Many people dropped by the artist-run centre Skol since Artivistic’s Promiscuous Infrastructures started on March 9, 2012. The place was bursting with the visitors’ traces. Seeking to transform Skol into a (counter)production space, the Artivistic collective had built a temporary printing station, an alternative press library, a workshop venue and, last but not least, a cozy space where people could share their ideas, their zines, and their artifacts. As the last activity before the finissage of Promiscuous Infrastructures, the Sandbox Project could count on a variety of materials to re-use and incorporate into our activities.
Our Montreal lab had three main objectives: 1) to continue the discussion on the relationship between collaboration and trust that we initiated at the Transmediale festival in Berlin; 2) to contribute to the material accumulated, produced and manipulated during previous Promiscuous Infrastructures workshops and initiatives; 3) to reflect on and build upon the mass mobilizations, the solidarity and creative collaborations that are taking place in Montreal, and Quebec in general, as we write. Given these circumstances, this was a timely moment to build on the experience and impressions that the participants had brought with them, hoping to process them while they are still sinking in.
Thus, the main questions that guided the conceptualization of the Montreal Sandbox resonated with the spirit of the local context:
1) How can we foster forms of collaboration that thrive on newfound affinities without erasing or flattening diversity?
2) How can we make these relationships sustainable and tend to the trust developed among groups?
The lab spanned 4 full hours during which the participants entered into dialogue with each other using citations and concepts, as well as the material available in the gallery. Unlike the other labs that took place in mainly (or officially so) Anglophone environments, here the challenge was to accommodate bilingualism. We provided some citations in French and some in English and let participants decide which language they felt more comfortable to use. Since the majority of the participants were fluent in English, French was only partly used. Still, the challenges and political potential of modulating bilingual interaction sparked a series of reflections on mutual help within communities. Rather than being the cause of misinterpretations, resentment or exclusion, bilingualism provided a shared entry point into a more concrete discussion of practices of inclusion and exclusion. It also functioned as an additional element to explore the very process of collaboration. Citations in French and English were dismembered, coupled and mixed creatively to form poems that contained both languages, showing their differences and affinities.
The gallery space was full to the brim with independent publications and zines. Here, working duos and groups formed and re-formed organically, without us having to set constraints or provide rules; the space itself–with material hung mid-air, as well as on the walls and floors–seemed to be conducive to such spontaneous movement. As participants, we were immersed in a multilayered, three-dimensional environment that could be fully and freely explored. Surrounded by text, images and other print materials, the objects produced during the lab could have consisted of zines or other forms of experimental publishing but we let everyone experiment with the materiality of what they could find in the gallery. Through relational exercises participants were encouraged to physically engage with the citations and definitions they had previously collected and matched, cutting them and forming new phrases, words and images. The results were “exploded zines”–a series of sculptural, tactile objects that mixed the idea of the zine, the ready-made, the collage and the theatrical space. This included kaleidoscopic compositions and riddles hidden within folded papers; mini-theatres with modifiable stages that featured a battle between opposed notions (nomad-En- and sedentaire-Fr-); collages of various materials (including food, rubber and other found stuff). These beautiful collages and objects captured the spirit of our discussions and added new meaning and questions to what we had proposed at the beginning of the lab. The objects later became tools to interact with each other and with the audience.
Beside the creative outcomes, a reflection was initiated regarding the peaceful and generous atmosphere that surrounded the lab: while individuals continued to cross the lines between groups, they seemed to be communicating in a harmonious way, not by means of spoken language, but through collective practice–the “making of things together”–constructing and collaborating manually. At the verbal level, participants engaged in discussions on trust, fatigue and burn-out, power relations, issues of inclusion/exclusion. Importantly, these conversations were taking place informally while tending to menial tasks. In most cases, the objects produced reflected the conversations almost naturally, without the need to negotiate their formal appearance and without speculating on how the object would be interpreted by others. We had quickly learnt how to work with each other mainly by doing, not talking. From this angle, the lab was a true success.
The following questions provided a guiding thread for the final phase of the lab, the Zapatista-style town hall meeting, when the lab switches into performance-preparation mode: 1) what kind of infrastructures could facilitate the kindling of trust? 2) how can we create a sustainable space and time for processing our thoughts, practices and conflicts? 3) what does it mean to deal with conflict and oppression within movements? 4) What could practices to express hurt within a group look like?
These questions re-emerged very concretely and urgently during our encounter with the audience when the group found itself confronting its own boundaries and living out some of the problems that had been discussed abstractly only a few minutes earlier.
During the town hall meeting participants had increasingly felt comfortable with each other and were unwilling to interrupt and re-package their conversations to present to an audience. To put it into a participant’s words: “it just felt contrived.” With lack of consensus about how to structure the presentation, the default option was to let visitors naturally and gradually be included into the group. As the audience started pouring into the gallery during the last hour, they found a circle of discussants willing to open up and let others in, but lacking any instrument to communicate their inclination to accommodate and care for the new-comers. We somewhat superficially assumed that the audience would be able to decipher and feel entitled to intervene in the conversation at any time with no need for explanation, freely adapting to this new space (that felt so familiar to us). After some objections and complains were raised, the conversation quickly took a different turn and started re-focusing on the problem of exclusion. Yet, this time, we had to analyze our own internal limits as a group not being able to reach out to the outside. While we had created a safe space for ourselves, we had inadvertently shut off others who were interested in our work and in the issues we engaged. This is an attitude that often characterizes many activist circles, where the so-called newcomers or outsiders feel often isolated and excluded from the main group. This episode laid bare more questions: how can we be vigilant about our own internalized modes of oppression? How can equity within and among groups be sustained organically, or do we need specific protocols in place? How can we welcome those people who first approach an already pre-constituted group and guarantee their participation, even when their kind of contribution does not match our set expectations?
While this was a teachable moment for us all as a group, we also hope that those who were strong and generous enough to flag the latent forms of exclusion felt reaffirmed by their actions and by our willingness to learn. As organisers of the lab, Montreal brought the magic of collaboration and fostering a safe and trusting environment to a new level, but it also showed us how much more work can be done to rethink the osmotic relationship between inside and outside. It opened up a space to talk about vulnerability as the basis of new relations and connections. Finally, it complicated our thinking about the relationship between collaboration and outcomes–process and product; tending and hospitality– in ways that will be incorporated in our next labs, as well as hopefully in everyone’s future work.
We would like to thank Skol and Artivistic, and especially all participants and audience for their amazing contributions: Sophie Le Phat Ho, Faiz Abhuani and Kevin Yuen Kit Lo, Anne Bertrand, Koby Rogers Hall, Frederic Biron Carmel, Heather Davis, Candace Mooers, Caroline Kunzle, Elaine Spencer, Michelle Lacombe, Nicole Burisch, Jess Glavina, Aaron Barcant, Nasrin Himada, Lilian Radovac, Pablo de los Santos, Tagny Duff, Erik Bourdelau, Adriana de Oliveira, and all the anonymous people who provided comments and feedback during our session with the public.