999 Words

Engine of Survival: notes on Nicolas Grenier’s future visions

The future was undoubtedly Leonard Cohen’s purview.

Montreal’s perpetual poet laureate seemed to possess an uncanny ability to diagnose and prognosticate what was to come. His 1992 song entitled “The Future,” from the album of the same name, is a blunt indictment of the tortuous human path Cohen foresaw. “Things are going to slide,” he growls ominously in the chorus; “slide in all directions.” The filmmaker Oliver Stone used this song to superb effect in his 1993 film, Natural Born Killers, a sendup of serial-killer celebrities and the American media’s creed, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Stone’s satire of murder and media was an attempt to hold up a funhouse mirror to the geopolitics and popular culture of the not-too-distant day, as if to say, behold what you shall become. There was a sense at that time that over-the-top satire would be enough, that the public would inevitably decode this cinematic harbinger, this prolonged Saturday Night Live skit, anticipate the dangerous future toward which we were tumbling, and change course. But that didn’t happen. The film instead encouraged the sardonic acceptance of death and destruction as tabloid entertainment. And Cohen was right: the future was murder.

Nicolas Grenier’s outstanding new works of sculpture, drawing, and painting, now on exhibition at Bradley Ertaskiran, echo Cohen’s dire futuristic warnings. Charcoal drawings on paper depict chessboard scenes of toppled deities; abstract op-art paintings pop out into three-dimensional space; two prominent statues placed on pedestals in the gallery’s center fuse famous figures: the Statue of Liberty melds with Vladimir Lenin, and Siddhartha with Jesus Christ in extremis. Surely, some form of Cohen-esque poetry is at work in conventional artistic traditions being deployed in the service of subverting cultural conventions.

There is an undercurrent throughout Grenier’s oeuvre that all bets are off. The old yardsticks of human civilization are being uprooted and the twin columns of ideology and religion — those once-permanent measures of human progress — are irrevocably transitioning into hybrid, mutant forms. They are unrecognizable, and yet still indispensable. A fundamental theme of the show, entitled Esquisses d’un inventaire, is the sense that the winds of change themselves have changed. An alternate title for this collection could have been the Cohen lyric: “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul.”

Although they are technically excellent, even nearing perfection, Grenier’s illusionistic paintings, in particular, hint at a devolutionary impulse in operation in the historical record. Seemingly clean lines upon closer inspection reveal the jagged imperfections of the painting process — and of the media themselves. The canvas’s flat surfaces are enlisted to do more than simply represent images; the two-dimensional plane does triple duty here, transcending its function as a purveyor of paint and jumping valence into the realm of performance. What the paintings mean is a matter of interpretation. What they do is not.

It is noteworthy that Azza El Siddique’s enormous and slowly corroding two-headed cobra is on display in the gallery’s basement bunker space, as if symbolically manipulating the inner workings of the underworld just beneath Grenier’s superficial interface. In its repose, the snake evokes a majestic ferocity, poised just as easily to kill its prey or turn on itself. The opposite of Ouroboros, the fabled serpent devouring its own tail, this creature of revisionist mythology has no tail to devour, and no orifice from which to expel its own venomousness. It is pure appetite, the world serpent now eating for two.

Throughout the twentieth century, and every century before it, there was a broad cultural assumption that the future would be an improvement upon the past, that each generation would be better than its ancestors, that technology would aid humanity, and that the word ‘progress’ possessed some intrinsic, universal consequence. In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the first iteration of a new, millennial generation in which progress is synonymous with stagnation and retrogression, in which technologies reflect human failures, and in which the monolithic future has shattered into shards of potential futurity.

This new-normal, doomed-future mentality is a result of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher described as “consciousness deflation” or: the systematic and deliberate destruction of individual and collective social agency. The ability to imagine better futures has been replaced with the inability to imagine such things, and with the assumption that time is but a slow march towards oblivion. Of course, capitalists are among the first to advance this assumption, because nothing is as profitable as despair. Keeping large populations of people in ignorance, with some hint of remembrance for a time when the future seemed bright, is a tenet of Control.

One of the biggest challenges of foretelling the future is effectively communicating a prophetic vision. And one of the biggest curses of the psychic mind is not having an answer. How to tell the others? Nostradamus predicted the future in cryptic metaphors. Leonard Cohen wrote poetry and recorded them as songs. Oliver Stone set them to ironic, brutal images. And Nicolas Grenier paints, draws, and sculpts complex concepts simultaneously into aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking works of art. Creation, not destruction, will save our future. And the best modes of communication are also the oldest.

Although Leonard Cohen is championed by today’s wokest, he was hardly of that ilk, decrying the rise of drug use, frivolous sex, and abortion, and pointing to a perversion of more traditional morals as the culprit for humanity’s imminent descent. Yet, there is a crack in Cohen’s crusty façade, and that is how the optimism gets in. If we are to survive as a species, Cohen suggests, we need to love without conditions, without borders, and without prejudice. There is no roadmap for that future. It is unprecedented. It is literally off-the-grid. That is what I see Grenier’s works signalling as well: where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

Verily, the only path to the future is back.◼︎

Esquisses d’un inventaire continues at Bradley Ertaskiran through 22 April 2023.

999 Words

And All Things Nice: notes on Parall(elles): a history of women and design

Men like me love women.

There is a group of people, however, who love women even more than men like me, and that group is women. Women love women, man. Women love to celebrate all things by and for and about women. And why not? To me, at least, there is nothing lovelier in this world than that indefinable yet unmistakable assemblage of characteristics that constitutes essential femininity.

These days, asserting the existence of such a monolithic thing — womanhood — is a controversial pursuit; when even the word “women” is contested terrain, it is an implicitly political statement to drop it right into the title of a museum exhibition. Nonetheless, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts saw fit to go there, and for one of the stuffier of the city’s artistic institutions, it is a radically feminist rhetorical move.

Parall(elles): a history of women and design, which runs February 18th through May 28th in the museum’s Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, collects 250 objects that (genetic) women either created or contributed to significantly, focussing a spotlight specifically on achievements hitherto attributed to men — Denise Scott Brown, for example, the partner of the Pritzker Prize-winning American architect Robert Venturi, and the General Motors designer Ruth Glennie, whose reinvention of the ‘Fancy Free’ Corvette functions as the exhibition’s centrepiece.

The assumption in art history has always been that men created capital ‘A’ art, probably, when we started painting the Lascaux caves. But a 2013 scholarly study published in the journal American Antiquity suggests that more women than men might have been responsible for producing parietal art. The anatomical difference in men’s and women’s hands serves as the basis for these claims which, if true, indicate that women may have in fact made between 75 and 90 percent of Euro-American Upper Paleolithic hand stencils, widely considered to be humankind’s first acts of artistic creation.

Ironically, many of the pieces in this collection gesture towards more traditional notions of the economy of femininity and domesticity. Clara Driscoll’s Tiffany stained glass lamp, for instance, or Ray Eames’s iconic pieces of office furniture reveal the discursive sites that historically served as women’s points of entry into the arts. Eva Zeisel’s Museum Coffee Service, a minimal set of elegant ceramic carafes, cups, and saucers, and Molly Hatch’s monumental terracotta installation, which the MMFA commissioned especially for this exhibition, discreetly signal towards interiors as women’s purview. The home, the office, the kitchen, the bedroom, the passenger seat of a sports car — these were women’s places, spaces created by women’s work.

Parall(elles) cleverly sidesteps gender trouble to focus instead upon design trouble, calling into question the circumscriptions around craft, fine art, and industry, while leaving the notion of what represents womanhood to the spectator. In doing so, this collection also suggests a sort of Montréalaise coda to a centuries-old dance between two complementary and corresponding partners, XX and XY. It is almost as if the 251st piece in this collection is woman herself.

As recently as the 1990s, it was still radical to be a woman. From the Spice Girls to Ellen DeGeneres, from Girl Power to the Riot Grrrls Manifesto, from Anna Nicole Smith to Kim Campbell, women were leaning into traditionally masculine pursuits. The future seemed decidedly female. In the 90s, the theorist Judith Butler critiqued the notion of womanhood as a socially constructed and economically reinforced category that ultimately served a patriarchal power structure. Women were the negative space that shaped masculinity, a binary dialectic allowing men to rule the world. The parallel nature of this dichotomy has disintegrated as gender identities proliferate and their acknowledgment becomes evermore contentious. Will there be an exhibition in twenty or thirty or forty years celebrating the underrepresented contributions of trans people to the design world? Is all this inclusivity necessarily exclusionary?

To the spectators of this exhibition, and me, it should simply be a question of aesthetics. Identity is an extension of intention, and every good art historian knows that intention is a fallacy. It may be interesting at best to know what an artist intended by this work or that, just as it may be interesting to know the gender or sexuality or politics of the artist. But it is only paratextual evidence, one rung above gossip. There is a kind of windmill-tilting, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better notion to a show that makes women’s design its focus — a Rosie the Riveter rolled-up sleeves we can do it sense of spirit. But is that really necessary? Would this exhibition be any less spectacular if women’s work — so to speak — wasn’t brought to the fore? Can the works themselves stand on their own? I believe the answer is yes. Nonetheless, it is their assembly under the aegis of underrepresentation that makes Parall(elles) at once nostalgic and radical.

The Cleveland-born comedian and misogynist Drew Carey once had a joke in his routine about the common axiom that if the fairer sex ruled the world, there would have never been a war. Punctuated by Carey’s sarcastic Coke bottle-magnified eye roll, he retorts, “yeah right, like no woman has ever started a fight for no reason.” In this joke lies men’s fundamental ambivalence toward women. Men tend to attend women’s proud roar as vaguely hostile, somewhat hypocritical, tinged with a smug sense of self-superiority, but also paradoxically attractive. Conflict is sexy. It drives the story.

Parall(elles) seems anachronistic in this era when personal pronouns are beginning to outnumber the people they designate, when even abortion rights groups are banning the term “woman,” and when digital technology has curiously cultivated a less binary world. But to men like me, and to women like those represented in this exhibition, there is a certain strength in reasserting traditions and recognizing historical struggles that should be amplified, not muted, by the allied marginalia.

If there exists an implicit argument about womanhood in Parall(elles), it is a characteristically female one: make the fight about something else.◼︎

Parall(elles): a history of women and design runs February 18th through May 28th at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

999 Words

Blow Up the Spot: notes on Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music





This city is crawling with uptight middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Status symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritually, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming for people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.

—Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1978

There is a morbid but reliable joke which hinges on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The joke is that the dead rock star would have likely killed himself all over again were he alive today. The humour rests on the assumption that whatever circumstances which might have driven Cobain to take his life have surely worsened.

At the end of 1978, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a member of a New York graffiti collective operating under the name SAMO©. Seventeen-year-old Basquiat, along with the young artists Shannon Dawson, Al Diaz, and other revolving participants, were astute observers of post-modern life, scrawling axioms upon Manhattan’s windows, doors, tunnels, trains, producing pointed commentary on the city’s new “neon fantasies,” “micro-wave existence,” and what they labelled “hypercool.” For the latter they reserved their most merciless salvos — the fine art world, which in their view was as fickle as fleeting fashion, was profoundly lacking in some palpable sense of authenticity. SAMO© rejected the artifice of the gallery walls for the urban wall’s credibility.

One particular scene in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, Basquiat, depicts a wealthy Yuppie couple, the sort that Jean-Michel Basquiat despised, on a patron’s visit to the artist’s studio. At the encouragement of New York art dealer Annina Nosei, they have come to purchase a Basquiat painting. After some gentle quarrelling over the colour of the work in question, the woman turns to her husband, gesturing toward the canvas, and says, “I like it, I’m just not sure about the green.” To which Basquiat replies, “You want me to paint it a nice shit brown for you?” Jean-Michel Basquiat craved acceptance, but he wanted it on his own terms.

The MMFA show provokes awe, wonder, and sadness — awe at the sheer volume of works Basquiat churned out in such a short creative lifetime; wonder at the meaning, the method, the madness of it all; and sadness, finally, with the tragedy of addiction befalling a generation’s best and brightest hope for a powerful and prominent Black American voice in art.

And yet there is an absurd Metterling-ish impression that every scrap of paper that Basquiat ever made a shopping list with or spilt coffee on or tore up and tossed in the trash was recovered and reassembled and preserved as if it contained some profound truth embedded in its banality. It evokes melancholy to walk among the ephemeral printed matter that once composed the entirety of an ingenious imagination before the advent of digital media. Would Basquiat’s lists be as interesting or important if they were typed out and posted online and not scribbled onto bits of looseleaf and framed under plexiglass?

Schnabel’s film is among the most star-studded movies of the 1990s. Each actor — Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, Courtney Love, Jeffrey Wright — is deserving of their own biopic. In addition to contemporary songs by Public Image Ltd., Joy Division, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, its soundtrack includes a re-recording of Bowie’s “A Small Plot of Land,” and an unreleased version of Keith Richards performing the Hoagy Carmichael standard, “The Nearness of You.”

The association of Basquiat with rock music royalty introduced him to the next generation of musicians including Jay-Z, Bun B, Yasiin Bey, and the Strokes, who graced the cover of their 2020 album with the painting, Birds on Money.

Schnabel, who mentored Basquiat, understood the ambivalence at his art’s core — the romantic love and righteous wrath simultaneously present in every stroke of Basquiat’s brush, evident in every fleck of spray paint, that would have remained only paint in a can had Basquiat not transferred it onto objects and transformed it into something timeless.

Art history is comprised of legends, and Basquiat has officially achieved legendary status. He might have been the first American artist to do so algorithmically, which is what makes him relatable to today’s youth. Basquiat learnt by absorbing, by surfing, curating, and funnelling more of what audiences liked back into his works. His favourite catchphrase being “boom for real,” Basquiat made his name bombing walls; he was always keenly aware of whatever was on the cusp of blowing up. But Basquiat could neither foresee his own fate, nor change it.

Basquiat would only be 62 today. He could have been a beacon for artists like himself. Instead he exists in spirit to reinforce the myth of the solitary savant, stupid as an animal and just as wild, falling ass-backwards into genius.

Basquiat achieved the immortality he so desperately desired, but he is no longer among the living. He was robbed of the opportunity to mature as an artist and as a man, and so he has kept American art itself in a perpetual adolescent state of arrested development, conserved for the masses like a mosquito in amber hawked at a tourist trap. The Holy Grail to the Cultural Industrial Complex. Infinitely replicable youth. The sad truth is that the world against which Basquiat fought, won. Basquiat is worth more dead than alive. Had he lived, he might, like Cobain, have only further tarnished his own legacy. But what is sure, he would have aged. Nobody’s teen spirit lasts forever.

For Kurt Cobain, heroin and sudden celebrity led him to swallow the wrong end of a shotgun. And though Jean-Michel Basquiat didn’t blow his brains out, junk and fame’s pressures took his life, too. What would Basquiat do today if he could see his sprawling exhibition right now at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts? I wonder: would he just die?◼︎

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music continues until 19 February 2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Cover image: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Beat Bop, 1983. Collection Emmanuelle et Jérôme de Noirmont. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Video: Extract from MTV’s “Art Break” : Jean-Michel Basquiat (1985) used with permission. © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved. MTV, all related titles, characters and logos are trademarks owned by Viacom International Inc.

Photo credits: Henry Flynt.

999 Words

At the Last Trumpet: Handel’s Messiah

The secret things belong unto the Lord our God:
but those things which are revealed belong
to us and to our children for ever,
that we may do all the words of this law

—Deuteronomy 29:29

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it

—Isaiah 40:5

A new philosophy of the future is needed. I believe it should be curiosity about the Universe – expand humanity to become a multiplanet, then interstellar, species to see what’s out there. This is compatible with existing religions – surely God would want us to see Creation?
—Elon Musk

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re going to have to serve somebody

—Bob Dylan

What would Jesus do?

This clichéd old question often comes to mind, but more recently in the past few years. It comes to mind on a personal level: What would Jesus do if the dry cleaners shrunk His favourite trousers, or His metro station was closed for a month for COP-15? It comes to mind on a global level: What would Jesus do if He had to live through a pandemic, a world war, climate change, the destruction of Creation, and then try to reach His followers, like the flock that had clearly gone astray, far more interested in watching a little black-and-white ball kicked about, or the taxes of a former US president? And it comes to mind on a more practical level: What would Jesus do to get the word out — y’know, the word of God?

What would Jesus do if Jesus Christ Himself returned as per prophecy and had to let the world know He was back to kick some ass? Surely, He would take to Twitter.

Today, Twitter has achieved an almost prophetic position in digital communication. We assign figures who amass significant Twitter followings nearly messianic status, regardless — in spite of, in some cases — expertise or good intentions. Their follower numbers are equivalent to authority. With impressions visible, we can now account precisely how much they impress us.

In earlier times, other social networks emerged over common interests and various modes of communication. Music is one example. Putting ideas into song is among the most enduringly powerful and universal ways to interact with large-scale audiences. From Pythagoras to the Pied Piper, Beethoven to Boards of Canada to the Wu-Tang Clan, music has always been for the children.

In Georg Friedrich Handel’s day, it was enough to just write Baroque operas. By the mid-1730s, the German composer’s music had garnered a significant and influential European audience. After settling in London in 1712, Handel made an even bigger name for himself churning out compositions at a feverish pace, founding three opera companies, and presenting more than 40 operas in London’s theatres. Handel wrote the score to one of his most beloved oratorios, The Messiah, in a little over three weeks in late August and early September, 1741. It was like a tweet he tossed off in the middle of the night, in that hazy hypnagogic state between degrees of consciousness.

Some people believed that Handel composed the score in a fit of divine inspiration. Others thought that it was a bit rushed and sloppy, and that he probably squeezed it in between jobs like any journeyman of any trade might do, paying little attention to quality or craft. According to historians, the score was riddled with mistakes — ink blots, scratched-out notes, unfinished passages. Was Handel himself a kind of fake messiah for potentially duping his followers into believing in his genius, when it was likely just another gig for some guy in a powdered wig?

The Libretto to The Messiah is largely comprised of Biblical passages and has none of the earmarks of narrative opera: there is no dramatization of the action, and no characters in elaborate costumes. Soloists approach the stage and address the audience directly as if giving a sermon. The choir and a relatively small orchestra accompany these Acts, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, perhaps the most recognizable piece of Western music ever written.

Insofar as communication goes, it is impossible to calculate how many impressions Handel’s score has accumulated. If it were a tweet, it went viral and continues to do so every Christmas season around the globe. In Montreal, for instance, The Messiah is performed annually at St. Joseph’s Oratory, under the world’s 20th tallest dome.

The Messiah is a Jewish concept for an anointed leader conferred with Holy powers. Those powers are to reveal God’s Word. The twelve disciples who followed Jesus, His Apostles, believed that Jesus was a strong messianic title contender, and they tried to tell as many people about Him as possible.

Matthew, a tax collector, was one of these Apostles. Matthew was different than the other Apostles. He hung out with unrepentant sinners; he collaborated with the Romans. But he was highly educated, literate, and the first person to write down Jesus’s teachings. Having a scribe on staff meant access to social networks Jesus might not have reached.

Messianic language surrounds no one today more than tech-bro billionaire Elon Musk. His supporters regard Musk as some sort of saviour who will lead Earthlings two hundred eighty characters by two hundred eighty characters towards a mythical Martian future. His detractors view him as a petulant child and false idol subject to base carnal desires and flights of megalomaniacal fancy.

Musk sees himself as a visionary savant with a hair-trigger Twitter finger, hellbent upon success, whatever that means. What success means today is not what it meant to Jesus, or even to Handel, who did not conceive of his works as messianic, but rather as calls to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah, as God’s anointed emissary. Jesus might have turned Twitter upside down, whereas Elon bought it.

No Messiah exists today, and if one did, it would be a bitch competing with Musk for followers.◼︎


999 Words

At Street Level: FRGMNT’s Superheroes Cry Too

An old critic’s axiom says that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. In other words, it’s an absurd and seemingly irreconcilable exercise. Nonetheless, we do write about music, we do dance about architecture, and we dance, too, about lots of other matters of modern concern. The subject of a work of dance is often elusive and diffuse. But dance is nonetheless the operative mode proper to addressing life’s irreconcilable absurdities.

The Montreal collective FRGMNT’s latest performance, entitled Superheroes Cry Too, is an immersive work of art that addresses a number of ostensibly disparate themes: psychotherapy; structural restraint; cyclical nature; ubiquitous media. And the nonrepresentational qualities of movement—particularly the various styles of street dance the collective incorporates—are at once more suitable and also more immediate points of entry into otherwise complicated human conditions, and the more subtle everyday feelings they cultivate.

FRGMNT aims to “make the discussion around the communication of all kinds of difficult emotions fluid, open and empathetic,” their artistic statement explains, “and to normalize the respect of each other’s vulnerability.” There are no obvious markers of super-heroism on display, no capes or X-ray goggles, suggesting that we can seek to identify heroism in the quotidian. And while FRGMNT is an extremely hip collective of multi-talented hip hop artists, it is their vulnerable stance, a bold openness to be exposed and emotional, that ultimately endears Superheroes Cry Too to its audience.

FRGMNT consists of dancers Victoria ‘VicVersa’ Mackenzie, Ja James ‘Jigsaw’ Britton Johnson, Nubian Néné, Mukoma-K. ‘J. Style’ Nshinga, and the project’s co-directors, DJ and dancer Richard ‘Shash’U’ St-Aubin and choreographer Céline ‘ezzeC’ Richard-Robichon. And although the crew have known each other in intersecting circles since the early 2000s, they have come together in this configuration specifically for this work.

“It’s my first time being in this type of collective,” Shash’U tells me via telephone on the day before their premiere, “so I’m very excited about that.”

“Initially it was Victoria’s idea. She had this idea of bringing people together to work on a project, but also having the opportunity that we can develop and exchange different types of leadership. It was a cool exercise. It’s been a mix of all of our heads together.”

Superheroes Cry Too is presented at Ausgang Plaza in a series of loosely structured tableaus. The performers invite the audience to move about freely, obliterating the boundaries between spectator and stage. The narrator draws us into a story about a doctor-patient relationship while another dancer spins amidst a ceremonial circle of chrome handles, virtually hovering in mid-air. The dreamlike and aquatic electronic music and the dancer’s actions draw the audience from a claustrophobic wooden box to a circle of pink kitchen chairs, from one tableau to another, like chapters in a short story.

“We feel like it’s a whole experience,” Shash’U says. “It’s not really a Yellow Brick Road thing, it’s more like you’re in it and it’s a good vibe. For me, the meaning of the show is the experience that I’ve had through the collective itself. It’s essentially my experience with the collective expressed into a piece.”

FRGMNT’s members come from contrasting disciplines. “I really grew up in street dance,” Shash’U says, “so my styles were locking, popping, krump, and hip-hop. A lot of the dancers in this collective are very much familiar with hip hop. Néné is a pro at house dance. She also represents waacking, hip-hop, and house dance around the world. Ja I’ve known as a krumper and today he works with ebnfloh, which is mostly street dance. And Victoria worked with different crews. Everybody does have their experience in street dance and the stage. But to come together for this idea is very unique and also very unexpected.”

The collective also aims to break down the borders between institutional and more informal cultural traditions. “It’s different than going to a dance school and learning classical practices.” Shash’U says. “With something like Ballet, there’s a clearer structure in the way things are done, and that’s how they stay constant. For street dance, a lot of it is learned through human interaction. It’s very much a socially embedded type of thing. It’s hard to learn about street dance by sitting down and reading a book, or by following one way of doing things.”

There is a procedural quality to Superheroes Cry Too, an element of controlled chaos that exists between improvisation and highly choreographed movement. “All this is still a big process for us,” Shash’U explains. “A show is not really like a haircut. It’s never done, done. While you’re still getting it, you’re realizing this could be cool for next time, or that could be adjusted. This thing that we’re making makes us feel a certain way, and you just want to grow into that.”

It is ultimately the feeling that emerges between performer and spectator that makes Superheroes Cry Too so moving. There is no question that we can successfully dance about architecture, since dance is a powerful form of non-verbal communication, one which seeks to rationalize the irrational and grasp the unfathomable. “Because of the way it was taught to us, it has very much to do with communication skills,” Shash’U reminds me.

“The idea for me of street dance is sharing what they’ve learned, or wanting to showcase what they’ve learned to other people who understand. That’s the core of it. It’s the main reason why one B-boy thinks that they’re better than another B-boy. They believe in their passion, their art, their discipline. They think, I feel like I want to talk about this, I feel like I want to share this, and I want to show this to my friend who is going through the same things, and I want to have these conversations—but through dance. When it comes to us exercising our idea of art and discipline, the DNA of street dancing has to do with communication. You have no choice but to communicate.”◼︎

Superheroes Cry Too continues through December 11th at Ausgang Plaza.


999 Words

Me and the Dream

On an unusually warm autumn night in Montreal, you can practically feel the breath of this city. The smoky and boozy breath of this city. The all-dressed steamie and bad tooth breath of this city. The steady vegan diet of diamonds breath of this city.

There seem to be endless places to go, people to see, and things to do, especially since the dreaded pandemic ended. People have repopulated restaurants and bars; they stand in lineups to enter various events. Later they post photos and video on social media of themselves doing these things. The scroll of experience is presented back to us in fragments and cut-ups. The juxtaposition of these fragments creates novel knowledge forms and produces an augmented reality, another soft membrane of memory.

Social media make it seem like choice is endless, but it isn’t. There aren’t endless places to go or things to do. There aren’t endless people to meet on digital apps. There are very finite options. Especially in Montreal, it’s best to choose your unusually warm autumn evenings wisely, because they aren’t endless, either. And only so many places know how to do diamonds right.

Rock and roll was a dying artform — or so I thought, until recently at a raucous show at The Blue Dog on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The occasion — with about a dozen acts that I had never heard of — was dubbed Bloodbath. I was invited by a guy named Dylan, the lead singer of a band on the bill called Me and the Dream. Dylan, 22 and towheaded, flips burgers at Paul Patates in Pointe-Saint-Charles, where I’ve been going for lunch on Saturday afternoons all summer. I could be Dylan’s father, I’m literally twice his age, and yet I still feel not much older than 22, like I’m still sitting at the kid’s table at family dinners. Dylan’s cousin, Cassidy, who also works at Paul Patates, told me enthusiastically one Saturday that she would be at the show. So I decided to go to Dylan’s gig, too, because life isn’t endless.

The Blue Dog is south of Duluth at the lower end of the Plateau, just down from where Laika used to be. When you hit a certain age, it seems like everywhere used to be some other place. The aptly named blue-lit bar is a dark, long, narrow space with a square counter jutting out into the centre of the room and a squished stage tucked in back. It’s a bit cramped and scuzzy, as good Montreal bars tend to be. I arrived right as a shouty garage punk band that I couldn’t name who were dressed in 1950’s drive-in restaurant uniforms hammered out a cover of Les Lutins’s “Je Cherche.” I figured I’d found the right place.

Dylan had told me about Me and the Dream over several months of frequenting Paul Patates. They have a jam space at which they rehearse whenever the four members aren’t working their day jobs. The pandemic had spurred a particularly creative period, Dylan said, locked inside with nothing better to do to amuse themselves than make music. This gig would be their first time performing onstage in front of an audience.

As the band prepared to claim their platform, there was a sufficient number of people in attendance to feel cozy but not overcrowded. I leaned with my back to the bar and watched as the ceremonial stage hand-off between bands took place, one drummer carrying a kick drum out, the next drummer carrying a kick drum in. Cable wrapping and unwrapping. Unplugging and plugging in. The bassist, a careless Eugene with spiky green hair, nearly took my eye out with the neck of his axe as he passed by.

A couple who looked to be more in my demographic moved towards the dancefloor. They introduced themselves as Dylan’s mother and step-father. Brimming with anticipation and nervous parent energy, they sipped on pints and swayed to the DJ, then stood off to the side and filmed on their phones as the band began to play. I could not help but be charmed by this. My mother would not have set foot in a dank punk bar to come to my rock show, nor would I have wanted her to. That kind of thing would have elicited deep embarrassment from me at 22.

But the band played on. No sound check, no tuning forks, no introductions, no apologies. They just started kicking out the jams. Were they any good? Let’s see: they were too loud, they were out-of-time, they were out-of-tune, and they were fucking phenomenal. They hit their stride by their third song and were finished after the fifth. Short, to the point, no nonsense rock and roll.

I had shared with Dylan weeks before at the restaurant that I wrote about music, I knew musicians, and music was practically an impossible pursuit. I didn’t want to discourage him, but I’d seen many artists’ dreams dashed by the degree of effort it takes to be in a band, to write and practice decent songs, get gigs and record, only to discover that it’s more difficult than ever to make any money as a musician. Dylan looked at me as if I were speaking another language and said that they had no intention of making any money, that they were doing it “for the right reason.”

The only good art is art done with no intention. Definitely not the intention to make money. That is dead art. More to the point, making money is itself an art, and making art to make money sullies the craftsmanship of high finance. Let commerce be its own perverse artform.

With so much noise out there, it is difficult to hear any signal. It’s tough to spot a diamond in the rough. But the choice is clear: Art for art’s sake. Just breathing in time with the city is the ultimate extravagance. We need to be content to have nothing in order to appreciate having anything.◼︎