No Firetrucks, No Ambulances, Police OK* : Marilyn Arsem

Fortner Anderson
October 12

Over the past 15 years, the area surrounding the Atwater Market in Montreal has been smashed by gentrification. Thousands of new condo units have transformed the demographics of old industrial neighborhoods that once housed working class Irish and French-Canadian families. Now people who live here have money, free time and thousand dollar bicycles, that they ride along the bike path that goes past the market along the Lachine Canal.

Saturday, the last day of the festival, was beautiful, sunny and relatively warm, a perfect fall day. Young families, hipster couples, joggers, shoppers and cyclists were out in force. It was here on the train track that runs along the canal that American artist, Marilyn Arsem, chose to present her site specific work, entitled Spring Arrives So Slowly, for Viva Art Action.

As it was described to me, she began the performance at 10 am. Dressed in a black coat, black tights and black boots, she also wore a colorful blue scarf and carried a wicker hand basket. She started her walk at the Charlevoix street bridge, about 200 meters from the market. Her intention was to walk on the train track and cover the distance to the market in about three hours. When she reached the market, there would be an interaction with the public, and she would then continue walking another several hundred meters, covering that distance in 2 and a half hours to conclude the action at 16:00 hrs.

Once started, she didn’t get that far before the first set of police arrived. Alerted by a call from a concerned citizen, they came to investigate the suspicious activity. When the Montreal municipal police found that the activity took place on railroad tracks, they in turn called the police force of Canadian National Railroad who have jurisdiction over railroad property.

After some discussion, in which it was explained that the activity consisted of art and that verbal permissions had been obtained from CN Rail, the forces of order departed. They left giving Arsem a ticket for trespassing which will be annulled if the CN permission can be confirmed.

Trains use the track along the canal very infrequently, only once every several weeks, and because of the activity in the residential area, they move very slowly with great caution. But three teenagers died four years ago close to this area when trying to graffiti freight cars, and the police and the public remain wary.

When I arrived at the site, Arsem had reached the midway point. She could no longer walk on the tracks as intended, but she could walk several feet away on the well-traveled public footpath that runs parallel to the tracks.

In the market plaza, next to a young man giving away free samples of a new brand of hummus, Arsem approached individuals, walking arm-in-arm with them, exchanging confidences and offering them handfuls of lilac bulbs. When she approached me, she asked, “How do you survive the darkness.” and listened intently to my reply. She told me that that the bulbs should be planted soon, before winter and that they will blossom in the spring.

As she continued her walk from the plaza along the tracks, I watched her sombre and singular figure moving with extreme slowness through the hustle and bustle of Saturday morning. It became clear why that concerned citizen made the initial call. Unsettled by the strangeness of this image, they grew fearful that this older woman who appeared to be so utterly alone, might be contemplating self-harm.

* Note on title : the title of this blog post comes from BBB Johannes Diemling’s three rules of performance art, as reported by Tomas Jonsson.