En Masse is a collaboration of over 200+ artists from all over the world; based in Montreal, Canada, united by simply one maxim: the art has to be black and white. En Masse murals are a writhing mass of bold lines depicting a metamorphic world of Pop Surrealism. Imagine if the doors of perception had been blown off their hinges and you were staring down the rabbit hole into a vortex of monochromatic images swirling out of control. Property owners are begging En Masse for a cacophony of chaos to tattoo their walls and we wanted to hear from the conductor of chaos himself: Jason Botkin.
Tim Barnard and myself originally created the En Masse project in 2009 at the Galerie Pangee, Montreal. We’d been given carte blanche in this beautiful Old Port Montreal space, and decided it would be interesting to create a salon style exhibition, showcasing the work of many local artists we knew at the time who had little if any gallery exposure or representation.
Two minutes later, thinking this was one of the dumbest ideas we’d ever had, we stumbled upon the idea of covering the walls of the gallery in paper or canvas and inviting these same cats (28 in total) to the space for an enormous experimental black and white free-form jam. The concept has changed very little since the beginning. This is a profoundly simple beast in essence, but powerful in process.
The project draws life from the many artists who take part in the project to explore the creation of collective vision; works greater than any one person could create on their own.
“EN MASSE” is a great expression, having the same meaning in both French and English (a great thing in MTL!). It comes from French and means: “as a whole”, or “all together”.
Unicorn Blood and Powdered Dreams of Children.
When it comes to the drawing itself, I often feel my role to be that of the bass player- keeping the rhythm section tight. I work a lot of these things and often when asked which are my works on a wall, I struggle to show a good answer. My hand is everywhere but mainly in support of the piece compositionally, in pattern and line quality, making some pieces stand out and others fall back.
The process has often been compared to Jazz in its spontaneity and free form expression. When working on projects music is always played and really sets rhythm to the progression.
The limited palette of black and white was born from the personal work of Tim and I, which has lived for year on those notes. The monochrome palette allows artists from very different stylistic and technical practices to mesh together in a harmonious ‘whole’.
The networks we’ve built through working together have been incredible and lasting. It’s pretty f’n hard to get by in life solely on your own steam! We, as artists, especially in this day and age of changing artistic/economic tides, need to make solid efforts towards supporting each other and strengthening our communities, which also means reaching out to our public in order to actively engage them in meaningful conversation. Sometimes the public doesn’t get the message- we need to stand up and educate, not cave in and criticise ignorance.
Occasionally, you get an artist that really doesn’t vibe with the project for whatever reason…they get very offended by having others touch their work for example…it’s tough to let go sometimes. This is rare mind you, but when it happens, and it does, it can be tricky. But it’s a part of the experiment that I’m very intrigued by…this whole dialogue between people is remarkable!
Some layers of ego have to be shed by artists for this thing to work. But when this happens, the satisfaction in what comes out of the process can be so great…beyond words! We really point as much attention as possible back at the artists publicly. Their individual contributions to the whole are so important, which is very clear to the keen observer of an EM piece.
A timely and critical interchange emerges from this collaborative activity; what happens to the communities we live within when artists from diverse backgrounds work together, blurring the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures for example?
What happens when we begin shaping new, collective visions, shared realities, and forge powerful alliances through the act of creating something larger than any one of us could accomplish by ourselves? Whether consciously recognized or not by people, I feel the consequences of such collaborative work are very real and present, if working at times at a safe, subtle level.
The Exquisite Corpse
People generally start with their own thing, and then with space running out, are forced to figure out how to solve the problem, spontaneously, of what to do next. This is a pretty cool game, but a tough puzzle at times. There are artists who are really good at starting a piece, and others who excel at finishing one. It takes one of those artists who delights in finishing a piece, or can at least do so, to really tie a work together.
The finished product is always an interesting document, although somewhat predictable in aesthetic. I find these works, gorgeous and endlessly fascinating, but some are much better than others if looking only at the map of minds. Some artists who have done this many times have gotten very fluid in their approach to the project, and the works can be absolutely remarkable…some of the best drawing I’ve ever seen!
Like the ‘exquisite corpse’ game of the Surrealists, it puts you in a creative frame of mind, then the good stuff starts bubbling to the surface. Without this it would get heavy. This thing needs to grow and expand, and doesn’t depend on any one artist or group of artists to live. We’re careful to let people know that this thing can be approached…the doors are wide open.
People have tried to describe the art of EM as Neo pop or Pop Surrealism or better yet, in the immortal words of Robert Williams: “Cartoon-tainted abstract-surrealism”.
Working outside and in a gallery are two VERY different environments to work towards or for. Both are ‘programmed’ for different purposes, but ultimately, the goal is still the same. For me, the fundamental activity of art is to communicate. Nothing else. The only difference from work to work, artist to artist, movement to movement, is what exactly has been chosen to talk about. The setting affects this message, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a very negative way. Really depends on so many factors. You can create works in a gallery that would never survive the street mind you, and vice versa.
Montreal has been the home base of the EM project to date, though we’ve had the great fortune of being about to travel all over the place with this thing. The graff/street art culture is alive an well in Montreal…there is some seriously world class talent coming out of this place…I’m very proud to be some part of it!
The police/authorities have yet to really crack down on graff and other street art practices for the moment…we’re lucky in that way to some extent. This is not the same story in places like NYC, or Edmonton, which we travelled to this summer. Many of the artists there have been driven into hiding by very strict, heavy handed laws against this type of work. We were shocked stepping into this climate!
To date, we’ve produced roughly 200 murals and similar large-scale installations, in a wide range of cities internationally. The cultural scene differs wildly from city to city, country to country. Our experience internationally is still limited, but at times shocked by the differences. Detroit was an incredible experience. Artists there live in the ruins of a collapsed American dream. That place hit bottom a long time ago, and travelling there, I got the unforgettable taste of what it means to take social responsibility through art. This is powerful business; stand in the middle of the street and shout.
We’re lining up many international projects for the future. Export is a big goal. Locally, we’d like to move towards EN MASSE Labs, in order to push the experimental language of what’s been developed through the local network.
As well, we’ve developed a pedagogical branch of activities called EN MASSE for the MASSES (EN MASSE pour les MASSEs — www.EMPLM.org). This is very exciting business, and is run by Katie Green and Dave Todaro, two highly talented artists/art educators.
Many many different directions to explore!
Check out their work for yourself at: