Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.
Montreal, QC–Yesterday, I shared some Montreal street art on my Facebook page. A Montreal anarchist friend had just introduced me to the work of this particular Montreal street artist, Harpy, who produced the piece pictured above (and who self-describes as: “Harpies have wings, they can fly and shit… Also, they turned against the Gods”).
The image provoked a lot of “likes” & shares, but also a lot of heated feelings on my Facebook page and others. Many of the comments concerned what the wheatpasted image was getting at — or not — in relation to capitalism/anticapitalism. They also touched a lot on yoga.
At the first meeting of a “popular assembly” last week here in my temporary Montreal neighborhood this summer, someone mentioned that street art — in the form of posters, but I’d apply it more broadly to cultural creation — should be two-way, sparking a dialogue. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, in an expansive sense: from dialogues that we have in our own heads when we see images, to dialogues between people looking at the same image at the same time, to street art that’s dialoguing with a current moment or social issue. And so much more. After posting that one Harpy piece yesterday — and some sixty-seven Facebook shares and counting later — “dialogue,” however, seems necessary but not sufficient. The debate that ensued over “Fuck Yoga. Smash the State” seems a far better role for art that finds its way on to the walls, parking meters, streetlamps, sidewalks, bus stops, and other “public” places that are no longer ours in any meaning sense.
Indeed, this evening — after the second assembly in this same neighborhood, where part of the discussion touched on the legality of even meeting with other people to talk politics — I was thinking about how rare it is that street art does what Harpy’s piece did: provoke, as in “to arouse,” “to incite,” “to call forth,” “to stir up purposefully.” And even when it does stir things up, it’s usually without an intention of doing so “purposefully” — as in provocation toward liberation, or at least to incite critical thinking — and more for shock value or out of some sort of ironic boredom, perhaps like a poster I saw (and yes, probably foolishly after one beer with friends, tore down) tonight that read: “ACAB — American Cops Are Better.” (If that was your poster, I’m happy to hear why it should have provoked me in a way that gets at “All Cops Are Bastards” in a far more clever manner than simply repeating ACAB, as in the spray-painted versions of those four letters that I’ve also seen numerous times today on Montreal walls.)
At this historical moment — and on this illegal evening number 66 in Montreal, in light of a popular assembly that underscored both a law that attempts to criminalize so much of human interaction and action related to making a better world, and simultaneously a student strike determinedly forging ahead nonetheless — perhaps the two best aspirations for cultural creation are: to purposefully provoke, and to just as purposefully prefigure. Or, as I argued a few years back in a piece called “Reappropriate the Imagination,” social critique and social vision, although I’d now argue with myself that “critique” and “vision” aren’t strong enough words given the transformations for the worse in the realm of cultural production. Words, after all, are cultural creation too, and shift how we think about and act in the world. Montreal’s “Place des Arts” has of late been renamed “Quartier des spectacles,” which maybe explains some of what happened during the recent Grand Prix spectacle, both among partygoers and party disrupters.
At any rate, on the provocation side, there’s way too much complacency with the “world as it is,” to the point where “even” us antiauthoritarians find it difficult to distance ourselves from our own life choices (which I hope are relatively enjoyable, despite capitalism, etc.) long enough to critique the social order that forever will try to recuperate everything. On the other side, prefiguration, there’s way too little imagination concerning the “world as it could be,” to the point where “even” us antiauthoritarians who busily run around doing things ourselves have a hell of a time not simply reacting to everything and everyone as what we call politics.
A bit of the context, for what it’s worth, on the Harpy image is that I found out today that it was intended for the lobbies of condos in a neighborhood that’s been structurally gentrified (i.e., like all/most gentrification, due to capitalism, development laws, and state/city policies, all of which are also deeply shaped by institutional forms of oppression like racism). Rather than read Harpy’s street art as decrying yoga per se — or any of the other veneers of what (en)forced shifts of peoples/cultures in neighborhood entail, such as “suddenly” being able to get excellent espresso in spacious new cafes — it seems pretty clear that this street art is contesting a hierarchical logic, not practices outside that logic. We not only need to work toward nonstatist forms of making decisions but also reclaim and/or reimagine altogether yoga, coffee, and cafes outside state and capitalism. Even if I love a quality espresso, which I do.
That’s only part of the context, though. Like all street art, there’s mystery and serendipity, and both did their parts in developing the five words within this etching from perhaps a century ago. Purposefulness and playfulness. Yeah, we likely need a healthy mix of both to provoke a new society. Along with the ability to laugh at ourselves.
Anyway, late this evening or rather the early hours of tomorrow, I’ve been trying to find a photo of another piece of Montreal street art to provoke — to provoke equally well — and I realize that I have little on my camera-full of images after some five weeks of taking pictures while wandering the streets. So here’s this one, taken in the Plateau, with thanks to Amy for the suggestion of an image to share. It’s a rather inadequate stirring up, and not nearly as likely to incite a hot & heavy dialogue, much less debate. The stenciled words translate to: “With you in the shadows.”
I sometimes wonder how these blog posts emerge, because they often feel like they are “called forth” while I’m writing them, rather than me setting out with some sort of predetermined direction. It’s actually similar to how I experience the illegal evening demos, as I wrote in an earlier post: as dérive. Come to think of it, that one little word probably best captures how I got here, to Montreal and maple spring, and how the whole of my time is shaped here.
Dérives, via random and contingent encounters, let us see things in new ways. And so my noncommodified manner of strolling through these blogs has, tonight, lead me to this: the longest student strike in North America, neither random nor contingent, has been a purposefully well-orchestrated shaking up of society, precisely because it’s provoked time and again. And it’s been able to do so because of how it’s prefiguring a new politics and a new culture. Maybe this student strike itself is the new form of street art. The only street art possible now. We have so little room left “in the age of electronic reproduction” and commoditized places of spectacle, when street art is somehow not supposed to disturb our days and walls, but be pretty and ironic, and when streets — whether private or public — are never supposed to be ours anymore, to say nothing of our minds and education.
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For more on Harpy, see their own Facebook page, where you can dialogue with and debate them directly — well, indirectly via the mediation of social media (similar to the way that tonight, at our open-air assembly in a park, I think most of us saw the paradox in setting up something like five to six electronic ways to communicate for what is the start of face-to-face conversations about face-to-face politics and engagement). Or maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of Harpy’s wings, darting around a corner after a new wheatpaste on various open-air urban canvases.
– Cindy Milstein –