I recently had the opportunity to interview Emma Arnold, founder of the Institute for Art and Environment. The I-AE is an organisation which focuses on the role of art within an environmental discourse. Quite simply, it’s “part art project, part geographical study.” I’ve followed Arnold’s website and Instagram for some time, and have been impressed with her documentation of Montreal’s urban art community. Keep reading to discover what led this Environmental Studies Graduate to pursue her passion for mapping Montreal’s street art.
In 2009, you founded the Institute for Art and Environment. What motivated you to do so?
The I-AE was born out of a mix of love and frustration: a love of art and a frustration that in the environmental field more attention is not paid to arts and culture. In the environmental sector, there is a very strong art/science divide and I wanted to try and bridge that divide through my research.
What is your passion?
Professionally, I consider myself a cultural geographer and at times an environmental philosopher. But I am also an artist – an illustrator – and I bring my passion for art to everything I do. I believe that my mixed background in the arts and sciences is part of what makes this research innovative and interesting. In some ways, I take a very scientific approach to my research but I also understand art and the techniques and skill involved in graffiti and street art.
In your opinion, what defines street art?
I try not to define street art. Instead, I take a pretty broad approach in my research. I take photographs of anything that was left there by someone else. These might be tags, stickers, paintings, drawings, wheatpastes, sculptures, messages, anything really.
What is a typical day like?
Because of the nature of my field research – walking outside and taking photographs – it often depends on the weather and the light. A typical day of fieldwork involves randomly picking a neighbourhood and walking around with my camera. Part of my research involves trying to get lost in neighbourhoods so I do not usually have much of a plan in mind when I go out. On a good day, I’ll cover 10-15km on foot and take about 100-500 photographs. So far, I have walked over 500 km and taken thousands of photographs. The rest of my time is usually spent at my laptop. I map my routes, edit photographs, and upload images to my website and to Instagram (@artandenvironment). I also spend time doing research, writing papers, and lecturing or presenting at conferences. And with what time is left in the day, I draw and paint and make my own art.
How does Montreal’s geographical environment affect its art community?
Montréal is a relatively small city whose streets are grid-like. It is therefore fairly easy to navigate. Because Montréal is an island, it is also physically constrained. While some artists tend to concentrate on one neighbourhood, it is not unusual to find an artist’s work in many different areas of the city. In terms of the way the city is planned, some neighbourhoods are more conducive to graffiti and street art. Some have a lot of abandoned buildings which are prime targets while others have great alleyways that quickly become densely populated with art.
Should one assume that all street artists share an environmental consciousness?
No, I think that street artists share an environmental or geographical awareness that is very unique. Graffiti and street artists have a very intimate knowledge of the city. To be a street artist, you really need to understand and appreciate the city and urban space. Graffiti and street artists are great geographers.
You have walked across all of Montreal in the search for that perfect picture or unexpected finding? Do you have a favourite area to visit?
I am not sure that I am looking for that perfect picture. My photographs are not just documentation but also the data for my research. I suppose I have a bit of a soft-spot for the Sud-Ouest, close to where I grew up. It is an area that is changing quite rapidly and it has been interesting to observe. The other day, it was -26C. I was freezing and my camera battery kept dying because of the cold but I followed a series of hand drawn stickers throughout Pointe St-Charles. I had never seen them before and it was so exciting.
How would you compare Montreal’s street art community in comparison to Los Angeles or London?
Both Los Angeles and London are megacities with much larger, sprawling populations. Of course, they have a rich street art culture but they are also much bigger. Montréal is small and the art community seems to be rather tight-knit. A lot of street artists know one another and collaborate with each other. There are also a few dedicated street art bloggers who document the movement very well (e.g. Aline Mairet). There are also many devoted people who document the scene on flickr and Instagram.
What’s next for the I-AE?
I will be starting my PhD at the University of Oslo in 2013, continuing my research in Montréal but broadening the scope to other European cities as well. In the meantime, I am working on several papers to present at conferences. One paper will be looking at the subversive birds of artists Futur Lasor Now and Listen Bird. I am also working on a piece about female street artists in the city, looking at how women work in a male dominated subculture and urban space.