This past June, at a conference in Saint John, New Brunswick that attracted people from just about every artist-run centre in Atlantic Canada, one of the staff members from the Owens Art Gallery hosted a late night party in his hotel room. There were about a dozen of us, which made it impossible to keep quiet, and after the front desk called for the second time we talked in voices that were like both yelling and whispering at the same time. In that crowded low-ceilinged room great ideas were conceived and then forgotten, and after agreeing to meet up two other people for an 8 am swim in the Saint John harbour, I went back to my hotel room to rest up. While we abandoned this idea in the morning after looking at the water, it was clear to me that this was just my kind of art scene.
sophia bartholomew and John Cushnie, co-Directors of Connexion ARC (formerly Gallery Connexion) in Fredericton, who had adventurously proposed the idea of a morning harbor swim, told me about a section of unopened new highway outside of Fredericton. They described it as four lanes of pristine asphalt that can be accessed from a back road, a mysterious road that gently winds through seven kilometers of uninhabited New Brunswick hills and valleys, ending abruptly in the trees. It’s a highway that seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere. And they assured me that there were places to swim in the Wolastoq River (otherwise known as the St. John), which flows through Fredericton on its way to the city of Saint John and the Bay of Fundy.
The promise of such an adventure, as well as a chance to visit Connexion ARC was enough for me to plan a stopover in Fredericton on the long drive from Toronto to Cape Breton later that summer. By that point Connexion ARC had just opened État d’Urgence (State of Emergency), an exhibition of work by ATSA (Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable), an activist-artist group from Montreal consisting of Annie Roy and Pierre Allard. ATSA’s work includes participatory public interventions, most famously the eponymous État d’Urgence (1998 – 2008), a refugee camp created in downtown Montreal, where with the assistance of the Canadian military, ATSA set up tents and an outdoor kitchen, providing food and shelter, and inviting artists to create works throughout the duration of the project. Having long known about their work, which was directly and antagonistically engaged with issues of poverty, homelessness, and displacement in Montreal, I was curious to see how it would present in a gallery context.
When it was first staged in 1998, État d’Urgence almost immediately turned into a de-facto homeless shelter, largely occupied by those who needed food and a place to sleep, rather than by an art-going public. Intended to draw attention to issues faced by refugees around the world, and the conditions of Montreal’s homeless population, the spectacular nature of the project worked to undermine the often-unconscious separations that exist between different social groups, and place members of Montreal’s homeless population, civic leaders, and the general public in dialogue with one another. Such direct social collision is very much the substance of ATSA’s practice, so what appears at Connexion ARC was quite different, consisting of art objects that were produced in the context of État d’Urgence
While it functioned as a support structure, providing food, clothing, shelter, warmth, security and entertainment, État d’Urgence was also a curatorial platform, where artists made works that engaged and responded to people who visited the refugee camp. This was reflected by many of the artifacts and documents that were on display, including Casa de Papelon (2009), miniature cardboard favelas (shantytowns) conceived by Sergio Cezar, a former soccer player from South America, now living in Montreal, who worked with artists, volunteers, and visitors to create mock-ups of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas out of recycled materials.
And, in Your Body, My Studio: Tattooing Art Action Project (2006), Sylvie Cotton asked people she met at the camp who had tattoos if she could copy them into her notebook. She then had each person transcribe their tattoo onto the same place on her body, and wore it throughout the day. More overtly engaging and transgressing representations of domestic and family life, Patrick Berube’s installation, Antique dresser displaying panhandlers’ glasses and plates (2010), contains these items, along with framed portraits of each person from whom they were obtained (the cups and plates were acquired by offering a better one, or offering to double the money it held at that moment).
This installation inserts these abject and intimate objects into a structure that conventionally represents domesticity and security, giving visual form to the collision of worlds that État d’Urgence faciliated within public space. Among close to a dozen collaborative and site-specific works that engage the participants of État d’Urgence, these different pieces are artifacts of a more-than-a-decade-long project, reflecting highly charged social exchanges between visitors to the refugee camp, and forms of collaboration between artists and people living on the street.
Seeing État d’Urgence in Fredericton is both surprising and interesting because of the gallery itself and its geographical context. An artist-run centre that began in 1984, over its thirty-year history Connexion ARC has supported artists’ studios, a performance space, a bar, and a member’s gallery. Having recently been nomadic when the Wolastoq flooded, the gallery is now located in the basement of what once was the Chestnut Canoe Company, which made canoes and snowshoes up until the later half of the 20th century. The building is a reminder of the many specialized manufacturing industries that once existed in cities and towns across Atlantic Canada. Now occupied by government agencies and cultural organizations, it is an indicator of some of the broader economic shifts at play in this region of the country.
After an early morning tour of État d’Urgence and Connexion ARC we hopped onto our bikes and headed out onto the quiet backstreets, past stately 19th century homes and across a former railway bridge that has been turned into a recreation path, to the adjacent town of Marysville, now a suburb of Fredericton. We followed the bike path past a currently operational sawmill, and then a former cotton mill that had closed in the mid 1970s, and along streets lined with 19th century brick tenement houses.
A back street eventually took us to a construction entrance, where a newly paved section of unopened four-lane highway began.
With the full expanse of the road to ourselves, we glided down the gradual engineered grades and around wide sweeping curves to where woodcutters and bulldozers continued to cut into the forest (later, when trying to find it on Google Earth, there were no satellite images of the highway, nor any obvious indication of other highways to which it might connect). Riding along the highway, the landscape seemed vast and unoccupied, and despite houses in the distance, and a column of smoke from a mill just over the horizon, it looked like pristine wilderness. But given how much of this province is owned or leased by pulp and paper companies, these forests are likely tree plantations, to be harvested once they reach maturity. It feels strangely empty, and with the population of the entire province being less than half that of the city of Montreal, one can easily go for hours here without seeing another person.
On the return, possibilities for swimming were in abundance. Passing once again through Marysville we stopped at a municipal park to swim in the Nashwaak river, where it was shallow and wide.
Under an awning in the park was a series of bathtub-sized elevated barbeque pits designed for a fire to be built underneath. Recalling a horse-trough repurposed as a hot tub (at Don Blanche, an artist residency north of Toronto) by building a fire underneath, it seemed that these could also be used to create a public bathing experience, where multiple groups of people could soak in their own hot tubs and then cool down in the river, just a few feet away. From there we continued along a public recreation trail that followed the river valley, passing through the marshes. John and I looked for signs of where local kids would go to hang out, pretty secluded places where they might swim in the river or have parties at night, and found a path that lead us to a high secluded bank where we scampered down the muddy bank, and swam out into the deep still water of the Nashwaak, interrupting a heron that had been fishing along the river.
From here, we continued back to Fredericton, and resumed our drive to Cape Breton. Our visit to Connexion ARC was but a small glimpse into one of New Brunswick’s numerous contemporary art space, and État d’Urgence was an important exhibition that arose from a very specific critical context in Montreal, that for me also raised questions about what socially engaged art practices might look like in this region, and what specific problems and possibilities it might address here. Seeing how John and sophia engaged their surroundings in such curious and intelligent ways made this place feel rich with possibility. Along our route there were more signs of Atlantic Canadian counterculture and artist-run culture – a poster advertising a Beginner Farmer Symposium, another advertising the White Rabbit Festival, an annual artist residency on the Parrsboro shore. Later that day we stopped at Struts Gallery, which is part of an extremely active and dynamic art scene in Sackville, a town along the vast tidal flats that connect New Brunswick to Nova Scotia, and once again, at ASAP Artist Run Centre in Antigonish, founded just three years ago. In less than 24 hours, while just passing through, it became apparent that spread across this landscape is an adventurous, interesting scene, and that there are always great places where one can swim.
Distance: 30 km
Average speed 20 kph
Connexion ARC’s current exhibition, on until October 25th, is Chris Foster: Frontiers in Real Estate. Gallery Connexion is located at 440 York St. in Fredericton. http://galleryconnexion.ca/
In 2014 ATSA’s État d’Urgence travels to Vancouver for Heart of the City Festival with Grunt Gallery and Gallery Gachet (April 4th to May 18th), to Calgary where it will appear at the New Gallery (June 27th to August 2nd), and to Winnipeg, where it will appear at Centre Cultural du Franco-Manitobain (August 17th to October 3rd).