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Utopian Ideas in Engaged Arts
The Activist Art of ATSA

Glenn Alteen

One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning
Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said boys I'm not turning
I'm headin' for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains
So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is believed to be a turn of the century hobo song that later in the 1920s was written down and copyrighted by Harry McClintock. McClintock was a lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, whose work in organizing the homeless and the unorganized through music, visual art and writing is legendary.1 The song is a hobo's description of paradise, a place of plenty of food and no work, with cigarette trees and whiskey lakes. It was the idea of a home for men who had no home, a place for people who had no place.

Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable (ATSA) is a Montreal-based organization that does interventions and projects on the streets of Montreal. Since 1998, they have produced the intervention Etats d'Urgences (State of Emergency), a refugee camp for the homeless in the heart of downtown Montreal. The event brings together homeless people from across the city for a five-day festival of performances, activism, intervention, dry clothing, and hot food.

Annie Roy and Pierre Allard are the couple behind ATSA. They play an activist role with their projects, tackling socio-political issues and working with communities through interventions like Etats d'Urgences. I recently traveled to Montreal to experience firsthand what a refugee camp for the homeless looks like.

It's cold in Montreal when I arrive - a snowstorm. It takes almost two hours in a cab to get from the airport to my hotel. The irony of my warm hotel room is certainly not lost on me as I look into ATSA's engagement with Montreal's homeless community.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

It's about 11 a.m. when I arrive at the site, located at Place Emilie-Gamelin in downtown Montreal off St. Catherine Street next to the University of Montreal and the Berri subway stop - right in the heart of the city. The site is anchored by two large tents at either end of the square. At its centre a large trashcan wood fire is surrounded by benches. Dozens of people are walking around this central fire and the benches are full of people smoking and drinking coffee.

Inside one tent is a flurry of activity. Some people are eating or lining up for food, others are sitting back and just drinking coffee. In one corner a few people are asleep on a sea of mattresses. Opposite in the tent, a group of volunteers hands out clothes and boots to a lined-up crowd. In the middle, almost every seat is full with people eating, drinking coffee, talking, or just sitting.

Across the way, the other tent is empty except for volunteers who are tearing down the mattresses and bedding and putting up tables for the lunch and afternoon entertainment. It is a big effort by all the volunteers and by Pierre and Annie themselves. The vibe within the camp is pleasant and laid back.

I was in Montreal for the last three days of the project and I visited the site a dozen times over those three days. What I saw was the emergence of a culture of and for the homeless. Of course, that culture has always been there, but it's not something that is often exposed outside of its own community. Around the fire guitars are played but they aren't singing hobo songs. "There is a town in North Ontario..." Has Neil Young's Helpless replaced the Big Rock Candy Mountain? The flavor and style of Montreal is everywhere here, and the history. Because ATSA works with groups that have traditionally supported the homeless, they bring together artists, activists, and advocates as well as social histories, culture, and activism. On one side of the site are photographs documenting activism around homelessness in the community in the early 70s.

Some activists complain to me, saying much the same things they said in Vancouver during ATSA's talk at the Live in Public conference: A five-day event does nothing to solve the problem over the year or in the future. Artists doing work around the homeless isn't going to solve the problem of homelessness. Annie said in response that the hope that the event engenders is the point. Of course it can't solve the problem, but bringing the homeless out into the open keeps the issue in the media and on people's minds. In State of Emergency it's often hard to see where the art ends and where the activism begins. After Montreal, I came away thinking that if ATSA can solve the problem for five days with their few resources, then surely social service agencies with infinitely more resources can do a better job than they do.

But it is the hope that Annie talks about that I think is the point of the event. As I survey the dinner set-up with white linen tablecloths and napkins prepared by some of Montreal's best chefs, ATSA creates a modern-day beggar's banquet. It is obvious many are not used to eating this way - with appetizers and several courses being served rather than lining up. There is no wine, just coffee and bottled water, so there is none of the Dionysian excess that the medieval idea of a Beggar's Banquet engenders. It's just a room full of appreciative people sitting down to a good meal.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

ATSA's State of Emergency works on a number of different levels at once. The ways in which it is perceived by the homeless and their supporters (some of whom are critical), the general public, and governments are very different and all equally important. For the public, the experience is not always what they might expect. There is a strong sense of celebration here, a joy in the very basic necessities - a warm bed, a good meal, a hot cup of coffee.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in
There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes saws or picks
I'm a goin' to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk that invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

During the conference, I was in an Open Space session about working with the homeless and other marginalized communities with Annie and Pierre and German artist Hans Winkler. At that session, there was a realization that art can only do so much. It can change attitudes, but only one person at a time. Winkler spoke of his time as a social worker and how different that was from art- making and how much it informed how he produced work.

I had worked in 2005 as curator on the Nova Library project by Winkler in which he created a reading room in the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library. Each of the books in the library was selected by drug addicts in Vancouver. Working with groups like the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the Life Skills Centre and the VPL was a constant challenge. The groups in the DTES were in constant crisis mode and the VPL is a unionized modern organization with lots of people and a lot of rules. The library needed three weeks to schedule a meeting, but our other participants would never know until the last minute whether they could attend or not.

But that was only the superficial level. Each of the participating groups had very different reasons for being involved. The drug addict groups got the idea right away and, frankly, loved it. It put them in the news not as a problem but as a community. The general public got to see what addicts read, which provided them insights into a culture the news just doesn't accommodate. The Vancouver Public Library's agenda was around their efforts to support reading in the DTES and the new library they were planning there. Hans and I were doing an art project. As curator, I was constantly juggling between these differing viewpoints and knowing that for the project to be a complete success all of these groups and the funders must feel they got what they were looking for.

While State of Emergency gives both physical and cultural space to the homeless, the Nova Library was about opening up cultural space within the library to the addicted. As Winkler expected, many of the books weren't simply selected by addicts, they were written by addicts as well. That said, there was also a large range of books by other writers and on other subjects as well: spirituality, politics, First Nations issues, self-help, etc. There was the expected and the unexpected.

For the public, the Nova Library was a portrait of a marginalized community, a window into a culture steeped in stereotype and misunderstanding. It gave a voice, a face, and a culture to a group most often perceived as statistics. In the midst of the implementation of the harm reduction centred Four Pillar Policy, the addicts of the DTES and Vancouver became a national focus as the drug "problem" of Vancouver. Winkler's project asked us to re-look at that group from an entirely different perspective.

The Nova Library and State of Emergency both attempted to change the way we look at marginalized people - the homeless and the addicted - in our cities. Both of these groups are a part of our culture and have their own stake in it. These artworks create moments in which the veil is lifted and we are invited to think about people and communities that have been long problematized within our culture. They show us the underpinnings of cultures to which we otherwise don't have much access.

But bringing attention to and solving are two different things. State of Emergency didn't find anyone a home and Nova Library didn't help anyone get off drugs, so if we are looking at these as indicators of success, these projects and many other projects by artists fall seriously short.

Neil Young said recently that he no longer believed music could change the world or effect political change. It's a serious statement from a songwriter and musician whose music - Ohio, Cortez the Killer, Southern Man, etc. - represents a strong sixties activism. It echoes comments made during the Open Space group at the Live in Public: Art of Engagement conference about the limit of art’s powers.

And perhaps it was always so. The Wikipedia entry for the Big Rock Candy Mountain quotes a last verse excised from the recorded versions:

The punk rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker, "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
And I'll be damned if I hike any more
To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

  1. In 1986 I assisted in bringing the exhibition 80 Years of Rebel Art - A Retrospective of IWW Artworks and Cartoons, circulated by the IWW out of Chicago and curated by Carlos Cortez, to grunt as our first touring exhibition and our only historical one.back