Transcending the 'invisible wall': Artist invites people to explore Mile End and Outremont with new eyes

The performance takes the shape of an audio walking tour, which allows small groups of people to listening to artist Arianna Bardesono's voice as she weaves a story about her own exploration of these Montreal's neighbourhoods.

Audio tour produced by Imago Theatre is meant to challenge participants' biases

Les Voisines is an audio walk through Mile End and Outremont that explores the perceived distance between neighbours along religious lines. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Italian-born Montreal theatre artist Arianna Bardesono felt that there was "an invisible wall" between herself, as a Mile End resident, and the Hasidic community that shares her neighbourhood.

This negotiation of co-existence sparked the inspiration for her new project, put on in association with the feminist Montreal theatre company, Imago.

The performance takes the shape of an audio walking tour, which sends out people to wander, one at a time, through Mile End and Outremont, listening to a recording of Bardesono's voice as she weaves a story about her own exploration of this shared space.
Arianna Bardesono is an Italian-born Montreal artist who created the audio tour Les Voisines. (Photo by Stephanie Chriqui)

"The thread is really my own experience in trying to get in touch with one of the Hasidic mothers who live in Outremont," she said.

The "story," if it can be called that, follows Bardesono's journey to connect with one of these women in particular and her realization that some of the barriers that made up that "invisible wall" were in fact "manifestations of [her own] fears and prejudices."

Bardesono's tour is called Les Voisines, which translates to The Neighbours, and it's intended as an exploration of the relationship between space, difference, culture and, of course, people who live in close proximity.

Unlike a traditional walking tour, the activity isn't intended to be educational, says Bardesono.

Instead, she hopes to guide people through an intimate, contemplative experience.

'An encounter with myself'

At the start of the walk, Bardesono greets people at the corner of Mont-Royal and Esplanade avenues and passes out maps and MP3 players with headphones.

The player is loaded with nine tracks in French and nine in English, and once turned on, the playlist is meant to be played continuously throughout the 45-minute walk.

Bardesono sends the visitors on their audio tour one by one, asking them to experience the performance alone.

She said she made an effort to keep the groups small — 10 people maximum — in order to be respectful of people who actually live in the neighbourhoods.

"At some point, you really are getting more into the more residential area where the Hasidic community lives," she said. "I really didn't want 10 people to storm into their neighbourhood all together."

Bardesono said it was important to her to collaborate with members of the Hasidic community, and she worked closely with Mindy Pollak, a borough councillor in Outremont, and the first Hasidic woman to be elected to any level of government in Canada.

Les Voisines, which translates as The Neighbours, is meant to be an intimate exploration of place and people who live in close proximity. (Graphic by Sarah Gonzales)

In exploring this topic, Bardesono said she wanted to play with themes of otherness.

She said her work asks people to examine their own biases about what constitutes difference and how they view communities that don't mirror their own experiences.

"I realize that this journey, that was really a journey to kind of meet someone who is my perceived other — someone that I perceive that is different from me — it really became, actually, an encounter with myself."

She said that it can be a challenging moment to confront one's own reactions and perceptions, including "the fears that come up when you feel you are going toward someone who is different from you."

For her, it's a moment that offers the potential for self-exploration and examination.

"You have to come to terms with a lot of things that are happening within you," she said.

Ahead of the event's actual launch on May 24, Bardesono has staged two "guinea pig" dry runs and says it's been interesting to see how people react.

"I realized that everyone, in a miniature way, goes through the same feelings or faces the same journey that I faced the past year," she said.

Les Voisines runs May 24 to June 1, several times a day. The tour lasts 45 minutes and is offered in English and French. Admission is $15 or whatever you decide to contribute. Tickets must be purchased online, in advance.