La Donna Delinquenta

La Donna Delinquenta (Montreal, with Lyne Lapointe, 1987)


The abandoned Corona vaudeville theatre was the perfect locus for exploring meeting points between social marginalisation and the society of the spectacle. ‘Technologies of the Self’ met Plato’s Cave in this large-scale site-specific installation which took place in Montreal’s Saint Henri of the Tanneries area, a working class neighbourhood laid out along the Lachine Canal. Taking its title from one of the foundation stones of criminology, Lombroso’s The Female Offender (1927), the project critiqued pseudo-scientific studies of the socially marginalised from a feminist perspective that incorporated affect as a prodigiously constructive tool.

The Corona was built in 1912: Bertillon, Ellis, Galton, Lombroso, were all still alive in that year — Galton only just. It was this seam of modernity’s pathologisation of the disenfranchised that had struck Lyne and I during the research we effected for our preceding project, Le Musée des Sciences in 1984.  We vowed to return to the subject of representation and marginalisation with what would be our third major site work for Montreal — La Donna Delinquenta.

We found most of these authors as primary research while working in the Osler Library at McGill University and the Wellcome Library in London, though we were later to rediscover much of this material in Gould’s Mismeasure of Man (1981). In French-speaking Quebec in the 1980s the intellectual rudders were more Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison (1975) and Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (1967).

But at that time, even the antidote of Foucault and Debord required an antidote in turn, especially for artists working in a feminist register and seeking to explore the cultural production of which our work was a part, wanting to identify and to undo inadvertant complicities. It was not enough to effect an analytical critique, however complex that might be in and of itself. How do we as women find a way to break out of a prison made of manufactured pleasures through pleasure itself?

In making La Donna Delinquenta, Lyne and I were interested in the conventions of theatre, both physical and representational, and in the notion of entertainment as a form of social control. For guidance at the analytical end, there was Catherine Clément’s magisterial L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes (1979).  In artistic practice, there were the extraordinary experiments of artists and writers such as Carolee Schneemann, Hélène Cixous, Yvonne Rainer, and in particular the film The Gold Diggers, made in 1983 by Sally Potter, Rose English and Lindsay Cooper, whom we knew.

The dilapidated interior of the Corona Theatre was redolent of the moral tale of the silent movie, Disney for the jobless, and the trickle-down from Bertillon to identikit composite photographs to children’s toys such as Les Mille et un Têtes



And it was also one of the few palaces of pleasure that had been open to the neighbourhood, a palace that had stopped having shows and films in the 1960s, shortly after the opening of the new Saint Lawrence Seaway diverted most cargo vessels away from the Lachine Canal.  What of the ‘society of the spectacle’ when even the spectacle is taken away?  Because this was a project about a place, as well, a post-industrial inhabited urban landscape:

Along the dark fissures that the railway snakes through Montréal like the eroded veins of a closed mine, one of the oldest industrial centres in Canada undergoes rapid transformation. La Donna Delinquenta and Le Musée des Sciences took place in neighbourhoods along the Lachine Canal. A key element of the now faltering sea-rail mercantile route that built Canada, it was closed in 1970. In Little Burgundy and Saint Henri of the Tanneries, clusters of empty industrial buildings hiding pcb-infected oils and barrels of fluor snake along the knifelike cut that the Lachine Canal slices between them.

With the passing of the canal and now the railway, whole communities have been strangled. Incinerators, warehouses of bricks, the purgatory of the corrals on the living side of Canada Packers’ abattoir hugging the railroad tracks as a desolate backyard, the frozen, broken open ovens are all that remain of a colonial sugar refinery of Caribbean cane. Expanses of terrain have been ripped up by speculative bulldozers and blocks of workers’ wooden homes boarded up completely. Aqueducts have been drained, and now give up the silt and refuse that settled with the travel of goods along a watery surface. This mucky sludge is the nighttime of the city, the dusk that has settled permanently along these ditches of commerce in an age of technology.

Along the dead water the powers that be install a new park with red and white swings that oddly mirror the industrial cranes and other structures of the port that loom inactive but menacing above them. These are the public sites in which the notion of family is constructed, and its false hope suspended; where the female labour of child care is naturalized, where snapshots are taken. The park’s pathway leads our gaze to those infernal machines on the horizon, breaking open the fragile myth of recreation and procreation the young trees valiantly knit together around the park’s social reason to be.

from Studiolo (1997)


Urban space, architecture, abandonment and occupation: bringing these elements together in a prodigious and creative act is an entirely different proposition today.  The artist who showed us that it could be done was Gordon Matta Clark, and interestingly, among his inspirations was a group of young squatters occupying an abandoned factory site, whom he met in Milan in 1975.

We took the route of legal access to this and other buildings we worked in; it was often protracted and complicated, but no less radical. It is perhaps best to situate La Donna Delinquenta in its own time and register by quoting from a lecture Lyne and I gave not that long after we had completed it.  This lecture, entitled ‘Ghost Story’, was given in several places, including the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, and the Université du Québec à Montréal in 1992 — now 20 years ago:


Our projects are not at home in a documentary mode — they are lived events, firmly anchored in a vision of mutual respect between artists and communities. The projects are not illustrative products of art or architectural theory and consequently they don’t give themselves easily to “explanation.” They are rigourously not polemical statements, thesis props, or resolved totalities which are produced by the logical positivism of the builder-architect or the arch self assurance of the political artist. In the visitors’ book for La Donna Delinquenta, someone wrote: “Thank you for giving me somewhere to hide.” This intense privacy is the reward given to an audience which could consider our respect for them somewhat demanding. We speak now about these projects from a specific, fugitive and acknowledged present. We will talk to you about our work as a whole, and you will witness it in fragments, in ruins, in the photographic slides.

What we do with buildings as artists is insurrectional and by appearances unpolished. It is also generous, supple and intimate. We address the meaning and deep structure of buildings not as architects or as planners, but as lonely and alienated users. Armed only with a conviction of the primacy of our shared psychic experience of space, without any tool or intent to construct, without the will or the capacity to puncture and alter, to restore or recycle, we briefly inhabit, reinvest with social meaning, and render accessible to a large public abandoned buildings which resonate within their communities; involving ourselves, the buildings, and these communities in a discursive activity which fuses our experience of mediated space with other complexly related social issues.

The buildings themselves are not cheap and temporary exhibition space nor are they found objects — they are ideologically, socially, emotionally and economically charged architectures which we choose with care as integral parts of our work. This collaborative work receives an audience numbering in the thousands and composed largely of people who are not museum-goers.

The ephemerality of these projects is their historicity, and their analyses on a speeding diagonal, their lacunae and their startling discoveries, their convictions, their determinisms, their years of research, are constructed without instruction. Their paths of understanding are strewn about with unabashed contradiction, and above all they are passionate experiences, at once virtual and lived, communicated as if by phereomones through an acridity which is at once of the building and of the fearful desire to understand. All our projects are about the tyranny of meaning. For us, meaning is constructed in as arbitrary, subjective, fragile, strangely valiant and often brutal a fashion as architecture itself.

The trajectories of our development and research is not a progressive, defineable line to be unfolded as a legitimating pedigree of the self-taught, as if these sites of learning had been laid out to us — or to anyone — as a kind of obligatory syllabus which we have followed patiently. In fact, it is a series of scents which we have pursued with difficulty and in disorder.

In our projects for and with abandoned buildings, we work with the complex psychic fabric left as a kind of palimpsest or veneer on the structure itself. The material which we manipulate is in fact not so much the building per se as its psychic history, which is of course the thread that weaves buildings into and out of a living and magnetically contradictory social history mapped out onto the urban fabric. Every building is a memory theatre and retains a psychic and emotional aura gleaned from the passage of all those who may have come between its walls, and this elastic umbilicus is firmly anchored in the memory which those people retain of their passage. A boarded-up building is an embodiment of the unconscious. It is also a reminder of the failure of capitalism. The projects themselves, in lifting the veil on these buildings and the denied unconscious inside them, create an unforgettable punctum in the urban narrative. They are sites of the possible.



La Donna Delinquenta (and other of our site projects) is fully documented in Studiolo : The Collaborative Work of Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe, by Fleming, Johnstone and Lapointe (Artextes, 1997). Alongside Le Musée des Sciences, the other two projects which form our ‘Montreal triptych’ are Projet Building / Caserne #14, (1983) and Le Musée des Sciences (1984).


[Image References: all images are of La Donna Delinquenta by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1987). Large format colour photographs are by Marik Boudreau.]