The Art Souterrain festival marks 15 years with a festive theme!

March 17, 2023

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For the last 15 years, the Art Souterrain Festival has been brightening public spaces in Montreal by showcasing contemporary art. From March 18 to April 9, Art Souterrain invites the public to come out for three festive weeks centred around five exhibition venues, a host of activities and free experiences.

The festival’s founder and executive director, Frédéric Loury, tells us more.

Can you recap Art Souterrain’s origins and mission?

When I had the idea of starting the festival, I owned an art gallery and also presented outdoor exhibitions during Nuit Blanche. Instead of continuing to organize miscellaneous events, I wanted to do something unifying that would help democratize contemporary art. I started thinking about using Montreal’s “underground city,” which, as we know, sparks the imagination of many people from France, including me!

How did Art Souterrain evolve?

The first edition lasted just one night and featured around 80 artists. I had a team of about 30 interns, and we were all volunteers. But the event was successful, and Montrealers’ wonderful enthusiasm has never waned. We’ve stayed true to our original mission of satisfying the public’s desire to get closer to contemporary art, using non-institutional exhibition spaces and holding an annual celebration of the richness of the visual arts.

Why did you choose “the party” for this year’s theme?

As strange as it might seem, the decision goes back two or three years, because we always start working on the festival well ahead of time. It was early in the pandemic, we were all isolated, and it seemed to me that three years later a party theme might be appropriate. I didn’t even realize that it would be Art Souterrain’s 15th anniversary! That said, the party isn’t a monolithic theme, and we embrace all of its many facets.

Once you chose the theme, what did you do next?

I wanted to explore the concept of the party while staying focused on its historical expression in the Americas, particularly as a form of resistance. The first person who came to mind was Jean-François Prost, an architect by training, who has published a book on the topic. Then we hired a Brazilian curator, Ayrson Heráclito, a titan in the contemporary art world who is an expert on resistance, decolonization and the preservation of ancestral traditions. Lastly, to complete our trio of curators, we called on Eddy Firmin, a professor at Concordia University and author of works on the impacts of decolonization.

What can we expect from this year’s festival?

This year, Art Souterrain will take place in five downtown buildings. The epicentre is Place Ville-Marie, including our festival headquarters in the former Tristan store. That’s where opening night will be held, on Saturday, March 18. The general public is invited to come celebrate and see numerous spectacular artistic performances. The festival will also be held in the Montreal World Trade Centre, the Jacques-Parizeau Building, the Palais des Congrès de Montréal and Place de la cité internationale. We are also welcoming a new ally, 1000 rue de la Gauchetière. This year’s festival includes installations, photographs, paintings and video works by around 40 artists from South, Central and North America. In keeping with our traditions, the festival is continuing to use non-venues and hidden corners of downtown, revealing some surprising spaces.

Do you have any tips to help festivalgoers have the best possible experience?

I like the buffet analogy: the important thing is not to overload your plate once, but rather to go back often for small portions. I suggest that people wear comfortable shoes, carry a water bottle and take the metro. I encourage them to take their time and read the labels, which include QR codes leading to audio commentary by the artists.

Once you’ve started, spend a good hour in each building. On the weekend, there will be easily identifiable guides available to provide advice, and there will also be guided tours. It’s also worth remembering that we have two theme days each week: Tuesdays are dedicated to gatherings and presentations (which people can watch from home using Facebook Live), while Thursdays have festive activities all day.

Do you have a particular favourite among the many works in this year’s festival?

Soft Porcelaine, a monumental piece by Chun Hua Catherine Dong, is an inflatable structure representing a kneeling bear with its head bowed and eyes closed. I find it absolutely striking. Its inflatability evokes parties and childhood fun, while also delivering a message of hope and vulnerability.

Finally, what is your vision for the future of Art Souterrain?

I think the festival has reached adulthood. As we finally leave pandemic constraints behind, we’re starting a new chapter in which we are more aware of our place on Montreal’s art scene, and the responsibilities that come with it. The ecological transition is now a priority. And while we’ve always supported gender and ethnic communities, we will continue to bring multiple voices and perspectives to the fore.

Art Souterrain Festival
From March 18 to April 9