Walking the cobbled streets of Quebec, I see statues of Champlain, the city’s founder, and other key figures in the history of New France, the colony founded in 1535 that once stretched from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico.
On the side of a building on Côte de la Montagne is the giant painted mural, Fresque des Québécois, which brings together explorers, politicians and religious figures from the past with popular modern personalities, such as hockey players.
I drive out of the walled city, passing the converted fire station that internationally famous playwright and multi-media artist Robert Lepage uses as a studio. On the edge of the Saint Roch district, I stop the car and local historian Bernard Crustin leads me under the motorway. He points out the concrete supports, painted with creative, colorful graffiti designs, under which Cirque du Soleil stage a show every year.
Close by is Côte d’Abraham, a street of galleries and artists’ studios, some of them open to visitors. In one, I see a film, the camera moving over a miniature model of the countryside with a rumbling soundtrack, meant to look like a natural disaster. Another has a sampler and headphones for visitors to create a music remix based around recorded phrases said by Québécois politicians. There are galleries of nature photographs and photo collages of dancing women.
In an upstairs gallery, I meet Frédérique Laliberté and Boris Dumesnil, both part of Avatar, a group of artists who use audio and electronics in novel installations. In the studio, microphones are connected to lights, to a remote control car, to a piano. Talking through the microphone, I can play the piano, move the car, or make colored lights shine in the corner. The louder I talk, the brighter the lights become. One past Avatar piece had people write a sentence, with each letter corresponding with a note on the piano so they could hear their sentence played. “The artistic community in Quebec City is very dynamic,” says Frédérique. “It’s small and concentrated and very close knit. There’s a lot of collaboration.”
Because the city is so small, it’s easier to establish yourself and make a name here than in Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city after Toronto. Some artists, film-makers and musicians start here, then make the move. Montreal’s appeal makes it much more diverse. But, says Frédérique: “Quebec is a great place to try things, to experiment, to begin.”
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