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Montreal festival takes art underground

For three weeks, Montreal's subterranean retail labyrinth will be taken over and transformed by the installations of 60 artists

To build a better mousetrap, Nova Alea

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

The poster for Montreal's Festival Art Souterrain shows a man running from a big steel ball between the bumpers of a giant pinball machine. The image conveys both the size of the festival's main exhibition space – six kilometres of underground mall – and one perspective on its theme this year, which is Play and Distraction.

The festival, its ninth edition opening on March 4, might as easily have chosen Play in Distraction. Everyone who careens through the sensory overload of Montreal's underground city at rush hour has something on their mind, and it's probably not art. Even an airport, where people are often waiting around, might be more hospitable.

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Art Souterrain's hard mission is to seduce passersby and prompt aesthetic contemplation when they least expect it. No one could be more excited by such encounters than Frédéric Loury, the festival's founding director, who unveiled this year's latest offerings earlier this week with two of his three curators.

Loury believes public art must be more varied, far-reaching and unexpected than the permanently sited works that most people gradually learn to ignore. If art finds people as they move through the city, he says, it may change the way they think about art experience and public space.

In the festival's early years, Loury evangelized for this idea into every part of Montreal's underground network, which is said to be the world's largest. He wasn't discouraged to find that some parts of the labyrinth were, after all, too distracting for art. He made careful notes and reduced the festival's footprint this year, while keeping the number of artists at around 60.


He also added, as of last year, "satellite venues" – gallery spaces that show thematically related work and host festival events. The seven satellites on this year's list include Arsenal, ELLEPHANT and OBORO – all of which, from the general public's point of view, are underground in a different way.

The festival broadly asks whether game-playing is the new opium of the people, or whether we can use playful technology to critique the present and invent the future. The theme is in the air in Montreal, where the annual Lumino thérapie festival has installed another set of play-oriented gadgets at Place des Festivals, and where the Quartiers des Spectacles recently hosted a conference on what has been called the "playable city." The concept is big in Bristol, the English seaport formerly known for shipbuilding and now a hub for installations that animate public space and public memory. The apparent aim is to encourage people to think about public space as something that reacts and reshapes itself according to how individuals encounter and use it.

Luminothérapie's devices for public play tend to be nostalgic, inserting layers of old-time mechanism between user and gadget. Its current Loop installation shows flickering fairy-tale imagery inside hoop-like structures described as "a cross between a music box, a zoetrope and a railway handcar."

Some play-based pieces on Art Souterrain's list look more sinister. To Build a Better Mousetrap, by Italian video-game designer Paolo Pedercini, is an experimental management game in which the workers are represented as mice and their overlords as cats. French artist Laurent Perbos's Inflatabowl, a suspended orb made from inflatable beach toys, fuses imagery of seaside play with the environmental puzzle of how to handle the plastic detritus of seasonal fun.

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Star Wars, a lo-fi photo series by Toronto artist Thomas Dagg, superimposes childhood make-believe onto the real world, through spooky, realistic Photoshop insertions into urban scenes. Kahnawà:ke artist Skawennati's Tomorrow People uses the online VR environment Second Life to present and live out stories of her Mohawk heritage.

Star Wars

Skawennati's show at OBORO is open now, as is a satellite group show at Dawson College Art Gallery. Most of Art Souterrain opens the night of Nuit Blanche and continues for three weeks, one week longer than last year's edition.

Loury will spend some of that time gathering data about who connects with the work and how. The festival's 45 ancillary conferences, artist talks and guided tours provide one layer of information about the former, he said.

Loury also commissions surveys of people who don't get the point of what he's offering. Not surprisingly, some of the more conceptual art of previous years didn't score well with the uninitiated. Rather than shift towards more populist programming, the festival added more explanatory features, including French-language audio guides available at most of the nine buildings on the route and downloaded from the festival website. This year's fest also adds live artist performances at five locations during lunch hours – periods of maximum density when people might have time to pay attention.

In nine years, there have been no accidents and very little damage done to artworks, "and that amazes me," Loury said. If works are put in the right places and presented in the right way, he said, "respect is established."

This year, Loury plans to expand into summer programming, taking off from a recent pilot project called Vitrines sur l'Art. Art Souterrain converted the display windows of five vacant stores into showcases for work from the Canada Council Art Bank and the collection of Cirque du Soleil.

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Loury's incursion into spaces that have too little activity would seem to be the opposite of his work in the swarming underground city. But pop-up art spaces may be a way to reanimate corners of the city's public space that have lost their shine. Empty storefronts aren't hard to find in downtown Montreal. Displays of creative work can spark creativity.

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