By Kaie Kellough
Eight a.m. CKUT radio station, Montreal. Crazy free jazz discordantly squawks out of the studio speakers. Stefan Christoff’s lanky, six-foot three-inch frame sits folded like a pretzel behind the soundboard. Headphones over tousled hair, he leans into the microphone and announces, in a smoke-smooth voice: “Up next is a piece called ‘m’s and n’s’ by sound-poet Paul Dutton, and following that, we’ll get into an interview with Montreal writer and spoken word performer –
Every Tuesday mornings you can hear Stefan interviewing one of the many Montreal wordsmiths. One Sunday a month, you will likely pay your cover to Stefan on your way in to a Wired on Words poetry event. You may see him on stage later, slouched over a piano or a guitar, working a melody. You may unwittingly catch one of his art showings at a plateau café or bar, and if you don’t, you will surely catch him pasting a poster to the wall of a St. Laurent business. If you stop to read the poster, he will turn to you, hand you a flyer, and explain: “This Saturday there’ll be a rally in St. Louis Square to protest the arrest of several peaceful visitors to the park. The rally starts at two-thirty. There’ll be a few speeches, and then we’ll march down St. Denis…”
Stefan Christoff is what many would call a Renaissance man. Radio host, writer, artist, musician, and activist, Christoff is the link between the various community scenes at the heart of his attempts to merge culture and community, anarchy and art.
Two years ago, working in a Montreal café by day, by night accompanying his partner (poet/performer Mia Brooks) on piano, and in his spare time trying to secure art showings for his work, Christoff hit on the idea of organizing a festival.
As festivals are not new to Montreal, whose summer months are busy with music, comedy and art events, Christoff decided that his idea needed a novel spin if it were to catch on. “I started asking myself: What does the local arts scene need?”
Only after experiencing the IMF/World Bank protests in Washington did Christoff find an answer to his question. The energy, intensity, and spirit of unity Christoff experienced in Washington moved him. He understood that a common cause could rally people in a way that a simple arts festival could not.
Montreal’s major festivals present art as leisurely entertainment, and audiences respond in kind. The more avant-garde “highbrow” shows, where audiences take their pretensions seriously, present art as something superior to the everyday. In both cases, art and politics are divorced. Art is cut off from relations with the world. Audiences are limited to relating to art as leisure, entertainment, or pure concept.
“On my coffee break, staring out the window into the street, watching cars and people hustle past, and looking over a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem, the lines: ‘…on freeways fifty lanes wide/on a concrete continent/spaced with bland billboards…’ struck me as lines that every city dweller must have thought or said at least once. This was art that was part and parcel of the everyday. It occurred to me that people would approach art as an active force in everyday life if it were presented that way.”
Christoff had his idea, but how was he going to put it into action? He started pitching his idea to local artists. “Everybody I talked to was interested.” Though Christoff was only nineteen years old at the time, his smoky voice, polite firmness, and worldly knowledge got him taken seriously. The first HOWL, held in Montreal last year, quickly assembled a list of performers and tentative venues. But Christoff’s partner in the venture bowed out of the festival in the midst of a whirlwind of meetings, emails, telephone calls, dates, details, and financial uncertainties. When questioned on the subject, Christoff grudgingly admits that:
“HOWL nearly folded. I even thought of packing it in, but I managed to salvage the festival, and it went on as planned. Performers throughout Canada gathered in Montreal to stress the importance of the G-20 protests. HOWL 2000 ran for four nights filled with hope, song, and resistance.”
Following the success of the first HOWL festival, this year’s festival will run in three cities. With the support of OCAP (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty), Toronto’s Mobilisation for Global Justice, and the Canzine Festival put on by Broken Pencil, HOWL will entertain Toronto audiences for three days. The Toronto festival will: “Support plans to shut down the financial district to protest the neo-liberal economics of the Harris government.” The festival will also run for three nights in Montreal and two nights in New York city.
HOWL will feature evening spoken word performances by Debbie Young, Katherine Kidd, Ian Ferrier, music from Godspeed you Black Emperor! and Do Make Say Think, art showings, and afternoon teach-ins. The teach-ins will be conducted by local activists and will centre on such subjects as: art and revolution, local effects of globalization, indie media, food practices, and eco initiatives.
Community and Anarchism
Christoff was first introduced to the idea of politics as spectacle while growing up in Kelowna, B.C. At the time, he was fourteen years old. His budding interest in social change was nurtured by an older acquaintance, a studded, spiky-haired university student.
The student decided to run for mayor. Stefan became involved in the campaign, in which said candidate proposed countless logical and absurd changes to the city. The candidate was predictably defeated, but Christoff was impressed: “It was like a performance art piece,” he recalls, “a satire. It highlighted all of the absurd, complacent, and bigoted aspects of local politics, and it did so in a humorous way. It was obvious that the guy wouldn’t win, and everybody knew that. For that reason he had more freedom to speak his mind than any other candidate did. He was able to be politically entertaining. ”
Inspired by that early example of how creativity can also be politics, Christoff has been a veritable force determined to take his vision to the community. This is manifested not just in the Howl Festival, but in Stefan’s participation as one of the founders of the Montreal Anarchist Book Fair. In one of Stefan’s rare moments of ease, lounging on a tatami mat on the roof of his St. Laurent loft, he talks about the second annual book fair, which took place in Montreal this past summer:
“It was incredible to see over 1000 people take part in the anarchist book fair, a grassroots event with little budget other than the hope and dedication of a few committed people. We worked hard, slept little, but this is the nature of solid organising. Getting things done takes drive, hope, dedication.”
Stefan’s gaze takes in apartment balconies and kitchen windows. Uptown’s clutter and activity punctuate his words.
The Anarchist book fair was held at the CSCS (Comite Social du Centre Sud) space in downtown Montreal. A gymnasium-sized room was filled with the merchandise of Montreal, Toronto, and Quebec small presses and zine publishers. Local activist organisations set up info tables. Throughout the day, workshops on various facets of Anarchism were conducted. The fair and its workshops were free and open to the public.
When asked whether Montreal is particularly open to grass roots community organizing, Christoff shrugs and lights a Gauloise: “Every city or community is what one makes of it. One looks for the things that one wants to become involved in, and works with the people who are doing them.”
Free Verse of the Americas
Drive, hope, and dedication motivated Stefan to organise an event called Free Verse of the Americas. The event, scheduled for Quebec City during the FTAA protests, was to feature Canadian and American activists/poets. As event organisers and participants were dispersed around Canada and the U.S., all planning was done through email. A single email, complete with replies, comments, additions and suggestions, would circulate among the group for an entire week. On the day of the event, Christoff was struck in the leg by a tear gas canister. He had been at the main CLAC protests helping to tear down sections of the wall. His right leg was bruised from ankle to knee. Through restricted to a slow limp, he went to the venue whose owners, cowed by the afternoon’s violence, had locked their doors. Some poets and audience members gathered outside and improvised an event, while others went on their way. Christoff, however, did not brood over his misfortune. A week later he was back to working on the Anarchist book fair, dedicated to keeping up pre-FTAA momentum.
Christoff has managed to maintain his personal momentum through a determination to fuse art and activism. “It is hard to see a separation between social activism and art,” he explains. “Art is social activism. We are creating our realities as we go. Art is an extension of this – taking hold of life and living on our own terms, defining our existence. I see the destruction of capitalism as necessary to our existence – disruption of a system that attempts to define how individuals and groups of people should exist.”
But not all of the artists who work with Stefan share his anti-capitalist views. This can lead to conflict, as artists’ views expressed in their work are often lost amidst the powerful anarchist ethos of HOWL. In response, Christoff argues that: “Art in its essence possesses the spirit of anarchism. Total freedom of expression is manifested in a song, in a poem.”
Politics has never been absent from art. Dante’s Inferno was populated with many of the Italian politicians of his time. Chaucer’s social criticism was structured into story lines, barbed with humour, and spoken by characters – ostensibly to entertain their fellows. Trinidad’s early calypsonians used humour and up-tempo beats to make biting criticisms palatable. Nevertheless, many aesthetes cringe at the idea of a socially aware, or political art. Their discomfort is often justified. The political art that we experience at spoken word events can be rhetorical, often dismissing formal innovation in favour of clichés and slogans. Much political art is self righteous and preachy, as its creators assume that they have a higher awareness that must be imparted unto the audience. Volubility, facts, certainty, and rhetoric among activists regularly replace formal skills, intelligence, and the powerful silence at the heart of great art. If HOWL is to succeed as a festival of art and revolution (i.e. creative change), the art cannot be overwhelmed by the ideology.
For Christoff, however, the ambiguities of activist art are not nearly as pressing as what is happening on the streets around the world. This year’s HOWL is meant to be not only an artistic celebration, but also a mobilization fund raiser for those planning to travel to Qatar, where the next round of global trade talks will be held. Says Christoff: “HOWL is founded on the belief that art is action. Today, taking an active role to counter capitalism is the art form, whether it comes in the form of blockades, music, or words.”
HOWL Festival Dates
For detailed listings, visit: www. howlfestival.org
Toronto, September 22nd to 24th
Montreal, October 11th to 13th
New York, October 19th and 20th
Montreal’s Stefan Christoff Wants to Turn Art and Anarchism Into a HOWL