I really wanted to finish this editorial letter today, but that was also the case yesterday, and three days before, and four (six? eight?) before that, when my oldest brother tested positive for COVID-19. He’s ok, as is the youngest of my brothers, the asymptomatic one.
Only today, though, I rocked along with millions of people living in Mexico to the rhythm of a 7.1 earthquake. My partner didn’t have time to grab his shoes but he handed me my favourite facemask, which I managed to put on as we ran down the stairs.
Excuse me for hogging the limelight. If I choose to write in the first person, it’s because that’s the best tool I could find to express not my own anxiety but the fact that by now, the feeling the editorial board shared when planning this issue has morphed into a different state. The overpowering reminders that control is but a fragile, senseless illusion are sinking in.
Moreover, whatever devices do exist to keep us “safe” in the midst of the current pandemic are distributed as unequally as everything else in this ever more soul-less configuration of the globe.
“You know how they keep saying, ‘We’re all in this together?’” writes Montréal-based nurse Scott Weinstein in his sensitive letter from the frontline in Washington. “We’re not. In this city that is now majority white thanks to relentless gentrification, our expanding COVID ICU beds are filled with blacks and Latinos, many of them in medically-induced comas on ventilators.” As he pauses to imagine what the situation must feel like to his coworkers, to patients and their loved ones, one can only hope that enough people read his declarations before it’s too late. “This is a very cruel disease exacerbated by our efficiency-driven health care,” he comments about the fact that families are not allowed to visit except if their loved one is about to die. “We don’t have much to offer in the way of cures, yet we certainly are inflicting pain on families through our medical isolation protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.”
There is the disease, and it’s scary enough, but even scarier are the underlying policies, and those that are improvised as we go.
On that note, inevitably Mr. Trump managed to make it into the issue. Social psychologist Mark Silverman describes the president of the United States’ behaviour as a “schizophrenogenic strategy to derange the mental health of a large sector of the population in order to nurture a trove of true believers…”—a population that we can only hope will keep shrinking and keep failing to fill arenas, as was the case in Tulsa last June 20, despicably close to Juneteenth.
The issue includes a short story by Ami Sands Brodoff, written before the pandemic, which centres on the mourning process of a teenaged character, and a lucid, bold and angry piece by Queens-based writer Andrés Castro, addressing the narrator’s online therapist.
Naghmeh Sharifi, the artist featured in this issue, shares a series of works that she “unpainted” (out of a solid base coat of blue) as part of the Phi Centre’s Parallel Lines virtual residency. A house plant, a moment of self-grooming, a selfie of her shadow in her bedroom become monochromatic, conceptual self portraits.
A number of narratives in the first person, written under the effect of the pandemic, include Catherine Watson’s “Diary of the Great Confinement,” Marie Thérèse Blanc’s “Carpe Noctem (Woman v. Virus, 2020),” and Louise Carson’s “Plague Days: Poetics in the Time of COVID-19,” which starts off as a poetry review and morphs into a much more personal piece. Readers will be able to discern the exposed emotions in the form of hesitations, confessions and witty descriptions. Or intriguing, intimate humour, as is the case with Mark Foss’s “Call and Response.” Or probing insights, like those of Michael Bristol, who, after mulling over different life-altering experiences and masterfully reflecting on human nature, sadness and beauty through the characters in Shakespeare’s Richard II, writes that “Grief compels us to understand what really matters, over against the irresistible power of contingency in our lives.”
For the hundreds of thousands of people who have decided to protest on the streets since the execution of George Floyd, what really matters is to dismantle the system of police brutality and racism, rather than try to stay “safe.”
When we began planning this issue, we wondered what sorts of societies the aftermath of the pandemic would expose. While atrocities like the callous murder of George Floyd are part of an all too predictable pattern of racial violence, I don’t think any of us could have foreseen such widespread, global expressions of outrage and signs of promising changes: the vandalized statue of slave trader Edward Colston sinking into the river in Bristol; Senegalese citizens kneeling on the beach in solidarity; Angela Davis, as brilliant as ever, reminding us that “After many moments of dramatic awareness and possibilities of change, the kinds of reforms instituted in the aftermath have prevented the radical potential from being realized.”
Photos by José Luis Aranda with commentary by Claudia Itzkowich
The southern part of the Chihuahua desert is home to Wirikuta, the sacred land of the Wixáritari, who carry out ritual pilgrimages from the remote mesetas where they have lived for centuries. Their ceremonies centre on music and dance and offerings involving feathers, arrows, corn, deer blood and peyote, perpetuating the traditions and beliefs of a people that was never subdued by the Spanish Catholic conquerors of current Mexico.
In 1988, Wirikuta was included in UNESCO’s list of Natural Protected Areas and Sacred Sites, and 140,211 hectares were declared an ecological, natural and cultural reserve in 2000.
For decades, though, this open-air sanctuary has been invisible to the developers and mining companies that are blind to everything but the silver, lead and zinc that lie below the surface.
Since 2010, a group of Wixárika activists has mobilized to halt the plans of Vancouver’s First Majestic Silver Corp. to expand into Wirikuta, endangering the water supply of the local population and disregarding the symbolic importance of the place. But the threat is still present, as is the need to listen to the voices opposing it, led by the Consejo Regional Wixárika por la Defensa de Wirikuta.
With these images taken in 2011 by Mexican photographer and environmentalist José Luis Aranda at one of the most critical moments of the resistance movement, Montréal Serai joins the effort to stop the senseless exploitation of natural, economic and spiritual resources.
Perhaps scientific understanding and artistic imagining are different aspects of the same impulse.
And humanity’s great understanders and imaginers are inspired from similar sources.
That science informs art is patently obvious: painters and sculptors studying anatomy to depict a body, poets and musicians using math, who manage to move us all.
The reverse equation is less obvious, however, and more intriguing: trips to the moon were projected on papyrus (or whatever Greek author Lucian of Samosata wrote on in 160 AD when he came up with the idea), 1800 years before they took place in space.
And then there’s the practice where both approaches interact in parallel, in the search for… beauty? truth? Rana Bose’s essay, “First principles and aesthetics,” offers incisive reflections on the potential correspondences between these two objectives. Yet even making a distinction between formal beauty and veracity may be irrelevant.
Celestino Mutis was an 18th-century Spanish surgeon, astronomer and botanist. In the aim of investigating the plants of Colombia for his Flora del Reyno Unido de Granada, he closely directed the work of more than 40 painters, many of whom joined his trans-Atlantic expedition. A school of drawing and painting was created just for this project in Mariquita, and as some of the Spanish painters fell ill, artists from Quito joined the enterprise, along with local painters from Santa Fe, Cauca and Popayán… and other waves of newcomers from Madrid. Accurate depiction was the goal, and in order to do justice to the exuberant natural palette of the region, the painters used soil, fruit juices, bark, saffron, achiote, palo deCampeche, copper oxide, the grana cochinilla insect, indigo and many more vegetal and mineral pigments whose recipes were carefully controlled by Mutis himself. Art or chemistry?
This issue of Montréal Serai was already underway — that is, da Vinci had already been evoked in the essays of Maya Khankhoje and GG Jolly, Veena Gokhale had already submitted her insightful review of the South Asian Film Festival of Montréal, and the team had unanimously welcomed Marie Thérèse Blanc’s empirical and poetic account of the death of her father — when I came across Amanda Woolrich’s animated engravings inspired by the work of naturalists like the Count of Buffon (1725-1723) and Alfredo Dugès (1826-1910), projected on the thick walls of the Centro Cultural San Pablo in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Meanwhile, poets were inundating the Serai submissions inbox. Their verses evoking spleens and aortas (Cyril Dabydeen), radioactive boars (Ilona Martonfi), gravity (Louise Carson), Cartesian space (Paris Sea) and cells (Maya Khankhoje), and reflecting on the dreamworld of winter (Dinh Le Doan), yearning (Gina Roitman), wildness (Mary Dean Lee) and dementia (Brenda Linn), remind us that the intersections of art and science form the borderlines of pretty much all we can know… or feel.
Oleg Dergachov’s cartoon of three (narcissistic?) snails looking at an abstract representation of the spiral they carry over their soft bodies may summarize “in a snailshell” much of what the authors in this issue have to say. In a similarly teasing mood, physician Jack Klein recalls how, at the turn of the 20th century, Ignaz Semmelweis “lost his marbles after a long and fruitless quarrel with the German medical establishment regarding the need for handwashing after dissecting cadavers before delivering babies!” In that vein (pun intended), the provisional truths of art seem far less dangerous—and far more enticing.
 In his book La ciencia en la literatura, published by the Universitat de Barcelona, Xavier Duran lists 400 literary works that illustrate the close relationship between science and literature.
 Antonio González Bueno, “La Naturaleza en imágenes. Los pintores de la Flora del Nuevo Reyno de Granada (1783-1816),” en José Celestino Mutis en el bicentenario de su fallecimiento (1808-2008) (B. Ribas Ozonas edit.), Monografías de la Real Academia de Farmacia, 26, Madrid. Available at: https://www.analesranf.com/index.php/mono/article/download/961/958
At the beginning of the year, I was invited to act as guest editor for the current issue of Montréal Serai on “Populism and the Erasure of History.” I had to ask the editorial team to clarify what that complex phrase meant, and was fascinated by the ideas behind it. Statements outlining the theme pointed to the fact that populism “is immediately attractive. It operates in the ‘now.’ The present. It negates the antecedents. The past. History is negated.”
I must admit, however, that even now, after poring over dozens of pages, ideas, images and verses revolving around the issue, my mind is still struggling to arrive at a clear definition of populism. But that may be the main point in creating this issue, and the reason why I’ll start by presenting the second half of the theme’s equation.
The erasure of history
Having worked as editor-in-chief of a Mexican travel magazine for a number of years and, more importantly, having lived for most of my life in America (the continent,[i] just to clarify), I am very aware of how problematic it is to use certain terms stripped of their historical meaning – terms like “colonial” used as an inviting adjective evocating charming cobblestone streets or European architecture (be it Andalusian patios, baroque churches, French or Victorian, cake-like façades). While the Spanish conquest and its legacy are undeniably part of America’s heritage, I have always been puzzled by the ease with which references to colonization have been wiped clean of all the violence they contain. Its history erased, the word now evokes a coveted aesthetic style to be enjoyed, inhabited, purchased.
The use of language is a recurrent thread in this issue meant to highlight the relevance of history as a crucial antidote to the perils of populism. This makes me think about the weight words actually have, and wonder whether the distinction between words and facts, the perception that speech has no effect on human events, pertains to the realm of positivist-inspired “truths” (fantasies), like the separation of body and spirit.
Maya Khankhoje’s piece, “Speaking at Eye Level: Decoding the Language of Populism,” focuses on the different ways in which populist figures – from Indira Gandhi to Obama or Victor Orban – orchestrate their speech by carefully choosing their words in order to speak to the masses “at eye level,” the way sensitive parents and teachers speak to children, crouching rather than looking down.
Language seems to be somewhat of a protagonist as well in Nilambri Ghai’s review of Julian Samuel’s book Radius Islamicus, in which the main character, an ageing man now living in Pierrefonds, Québec, has directed multiple projects including “the flash and bang in London.” Nilambri shows the author’s satirical talent when describing a hypothetical solution to terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims: “I am sure not even a cheap copycat knapper would knapsack stops with Moslem names… The current Prime Minister is thinking of changing Russell Square to Mohammad Ali Jinnah just for this reason…”
Dina Gardashkin starts her piece on Sadaka-Reut, an educational organization based on Palestinian-Jewish partnership, with the following line: “I’m a Jewish Israeli, and the first time I learned what the word Palestinian really meant was at the age of 23.” She shares an intimate, first-person account of the experiences young Israelis go through once they are exposed to the Palestinian reality, after being trained in schools where references to the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), the uprooting and exile of over 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, are banned from history books.
Nilanjan Dutta’s commentary, “Sanitizing the Syllabus,” deals with this very issue. Addressing the perils of authorities rewriting, tailoring and editing history, Nilanjan directs our attention to the way that historical biases are deliberately planned and used by certain leaders and people in authority. He states that “the ones in power believe that the past can provide them with some displayable justification for their hegemony.”
Two very different artists are featured in this issue, each evoking a collective past or consciousness. Diane Denault’s sculptural works in ceramic explore heritage, transcendence and the ritual aspect of urns: the unique texture of her pieces is achieved by exploring the limits of clay and firing at low temperatures, all of which yield a totemic, smoky effect. Wartin Pantois, on the other hand, a Québec City street artist and catalysing presence, likes to surprise local residents, drivers and pedestrians with works depicting various hidden human realities – like homeless people shivering under a blanket on a cardboard. In this issue, we feature a selection of his ephemeral pieces meant to counter collective amnesia. Québec 1918, for instance, evokes the protests in Québec against conscription in World War I, which were repressed by the army. For this work, Wartin Pantois used white paint on black paper to give the characters a ghostly air, haunting those trying to forget history.
So what about populism? How does it come about?
Bernard Miller’s brilliant feature essay presents different ways and historical contexts in which populism arises, using the analogy of games. In the process, he highlights historical realities that have been eclipsed, including the history of Monopoly, the board game that, very ironically, was invented by Lizzie Magie, a left-wing American feminist stenographer and activist, “to teach the dangers of monopoly accumulation of land and property in societies striving for greater equality”. In analysing different definitions of the term, Miller points to one of the intrinsic contradictions of populism: the authors of populist rhetoric do not consider themselves “common” even while claiming to know what is good for the commoners. He adds that “for an idea to become ‘populist’ it has to be adopted by the populus, preferably by persuading them that they thought of it themselves.”
Gregory Patrick Starks offers a passionate commentary on various facets of populism, including what he calls “populism in its ideal form.” He laments the fact that leaders like Juan Domingo Perón, Salvador Allende, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and Mahatma Gandhi have “little chance of attaining power, much less holding on to it, for strong disruptive forces will quickly unravel all that.”
Rana Bose, the intricate mastermind behind this issue, shares two beat-type poems and contributes the essay “Populism: Mesmerize and Confound the Present and Sully the Past!” He writes that “the populism that haunts us today is not only about tiresome responses to formalism, but also the stirring-up of those who are reticent or instinctively opposed to equal opportunity, reserving jobs under affirmative action programs, paying the price of colonization.” This analysis ties in with many of the sentiments expressed in this issue, especially when he adds, “The thought of squaring your ancestors’ unpaid bills causes discernible unease and rancour amongst those whom I would not hesitate to call argumentative imbeciles.”
Alicia Loría’s review and essay on Guillaume Pitron’s book La guerre des métaux rares reminds us that imbecilic arguments are built not only on erasure of the past, but also by simply diverting attention from, well, the truth. The author informs us that the carbon footprint of every 1,000 Google searches is equivalent to a short plane trip, and that one hour of Netflix is equivalent to the annual energy consumption of a refrigerator. So, saving paper while frantically emailing, streaming, Googling and feeling morally (ecologically) superior speaks to the ease with which most of us can be taken in by biased, contradictory and downright manipulative information.
Loría quotes Constantino Humberto Muko, saying that “knowledge frees and enlightens people, while ignorance suppresses and encloses them in a limited world.” Impossible not to concur. But it’s been a while since we stopped believing in knowledge as a monolithic, immovable truth, so we are doomed to keep researching, questioning, learning, as, who else is the people if not all of us? And what other antidote is there to lies and manipulation moulded to soothe our common anxieties?
When I started writing this editorial, Trump and his team were not only justifying the policy that separated undocumented migrants from their children at the Mexico-U.S. border, they were bragging about it: “It’s very biblical to enforce the law,” Jeff Sessions said, defending the policy by quoting Romans 13, a popular biblical reference among slave owners, Nazi leaders and apartheid supporters.[ii] Now Trump has been forced to shift paths: “We’re going to have strong, very strong borders, but we’re going to keep the families together.”
He’d gone too far, even for his supporters, a group bolstered by “white men meant to be at the top of the mountain,” as Montréal journalist Francine Pelletier put it in an interview conducted by Simon Van Vliet for this issue – men who, finding themselves “dispossessed,” displaced by women and threatened by globalization, are now craving revenge.
But when was their “right” to claim the mountaintop conferred on them? Who granted them that right, and why was it supposed to be for time immemorial? The Superstition Mountains in Arizona, a popular recreation spot for residents of Phoenix, were called Wi:ksawa in Yavapai, the language spoken by the Yuma tribes who lived there long before the Europeans arrived. In Texas, another border state, the name of the Guadalupe Mountains should stand as a reminder to “Zero Tolerance” supporters that not too long ago this territory belonged to Mexico, the neighbouring country they are striving to extirpate via a wall, billions of dollars in border enforcement, and rhetoric meant to instigate irreconcilable hatred against its citizens who are following an ancient migratory route that was also deemed “legal” under U.S. law only a few decades ago.
Despite right-wing populist efforts, history will not be erased.
In closing, we would like to thank the volunteer revisors who helped edit our growing number of articles in French: Muriel Beaudet, Chantal Mantha and Louise Dawson. Un gros merci !
[i] The Oxford English Dictionary first defines America as “1. A land mass of the western hemisphere consisting of the continents of North and South America joined by the Isthmus of Panama,” and in a sub-definition as: “1.1 Used as a name for the United States.” The Cambridge Dictionary’s first definition for America is “the United States of America.”
An interview with curator Amandine Davre and artists Michel Huneault and Ai Ikeda
After the triple catastrophe in the Tohoku region of Japan in March 2011 – the tsunami, the earthquake and the ensuing explosion of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant – curator Amandine Davre, who had already been interested in Japanese art for a number of years, decided to focus on the representation of the nuclear imaginary.
For this project, Hōshanō: Art and Life in a Post Fukushima World, her goal was to open a dialogue of divergent perspectives between Japan and Québec, where (like anywhere else today), the danger of radioactivity remains a silent, intangible presence.
The exhibition shows the work of four artists: Ai Ikeda, who became interested in radioactive contamination and its effects on the human body after making a return trip to Japan (from Montréal) three days after the tsunami and Fukushima incident occurred on March 11, 2011; Stephen H. Kawai, whose mobiles representing atoms and radioactive particles portray the common ground between art, technology and science; Hideki Kawashima, also based in Montréal, whose installation invites visitors to open their eyes and see into the darkness; and Michel Huneault, who transitioned from academic and humanitarian work into art, in his quest to find more effective forms of representation to convey the insights of his fieldwork to a broader audience. Huneault had documented the oil explosion following the train derailment in Lac Mégantic in 2013. Not long before that, he had travelled to the region of Tohoku in 2012, and decided to return there in 2015-2016. Eight of his photos and the video 10 minutes at Tohoku can be seen in the show.
Can you talk to us about the title of the exhibit?
Amandine Davre: Hōshanō is the Japanese word for radioactivity, but it is like a taboo term in Japan. It is too painful to use, except in the context of a public-awareness campaign designed for its shock value. I decided to include it in the title because I wanted it to retain its secret, hidden quality for visitors, like radioactivity: invisible.
How did the exhibition take shape?
Amandine Davre: I put out a call to artists at Concordia University, with the help of Hideki Kawashima. I was already in touch with him and Ai Ikeda. That went well, but once my dossier was ready, many galleries refused the project. My topic wasn’t commercial enough; it was too political, too difficult, until Bettina Forget from Visual Voice Gallery, a space that highlights the connections between art and science, opened her doors to such a difficult topic.
In parallel, I organized an international symposium at the Université de Montréal, about the history, the aesthetics, the imagined views [l’imaginaire] of the nuclear, which concluded with a visit to the exhibition on the anniversary of the triple catastrophe.
Nuclear aesthetics? Could you please clarify?
Amandine Davre: There is the question of how to make radioactivity visible, of representing it, of rendering it in a way that it can be more readily acknowledged. I was drawn to study censorship in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ways in which artists dealt with it. And then there is also the idea of the atomic as awe-inspiring [le sublime atomique]: the mushroom cloud, for instance, was at the same time magnificent and horrible.
And just how do the artists in the exhibition address these issues?
Amandine Davre: In Ai Ikeda’s piece entitled Sievertian Human – Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment (2017), the numbers you see on the left indicate the time it takes for radioactivity to disappear (from the human body): 24,000 years after the person has died. Kawashima’s installation, 60 seconds – Extinction (2017), on the other hand, is able to recreate, with the lights off, the particles that our eyes do not detect but that nonetheless surround us.
Michel Huneault: I was on the coast of Tohoku, and it was a perfect spring day to do photography – sunny, with a nice breeze. It was a golden hour on a seaside landscape in the empty town of Odaka, and I had almost forgotten about radiation when the speakers that play music in public spaces in many towns in Japan started playing tango music. To no one. That’s when I realized that the invisible danger had hidden behind the beauty of the landscape. Now how do you represent that? I didn’t want to dwell on disaster porn. I wanted to make people feel what I felt, to recreate that sense of place.
When you experience that sense of place, your understanding deepens, and it puts you in a better position to contribute more relevant solutions for the future.
Could you talk to us about the image of the quince tree?
Michel Huneault: While the scope of this work extends beyond Fukushima in order to cover 300 kilometres of the coast in the Tohoku region, that image is from a place within the exclusion zone, 15 km away from Fukushima. I was driven to the tree because it is so unusual to come across such a well-kept tree with fruit on the ground. It was bizarre to know that people kept coming to take care of their house and their garden, but they were not going to pick the fruit, or eat it…
I remember the expression on the faces of some people who were fishing in the exclusion zone, when they witnessed my surprise that they were fishing. They just looked at me as if to say “What difference does it make? This is where we live and it’s everywhere around us,” as if they had decided to force their minds to forget about it.
This brings us to two of Ai Ikeda’s pieces, which focus precisely on memory.
Ai Ikeda: After Fukushima, it became clear to me that there was a problem with memory in Japan (oblivion of the past), and that this had opened social wounds about the nuclear past of Japan. In my recent art works, the representation of memory is used to question and rethink new meanings about the nuclear imagination.
Persistence of Memory – Radiation Exposure Remains, for example, reminds us that despite the process of historical repression in the face of the anxiety of the past, the impact of irradiation on the skin and biological tissues persists. And even after the body becomes ashes and dust, the nuclear materials remain.
Is this “problem with memory” and “historical repression” in Japan behind the fact that neither of the two artists from the Japanese community in the exhibition is currently living in Japan?
Amandine Davre: I believe that assessing this issue while living in it has to be very difficult. On the other hand, I was looking for a view from the distance, an external look, one that would be liberated from any form of censorship or control. When I’ve spoken to friends in Japan, I’ve realized that they don’t have access to the same information.
Ai Ikeda: As I was beginning to gradually form a more informed understanding of modern and contemporary art, philosophy, and critical theory, the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in Japan in March 2011. The disaster changed my perspective, and I realized that my perception of Japanese society and international relations and politics was becoming more critical. It became clear to me that not only could art be used to affect people and inspire them to help others, it also had the power to stimulate social debate and even lay the groundwork for social change.
Can you talk to us about the physiological aspects you portray in your piece, Internal Radiation?
Ai Ikeda: One of the effects of radiation exposure is chromosomal abnormalities or aberrations, which provoke the chromosomes to connect erratically or split repeatedly, causing illness such as cancers. This work makes visible the world of the inner radiation exposure, by evoking a microscopic observation of a specimen prepared on a glass slide on an X-ray view box.
Is this a post-Fukushima world?
Amandine Davre: For me there is indeed an after-Fukushima and it is important to take it into consideration when making decisions. I borrowed French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of a civilizational catastrophe, because that is to me what described Fukushima. I would like it to be a lesson for the whole world.