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Edward Burtynsky

Making Art Public

From Montreal to Mexico City, contemporary art is taking over billboards and bus stations.

Manuel Bujold is lost in Mexico City. “It’s a crazy, never-ending city,” says the Montreal-based artist, from the room he rents in “a house full of women.” He doesn’t speak Spanish and depends on strangers, his gut, and dumb luck to function in this metropolis of 19 million, where even hailing a taxi becomes a complicated operation. He loves every minute of it. "It’s chaos," proclaims the 32-year old. “And for me, creation comes from chaos.”

He's shacked up south of the border to bring to Mexico Mouvement Art Public / Make Art Public (MAP), the art project he founded last year in Montreal. The premise is simple: Use empty advertising spaces to showcase contemporary art. MAP’s first exhibit, Mouvements Mécaniques (in English, Try Harder), is now on display in bus stops, subway stations, airports and on billboards in six cities across the Canadian province of Quebec. Launching December 4, Mexico’s showing (in Spanish, Si Se Puede) will occupy 2000 billboards in 17 cities, quite a coup for public art.

As MAP’s curator, Bujold won’t feature his own art. Instead, international friends and Internet research helped him choose Si Se Puede's 47 images, created by 14 artists from around the world. All 47 works are scattered throughout each city, and together, tell a story. “It’s the life of an object from its birth to its death, from creation to destruction,” he explains. “Since it’s a project that takes down advertising, I thought a contrast would be to take the life of an object and go through its history in many different styles.”

From Edward Burtynsky’s hypnotic perspective of a high-tech Chinese sweatshop to Misty Keasler’s photograph of a dog living a garbage dump in Guatemala, the most powerful image of all is that of passersby interacting with the art, and strangers with each other. Transfixed by an enormous painting on the subway platform, bourgeoisies connect to philistines with the ease of gazing into a mirror. “Did you see that,” they seem to say, illustrating MAP’s manifesto: human creativity is the ultimate economic resource.

So obscenely obvious is this idea, one wonders why more people worldwide aren't launching similar endeavours. One deterrent could be the persistence required to sweet talk government officials, sponsors, and corporations who own advertising real estate. “In Montreal, I had to fight to make this happen,” Bujold says. “But the culture here is different. When people find out you’re doing something with art, they respect and welcome you.”

As such, when meeting young Mexican artists intimidated by his strange Québecois ways, Bujold has a foolproof icebreaker. “I offer them a shot of Mezcal and they open up a bit,” he says. “You take a shot in the morning and you’re happy all day. You’re stuck in traffic but you have a smile on your face. You look at the world with different eyes.”

Which is the point of art, and life, isn’t it?