Culture  And then there were lights

Place des Arts installation brightens up the Montreal skyline

Late one night, walking home from the library, my head reeling with names and dates for an upcoming midterm, I happened to notice streams of light beaming up into the night. Confused, and wondering if the lights were a hallucination produced by my coffee–addled brain, I continued on my walk home. Upon repeated sightings, I realized I hadn’t been suffering from midterm hallucinations. However, it was not until I was walking across the Place des Festivals a few days later that I stumbled upon the answer to the mystery – the lights are an installation for the Quebec Triennial 2011 in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC).
Created especially for the public square beside the museum, the art piece is titled “Architecture relationnelle 18.” The work was constructed by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a Mexican-Canadian artist who primarily creates works that interact with space and architecture, most often through the use of electronic lights.
With the origin of the lights uncovered, I ventured later that night to see the artwork in action.
Walking towards the Place des Festivals, I was awed by the scene before my eyes. Even a few blocks away, the show appeared spectacular, the lights swirling and moving gracefully across the night sky. The sight only improved upon walking closer, and I was delighted by the festive scene at the square. While some of the spotlights are placed on top of the museum and surrounding buildings, quite a few are placed on top of platforms in the plaza, and are controlled by the public through long handles on the ground. Elated groups of people ran from light to light, laughing with joy as they lit up the Montreal night sky. Others simply stood in the Place des Festivals, enjoying the show. Many were taking photos, documenting their chance to participate in this unique piece of contemporary art.
Despite the cheerful scene I encountered, not all members of the public have been pleased with the installation. While researching the artwork, a comment left on an article about the show perfectly displayed some citizens’ attitudes towards the lights. Critics expressed that the lights were an “annoyance” and were “blaring into the night sky.” This has been the site of some debate regarding the show – is the installation a source of light pollution? Should this artwork be on display, especially because of the amount of energy resources used to put on the show every night, when environmental resource concerns are such a prominent issue? While concerns such as these must be strongly considered, a representative of the Quartier des Spectacles took the time to respond to the commenter’s concerns, reminding them that the installation was only temporary, as it ends November 6.
While the environmental concerns for the installation are problematic, the representative for the Quartier des Spectacles made a great point in his response. He emphasized that the installation is not a permanent part of the Montreal landscape, and therefore it’s challenging aspects must be seen in comparison with its benefits – mainly, the fact that the public can participate in contemporary art, free from the pressure and cost of the MAC. Oftentimes it can be difficult to get a large swath of the general public into a contemporary art space, even in a city as culturally engaged as Montreal. There is a stigma of contemporary art being confusing or even – gulp – boring. Lozano-Hemmer’s piece allows people to be a part of the installation, while having fun. So the next time you’re down by the Place des Festivals, grab the handle for the spotlight and become an active part of the Montreal art scene.