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Daniel Iregui’s ‘End of Broadcast’ is one of eight Common Space? installations. Iregui’s piece can be experienced at Place des Arts.Martine Doyon

In this weekly column, Robert Everett-Green writes about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

Human Futures is an international arts and media project that is meant to engage four European cities and Montreal in the task of figuring out what our urban environments should become. "Our future is no longer a circumstantial imposition," says the organization's manifesto, "but a choice."

That's a good summary of the spirit behind all utopian projects, of which Montreal has a rich history. The city was founded by a religious community, La Société Notre-Dame de Montréal, which hoped to regain in the New World the purity of the early Christian church. A couple of centuries later, Louis-Joseph Papineau and others foresaw a kind of secular salvation in an independent Quebec, the dream of which still affects political discussion.

At a more material level, Expo 67 projected the ideal of Montreal as a shining metropolis, and of Canada as a happily bicultural country. Expo's legacy was even supposed to include "an institute for the advancement of man." Moshe Safdie's airy yet compact Habitat 67 aimed to trigger an urban-space revolution, and even the slightly older towers of Habitations Jeanne-Mance promoted a vision of vibrant social housing that the city is still trying to tinker into reality on the site.

The Montreal component of Human Futures: Shared Memories and Visions features eight downtown installations by 13 artists, and is called Common Space? Most of the works connect more strongly with memory than with anything visionary, proving again that much of what is put forward as future-oriented art is actually nostalgic or reactive.

Michel de Broin has seen the future, and it's sentient garbage. His Molysmocène projection on the upper reaches of Théâtre Maisonneuve posits the end of the carbon age, and the start of a time when things are freed from the hierarchy of human needs. Images of greyscale human activity yield to vibrantly coloured trash, moving in crude animations toward a new ecology. It's tragicomic sci-fi with a dystopian joke at its heart.

We're all friends here, a two-site video installation by Sam Meech and Marilène Gaudet, shows the light and dark sides of urban experience in Montreal, using interviews and live contributions to create jerky "knitting films" of words, figures and animations in wool. A phrase such as "this is just to look pretty" is followed by "I have no place to sleep," or a yarned flashing Striptease sign. Ethics and aesthetics scrape against each other, as do digital technology and handicrafts. What is a stitch, knitter Meech seems to say, but the beta form of a pixel?

For his Poème mécanique, Tobias Ebsen suspends a broad metal ring above a busy foyer space in Place des Arts, trying to lure the passerby with the clicking sounds of 1,000 tiny mirrors changing positions singly or in surges. Ideally, you stop and attend to it, achieving a moment of contemplation in a space teaming with other sights and sounds. It's a bold strategy for a subtle play on the tension between the flow of urban energy and the need to withdraw from it.

Unintended Emissions and Forgot Your Password?, by the Critical Engineering Working Group and Aram Bartholl respectively, both point at the leaky nature of virtual space, by projecting snippets gleaned from nearby digital devices or by running a display of passwords over a wall. Emissions has a slightly spooky quality, like a seance conducted with data instead of spirits, but there wasn't much to see while I was there, and neither work shows anything that hasn't been trumpeted to exhaustion by mass media.

A Side Man 5000 Adventure is Darsha Hewitt's love offering to a Wurlitzer beat box from the early 1960s, which Nelly-Ève Rajotte's video camera portrays in all its electromagnetic glory. Her lens prowls through the guts of this futuristic gizmo, as we hear sounds from its samba or cha-cha presets. It's a fascinating piece of techno-nostalgia, but I don't get its link with the program of Human Futures.

Two other installations, Daniel Iregui's End of Broadcast and Les îles invisibles by Sébastien Pierre and Daniel Canty, weren't working the weekday evening I made my tour of Common Space?. As I vainly tried to get the one piece to interact with me and the other to let my phone connect to its network, I wondered why this whole investigation into urban reality and futures is happening only after dark. Most people engage most intensely with urban spaces during the day. Several of the sites for Common Space? felt deserted when I visited. The point of putting art about urban experience in the street is surely to engage the city itself, but these pieces felt like discussions from which the most vital participant was absent. Is that any way to discover something new about common space?

Common Space?, a co-production of the National Film Board, MUTEK and Elektra, continues at various Montreal locations through Oct. 18.

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