words / KEEGAN HUGHES video / KEEGAN HUGHES + EMMA JIAYUE LIU
“You can’t just make out with yourself on the side of the street, it just looks weird,” laughs PDA Projects producer Brendan de Montigny.
“It takes two, or three, or more!”
Although he’s making a joke, it’s an amusing metaphor for the meaning behind PDA’s name. The acronym stands for what various people would associate with those three letters: Public Display of Affection. de Montigny says he believes that it takes multiple people to create community and culture, just as it would to exhibit love openly.
“A gallery doesn’t just happen because I decide to open up a space and put paintings on the wall.”
After running the PDA Projects gallery at the corner of Elgin and Waverly for two years, de Montigny decided it was time to try out a new location. He had the idea to create roving pop-up spaces, with each space bringing something unique to the community. Relocating to Bank and Sunnyside presented him with the opportunity to renovate the basement space loosely attached to Black Squirrel Books. He sees Black Squirrel as more than just a bookstore, as it is also a coffee shop, a venue, and a meeting space for all sorts of folk.
“It attracts people from all sorts of backgrounds to celebrate creativity,” says de Montigny.
This statement rang true in the middle of our interview, as a mother and her young daughter entered the gallery. After looking around in bewilderment, or maybe awe, the girl turned to her mom and asked why all the walls were covered with red. De Montigny chuckles and says he asks himself the same question every day.
After taking in their fill of art, the duo departs. Of course, there’s a better answer to why the walls are covered in hundreds of red Uline brand plastic bags.
Upon walking down the stairs into the basement, one might get a little confused. There is a hallway leading into the gallery that’s totally lined with crimson bubbles, casting an eerie glow and creating a claustrophobic path to follow. Once around the corner and into the gallery, it opens up, but the colour of the plastic bags radiates onto everything.
The blood-coloured installation piece was envisioned and put together by American artist Melanie Rose Peterson. She wanted to create the idea of a vaginal/intestinal canal that ebbs and flows. No wonder de Montigny kept the explanation vague for the little girl.
Peterson’s piece is one of three in PDA’s “A Wrinkle In Time” exhibition. According to de Montigny, all three artists were selected based on the common theme of challenging status quo, and the powers that be. Two other artists, both Canadian, are on display.
Tasman Richardson created a series of photographic lenticular prints. What that means is he took stills from a VHS, rubbed them to the point of decay, and displayed them holographically. The result is mesmerizing.
Alysha Farling’s pieces are small houses constructed from bits of garbage and detritus. de Montigny describes these as “…if Peewee Herman’s playhouse was lit on fire and taken over by a bunch of acid freaks.”
It’s an accurate description.
The gallery has a two-to-six-week turnover, meaning a lot of art makes its way through this basement. de Montigny tries to bring in art from across Canada when working with his roster of around ten artists. He makes sure to stay current with trends in Canadian art by following blogs, talking to curators, and asking peers, friends, and colleagues. If he didn’t, he fears that the gallery would turn into a vanity project.
Even with high turnover, committed artists, and loyal fans, it can be a challenge to run a small gallery in Ottawa. A small and vibrant arts community may not always get the exposure and attention it needs.
“It’s a challenge anywhere in Canada to be in this industry,” says de Montigny, “not a lot of people focus on art the same way they do with sports, or with Hollywood movies.”
A great fear is always whether the exhibition will be great. de Montigny worries about the happiness of the artists, as well as the enjoyment of those who come to see the art.
“The question is how to make people engage every day,” he ponders. “What are new ways to engage?”