Multiple Identities

Text Louise Pelletier
Photos CCA unless otherwise noted

IDENTITY: [aIdentItI] n. The collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known.

Over the past two decades, the Canadian Centre for Architecture has been at the heart of a cultural transformation, brought about in part by changing tools of representation and communication, but also by the new role of museums as agents of cultural change. Architecture galleries around the world are attempting to bridge the gap between viewer and display in order to promote a more active participation of the public.

In this vein, the current display at the CCA claims to be more than a conventional exhibition. ABC : MTL presents itself as an evolving self-portrait of the city. The city appears in multiple guises in ABC : MTL, which offers a mosaic of impressions, an assortment of everyday moments, and a compendium of urban mapping strategies.

The fourth CCA exhibition of the past 20 years to focus on Montreal, ABC : MTL differs from its predecessors in form as much as intent. Opening the Gates of Eighteenth-Century Montréal (1992) explored the military and commercial foundations of the city, whereas Montréal Métropole, 1880-1930 (1998) focused on urban transformations with the appearance of the first skyscrapers. The 60s: Montréal Thinks Big (2004) examined the spectacular changes brought about by rapid growth during the 1960s.

While these earlier exhibitions considered pivotal moments in Montreal’s development, ABC : MTL acts as an ongoing investigation of what constitutes Montreal’s identity today. Instead of offering a unified historical narrative, it presents a multiplicity of fragments and stories of urban life. One of the intentions is to democratize the exhibition space by giving the public–“from city-shapers to city-users”–a say in defining the distinctiveness of the city. This is most evident in seemingly candid projects, such as SYN-collective’s mapping of the subterranean city or Arjuna Neuman and Ramak Fazel’s photographic documentary of their first encounter with Montreal. As curator Fabrizio Gallanti explains, “the identity of a place does not depend on a privileged minority, but [is rather] an unstable condition which is the result of a genuine polyphony of voices.”

Gallanti and his curatorial team gathered works in large part through an open call that invited “current Montreal citizens, former residents, newly arrived expats, travellers and visitors” to submit proposals. The only requirement was to suggest a “fresh interpretation and critical analysis of Montreal” that addressed the physical and spatial character of the present-day city. Several projects were also commissioned and selected outside the open call. The CCA has received some 250 proposals to date, and the display will draw on these submissions to evolve over time, changing monthly until the exhibition ends this spring. 

The broad scope of the selected projects is apparent from the first room, which presents abstract visions of the city. At the opening, it included Reminiscence by artist Nicolas Baier and Electrosmog by Jean-Pierre Aubé. Baier’s conjectural computer-generated image reconstructs the sky over the Greater Montreal region at the dawn of human life 10,000 years ago, while Aubé populates the metropolis’s night sky with electromagnetic field readings captured from radiowaves. This sound documentary of the cityscape raises social and political issues, especially among the strongly social-justice-oriented youth of Montreal, since radiofrequencies are seen by some as an essential resource and by others as a health hazard. 

The next room recreates a section from the bleachers of the abandoned Blue Bonnets Raceway. A film by Myriam Yates highlights the ephemeral condition of the former hippodrome. It shows the construction of a temporary structure for a U2 concert in 2011, the last show to take place on the site before its reclamation by the City for new development. Since the hippodrome site is currently at the centre of public consultations, it is significant that this room will serve as a stage for public discussions on issues raised by the exhibition. 

A string of three spaces combines projects on themes ranging from residual spaces, infrastructure and transportation, to voyeurism, homelessness and social activism. Related books are available for consultation on nearby tables, seemingly with the intention of instigating spontaneous exchanges between visitors. Some of the most successful pieces, however, invite a different kind of participation. They create imaginary places for poetic inhabitation through representing very real conditions. Jonathan Sa’adah’s panoramic The Tunnel of Death, for example, offers an improbable view of the intersection between d’Iberville Street and Saint-Joseph Boulevard, capturing the complex motions and “coexistence of infinite trajectories that share a common space of circulation,” while inviting the viewer to reflect on the nature of urban space.

The last room addresses issues of immigration and multiculturalism. Recordings of immigrants’ stories on the political situations they left behind, produced by Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, resonate with Audrey Wells’s documentation of 17 places of worship for various cultural communities in the Park Extension area, including converted former churches and buildings originally designed for other functions. In the same room, one finds a model of the only forthcoming architectural project featured in the exhibition: the winning competition entry for a soccer facility in Saint-Michel by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes and Hughes Condon Marler Architects. Located on the site of the former Miron quarry, which until recently was used as a landfill, the architects undertook to generate a “communal space of encounter around soccer,” using this increasingly popular sport to integrate recent immigrant communities.

Although one comes across many compelling views of the city, one encounters difficulty in trying to grasp the exhibition as a whole. This results from the heterogeneity of the juxtaposed pieces, their varying nature and temporality, and the missing narrative that would create meaningful links. All-encompassing, rationally conceived territorial views, such as maps documenting maritime and air traffic by Francisca Insulza, are juxtaposed with complex temporal pieces, such as Bridge by photographer Fiona Annis and artist Robin Pineda Gould. Their two-channel video evokes the tension between sky and water, the bridge itself appearing only in the imagination of the observer. Time is slowed down or accelerated and fleeting moments emerge, such as when the light starts to fade in the sky, or stagnant water is replaced by the countercurrent of the St. Lawrence River. 

For its part, the graphic presentation by Montreal firm FEED does not attempt to make explicit the conceptual association between different projects. Instead, an indexing strategy replaces descriptive panels and statistical data is deployed to give a pseudo-objective view of the city. 

If the main intention of the exhibition is to present a self-portrait of Montreal, ABC : MTL would seem to reveal a city of fragmented identity and anecdotal history. On the other hand, can the exhibition act as a platform to foster meaningful dialogue on current issues and encourage cultural change, as its creators also claim? 

The open call for proposals has contributed to democratizing the exhibition space and given a voice to the public. Ho
wever, by posing an open question, a process of aestheticization has been unavoidable. Some of the projects presented in the first iteration of the exhibition have potential to engage pressing social and political issues, from health and immigration to public developments and homelessness. If a real dialogue is to happen, however, these underlying questions need to be highlighted and opposing views must be confronted. Only then will the exhibition engage a significant debate about the current and future state of Montreal. CA

ABC : MTL continues at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until March 31, 2013.

Louise Pelletier is Professor and former Director of the Environmental Design program at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is the author of Architecture in Words and co-author of Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge.