Entre Ville was commissioned, in 2006, by OBORO, a Gallery & New Media Lab in Montreal, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Conseil des arts de Montreal.
To mark this anniversary, the Conseil des arts de Montreal solicited commissions of new works in each of the artistic disciplines that it funds. Tasked with selecting the New Media commission, Daniel Dion - Director and Co-Founder of OBORO - felt that a web-based work had the most potential to be accessible to a wide range of Montrealers for the duration of the anniversary year and beyond. The commission included a four-week residency at the OBORO New Media Lab. Pictured above is Studio 3, where the 17 short videos included in Entre Ville were edited.
Entre Ville launched at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal on April 27, 2006. For more information (in French) on the activities surounding the 50th anniversary of the Conseil des arts de Montreal, please see: Un 50e anniversaire - En ville et sur l'île, by Pierre Vallée - Le Devoir - Vallée du samedi 29 et du dimanche 30 avril 2006.
Entre is the French word for "between," as in: entre nous, "between us." Ville is the French word for city. Montreal is an old city. It was founded in 1642 and was called Ville Marie until the 18th century.
As one former neighbour, the poet and classicist Anne Carson, writes:
"Towns are the illusion that things hang together somehow…"Montreal is both literally and figuratively a French-speaking island. The second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris, it floats in North America where only 2% of people claim French as a first language. The second largest city in Canada, after Toronto, only 17% of its population claims English as a first language. It's a complicated place to live, especially if you come from away. But things hang together somehow... Montreal has been very good to me.
Anne Carson, The Life of Towns, 1995.
When I first decided to move to Montreal, I was twelve years old. I was living in rural Nova Scotia at the time, and no one I knew had ever been anywhere. Somehow I procured a cartoon map of the city. Giant caricatures romped Godzilla-tall through the streets. Mordecai Richler loomed large over Saint-Urbain Street, his mug familiar to me from the back cover of Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang. This map thumb-tacked above my bookcase, I read every Montreal author I could get my hands on, which is to say, every English author, which is to say, not very many. I immersed myself in the literary Montreal Irving Layton evoked in his 1985 autobiography Waiting for the Messiah, where there was only:
"writing poetry and breathing poetry and talking poetry and nothing else had any reality."I got no extra credit whatsoever for memorizing A. M. Klein poems. I fell in love with, and secretly wanted to be, the nude girl in Leonard Cohen's 1958 poem Snow Is Falling:
She is eighteen.What was a Montreal language? I was dying to know.
She has straight hair.
She speaks no Montreal language.
I moved to Montreal the minute after high school, which hardly seemed soon enough. I was seventeen years old and secretly convinced that I'd already fallen hopelessly far behind in life. I'd read, in Mordecai Richler's 1959 collection of stories, The Street, that:
"On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all. Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at MIT."To my horror, I proceeded to spend the next fifteen years writing about rural Nova Scotia. In one of my earliest electronic literature projects, The Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls  a map of Nova Scotia forms the central image of the work and serves as the interface of the opening page. I began writing the narrative text of Mythologies in 1994 and quickly realized that not only did the story have no real beginning, middle or end, it did have lots of diagrams and intertextual incursions that I had no idea how to insert into the narrative. Further, as I soon discovered, it's quite difficult to get a short story published in print - getting a story with pictures in it published in a literary journal was next to impossible. So I set out to find a medium better suited to my needs. In an essay published that same year, "What's a critic to do?: Critical Theory in the Age of Hypertext", George P. Landow observed:
The very idea of hypertextuality seems to have taken form at approximately the same time that poststructuralism developed, but their points of convergence have a closer relation than that of mere contingency, for both grow out of a dissatisfaction with the related phenomena of the printed book and hierarchical thought.Though ideas of place and displacement have long figured prominently in my fiction writing and web art projects, Entre Ville is my first major piece about Montreal. It was a long time in the making. I sketched the drawing that eventually because the user interface of Entre Ville while apartment hunting. I moved into the Mile End in 1992. By 1999 I was living on Saint-Urbain Street, on the same block Mordecai Richler grew up on. It took me a while, but eventually I made it to MIT. This essay is a hypermedia remediation of a presentation about Entre Ville that I presented at MiT5: creativity, ownership and collaboration in the digital age, which was held at MIT, Cambridge, MA - April 27-29, 2007.
I took me fifteen years to learn the vocabulary of neighbourhood. I don't mean French, English, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Yiddish or any of the other languages spoken in the Mile End. I refer rather to the cumulative vocabulary of neighbourhood: the aural, audio, visual, spatial, tactile, aromatic and climatic vocabulary of community.
I have attempted to present Entre Ville in this vernacular. To tell it like it is. Ours is not the nicest alley in the neighbourhood, but it's not the worst one either. Kitchen gardens and garbage heaps coexist with wildflowers, dog shit, graffiti and trailing vines. Cooking smells and laundry lines crisscross the alleyway one sentence at a time.
How does one learn the language of all this? One studies, of course. In The Life of Towns, Anne Carson writes:
"I am a scholar of towns... To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it's not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there."From the position of my office window I can't help but learn the lives of my most immediate neighbours. Their voices barge Their voices barge into whatever I'm writing. Sometimes they take over. Entre Ville is based on one such neighbour-interrupted poem, Saint-Urbain Street Heat, which first published in the London UK based online Journal Nth Position in August 2005:
In an intimacyThis is not quite a first person point of view. Our proximity disallows singularity. We go about our business. Nous autres. We're poor. It's hot. No one has air conditioning. This is common, a shared experience.
born of proximity
the old Greek lady and I
go about our business.
Foul-mouthed for seventy,
her first-floor curses fill
my second-floor apartment;
her constant commentary
punctuates my day.
"The sky was a fever and there was no saying how long a day would last or what shape the heat would assume by night. There were the usual heat rumours about... women swooning in the streets and babies being born prematurely ...old men sipped lemon tea on the balconies and told tales about the pogroms of the czar."Most Montreal apartments have two balconies, one on the street front and one opening onto the alley. A common ground in our oft-divided city, an extra room, a slim slice of outdoors for inner city apartment dwellers, the balcony becomes a stage upon which dramas unfold, from which orations issue. In David Fernario's bilingual 1980 play, Balconville, three families sit on their balconies in the heat of a Montreal summer:
JOHNNY: "Whew, hot. You going anywhere this summer?"Balconville is a Franglais word, Montreal slang. In French, a "balcony" is a galerie. Like the visual art gallery, a site charged with potential. In this entrespace the private unfolds in public display. And, Montreal being a city of clotheslines, the back balcony is literally where we go to air our dirty laundry. In Nicole Brossard's 1986 novel French Kiss, the balcony operates as a threshold of enunciation:
PAQUETTE: "Moi? Balconville."
JOHNNY: "Yeah. Miami Beach."
"One struggles without voice to forge a voice the way a wrought-iron balcony suddenly gives access to the city's far-off sounds..."Summer long conversations echo across the alleyway in call-and-answer strophe / antistrophe, clothesline curtains reel in and out between the acts.
Don't be fooled. I have poetic ideas about neighbourhood, not romantic ones. Entre Ville is hot, loud, crowded and dirty. And, much to my surprise, despite my eagerness to flee rural Nova Scotia, I remain a rural, solitary and misanthropic being. Writing about my more trying neighbours has given me a soft spot for them though.
Two months after the launch of Entre Ville the old Greek lady next door was evicted from her apartment of 23 years. I watched from my balcony as the discarded detritus of her life accumulated in the alleyway, where strangers rifled through for treasures. Including me. Entre Ville has become a document of gentrification and its erasure. Mile End is changing. Knowing I might well be the next to be evicted led me to create in absentia, a followup to Entre Ville, which launched in 2008.
Writing about my neighbours made me acutely aware that I write from amongst them. Gossip is rampant on our street. Voices carry. Word gets around, especially online. Occasionally the neighbourhood writes me an email. Like this one:
"I was sitting at my mom's (no internet at home yet) eating millet pie with ketchup (a bit too dry). I clicked on Wannatakepicture. There was my mom's house. There was the window i was staring out of (blankly) moments before. And there was the voice of Mr. G, the Portuguese landlord. Nice garden. Mom was chuffed." J. M.How one reads or writes the texts and textures of neighbourhood depends entirely on one's point of view. Do you live here? Are you a parent or a child, a cat or a dog, a bicyclist or in a SUV? Word on the street is, novelist Heather O'Neill lives a few doors down from me. Her 2006 novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, offers a disconsolate twelve-year-old point of view:
"The back alley behind Lauren's house looked the way the world would look if a child had built it. Some underwear and a couple T-shirts that had fallen from clotheslines lay on the pavement. A single sneaker was stuck up on a fence post. There was a toy bucket with rocks in it and a sled that had been left behind from a day when there had been snow on the ground. A wooden door leaned against a wall, leading nowhere. There was a lamp and a bathroom sink in the same garbage heap. You'd think that these houses were being blown apart by the wind, the way that pieces of them were lying about. Not one for them would be a match for the Big Bad Wolf."Whatever I might say about multiplicity, Entre Ville privileges a pedestrian point of view. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit likens walking to writing:
"The walking body can be traced in the places it has made; paths, parks, and sidewalks are traces of the acting out of imagination and desire."In The practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau suggests that the "ordinary practitioners of the city" cannot read this writing:
"They are walkers... whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban "text" they write without being able to read… unrecognized poems..."Perhaps if de Certeau lived in the neighbourhood he wrote that about he'd have seen things differently. He claims that: "To walk is to lack a place." My dog and I humbly disagree. For eight-and-a-half years we've been walking up and down our back alleyway.
That's eight-and-a-half years of up and eight-and-a-half years of down.We walk like we own the place. We walk to write the place, to collect, collate and annotate the multitude of texts generated by the occupants of Entre Ville. We try to read between the alleyway's long lines of peeling-paint fences spray painted with bright abstractions and draped with trailing vines.
Nine thousand three hundred laps of toenails clicking on cracked concrete.
Trail zigzagging, long tail wagging, long tongue lolling, dog tags clacking.
Ears open, eyes darting, nose to the ground.
J. R. Carpenter, Sniffing for Stories, 2006
In French Kiss Nicole Brossard describes the meta-text of walking as:
"Writing that feeds on zigs and zags... roams the streets, traces its course through them… narration of the inner odyssey in terms of Montreal's geography, its contours and harsh angles, side streets and lanes... from the heart of the city to the epicentre of oneself, the target and motive source."Entre Ville is a poem. It has been published in print and online, with and without pictures, it has been read aloud to audiences large and small in Montreal and places far from Montreal's back alleyways, it has been read on computer screens around the world and presented in museums, art galleries, conferences, festivals and online exhibitions. In the early days of the Internet, alarmists and advocates alike proclaimed that digital media heralded the end of the book. Yet, as Derrida had already noted:
"The question of the book could only be opened if the book was closed… only in the book, coming back to it unceasingly, drawing all our resources from it, could we indefinitely designate the writing beyond the book." Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, 1976In its first book iteration, Entre Ville is very small. Photocopied and stapled, the Entre Ville mini-book reprints the poem, republishes the URL, recycles images cut from some children's textbooks salvaged from the old Greek lady's moving day garbage. It's sold at readings and events and through DISTROBORO, a neighbourhood network of cigarette machines re-purposed to sell cigarette-pack-sized art for two dollars.
In its second book iteration, Entre Ville is much longer. Images, issues and ideas from Entre Ville have been expanded in a novel called, Words the Dog Knows, published by Conundrum Press in Montreal in the fall of 2008.
In its web iteration, Entre Ville's verses scroll the alleyway, popup in windows - altered - and then disappear. The user interface is an image of a blank book upon which a few lines of city have been hastily sketched. Roll the mouse over windows and doors as you might scan your eyes over a cityscape. Occasionally you will catch a glimpse of an interior.
"It also happens that ... when you least expect it, you see a crack open and a different city appear. Then, an instant later, it has already vanished." Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1972
|I invite you to visit Entre Ville online. |
If you're in the neighbourhood,
drop me a line. Merci!
J. R. Carpenter.