The Desert[ed]

Dusk in the city. You lock your bike on the rue des Carrires just north of the Canadian Pacific trunk line. This meandering road is important in the history of Montreal’s construction industry, since it began life as the connection between downtown and the Saint-Michel quarries. Today the street skirts the south end of Rosemont, a working-class outpost starting to feel the pressures of gentrification. You sidestep a talking car filled with sand by Argentinean artist Horacio Zabala. An enormous truck access ramp curves 10 metres overhead. You’re in.

Most Montrealers wouldn’t come to this neighbourhood if it weren’t for Champ Libre. Since 1992 the interdisciplinary creation and presentation arts group has advocated a provocative mix of technology, art and public space. You’re here for DESERT, their 6th Manifestation Internationale Vido et Art lectronique. The week-long festival took place in late September in the old garbage incinerator des Carrires. Inaugurated in 1970, it ceased operations in 1993 due to concerns about pollution. Given the building’s striking form, it’s surprising historical research has not uncovered the name of the architect. Its two 75-metre-tall chimneys dominate the skyline, rising from a 30-metre high box enlivened by ramps and pilotis, and clad in stripes of Paul Rudolph-inspired hammered concrete.

You pass under the truck ramp, descending a temporary wooden staircase to walk between a pair of video screens. You enter a dirty passageway about six metres wide, eight high, and 35 long, to look at Exit. It’s a video installation by Quebec artist Isabelle Hayeur, known for her large-scale photo-constructions of fictional places. Trucks used to haul away the ashes from here. Although it’s night, the opening at the other end is filled with the distant skyline of daytime Montreal viewed across a rocky desert, the moonlike landscape of Montreal’s Miron Quarry. You advance to look more closely at the flickering video screen. But as you approach, the building seems to slowly distend away from you. You arrive at the screen, but the image is as far away as ever. Exit.

Hayeur’s installation poignantly embodies Champ Libre’s laudable aspiration to use art to reassess the landscape left behind by obsolete industrial architecture. As General Director Ccile Martin explains, art’s accessibility helps politicians and the general public to imagine reusing and reprogramming marginal neighbourhoods. Earlier events animated Montreal’s subways and the abandoned CP train shops at Angus yards. The 5th festival was held in the former Craig Street Pumping Station under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, a site which may eventually become the organization’s permanent home. For DESERT, artists presented several ways of connecting art and architecture: inflatables (Occupants by Ana Rewakowicz), experimental architectural video (Mirage by Tom Balaban and Roland Ulfig), and landscape research (Mise en tas by VLAN Paysages with Pavel Pavlov).

Champ Libre commissioned architect Paul Laurendeau to orchestrate the installations and make the building suitable for (temporary) inhabitation. Not quite a construction project and not quite a stage set, Laurendeau calls his design a “metonymic scenography,” terms he elaborates as “the harmonization of…the incinerator with its containers, the installation and the artist’s works.” The organizers wanted spectators to visit the gigantic interior, especially the incineration pit, capable of holding 2,400 tons of waste. Public officials, however, deemed the building contaminated and unsafe. In the end, Laurendeau concentrated the installations outside around the entrance and in a series of industrial containers along the access ramp. At the top of the ramp, artists hold video presentations in the mouth of the garbage pit. Dramatically lit, the promenade up the ramp offers stunning and unusual viewpoints on the incinerator and the city.

There’s a curious rumour that the incinerator may soon be turned into condominiums. When I mention it to Champ Libre’s dynamic Artistic Director Franois Cormier, he sighs with exasperation. “Montreal needs housing, so they want to turn every building into condos,” says Cormier. “Here, we were able to really involve the community, families and kids and so on, people who would never normally go to art shows, or to the incinerator.” Louise Pelletier, who sits on the board of directors, seconds Cormier’s optimism. “It seems that whenever a building becomes vacant, whether it be a church, a warehouse, or an abandoned school, all conversion proposals gravitate around condos or some form of housing,” says Pelletier. “Champ Libre provokes debates about the future of these architectural ruins.”

In fact, the TAZ, a Montreal community organization whose former downtown skateboard/roller rink was summarily demolished to make way for the new Quebec national library, had hoped to open a multidisciplinary youth activity centre in the incinerator this year. But according to Martin, government support for the move has evaporated, partially due to concerns about decontamination costs.

Even if DESERT will never resolve the fate of the incinerator, it surely puts the problem on Montreal’s agenda. Champ Libre estimates that over 10,000 people have come by to see the work of 125 artists from 20 countries, many taking part in guided tours, workshops and lectures. For regulars on Montreal’s electronic arts scene, such installations are quite common. For others, they’re magical. For architects in particular, DESERT is a model of how designers anxious about urban space can collaborate fruitfully with creative (rather than technical) partners under an international spotlight to resuscitate decaying infrastructure.

Are you in?

David Theodore is a Research Associate and College Lecturer at the McGill University School of Architecture.