Vox Populi 1985-1989, The origins of VOX, Ciel variable, and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal – Marcel Blouin

[Spring/Summer 2016]

Early this year, Centre VOX marked its thirtieth anniversary by looking back at its beginnings, when Vox Populi – the group that gave rise to VOX – was created, as were Ciel variable and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. Here, we reprint the essay that Marcel Blouin wrote to commemorate a period of activism and engagement in changing living conditions for young people, which was to become an extremely fertile time for the future of photography in Quebec.

By Marcel Blouin

It was Lucie Bureau who thought up the organization’s name. She was working at Radio Centre-Ville, a multilingual community radio station broadcasting from St. Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal. The name came to mind because she was producing “vox populi” pieces about social and cultural issues. We had fun with these terms: vox populi, vox dei, “Voice of the people, voice of God.” We weren’t naïve. Post-Marxism was all the rage at the time, and we were agnostic and “postmodern,” though we weren’t using the term. We had neither God nor Marx for an idol. The “voice of the people,” anyway, was a clear reference to the fact that we wanted citizens to be able to speak up. And these citizens weren’t just other people; they were us, too.

Certain writings and currents of thought had marked our way of seeing the world. We had known about the end of the hippie movement, of course, but we weren’t part of it. It was both obsolete and still alive in our imaginations. We admired the protests of the 1960s, but we understood that our elders were now concerned with “paying the mortgage” – and had been since 1980, the year of the referendum in Quebec on sovereignty-association. With Paul Lafargue’s Le droit à la paresse and André Gorz’s Adieux au prolétariat, we could address the transformation of the working world other than by claiming what could be summarized as “living a life of honourably alienated proletarians.” Beyond the worker and union struggles, as the “post-proletarian movement” era began, Alain Touraine’s books initiated us to the concept of the “movement”: social movement, youth movement, women’s movement, environmental movement. This was a new approach. On our bookshelves was also Saul Alinsky’s Manuel de l’animateur social: une action directe non violente (the translation of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals). Even today, this book is an essential reference for those who want to learn about how to instigate non-violent protest.

With the advent of what we were then calling the “new technologies” and the robotization of factories, philosopher André Gorz explained that “the more this happens, the less work we need to do to produce the same quantity and quality of goods and services.” This was either good news or bad news, depending on the direction taken by society. Given this observation, as the coordinator of a collective of jobless youths, I came up with a slogan – a joyous, gentle, reflective, and deliberately naïve claim, “Work less so we all work and live better,” which was not unrelated to the current and pertinent reflection on “degrowth.” We printed the slogan on t-shirts, which we wore proudly…

In the early 1980s, the unemployment rate was very high. Interest rates of over 20 percent were impoverishing borrowers, and one young person out of two was unemployed. The heads of state at the time were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Brian Mulroney (starting in 1984). The neoliberalism train was going full steam ahead. In Quebec, my generation – the late-baby-boomer cohort – was asked not to be too alive, not to take up space. There were no jobs for us; the positions were filled. Sorry, no more jobs. As there were many of us and we were in the caboose, we were made to feel guilty. The dominant discourse maintained that we weren’t educated enough, we didn’t have the required skills, we were too young – in short, we were incompetent, even maladapted; and this, in some cases, enabled our elders to make a living taking care of us unstable, unqualified people. Ten or fifteen years earlier, for people with the same psychosocial profile, it had been different, but now things had changed. Move along, there’s nothing doing in the job market right now. Given the situation, we were asked to follow other paths than traditional work, to create our own jobs, to survive as best we could, to travel light with a microscopic budget, to prolong our studies, which might always help us out . . . later. We weren’t supposed to make too much noise, but to suffer in silence, leaving the preceding generation to fulfil itself.

At this time, in Quebec, young recipients of social assistance were experiencing a flagrant injustice. Whereas welfare recipients aged thirty and older received $418 per month, those from eighteen to twenty-nine received only $152, even if they had no support from their parents. Even in the early 1980s, it was impossible to live on $152 a month. Quebec was practising ageism. In general, the public was indifferent to this situation. But young people mobilized and formed protest organizations. VOX, Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, and Ciel variable all began in one of these groups, the Collectif des jeunes sans-emploi de Saint-Louis-du-Parc, which was part of a more radical umbrella organization, the Regroupement autonome des jeunes (RAJ). Occupations of government offices (some lasting several days) by dozens of stout-hearted young people and demonstrations of all sorts to draw media attention were part of daily life for members of RAJ – which happened to be a homophone for the French word rage.

I had been studying social work at the Université de Montréal since 1982. Both attracted to the documentary photographic tra­dition and concerned with the problem of youth unemployment, in 1984 I convinced the professor responsible for my work-study semester to let me put together a photography exhibition about the problem. This project, however, could not be called a “photography exhibition” – which would be unacceptable in the social-work department – but had to be a “social intervention tool.” Agreed. I was now committed to producing a “social intervention tool” the main content of which would be . . . photographs. With the support of the Centre populaire de documentation, directed by Bernard Vallée, I went in search of archival documents about the depression of the 1930s, then I took photographs of jobless people I knew and asked other photographers, most of them young – Danielle Bérard, Cynthia Poirier, Yves Huneault, and Alain Chagnon, the oldest in the group – to do the same. And this is how we gradually formed a nucleus of people who wanted to express themselves in the public square in order to make the general public aware of the lived experience of jobless people. The result of my work-study semester, a social intervention tool and photography exhibition titled Sans honte et sans emploi (Without Shame and Without a Job), formed the basis for what was to become Vox Populi (VOX) and Ciel variable in 1985, and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal in 1987. The exhibition travelled extensively in Quebec, as it was loaned out many times to popular education groups and unions. Following the opening of the show in Montreal, Sophie Bellissent joined the group and became actively involved in the development of Vox Populi and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal.

Although, from 1983 to 1986, we were motivated mainly by social causes and denouncing injustices against young people, some of us were also increasingly interested in the raw materials that we were using to express ourselves: images and words – photographic images, for the most part, and the written word, read or spoken. With the arrival of Hélène Monette, a friend from the Cégep de Saint-Hyacinthe in the late 1970s, poetry took its place alongside photography within the Collectif des jeunes sans-emploi and the nascent Vox Populi. In fact, it was Monette who, taking inspiration from Alcide Ouellette’s weather forecast on Radio-Canada radio, proposed the name Ciel variable (Variable Skies) for the magazine that would be created in the wake of a project produced during the International Year of Youth in 1985.

Vox Populi, Ciel variable, and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. We were constantly on the boil. Our own train was producing a head of steam, and it had no brakes. Little by little, we left behind the Collectif des jeunes sans-emploi – which was taken in hand by social workers who continued with it as it was – and threw ourselves into an adventure that could be summarized by a desire to exist, to express ourselves, to live, that was not without its echoes in Nietzsche. In short, using improvisation and inventiveness, we organized, we produced, in a way that corresponded closely to what we had retained from “existentialism”: “existence precedes essence.” Despite our modest means, we managed to exist, to take shape, to project – to project ourselves toward the future.

Bonds developed between individuals, most of them “underemployed”; friendships and loves came together and fell apart. Some twenty people orbited around the new group, Vox Populi, and the new magazine, Ciel variable. At the end of 1985, we presented the ten-day event Plein la gueule at the Association des travailleurs et travailleuses des arts et de la culture du Québec, in a space on St. Lawrence Boulevard. Photography, poetry, film projections, published projects, exhibitions – everything interested us, as long as it involved young people expressing themselves. This was the apotheosis . . . and the end of an era. The tensions were palpable, but the ground was fertile. The “will to be” stimulated these young people, who had developed a certain confidence in their capacities. The future belonged to them.

Lucie Bureau and I had been a couple since 1985 and, in 1986 we were planning a trip to South America for several months. By chance, a bit before we were due to leave, in the fall of 1986, Lucie won the door prize at a benefit evening organized for the magazine OVO: two plane tickets to Paris to see Le Mois de la photo à Paris. We changed our plans and decided to travel in Europe before going to Peru. It was my second visit to Le Mois de la photo à Paris because, by coincidence, I had been in the city in 1984 for an internship with the Office franco-québécois de la jeunesse on the theme of unemployment. In 1986, it became obvious to us that photography would benefit by being highlighted in Montreal. During our stay in Peru, I wrote to Sophie Bellissent, mentioning that we should think seriously about the idea of setting up a photography event in Montreal inspired by Le Mois de la photo à Paris.

When we returned to Montreal, in the spring of 1987, we realized that conflicts had multiplied during our absence. Vox Populi and Ciel variable had separated. Much of the creative energy had shifted toward the magazine, with Hélène Monette, Danielle Bérard, Robert Gauthier, and Jean-Marc Ravatel, later joined by Pierre Crépô. Ciel variable had even vacated the offices at 6 St. Viateur Street West. The Vox Populi office was still on the premises, but it was almost completely empty. However, Sophie Bellissent and Éric Michaud had stayed, and they were receptive to the idea that I had expressed in my letter from Peru: to set up a photography event in Montreal. Lucie and I had friends in both groups, but since Ciel variable seemed to have a well-ensconced leadership that had been consolidated during our absence, there was no special need for us to be there. It was rolling under its own power, an observation that was both sad and gratifying. We had contributed to the creation of an organization that no longer needed us – at least, not at this particular time in its evolution. Later, as we know, Ciel variable would return to the Vox Populi fold.

At Vox Populi, a group with no money and no plan – without shame and without a job, it might be said – there was room to manoeuvre. Despite the void, everything was possible, as we were armed with the conviction that photography could play an impor­tant role in the Quebec cultural scene. And so we plunged, feet first, into the adventure of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. First, we established contacts with the directors of the biennales in Paris, Houston, and Barcelona. These directors, older and more experienced than us, offered their support. It was also at that time that we moved to 4060 St. Lawrence Boulevard, a building that was home to a large number of artist-run centres during the 1980s. After that, things moved very quickly. To produce the first edition of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, Nicole Gingras joined the team. Rapidly, solid relationships were established, which made it possible to inscribe the Montreal biennale within the international network of major photographic events in Paris, Barcelona, Houston, Braga, and Rotterdam.

Toward contemporary art. The result of this decision made in 1987 was the first edition of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal in September 1989, coinciding – incredibly – with the 150th anniversary of the “invention” of photography. Thus, the schism between Vox Populi and Ciel variable in 1987 had led to the creation of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. At Vox Populi, we wanted to do something important to follow up on the effervescence generated by our undeniable interest in photography, due to its power to evoke emotions. Over the months, over the years, with the internationalization of our activities, professionalization, and our intellectual quest, we were impelled to broaden our field of investigation: toward contemporary art, toward art history, toward the academy – toward art for art’s sake, we might say.

The contemporary art scene abandoned the “social” during the 1990s. At least, it certainly rejected everything that might refer to the protest movement inspired by the 1960s and 1970s. At Vox Populi, for example, this took the form of a gradual abandonment of humanist documentary photography, a current that had started during the 1980s. In the context of the 1990s, the ambient neoliberalism and the intellectualization and professionalization of our activities contributed, for very different reasons, to the rejection of social concerns – at least, as they were traditionally understood.

In Quebec, during the 1960s, progressive thought, engagement, and protest were generally associated with the survival and emancipation of French culture on “North American territory.” Even here, despite a moment of exaltation during the 1995 referendum campaign, the spirit of protest faded. Add to this situation that
“culture of French origin on North American territory” was not a central issue in the contemporary art scene, which was, rather, turned toward international concerns. Over its thirty years of exis­tence, Vox Populi – and then VOX – had to, and knew how to, deal with these different layers of Quebec, Western, and international reality.

Yet, as the twenty-first century begins, it can be said, paradoxically, that contemporary art – including present-day art – has become almost the only refuge of “thinking otherwise,” a notion that is not unrelated to the social movement notions of “resistance” and “quest for a better life.” Today, making art – making contemporary art – has likely become, in itself, a gesture of resistance and protest, so much does everything seem to have been swallowed by the commodification of ideas, by mercantilism, by the increasingly predomi­nant idea that education, and even our thoughts, must respond to the need of private enterprise to generate profits, ideally enormous profits.

An encouraging phenomenon, in our view, is that whereas contemporary art, critical by definition, had contented itself with being “subversive,” it seems that gradually, in the early twenty-first century, this interest in the subversive has made more and more room for artists concerned with a “bettering”-type approach. This
approach is intended to be enlightened, anti-establishment, and constructive, and finds its source in the anxiety engendered by an “announced end of the world” if we don’t change our behaviours. This being said, we have to recall that contemporary art should not limit itself to the sole mission of “saving the planet,” which would be ridiculous. Contemporary art must deal with “freedom.”

So, if contemporary art does not have protest for its only goal and sole material, contemporary art in itself, it seems, would become one of those rare spaces of resistance, like a refuge that has taken shape on the margin and within a society that for too long has been obsessed with “progress and growth.” Making contempo­rary art and encouraging its dissemination would become, through this, a gesture of resistance, a quest for better living, that has its echoes in the origins of VOX.
Translated by Käthe Roth

Marcel Blouin was born in Saint-Hyacinthe in 1960. After studying social sciences (Université de Montréal) and art history (UQAM), he earned a master’s degree in art studies (UQAM). He was director of VOX from 1985 to 1997. Co-founder of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, he was co-director of the biennale from 1987 and 1989, and then director until 1997. He was also co-editor of Ciel variable (CVphoto) during the same period. Since 2001, he has been executive and artistic director of EXPRESSION, Centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe, and since 2003 co-director of ORANGE, A Contemporary Art Event of Saint-Hyacinthe. Since 2010, he has advised the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on collecting photography.

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