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October 06, 2011

DECEMBER 1, 2011, 4:00 AM

Travel and Adventure
Culture commies and cyclists

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y Tobias C. van Veen
DECEMBER 1, 2011, 4:00 AM

Landing on a humid night in Montréal, the city ablaze in sound and light, I stumbled through the dilapidated airport and its suicidal architecture. If the airport represents a legacy of debt and fatal design flaws - the Big Owe, a.k.a. the Olympic stadium was only paid off in 2006 - the bus to get you the hell out of there is a sign of things to come. At eight bucks with direct service downtown, running 24/7 with wheels every twelve minutes, the 747 Express is indeed the new Montréal in action: fast, green and collectively communist. Sure, the overpasses are crumbling and corruption in the construction industry rules the day, but this is also a province that thrives on collective solutions to shared problems. It's all part of Québec's love/hate dynamic, a vibrancy unsurpassed within Canada. It's for your own good, it's for the neighbourhood! -Arcade Fire Montréal has been about collective livin' and lovin' since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. With a good dose of "white anglo bohemia" and immigrant fusion, Montréalers have been hard at work transforming what was a grid of sweatshops into a year-round destination for culture. Entire sections of the city are routinely shut down as pedestrians throng the streets for festivals. What would cause a conservative uprising in Vancouver doesn't bat an eye in Montréal. The main thoroughfare, St. Laurent, is closed top-to-bottom for extended weekends each summer; the Jazz Festival colonizes the heart of downtown while microfestivals occupy the dozens of community parks that dot the urban landscape. The Quiet Revolution left two voids, economic and spiritual. When the armoured cars drove the cash to Toronto, it was Montréal's culture that kept the city afloat. When the churches emptied, culture filled the spirit. The Québecois love their culture and see it as not only food for the soul but for the table, as well. The spirit of culture signifies all that has become lacking in the sour and dour politics of crime and punishment in conservative Canada: joie de vivre . The long tail of culture takes time. As the artists moved in, they kept the bars running and bought up buildings, setting up galleries and recording studios. The result is an entrenched infrastructure for a communal economy. Constellation Records launched two legendary live venues in the artist hub of Mile End in 2000: Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa. Casa's glittering bar spreads strange musical viruses for 10 clams. Across the street is Sala, the Spanish ballroom and temple of all things independent. At these two venues alone I've seen everything from Tim Hecker to Merzbow, Godspeed! to Dreamcatcher. Weird electronic forms of creative expression are the norm here. The clubs don't just rely upon the bread-and-butter to get the booty shaking. Minimal and innovative forms hold court. Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the revitalized Quartier des Spectacles, which is home to the Society for Art and Technology (SAT). At 50, 000 sq. ft., the SAT is one of the largest media arts performance spaces in North America. The roof is topped with a 360-degree dome for immersive video installations; two floors house research-creation laboratories, recording studios and gallery spaces, and the bottom floor is a warehouse-style space with a multichannel soundsystem and wall-to-tall video projection. Everything from DJ Tiga's electroclash parties to MUTEK's techno shindigs take place here, with many more experimental events in-between. Montréal is a case study for what is now recognized everywhere as the recipe for success when gentrifying a city: send in the artists, let them do the dirty work, then kick them out and sell condos. While developers have been pillaging here and there, thankfully the city's (literally) crumbling freeways and other Québecois oddities (such as that language thing) keep surging prices at bay. This has allowed artists to prove their worth; indeed, they are now recognized in various ways as essential aspects of the city's fabric. Don't mess with the difference engine, I say. All the art fetishes are covered by some festival or other, including the obscure yet popular, such as the Anarchist Book Fair in May, Igloofest in January and Le Mondial de la bière (don't miss this one). There's a Fringe festival and Bike festival, the Transamerica and African music festivals, Blue Metropolis Literary festival and the Fantasia Film festival. Like Whistler, tourism is key. Unlike Whistler, the city tolerates the creative expressions of its people. Montréal is adorned with exquisite works of graffiti and street-art. Community gardens appear in unused spaces. Musicians prowl the squares and live jazz and drumming fill local parks. Sundays see both the hippie jamfest tamtams on Mont Royal and Piknic Electronik on L'Île St Hélène. Clubs stay open all night; wine is allowed at park picnics; and drink is available at local dépanneurs . The city is alive; it celebrates its very being without the fuss of arcane liquor laws, hired entertainment or codified social space. We know a place where no cars go... -Arcade Fire Getting around is essential to making any city both liveable for its inhabitants and visitors. Over one hundred Bixi bike stations are spread across Montréal's quartiers, providing point-to-point bike transport for a reasonable cost. With Bixi stations a 15-minute ride in every direction, it is not unusual to take a Bixi terrasse hopping. Thankfully, the city has invested in properly protected bike lanes. Separated by cement barriers or temporary poles from the street, these twoway lanes criss-cross the city. Ubiquituous bicycles have completely changed the city's psychogeography. Everywhere there are bikes; like the city's respect for its arts, it boggles the mind. For more on Montréal's festivals: <>. For Bixi: <>.
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