Interview: The Letter Bet's Shah Kash
The Letter Bet’s Shah Kash on making an art space like (the best parts of) the internet
Words— Ben Kriz
Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko
“You could have no money, but with your phone, it’s this bright white box and it opens up your world and makes everything look so perfect. I thought we should make the bright white box. I wanted to bring the internet to life,” Shah says.
Bringing the internet to life. Depending on your view of the world, that’s either incredibly exciting or incredibly terrifying. But for Shah Kash, 42, independent owner of Montreal art space The Letter Bet, it’s so obvious from the first time you meet him that his version of the internet is going to be the former. It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be tasteful, it’s going to be positive. That’s what it’s like when you step inside his world, as he puts it "a weird little corner of the city". The positive energy hits you and it’s infectious. Shah talks fast and he acts fast. This demeanour is probably why he has taken the Letter Bet from an empty storefront to one of the most exciting art spaces in Canada in just a handful of years.
Every three weeks, the Letter Bet invites a Canadian artist of their choosing into their space and puts on a show. They support the artist and the space with merchandise they produce in collaboration with the artist (and via the space’s professional screen-printing facilities), they serve drinks and coffee for their guests, and simply make art accessible for anybody and everybody who cares to see it.
It’s a modern approach to a modern art space. And on top of that, Shah runs his business as environmentally conscious as he can. He breaks it down as what he puts in his body and on his body. For the drinks: only Canadian-made biodegradable and compostable containers made from plant matter and bottled water from Montreal’s Hochelaga neighbourhood in glass bottles. To clean the space: only natural supplies like double-dose vinegar, water, and baking soda. And finally, the screen-printing paints and inks: water based inks rather than plastic-based with locally-made t-shirts. “It’s little things,” he says. “It’s not set in stone, it’s constantly changing, and I’m always looking for better versions but I don’t believe to be in business to sell things that you won’t consume yourself.”
We visited Shah at The Letter Bet and chatted about art, the natural progression from having a screen-printing business to an art space, the community he tries to connect with, and where his drive to be eco-friendly comes from.
The Letter Bet is many things in its young existence, but what is it for you?
It’s a space that’s open to everybody. Any art form and any installation that’s well thought out and well executed. I felt what was lacking in the city was that we had all these communities that were online, these Instagram pages that would constantly change and highlight people momentarily. In my generation, the concept of community was like we’d go hang out somewhere. There’d be a community centre.
I thought we should make [a place] for people so they can come and they can feel like they’re part of a community and they can put their work up and feel how glamorous it is versus looking at their phone. It’s inspired by people, like all my friends who were around me. I thought, all these guys do all this dope shit but they have nowhere to do anything. That’s the baseline truth of this space.
On your website, you have a bit of a slogan that sticks out to me. It says: “Don’t be shy, it’s only art.” Art galleries often connote an elitist mentality. That’s not the vibe I’m getting when I step into The Letter Bet.
I grew up in a time where I was an outcast. I was like that weird dude. I know that we live in a homogenous time where there’s no more subculture and we’re all together and everybody is kind of this mixed hybrid of like a skateboarding Lil’ Wayne. But still, there were times where I’d go and want to see art. I’d walk into a space and nobody would talk to me! Nobody would explain anything. It was weird.
I realized that I’m living in a time where everyone has literally stolen everything from the cultures that I grew up from [music, skateboarding, street art]. Everybody uses it, but nobody is helping people like us or giving us a space where we feel comfortable. So I walk into these fancy galleries that are selling street art. It’s street art that’s done by people that look just like me or you or him but they’re not actually catering to us. And they decide when we’re good enough for the stuff we do.
We decide what is good or not. I’m not down with the old ethos. And that’s why The Letter Bet is not a gallery. The Letter Bet is an art space.
I was about to ask what the difference is between the two for you.
A gallery has rules. They’ll say to an artist, oh I have to represent you, you have to be this kind of art. I don’t have to be anything.
I [as the art space owner] don’t need to represent [artists]. [Artists] have the internet, they’re going to sell their stuff anyway. You, as an artist, are a free agent in this world. One day if I can lead you into other paths because of my personal environment and where we’re from and all the great people we’re associated with I will. Sean Brown [who exhibited at The Letter Bet] is now in the Royal Ontario Museum, for example. That’s better for me and the mantra that we run here than the traditional restrictions of the gallery.
So you would describe it as an artist-led space?
I’d say it’s an artist appreciation space. Because for that period of time while you’re here we’re paying homage to you and your work. We want to show as much as we can of you on our different avenues. You as an artist don’t really have to manage it. We’re here for you. I also make sure we facilitate and expand on your ideas of the install so that we can help contribute to your success as an artist. It’s not really an artist-run space, but it’s an artist-inspired space.
What kinds of shows do you generally like to put on?
There are no restrictions. Every show has to be different. I would love to touch a chord in every community. If you look at my track record so far, with the incredible diversified team I have here, I touch the Anglo/Franco community, every grouping of sexuality, religion...I want to make sure we touch everyone because in my age group and in the new subculture of no subculture, everyone exists together. So my number one mandate is that there are no exceptions as long as it’s good in its lane. And who decides that it’s good? For real—it’s us. It’s not the art guy or the review in the magazine, it’s the people that live in our city and how they appreciate that particular thing.
Personally, what let you to open this space? What was your journey to that point?
Retail, manufacturing, events that I was doing and then at the end and I was at Trdmrk [Shah’s former screen-printing company] and I looked around and was like, I started this company to make my own brand 10 years ago, but forgot to make my own brand. I’m producing everyone’s stuff except my own stuff. I was a rapper. I was involved with opening [Montreal streetwear store] OTH. I was booking shows until Evenko was created and now it’s like ahhh can’t compete with Evenko, so I left in ‘05,’06.
So why art in the end?
Because if you think about it, everything I just talked about is art, even the retail...the clothes that I would sell at the time were visually stimulating. What we do every day is art so I wanted a space that shows that and can be non-biased so that all these different people around me make me feel like I gotta do a little bit better. It’s an accumulation of all my life experiences to give that white box that we talked about, that internet feed, to allow us to put those images up into our lives.
When you talk about community do you mean more like-minded individuals or this specific community here in Saint Henri.
I used to have a friend, I have a lot of friends who complain all the time...about how this city sucked. And one time when I was tired of hearing about it, I told him: we are at the age where we make the decisions on how this city sucks. If we don’t make the changes from the education we have, we will always be unhappy.
I started in this neighbourhood with the screen-printing and that’s why it’s important to me to come back. Saint Henri is an interesting example because I didn't grow up with a lot of money and one day a really smart guy I admire, my friend Justin said to me: you know why you like basketball? Because you got to see Michael Jordan. As a kid from the hood, you got to see that. Do you know what you do for the underprivileged kids around here? You get to let them see artists who look like them and that may be their Michael Jordan. Is it about Saint Henri? Yes. Is Saint Henri about Montreal? Yeah man, it’s about us as people so the community is as far as I can stretch my arm out. The community is whoever wants to be in it.
What’s your advice to somebody who wants to start buying art who maybe isn’t too sure about it?
My honest opinion is to buy what makes you feel something. Nothing else really matters. I don’t really think that anybody really knows what is the fanciest, the highest form of, the best or the worst. I see guys who have exceptional technique that get no market value and then I see people doing very basic stuff who are exceptionally and highly praised. Just like sneaker culture, sometimes we ask ourselves why are these $1,400 and these ones only $90? I’m not here to decide that. My true opinion is that as long as you are so in love with [a piece of art] and every time you look at it makes you feel like what you need to feel–that’s what I would buy.
You’re clearly a guy who loves him some garms, is that where the screen-printing and merch component to the Letter Bet comes from?
I come from clothing. I come from the thirst of new Nikes. I’m a result of the 1990s marketing geniuses. I think that’s where the merch and everything come from. I spent 10 years screen-printing. People treat screen-printing like it’s fucking photocopying. No, my dude, it’s a craft. To do high-level screen-printing is an art in itself.
If I do make a new place, in the back through a glass window of some sort, I want them to see how technical and intelligent a guy has to be to produce a multiple coloured image or take a picture and turn it into a screen print.
And you use water-based paints for the screen-prints. It’s great that, even though you’re small, you’re taking the steps to be as green as you can. Where does the eco-conscious part of the space come from?
It’s been a thing personally for me for about 12 years. The Letter Bet reflects the inside of my home and how I consume products. For example, I’ve eliminated plastics from my life. [My wife and I] used to drink two-litre waters. You drink two a day that means in a week you’re producing 21, that also means in a month I’m sitting on a 100 big bottles easy out of my house and then I look at the rest of my street I was like, wow there’s 9 houses on each side that’s 18, that’s 1,800 if everybody is drinking that same amount—only on my street! I was like, I can’t be a part of this. That’s why we made the change internally and started from there and then I started applying it to everything. I was looking at the washroom and I told my wife “your hands are too beautiful; I don’t want you to use this nasty product” (not to mention toxic cleaners getting into our water system). It all basically transcends from personal life experiences.
I know it’s not like groundbreaking information, but the reality is that all the things I can do for my business and my team and my family I’m going to do. 20 more minutes cleaning the bathroom really isn’t that bad. There are no chemicals and my bathroom is white as hell.
What for you is good living?
Free time. You can have all the money in the world, all the things you want, but if you don’t have free time, you’re not truly wealthy.