Giles Monette: Curation, creation and cultural change

Some time ago, I sat down with multidisciplinary creative and all-around entrepeneur Giles Monette to pick his brain on everything art, design, photography and production related. Based in Toronto, his projects range from curating monthly group exhibitions to screen-printing posters and t-shirts to designing t-shirts in collaboration with local artists. I got his take on the cultural scene in the city and picked his brain on determination, responding to criticism and creating positive change through art. 

Can you remember your first memory related to art?

First memory ever? It was probably when I saw a Studio Ghibli film for the first time. The package branding didn’t match up with the film or the characters in the film. Who ever released here in North America tried to brand it as a Disney film. It was advertised for kids and I remember watching and being like “this is a serious in depth film, it’s animated and it’s beautiful”! That experience definitely changed me and was a huge influence when I was a child.

How did you come about developing your (very varied!) creative practice?

I went to an arts high school but I was bad at school so after that it was all just self-taught. Way back, I started working with a website called We were making a lot of videos, writing a lot of articles, taking a lot of pictures of other artists: musicians, fine artists, all types of artists. It was a lifestyle website before that became the norm. From there, I became the Art Director of a magazine called Urbanology for about three years - which was a big deal because it had international distribution to the States and some parts of Europe. After that, there were the Manifesto years where I helped the festival flourish in its inception years and then later became one of the founders of ManifestoTV. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of design work, photography work, curating monthly art shows at Capital Espresso in Parkdale as well as pop up group art shows through out the city and I run AHR Films with my partner Mark Valino. It’s a video production house, we specialize in music videos and documentation.

You’re behind the camera?

Sometimes. I shoot when need be but I’m mostly a Producer/Director. When I was younger, I assisted a lot of photographers, which is how I got my photography background. I work at a product photography studio now even, so I guess you could say I do a lot of different shit. (laughs).

How do you manage to keep some sort of “cohesive” style while dabbling in all of these fields and mediums?

I don’t. I mean, I do to an extent when I try to keep it stylistically the same but the reason a lot of people don’t know I do all of this stuff is because it’s always very different. There are hints of similarities, but in the most part it’s different. When I was younger, I tried to find one style that people would recognize but in the end I realized it doesn’t leave you with anywhere to go creatively. I feel like Artists are pressured to have this signature style, which sometimes overshadows the very work in the first place, making it lose its initial goal because you’re so focused on their branding aesthetic. It took me a long time to get to that point of not being concerned with what other people thought about my work and how they were going to interact with it. I guess it comes down to this idea of what’s “cool”. In reality, there’s no such thing as cool. It’s either people support something or they don’t. Art at the end of day is subjective. Then again, there’s a fine line where even if they’re hating on your work, they’re actually supporting it in some way or another.

Because by hating they’re acknowledging it.

Yes, exactly. And it’s a weird conundrum because when you put yourself out into the world, a lot of the time you’re going to get more backlash than support. I mean, you said it. You’re in art school and what do you learn first? You learn to critique, which teaches how to be better, how to help others and yourself improve. But it also creates conditions where you need to be a critic all the time. I believe that creates an attitude of negativity that sticks with a lot of people way after there done post-secondary education. It molds people to always find and harbor the bad instead of really taking something in and experiencing it. It’s really hard to produce something but it’s so easy to bring it down. It’s so easy to knock it even if you’ve never done it yourself, or don’t have the experience or ever put forth the effort to try and do something.

The sad part is that that external criticism is usually more influential than what is created in the first place.

Sadly true.

And in your opinion, what’s the role of the curator in 2015?

It’s just part of our culture now. I mean, people are realizing that titles kind of don’t mean anything anymore, that working within institutions isn’t the best and only way. Which is why the freelance, pop-up culture has become an everyday norm. It’s the same with being a Curator. You don’t need a fixed space to do it, but it will be a lot hard and more work if you don’t.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve taken away from organizing all of these group and solo shows?

Who cares what people think? It’s a really bad thing to say because the very reason you’re doing this is to bring people together, to get people behind something, to create community, to help people slash Artist’s be successful… But it’s so easy to harbour the negative and get caught up in it. It’s really important to be glass and let all that stuff pass through you. If you have a vision, go for it.

What would you change about the arts and culture scene in Toronto?

Just the money. If there was more money we could go further. It’s weird because, as you said earlier, there are a lot of grants and support from the Gov but that money, a lot of the time, only takes you so far.

The city can be very cliquey at times as well.

It’s super cliquey. I think that has a lot to do with our transit system (laughs). If our transit system was better we would be a lot more open to going out taking chances on new stuff, exploring. People would leave their neighbourhoods more so.

What does it take to “make it” in Toronto?

There’s not enough here yet I think. There’s not enough money. People are kind of angsty about making it. You usually have to develop other forms of income so you can do what you want unless you get really lucky, work really hard, and definitely travel to get bigger networks. The one really dope thing about this city is that if you do try to grind it out here and then leave, you’re going to be successful because this city really does make you work hard… it makes you work really hard. So when you do do stuff in other places it’s almost easier because people leave Toronto with such a strong work ethic.

How do you think art creates positive change?

Art is subversive, whatever is bubbling on the very cusp of communal thought is usually what ends up being the iconology and imagery that goes into a lot of artwork and that’s very important- from a historical point of view and a social point of view. These issues that everyone is thinking about and don’t know how to communicate or deal with start percolating to the top. Those messages or thoughts are not going to come out in mainstream ads or mainstream iconology because that’s very controlled and manicured. Main stream imagery is usually a form of propaganda, sales and ideology propaganda. But with artwork, because it’s created by an individual, there is an element of freedom attached to it. The Artists put their thoughts and ideas out there and the viewer gets some of that but they also interpret it differently and come to their own conclusions.

Which in turn creates interest, discussion, change. And last question, what projects are you currently working on?

I’m organizing a show called ROUGH HANDS with Shakeel Rehemtulla and Joey Freedom. Shakeel did a custom motorcycle helmet for a group show I did last year called “PROTECT YA NECK” Joey came to the show, saw the pattern Shakeel did on the helmet and said “lets turn this into a five panel hat”. Joey’s background is in the production and manufacturing of men’s life style clothing under a company banner called Freedom MFG. So the show ROUGH HANDS will be the release of the five panel camper hat as well as original works by Shakeel Rehemtulla. Its happening at Capital Espresso (1349 Queen St W) on May 1st 2015 and it's going to be sick.

Follow Giles on Instagram and Twitter to stay tuned with his projects!