March 2nd, 2008

Underground Art

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Interior Space by Christopher DeWolf
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Axel Morgenthaler’s “.98.” Video by Matt McLaughlin

It becomes obvious as soon as you enter the métro car: this will be no ordinary ride. The usual advertisements and bright orange colour have been replaced by a dark blue, wood-textured film covering the car’s interior walls. Distorted, semi-transparent photos are pasted on the windows. As the métro doors close, eerie music starts playing, followed by the mournful wail of a fog horn.

Nowhere are the odd sounds and visuals explained, which is exactly what artist Rose-Marie Goulet wanted when she created Point de fuite, an unprecedented art project that has been riding the rails of the métro’s Orange Line since last September. When she first teamed up with the Montreal Transit Corp. to create the installation, in 2006, she insisted that it not be labelled explicitly as an art project.

“It’s by chance that you come across this car,” Goulet explained. “People aren’t expecting it, that’s what’s important.”

At Henri Bourassa station, meanwhile, métro riders have even more unusual art to consider: .98, a new light mural that was inaugurated last April. Located in one of Henri Bourassa’s long corridors, the mural consists of several dozen LED lights programmed to change colours and blink in different patterns.

Art has been part of Montreal’s métro since the system first opened in 1966. In some ways, with its abundance of sculptures, murals and unique architectural details, it is a vast underground gallery through which hundreds of thousands of commuters just happen to pass every day. What makes .98 and Point de fuite stand out is the way they engage métro riders in unorthodox ways.

When lighting designer Axel Morgenthaler was commissioned to create a new work of art in the Henri-Bourassa station, he wanted to make something unusual that would grab the attention of harried commuters.

“Most art in the métro is very static. Once it’s built, it just collects dust. It’s a very tough place for art to survive and be noticed,” he said. “If you take the métro every day and things are just there, you don’t notice them anymore. I was told that I had 10 seconds to grab people’s attention, because that’s how long it takes them to walk by, but when I actually went to the site and looked at traffic patterns I realized that 10 seconds is very generous. It’s more like two seconds.”

.98 is Morgenthaler’s response to the métro’s challenging environment. Dynamic, with constantly changing patterns of light and colour, yet seamlessly integrated into the station’s stainless steel walls, its effect is subtle but lasting.

“I tried to make it so that it stays fresh over dozens of times of passing by,” he explained. “I wanted to have something that is almost subconscious, that you catch a glimpse of and you feel relaxed. It’s like I grab your attention for a second, grab your head, and turn it back. It’s almost like a chiropractic move.”

Point de fuite makes a similar attempt to change the métro-riding experience. When Goulet transformed the métro car in collaboration with the sound designer Chantal Dumas, her goal was to bring the experience of street-level Montreal underground. Goulet’s photos of streetscapes, graffiti and buildings create part of the effect, but Dumas’ soundtrack completes it.

Along with music and sounds from the streets of Montreal, the 58-minute soundtrack, which is broadcast by two MP3 players through eight specially installed speakers, includes short clips of people speaking in seven different languages. In one, a woman muses about the weather in Mandarin. In another, a little girl sings in Spanish. “Move closer,” a voice intones, in English.

“It’s really a project that talks about the city,” Dumas said. “You can’t talk about Montreal without talking about multiculturalism.”

Although many languages are heard every day in the métro, they aren’t normally broadcast in an official context. Hearing them over the métro’s PA system can be a moving experience.

“I saw a group of Haitians and, when they heard Creole (on the soundtrack) they got super excited,” Goulet said.

“It makes people realize that they aren’t just the exception, they’re part of the rule,” Dumas added.

Reactions like that are what Goulet hoped to achieve with Point de fuite. More than anything, she explained, her goal was to disrupt the quotidian experience of riding the métro.

“People look around and they smile. Smiling in a public space isn’t ordinary. I’ve seen people talk to one another, ask each other questions, people of different nationalities. It breaks barriers between people and brings them into contact with the other,” she explained. “The idea is to take people elsewhere, to create another voyage.”

Her efforts seem to have worked. On a recent trip in her métro car, few passengers seemed to be left indifferent by Point de fuite. Some looked around, curious. Others stared at the ground, either listening intently to the soundtrack or trying hard to ignore it.

At one point, when a clip of a woman laughing hysterically started to play, even the most stoic-looking passengers broke out in smiles.

“Ça fait rire!” exclaimed one man, laughing.

Since September, métro riders’ reactions to Point de fuite have been lively. The MTC has received letters from people who love it and hate it; a number of blogs and websites have looked closely at the project; and, in November, La Presse even dedicated its opinion page to two commuters with opposing viewpoints on the installation.

“I do a lot of public art, but people don’t see it, maybe because it’s (usually) integrated into the architecture,” Goulet said. “This is the first time I’ve done something where people say to me, ‘Yes, I’ve seen it,’ or they ask, ‘How can I find it?’ People really engage with it.”

That’s something well understood by MTC president Claude Trudel. “I’ve been lucky to catch it three times. The best part is to see the reaction of people. They seem surprised. It’s a very interesting experience.”

Although Goulet’s project was supposed to last only until the end of March, Trudel would like to see it extended until June. After that, he suggested, the door would be open to other innovative artistic interventions in the métro.

“I want to bring art back into the experience of the métro, like when it first opened. It should be part of the métro’s central experience.”

Rose-Marie Goulet’s “Point de fuite.” Photo by MTL Guy


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2 comments

  1. Liza says:

    When I happened on that car, it was delightful. The sound piped in was the noise of chickens clucking. Everyone on the train was smiling, and listening for what would happen next.

    March 14th, 2008 at 10:51 am

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I forgot to include this link in the main article, but there’s a nice review of Point de fuite with a short audio clip here.

    March 14th, 2008 at 12:18 pm

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