Branding and Resistance: An Interview with Velma Candyass about Le Quartier des Spectacles – Joannie Veilleux

Credit: D. Castelli

Credit: Velma Candyass

Who in Montreal has not heard of the Quartier des Spectacles (QdS)? This controversial urban project seeks to give a new ‘politically correct’ identity to what used to be the Red-Light District. Citizens, artists and scholars, among others, have been resisting the project since its inception for a number of reasons. One of the most active opponents to the project is the Save the Main coalition, which focused on saving the Café Cléopatre cabaret from expropriation. Over the two last years, Save the Main has been actively fighting the QdS by various means. Velma Candyass, one of the activists in the coalition and an active member of the burlesque community (which happens to perform regularly at the Café Cleo), agreed to meet with me to talk about the issues at play in the project, as well as Save the Main’s strategies for resistance.

Joannie Veilleux: The QdS aims to revitalize the neighborhood by creating a new identity for it, concentrating on a vision of art and culture that has been highly criticized for its exclusivity. Considering the project’s goals and its effects on the neighborhood – including, among other things, the erasure of an entire local culture and ‘underground scene’ – what kind of message does the Quartier des Spectacles promote about art and culture in Montreal?

Velma Candyass: They are trying to wipe out what is there and has been there without any recognition of the area’s past or present. Their plan for later on in the Quartier des Spectacles project is to acknowledge artists from the past by placing little bronze plaques all over the city that say, “here is where so-and-so performed.” It is pretty nice to have all those little plaques, but that does not help to keep the art form going, nor does it support those who continue practicing various art forms. The project then ironically wipes out venues that were functioning very well to create a vibrant nightlife and performance scene here. Basically, QdS are not supporting the scene that is already in place.

JV: They are just trying to replace it.

VC: Yes, by basically saying, “this is art, this is what we think art is and these are the types of artists we wish to support.”

JV: On March 9th 2011, we learned that pressure from the Save the Main coalition had led the developer, Project Angus, and the City of Montreal to officially abandon the court case for the expropriation of the Café Cléopatre, which had been in process for over two years. The coalition has been very successful in their dissent, even though you were facing powerful players. What are some of the key elements of this success, according to you?

VC: Time is money, and money is time – for the developers, the more money they are losing while the project is on paper is not beneficial for them, nor for the city. When it comes to creating dissent against a project like this, the more of their time we can waste, the more money they are losing, the more frustration builds up for them and causes them to abandon. That can also happen for those who are dissenting: sometimes you can give up because it costs too much money, or because too much effort and energy is involved in this sort of thing. But in this case, it seemed to work on the City and Angus. We knew from the beginning that time was a pressure for them. They were very insistent about creating this in the shortest amount of time possible. We knew that the more time we could spend, the better it was for us. Obviously that worked!

JV: What does this victory mean to you? How will it influence future activist work that Save the Main will undertake?

VC: I’ve been surprised at how successful it has been so far. After the OCPM (Office de consultation publique de Montréal) hearing, I thought that we had lost the case and that it was gone, finished. But obviously things have worked out. OCPM hearings are not perfect, but they still allow us to have a bit of a voice. The louder you are, while conducting yourself properly within the procedure, the easier it is to make things happen. It is a satisfying victory in many senses, but it means that we will have work ahead of us nonetheless; they have not completely abandoned the building project. Now, they are proposing to build two big buildings on either side of Café Cleo, which frustrates some because they are planned as large office towers. But it just encourages us to continue.

JV: On that matter, Eric Paradis stated in an article on Forget the Box that “the Cleo will never be safe as long as corporate interests rule above those of the artists.” Angus and the city do not seem to have abandoned the expropriation project, despite the interests of the artists that have their residence in this venue, showing little respect for their work. Would you like to comment on that?

VC: The battle is just beginning, in the sense that we have to make sure that Café Cléopatre still has a right to exist. The expropriation issue has been won for the moment, but that doesn’t mean in the future or further along the line that this will not happen again, for Cléopatre or other places. We are still losing performance spaces in the QdS. We have to remind them that even if they have given up on the expropriation issue, it is not enough, we have all sorts of great ideas for this area and yet no one has listened to us. We have always been saying that we want good things for the area: we are interested in this area, there is a reason why we like being here. So the process needs to include everybody, and make sure that everybody’s voices are heard. Furthermore, Paradis is totally correct when he says that as long as there is corporate interest trying to take over the space and areas, trying to brand the areas in a sense – saying this is what art should be and this is what artists should do – we will still have work ahead of us. How can an artist be created in a laboratory? Well, you can’t create art in a test tube. Art can’t be clean and sterile. That is not where art, artists or people come from. So we’ve got to make sure that our voices get heard.

JV: The QdS is creating a very sterile environment. Making the area white with red spot lights does nothing to offer a space which encourages people to be creative. Part of the charm of the district is the diversity among the people who just hang out there.

VC: The project is framing the area as a district of entertainment, arts and training. So why aren’t there more dance studios? Why aren’t there more creation spaces and rehearsal spaces? We have been proposing all sorts of ideas, it is just a matter of being heard. We already had an organic process of development for the area before the city came in two years ago and ruined everything. Things were happening and now, if anything, activity is getting scarcer: where is the development there? I don’t know.

JV: It is that organic process that they are basing their project on, but by doing so they are killing the very process before it can hatch. Take the plaza for example: its architecture, the design, the colors, the material; it is not warm or inviting. The spaces evoke exclusion, delimiting who can and should be there. They are creating the space for a specific type of person: the “creative class” and/or middle class.

Now that we have pinpointed some issues that are still at play for the coalition, what does Save the Main plan on doing as pressure tactics in the future? How can people can help and get involved?

VC: Right now, some people in the coalition are involved in reminding federal politicians running for election that the lower Main is recognized by the federal government as a heritage site, and since it has been severely neglected by the city, the federal government should do something about it. We are also planning to put together a couple more fun videos to raise awareness. We noticed that having people sending letters to the various media about Café Cléopatre and getting those letters published seemed to help a lot. This is something else you can do: it is important to express yourself. Maybe you are not going out on the streets, but you can write a letter and voice your concerns. We are certainly going to do a call for people to present papers and questions at the OCPM hearings. More people should show up to the hearings, learn the process, see what it is about and get their voices heard. It is possible for Monsieur et Madame Tout le Monde to be part of it. City Hall also has a question period: go to it, and ask your questions. Go to your local Bureau and express your opinion on something. It is there, it is a tool to use. Obviously for more radical activists, it is not sufficient enough, but it is okay, they engage in other kinds of action; there is place for everybody.

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The Quartier des Spectacles is an urban project in Ville-Marie, Montreal. It aims to revitalize the square block bordered by Sherbrooke, City Councillors, Berri and René-Levesque, which is considered to be deteriorating. The project is also seen as a stimulus plan for the city of Montreal because of the attention that it will receive on the international scene. The revitalization particularly affects the lower Main, previously known as the Red-Light District. With the QdS, the city of Montreal is perpetuating what was started by Mayor Drapeau in the 60s: the erasing of the memories of the Red-Light District, an area which has been considered shameful (because of the sexual activities supported in the district) by the entrepreneurs and the upper- and middle-class[1]. But erasing these memories also entails erasing the realities around social inequalities and struggles, especially those related to sexuality[2].

A project like this has a serious impact on the collective identity of the inner-city resident. For some it is positive; for others, especially those that live or participate actively in the life of the neighborhood, it is a detriment[3]. The Quartier des Spectacles project seeks to change the aesthetic, the memories, and the history of the district by adopting an architectural design that is sterile and that conforms to other projects of the same nature in other cities. It is rather contradictory that while it advocates for cultural and artistic democratization, as well as accessibility and diversity, the project is displacing, if not destroying, the current art scene.

Moreover, Montreal, with its aspirations of becoming a cultural metropolis, is actually moving further and further away from culture. Rather than encouraging and promoting a flourishing artistic scene in the QdS, this project seems to want to control and sterilize the Main by depriving it of its history, its inspiring places and the venues where artists of all vocations continue to perform. Some questions need to be posed: is the vision of culture offered by the Quartier des Spectacles the one we want as our definition of culture? Do we want a uniform understanding of culture, of the ‘spectacles,’ governed by the revenues they produce? Or do we want a more diversified, accepting and inspiring scene that includes all genres that are out there? Cleo’s victory is very encouraging for activism. It shows that resistance can work! But as Velma said, “it is just the beginning.”

http://www.savethemain.com/

References

[1] Tyrer et Crinson 2005, cited in Le Bel, P-M. (Eds). (2010). Droit à la ville et patrimoine vécu dans le Redlight de Montréal: Séminaire International : Métropoles, Inégalités et Planification Démocratique. Rio De Janeiro, Brésil : IPPUR.

[2] Le Bel, P-M. (Eds). (2010). Droit à la ville et patrimoine vécu dans le Redlight de Montréal: Séminaire International : Métropoles, Inégalités et Planification Démocratique. Rio De Janeiro, Brésil : IPPUR.

[3] Le Bel, P-M. (Eds). (2010). Droit à la ville et patrimoine vécu dans le Redlight de Montréal: Séminaire International : Métropoles, Inégalités et Planification Démocratique. Rio De Janeiro, Brésil : IPPUR.

Joannie Veilleux is a last year undergrad student at Concordia University majoring in Cultural Studies. Her research interest is situated in social inequalities, especially those related to sexualities and gentrification.

Velma Candyass, teacher, choreographer and performer extraordinaire, is in the vanguard of bringing neo-burlesque and striptease classes to Montreal. Her comedic, innovative style of performance has made her a household name in the Montreal, Boston and Las Vegas neo-burlesque and cabaret scenes. Her focus on ‘real bodies’ has allowed women of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities to embrace and enjoy this technique. She teaches regularly in Montreal through Joy Toyz and in Boston through Boston Burlesque. She is choreographer for the Dead Doll Dancers and Optative Theatrical Lab. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dead-Doll-Dancers/19503550265

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