted signs warn: defense d'achets, defense du stationez. Cooking smells and laundry lines crisscross the alleyway one sentence at a time.
How does one learn the language of all this? One studies, of course. In The Life of Towns Anne Carson writes: "I am a scholar of towns. To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it's not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there" .
From the position of my office window, I can't help but learn the lives of my most immediate neighbours. Their voices barge into whatever I'm writing. Sometimes they take over. Entre Ville is based on one such neighbour-interrupted poem, Saint-Urbain Street Heat:
In an intimacy
born of proximity
the old Greek lady and I
go about our business.
Foul-mouthed for seventy,
her first-floor curses fill
my second-floor apartment;
her constant commentary
punctuates my day.
This is not quite a first person point of view. Our proximity disallows singularity. We go about our business. Nous autres. We're poor. It's hot. No one has air-conditioning. This is common, a shared experience:
All the kitchen
back doors stand open —
sticky arms flung open —
imploring, in a heat-rashed prayer:
Deliver us unto
the many gods
of Mile End.
Saint-Urbain Street Heat is a long, hot, sweaty heat-wave poem. Many people who have never been to Montréal in the summer refuse to believe how hot it gets. But we know. Our literature is drenched in the sweat of our summers. The Saint-Urbain Street heat is palpable in Mordecai Richler's 1955 novel, Son of a Smaller Hero:
The sky was a fever and there was no saying how long a day would last or what shape the heat would assume by night. There were the usual heat rumours about old men going crazy and women swooning in the streets and babies being born prematurely. When the rains came the children danced in the streets clad only in their underwear and the old men sipped lemon tea on the balconies and told tales about the pogroms of the czar .
Most Montréal apartments have two balconies: one on the street, front, and one in the back alley, rear. A common ground in our oft-divided city, an extra room, a slim slice of outdoors for inner city apartment dwellers, the balcony becomes a stage upon which dramas unfold, from which orations issue. In David Fernario's bilingual 1980 play Balconville, three families sit on their balconies in the heat of a Montréal summer.
JOHNNY: "Whew, hot. You going anywhere this summer?"
PAQUETTE: "Moi? Balconville."
JOHNNY: "Yeah. Miami Beach."
Balconville is a Franglais word, Montréal slang. In French, a "balcony" is a galerie. Like the visual art gallery, the galerie is a site charged with potential. It is an in-between space, an entrespace in which the private unfolds in public display. And, Montreal being a city of clotheslines, the back balcony is literally where we go to air our dirty laundry. In Nicole Brossard's 1986 novel French Kiss, the balcony operates as a threshold of enunciation:"One struggles without voice to forge a voice the way a wrought-iron balcony suddenly gives access to the city's far-off sounds" . Summer long conversations echo across the alleyway incall-and-answer strophe / antistrophe, clothesline curtains reeling in and out between the acts.
Don't be fooled. I have poetic ideas about neighbourhood, not romantic ones. Entre Ville is hot, loud, crowded and dirty. And, much to my surprise, despite my eagerness to flee rural Nova Scotia, I remain a rural, solitary and misanthropic being. Writing about my more trying neighbours has given me a soft spot for them, though. Two months after the launch of Entre Ville the old Greek lady next door was evicted from her apartment of 23 years; we watched from our balcony as the discarded detritus of her life accumulated in the alleyway, where strangers rifled through for treasures. Including us. Entre Ville has become a document of gentrification and its erasure. Mile End is changing. We could be next.
I write about my neighbours acutely aware that I write from amongst them. Gossip is rampant on our street, there to overhear, if you're listening for it. Stories pass from balcony to balcony. Voices carry. Word gets around, especially online. Occasionally the neighbourhood writes me an email. Like this one:
I was sitting at my mom's (no internet at home yet) eating millet pie with ketchup (a bit too dry). I clicked on Wannatakepicture. There was my mom's house. There was the window i was staring out of (blankly) moments before. And there was the voice of Mr. G, the Portuguese landlord. Nice garden. Mom was chuffed. J.M.
How one reads or writes the texts and textures of neighbourhood depends entirely on one's point of view. Do you live here? Are you a parent or a child, a cat or a dog, a bicyclist or in a SUV? Word on the street is, novelist Heather O'Neill lives a few doors down from me. Her award winning 2006 novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, offers up a disconsolate twelve-year-old's point of view of the alley:
The back alley behind Lauren's house looked the way the world would look if a child had built it. Some underwear and a couple T-shirts that had fallen from clotheslines lay on the pavement. A single sneaker was stuck up on a fence post. There was a toy bucket with rocks in it and a sled that had been left behind from a day when there had been snow on the ground. A wooden door leaned against a wall, leading nowhere. There was a lamp and a bathroom sink in the same garbage heap. You'd think that these houses were being blown apart by the wind, the way that pieces of them were lying about. Not one for them would be a match for the Big Bad Wolf .
Whatever I might say about multiplicity, Entre Ville privileges a pedestrian point of view. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit likens walking to writing: "The walking body can be traced in the places it has made; paths, parks, and sidewalks are traces of the acting out of imagination and desire" . In The practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau suggests that the "ordinary practitioners of the city" cannot read this writing: "They are walkers whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban "text" they write without being able to read unrecognized poems" . Perhaps if de Certeau had lived in the neighbourhood he wrote that about he'd have seen things differently. He claims that: "To walk is to lack a place" . My dog and I humbly disagree. For the eight-and-a-half years of his lifetime we've been walking up and down our back alleyway:
That's eight-and-a-half years of up and eight-and-a-half years of down.
Nine thousand three hundred laps of toenails clicking on cracked concrete.
Trail zigzagging, long tail wagging, long tongue lolling, dog tags clacking.
Ears open, eyes darting, nose to the ground.
We walk like we own the place. We walk to write the place, to collect, collate and annotate the multitude of texts generated by the occupants of Entre Ville. We try to read between the alleyway's long lines of peeling-paint fences spray painted with bright abstractions and draped with trailing vines.
In French Kiss Nicole Brossard describes the meta-text of walking as:
Writing that feeds on zigs and zags and detours. Isn't on every streetcorner but roams the streets, traces its course through them ... the narration of the inner odyssey in terms of Montréal's geography, its contours and harsh angles, sidestreets and lanes sharing the circulatory problems with the major arteries, from the heart of the city to the epicentre of oneself, the target and motive source.
Entre Ville is a poem. It has been published in print and online, with and with out pictures, and it has been read aloud to audiences large and small in Montréal and places far away from Montréal's back alleyways. In the early days of the Internet, alarmists and advocates alike proclaimed that digital media heralded the end of the book. Yet, as Derrida had already noted in Writing and Difference: "The question of the book could only be opened if the book was closed ... only in the book, coming back to it unceasingly, drawing all our resources from it, could we indefinitely designate the writing beyond the book" . In its first book iteration, Entre Ville is very small. Photocopied and stapled, the Entre Ville mini-book recycles images cut from some children's textbooks we salvaged from the old Greek lady's moving day garbage. It's sold at readings and events and through DISTROBORO, a neighbourhood network of cigarette machines re-purposed to sell cigarette-pack-sized art for two dollars. In its second book iteration, Entre Ville is much longer. Images, issues and ideas from Entre Ville have been expanded into a full-length novel called, Words the Dog Knows, published by Conundrum Press in Montréal in the fall of 2008.
In its web iteration, Entre Ville's verses scroll the alleyway, popup in windows — altered — and then disappear. The user interface is an image of a blank book upon which a few lines of city have been hastily sketched. Roll the mouse over windows and doors as you might scan your eyes over a cityscape. Occasionally you will catch a glimpse of an interior. And, as in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, "It also happens that ... when you least expect it, you see a crack open and a different city appear. Then, an instant later, it has already vanished" .
Entre Ville is easy to find: «http://luckysoap.com/entreville». If you're in the neighbourhood, drop me a line.
Brossard, Nicole, The Blue Books, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003.
Calvino, Italo, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver, London: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1974.
Carpenter, J. R., "Saint-Urbain Street Heat," in Nth Position, London, UK, August 2005. «http://nthposition.com/saint-urbain.php»
— . "Sniffing for Stories," in In-sittu Cité, an ensemble interdisciplinary audio tour of Mile End, Montréal, presented by Playwrights' Workshop Montréal during Les Journées de la Culture, Sept. 30 & Oct. 1, 2006. «http://luckysoap.com/statements/sniffingforstories.html»
Carson, Anne, "The Life of Towns" in Plainwater, NY: Vintage, 2000, pages 91 — 111.
Cohen, Leonard, Beautiful Losers, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966.
— . Selected Poems 1956-1968, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968.
de Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984.
Demchinsky, Brian & Kalman Naves, Elaine, Storied Streets: Montreal in the Literary Imagination, Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, 2000.
Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1978.
Fennario, David, Balconville, Vancouver: Talon Books, 1980.
Kotkin, Joel, The City: A Global History, NY: The Modern Library, 2005.
Layton, Irving, Waiting for the Messiah, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
O'Neill, Heather, Lullabies For Little Criminals, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Richler, Mordecai, The Street, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969.
— . Son of a Smaller Hero, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955.
— . St. Urbain's Horseman, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971.
Roy, Gabrielle, Bonheur d'occasion, Montréal: Société des editions Pascal, 1945.
Solnit, Rebecca, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, NY: Penguin, 2000.
Tremblay, Michel, La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte, Montréal: Babel, 1978.
Web, Jonathan, ed., Mordecai Richler Was Here: Selected Writings, with an introduction by Adam Gopnick, Toronto: Madison, 2006.
Yelin, Shulamis, Shulamis: Stories from a Montreal childhood, Montréal: Véhicule 1983.
- Irving Layton, Waiting for the Messiah, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985, page 249.
- Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems 1956-1968, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968, page 201.
- Mordecai Richler, The Street, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969, page 9.
- MiT5: creativity, ownership and collaboration in the digital age, MIT, Cambridge, MA April 27-29, 2007 «http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/mit5/»
- Entre Ville: «http://Luckysoap.com/entreville»
- See: Un 50e anniversaire - En ville et sur l'île - Pierre Vallée - Le Devoir - édition du samedi 29 et du dimanche 30 avril 2006 «http://www.ledevoir.com/2006/04/29/107759.html#»
- Anne Carson, "The Life of Towns" in Plainwater, NY: Vintage, 2000, page 93.
- J. R. Carpenter, "Saint-Urbain Street Heat," in Nth Position, London, UK, August 2005. «http://nthposition.com/saint-urbain.php»
- Mordecai Richler, The Street, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969, page 12.
- David Fennario, Balconville, Vancouver: Talon Books, 1980, page 28.
- Nicole Brossard, The Blue Books, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003, page 288.
- Heather O'Neill, Lullabies For Little Criminals, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006, page 134.
- Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, NY: Penguin, 2000 page 29.
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984, page 93.
- ibid, page 103.
- J. R. Carpenter, "Sniffing for Stories," in In-sittu Cité, presented by Playwrights' Workshop Montréal in Les Journées de la Culture, Sept. 30 & Oct. 1, 2006. «http://luckysoap.com/stories/sniffingforstories.html»
- op cit, page 263.
- Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1978, page 294.
- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver, London: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1974, page 155.