Serving up empathy, one ladle at a time

“You don’t have to agree with one another to just be open and listen”


Annie Roy and Pierre Allard, co-founders of the Quebec-based art collective ATSA, or “When Art Takes Action,” will be serving 30 litres of seal soup on Thursday, char chowder on Friday and caribou minestrone on Saturday at Iqaluit Square. The artists’ interactive project, called “While Having Soup,” will give Iqaluit residents a chance to have spontaneous conversations with strangers over a fresh, hot meal on topics at the heart of the community. (PHOTO BY COURTNEY EDGAR)

Pull up a seat, dip in your spoon and make a new friend this week.

Iqaluit Square, in front of the elders’ centre, will be transformed into an open venue for an interactive art installation this Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The Quebec-based community art collective ATSA, or When Art Takes Action, is in town serving up seal and char soups with a creative purpose. The aim of the project is to invite conversation on cultural and social issues close to the hearts of Iqaluit residents.

“Le Temps d’une Soupe,” or “While Having Soup” is an ongoing project, founded in 2015 by the artists Annie Roy and Pierre Allard, which has travelled across the world, from Montreal to Burkina Faso to Beirut.

The objective: to encourage strangers to take part in spontaneous conversations on current issues in the community. To that end, Iqaluit Square will have 15 pairs of chairs ready for people to sit down and big vats of soup, courtesy of Inclusion Café.

The restaurant-style set-up in an open-air setting will provide a place for strangers to gather one-on-one for conversation, while sharing a culturally-relevant hot meal— for free.

The conversation, meant to last the length of time it takes to eat a bowl of soup together, will give everyone an opportunity to meet with people they may not otherwise encounter in their daily lives.

The soup is a pretext for the public to feel welcomed, Roy said. But you don’t need to eat the soup to participate and you don’t have to leave when the meal is over.

Through the notion of offering soup, Roy and Allard want Iqaluit residents to feel encouraged to share perspectives on tough issues and have a chance to see the world through a stranger’s eyes.

“They will share a moment together and say things that they would not say to someone they know very well, because sometimes when you are in front of someone you don’t know you have more courage,” Roy said.

“It sets the table, we can say.”

A conversation “menu” was selected during a meeting with elders on Tuesday, where they brought up broad topics like addiction, isolation, technology, language and loss of connection.

Each conversation will end with a photograph of the two new friends with a caption created from the consensus gleaned when the soup bowls are empty. These photographs will then become public portraits projected in Iqaluit Square and published on the web.

And if you’re camera-shy, don’t fret―the artists will allow you to be documented with just a hand or to hide your face behind a sign if you prefer. They just want a record of the project’s participants and a poetic sentence that summarizes the conversation shared.

Since this project started up, ATSA has run the soup installation in Montreal, Vancouver, Rennes, Graz, Hull, Ouagougou, Bobo Dioulasso, Beirut and Marrakesh.

In each community, the artists ensure that the soup ingredients are culturally significant and that the discussion topics are chosen by the residents as reflecting important issues.

In Beirut, conversations were mostly about how people live with religion and war, and how conflicts and oppression can change the relationship between people with different religions.

Roy says she has seen some lively debates break out on tough topics.

In the African nation of Burkina Faso, for instance, she remembers two people arguing over female genital mutilation. But the moderators, who act like “servers” at the outdoor restaurant, try to help steer sometimes-heated conversations to a place of understanding and acceptance.

“You don’t have to agree with one another to just be open and listen,” Roy said.

However, the results of the interactive art installation are meant to be constructive and typically are, she said.

In Montreal, Roy remembers one woman who suffered from social anxiety and was hesitant to take part, claiming she was too shy.

“She said she wouldn’t be an interesting person to talk to,” Roy said.

After some encouragement, the women took a chance and sat down for some soup with a stranger. Slowly but surely she opened up, Roy said.

In fact, according to Roy, she had such an amazing time that she returned the next day, even though it was a long walk for her, and met with more people. The woman came out of her shell, gaining confidence and overcoming self-doubt.

Roy also recalls observing a young person and an elder who met for the first time at the installation. One was very lonely and they seemed so different. But after sharing a soup conversation together, they became friends and continued to meet once a month to go out to cultural activities together.

Sometimes, Roy said, she will look over her shoulder and see the same people sitting and chatting with interest for hours.

“Right now in the world, with Facebook and with busy lives and maybe also globalization, sometimes we’re losing these face-to-face moments, and we have to relearn to take the time,” Roy said.

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