Originally published on visualcultureweekly.wordpress.com on March 23, 2020.
Current confinement orders around the world have shaken traditional modes of socialization and created new ways of expressing solidarity. As many viral videos show, in Europe they are singing and playing instruments on balconies. In Peru, where a military enforced curfew has been imposed, nightly eruptions of applause can be heard throughout its capital city to thank first respondents and maintenance crews still on duty. In Québec, although no official curfew exists, calls for a similar public showing of solidarity have begun gaining traction on social media. In the case of La Belle Province, several movements have gained media attention within the past few days and are telling of the new social, cultural, and economic dynamics that have quickly developed under COVD-19.
Flash tes lumières
The first is a call-back to a popular 90s television programme hosted by beloved comedian Jean-Marc Parent. L’Heure JMP (The JMP Hour) was a live, loose format, improvised, musical comedy hour that became one of the most watched television shows of the 90s in Québec. Its most lasting contribution to popular culture were the segments in which he invites his viewers to flash their house lights to show they were tuned in. When the show peaked in popularity and drew in close to 2 million viewers (out of a population of about 7 million at the time), the visual effect was quite impressive.
The show began airing in 1996, not long after the second referendum and during a time when political and linguistic tensions were at their most palpable since the Quiet Revolution. L’Heure JMP thus came at a moment when many French-speaking Québécois were feeling defeated and the need for a unifying ritual was needed and welcomed. It is not uncommon for major Québécois networks to focus their resources on live television during times of political uncertainty (the 2012 student crisis saw a rise in family-oriented signing competitions and programmes focusing on family histories and genealogy).
That the current confinement period would provoke a need for some to partake in such participatory events and bringing back the “Flash the lumières” (Flash your lights) segment from a previous period of Québécois history marked by uncertainty and a need for solidarity is, then, quite understandable. So far, a Facebook group promoting the practice has over 100,000 followers and calls for nightly light flashes at 8:30pm. Major news networks have also picked up the story and even Jean-Marc Parent himself, currently fighting to make his way home from a trip to Florida, has been giving interviews and supports the movement.
The balcony homage to Leonard Cohen
While the Flash tes Lumières inspired call to action may have gained popularity in the Régions (the province’s interior and rural regions), another, somewhat similar event took place in Montréal on Sunday, March 22nd. Famed singer Martha Wainwright lead a chorus of confined Montrealers in a musical sing-along that live-streamed on social media from the balcony of POP Montreal headquarters on Avenue du Parc in the Plateau-Mont-Royal arrondissement of the city.
Although the artist sang two songs, So Long Marianne by Leonard Cohen and La vie est un oiseau by Richard Desjardins, English language media coverage of the mini-concert featured no mention of the French-language song but did, very insistently, compare this to the similar European flash mobs. The more popular, local, and nostalgic manifestation of Flash tes lumières presents a stark contrast to the more urban and cosmopolitan Wainwright-lead concerto. Even though both take the common balcony or window as a stage to express support, solidarity, and gratitude, the lines between class, geography and language can already be seen in how the Québécois have begun to visualize their confinement.
Another call to action has been targeted to parents who find themselves at home with their children. The hashtag #cavabienaller (roughly translated to “it’s going to be ok”) invites children who cannot attend school to draw rainbows with the aforementioned positive message and place them in their windows so others can see. Parents are then asked to go out for walks with their families to look for them in their neighbourhoods. This has mainly been shared on blogs and Facebook pages aimed at mothers looking share tips and experiences.
This serves many purposes. Mainly, it is a nice way to keep young children busy and creative while schools are close. It is also a way to turn a difficult time into a distracting game. By having them go looking for them, it might take their minds off of trickier times and make them feel as though they are not the only kids going through this.
The last call to action we will discuss has not yet become popularized but might very well gain popularity in the coming days. With April 1st approaching quickly, many renters are facing their upcoming rent payment with some uncertainty. While talks of bailouts and small bonuses possibly being given to some citizens, no major announcements regarding rent has been made. Many are calling for the rent cancelations starting next week and to last throughout the confinement and social distancing period. Facebook pages and events have been created asking residents of Montreal to hang white sheets from there balconies as a form of protest. We will find out if this catches on this week and if Montrealers gain yet another way to use their windows and balconies as a stage for self and communal expression.
What is noteworthy of these practices is the push to visualize the changing social, cultural, and economic dynamics caused by the current COVD-19 pandemic across the world. The responses in Québec have taken a more visual turn than other parts of the world and. In the call for flashing lights, the balcony serenades, the hanging sheets, or the children’s rainbow drawings, we can observe a carving out of spaces of expression and solidarity through collective participatory… from home! The combination of social isolation, the need for keeping kids simultaneously calm and busy, a lack of outward forms of expressions, the impossibility to congregate in masses, and an uncertain economic future for many are influencing how people are using a space not normally used for expressions of this sort. What the balcony or window once represented (a private leisure space of a way to observe those walking by) has taken quite a turn in the past week.
These trends in visual productions might be a sign of what this period will bring out in us.