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What’s Invisible Is Spectacular: a new look at Montreal’s old red-light district

A Simone de Beauvoir Institute professor uses art to spotlight the transformation of a neighbourhood
May 7, 2014
By Cléa Desjardins

DARE-DARE may be the city’s most visible gallery. It sits at the intersection of De Maisonneuve East and St. Laurent, two of Montreal's busiest boulevards: thousands of people see the progressive, artist-run centre every day as they bustle past Saint-Laurent metro station.

Located in a trailer covered with a joyous black-and-white graffiti-style mural — art co-produced by the En Masse collective and members of the Innovation Jeunes youth centre — DARE-DARE is hard to miss. And so is its latest exhibition, a text-based project by Viviane Namaste, a professor at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute and the Concordia University Research Chair in HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health.

Quartier des Spectacles: What’s Invisible Is Spectacular uses a bright yellow sign emblazoned with provocative slogans to compel passersby to consider the history of the neighbourhood they’re in: a former red-light district that the city is transforming into the more sanitized Quartier des spectacles, home to the Place des Arts cultural complex and major summertime events like the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

“I want to incite people to reflect upon what's no longer there,” Namaste says. “That's why the repeated tag line of this show is ‘What's invisible is spectacular.’”

The slogans, which change every week and will be on display until June 3, refer to a mural of aboriginal art that used to grace St. Laurent Boulevard, a 1950s-era effort to gentrify the downtown core and even a once-popular country artist who performed regularly at a now-defunct bar, among other topics.

They prompt viewers to think more critically about how and why the area has become a tourist-targeted entertainment zone. Namaste — who teaches classes on feminist theory, as well as an interdisciplinary course on HIV/AIDS — wants these forgotten elements to play more prominently in the minds of Montrealers.

For example, in 2009, the city tried to close down the long-standing local cabaret Café Cléopatre so it could better promote the Quartier des spectacles.

“What we can see is an exercise in the branding and marketing of this neighbourhood — one that ignores the local artists and workers, and that instead has show business defined by artists outside of this area,” she says. “My project seeks to help people understand how and why the erasure of poor people on the Main is no accident. Making people invisible is a spectacular show.”

While she maintains that she is not an artist, Namaste is delighted by the partnership with DARE-DARE.

“I love that it supports research-creation, which is at the heart of the research practices of many of my colleagues at Concordia. Like DARE-DARE’s members, I am interested in exchange and collaboration, and I am thrilled to be given a flexible and open public space in which to engage in critical inquiry about the place I call home.”

Check out
Quartier des Spectacles: What’s Invisible Is Spectacular through June 3 at Montreal’s DARE-DARE, at the corner of St. Laurent Boulevard and De Maisonneuve Boulevard East.

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