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Gary Michael Dault

Montreal, plus or minus?
[Melvin Charney on Montreal's Planning Woes]

artscanada #169/170/171, early autumn 1972.
[ 856 words ]


On June 11, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts released upon an unsuspecting public an exhibition entitled Montreal, plus or minus? which, while it seemed to be proceeding smoothly enough when I saw it, was apparently for a little while after its opening a succès à scandale comparable in explosive effect (to hear some Montrealers describe it) to the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps. 'Finally, Finally, Finally!' ejaculated one reviewer. Financed largely by the Canada Council, administered by Alain Parent, Museum Associate Curator for Education, designed by John Honeyman, and coordinated (and catalogued) by Melvin Charney, architect and urban planner, Université de Montréal, the exhibition sprang from the feelings of many concerned people that Montreal (like other large urban centres) was becoming, in the words of David Giles Carter in a preface to the catalogue, 'less human in several ways due to the . . . rapidity of its building.' 'Under the circumstances,' Carter goes on, 'it seemed worthwhile to hold up a mirror to the city and to give various sectors of the community an opportunity to declare their concerns and their hopes within a framework which would serve as a verbal but primarily visual forum for these matters that touch us all.' Mr. Carter explains that the Museum decided against a show of material selected by its staff in favour of a 'more resilient approach.' This is where the Finally Finally Finally business comes in. According to the catalogue 'additional discussion, analysis and probing led to the adoption of the format of participation' — which format it was hoped would demand 'active participation by the visitor', activity which 'even in the spirit of play, provokes thought which will stimulate our actions as members of the community.' Melvin Charney's preliminary essay in the exhibition catalogue is reasoned, persuasive, and urgent in its eagerness to be of help. 'Montreal is now at a turning point in the history of its development,' he writes. 'Montreal still has a good chance to do something about its future.' 'Planning,' he writes, 'used to consist of relatively small additions to or subtractions from the slowly growing fabric of Montreal. The time element has now been compressed, and the scale of undertakings greatly increased . . . . What matters is who is doing the planning and for whom; city planning has too frequently turned out to be window dressing for the strategies of the powerful . . . no mechanisms exist for public involvement or public accountability.' Analogically almost perfect with Charney's exhortations about Montreal's compressed-time problems and the opportunity for public involvement, the exhibition itself turned out to be a well-meant hodge-podge of satire, nihilism, acceptance, refusal, painful poetry, inept cartooning, level-headed documentation, searingly social-conscious photography, uninspired near-conceptual non-events, and all the rest of whatever it takes to be graphically and verbally involved and with-it in the space-time confusion of present day Montreal. 'The real subject of the exhibition is the relationship between the physical presence of the city and the people's lives,' Charney states " . . . this sense of interaction is also extended to the form of the exhibition itself, and to art as a means of communication (italics mine, italics as a way of exorcising something I hugely dislike) . . . . The use of different media, three-dimensional walk-in tableaux [a complete Montreal newsstand, for example], neo-realism paintings ordered by telephone, [a postcard view of Montreal], and multiple images which the visitor to the exhibit can remove from the walls and take home with him [for what purpose, to what avail?] attempt to 'push art beyond its restrictive formal limits' [my italics again — this last seems to me quite meaningless indeed — it does, however, serve vaguely to suggest that we're directing our steps bravely down the road of social-aesthetic revolution]. Professor Charney continues . . . 'What we are looking for is the basis for realizable utopias . . . . We are looking for those conditions in a Montreal to which all plans and projects are accountable . . . .  These are found in the processes of the city itself, starting with available resources, with what exists, and the immediate lives of the people. The message here is that the sense of the city — its future and its past — becomes "visible" for its people when they can relate their lives to its destiny.' What is available is a visual counterpart of the same kind of worn rhetoric; here were the old Ed Ruscha-derived photo-foldouts of entire streets, funky work-a-day photos of the big REAL, the amateur use of concrete analogy as pedagogical pill — a wooden walled maze, for example — a sermon in stone about the labyrinth of Citylife, graffiti walls — bits of the rough existence of the world outside set up for sentimental juxtaposition effect inside that staid old mother, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. At last, Finally Finally Finally, she has let down her hair. Better had she lifted her skirts and run as fast as she could from this welter of half-digested good intentions.


artscanada #169/170/171, early autumn 1972.


Text: © Gary Michael Dault. All rights reserved.

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