Digital Arts

Forbidden to Swim

Caroline Monnet

We moved over to the other side of the looking glass

Presented in a public space, Caroline Monnet’s installation Forbidden to Swim combines video, sculpture and sound in an effort to denounce the lack of access to safe drinking water in Canada’s indigenous communities. Critical of political unwillingness to address the situation, the artist aims to initiate a dialogue.



35,000 First Nations people live in Montreal, but their culture barely registers in the public space. "From that standpoint, Montreal is fifty years behind cities in Western Canada," observes the Franco-Anishnabée artist Caroline Monnet. She is proposing a remedy on this November evening under the Van Horne overpass. It is raining. There is talk about water. 150 Native communities do not have access to drinking water in Canada, regularly or on a permanent basis.

In Canada, the land of water and progressivism.

Caroline Monnet is part of that dual effect – invisibility and injustice. She speaks to the Montrealers that we are, immerged in the swirl of the city and the daily grind, insensitive to the discreet signs of history. Her message to us is to "be aware". She has designed an installation that strikes the eye and the soul. Many hours after leaving the site, the next day in fact, her work lingers in the mind.

There is something indelible in those images of church ceilings in Montreal that she projects under the overpass, ceilings that she filmed by turning the camera in circles so that the effect in kaleidoscopic: baroque rose windows, images of a crucified Jesus, colossal chandeliers, kitschy crosses illuminated by pink or blue light. Zoom-ins on paintings of thunder create a punitive, menacing effect, an image of being suppressed, as was the case for Native peoples for so long. Under that luminous, moving arch, Monnet has placed seven stacked blocks of ice that imprison children's clothing (small sweaters that are yellow, pink and green, black pants and skirts) and are now slowly melting under the lights. The ensemble evokes the genocidal tragedy of the Indian residential schools, where the representatives of Christian religions stripped young children of their cultural and family roots, of their mental structure – and from which their young charges sometimes attempted to flee, only to die in the cold and the snow. And then there is the sound, a dark, hypnotic soundtrack by the composer Daniel Watchorn, to which the artist whispers a poignant list of the impacts of the lack of drinking water and the communities concerned.

Sacred. Holy. Clean / Complex process / Dirty water / Sickness causing / Bathe. Irritates skin / Consume / Learn to live under water / A country with a reputation. Rights respecting / Disaster / Harmful water / Heavy metals / British Columbia. Twenty two/ Alberta. Nine / Saskatchewan. Twenty / Manitoba. Sixteen / Ontario. Eighty / Quebec. Three.

Forbidden to Swim is the name of her installation. It refers to the pollution of Canadian waterways, which is particularly acute in northern Canada due to intense extraction of natural resources. A small stand offers bottled water for sale at the price charged in isolated northern communities – double or triple the price found in cities. The proceeds will go to organizations fighting for safe drinking water. Spectators could also snack on bannock as they warmed their hands over a fire. 



So that our city at long last takes a good look into the depths of its soul, at what it was before becoming a vertical, swaggering urban mass,
we need noise
we need faces
we need conspicuous signs of the First Nations memory that has survived the centuries as well as traumatic devastation.

But we have something even better, much more – the Amerindians of today. We have the 70 Native organizations based in the city. But above all we have a resurgence of Montreal as an indigenous nexus, resuming the role of the island before streets, before the city, before the arrival of Europeans. The anthropologist and INRS professor Carole Lévesque states that "The Island of Montréal was for a long time a gathering spot where the Algonquin and Iroquois peoples met and traded goods. What I've noted recently is a return to that initial vocation, with Montreal now home to a strong presence of indigenous peoples from various First Nations bands. Amerindian culture in modern-day Montreal borrows from new avenues of expression. Rather than being a city where Natives are cut off from their roots, it is becoming a locality where their culture thrives, a place of rejuvenation."

We want to see this new reality flourish before our eyes. We want their history and their stories to be told, we want to be engaged by the negative and positive spaces of a story being written, and also with the battles yet to be fought. 


We want to remember what the Island of Montreal once was, a fertile triangle adjoining the pure waters of the river. We reassert the Iroquois roots of the territory, we acknowledge the vivid imprint of a prosperous people, we proclaim the need to place that history at the core of our citizenship.

We will no longer be led astray by the gentle breeze on our cheeks, nor by modern comforts. Now we know. Bound by the centuries, and by spirits and dreams, to the free-flowing rivers that nourished them, some Native communities live without access to drinking water. That is unacceptable.

We also believe that these peoples, whose heritage goes back to a time when we were all but elements in the amniotic great oneness, are our allies. In the struggles to come, in the fervour of the moment, we will join together.


Forbidden to Swim and Ecology

L'anthropologue Carole Lévesque et l'artiste Caroline Monnet évoquent la rencontre entre citadins, écologistes et autochtones, et le rôle de l'art dans cette démarche :

ID card

Caroline Monnet

Caroline Monnet

Caroline Monnet (b. 1985) is a multidisciplinary artist from Outaouais, Quebec, currently based in Montreal. She studied in both Sociology and Communication at the University of Ottawa (Canada) and the University of Granada (Spain) before pursuing a career in visual arts and films. Monnet is an alumnus of the Berlinale Talent Campus and TIFF Talent Lab 2016. Her films have been shown at numerous festivals around the world, including TIFF, Sundance, Berlinale and Cannes (Not short on talent). She was nominated for a Canadian Screen Awards for Best Short Drama for Roberta and won a Golden Sheaf Award at the Yorkton Film Festival for Best experimental film for Mobilize. She is currently developping her first feature film selected by the Festival de Cannes Cinéfondation residency in Paris. As a visual artist, she has exhibited her work at the Palais de Tokyo (Paris) and Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), as part of Rencontres Internationales (Paris/Berlin/Madrid), Axenéo7  (Gatineau), Plug In ICA (Winnipeg), Arsenal Montréal, McCord Museum, and Museum of Contemporary Art (Montréal) among others.


Co-production and co-diffusion

LA SERRE – arts vivants

Credits for the piece

Creation Caroline Monnet
Camera Eric Cinq-Mars
Assembly Marc Boucrot
Music Daniel Watchorn
Sound Stéphane Claude


Director and Editor Joël Morin-Ben Abdallah; 
Camera Isabelle Stachtchenko, Charlie Marois, Joël Morin-Ben Abdallah;
Sound Sophie Bédard Marcotte, Joël Morin-Ben Abdallah;
Filming was made possible thanks to the equipment provided by ON EST 10, solidarity co-op


Event Chloé Larivière
Portrait Ulysse Del Drago

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