Taking it to the Streets

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“The Nest,” an early October installation by Chih Chien Wang

It glowed amid its sombre surroundings, a giant Lego-brick lantern underneath the Van Horne Viaduct. For three weeks this fall, Chih-Chien Wang’s installation The Nest was hosted by the artist-run centre Dare-Dare in a space at the corner of St. Laurent Blvd. and Van Horne Ave. that has been dubbed The Park With No Name.

Wang assembled his nest using cardboard boxes, painted white on one side and stacked in the shape of a cube. Inside, amid the glare of white fluorescent lights, visitors could hear and feel the sounds of the viaduct overhead.

“(It is) a way to connect people and the city through an organic experience. This is a place where people and city come together,” proclaimed Dare-Dare’s written on-site introduction to the installation.

Ultimately, though, the way people interacted with his art was a surprise to Wang.

“Kids actually came here to smoke. They were very careful and didn’t throw their cigarettes away inside,” said Wang one afternoon as he swept the ground outside the nest. “People also like to drink inside at night. The sound wasn’t too bad.”

One overnight visitor even left behind a drink, a paper bag and, bizarrely, two perfectly assembled hairballs.

Wang’s installation is part of a new wave of public art that reflects – and draws inspiration from – the city’s urban landscape. It is ephemeral, designed to last only temporarily, and it draws heavily from the aesthetic and philosophy of street art.

This past summer, also in collaboration with Dare-Dare – an organization that helps artists develop their projects and bring art out of galleries and into public space – the Dutch artist Franck Bragigand painted the manhole covers along Bernard and St. Viateur Sts.

“It was (meant) to rethink the object by putting some action around it. I don’t want to add more things and objects in a city but to rethink what exists. I paint with respect for the object, following the existing lines and shapes of the manhole,” Bragigand wrote in an email from France, where he was travelling.

Using simple patterns and bold colours, Bragigand highlighted easily overlooked details like the unique checkerboard pattern of some covers or the inscriptions, such as Montreal Conduits or Hydro-Québec on others. On a larger scale, his work adds an unexpected burst of colour to the Mile End sidewalks.

“It’s the restoration of daily life,” said Jean-Pierre Caissie, Dare-Dare’s artistic director. “It makes ordinary objects, manhole covers, pop up.”

For several years, Dare-Dare has roamed around the city – headquartered first at Viger Square and now in a trailer under the viaduct – encouraging the kind of art that draws upon an outdoor urban context.

“We each have different ways of approaching public space,” said Caissie.

Karen Spencer approaches it with dreams. Last November, Dare-Dare launched a year-long project that sees Spencer write about her dreams on large sheets of cardboard, in English, French and Spanish, that she scatters throughout public space in Montreal.

Some are cryptic (“I dreamed I criticized J.J. for falling improperly”) while others are disturbingly familiar (“Soñé que mis dientes estaban en mi boca” – I dreamed my teeth were falling out of my mouth).

“The project started in Paris,” explains Spencer. “I had an apartment that was up above a kind of outdoor, covered corridor, and on this corridor each night about 20 men slept.

“Early in the morning the men were gone, the corridor was washed down, and absolutely no trace of their existence remained.”

At the same time, Spencer was having vivid dreams, and she began to see a connection between her dreams and the appearance and disappearance of the “dreamers” below her.

Spencer chooses a variety of locations to place her cardboard inscriptions. “It’s a way of working within the city as if the city were a social landscape that can be commented upon, or informed through an action,” she said.

“So rather than paint or sculpt space I work within the so-called ‘real’ to alter it ever so slightly.”

Public reaction to her work has been varied.

“Thumbs up. Taunts. Confessions of similar dreams. Called crazy. Shy smiles. Money offered. Nods of encouragement. Beautiful. Weird,” she recalls.

Although her collaboration with Dare-Dare has ended, Spencer’s work will continue in the summer as part of the Mount Royal Ave. merchants association’s annual art festival, Paysages Éphémères. The Rue des rêves will see the dreams of Mount Royal Ave. residents – including the homeless – posted along the street’s balconies, storefronts, fences and other spaces.

“The Rue des rêves inserts itself into the daily lives of citizens, creating a link between the public and the artist. It implicates them in the project and creates the possibility they themselves become artists,” said Michel Depatie, Paysages Éphémères’ artistic director.

Since it was launched in 2005, the annual art festival has focused on installations that are as fleeting as summer itself. Last year, giant lawn chairs were installed outside the entrance to Mont Royal métro; this year, stencils bearing the name of each of Mount Royal’s cross-streets, along with a stylized portrait and a brief explanation of the name’s origin, were painted on its sidewalk.

“Ephemeral art upsets and surprises the quotidian. It’s a different rapport than with normal public art. There’s a random element that surprises people,” says Depatie.

“But there are still traces. It stays in the mind.”

This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2007 edition of the Montreal Gazette.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday November 29 2007at 03:11 pm , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Taking it to the Streets”

  • factotum says:

    I came across one of Karen Spencer’s cardboard inscriptions earlier this fall, so I was interested to find out about her and her projects. The piece that I found was on a chain link fence around the burned out church at the corner of Saint Jacques and de Courcelle, diagonally across from the statue of Louis Cyr. A photograph of the cardboard inscription is included in my photoblog here
    http://moblog.co.uk/view.php?id=282364
    It says
    I DREAMT J.J.
    TURNED TOWARDS
    …. HELD ME
    ….SED ME. I
    WANTED TO STAY
    THIS WAY FOREVER.

  • […] marginal spaces seem to hold particular appeal for its artists. Last year, Karen Spencer decorated fences, laneways and parking lots with her oblique trilingual dreams; Julie Favreau and Caroline Dubois occupied a vacant storefront […]