Seripop’s Chloe Lum and Yannick Desranleau on Garbage, Grants, and Life After AIDS Wolf
"The world is fucked, so let's build an amusement park on it."
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
On the night of their final show—ever—AIDS Wolf were a blur of color on stage, pummeling fans with invisible geometric shapes both Euclidean and non: Mercilessly reshaping the Toronto club not with a wall of sound but with 3D structures so dense that it seemed an architectural séance was taking place. The pit was overwhelmed and the energy limitless. Vocalist Chloe Lum bent to touch hands with fans; it was the loudest funeral I've ever attended.
Almost three years later to the day, I met up with two of AIDS Wolf's founding members, Lum and Yannick Desranleau, the artists behind Seripop, at their Montreal studio. They're glowing with the coming end of the academic year—Lum is studying art history with a focus on contemporary sculpture and architecture, while Desranleau is entering his thesis year at Concordia—and the previous day's opening of their newest exhibition, The Face Stayed East The Mouth Went West (elements) at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau in Montreal, not to mention an almost overwhelming year of exhibitions, commissions, and residencies, including a Sobey Art Award long list spot, the previous weekend's sale at Papier, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. As is the often case with humans who know how to do nothing but go hard, the stress barely shows, and the duo are eager to talk about their newest endeavors, which include massive lightboxes that bring photographic elements to their installations and the addition of contemporary dance to their practice.
It's a key moment for Seripop, who have traveled a unique path that's led to their current position straddling the art world as both emerging and established names. Beginning in the early 2000s, Seripop's poster art became the visual anchor and ambassador for Montreal's—if not Canada's—underground. AIDS Wolf reached near the peak of what aggressively non-commercial music in Canada could achieve: even if almost nobody liked them, everyone knew their name.
"We're trying to get rid of the Seripop name now," Lum is quick to tell me. The catchy name has stuck for over a decade, but Serigraphie Populaire literally translates to "Popular Screenprinting," and the duo have moved further and further away from the printing process that originally obsessed them when they dropped out of art school in the early 00s to focus on touring in bands and creating increasingly abstract gig posters.
Dodging day drinkers and installations through Galerie Hugues Charbonneau is a fresh experience since I last saw Lum and Desranleau's work in Toronto at YYZ for their explosive show Looming. The Face Stayed East The Mouth Went West (elements) is more relaxed, literally containing elements of their larger 2014 Charlottetown exhibition of (almost) the same name, most notably the newly built lightboxes which showcase photographs of the sculptural works in motion, thrown off camera by Lum or Desranleau, and strange heaps of seemingly random, often industrial material that Lum refers to as "piles." It's a small space, so viewers are forced to maneuver over and around these masses of colorful, kind of gross junk heaps on the floor: One mass is tied at its center with rope bulges over its bindings; another colorful crumple is ensnared, curled inside a fishing net; yet another pile is wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer, if Laura Palmer was a collection of what kind of looks like old foam mattresses and sleeping bags. I find the naive allure of sensual transience in each Lum and Desranleau show: childlike visions of shantytowns and vagabonds' rags as full of fun, adventure, and wonder.
It's the street, in fact, to which Lum and Desranleau owe their evolution from poster artists to a large scale installation collective: from their old posters to the lightboxes and piles at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, the work is consumed with the physical lifespan of urban objects and spaces. Lum cites the deterioration of their own posters, and the grid-like repetition that Montreal's commercial wheat-pasters employ, as early sparks of influence, but confesses the obsession runs deeper, back to a childhood fixation.
"I feel like it's something I've always been obsessed with and concerned about," she explains. "Being a kid and growing up in rural areas—then traveling to cities and wanting to soak up every alley, every street, every building, and memorize every detail, yet at the same time feeling like I was passing through these spaces... they're solid and I can pass through them and go in them, but I have no effect on any of them. When we started making posters and gluing them outside, it was a way to have an affect on the space and the city."
Desranleau also craves the power to change space—"not to modify it architecturally, but to use that architecture towards your own advantage and map it and play with it: there's something very empowering about that," he confides. "By being immersive, we're claiming the entire space. And it in a way, it does mirror [AIDS Wolf]. Just with little amps, we could just turn them up and immerse the entire space in which we occupied just the corner. The two reflect each other."
All concepts and works are connected in Lum and Desranleau's world: Materials are reused again and again from show to show in different ways as they deteriorate. Papers used to erect towering cylinders at Blackwood Gallery in Toronto looked so intriguing lying flat on wood palettes at the end of the show that their shapes were recreated, cheekily, years later in Montreal for Riffed An Utterance. More basically, battered leftovers from last summer's massive, water-logged outdoor Kitchener installation Exegi Monumentum Aere Perennius make shameless appearances on the floor at (elements).
Desranleau further explains the natural evolution that led to the new contemporary dance element: "We saw performance already happening in the installations themselves—there are strong markers of us building or tearing apart things. We're really into showing accumulations or destructions or mechanical aspects to show that we've been active in the space."
That same preoccupation with space—"how forms and color fill a space, how light bounces off of both, the way matter makes people have to move in different ways," Desranleau waxes—manifested in Lum and Desranleau's approach to music as well. "Making this loud abrasive music that was made to reverberate was another way to be a spatial agent," Desranleau says. AIDS Wolf's music, at its peak, attempted to follow speech patterns rather than musicality, much as the art work attempts to mime the lumpy space of the physical world.
Lum recalls the origin of the hand-printed posters, made for their previous band Electric End. "Nobody liked our band, and no one was making screen-printed posters in Montreal or Toronto at the time—everybody had photocopied posters—so we thought, Oh we'll make these really elaborate posters to trick people into coming to our shows: they'll think that if we have these fancy posters that we're a legitimate band." I asked if it worked.
"It didn't not work," Lum stammers with a smile after a brief pause.
"The posters got more attention than the band," Desranleau explains.
Lum and Desranleau had found poster making after dropping out of art school, alienated by their post studio program.
"Going on tour was a great fucking idea," Desranleau mutters with a sort of dry horror at what could have become of their lives had they stayed in school at the time.
"We were like, Fuck this world; fuck Foucault; we don't want anything to do with all that. Doing posters is honest, it's practical, it's a way for people to come and see our band." Lum speaks theatrically, imitating their youthful rebellion. But pragmatic graphic design careers were not in the cards.
"Soon enough we start getting really into the conceptual aspect—there was no escaping," Desranleau recalls. "It was like our bodies were forcing us. Once the posters were up... what happened to them? Their situation: How do they evolve on the streets over time? We got really into that, and less into carrying information and making good design—it didn't take long before we didn't give a fuck about making good design at all. Our posters were getting more and more illegible: We were more interested in seeing them as an installation outside, and that's more or less where the installation took up."
"After we'd done a couple dozen posters it was just like, let's do weird things on a piece of paper. Let's play up the aspects of how a poster deteriorates," Lum adds. While reception at home often left much to be desired, Seripop made connections online quickly through art and music forums, which lead to exhibition requests from cities with strong noise scenes like Baltimore, and commissions to make gig posters and tour posters for rising bands and promoters. An agreed-upon number of copies would be printed and sent away, and the others Seripop would keep to show in exhibitions or sell at zine fairs.
Lum continues, "Through doing posters we met a lot of people who we ended up working with for AIDS Wolf." Prior to the formation of label Love Pump United (who would later sign AIDS Wolf), Jake Friedman and Mokkie Singerman regularly arranged for the duo to make posters for shows on campus at Vassar.
The AIDS Wolf breakup reverberated worldwide, with Lum's post "On the end of an Era" serving as commentary on the new realities of underground music as well as a terse response to the unprecedented media interest in the group at the news of their demise. While it undoubtedly was the end of an era, the band had established contacts in the art world through touring—"They're very different worlds, but they do overlap somewhat," Lum explains—and AIDS Wolf continues to loom, for better and for worse, over Seripop's career, particularly in Quebec.
It was in 2007, five years prior to the final funeral march of AIDS Wolf, that the duo first moved into installation art, with "basic" patterned paper crafting psychedelic wallpaper and origami-like objects in Winnipeg's Martha Street Studio. "It was the first time we realized that at artist run centres you got paid CARFAC fees," Lum laughs. "At the time, most of where we had shown our work had been DIY spaces, so the fact that these spaces paid you was totally off our radar. We realized, Oh, we could afford to do more of these, and bigger things, if we keep applying to show at places. We used a lot of exhibition fees from early shows to fund more of our work."
Now, the duo have the luxury of choice: "We're at the point finally where we can turn things down if they're not going to pay us, or they're not going to spring for a hotel room," Lum explains.
It's an unusual transition, in Canada at least, between packing into a tour van to flying across the world as artists in residence, but even with the recent Sobey long list spot and sale to MBAM at Papier, Lum and Desranleau are uncomfortable calling themselves established. Lum compares herself to peers who have followed more traditional career trajectories who now live comfortably as artists and teachers. Seripop, self-taught in every way, including bureaucracy, applied for grants for eight years before finally receiving one. Now, funding comes more easily, but it's never a sure thing. "Once you've gotten a couple, you realize it's always a crapshoot, and you always have to have other plans to be able to finance what you do," Lum breaks it down. "We work in a way where we reuse so much junk, and so much of our practice is just stuff we find in the trash, that when we're refused we're still able to do stuff, and when we get [funding] we're able to do something fancier, and maybe pay someone to help us." The duo's practice allows for parallel sources of self-funding to make ends meet, and to stay true to their ideals—a core concept taken from DIY that is now mostly out of vogue, even in the underground.
"We know what we do doesn't lend itself to be sold easily," Lum affirms, "obviously with our stuff being big and messy and unwieldy, it's easier for a museum to buy it. We have a pretty jammer standard of living still, and we try to make sure we have income coming in from other things... We're not having to work thinking, We have to do something that's going to sell —I don't want to be an artist and be thinking that way.
"Are we emerging? Are we mid-career? I don't know. In the six years that we've started getting to do stuff in galleries we've done a lot of stuff—we've submitted at every place that takes submissions, sometimes three times over. Now it's starting to pay off in the past year or two."
Lum looks back again on that first Seripop installation at Martha Street as an early anomaly in their practice, and a spark of inspiration: "We were like, This is cool, we want to do this—this is allowing us to take ideas we've been piling up doing posters, seeing our posters deteriorating in the street, and seeing how they get this three-dimensional aspect. We didn't have the money or the resources to do this, and obviously we weren't eligible for any grants because we hadn't done any of that. Our entire portfolio was posters for noise bands—as cool as that may be, it's not something the Canada Council give a shit about. So it took us a few more years. We did some commercial illustration work and that was able to fund some of the installation work in DIY spaces here and there. Once we had a portfolio, then we got our first grant to start making new work in 2010. So it seems like we've been around forever, but our art practice, doing what we do [now], didn't really start until 2009. We have six years of being gallery artists."
"If you drop out of your undergrad, spend 14 years playing in bands, then go back to school in your 30s..." Lum trails off.
She picks up again with the rough-edged candor Canadians may read as overly jaded, but which I've always found refreshing. "Everything we've managed to accomplish in art, music, and everything else has always come from our own sheer force of will and refusal to give up or take no for an answer. Everything we've done has initially been met with a lot of disdain. In the scene of people making posters, a lot of people hated what we did because graphic design is supposed to communicate, and we were like, Who cares about communicating? And most of the people who wrote about our band wrote about it in a negative way."
It's not all alienation and discontent—beyond the fact that no one makes art without some shadow of a hero or whisper of permission, there's always a moment at a Lum and Desranleau show where I feel that childlike gleam of adoration for industrial details refracted in the twist of a rope or the slump of a pile, and their deep desire to share that enjoyment. Then, there's the duo's rare scene-reps as genuine sweetie-pie people (a species of artist I keep a mental list of to ward off ennui). I ask for some names of artists the duo feel an affinity for in Montreal or abroad. They name Montreal performance artists Alexis O'Hara, Coral Short, 2boys.tv—"who come from DIY and punk rock scenes," and Katharina Grosse, Jessica Stockholder, Phyllida Barlow, Tricia Middleton, Judith Pfaff, and Desranleau's thesis advisor, Luanne Martineau. When they note the all-female list I ask if they consider themselves feminist artists, and both say yes without hesitation. Lum enthuses, "Our idea of making the labour visible, and making the way things are put together visible, comes out of a lot of historical feminist art practices: embracing of craft, sewing, decorative art... Feminist art making is just more radical—it's more politicized, it's more janky, it's less market-driven—what's not to love about it. If you're coming out of a punk rock scene, it just makes so much sense to gravitate toward those kinds of art practices. There's more of a DIY and inclusive ethos in feminist art and feminist art theory."
While the duo have a drive toward radicalism, their natural affinity for abstraction leaves the work open ended. Personally, I'm comforted to feel someone else sees patterns, potential, and human qualities in chaotic grime. Others may be drawn to the absurdity of the work, the technicalities of the installations, or simply the explosions of color.
"I feel like it sounds hokey to verbalize it," Lum says, "but I'm really interested in these kind of Utopian ideas of infinite possibilities—that we can shape our own realities with very simple gestures and very simple materials: even taking found things from the trash, we can make our own spaces and a way of living through junk. The world is fucked, so let's build an amusement park on it."
Leagues beyond their bratty, forever alienated charm, the most profound aspect of Lum and Desranleau may be this pure love for trash—not in the trademark John Waters sense but in the lonely, stinking- rustlings-beneath-world-weary-dumpsters-at-night sense. Leading by example, they offer permission to love the world in all its ugliness, lumpiness, and absurdity—just as AIDS Wolf made it alright to experience a reckless joy that was impossible to deny: the feeling one gets peering into the unknown and deciphering familiar shapes, and vice versa.
Follow Kristel Jax on Twitter.