Arts Arts and Culture

Three Artists Speak on Intimacy, Identity, and Introspection

Concordia’s VAV Gallery in Sir George Williams campus’ VA building recently hosted an intimate conversation with three artists who participated in their summer residency program as they prepare for their upcoming vernissage. Inka Kennepohl, Spencer Magnan and Emem Etti shared how their distinct studio practices all converge on themes of identity, introspection and material exploration. 

 All three artists emphasize the value of a process that demands focus and concentration, one that generates a contemplative state of mind as they are at work. This method opens up an introspective space for the artist to dwell in as they engage in a very physical, repetitive process. Every knot and stitch is infused with the care and patience of the maker’s hand—they inevitably speak to a deep connection between the material and the body. 

Nigerian-Canadian artist Emem Etti’s practice blends the disciplines of film and fibres to create dynamic installations of video projection that animate their handmade rugs. Their work at VAV was largely an effort to orient their energy inward, to reach an ambitious state of mindfulness achieved through the consistent, rhythmic motions of handcrafting. 

During the panel discussion, Etti noted the deliberate choice to use a punch-needle to craft their rugs rather than the more efficient needle gun, for using the gun was a “violent” experience—the tool is difficult to control. While it works faster than going stitch-by-stitch, it tends to be a chaotic creative process rather than the steady, intentional method the artist prefers. Etti remarks: “I think there is something really beautiful about the meticulous.” This decision speaks to Etti’s concern with the relationship between the artist and their materials. There is an intimacy there, as the artwork is an extension of the artist. The care and time the artist spends engaging with the material is tantamount to tenderly caring for their own body. The final product, the rug, is a symbol of connection, of being radically present with the self.  

In progress work, Courtesy of Emem Etti

In a similar fashion, Spencer Magnan draws from personal experience as a queer artist to inform his theatrical, oversized wearable pieces. During his time at VAV, Magnanhand-sewed a giant suit jacket made entirely of unstretched canvas. The work serves as a commentary on the inherently masculine-coded garment and playfully reinterprets it as a dramatic costume, hinting at the performative nature of gender expression. Magnan chose this material to add another layer of gender identity to the piece. “I feel like in 2023, it’s still a very masculine thing to make a painting,” Magnan says, pointing to the persistently male-dominated discipline that continues to root itself in rigidly exclusionary and eurocentric traditions. 

The artist consciously left the canvas unpainted and allowed the qualities of the raw material—the rough texture, the loose-hanging threads, the sandy colour, and the visible hand-stitching—to constitute the character of the jacket. This decision undermines the expectations of what a proper, masculine suit jacket is expected to be—polished, tailored, and luxurious. It reinterprets the garment through a queer sensibility that refuses to conform to an established, heteronormative standard and rather celebrates imperfection, individuality, and drama. 

Meanwhile, Inka Kennepohl engages with textiles differently. Moving away from the commercial practice of creating luxury commodities out of textiles, they use the techniques as a means of object repair. Their work during their residency at VAV combined macramé, a knotting technique, and furniture design to assemble pieces that exist somewhere between the functional and the conceptual. Kennepohl spoke of the ways sustainability informs their sculptural practice and emphasized the urgency of rebuilding and repurposing materials through acquired skill rather than discarding them and perpetuating a cycle of consumption and waste. 

Courtesy of Inka Kennepohl

Their work sparked conversations regarding the relationship between labour and art, and raised important questions concerning the boundaries an artist should draw between the integrity of their vision and the very real need to maintain a marketable production capacity in order to make a living. The discussion addressed pressing questions that seem to permeate this emerging generation of young artists. How can they honour the slow and steady process of handcrafting a work of art in such a fast-paced consumer culture? How should they tread the fine line between supporting ourselves and refusing to concede to commercialization?

The cumulative bodies of work produced by Etti, Magnan and Kennepohl during their summer residency will be featured in the VAV Gallery space this fall, and the vernissage will be held Monday, September 11, 2023. 

Arts Exhibit

Habitat Sonore — an immersive audio experience at PHI Centre

Old Montreal’s avant-garde multipurpose arts and culture venue invites you to “tune out the everyday noise and lose yourself in Montréal’s new immersive listening room” until Jan. 29

Habitat Sonore, which “consists of a 16 speaker multichannel array powered by a high-end JBL pre-processor,” has a daily rotation of soundtracks played in its singular room. On the first day, I listened to 64 minutes of a neo-classical piano soundtrack by Canadian platinum pianist Alexandra Strélinski. 

As I was led down a neat concrete basement staircase, through a purple printed door and finally past a black felt curtain at the end of a dim carpeted hallway, I was instructed to throw myself onto any cushy bean bag chair of my choosing. I waited in a dark soundproofed room solely lit by magenta LED strips, which pulsated a hypnotising glow scaling the chamber horizontally. An ambient melody surrounded and greeted me — one I would put on to meditate. Soon enough, I was sent to a different universe.

Habitat Sonore Exhibit at Phi Centre – Courtesy by Julien GRIMARD

Radiating from every corner of the chamber was music that would be a pleasure to have alongside while studying, meditating or falling asleep: pure tranquillity and serenity. It was music that you could find in a cute short student film that pays homage to Wes Anderson. 

Inscape by Strélinski was the first album to be played. Each song brought a different mood. Sometimes cheeky, pensive, desolate, but never disruptive. 

Pianoscope was the second album of hers played through, and it gave pondering 19th century steam-punk villain vibes. Restful nonetheless.

The next day I listened to the second program of three, which consisted of a few different works each by a plethora of artists, totaling nearly an hour. 

Better in the Shade by Polaris Music Award winner Patrick Watson and his bandmate Mishka Stein. The alternative EP felt — in the best way I could put it — sort of low-fi psychedelic experimental. The duo of ASMR vocals and wispy percussion was the seed for melancholy throughout the playthrough. 

Next was a meditative piece by Debbie Doe called Theatre of Dreams. It was a cacophony of sounds traveling from one end of the room to the other, all blending together forming a narrative that one can only interpret using their own imagination. From mystical chiming to macabre droning, and even a demonic cackle, the piece satisfied all my expectations when walking into a sound room such as this. 

Finally, Grammy-winning mixer James Benjamin’s Rainforest enchanted me and cleansed me of all of my worries for the duration of its runtime. The room was transported deep into an unknown jungle, with creatures chirping and predators hunting. Sometimes I could hear a leaf crunching in front of me, or the passing over of a distant airplane, maybe a gunshot from behind, maybe the howling of a monkey to the left of me. For the most part, it was the most therapeutic lullabying experience I could imagine. Rain hitting the rooftop back at home would be of no match to it. 

A great experience, and incredibly relaxing. If I could sit in that beanbag chair until Jan. 29, I would.

Student Life

The city’s first meditation studio

Andrew Rose, the co-founder of  Présence Meditation, at his studio in the Mile-End. Photo by Elisa Barbier.


Welcoming Montrealers to take a deep breath and relax at Présence Media

The sun’s early golden rays were subtly parting the shadows of potted plants through the curtains into the room. Only the faint sounds of birds chirping and distant voices from the street could be heard. Inside, a pleasant warmth caressed the faces of some participants. Sitting with crossed legs, tall spines, hands on their thighs, with eyes closed and a restful expression, they are meditating.

About a year and half ago, Andrew Rose, the co-founder of Présence Meditation and one of its instructors, decided he wanted a studio to solely practice meditation. On Sept. 13, he opened Montreal’s first secular meditation studio,  in the Mile-End. For the occasion of POP Montreal—an annual international music festival—the studio offered free classes from Sept. 13 to 17. It was as an introduction to the practice of meditation and an opportunity to try different teaching styles.

If you walked by 207 St-Viateur St. W., it would be hard to believe the building is anything other than a regular apartment. Yet, if you climb the dimly lit stairs, you’ll find a bright and spacious room filled with potted plants and dark blue cushions spread across a squeaky wooden floor. In a hidden corner is a desk where people can register or sign-up for a membership. On the other side of the cushions is a small room with a sofa facing a bookshelf filled with books on meditation and mental health.

Rose said he wanted to create a space for people with varying knowledge about meditation to come in and sit for 30 minutes a day or a couple of times a week. “Every class is accessible and suitable for beginners,” he said. Varying in length from 15 to 60 minutes, the classes focus on periods of the day with sessions like late-riser, after work, lunch or morning meditation. On Sunday mornings, an outdoor class teaches meditation while walking. Rose said more classes will be added as the studio grows. Drop-ins, monthly memberships and inclusive 10-class cards are available at a student-discounted price.

Rose said he wants Présence Meditation to be a space for people to meditate together and become Montreal’s first cohesive meditation community. “You can certainly do it alone, but when you are starting out, having a group and someone to guide you is much more practical,” he said.

A view of the serenity found in a Présence Meditation room. Photo by Elisa Barbier.

According to Rose, the studio has a unique approach to meditation with 12 teachers from different backgrounds and a partnership with Mindspace Clinic, a Montreal-based organization that specializes in using cognitive mediation to strengthen mental health. Rose emphasized the secular aspect of the studio. “We are not endorsing particular techniques or religions,” he said.

Rose said determining who is qualified to teach meditation is a sensitive topic at the moment. He pointed out that Présence Meditation focuses more on teaching techniques and less on the psychological problem-solving aspect that meditation can offer. “We made sure that our teachers have the techniques,” he said. “Some even went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program taught in clinics.” While scientific studies show meditation can have considerable impact on the brain, Rose said it’s not a solution to tackle every problem. “Meditation is more efficient when practiced regularly. It is not a magic pill.” He explained that it involves long and arduous training—he has been practicing meditation for 15 years, but more seriously in the last 10 years.

Rose also mentioned the potential anxiety that comes with meditation, as one has to deal with unwanted emotions. He said that is a challenge in and of itself.  “Sometimes the [emotions] come up to the surface as tears, sometime as laughs,” he said. Nonetheless, Rose emphasized the importance of the practice. “It is hard in the beginning, yet truly worthy on the long run,” he said.

This was a challenge I faced during a late-riser session at the studio last week. With little sleep and an empty stomach, the breathing exercises—meant to help visualize our bodies as spaces and our breathing as time—enhanced my hunger to a point of obnoxious discomfort.

Yet, as we kept going, the overwhelming hunger transformed into an unexpected deep joy and thankfulness that brought tears to my eyes. Needless to say, it was an emotional rollercoaster. After I completed the session, my outlook on things like breathing, mind and body connection were remarkably transformed.

Rose said he tries not to have overly high hopes about the studio’s future. While he said he believes there is a need and desire for this type of studio in Montreal, Rose doesn’t try to convince people of the benefits of meditation. Instead, he encourages people to experience them first-hand. Quoting his favourite line from the American TV show Reading Rainbow, Rose said with a smile: “You don’t have to take my word for it.”


Peaceful silence helps team make noise on the court

Basketball is a fast sport, filled with defensive pressure, quick passes and meticulous technique that could make or break the game. Little room is left for error.

Graphic by Maya Pankalla

When this amount of pressure is put on players it is no wonder that many teams have resorted to yoga and alternative therapies as a mental release. For the Concordia Stingers men’s basketball team, the release is group meditation.

A group of 6’5” giants sitting in a dark room and sharing a soothing meditation moment with their coach before a game may seem strange. For Concordia head coach John Dore, though, the positive results speak for themselves.

It all began when Dore was approached last year by Rob Hart, a former University of Arizona football player. Hart holds strong beliefs about the power of meditation in sports, and he had an idea for Dore.

“He approached me about doing something out of the box,” said Dore. “We’re always looking for an edge, something that will make you a little better than the next guy, so we tried it out with him.”

So what exactly is this meditation experience?

“We do it before every game. We turn off the lights and we just sit there in total silence and everybody kind of does their own thing for five minutes to visualize and prepare for the game, breathe, and relax,” said Dore. “It’s about breathing and meditating and slowing your heart rate, so we tried it with the kids on the team to see if they would like it and we did it as a group. Most of them bought into it right away.”

“Most of the guys like it, it’s a team thing,” said Stingers guard Decee Krah.

“I am a very open-minded person so I was willing to try it,” said forward James Clark, who was convinced when Hart showed them statistics of how different athletes improved when they started meditation. “If professional athletes are doing it, I am open to doing it.”

Indeed, over the years more and more professional athletes and teams have been embracing meditation, including the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

George Mumford, a sports psychologist who taught meditation to the Lakers and  coach Phil Jackson, said in a 2006 interview with Mind Body Awareness Project, a youth-geared non-profit, that meditation is “warrior training.”

“There’s a lack of self-consciousness, there’s a relaxed concentration, and there’s this sense of effortlessness, of being in the flow,” he said about player meditation.

According to the book Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps by Jensine Andresen and Robert K.C. Forman, meditation has been proven to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, reduce chronic pain and improve sense of well-being.

The Stingers said that they visualize themselves successfully executing their plays in their minds while they meditate.

“We concentrate on our breathing and we visualize things that you want to focus on during the game,” said guard Kyle Desmarais. “So if you want to focus on defence or foul shots, or whatever you want to succeed, you visualize that while you meditate.”

Desmarais said that although people may be sceptical, he personally felt the positive effect of meditation on his performance on the basketball court. “I remember last year when I started my meditation, my free throws were something I really wanted to improve, and while I was doing the meditations I was shooting them at about 80 per cent, and then I stopped doing meditation, and it dropped down to about 60 per cent,” he said.

“I started again this year and so far I am 100 per cent from the free throw line,” he said with a grin.

Dore can agree with Desmarais. “When you go into shooting free throw you want to remain calm, so if you know how to breathe properly you can slow your heart rate and you can calm yourself down,” he said.

After adding group meditations for five minutes at a time before and after a game, the Stingers haven’t looked back.

If the meditation keeps working, Dore isn’t going to mess with the winning strategy.

“As long as the guys believe it and it seems to help us, we’ll do it.”

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