One of Montreal’s most distinctive art movements, En Masse boasts over 250 contributors and has conquered a commendable amount of physical space —as well as cyberspace. If you’ve walked the streets of the city, you’ve likely encountered one of the recognizable black-and-white murals. Co-founder and director of the movement, Jason Botkin welcomed us into his studio to discuss his personal philosophy and a bit of what En Masse stands for.
In 2009, after giving a solo show at Galerie Pangée and looking to book another, Botkin and his friend Tim Barnard decided to include other artists by covering the walls of the gallery and letting them paint together as an experiment. The exhibit opened on Nuit Blanche and had an immediate positive response from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Shortly after, projects started coming in one after another.
Since each artist that contributes has a unique approach to colour, Botkin and Barnard made the decision from the beginning that the movement would only work with black and white paint. The resulting monochrome paintings quickly became recognizable around town and now around the world and give the movement a visual signature.
Botkin often finishes each installation by wrapping together the disparate styles and elements, which might explain why many pieces have the illusion of having a sole creator. However, Botkin describes En Masse as “process driven, not product driven.” When looking closely at these murals, you can sense the community and appreciate each artist’s individuality. The creative freedom is infectious and there’s more at play than what meets the eye.
“Visual art,” Botkin explains, “is enjoying a platform in Montreal that music has been enjoying for years.” Montreal is developing an arts scene that is self sufficient and groups like En Masse help to bring its artists together. Botkin also gives a shoutout to the MURAL Festival for the important part they play.
“If we work on initiatives to support each other and get a dialogue about the arts into the public sphere everyone benefits […] it’s not an issue of scarcity […] there’s so much work to go around.” Knowing that the consumer of art is equally important, Botkin advocates for individuals supporting local artists (instead of purchasing overpriced prints at Ikea) and, in turn, receiving original and personal artwork.
At this point he laughs, saying that he’s about to get a bit metaphysical. But he brings up some interesting points and challenges a few popular notions of art, which is exactly what En Masse is all about. “[Art] reflects the highest order of human ability —to create,” Botkin believes, going on to explain that it comes down to creating our own conditions through our own thoughts and perceptions. Botkin is also interested in the responsibility of art as a tool and the impact it can have.
En Masse’s political components are present but don’t stand at the forefront. Botkin believes “it’s embodied in the action.” He uses Banksy as an example of someone whose work is easy to digest but still politically charged. Moved by events that took place in Egypt where individuals who were shot protesting in defense of the rights of a street artist, Botkin explained how this made him reflect on his own art: “Am I making work that would inspire others to do the same? If I’m not, then what am I doing?”
Drawing a parallel between visual arts and pop music, he explains, “it’s candy and everyone can listen to it […] but there are always going to be people who are interested in a higher level of articulation. […] The spirit is young, when you grow you’re drawn to things with more complexity […] you deal with experiences that aren’t bright and happy but these experiences enrich a person’s life.”
“It’s not easy to be an artist,” he explains. Botkin describes himself as a bit of a workaholic, following the belief that “you need to make yourself indispensable […] whatever you do you should do it very well.” In that, he is succeeding. He credits other artists as a creative resource that never runs dry and, through his art, he hopes to “feed back the thing that feeds [him].” He’s “that kid at the front of the class; here to learn and here to participate.” Botkin has taken these difficult artistic challenges and has fueled a remarkable movement with the En Masse project.
En Masse is a source of pride for the Montreal visual art community and the future looks promising. They have been compiling a catalogue of the past five years with a Kickstarter campaign launch in the near future. Meanwhile, Jason Botkin has recently purchased a DJ set and already has a couple of gigs booked for the new year. So keep an eye out for him on all artistic platforms.
Photos by Isabelle Gregoire and featured photo by Mark Popof Jastremski.