Culture  Humanizing the city at ABC: MTL

Multimedia exhibit succeeds with open-source submissions

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) is a little bit bigger than I expected. I suppose it’s because I haven’t had the chance to explore too many buildings off-campus in this city, and the claustrophobic conditions of downtown living condition one to expect tight spaces. The reason for this inaugural visit lay just beyond the tall front doors, and took up a large chunk of this stately Victorian building: an exhibit entitled ABC: MTL – A Self-Portrait of Montréal, an open-source project that promises to “map contemporary Montréal in a diversity of ways and media,” according to its website.

ABC: MTL is the third in a series of exhibitions which focus on different eras in the city’s history, with the current installation acting as a contemporary window to life in Montreal. Over ninety contributions have already found their way into the gallery from an ongoing call for submissions, taking different forms such as pictures, movies, graphs, and more. Content varies significantly from space to space. Pushing aside a thick curtain after perusing a room full of carefully arranged photographs, I found myself alone in a screening room, where one could watch a short film shot outside an abandoned Montreal racetrack where U2 held a performance last summer. There is clearly no shortage of material for this exhibit, as the city and citizens of Montreal are depicted in ways that are both mentally stimulating and physically fascinating. One multimedia submission consists of a long rectangular graph mapped out with an array of shapes, colours, and scribbled notes; it is only when you put on an adjacent pair of headphones and watch the scrolling screen below them that you realize you are looking at an incredibly intricate presentation of the “sound of the city,” mapped out before your eyes.

A sense of underground expression pervades ABC: MTL – literally, as several submissions explore the prevalence of alleys and worlds under street level (led by the SYN collective), and figuratively, with several prominent pieces reflecting times of protest or civil unrest. This is not an exhibition aimed toward trumpeting the popular commercial successes of Montreal as a city, but rather its multifaceted nature as an ever-changing urban centre, where the power of human expression is understood as an absolutely necessary force. One series contains a set of four TVs, each playing one of four different short films involving genocide survivors who have settled in Montreal. Another is comprised of four large simple pictures, each of a police officer’s face looking out from behind the clear face shield of a riot mask. With the student protests of the last year fresh in my mind, such pieces reminded me of the humanity that can be found on both sides of the legal divide, as well as the existence of strife far greater than our own.

That said, the exhibit includes some submissions and subsequent write-ups that would take no less than a Cultural Studies major to appreciate, or even understand. One particular picture of a street beside a tunnel, displaying nothing but a couple of cars, pedestrians, and an overhead train, comes with a description that is replete with buzzwords such as “conceptualize,” “volatile,” and the dramatic title, “The Tunnel of Death.” While many of the exhibit’s submissions are thought-provoking, and some breathtaking in their scope, evidence still suggests that no art show is without pretension; there will always be artists who seek to infuse meaning where there is none to be found. Regardless, I would recommend a visit, especially if your knowledge of the city is sparser than it should be (like mine). ABC: MTL – A Self-Portrait of Montréal has the same characteristics as the city it’s examining – thoughtful, provoking, and full of hidden gems.

ABC: MTL runs at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until March 31, 2013. For opening hours and admission information, visit