Projet Building / Caserne #14, for the abandoned Fire Station 14 (Montreal, with Lyne Lapointe, 1983)
The first of our ‘Montreal triptych’ of site-specific projects occupying entire buildings in the 1980s, Projet Building / Caserne #14 took place in an abandoned Fire Station in the Plateau area of the city. It explored the private life of public service through a stark poetics of space in deepest Canadian winter.
Fire Station 14 had been abandoned for several years when Lyne Lapointe and I applied successfully to the City of Montreal to have access to it for a period of six months in the winter of 1982-83, with the intent of creating of it an artwork. A solid public service construction of cement, the gruelling Quebec winters of -30 centigrade followed by fast spring thaws had already utterly transformed it. There was no water and no electricity, and many of the amenities that had served the firemen on duty had been removed. Our main form of transport for the work we set out to do was a hand dolly: creative constraint.
In the long shadow of arte povera, and by the incandescent light cast by Gordon Matta-Clark, we set about making an immersive artwork that would be understood as such, as much by the textile workers at the neighbouring Paris Star factory as by firemen and curators. We interrogated the building, its fabric, its oneiric and symbolic qualities, its position within Montreal’s urban fabric and its place within a welfare state.
In this first of what would become a number of significant architectural interventions over the next decade and more, we learned with this project to master architectonic vocabularies and spatial conventions, and became familiar with certain psychic geometries that are key in reconfiguring a building to reveal its social meanings.
Rooms were meticulously stripped of wood that might give a false semblance of warmth, windows were blocked and light forced through tiny fissures to illuminate austere, isolate rectangles of colour. The presence of absent bodies was evoked again and again — in the regimental placement of Firemen’s coats on the ground floor, in the magic trick of a tropical camp cot, and in the drawings in soot emblazoned on the sweating marble cubicles of the abandoned shower-room.
Like a sentinel at the door, a camera obscura hinted at the link between surveillance and night-watch, and upstairs, in what had been the changing room for a cohort of brave men became two ice-rinks flanking a tiny campstove that glowed with faint comfort. Its tiny motor powered by a car battery, a child’s record-player slowly spun an LP of tangos sung by Carlos Gardel.
Beads of sweat formed on the upper lip. It is the living dampness of the sweat that fear and heat produce that makes soot stick to the skin of the fireman. From the privacy of the cloistered firehall the fireman is catapulted through urban space on a trajectory that defies all the rules of collective order, careening through red lights on the wrong side of the yellow line. Then he penetrates the secret world of the family home, his urgency blasting the walls of the sanctuary in order to protect it, obliging the air of public and private to mingle explosively.
Fire was obviously present in the Firehall; brilliant in its absence, fire was in fact the building’s reason to be. Something outside it that animated it, something primeval its efficiency was meant to master.
from Studiolo (1997)
And here is the press release, from January 1983 — nearly 30 years ago:
Projet Building/Caserne #14 est l’oeuvre la plus récente de la jeune artiste montréalaise Lyne Lapointe. En utilisant en entier l’espace de l’ancien poste d’incendie #14 situé rue Saint Dominique en tant que ‘matériel d’artiste,’ ses installations interrogent le phénomène de l’architecture comme ordonnation sociale de l’espace. Explique Lapointe:
‘J’aimerais mettre en évidence l’idée d’une maison — la fonction des étages et des espaces publics et privés tels qu’ils ont été divisés et investis.’
Édifice de dortoirs et de stationnements, il personnifie l’attente métaphorique des pompiers qui sont isolés de la société pour mieux la servir. C’est donc un batiment qui écarte les ‘événements’ du quotidien, un batiment dans lequel on trouve reproduit la société en microcosme exagéré.
Les hiérarchies militaires, entre capitaine et pompier par example, les traces d’une misogynie conventionnelle, la problématique de l’équation entre la souffrance et l’héroïsme — aussi significatif pour les artistes que pour les pompiers — sont examinés à travers la recherche de Lyne Lapointe.
C’est une recherche, en fin de compte, qui fait une tentative de déconstruction des mythes culturels: la territorialité de l’architecture, l’architecture des classes, la classe des femmes, tous ont été mis en dialogue à la Caserne #14. C’est un projet à grande échelle, représentant un an de travail.
‘Ce que je veux faire, c’est de prendre des articles culturels tel une caméra ou meme un édifice, et les amener à un point brut où je pourrais examiner les processus sociaux qu’ils impliquent — dans ces deux cas, la représentation et la désignation des lieux respectivement — et de commenter là-dessus.’
And should you ask where Martha Fleming might be in these quoted texts, I am their author. On the poster for Projet Building / Caserne #14 I was billed as the curator. Much of this was to change in the years to come, but of course, what goes around, comes around.
Projet Building / Caserne #14 (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 Projet Building / Caserne #14, the other two projects which form our ‘Montreal triptych’ are Le Musée des Sciences (1984) and La Donna Delinquenta (1987).
[Image References: all images are of Project Building / Caserne #14 by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1983)]