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Nathalie PetrowskiJuly 4, 2012
This creative and subversive collective is made up of a group of Montreal graphic design students who were inspired by the posters of May 68. The Montreal daily La Presse caught up with the visual revolutionaries whose images have given the “maple spring” its striking look.
PHOTO CAPTION: The walls of the École de la montage rouge, May 22, 2012, Montreal Credit: David Champagne
They have their own workspace at the center of which sits a jar brimming with hundreds of small red felt squares. They have a briefcase filled with 325 million dollars of false bills depicting Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a reference to the millions squandered by the Université du Québec à Montréal in the Îlot Voyageur mess. They have a dog-eared copy of Universités inc., Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet’s scathing critique of the myths surrounding the tuition hikes. They have a complete collection of paint-stained red overalls purchased at St. Henri Uniforms that they wear proudly at demonstrations. And they have T shirts emblazoned with clenched fists and the expression “Printemps érable,” which they first heard on the radio in February and decided to borrow from the maple syrup producers and offer to their striking comrades.
They also have names: Guillaume, Cyrus, Eliot, Pierre Olivier, Shayne, Olivier and Valérie, and a Latin motto: hodie mihi, cras tibi: “mine today, yours tomorrow.” When I called, I asked if they were working out of a clandestine location, in which case I was prepared to be discrete and not reveal their address to anyone. They found this quite amusing. “Our locale is no secret. It’s in UQAM’s design pavilion. But we do enjoy the sense of mystery surrounding what we do. Not all of the striking students know who we are, but they know we’re out there somewhere, that we’re a kind of invisible force working for the strike,” said Guillaume Lépine, a tall sturdy young man who is the instigator and founder of the École de la montagne rouge.
The next day, I showed up at their space on Sanguinet Street. Seven members were there, all of them sporting red overalls. There was only one girl in the mix, Valérie Darveau, a journalism major who is also the only one not studying graphic design.
Their collective first came together when Guillaume Lépine, aware of the looming strike, proposed an idea to his second-year graphic-design comrades—a parallel project midway between creation and activism. At first, no one really took it seriously. Then, as the strike vote approached, Guillaume’s project took shape. “The basic idea was to offer people an alternative to protesting in the streets, using art as means of action instead,” explains Guillaume Lépine. “From the beginning, we wanted it to be a creative workshop as well as a space for debate and reflection. It started out with workshops of around 60 to 70 people and lots of discussion, but as events accelerated, it became more about production,” recounts Valérie Darveau.
Guillaume Lépine’s idea wasn’t the product of pure imagination. Lépine, an avid admirer of the American abstract-expressionist Cy Twombly, had been reading about the artist when he learned of Black Mountain College, an experimental university founded near Asheville, North Carolina in 1933. The college, created as an alternative to traditional universities by a group of professors acting more as guides than as gatekeepers of knowledge, counted among its ranks a number of prominent artists such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Willem de Kooning, before closing its doors in 1957.
Inspired by this example, Guillaume and his friends agreed to name their group the École de la montagne rouge and make their official colour a flamboyant, unifying and revolutionary red. They arrived at their decision 24 hours before the strike vote at UQAM. Meanwhile, Guillaume had finagled unlimited access to a space in the graphics department and ordered the red overalls from St. Henri Uniforms
The overalls arrived during the February 12 general assembly. Guillaume took the opportunity to slip his on right away and ask for the student association’s financial and political support. He obtained it on the spot. Thus was born the École de la montagne rouge: a meeting place, an office, a workshop, but also a small-scale silkscreening factory.
On the night of April 21, Montagne rouge members set out to beat a record established by the impromptu poster artists of May 68, taking their cue from a book on the subject that they consult regularly. All night long, three teams of artists worked tooth and nail to produce 2004 hand-made silkscreens on cardboard. These included a series of three signs of 600 copies each: the first with the inscription “Printemps érable,” a second titled “L’État sauvage,” evoking a state that refuses dialogue and lashes out indiscriminately, and a third with the slogan “Le combat est avenir,” recalling that the students are “fighting for the future,” not only for themselves but for generations to come.
The morning of the April 22 demonstration, the group’s members showed up with their signs at different gathering points. They also set up a portable silkscreening table for those wanting to have “Printemps érable” printed on their T-shirts. At the foot of Mont Royal, they planted 16 red maple trees, which, as they grow, will eventually form a perfect square—a variation on the symbolic little red square. The Montagne rouge collective can’t take credit for all of the remarkable visual symbols coming out of the movement. Sometimes they just lend a hand, like when they helped UQAM’s urban studies students wrap a number of the city’s statues in red cloth. Nonetheless, the immense red canvas that floats over protesters’ heads and can be seen from kilometres around is one of their creations, as are the graphics and illustrations in the weekly publication Fermaille. “Over the weeks, the workshops have taken a back seat and we’ve metamorphosed into a volunteer and experimental design agency. But we’re still trying as much as possible to maintain a balance between production and research,” says Guillaume.
They all agree that they’ve never worked so hard or learned so much about art and life than over the past 82 days. “We’ve evolved enormously since the first day of the strike. We’re more politicized, more united, and the scope of our concerns has broadened to include the university itself,” says Valérie. The École de la montagne rouge members are prepared to lose their semester. “That’s been a non-issue for a long time now,” they all chime in. “Losing a semester is nothing when the future of generations is at stake.”
Since the beginning, their motto hasn’t changed: mine today, yours tomorrow. “I hope this settles once and for all the nonsense about being spoiled brats,” says Guillaume. “We’re not fighting for tuition fees for ourselves—we’ll be finished next year. The increase doesn’t really affect us. We’re fighting for the students coming after us, which is not exactly what you’d call the behaviour of spoiled children.”
When I was leaving, Montagne rouge members were putting the finishing touches on a new poster and a new slogan, “Restons phares,” (let’s remain a beacon of hope). Fitting words for artists whose flamboyant red works shine like beacons in the night.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at email@example.com. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.