In Montreal, a giant, multiyear art installation blends technology and history.
The face appears like an apparition. Ghostly white and mottled by leaves, it floats, disembodied, turning to look at viewers as they walk along the Old Port of Montreal toward the old clock tower, where a 30-foot-high woman floats as if in water. These giant video projections are two of 24 mesmerizing tableaux created as part of Cité Mémoire, conceptualized by the visual artists Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon and the playwright Michel Marc Bouchard for the 375th anniversary of the founding of the city.
Beginning each night at sundown, the installation tells the story of Montreal through a series of five- to seven-minute vignettes, each of which features an influential (if sometimes obscure) character from the city’s history. The filmed scenes are projected onto buildings, trees, and cobblestone alleyways, and viewers, armed with a mobile app and headphones, make their way through the city, listening to the characters’ thoughts and an original score. (Inspired by Chicago’s Crown Fountain, for which the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa projected the faces of some 1,000 residents onto twin glass block towers, the faces in the trees belong to 375 modern-day Montrealers.)
Developed over five years, the $18 million project debuted in spring 2016. (Funding has come from a variety of government grants and corporate sponsors.) This May, the city unveiled four new stories. Unlike so many video mapping installations, Cité Mémoire eschews frenetic and brightly colored lights and instead treats the often intimate, sometimes harrowing scenes more like “animated murals,” in Lemieux’s words,
their palette carefully crafted to meld with the historic character of Old Montreal. “It’s a bit like their souls, their memories, still inhabit the walls, the stone, and the brick,” Lemieux says. “We imagined those giant characters going out of the wall to tell us a bit of their story.”
Each is truly in situ, he adds, in dialogue with the urban fabric. In a scene about Marie-Josèphe Angélique, a black slave who was tortured after being accused of setting her owner’s house on fire, the ghost outline of a former building is repurposed as a silhouette of a house engulfed in flames.
To make the characters feel three-dimensional, Lemieux and Pilon lit each scene with sidelights to create a sharp contrast between the subject and the background. They also spent two months testing the tableaux in the streets, using color correction to mask unwanted tones and adjusting the placement of projectors when building features interfered. The picture varied depending on the material of the facade, as well as whether or not it was wet from rain. “Your screen is alive,” Lemieux says. “You project on trees, and in the summertime, it’s beautiful, and then in the wintertime, when the leaves are gone, oh, it’s different. It’s still interesting, but it’s more mysterious. You still see the face but in a more elusive way.”
Despite the high-tech production and its reliance on users’ smartphones, Lemieux says the project encourages viewers to explore the city on foot, and to do so together. “We walk looking at the sidewalk or looking at our phone, with the head down,” he says. “The project is trying to put the head up.” To that end, the app’s audio only works when users are within viewing distance of each scene. “You cannot see the scene in your home; you have to go out and you have to walk and maybe meet other people,” Lemieux says. “It becomes a kind of collective experience.”