Montreal’s History Illuminated in Haunting Projections

Cité Mémoire beams vignettes onto city buildings


If you walk around Old Montreal between dusk and midnight these days, you’ll notice the occasional wall with images careening about on it. They’re a cool backdrop to a night of wandering around the oldest part of one of Canada’s oldest cities. But if you stop in the little parking lot on Rue St. Xavier just up from St Paul and look up at the wall in front of you, you’ll see just how spectacular all of this is.

This projection juxtaposes the stories of Marie Joseph dite Angélique, a slave who was executed in 1734 after being accused of burning down Montreal, with Jackie Robinson, who busted North American race barriers while playing baseball for the Montreal Royals in Delorimier Stadium in 1946. On the surface, it’s a timeline of black Montreal. But it’s the image of Angélique running from her owners and accusers that slides into Robinson running the bases, both actors managing to evince a mixture of uncertainty, terror, righteousness and resolve, that does it. It may be the most moving artistic moment in a city filled with them.

The power of the projection is a testament to the vision of artistic entrepreneurs Michel Lemieux’s and Victor Pilon. Their four-year, $19-million Cité Mémoire undertaking, an initiative of the not-for-profit Montréal en Histoires, sets out to project the city’s history onto the city itself.

“We imagined this parcours [course],” Lemieux says, “this pathway into the space of Old Montreal, but a pathway in history as well between different moments, different eras. It’s an interactive project, but it’s also proactive: You have to go out of your home.”

The technology’s pretty impressive, too. Using projectors that had been rented by a Montreal company to the Sochi Olympics (“They were almost new,” Lemieux says, beaming about the deal they got. “They were used two weeks”), the installations are activated when someone who’s downloaded the app is standing in the vicinity and presses “play.” Then you just put on your buds, watch and listen. “From the spectacle of a projection on the side of a building,” as Lemieux describes it, “to the intimate voices, sometime whispers, talking to you through your phone.”


Courtesy Jean-François Gratton/Montréal en Histoires

Working with history buff Michel Marc Bouchard – also one of Canada’s most successful playwrights – Lemieux and Pilon have put together 19 pieces of Montreal history in work that calls to mind both Bill Viola’s mediative masterpieces, and some of the campier Canadian Heritage Minutes. It’s an unusual hybrid, but the results can be electric. (Four more projections will be added next year.)

Part of the material comes from the history itself – Bouchard uncovered all sorts of tidbits that most Canadians, including Lemieux himself, didn’t know about. “In Quebec we have this thing on our license plates, ‘Je me souviens.’ [Meaning “I remember.”] And actually, we don’t, we don’t remember anything,” he says.

Physical material plays a part in the projections, too; they often incorporate the physical, built city. Speaking about the Angélique-Robinson piece, Lemieux says: “The wall is an industrial era wall, but you can see the trace of the house of the French era, and then higher, you can see the trace of the English era, which was much bigger, much richer, so just this wall, which is usually not lit or looked at, this wall has layers of history, and we use those traces when we burn the city at the beginning of the story, we use the outline of those two buildings.”


Courtesy Jean-François Gratton/Montréal en Histoires

There’s another projection, devoted to Quebec national poet Émile Nelligan’s 1898 poem Soir d’hiver, that uses bits of the brick wall at Saint-Sacrement and Saint-Nicholas that have been plastered into an image of Nelligan’s face getting old, frozen, and falling away.

Among the 19 tableaux available to watch now, there’s also one about North America’s first outed gay man, who was drafted into becoming North America’s first executioner. Another tells the story of a spectacular man named Joe Beef, who is probably mostly (and mainly) familiar to Montrealers today thanks to a famous restaurant that’s named after him.


Courtesy Jean-François Gratton/Montréal en Histoires

Listen to them in French if you’re able – the English translations are done by Linda Gaboriau, who despite being one of Canada’s most successful translators, has a tin ear for dialogue (I can’t say how good the Spanish and Mandarin translations are). There are always a lot of reasons to go to Montreal, but this may just be the best one right now.

Montreal’s History Illuminated in Haunting Projections
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