Founded in 2006 by Nadia Duguay, an artist with a particular interest in accessibility and education, and François-Xavier Michaux, whose background was in management, engineering and economics, Exeko combines critical thinking, social analysis and creative activities to create new pathways to social and cultural inclusion for people experiencing marginalisation. The pair are still co-directors of the organisation, based in Montreal, leading a team of 32 and a network of over 100 volunteers. The bulk of its funding – just over 50% – is received from partners and foundations; roughly 25% is received in the form of municipal, provincial and federal money; and the rest is income generated through training, consultation and conferences.
Mission: achieving social inclusion through intellectual and cultural mediation
Although it expanded considerably within its first decade, initiating a multitude of research programmes and social change initiatives, everything Exeko does can be traced back to its first project, idAction. It was designed, says Duguay, to create “a link between critical thinking, social analysis and art actions” while working with inmates of a jail. The title of the project, which is ongoing although changed in form, carries within it a sense of movement: “from ID to action – ID as in identity and ideas”.
Their first step was to shape the “pedagogical approach: how do we create knowledge together, so it’s not me telling you what you need to learn? Our approach was to co-create with the inmates: we chose the content together, I designed it, then we put it on the table and critiqued together. We call this approach intellectual mediation.” Duguay still works with some of that first prison group to “develop and continuously grow” Exeko’s programmes, and has since taken the same basic idAction structure – practical workshops in art, philosophy and current affairs, “cultural mediation” with an emphasis on fostering critical thinking – to “schools, social centres, homeless centres, First Nations communities”, along the way designing new programmes specific to those settings. For instance, the Trickster programme links “Aboriginal elders and youth together through a series of workshops, from circus to storytelling, to think together on the role of identities”, culminating after three weeks with a stage production led by the young people.
Whatever the activity, Exeko has as its guiding principle a belief in “equality of intelligence”: a fundamental respect for the intelligence of all humans, regardless of their life situation, any learning difficulties, or the ways in which they have been marginalised by society. In a workshop on portraiture, for instance, the emphasis would be on participants and facilitators discussing together a set of portraits to analyse representation and how it affects the reading of identity in society, a collective reflection in which no voice is prioritised over any other. Exeko’s “theory of social transformation” begins with those who have been excluded, whether through homelessness, disability, mental health problems, identity, etc; all activities are designed to promote social inclusion and recognition of marginalised people within non-marginalised centres, for instance cultural organisations, with the eventual goal being to influence and affect change at policy level.
The language of social inclusion has been a constant through its existence; says Duguay: “Eleven years ago I was fighting to use ‘social inclusion’ instead of ‘social integration’ and people were telling me that everyone understands ‘integration’ better. But integration implies assimilation: inclusion means changing the norm to include everybody. Similarly, intellectual emancipation, thinking by yourself, involves looking at who is thinking for us and how can we be free of their thinking. Those two things together are really powerful tools for social transformation.”
One project leads to another
Each new programme that Exeko develops begins with an unanswered question within an existing project. For instance, it was when integrating idAction into community settings that the question was raised: “What about people who do not go into those centres?” That led to the creation, in 2012, of idAction Mobile, “our mobile hub: a philosophical and cultural caravan for particularly young and First Nation people in the situation of homelessness”. It carries out much the same activities as idAction but on the streets; packed into the van are books, magazines, notebooks and art materials, which can be used to initiate conversation and activities. Duguay explains: “We never just give someone an object: it’s a pretext for mediation. When you lend a book to someone you say a lot of things: you say you think they will understand it, they will read it, maybe one day they will have a conversation about its content. That’s the purpose of what we are doing.”
“We never just give someone an object: it’s a pretext for mediation. When you lend a book to someone you say a lot of things: you say you think they will understand it, they will read it, maybe one day they will have a conversation about its content.”
The lending of books created a new question: “People didn’t know what to do with them afterwards. We needed a place where they could put them back.” That led, in 2014, to Libre-library, a new network of permanent libraries in day centres plus an additional roving library, the Bibli-cyclette, a large crate of books transported by bicycle, all linked to the idAction Mobile van. Each micro-library has its own management: “Some want to receive the workshop and the books and that’s it, they are completely free to manage it how they want.”
Art activities initiated by idAction Mobile, meanwhile, led to Métissages Urbains, which also began in 2014. Shaped specifically for working in the streets, and the participation of all members of the public, homeless or otherwise, this is an artist-in-residency programme that invites people to collaborate on creating cross-disciplinary art works, as well as stimulating critical dialogue, not least on relationships within public space, and the concept of public space itself.
A cultural laboratory
In addition to its projects, Exeko runs three research labs, interrelated but individually focusing on culture, knowledge and democratic voice. Of the three, the most developed is Inclusive Culture: a project in partnership with the Groupe des Onze, a pre-existing association of 11 of the largest cultural organisations in Montreal (including the National Library and Archives, the Grands Ballets Canadiens, the Museum of Fine Art, the Opera, and Montreal Symphony Orchestra). The group involves both the general directors of each organisation and the heads of education, and Inclusive Culture – proposed to them by Duguay – responds to their pre-existing shared interest in how they might improve accessibility and engagement.
The research framework Duguay devised for Inclusive Culture has three phases, running simultaneously:
1: Analysis of the present “cultural politics on both sides, politics general and inside of the institution” on matters of “security, inclusion and accessibility”. This phase will include a study of the language of the institution’s website and programmes, as well as interviews with employees, to differentiate the “postures of social inclusion and what is really happening on the ground”.
2: Dubbed “invisible theatre”, this phase involves a team of “comedians, philosophers, sociologists, creating scenes of discrimination” within each institution. “We call them the limits: we know that some of them might receive some weird – or excellent! – response. We do an observation at the same time to see how the ecosystem reacts to those situations, and we include everybody in that: people who work for the institution and people who don’t, the audience.”
3: Exeko also works with “11 communitary services partners, each of them working with a different community experiencing a different place of exclusion, who are co-researchers with us. This brings a diversity of participants in situations of risk, or who have experienced social exclusion, including families and children, young dropouts, LGBTQ, homeless people, racialised people, newcomers to the territory, people living with a problematic mental health issue, or seeking reintegration through employment. We go and see shows, exhibits, depending on the organisation, and we critique from inside. It’s where we share our views, our perspective, but also our preconceptions on the accessibility of each institution. It’s a community of reflection: each time we attend an institution it’s the same people, so the more we go, the deeper we go into the process.” Each visit to an institution is followed by “three workshops: the first one thinks generally about the cultural accessibilities; then we analyse the framework of the show or exhibition, meeting the artist where possible; and at the third we regroup and figure out what would be our recommendation for change at the cultural institution, so we can feel it’s also our institution.”
“We go and see shows, exhibits, depending on the organisation, and we critique from inside. It’s where we share our views, our perspective, but also our preconceptions on the accessibility of each institution. It’s a community of reflection.”
These three phases run simultaneously for two years, and Duguay intends to use the resulting report to build “a new charter of cultural accessibility” with all the co-researchers – Groupe des Onze and community participants – plus the other partner on the project, the Canadian Commission of UNESCO. The ultimate hope is to build, again through a co-creative process with voices of excluded and marginalised people prominent, a “new institutional policy of integrated knowledge and social inclusion for cultural institutions”, which might be implemented not just in Montreal but across Canada.
Exeko’s two other research labs, inclusive voices and participatory democracy, are still at pilot phase and not yet developed, but are interested in looking at “many different situations in production of knowledge and accessibilities of knowledge: all the space between the production of art and co-creation”. For the participatory democracy pilot, Exeko has been looking at “democratic participation with a group of people who experienced it as social exclusion: they are really far away from any political activities, because it’s not for them”. Through a series of workshops, this group is invited to discuss, with a ministerial deputy, what laws or motions they might want to present to the National Assembly of Quebec, which the deputy could bring on their behalf. Again, Duguay describes this as “a community of reflection: democratic participation is with you now, what do you do with it? What do you want to say? What are the limits of each choice? It’s about conducting a period of transformation through a different process.” These labs will continue to be developed, as Inclusive Culture moves into its final reporting and policy-shaping phase.
Duguay is aware that Exeko’s ambitions are greater than its size, and although it has structured its activities into a “logical framework, which is how we decide to do or not do an activity inside the organisation”, there are “too many ideas right now”. One proposed solution is to “open a centre, or a school of critical literacy”; another is to install “an interactive screen” into each of its libraries, “so then we could link all our other projects in accessibilities of knowledge, in culture, through that screen”. If this could be done in partnership with cultural institutions, for instance, “any of them could say, there are two free tickets tonight for the opera, and somebody could touch it and have them. The possibilities of that are huge: I have dreamed for years now that teachers in university could decide that they have places left in their classrooms and give them away.” Exeko’s big issue at present is funding, and Duguay hopes to build up private donations to support its work.
(Image: Jan 2017, MikaelTheimer, MKL, courtesy of Exeko)