Tag Archives: Montréal Public Art

Corridart; Charney’s Oeuvre Going Up & Coming Down

Found this video on the CCA’s YouTube Channel, a film n’ funk track I feel is somewhat representative of experimental documentary film from mid-1970s Canada. It shows the construction and demolition of Melvin Charney’s primary installation for Corridart, the cultural component of the 1976 Montréal Olympics deemed unfit by Mayor Drapeau but a few days after completion (and prior to the opening ceremonies).

As deemed unfit, grotesque, inappropriate by Drapeau the Autocrat, it was completely and utterly destroyed, largely in one overnight sweep when city workers, escorted by police and firefighters destroyed everything with blowtorches and various others pieces of heavy equipment.

For the uninitiated Corridart was quite literally a corridor of art and culture that stretched along Sherbrooke Street from Atwater to Pie-IX, with diverse installations positioned along its length, in addition to indicators of major cultural institutions and temporary performance venues and other facilities and exhibits located on the thoroughfare. It was the cumulative effort of sixty or so well-known local artists and was designed to feature nearly 700 performers of all manner, to entertain the masses moving from the city to the olympic park and back again along a principle ‘showcase street’ (and rightfully so; we’re a city of great and grand streets, avenues, boulevards and thoroughfares, and Sherbrooke is truly of the greatest, most diverse and multi-faceted streets we have). There was a psychogeographic component as well, in that a bridge of culture and ‘linear, public art-happening’ connected disparate parts of the city for the sake of the many tourists moving from the Games to their hotels. The Olympic Stadium was, in a sense, further away from the city than as it is today, as you can see in the video the city itself and its concentration of services was much smaller and further west in 1976.

Charney’s installation went up at the corner of St-Urbain and Sherbrooke in part of a parking lot than it now the UQAM Western Residence. The buildings on the east side of the street are still there, and from what you can see in the video, the area has ‘fattened up’ quite significantly in the last thirty-seven years. From what I’ve read and seen a considerable portion of the more central and eastern parts of today’s ‘downtown’ business district was little more than massive parking lots back in the day, all of which have since been converted into more useful things, like hotels, condos, institutional buildings, government offices and class-A office space.

The installation was a representation of the facade of the buildings directly across the street, though reversed as though to produce a mirror image. It was, in part, a statement concerning the drive to tear down old buildings in the city centre seemingly to do nothing more than create parking lots, a statement that irked Mayor Drapeau. Other installations included a replica of the cross atop Mount Royal laid on its side on McGill Campus, over-sized Mickey Mouse hands pointing, almost accusingly, at municipal offices, an audio recording played over loud speakers detailing the cost of the Games to local taxpayers, an apocalyptic bomb shelter entrance. All that said, no one expected Drapeau to destroy so much art. That was the sting – Drapeau felt that since the works had been commissioned by the city it was his right to destroy them, and thus few outside the artistic community directly implicated in Corridart’s creation ever got to see what it looked and felt like.

Drapeau was an ass.

It’s too bad, because had it not been destroyed I think we’d have different memories of the Games – after all, its the festival atmosphere and public art that many remember most fondly when discussing Expo 67.

Corridart wouldn’t make too much sense today, as it was very much intended to be a criticism of its time and place, but the concept of creating cultural bridges through the use of installation art and/or linear concentration of venues (or any combination thereof) is nonetheless one I still find very fascinating and think is very much applicable, novel and rather distinguishing.

After all, we spend a lot of time walking around in climate controlled corridors and our museums keep nearly their entire collections in storage as they lack the physical space to exhibit them; let’s extend the galleries underground.

Corridart’s enduring legacy, that art can be used to direct people’s physical movements, is one I’d like to see far better implemented into our overall city design. A more direct reconstruction of Corridart, based on similar themes and seeking to establish a cultural corridor along Sherbrooke for the benefit of tourists and the artistic community alike could be rewarding endeavour, especially if part of the street were converted for pedestrian only-access over a long weekend. People just love walking down streets normally clogged with cars – there’s a very liberating feeling in it, as though the city suddenly had a new common ground.

But of course, such things require a mayor who isn’t afraid of public art. For all he managed to accomplish, I think Drapeau flinched and showed his true colours when he ordered Corridart’s demolition. It’s an insecure man who finds himself threatened by artistic commentary, even if it is scathing.

Let’s be sure, when we head top the polls in November, we choose a mayor who isn’t afraid of a little art.

Shakespeare in Cabot Square

Cabot Square in the Fall – not my work

How fortunate my mistake.

I was originally supposed to see Repercussion Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew in Verdun, but had mixed-up the dates. Seeing how few dates were left, I proposed Friday August 3rd, in Cabot Square. It would be a nice way to cap off the week, and a picnic was planned for the occasion.

But wait – Cabot Square? Come again?

They can’t be serious!

My previous encounters with the summer delight that is Shakespeare in the Park had been in the broad green expanses of Westmount Park and NDG Park, places I assumed had been designed with outdoor theatre in mind. Cabot Square is run-down, the whole area is, and the park is typically filled with a wide assortment of people living on the edge doing their edgewise living. It’s far more a public square than park, as the design supports pedestrian through-traffic. There’s not much grass and you’d be wise to watch where you sit – broken beer bottles being the least of your concerns. It isn’t pretty, and I wondered whether the busy and hectic backdrop of entertainment complexes, bus stops and a hospital would, combined, have a detrimental effect on the quality of the performance?

I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I’m delighted to see just how effectively urban public theatre can quickly and rather decisively transform an otherwise unsightly part of town. Despite the background noise and the limitations of the space, Repercussion Theatre did an exemplary job entertaining well over a hundred enthusiastic spectators. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that they came mentally prepared for the site, something I found rather fascinating, and knew ahead of time to expect the unexpected and unpredictable. Good on them too, it worked quite well. Perhaps these are just the hallmarks of talented actors, but I digress.

The set itself was minimalist and easily transportable, and stationed on the slightly more spacious eastern side of the square, with the majority of the audience seated in collapsable chairs by the Cabot monument. This left a fair bit of open space undisturbed by the performance, and kept it disconnected from the busier western side (where you’ll find several more bus stops and the always boisterous Métro entrance). With the position of lights, seats, picnic tables and a couple fold-down tents, the area for the performance was clearly delineated without requiring any actual obstructions, such as fences, folding tables or security guards. In this way, it was far more inviting than it might be otherwise. That said, there are risks involved, such as having the performance disrupted by yahoos running amok in the city. But hey, c’est la vie. Excellent actors make all the difference.

I met a few friends after a long day of work, all of us well-dressed and keen to participate in a moment of public culture. We sat down stage left and enjoyed a sumptuous picnic of fine Indian cuisine from Thali and a nice Portuguese white wine whose name escapes me at the moment. Joining us was probably the best behaved racing hound I’ve ever met; didn’t make a sound the entire time and seemed to be legitimately relaxed around so many people. The show got off without a hitch and it was immediately apparent that this was a well-oiled machine, having done more than a dozen earlier performances. I recognized several actors off the bat, having somewhat come up in the milieu of Montréal’s Anglophone theatre community. And on that note, Repercussion does excellent work and I’m glad to see that despite the many difficulties experienced by this community over the years, it nonetheless keeps itself going with vibrant well-executed productions and talented actors. We’re rather fortunate in this respect.

The eruption of amplified human voices at ten past seven got the temporarily re-located public drinking enthusiasts going early, and shouts coming from the edge of the square would occasionally compete with the dialogue, but never enough to trip anyone up. Halfway through the first act one of these enthusiasts approached the stage enquiring ‘you wanna kill somebody? you… you… wanna kill some buddy, eh?’

All of a sudden an audience member appeared by the drunk’s side and seemed to be going in for a kiss. His hand was on his shoulder and he seemed to be whispering to him, and after an initial protest the intrepid spectator reached further down for his waist. He quickly silenced the drunk and got him to move away without a fuss. I would find out later the spectator was in fact just that, an average citizen watching the show who had the wherewithal and requisite gumption to prevent a greater disturbance. I was quite impressed to say the very least. Suffice it to say if you think I get a kick out of organized citizens reclaiming urban space, I’m certainly overjoyed to see the disorganized amongst us stepping up at the crucial moment to assist in prolonging the reclamation of urban space by the citizenry.

Discussing the matter after the show with our intrepid peacemaker, he remarked how much more authentic a setting Cabot Square really is for this kind of entertainment, as compared to the manicured lawns and genteel manners of other public spaces used in this year’s production. It dawned on me at the moment that Cabot Square was rather apropos. Much like back in the 16th century, the people brought their own chairs, booze, food, dogs, whole families etc. and occasionally people would rather impetuously interfere with the goings on. Midway through the second act a fistfight occurred just behind the stage – no actors were harmed during the production though despite some rather raucous slapstick between local mainstays Alex McCooeye (Petruchio) and Matt Gagnon (Grumio). Kirsten Rasmussen delivered an excellent performance as the intensely independent and free-spirited (if somewhat overly scandalized) Katharina, and her well-timed command of Shakespearian double-entendres and innuendo gave way to excited bursts of laughter from parents with unknowing children in tow. Shakespeare, when un-Disneyfied, can be immensely entertaining for all ages and has always seemed to me to reveal itself to be increasingly complex, intricate, as one’s command of the English language expands and evolves. Repercussion’s cast paid a loving tribute to the Bard in this respect, and it was very well received from all in attendance.

I definitely want more of this.

Please Mr. Mayor, I want some more… public art.

So I’m a big fan of the Art Nouveau style, especially the works of Czech artist and interior decorator Alfons Maria Mucha. So as you might imagine, I was quite impressed when my brother told me about a new mural that had gone up recently in NDG at the corner of Madison and Sherbrooke Street West. You can read all about the A’shop graffiti crew’s work on this mural here.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed some interesting new murals have gone up, like the one on the side of the Old Brewery Mission (which can be seen from Viger and St. Laurent) or the one on the wall next to Briskets on Beaver Hall Hill near Boul. René-Lévesque. There are public art gems all over the city, some official, some less so. A personal favourite is the portrait of René Lévesque just in from Stanley across from the Odyssey book store – you’d never see it unless you were attracted to exploring back alleyways in the first place.

That said, there’s also an inordinate amount of shitty graffiti and tagging (like scrape tagging, bane of plexiglass everywhere) which is causing small business owners and landlords a fair bit of consternation, given that the City tries to get them to foot the clean-up bill and will fine those who don’t take care of the problem immediately. This isn’t entirely fair, though the City wants to encourage property owners to take the necessary precautions to prevent vandalism, such as installing lights in darkened areas around buildings, not to mention using motion detectors and exterior paints that allow for easy graffiti removal etc. Typically, property owners are disinclined from doing such things, given the added costs, and instead ask that the City provide more public security, if not police, to prevent vandalism.

I personally think this is a waste of tax-payer money; police need to focus on real crimes and public security, well frankly they could use a gigantic chill pill. Some kid tagging a building is hardly akin to an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, though given the actions of some law enforcement, you wouldn’t know it. Clearly property owners have a responsibility to keep their buildings well lit, and generally speaking this is the best way to deter vandals or up-and-coming artists with a lack of canvas.

That said, the City also has a responsibility to try and sift through the masses and figure out who has actual artistic talents. Our city’s artists need places to hone their skills and craft, and when it comes to graffiti, we have a lot of ugly white/beige/grey walls that could use some public art. The City should solicit graffiti artists and art collectives to decorate our big blank walls – we have far too many of them. Small discounts on taxation or utility costs to property owners would be an excellent incentive, and a further treatment of finished murals could prevent them from being damaged by vandals, the elements etc. If we were to take this a step further, we would secure abandoned properties to be used by graffiti artists so that they can practice. But we need to go about this in a more enlightened fashion.

I think we can all agree, graffiti is a legitimate artistic style and medium. That it is still commonly, subconsciously, thought of being akin to vandalism is unfortunate, but this is merely another reason for the City of Montréal to come out ahead and try doing things a different way.

Murals such as the one above aren’t merely impressive, they can increase land value (for what should be obvious reasons), and offer necessary outlets for the vital creative class within our community. Apply this on a city-wide scale and we might be able to put a real dent in ‘vandalism’ while offering bored kids a method of expressing themselves. Moreover, if the City were to secure abandoned properties to be used for this purpose, we can prevent kids from getting killed in train and Métro tunnels. R.I.P. Jays.

Speaking of which – when the Métro was originally designed, public art and art of a particular historical/socio-cultural significance was featured prominently in each station. This is still largely the case, though I find there are still plenty of drab concrete walls that could be spruced up. Point is, whatever investment funds are necessary to stimulate the creative class and support new public art projects is really a drop of water in an immense bucket. Such an investment will lower the crime rate, provide creative outlets to inner city youth, increase property values and generally brighten people’s days. If a crowd can be formed to watch a demonstration or the demolition of a building, then they will certainly congregate to see some public art.

Ultimately, it’s an investment in ourselves.

Final thought: Grain Silo No. 5 as an immense mural (with at least one part featuring a trompe-d’oeuil giving the perspective of what’s on the other side).

We’re not doing much else with it, so why not? We could probably get every single artist in the City working on it at the same time. It would certainly generate a lot of buzz in the art world.

So please Mr. Mayor, I want some more public art in my city. Let’s give the creative class, the guts of our society, a real stimulus package.