by Agence TOPO (Canada), 2003

The city is a reflection of the world, the street a sample. We see anonymous strollers pass by, a faceless crowd. At a street corner, the hubbub of a demonstration mixes with violent protests. We witness personal or family dramas, and go our way. Ordinary, everyday scenes take place before our eyes, a mother yanks her child roughly by the hand, two people argue, a Jew and a Muslim pass each other without so much as a glance. Civilities is a representation of the street, and, as witnesses, we are wholly projected into it.

This project brings together ten Montreal artists of various disciplines and backgrounds. Under Eva Quintas' initiative, they have developed interactive modules following a single line of enquiry: "How to live together?" The work explores different levels of cohabitation and community, from simple, basic politeness to family issues to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Structurally, Civilities develops in linear fashion around eight main hubs, each composed of photographs of men, women and children, people populating a street symbolized by a background image or city fixtures. Following users' mouse movements the image unfolds like a long travelling shot. Navigating its intuitive interface, one must "rummage" through the screen for its interactive areas, gateways into the narrative. One clicks on a character, object, or word to trigger a scene and make contact with the anonymous entity just activated. At the bottom of the screen, a line scrolls by, like a subway plan, allowing us to navigate from hub to hub, to change street or neighbourhood, to stroll through the city. Red dominates, dramatizing the narrative and connecting the images. The ubiquitous soundtrack also lends unity to the succession of interfaces.

Excerpts from aural readings - words, dialogues, and definitions - accompany our exploration. A large part is given to certain excerpts from Roland Barthes' Comment vivre ensemble?, which serves as a basis for reflection in the work. This publication is a collection of classes and seminars Barthes gave at the Collège de France, in 1976 and 1977. In it, he explores the “living together” offered by very small groups, in which cohabitation does not preclude individual freedom."1 Other excerpts are taken from texts dealing with citizenship, public spaces, the coexistence of peoples and nations: "there could be no society without civilities," "he who does not master the rules of civility will first seem barbaric," "incivility can only hamper social cohesiveness," and then asks: "may one live together and remain free?" "are we ready to give up our freedoms for more security?" The tone, clear and decisive, is set in the form of the question: "in the end, can we live together?"


The guest artists' individual modules are independent and autonomous projects that have common concerns and participate in the overall coherence of Civilities. Some projects share common themes: Mathieu Beauséjour's Marchez noir and Dérivez, and Pascal Constantine's Ze Boudha's Show deal with social disenchantment, violent and seemingly inexorable. Beauséjour's two modules operate in tandem.

Dérivez proposes a stroll through the city, or cities we should say, as the structure of the work is based on shots taken in Montreal, London, and Paris. The detailed images and close-ups suggest an urban atmosphere more than they do any particular city: a street sign (Place de la résistance), colourful neons, graffiti - abolition du travail aliénant ("abolish alienated work"). Here, the city is apprehended like the Web: one navigates as one strolls, exploring, getting lost, doubling back. Dérivez always takes us back to the same point, however: the carousel - either the merry-go-round we first knew as children, or the revolving doors we pass through in office towers, taking us back to the beginning, or to the next part of the project: Marchez Noir. While the hymn of the 1871 Paris Communes, the Internationale, blares at full volume, a visual animation associates Delacroix's La Liberté guidant le peuple (1830) with photographs and videos of demonstrations and clashes with police. Using the example of the Summit of the Americas, held in Quebec City in 2001 - the scene of violent altercations between demonstrators and police -, Beaséjour ponders demonstrations of social protest. By correlating the three events - the Commune, the Trois glorieuses (the "Three Glorious Days" of revolution that preceded Délacroix' Liberté) and the Summit of the Americas - Beauséjour is in some sense gauging the strength of social protest today. Do people still have the ability to stand up for their rights, to gather together to defend their interests? What sense can we make today of "the final struggle"?2


Pascal Contamine also examines the symptoms of social disenchantment, in another key, however, giving us a multimedia version of her theatre piece Ze Bouddha's Show. A critique of post-modern society and economy in North America, this project features Ephrème Damarique, who suffers from acute "social disgust." Disillusioned with new social standards - idolatry of cars, excessively eroticized promotional icons, mind-numbing television -, Ephrème decides to take his life. Loss of a sense of responsibility (déresponsabilisation), dehumanisation, and generalized debunking (désacralisation) lead to human "distress," social "debacle," and our hero's suicidal act. Contamine draws a horribly bleak picture here. All hope seems lost. Ephrème "no longer has the courrage to get out in the street to express his outrage." In this project the artist also questions citizens' power of judgment. As members of society, we are content to submit without taking position, without even taking part in social discussion. The question is no longer "what effect does protest have on society?" but "does protest exist any longer?" If power lies neither with the people nor with the leaders, if economics truly governs the world, if a few idealistic students are the only ones willing - barely - to take their demands to the street, what hope have we got? Ephrème is dead! Long live Ephrème!

But let's not despair just yet, for a light shines ahead, faint though it is. One has to devote at least as much attention to the medium as to the message it conveys. Escaping almost any kind of control, isn't the Internet, that network of networks, the ideal means of protest? If it is true that the Web is a medium of global information and instant communication, that the information it carries is free of any pressure or censorship, that its promise of freedom of expression is real (blogs, forums, etc...), then does the Web not constitute the new shared space for civic expression? Is it not in this new collective territory that people can voice their concerns? Such, more or less, are Isabelle Hayeur's enquiries in Agora.


Its operation is simple yet efficient: no hyperlinks, no narration, just a high-angle-shot of a small area of a paved street. Strangely, nothing happens. Finally, impatiently perhaps, you move the mouse around, and the work comes to life. A passerby appears, then two, then three, along with excerpts from radio broadcasts. Then, again, another silent, deserted street. You move the mouse around again, a little faster, and more often. The agora fills, the crowd's density and movement proportional to mouse movement. The sound clips - taken from news bulletins and economic and political shows - also increase, until it becomes a racket. As Hayeur points out, "the Web reinstates a space for the dissemination of civic information" and allows the user to be heard again, to become the centre, "the initiating factor in a 'Subject for thought'."3


Two more projects form another group in Civilities, this time with the theme of the individual, memory, and war: Lisa Ndejuru's Simultanéité, and Zazalie Z.'s Vous êtes ici sur ma galerie. Both artists place their personal and private life in a historical perspective, making no a priori value judgment. Ndejur says as much when she states:

"in my everyday life everything happens at once: horror and happiness, the ordinary and the exceptional. I try to make sense of things. And you?"4
Into this everyday world she invites us for a cup of tea. Objects are strewn on the table - links to a private world, details, a conversation, a few moments shared, some fears, or worries. Confiding on the phone, she speaks of her need for love, for tenderness: "My arms are empty, and they know it." While the other projects ask how we can live together, this artist turns it around and asks how we can live alone, how we can live without others. Opening a box of memories, the artist also speaks to us of loneliness, the void provoked by the absence of loved ones. We look at a few photos and are overwhelmed by nostalgia. Meetings, friendships, happy moments shared. "Maybe time is a thread unbroken of some lives touching others." The other is then the one I cannot live with, yet whom I cannot do without, the one I miss, that I love, and that I have loved as much as I hated. The one who made me over time, and who destroys me, sometimes. Ndejuru doesn't construe the situation as a paradox, but as Simultaneousness: I am simultaneously concerned for myself and for humanity.

But it is precisely here that a scale of values emerges, and the denunciation of a certain futility. When clicking on a chocolate bar, an animation ensues, visually superimposing a woman, preoccupied with her weight, slipping on a pair of pants, and images war, reinforced by sound, excerpts from news bulletins on the Iraqi situation and ads for miracle weight loss products. Vanity and frivolity are placed side by side with the horrific situation of a population suffering oppression, war, and occupation. In presenting these images, the artist continues to speak of herself and of her life. She has in fact gone to Iraq twice, and brings us the testimony of Iraqis that she met there in her video piece Irakiens et irakiennes sous occupation. Starting from her personal and private life, Ndejuru speaks not only of herself, but of us. Her situation opens onto a certain universality.


In Vous êtes ici sur ma galerie, Zazalie Z. also utilizes her situation as a point of departure to put some historical events into perspective. Memory is of the essence for her as well - although it is not a question here of recalling personal experiences, but of our duty toward collective memory. The artist gives visual, spoken, and musical expression to two horrendous events in history: Hiroshima, and the sexual enslavement of women by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.

"Le drapeau blanc de la paix est taché
Peut-on le laver à la buanderie du zen bouddhiste
Faire des mantras pour qu'il n'y ait plus d'Hiroshima
Se souvenir de ce qui a été mis sous silence."
The two projects also share a concern for the more complex issue of an individual's rights relative to his or her cultural membership.6 For even if it makes ethical (and common) sense that all individuals enjoy the same rights universally, this conception of rights and freedoms prevails neither in History - witness the "comfort women" - nor in recent international events - the dictatorship and oppression in Iraq, followed by the American occupation, its dubious legitimacy, and the horrors broadcast by the media.


Other projects are more independent, both in their aesthetic and in the themes they develop. Such is the case for Linda Hammond's and Norman Nawrocki's On this Corner, in which the two artists' artistic and cultural worlds come together. Here, users are invited to discover St-Lawrence Boulevard, Montreal's Main and its emblematic residents, to the sound of excerpts from news and letters and of Norman Nawrocki's violin. A neighbourhood of exemplary multiculturalism, St-Lawrence harbours wealth and poverty, Portuguese grills, traditional bakeries, Jewish haberdashers, runaway anarchists, bums, immigrant families, and hip young professionals... More than the portrait of a street, this work sketches one of the city, of a world in the making, in which cultures, races, and religions are destined to become more and more intertwined. On this Corner is an invitation to an encounter and to the discovery of the other, to opening oneself toward other possibilities.


Eva Quintas' project, Tirer, developed within the general structure of Civilities, deals with power and domination in the family. The family home, the space in which one first learns to live with others, is certainly the most sensitive place. Opening with an anecdote about a mother pulling a child a little too violently by the hand, the artist deals with the more general notion of everyday, insidious power and violence. How is power exerted within the limited group of the family. This theme is supported by spoken excerpts from Roland Barthes' Comment vivre ensemble?, a reflection on the relationship between power, domination, and individual rhythm: "master is he who sets the pace."7


A large part of Civilities is also devoted to religion, with the Fatwa Test, which tests our knowledge of Islamic customs, followed by a series of photographs of bodies draped in red that merge to form a star of David or an Islamic Crescent. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict then becomes emblematic of the question of how we can live together despite our religious beliefs: how can different beliefs coexist on the same territory? The work then becomes more polemic, with an internal link to a text of André Gauillard's, Les trois mythes fondateurs du sionisme, the three myths of Zionism being: the Biblical myth of the promised land and the chosen people, the rabbinical law of the hereditary transmission of Jewishness, and the xenophobic writings of Judaism. On the Web site, only a few excerpts are laid out and illustrated. They are taken from a more substantial analysis entitled: Le sionisme en Palestine / Israël, fruit amer du judaïsme.

Though we might have suspected as much previously, the work now takes on a definitely political tone, as well as an especially pessimistic one. To the question of whether we can live together, the whole work seems say "no," or can only envisage great difficulty in the endeavour, a difficulty exacerbated by religion.


Civilities questions, decries, provokes, and each of the artists who took part in the project has attempted to elicit in us a reaction, a feeling, a rebellion against this state of the world. While the dominant colour in the work up to now has been red - burning and crimson - a new public space, green and peaceful, opens up in the project, one in which it is the user's turn to be heard: here, anyone can send in a text, an image, or a drawing. And it is in this particular space, in this opening, that one senses that it is perhaps finally possible to coexist in a public space, to share, and to work together. Hope lies in each person, individually, in his or her capacity to respond, to contest, to express. Ultimately, the possible "living together" may reside in the testimony that Lisa Ndejuru sends to us from Baghdad during a sleepless night of bombing:

"I'm sleepy and I've written nothing of the immense desire I feel to hug someone, and to snuggle up into someone's arms. In the end, all that matters to me is to love, to be loved."8

  • Mathieu Beauséjour, Marchez Noir/Dérivez
  • Pascal Contamine, Ze Bouddha's Show
  • Linda Hammond, On this Corner
  • Isabelle Hayeur, Agora
  • Norman Nawrocki, The Anarchist and the Devil do Cabaret
  • Lisa Ndejuru, Simultanéité
  • Eva Quintas, Tirer
  • Cesar Saëz, Señalando
  • Zazalie Z., Vous êtes ici sur ma galerie

  • Conception and Artistic Direction: Eva Quintas
  • Multimedia Creation: Guy Asselin
  • Multimedia Creation Assistants: Simon Dauphin and Muoi Gu Tran
  • Sound: Jean-Sébastien Roux
  • Actors — Narration: Louise Boisvert, David Boutin, Pascal Contamine and Victoria Stanton
  • Translation : Bernard Schütze and Christine York

1 : “In the inaugural lecture for this chair, I posited the possibility of connecting research with the researcher’s imagination. This year, I wanted to explore a particular imagination: not all forms of “living together” — societies, phalansteries, families, couples —, but mainly the “living together” offered by very small groups, in which cohabitation does not preclude individual freedom. Inspired by religious models, Athonite in particular, I named this imagination idiorrythmic fantasy. Thus, much of the material used in the course was taken from Eastern monasticism, though the corpus itself remains literary. This corpus brings together (in an obviously arbitrary fashion) some documentary or fictional works in which the subject’s or the group’s everyday life is closely bound to a typical space: a solitary room (A. Gide, La Séquestrée de Poitiers), a refuge (D. Defoe, Robinson Crusoe), a desert (Pallade, The Lausiac History), a sanatorium (Th. Mann, The Magic Mountain), a bourgeois home (Zola, Pot-Bouille).”
(Translation: Ron Ross)

Cf. Roland Barthes, Comment vivre ensemble ?, Cours et séminaires au Collège de France (1976-1977). Texte établi, annoté et présenté par Claude Coste, « Les cours et séminaires au Collège de France de Roland Barthes », sous la direction d'Eric Marty, Seuil, IMEC, coll. Traces écrites, 2002.


2 : Cf. L'Internationale, words by Eugène Pottier (June 1871) and music by Pierre Degeyter (1888).  

3 : Isabelle Hayeur, in Civilities  

4 : Lisa Ndejuru, in Civilities  

5 : Zazalie Z., in Civilities  

6 : Cf. the well-known conflict between universalism - that human rights are universal - and relativism - human rights are culturally relative.  

7 : Eva Quintas, in Civilities  

8 : Lisa Ndejuru, in Civilities  

Cécile Petit
(Translated from French by Ron Ross)


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