Imagine, you are walking down a familiar street and are stopped by a friendly face inviting you to partake in a 3 course meal with a stranger. You ask, “What’s on the menu?” The answer, a vast list of international and local dishes, dreamed up by people that live in the neighbourhood. Furthermore, this meal finishes with a special dessert, a one of a kind poetic portrait that contributes to a sense of collective humanity, a trace of the meal you shared with a once stranger.
Le Temps d’une Soupe is a project created by artist duo and founders of ATSA, Annie Roy and Pierre Allard. ATSA is a Montreal based organization that works on transforming art into action. For close to 15 years, the couple has worked on creating relational art in public spaces to bring together people that have differing viewpoints, economic and cultural backgrounds. Their mission is to use art as a tool to speak about issues important for the well-being of society. In late September, the pair along with a team of artists and volunteers held the activity in Montreal, bringing together almost 200 pairs of strangers.
Le Temps d’une Soupe involves participants taking part in a three-part process that mimics a three course meal at a restaurant. At the beginning, people are greeted by a facilitator/waiter who guides the diners to a seat on a public terrace. The appetizer round consists of meeting your conversation partner and receiving a bowl of soup each. The waiter then proposes the main course – a question to get the conversation started, with preferences from a list of local and international questions brainstormed by local residents and the artists. After both people finish their soup, the waiter comes back and helps dream up a short poem that accompanies a portrait taken of the two once strangers about their conversation. Annie Roy, one of the artists behind the work spoke with us about the process behind Le Temps d’une Soupe and how it helps to combat social isolation through art and dialogue.
Roy believes Le Temps d’une Soupe helps people feel like they exist, like they have a place in the world. She feels that for more significant changes to occur in society, people need to feel recognized and respected. Values, she feels, can provoke people to care about each other and the world. “You can ask people to change the world, but if you don’t make them feel important than why would they?”
Roy says one of the main points of the art piece is to combat the fear of meeting a new person through spontaneous dialogue in public space. “You go out of your comfort zone and meet someone you don’t know and talk about the subjects of living together, speaking together. You share common space and ground,” she says.
The artists aspire to take people out of their everyday lives and challenge discriminatory attitudes by building mutual respect and recognition between strangers. Roy feels the one on one nature of the conversation creates a sense of reciprocal respect. “We put people in an extraordinary place that demands that we treat people with kindness and respect. The person takes more importance than the idea because you are not only going to share ideas, but share with the person, so you take care of the person.”
For Roy, it’s essential that her art is consensual and fun. She wants her art to be provocative, yet accessible so people can feel engaged in the process. For her, strong work includes incorporating discussion alongside art. “Now of course we think it’s provocative. You come, sit down in front of people you don’t know. People are hesitant, but it’s not an art piece that makes you feel afraid. It makes you feel confident,” she explains.
“Soup in many cultures is about sharing around the table and talking together,” says Roy. This comforting food is offered to all participants to create a welcoming atmosphere, but also to give a time frame to the conversation. Once the participants finish their bowl of soup, the waiter comes and asks if the meal is finished and offers help with creating a poetic dessert. “To share the same bowl of soup, it’s good, warms us up and even if ideas are different we have something in common,” says Roy about the importance of soup in the art piece.
Developing the Menu
The main course of the meal involves participants choosing topics from a conversation menu. From topics of global interest, such as cultural diversity and terrorism to local issues such as gentrification, food security and finding nature in our lives, people can choose whatever interests them. Before the mounting of the art piece, the artists walk around the neighbourhood and hold consultations within the community it will be held in. “This allows us to understand problematics of neighbourhood and formulate a conversation menu with questions we can ask people,” says Roy. Though the conversations among participants are completely confidential, these questions ensure a locally relevant array of topics are included on the menu alongside global issues.
The Waiter’s Role
The waiter’s role looks easy, but it is quite different behind the scenes. The waiters themselves are often actors, artists or poets, and have a lot of experience interacting with the public. Beforehand, Roy and Allard train the waiters in public improvisation and different ways of engaging conversation. “It looks simple but that is the art in it,” says Roy. “It’s a lot of rehearsal, it has taken us a lot of time to be good at it, experience it together and become good together,” she explains.
A Long Lasting Dessert
The portraits are made public shortly after the project takes place and serves to feed into an archive of meetings and moments shared between strangers. “It’s really important to feel the collectiveness of the experience,” says Roy.
When asked about how she feels art can play a role in building social connectedness, Roy recalled the experience of an elderly woman that participated in the project named Therese. Therese felt like she had nothing to say, that no one wanted to listen to her and explained how she had no one to talk to. It took Roy nearly 20 minutes to convince her to participate. “She embarked on the experience, not sure of herself and if she could be interesting as a person,” explains Roy. “When she finished, she was lively, she had stars in her eyes.” Therese came back the next day even though she was tired but said it felt so good to be recognized, to be seen as important. “She discovered that opening herself up could bring something positive to the world.” Roy also sees the power of using public space in creating a sense of connectedness between strangers. “The public space is a place for sharing, meeting, reaching out – you don’t have to stay inside and feel isolated,” she explained.
Le Temps d’une Soupe has been held 4 times since it’s launch last year, including in France. Roy hopes le Temps d’une Soupe will have a chance to travel in Canada and internationally, so that people around the world can experience the value of sharing a soup with a stranger.
You can visit ATSA’s website to learn more about Roy and Allard’s projects.