During the Spring of 2012, The Ecole de la Montagne Rouge gained notoriety for the red square that would not only become the symbol of the 2012 students movement in Quebec, but of political dissidence and popular uprising more broadly. We caught up with Guillaume Lépine, one of the founding members of the Ecole to discuss contemporary design’s role in civil disobedience, resistance and social movements.
During the entirety of the student strike, called the “Maple Spring” that put a series of mass protests (including the largest in Canadian history!) into motion, Guillaume and a few of his colleagues at the design school of l’Université du Québec à Montréal occupied the school’s design lab to produce imagery that would become iconic during the course of the year. Joined by a host of students of sociology, philosophy, communication, poetry and others involved in the protests, they ran a sort of collaborative open shop where revolutionary ideas were translated into posters, flyers, and design installations at breakneck pace. They called their shop the “Ecole de la Montagne Rouge,” inspired by North Carolina’s Black Mountain School of the 1930’s. Guillaume described the space as cross-disciplinary, innovative open-door place where “images were not only produced with the goals of the protest in mind, but where we were all able to focus on developing creativity and working in new ways.”
Donning red worker jumpsuits reminiscent of Rodchenko‘s, the group gained a certain presence and notoriety during the strike, despite what Guillaume described as the groups mantra, “What is important are ideas and images, not recognition for the Ecole.” Combining silkscreening with handpainting and other techniques, the massive corpus of work they produced to support the student strike included humoristic representations, simple typography, and more experimental forms.
The groups use of the red square is interesting in that, not always figuring centrally into the designs themselves, it became a sort of iconic signature at the same time as a collective symbol that could be seen pinned on jackets and hanging on clotheslines all around the city. Rather than subsuming the symbolic content of the creative works of protest the Ecole created, it was allowed to live a life of its own in a sense, coming up in spontaneous aesthetic action by diverse groups of people, while the work of the Ecole was invested with its social and political currency. A rallying symbol, the red square in this context seems to become a sort of productive force that inspires creative action. Describing the time of the strike as extremely tiring and personally taxing, Guillaume told us how despite the crowds involved in the protests, at times working in the studio got quite lonely. “Actually leaving the studio and going to the rallies and protests was like going on vacation,” he said.
The Ecole de la Montagne Rouge’s aesthetic activism gives us an interesting glimpse into what may be considered “backstage” sites of revolutionary production. Where ideas are developed, and through their materialization in posters and other artworks, release a sort of social and political energy that moves people to action or confirms their social convictions. However, as in all social struggles, the imagery – in this case a little red square defines the entire movement – is historically contingent. Though it may resemble the ‘red flag’ of international socialism, it both maintains certain energies in the red flag, namely the red of the working class, while at the same time refusing its directionality through squaring it off. The carré rouge of the printemps d’érable, in this sense seems to separate itself from this discursive history, referencing a particular place and time. It situates itself “squarely” in the Montréal of the 2000s, the late-capitalist Montréal, and the Montréal that is struggling not only with its identity as a large French speaking city in a Canada traditionally dominated by Anglo-Saxon power, but also with a global financial crisis. That this symbol was taken up by Guillaume and his colleagues not only presents a particularistic aesthetic identity for the Ecole, but also one that recognizes the context of its formation. Also, the simplicity and recognizibility of the symbol lends to diverse individual expression that further roots the sign in the present and in the lived space of the city, where in walking through the city one may begin to see the symbol everywhere, even where it isn’t intentional. People of diverse social, cultural and political backgrounds, with diverse concerns can easily use the symbol to voice their concerns, rooted in the present. However, as official discourse from the ruling party at the time of the protests showed, and as Guillaume asserts, this also makes it exceedingly easy to give the red square negative connotations such as violence and social disturbance. Despite these attempts, by putting their creativity in the service of future generations of students (their official motto is “today for me, tomorrow for you”) and encouraging others to fight power with design instead of violence, the Ecole de la Montagne Rouge seems to have risen above PC government discourse. That the last Canadian elections brought about the fall of the liberal party suggests that a majority of Canadians may have more invested in the red square than they expected.