How Do You Spell Holiday?

Resolving Power: in conversation with Claude-Philippe Benoit

Abstraction resonates so deeply in modern art because it illustrates our everyday incongruity: capital is incommensurate with value.

Time is not money, to contradict an old adage. Time and money are like the frames of an image that arbitrarily circumscribe certain realities, and zoom in or out as would a camera lens, depending upon interfering and vibrant impulses. Markets. Labour. Fashion. Nature. These variables give the abstract shape, rendering the air solid, freezing time.

The Montreal artist Claude-Philippe Benoit intuitively grasps abstraction — as a concept, and historically, as a tradition.

“Artists have the responsibility to be knowledgeable, to be informed,” Benoit tells me from across a table in the back room of a pop-up gallery set up in the Insurance Exchange Building on Saint-Jacques Street, strictly to showcase his newest work. “It’s a duty for me.”

For nearly four decades, Benoit has been recognized primarily as a photographer. His sequences of melancholy images — of disused movie theatres and depopulated urban landscapes — have exhibited internationally, across Europe and in America. But the publication of his life’s work as a monograph in 2016 spurred a return for Benoit to painting, the subject of this latest show.

“I felt a kinship with the Düsseldorf School of Photography,” Benoit explains. “But all along, I always kept an eye on what was happening in Abstract painting. And when I visited galleries, like in Chelsea and SoHo, I was always most attracted to exhibitions of Abstract painting. That’s where I had the most pleasure as a viewer. And it also became research material, keeping me updated with what was being done.”

After Kazimir Malevitch, the 20th century Ukrainian Avant-Garde artist, Benoit refers to his current oeuvre as “Les carrés noirs.” Extreme movements characterize these paintings, with deliberate and often repeated brush strokes producing chunky and textural images that Benoit squares, quite literally, on paper and canvas.

Left: st8488 (2022). Right: st8448 (2021). Les Carrés Noirs.

The resulting work is a maximal exercise in minimalism — or vice versa — extending each minute physical gesture into monumental proportion, and wringing out extreme meaning from the abstract.

“It was Expressionism 2.0,” Benoit quips. “I was working in a gestural kind of painting. It takes your whole body. In any kind of art media, you have to invest yourself.”

Growing up in the Gatineau region and settling in Montreal in 1990 to pursue a career as an artist, Benoit has dedicated his entire life to creative practice. “I took classes of painting outside of school with a friend of mine,” Benoit recalls, “doing still-life paintings for my mom. And I forget how, but at a young age, I came across a book about Surrealism. And I read that book, and I was like, ‘oh my God.’ I was really astounded. I realized how extensive art could be.”

Benoit later attended Algonquin College, in Cinema, but was constantly drawn to the persistence of the still image. “I realized that the kind of life, being a contributor in film, was not for me. Sixteen-hour days. Plus also realizing that the creative input in a film was not noticeable enough for me. So I started working more in photography. And I was very conscious at that time that I wanted something to be a starting point. I didn’t know what was going to come next. So cinema theatres was that.”

Left: Réf. 44. Right: Réf. 3. L’envers de l’écran, Un Tourment Photographique, (1982-1985)

Benoit’s most famous series, entitled “L’envers de l’écran,” produced between 1982 and 1985, focusses upon the other side of cinema: behind the screen; the emptied-out theatre; the projection booth — those spaces normally occluded from film’s audiences. Benoit’s camera captured cinema’s eerie essence of ideology and myth with these images, and eventually granted him access to seats of power on another order.

“I was showing in New York,” Benoit recalls, “and while I was there, I somehow got permission to visit the U.N. Today, you understand, you would never get access. I was accompanied at the beginning by a security agent who was following me through. And I wanted to photograph these rooms empty of people, because I wanted it to be about these rooms, which for me were very coded, because we saw these rooms on the news. After half an hour or so, he went off and I was by myself. I could roam around, go from one room to another, open a door, ‘Oh, there’s a meeting here, sorry!’ Close the door. And I quickly realized that these places were about power.”

Those photographs formed the second chapter, “Ô-NU,” in his cycle, “Les Lieux Maîtres,” and led to another epiphany for Benoit about how to choose the subjects of his images. “If you want to photograph interiors, or landscapes, and there are people there,” notes Benoit, “there’s some kind of phenomenon that happens where, very quickly, it’s not about that interior, or that landscape. It could be one tiny person in the whole picture. But the viewer is drawn by that person.”

For his next series, “Société de Ville,” Benoit burrowed his lens into his favourite urban muse: Montreal.

“I used Montreal to photograph the urban landscape,” reveals Benoit, “but I didn’t want to photograph the iconic places, like Old Montreal, or the Olympic stadium. I only wanted to photograph as if it was discovered by someone, say, living in the woods all his life, and all of a sudden he comes out of the woods and discovers there’s a city. I wasn’t born in Montreal, but Montreal is certainly my home. It’s my home in my mind since I was a young boy. My parents brought me to Expo ’67, and I was amazed by the cityscape, and the autoroutes, and the Metro. I fell in love. And at that point, secretly, in my mind, I thought this is where I want to live. This is where I wanted to be.”

“I wasn’t born in Montreal, but Montreal is certainly my home. It’s my home in my mind since I was a young boy.” Claude-Philippe Benoit photographed for NicheMTL.

From runs of black-and-white photographs to enormous diptychs painted in cadenced waves, a curious theme emerges throughout Benoit’s works: capital, power, time, labour, leisure, language — these abstract concepts, like the image, elicit no intrinsic interpretation.

“I don’t think a lot about the meaning more than I want my work to have meaning,” Benoit emphasizes. “Because I can see a meaning in any of these photographs, but is that meaning going to come through for the viewer? That’s a pretty difficult task that mostly fails anyway. But to have meaning, that’s possible.”

The abstract vacuum of human form paradoxically unites Benoit’s photography and painting. Yet, he has no intention of choosing one practice over the other. “When my book was being produced, I got into painting to keep me busy, creatively. But then I liked what I saw. And voilà!”

Benoit motions to walls of framed canvases. “People started asking me, ‘Does this mean you’re not going to work in photography?’ No. Just because you start something doesn’t mean you have to abandon something. This show is a witness to that. The two of them can live together.”◼︎

Claude-Philippe Benoit Photographies et peintures continues at 276 rue Saint-Jacques through 28 October 2023.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

The air conditioning broke. So Casa’s doors stood wide open to the smoky night.

Montreal is known as the ashtray of North America. It’s a fuming city. People mill about outside of drinking establishments and music venues huddled around cigarettes. There’s a way people stand when they’re smoking, as if searching for something to do while performing a perfectly acceptable task: smoking.

Cigarettes, much like the people who smoke them, are on a spectrum of pleasantness. Sometimes, cigarettes smell like the backseat ashtray in a taxicab, or of a 1976 department store cafeteria. Other times, cigarettes possess a luxurious warmth, deeper and unplaceable across history, a mossy autumn evening’s air spiced with Portuguese chicken and passersby’s musk. A smell you want to take your time with, get lost in, a smell that wraps its tendrils around you.

It depends on who’s smoking the cigarettes, though. You’ll have better memories than others of some smoking people, of the people as well as their cigarette smell. Bad cigarettes can have a way of grabbing you by the nostrils as would some ephemeral Three Stooges routine. The punch of hot smoke pumping through an air conditioner. Pleasant cigarettes, au contraire, gently caress the olfactory sense, an inviting scent. Addictive, even.

Nicotine is a stimulant, as long as it’s administered regularly. You can stay up all night smoking a pack of cigarettes. Or you can get that second-hand thrill and stay up all night watching someone else smoke their pack of cigarettes. In the olden days, when cigarettes were still allowed indoors as entertainment, we’d return home after a night out stinking of cigarettes and high as kites, not able to think of sleep until the new dawn’s first rays, whether we’d been smoking or not.

Live music is like audible smoke, wisping through the atmosphere, clearly discernible but ungraspable. Music, like smoke, is always moving, energetic when it appears (sounds) like it’s still. Layers of soundwaves accumulate like strata of smoke in a dusty old pool room. Recording is to music as film is to smoke, capturing but also subdividing the indivisible, preserving the beauty of fluid movement and losing something in its preservation.

Smoke is particularly cinematic as music is uniquely suited to audible reproduction in time. Music is a cigarette burning steadily in an ashtray, throwing off plumes and flares that always delight yet never entirely surprise, a comfortable unpredictability.

There is an undeniably sexy quality to smoke and smokers. They know something that others don’t. They can breathe fire. Smokers blow non-smokers away — literally — with the tough black leather air of hip rebellion, sneaking a puff behind the barn, or after a busy late shift. I love a smoking woman, like a Hitchcock glamour shot, glimpsed through gauze. It’s nothing if not romantic to watch a beautiful woman bring a cigarette tip to her lips.

We venerate smoking artists. There’s a rugged authenticity to copping wholeheartedly to addiction, to leaning in when logic and science say recoil. Leonard Cohen famously smoked, then gave it up, then rekindled his affection for cigarettes after age 80. George Orwell wrote a considered essay on his epic struggle between buying books and consuming cigarettes. The work was intended to defend reading as one of the cheapest and most rewarding forms of recreation. But today, George Orwell is just a number, and Leonard Cohen is a mailbox, transubstantiated in form as smoke — and capital — is: into the air, thick or thin.

A melancholy mood pervades the end of September, the gradual understanding that summer is as far away as it can be, with three full seasons between. As nights stretch out, cigarettes underscore the passage of time, and the inability to regain what is soon to be lost, spent, smoked. When the weather turns brisk, women tend to bend at the knees slightly and hurry through their cigarettes to rush back inside, to get elsewhere.

Because cigarettes aren’t the destination, they’re the journey, transient — what life’s about.

We can see the stub coming up ahead but can do nothing to slow its inevitable approach. There is no medium that faithfully recaptures sound and music and smoke.

Cigarette smoke is like the past haunting the present. There’s a reason that ghosts in the movies are always shrouded in clouds of billowing smoke.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But we are entering into the most haunted season, since smoke reveals the contours of what once was but can be no more. I do believe that smoke revives the dead, breathing life, if only briefly, into burning carbon and particulate matter. Our loved ones might return in spirit, marrying breath and body, reconstituting only to dissipate once more as clouds form and in an instant vanish above a fjord. It may be possible to conjure a memory sculpted in smoke.

Saint-Laurent Boulevard on any summer’s night late in the season is a choking vapour factory populated by scantily clad and curvaceous bodies that obstruct the sidewalk and divert the flow of pedestrian traffic out and into the street. The sidewalk smokers’ lives unfold as more lives glide by in cars with windows rolled down, trailing smoke behind them like a Cheech and Chong movie. Since marijuana was legalized, there is now the distinctive ubiquitous and pungent skunk aroma of weed that pervades the city’s moist and cool air, mixing with dead leaves and the burnt and earthy dust smell of baseboard heaters clicking on again for the first time of the year.

The smoke of a late summer’s night reminds us that we are simultaneously alive and dying, nudging us closer to home, closer to that biggest of sleeps.

And when we arrive, our sweaters will smell lightly of tobacco and vanilla, and maybe a hint of bourbon, and our memories as golden-age cinema and the wind-up recordings of yesteryear both preserve indelibly and sully our collective experience.

The Bible says from ash we’re born and to ash one day we shall return. In between, we smolder.◼︎

Cover image: Ky Brooks and Jessica Moss perform at Casa del popolo, 15 September 2023.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Le Temps Qui Passe: notes on The Pop of Life!

In February of 1969, then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reached out to the People’s Republic of China’s leadership in hopes of forging formal diplomatic relations.

There was a general forbidden sense about the East at that time. Aside from the Soviet Union, China’s was the world’s most opaque Communist national government, shrouded in mythology and mystery. The United States, our closest neighbour and ideological ally, was still operating under the Formosan policy formulated during the mid-1950s by the Eisenhower Administration to protect independent Taiwan’s sovereignty against Red Chinese encroachment.

Taiwan had continued to function under the aegis of the American-allied Republic of China after the Chinese Communist Party triumphed in 1949, putting an end to the Chinese Civil War. Communist China’s price for friendship was the condition that Canada endorse its intention to imminently take Taiwan back — by force, if necessary. On October 10th, 1970, Ottawa issued a statement reaffirming the PRC’s Taiwan position, and diplomacy with Beijing was established that very day.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Mao, 1972. MMFA purchase, William Gillman Cheney Bequest. ©️ The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / ARS/ CARCC 2023. Photographed for NicheMTL.

Trudeau Sr.’s cavalier approach to countries the West viewed as potentially perilous rankled conservatives who questioned the Canadian leader’s allegiances. The Prime Minister was a noted friend of the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, too, and would entertain the rock-and-roll stars/anti-war activists John Lennon and Yoko Ono on Parliament Hill that December.

During the 1960s, Trudeau’s home province was undergoing its most total shift in generations. Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party upset the 1960 provincial election and initiated the overarching societal changes associated with the Quiet Revolution, in which Quebec moved further away from the Roman Catholic Church’s influence and towards a more secular, Americanized model.

Just as Castro was kicking out the Yanks, Quebec was flirting simultaneously with a form of economic socialism borrowed from the Pinkos, and an increasingly consumerist capitalism taken from America’s playbook. In Havana, Coca-Cola was on its way out. In Quebec, Coke was it.

Consumer products’ arbitrary placement in media — a barrage of ads sitting right next to the day’s news on TV and in print — reflected Pop culture’s ambivalence as both low culture and high art. In a proto-culture-jamming gesture, American contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann in the 1960s and ‘70s incorporated these apparently absurd industrial-age incongruities directly into their works. Reproducing images that were themselves mass-produced seemed to serve as an ironic and radically post-modern artistic critique of mass-reproduction. Capitalist touchstones like Coca-Cola suddenly became iconic and iconoclastic in equal measure.

Michel Leclair (born in 1948), Fries with Gravy, and a Coke! 1974. MMFA purchase, Saidye and Samuel Bronfman Collection of Canadian Art. Photographed for NicheMTL.

The Quebec artist Edmund Alleyn rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, receiving a grant from The Royal Society and Quebec’s prestigious Grand Prix aux Concours artistiques for his early Abstract Expressionist paintings. Alleyn relocated to France in 1955, representing Canada’s art scene from abroad, and came home to Quebec in 1970 to experience the cacophonous transformations abruptly wrought by the so-called Quiet Revolution. Those experiences shocked Alleyn into producing some of his most profound and popular works.

Immediately, Alleyn altered his style and media and created a striking cycle of photorealistic installations on Plexiglass that depict a culture foreign to its own land, bewildered tourists, as if returning home after a war. These monumental works in retrospect revealed the artist himself as a tourist, remastering his command of genre and artistic form while acquainting himself with a new Quebecois culture that had rapidly turned more American. If there was one thing France in the ‘60s was not, it was American.

Pop Art produced by the kaleidoscopic Quebec lens refracts American capitalist realism through the residual shards of traditional French-Canadian culture. Artists like Alleyn — and Pierre Ayot, whose prints and sculptures of the 1970s indicated capitalism’s sly colonization of the quotidian — were also showing their audiences the broken promise of consumerism as an organizing social force. Objects, regardless of their symbolic value, are void of any spiritual essence and ultimately leave their owners bereft of meaning. These artists adeptly anticipated today’s ennui.

Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004), Étude photographique pour Iceberg Blues, MMFA Collection, gift of Jennifer Alleyn, inv. 2016.399.

Quebec in the 21st century continues to cling to some of the cruellest aspects of our patriarchal French Catholic history while having embraced enthusiastically and unconditionally a specifically American brand of hyper-capitalism. Quebec, for instance, seeks culturally to shore up the mother tongue in part by remaking bad American reality TV in French. We enjoy the dual pleasure of conformist homogeneity and the smug superiority of singularity — a distinctly mimetic culture.

Pop Art works on the subconscious, whereas memes work on affect. So the Quebec of the new millennium offers a whole nother order of Pop sardonicism, more Jung than Freud.

It’s cliché to say that history repeats itself. Nevertheless, Taiwan is once again among the sovereign nations under threat of armed invasion by old foes; we have another Trudeau in Ottawa who appears to conservatives to be soft on Chinese capital; we have advanced secularism, and linguistic nationalism; and we have an art world awash in copies of copies of copies of artworks that were never intended to convey originality.

Pierre Ayot (1943-1995), Madame Blancheville Rides Again, 1974. MMFA Collection, gift of Madeline Forcier. ©️ Estate of Pierre Ayot / CARCC 2023. Photographed for NicheMTL.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts possesses a curatorial team capable of conjuring the complexity and also the unique curiosity of a Pop Art chez nous, recreating in fine detail the historical period in which Quebec was not-so-quietly redefining itself in wonderful and horrible ways, a revolution reverberating for decades.

The Pop of Life! reactivates a collection of artworks by unexpectedly juxtaposing them against each other, as well as opposite this moment in time. Warhol’s Mao portrait means so much more today than it did in 1972.

Another sort of patina has accumulated upon these alternately groovy, vulgar, plastic, and timeless masterpieces of Pop Art: a patina of meaning, laid on thick like layers of forever chemicals. We may see the works for what they are, or we might step further back and see ourselves seeing them.

Like Edmund Alleyn, we can journey to another place in time with a touristic fascination of discovery, tasting something familiar yet strange, Coca-Cola from another country, or Moscow’s McDonalds, a franchise still pulsing with semiotic vitality.◼︎

The Pop of Life!: Pop Art in the Collection of the MMFA continues through 24 March 2024 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Cover image: Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004), Iceberg Blues, 1973-1975, MMFA Collection, photographed for NicheMTL.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Sweet Emotion: in conversation with Erin Gee

Erin Gee is overflowing with enthusiasm.

The artist, electroacoustic musician, and academic has invited me around on a swelteringly steamy summer afternoon to her relatively shaded backyard to tell me over a cool beverage about her work, particularly a forthcoming performance, entitled Affect Flow, which Gee and collaborators — both real and robotic — will present at this year’s Mutek festival in August.

“I’m so full of things to talk about right now,” Gee exclaims, before quickly doubling back. “I’ll have to turn off the academia and turn up the passion.”

Immediately, Gee third-guesses herself: “Maybe they’re married sometimes.”

Gee speaks in a characteristically deliberate scholarly pitch, punctuated incongruously with folksy snort-laughs that betray her quirky intelligence and wit. Gee is currently finishing a doctorate in composition et création sonore at Université de Montréal’s Music department, having relocated from Saskatchewan years ago to complete an MFA at Concordia and steep herself in this city’s cultural scenes.

“I’ve been productive artistically, but in the meantime, I’m getting a doctorate,” Gee chuckles. “It’s something that has really spurred my creativity and got me going. I’m not much of a big city girl; I was just passionate about learning to work with robotics.”

Gee’s robotic passions were rewarded after a fortuitous meeting in Sydney, Australia, with the neurophysiologist Vaughan Macefield, a researcher who creates robotic biofeedback sensors that measure human factors like heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, blood pressure, and neural activity.

Gee recalls that Macefield “just kind of said, ‘I don’t know, I think my work is fascinating, and it would be cool to see what an artist could do with it.’” She then had “a flash, imagining a piano that you could play with these things,” and embarked upon a multiyear research creation project to design biosensing robots that behaved something like a distributed wind chime.

“It was in a diatonic scale,” Gee explains of that work, “and basically, little hammers would strike little bells, and the parameters from an emotional person would control musical parameters like speed, timbre, the mode that the sound was playing in, the density of the notes. So you would end up with this abstract interior portrait of people.”

Though the musical product was not as simple as, say, hearing saccharine strings coming from a sad subject, or mouth harps and slide whistles emitting from someone more cheerful.

“When I first started making this work,” Gee divulges, “I really thought I could have some Holy Grail of interior musical emotional being. What I instead learned was that everyone’s interior world is really different. Even if, to a certain degree, Hollywood has already imprinted upon us what happiness and sadness sound like, what it feels like is totally different inside all of us. Anger, fear, surprise — these manifest physiologically very differently in us depending on how we were raised. This plays into gender, class, trauma — all kinds of things. So I was a bit bummed out because it’s really common for us to expect technology to reveal nature’s secrets. And you open up the Black Box and discover it’s Black Boxes all the way down.”

Gee later transferred her robotic technology into portable synthesizers, called Biosynths, and began working with a choir of young kids to make music. “I told myself, you just made a fleet of robots, you can work with children,” she laughs.

Gee soon discovered that the aesthetics of the technology were equally important to functionality in shaping its user’s attitudes. “You almost have to think of it as a collaboration when you’re working with robotics as much as with humans,” Gee says. “It’s a very different game than just making the device and making it work. And so the kids, unfortunately, were probably my toughest critics, but also my first customers. I learned a lot from them and hopefully they learned a lot from me.”

Affect Flow, Gee’s forthcoming Mutek performance, combines her user-friendly biosensing robotic technologies with the more avant-garde, and adult, practice of autonomous sensory meridian response — commonly abbreviated as ASMR — into something Gee calls ‘ASMRtronica.’

ASMR consists primarily of exceedingly sensuous and lushly recorded sounds like whispering, clicking, crunching, pouring liquids, and the like. Its objective is to produce the tingling sensation associated with pleasurable affective experience — if not pleasurable, then sensorially authentic.

And herein lies the paradoxical rub: its effects may decidedly be real, but ASMR is entirely synthetic: “ASMR is this hyper intimate, hyper personal, but really artificial practice of doing these gestures,” Gee explains.

“It’s closely related to hypnosis, but faux hypnosis. It combines hypnosis with social media feeds. It’s using these emotional hacks to push your body’s buttons. And I realized that this was the opposite of what I was trying to do: Instead of using emotions to push the mechanical buttons, now we are using emotions and gestures to push our physiological buttons. For me, ASMR became like this hinge. I had to get into it and understand it more, to inhabit this space in a way I knew I could as an artist.”

Under Gee’s direction, Affect Flow features an ensemble wearing biofeedback sensors corresponding to hardware synthesizers. “I’ll have ten people that make this ambient wash of sound,” she describes, “or there might be these brief moments when everybody is physiologically synced. So the audience can tune in or tune out of that perception of their bodies. People will experience at first a very polished ASMRtronica roleplay. And then,” Gee snorts, “it’s going to get a bit weird.”

“I’ll be leading everyone in emotional meditations that will mess with you a little. If you want. What I like about this is, you can choose. It’s all about consent. You can go on a journey with me, or just watch it. No one’s even going to know. The people in the biosensors — I call them ‘surrogates’ — because it’s through their bodies that you’ll get an overall portrait of the mood in the room.”

Again, Gee guffaws: “Our bodies are talking, you know?”◼︎

Erin Gee, photographed for NicheMTL with Pastel and Camélia, performs 24 August 2023 as part of Mutek’s Play 1 programme.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Holiday in Another Country: notes on mass cultural amnesia

The only time I was fortunate enough to teach a class at McGill, I asked my students during one particular lecture — all 97 of them — who had heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat. No one raised their hand.

To put it mildly, I was astonished. This was 2014. And here was a group of third-year students in their early 20s that, I assumed, all had functioning Wi-Fi connections and social media accounts, and were all more or less hip. Hipper than I was, I believed, because they were younger.

This was an incorrect assumption. I thought that just because they had the internet, they knew everything. But they knew next to nothing. Correction: they increasingly knew solely what the internet served.

It was only a decade ago, before Basquiat’s work enjoyed a rapid renaissance thanks to name checks in Jay-Z tracks, international museum tours, high-profile scandals, and colossal fugazis. Before algorithms generally set the agenda for cultural production. Before A.I. forgot more than we’ll ever know.

Specifically, here was a demographic of early 20-somethings who in a relatively short span of time went from possessing no knowledge of Jean-Michel Basquiat to possessing widespread knowledge of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Yet it wasn’t that long ago either, only a few decades, that Basquiat was alive and well-known amongst his own generation of 20-somethings.

Basquiat is a fairly niche example for cultural connaissance, to be sure. But instances of amnesia are elsewhere, too, making it something of a ubiquitous niche phenomenon.

Take as a second example Kate Bush. Another group of 20-somethings had recently never heard of Kate Bush — unless their weird parents listened to Lionheart — before they were suddenly bombarded with Kate Bush due to her music’s appearance in the Netflix series, Stranger Things.

These giant gaps and new bridges across recent culture remind me of Jerry Seinfeld’s 90s era joke about CD boxed sets: “Well, I don’t own anything by Steely Dan, but now I’d like to own everything by Steely Dan.”

Anecdotally, I have noticed that young people today — read, kids in their 20s — generally tend to have two types of knowledge: deep, or none at all. They know everything there is to know about their thing, and nothing about anything else.

It’s a fandom-twinged knowledge, clearly identifying tribes to their members — the Kate Bush tribe; the Basquiat tribe; the Steely Dan tribe. People are either in or out, on or off, a curious condition for a supposedly post-binary generation.

During a recent conversation with one of these [young people,] I asked whether [this person] had ever seen Cheers, among the most successful television shows in broadcast television history. To which [this person] replied, “I’ve seen clips of it.” [Hint: internet.]

Later in our conversation, I mentioned the film A Clockwork Orange. Again, I received a blank stare, which stunned me. How had [this person] lived 25 years in the postmodern world and never even heard of one of the most iconic texts of 20th century cinema? [Hint: internet.] It’s fitting that the latest social network is called “Threads,” because we’re losing them, fast.

The novelty of recent history displacing distant history might not seem like a big deal. But cumulatively, it translates into a new generation having a very limited understanding of the generation immediately preceding it. Not in modern history has there been such a lack of continuity between cultural vernaculars from one generation to the next.

Surely, this will cascade.

In her 2004 book, Dark Age Ahead, the cultural theorist Jane Jacobs warned of a void of knowledge emerging in the Western world. This, Jacobs argued, was due to the dissolution of family and community; higher education’s turn towards credentialization; the corporatization of the sciences; the corruption of national governments; and the disconnection with cultural history.

Poetically, Jacobs calls endemic forgetfulness the “fifth demonic Horseman” of the apocalypse. She writes: “During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had never existed.”

The Dark Age we refer to as The Dark Age, following the fall of the Roman Empire, took place about 1000 years ago. Also about 1000 years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy emerged in what was called The Great Schism — the movement of Christianity further away from Rome. Is knowledge truly being forgotten? Or is it just venturing a little farther down the road?

The question as we move through this era of mass forgetfulness is, what knowledge to preserve? What made our culture great? Was it agriculture, textiles, masonry, geography, alchemy? Our most recent iteration of culture prized entertainment as its greatest resource.

This is not simply a gripe about contemporary culture being worse off than its precedents, like the old axiom in the 90s that the 60s was a more creatively rich decade. That too. Taylor Swift is no Emmylou Harris, and there isn’t even an historical equivalent of something like Nicki Minaj.

This is something else entirely. The “kids these days” aren’t into crap recent history either, as the antecedent era might have been fascinated with ironically inspired interests — kitsch, say, or Steely Dan.

Though, wherever there’s crisis, opportunity knocks. There is space for exposing young minds to artifacts like Cheers and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces, and probably many more relics that today’s youth have never heard of, but should have by now. There could be Recent History classes taught in universities that survey the quickly forgotten rather than just the faraway past.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Who needs to relive the 90s again, again? Wouldn’t it be better if today’s youth had a casual awareness of Perry Farrell as much as Kurt Cobain? If they knew Tony Danza like they do Ross from Friends?

I would be pleased to teach such a class. Let’s call it Holiday in Another Country, since that’s what the past is. It seems further away than ever now.◼︎

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Use Your Illusion: in conversation with Joni Void

Jean Néant — who records and performs as Joni Void — and I have just received a guided tour of the Museum of Illusions, a new, social media meme-ready attraction in Old Montreal, and are sat now upon a park bench on Rue le Royer, the block-long pedestrian strip that serves as a sort of replica of somewhere in France.

It’s an abundance of touristic activity.

But it is not like France, Néant tells me, hailing from that country. It is no less spectacular. But it is very much like Montreal, the extraordinary international city that Néant chose as his creative home.

Montreal’s DIY scene drew Néant out from being a bedroom producer in the late aughts to performing solo onstage; releasing recordings via the revered Constellation Records label, the most recent of which is entitled Everyday Is The Song; collaborating with the likes of Mardi Spaghetti, the city’s improvised music series, and experimental harpist Sarah Pagé; and mounting his own events, first at the now-defunct loft space called La Plante, where Néant lived for two years, and since 2018 under the aegis Everyday Ago.

“When I was in France,” says Néant, “I was a bedroom producer never thinking I would play live. I thought there was no point because I was just on my laptop. The idea of being a part of a scene and a community for me was online. But moving to Montreal and going to the Plante and all these DIY venues and house shows, all these artists were just playing with computers onstage and it wasn’t an issue. The music was good and people were having a blast.”

Joni Void is performing a handful of live dates in Montreal before embarking on a tour of Japan in July. The trip was originally slated for 2020 but was cancelled, as Néant quips, “for reasons that might be apparent. So here we are, three years later.”

Following the fallout from the pandemic, Néant is looking forward to returning to Japan, where they toured in 2019. “I never had a trip that went so easy and smooth,” Néant says of that experience. “All the acts we played with were next-level. I’m very lucky.”

“I was a bedroom producer never thinking I would play live.” Louise Callier for NicheMTL

Néant became a resident at La Plante in 2015 and shortly thereafter met a group of likeminded people that formed around a love of avant-garde, experimental music. “I just kind of moved in,” says Néant, “and my friends put together a show that had Sarah Pagé and Markus Floats, who would later release on Constellation.”

It was at this event that Néant conceived of collaborating with Pagé as the duo known now as Page Vide. Néant and Pagé hit it off immediately — “especially” deadpans Néant, “when I helped her carry her harp down the narrow stairs of La Plante. Goddamn, that was a challenge. That was like foreshadowing. Like, wow I will be doing that a lot. That harp knows me now.”

Page Vide are currently working on their first album, Néant says, having finished three tracks, with six more in the works. The duo performs at Suoni per il popolo on June 23rd and at Mutek on August 27th. The autodidact Néant couldn’t be more of a foil for Pagé, a classically trained and supremely disciplined instrumentalist who visits Japan for months at a time for Koto lessons. “I’m as self-taught as you can be,” he proclaims.

Néant began making music in his mid-teens after discovering GarageBand on the family computer, and downloading the stems that more and more artists were making available to encourage engagement with their audience.

“My friends were making mashups,” Néant recalls. “Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails at the time were allowing their multitracks to be remixed. They had their songs online and you could just download the tracks and create your own remixes.”

This participatory activity actually encouraged an entire generation, including Néant, to turn their parents’ bureaucratic, number crunching machines into makeshift music studios.

Néant launched a project called Johnny Ripper, sampling, distorting, and reconstructing snippets of popular songs into psychedelic sonic collage existing somewhere between Girl Talk and Tim Hecker’s Radio Amor. Johnny Ripper caught the ear of Constellation, which encouraged him to derive less and produce more: “I do have a singular style but it acknowledges its sources.”

“I call my music ‘cinema-tek / camera-tronica’ which is not a genre but a way of explaining that I make cinematic electronic music.” Louise Callier for NicheMTL

Néant confesses that he endured an identity crisis and found inspiration in the work of Delia Derbyshire, diving deeply into her music and interviews.

“It’s all this magnetic tape that she would cut up and pitch all these things that you do with a click now on a computer,” says Néant. “To feel like that’s the way she was thinking of sound and music and all that is the way I make music. I make music like I would use a camera, basically. I call my music ‘cinema-tek / camera-tronica’ which is not a genre but a way of explaining that I make cinematic electronic music. It’s made through an intense editing process.”

Everyday Is The Song reveals a montage-like structure — as does Néant’s discussion, jump cutting at times across subjects that seem unrelated but eventually come around. We talk about Néant’s love of optical illusions, “Mise en abyme” being the title of Joni Void’s 2019 album. We talk about how the pandemic reshaped Montreal’s more niche scenes and their slow but steady return. “I’m seeing more events with ‘DM for address,’” Néant notes. “I don’t want to be like ‘nature is healing,’ but there’s definitely a new circuit that is forming.”

It is a beautiful late spring day and a chorus of birds nestles into a nearby bush, twittering up a cacophony of bright birdsong. “My favourite birds are crows,” Néant suddenly declares.

“There’s a park in Japan where there’s a shitload of crows and I always figured I would go one day with a lot of coins, and a lot of food, just be friends with all the crows in the park, and if ever I have issues in life, I’d just have my army of crows.”◼︎

Everyday Is The Song is released via Constellation Records

Jean Néant photographed at the Montreal Museum of Illusions by Louise Callier for NicheMTL

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Will It Float?: in conversation with Sarah Pagé

Sarah Pagé, the Montreal harpist, was not the fifth Beatle.

But she did play in the same room where The Beatles in 1964 nearly broke American television, at the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway in New York City. And though they weren’t The Beatles, Pagé was essentially the third Barr Brother as a founder member of that influential indie folk band with whom she performed for more than a decade, landing upon the Sullivan stage as the musical guest on Late Show with David Letterman.

“I wasn’t counting on being very inspired by it,” Pagé tells me of the Letterman appearances — there were two, the second of which featured Bill Cosby’s last-minute replacement with Regis Philbin.

Pagé and I talk via Zoom between late-night Montreal and early-morning Japan; she is there for three months taking “serious, serious Koto lessons,” she tells me. For now, however, I’m less interested in those lessons. I want to know what it was like playing on Letterman’s legendary variety show, or as the host himself habitually quipped, “the only thing on CBS right now.”

“My imagination,” Pagé recalls, “doesn’t extend into the past and the future as much as some people’s. So even though I know it’s in the Ed Sullivan Theatre, and there’s all this history to it, and I’ve seen amazing performances from that stage for my entire life, I’m very much always like, I’m in a room. But actually, it was pretty surreal and incredible.”

Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s musical director, knew that their number would be in the key of C, and had the band play “Tomorrow Never Knows” in C during the commercial break “so that we could tune,” Pagé remembers. “And as soon as I stepped on the stage, hearing that band playing a Beatles song, I really felt it. It totally blew me away. I felt the Ed Sullivan Theatre thing. It was amazing.”

Sarah Pagé’s latest recording, Voda, the Russian word for water, is only her sophomore solo album. And yet it still became a collaborative effort of sorts — with the Russian/Ukrainian choreographer, Nika Stein.

Stein in 2014 invited Pagé to participate on a contemporary dance piece exploring themes of vitality and mortality by way of water. “It’s her concept, this whole album,” Pagé says.

“The central theme is water, but water is a metaphor for the cycles of life and death, and the workings and layers of the subconscious, and the depths of the mind. We talk a lot about how confrontational and uncomfortable it is to deal with any of that subject matter. And the difficulty is, it can’t be dealt with in a literal sense. It always has to be approached through metaphor and myth.”

Appropriately, Voda was made in the mountains about an hour north of Montreal, in a studio constructed just on the cusp of the pandemic. Pagé managed to escape the city as the most severe of the Covid lockdowns went into place, and spent that extended solitary time mastering the recording arts.

“There was something about the narrative content of Voda that I felt,” Pagé muses.

“It’s almost like doing a cinematic score for a movie that you’ve got in your head that nobody else has seen, and nobody else is going to see. It was a lot to take on, and I really didn’t plan on it ballooning into such a huge production.” Though a few co-conspirators did manage to sneak onto the album, Pagé composed, engineered, edited, and mixed the record herself.

She describes the experience as “really intense — the recording process is really the time where, like a painter, you get to look at the canvas and be super controlling about it. Like, I want this colour right here, and that light over there is getting in the way, so I’ll put a little bit of a darkness here.”

Pagé’s commitment to detail holds water on a subtle and emotional album that is an aesthetically pleasing but not always easy listen. Although its central theme is fluidity, Voda is decidedly an anti-streaming collection of works — a deliberate move, Pagé reveals, “because of the artistic context we’re living in today.”

Structurally and thematically, Voda resists the mass audience and music industry demands of pushing forth evermore watered-down content. “I think I’ve created an album that many people will either be completely interested in, or turned off by,” Pagé concedes. “And that’s fine.”

Part of her niche appeal is Pagé’s disregard for generic boundaries, a sensibility informed by an insatiable fascination with all sorts of music. A wunderkind classically trained pianist, Pagé loved to discover the odd clash of 1970s rock and classical music stashed in her family’s record collection: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan — and Bach.

“Definitely playing Bach was always a big thing for me,” Pagé recounts. “There’s something about the intricacy of the way he writes counterpoint, and arranges. Particularly his music for solo and single-voice instruments: cello, lute, violin. There’s something about the way he can develop a single melody and give it so much shape and direction and real drama and harmony, in rhythms that, at that time, were all pretty square and predictable. There’s just a real mastery of melody there that I’ve always really admired.”

“I think I’ve created an album that many people will either be completely interested in, or turned off by. And that’s fine.”

Pagé sensed early on that her life would be devoted to music-making. “I have pretty vivid memories of my first recital as a kid,” says Pagé.

“I can remember the feeling, which is one that I have often felt later in life, which is a bit juvenile to admit to, but I don’t mind. I think I wasn’t used to getting a lot of attention or having a lot of space as a kid, and I recognized in performance that the audience had no choice but to sit there until I was done. I take a lot of space. Sometimes I decide to repeat a whole section, or change the setlist, or stay on one thing for a really long time. Like being a kid, I’ll take a super overly long dramatic pause if I feel like it, if I need to get people’s attention in a different way.” Pagé realized right away that she could be the only show on the station.

Still, Pagé occupies the stage with poise, and shares it with grace. “I really feel that most of what I do is in the hopes that it reaches another musician and there’s a possibility to get into each other’s spaces,” she says.

Despite her reputation as a dream collaborator — with the likes of Stein, Esmerine, Joni Void, and the late Lhasa de Sela — Pagé seems to steal the spotlight wherever she goes. Even David Letterman couldn’t help but crack a joke in her direction as he bid the audience goodnight.

Always the gentlemen, Letterman wanted to ensure that Pagé didn’t have to schlep her harp on her own. “Did someone carry that into the studio for you?” Letterman demands. “If not, I’m calling the union!”◼︎

Voda is released via Backward Music.

Photos by Thomas Boucher & Jean Cousin.