Tag Archive for: Montreal

From Le Musée des Sciences to the Science Museum

From Le Musée des Sciences to the Science Museum: fifteen years of evolving methodologies in the art-science interface: Doctoral Thesis, School of Art Architecture and Design, LMU (2004)

An analytical reflection on my intellectual and professional trajectory from site specific installations to museum collection interpretation, this doctoral project was a hybrid of PhD by Published Work and PhD by Practice.  In it I parse developments in the approaches I have taken to exploring the history and material culture of science both as a museum professional and as an artist.  I identify the transferable methods and the longer-term implications for museology of science generally, and posit the museum as a laboratory for science itself.

 

Here is the abstract:

The submission of published work of this practice-based doctoral thesis spans a period of 15 years from 1984 to 1999 and includes original artwork of international significance in visual documentary form as well as exhibition publications, museum interpretation materials, book chapters, and conference proceedings.

In a variety of creative and critical ways, my work as an artist over this period has investigated and contributed to the evolving place of artistic and museological practices in uncovering deep-structure links between the arts and the sciences in terms of shared methodologies and epistemological inquiries.

The synthesis focuses on methodology and practice in the production of my exhibition Atomism & Animism (Fleming, London, 1999) through the period of my artist residency from 1996 to 1999 at the Science Museum London. It begins by charting the acquisition of intellectual and practical skills during the making of Le Musée des Sciences (Fleming & Lapointe, Montreal, 1984) which is referenced extensively in Studiolo (Fleming, Johnstone and Lapointe 1997) and which was informed by readings of Feyerabend and Foucault.

The synthesis goes on to examine the evolution of my development as an artist uniquely exploring science/art links through museum exhibition practice and methodology, setting this evolution in an historically informed contextual framework. This framework has two broad aspects: the development of contemporary artists’ practices in relation to non-art museums and museology in general, and the development of ideas of public understanding of science within a science museology milieu.

I examine aspects of the flow between these contexts and my own work via the reference point of my lecture Paradigm & Diagram: How Artists Think Science (Fleming, 1996), which I wrote whilst producing Open Book (1996) for the Science Museum and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The official residency at the Science Museum during which I produced Atomism & Animism (Fleming, London, 1999) followed on immediately, beginning October 1997. All three of these works are rooted in readings from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough.

The conclusion outlines the unique bodies of cultural knowledge produced by the works which I submit, and proposes that their innovative exploration of subjectivity in the display of objects of science can in turn become a study arena for a scientific approach to consciousness. The synthesis finishes with an evaluation of the implications of my work for future interdisciplinary research between artists, scientists and cultural institutions.

 

Many of the methods Lyne Lapointe and I employed and developed for Le Musée des Sciences (1984) involved institutional critique — including the institution of perspective, and with it, a range of representational conventions. Museum parody was a highly important aspect of this project, including the parody of signposting and wayfaring, open storage, salon-style hanging of paintings, the products of education departments, and more.

Conversely, much later when working in a real science museum — THE Science Museum, London — I found the most useful counterpoints to this new context were not museological methods, but rather aesthetic ones: skills I had acquired as an artist.  In creating Atomism & Animism (1999), I employed formal analysis and isomorphic comparison, juxtaposition of scale and of dimensions, puncturing realism and creating alternative narrative scenarios, rupturing received meaning through insertion and intervention in existent displays.

From the thesis:

Many artists have made museum parodies in their own studios. Some of us, as can be seen in Le Musée des Sciences, have sought to create alternative museums in spaces which are social or cultural no-mans-lands — neither studio nor museum. Still others have parodied anthropological or natural history collections inside the confines of the fine art museum when they are given the chance. Another tactic is to drop artworks into non-art museum display contexts.

But examples of artists actually working directly with existent collections inside the logic of individual museums, and making this the very subject of their inquiry from within are very rare. This sort of investigation is the kind of project which always points out of its apparently hermetic specificity to become epistemological in nature. It is an activity for which one must have stamina, sustained vision, and highly developed diplomatic as well as intellectual tools. It does not so much differ from curatorial practice as extend it by bending its laws to breaking point; in fact, bending them round so that they face each other and form a question mark as much about themselves as about the entire practice of collection and display.

 

In the intervening 12 years since I made Atomism & Animism, many similar approaches to collecting and displaying science and other forms of material culture have begun to be employed by museum professionals themselves seeking to pose these very same questions from within. It is also much more common now to see artists in residence in non-art museums. My thesis attests to the contribution artists make, even — and perhaps especially — to the institutions they critique.

The project of analysing my own methodologies and techniques foregrounded the inherent questions posed by the success of the projects themselves: who can practice history and philosophy of science, and how do artists’ methodologies enrich this field?  It is here that it became clear to me that my work in museums contributes to their increasing profile as laboratories for the development of interdisciplinary research.

My Supervisor was the design historian Professor Guy Julier, now Principal Research Fellow in Contemporary Design — a post held across the Victoria & Albert Museum Research Department and the University of Brighton.  As a co-supervisor with experience in history of science and in museums, I had Dr Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust.

Studiolo

Studiolo: The Collaborative Work of Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe, a major retrospective exhibition and accompanying book (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Artextes Editions and Art Gallery of Windsor, 1997-1998)

 

Covering all of our large scale site-specific work to date, Studiolo charted — as book and as exhibition — the overarching vision of these projects and the links between them along lines of leitmotifs and major pre-occupations.  From the explorations of public service and urban fabric in Projet Building / Caserne #14 to the ‘history of the body’ that was Le Musée des Sciences and the origins of museums that we had examined in The Wilds and The Deep and beyond, Studiolo gave us an opportunity to reflect on a singular practice that was at its core collaborative.  

Here is the artists’ statement from the Montréal version of the exhibition:

Studiolo is a project in and of itself. Its very subject is our work, which the public knows as a series of projects that punctuate what is, for us, a rich continuum. We wish to give those who have visited our site works — as well as those who have not — a sense of the seamlessness with which we ourselves experience the long and fruitful collaboration that we two have had to date. In purposely leaving open the vast volumes of two of the MACM’s exhibition rooms, we remind visitors of the huge spaces in which we have worked. Creating clusters of similar objects and counter-pointed images from widely differing projects, we also form intimate zones of reflection on the many threads which weave together our artistic practice. Most of the artworks which remain after one of our projects has been completed are those which were made or gathered together in the studio, created in a fertile research period before we even inhabit a site with which the public will always associate one or the other of our projects. These works, unlike those which we make as part of the buildings themselves, often return to the studio when the project is over. There, they become integrated into a living visual continuity; fragments of all the projects exist together side by side for us two in our home, creating new constellations of meaning, and revealing over time the formal, visual and ideological links between projects. This evocation is the message of Studiolo. Already resonant with the memory of each site project, each object also participates now anew in revealing to the public the artists’ view of our own work.

At the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the curator who brought the exhibition into being was Gilles Godmer; at the Art Gallery of Windsor, it was Helga Pakasaar. The show brought together work from private and public art collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Le Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Brown University Art Museum, and others.

 

Studiolo the book was already underway as a major publication project when the idea of an exhibition was formed: it was Lesley Johnstone, then Director of Publications at Artextes Editions, who had come to us early in the 1990s with a book proposal.  Her vision and tenacity were essential to the book’s success, as was its designer, EA Hobart of Zab Design and Typography, who collaborated closely with us — literally page by page.

This is the flyleaf text:

The large-scale building projects of artists Martha Fleming & Lyne Lapointe are legendary in certain circles. And yet, because of the independent nature of their production, a comprehensive overview of this seminal work has not yet been published. This book fills that gap.

A document, a bookwork, a manifesto, Studiolo explores the extensive and varied creative process of this collaborative pair. It covers not only the site works produced for entire abandoned buildings in Montréal and New York City, but also the discursive underpinnings of their fifteen-year practice. The artists’ image research and aesthetic are part and parcel of showing and telling in Studiolo — itself a work of art.

Divided into two sections, the first half of the book is a lyrical docu-fiction by Martha Fleming in which key fragments of the artists’ experiences are offered as clues for the reader. The second half is composed of extensive conversations between Fleming, Lyne Lapointe, and Lesley Johnstone, Montréal critic and curator and the Director of Artextes Editions. Leitmotifs of the projects and links between them, their conditions of production, and the relationship the artists establish with their audience are all addressed in this wide ranging section. Over one hundred photographs of five major projects are reproduced for the first time, many in colour.

Lively, moving and visually stimulating, Studiolo is an essential chapter in an underground history of contemporary art and community activism.

 

 

Further Links:  Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; Art Gallery of Windsor; Studiolo; Artexte; Zab Design and Typography

[Image References: Studiolo, an exhibition by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe, as installed at Le Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (1998) photographed by Richard Max Tremblay; pages from the book Studiolo (Fleming, Johnstone, Lapointe: Artextes Editions, 1997) designed by EA Hobart of Zab Design and Typography; the cover of the book Studiolo incorporated the photograph Four Girls Laughing, by Frank Cooke (1905) Courtesy of the Public Record Office of Great Britain]

Concordia University MFA Program, Montreal

Lecturer, Critical Theory and Studio Practice, Concordia University Master of Fine Arts Program, Montreal (1995)

I created a unique course to teach research skills to MFA students in direct relation to their own studio practice, and gave advanced tutorials in critical thinking and research skills for fine arts practitioners at MFA level. My approach was not to teach a canon of critical theory, but rather to teach emerging artists how to think critically, and how to effect academic research as an integral part of their studio practice.

From the course outline:

“In my opinion the most important tools art students can take away from a Critical Theory Seminar are: the ability to read well and variedly, to have confidence in their own discernment, and to pursue through reading an intellectual stimulation and companionship around issues which are of primary interest to him or her in their work in the visual field. Students need to know that (good) artists read extensively as part of our own research and development, prior to and concurrently with our production. They need to know how to find the material which is related to their own interests and production. They need to have that reading validated and discussed critically in a climate of inquiry.”

I assisted students to recognise their work in the context of, and as a contribution to, the history of ideas, by wrapping individually tailored syllabus and seminars around specific studio projects of each student. I encouraged students to formulate constructive critique and reading suggestions for each other, pairing students to hone their critical faculties and extend their research interests.

My seminar lectures touched on the integrity of ideas with matter; the materiality of letterforms and the book; and a range of research methodologies, including how to work with primary sources in archives how to collaborate with colleagues in adjacent disciplines. Guest lecturers were also invited by me to discuss curating and publishing around social issues. I also examined a number of final year projects of MFA students completing the programme in the 1990s.

 

Further Links: Concordia University Studio Arts Programme

[Image References: Engineering, Computer Science Visual Arts Integrated Complex Staircase, Concordia University; sculpture class crit, MFA in Studio Arts, Concordia University]

Introduction & Index

Introduction & Index, silkscreened translucent banners and artists’ bookwork (1994): Printed Matter (New York); Artexte@MACM (Montreal); Bath Public Library (UK); Ridington Room, University of British Columbia (Vancouver), C Magazine (Toronto)

 

A meditation on censorship and the power of print, and on the editorial apparatus as a constraining device with a complex subtext, this work was originally conceived as part of the project The Spirit and the Letter and the Evil Eye (with Lyne Lapointe, Bath, 1994).  As a limited edition set of banners, it was shown in multiple venues in Canada and the UK through 1994.  As an artists’ bookwork, it was published that year in C Magazine, with ‘Introduction’ being the first page of the magazine, and ‘Index’ the last page.

The ‘introduction’ at the beginning of a book and the ‘index’ at the end are conventions which help us navigate both the text and the ‘body’ of a book, and which define at one and the same time the spatial and the intellectual ‘lie of the land’ between the covers.  They are also redolent of sensory experiences of handling and manipulating the book itself: the ‘introduction’ is a physical way in – a threshold – and the ‘index’ that cuts through the book’s text by subject can also refer to the finger turning the pages.

As all knowledge is powerful, powers over it are carefully managed: Index is also the short-form title for the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books either censored or banned by the Catholic Church.  This list was active from 1559 to 1966, created as a direct result of the advent of the printing press, and the consequences of reading and circulating materials which appeared on it were at no time more draconian than during the Inquisition.

This was one of a series of works, large and small, that I made during this period using translucency in a two-dimensional format as a way of creating depth of field, relational structure and comparison between two discrete line images. Another example of these conceptual print projects is Metaphysical Subject, commissioned by the Laboratory at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art for the British Journal for the History of Science (1998).

What was particular about Introduction & Index was that it drew thoughts about book and print culture and convention together with the media of printing and publishing itself.  In a sense, the banners are as much bookworks as was the publication of the work in C Magazine, and both versions are spatial as well as graphic.

It was Julie Ault and Doug Ashford who invited us to display the banners at Printed Matter; Lesley Johnstone who invited us to display them at Artexte when it ran the bookshop for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; Antonia Payne and Angela Kingston in Bath; and Scott Watson in Vancouver.  Marie Fraser, then Montréal Editor of C Magazine, curated Introduction & Index into the publication.

 

 

Further Links:  Printed Matter New York; Artexte; C Magazine

[Image References: all images are of Introduction & Index, by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1994)]

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.]

Le Musée des Sciences

Le Musée des Sciences (Montréal, with Lyne Lapointe, 1984)

 

This major site-specific installation — a ‘history of the body’ before its time — took place over the entirety of an abandoned beaux arts Post Office Building at 1700 Notre Dame West in the Little Burgundy area of Montréal. Using everything from the sorting room floor to the surveillance corridor,  from the Postmaster’s apartment to the coal chute, we subjected the building, medical history and museological convention to analysis. It was the second of the ‘Montreal triptych’ of large-scale projects Lyne Lapointe and I made in quick succession through the mid-1980s. Working for the first time with both history of science and with museological convention, this project and the research we effected towards it changed the direction of my practice forever.

It is for this project that I first read Foucault. And Feyerabend’s Against Method, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Baltrusaitis on perspective, Giedion on mechanisation, Didi-Huberman on La Salpetriêre, and Bernard Cohen’s then relatively new Albums of Science. Not to mention Gerard Turner on collecting microscopes, Brian Coe on the history of cameras, and Stillman Drake on Galileo. It is for this project that I first set foot, with Lyne, in the Wellcome Trust Library.

 

 

To situate Le Musée des Sciences in its intellectual time, it is worth noting that it opened in February of the same year that Volumes II and III of Foucault’s Histoire de la Sexualité were published for the first time. It would be another five years before ZONE Magazine’s Fragments for a History of the Human Body and Sander Gilman’s Disease and Representation; another decade before Jean Clair’s Paris exhibition, l’Âme au corps (1993).

That this project, as early as 1984, meshed a critical inquiry into the history of the body with analyses of the representational practices in which the body is bound up, including museological conventions, still seems astounding to me. That it was effected by artists on the periphery as a self-produced large-scale work involving an entire abandoned building even more so.

From the press release:

Le Musée des Sciences is … a rigorous analysis of the socioeconomic order carried out over the bodies which that order constructs. [It] confronts the body of men, made machine by a Cartesian anatomy and the Industrial Revolution, with the body-in-pieces of woman, a body which has resolutely refused to look like its portraits. But this work is not ‘new figuration’ — representation is as much an institution as is the scientific method. The privileging of ‘bodies’ of knowledge and their vested interests are equally questioned here, as is the orchestration of the ‘body’ politic through social services rendered in just such buildings as are post offices.”

 

 

It is important to understand the conditions in which this project was possible, conditions which range from Montreal’s francophone proximity to continental thought, to the number of empty buildings in North American cities, post 1970s stagflation. We were not alone in pioneering the occupation of public space through collective creative action: 1984 is also the year that Group Material — including friends Julie Ault, Doug Ashford and, later, Felix Gonzales-Torres — produced their first Timeline project, A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, at PS1 in New York.

Our projects were no less political, forms of feminism taking place in a register questioning cultural convention and aesthetics. All museum activities, from collecting and conserving to display and education, funnel towards acts of interpretation that are essentially representational, involving the conjugation of objects, fragmentary and rent from their original context, into a semblance of meaning outside that original context. With Le Musée des Sciences we sought to extend to, and fully encompass, museum practice within a group of cultural acts more readily familiar as ‘representational’.

Many artists have made museum parodies in their own studios. Some of us, as can be seen in Le Musée des Sciences, have sought to create alternative museums in highly charged spaces which are neither studio nor museum. Still others have parodied anthropological or natural history collections inside the confines of the fine art museum when they are given the chance. Another tactic is to drop artworks into non-art museum display contexts. This stream of work was one of which I was very aware, having participated tangentially in the development of the publication Museums by Artists (Bronson, ed., 1983) whilst working in distribution of Video by Artists at Art Metropole in Toronto.

Yet few had ventured into the science museum. In 1983, Lyne had an exhibition in Stuttgart (Kunstler Aus Kanada, Württembergischer Kunstverein) and we extended our stay in Europe by travelling to several cities in Italy, including Florence. Visiting the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (now the Museo Galileo) was the original impetus for the project which became Le Musée des Sciences. At the heart of the city which had been the centre of Renaissance art and science, this wonderful museum that was then still organised in displays which followed taxonomies that had actually emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries: it was pivotally inspirational in both form and content.

The chromatically ordered samples of geological materials on the top floor of the museum was still then arranged as a two-hundred year old teaching collection, and it presaged with great beauty a sense of so much of what colour would later be able to tell us about matter once Frauenhofer had invented the spectroscope. Several floors down, the extraordinary set of obstetrical phantoms tried to cover all possible positions of a baby inside the womb at birth.

 

 

This is the moment at which ‘anatomically correct’ comes to mean, as it will for hundreds of years, a realistic representation of a dismembered body — ostensibly so as to focus the medical mind on the area of interest. Row on row of life-size wax and terra cotta teaching models presented what appeared to be stumps of surgically removed legs and semi-intact upper torsos, a carefully circumscribed layer of skin, fat, muscle and uterine wall excised to admit the surgeon’s gaze.

Further, the formally trained eye could observe, stepping from one set of Enlightenment instruments to another merely by passing through a gallery doorway, the clear isomorphic rapport between the barrel of a small cannon and that of a large telescope. It was this cannon and this telescope which first drew me to Feyerabend’s Against Method.

Nowadays, the role of artist-curator is commonly acknowledged, and I have certainly in the intervening years held that position a number of times as I have moved deeper into the museum world. Perhaps less familiar is the gravitational pull I felt in making Le Musée des Sciences with Lyne in 1984: it was a pull in the other direction — I was becoming a curator-artist. In the previous large-scale site work that she and I had created together, Projet Building / Caserne #14 (1983), there was a clear demarcation of roles: I was billed as the curator. By the opening day of Le Musée des Sciences, I was no longer at all sure of that. It would be some years before I realised that it didn’t really matter what I called myself, and many years before it stopped mattering to other professionals.

 

Le Musée des Sciences (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 La Donna Delinquenta (1987).  I also later analysed a number of the methodologies and outcomes of Le Musée des Sciences in my doctoral project, From Le Musée des Sciences to the Sciences Museum (2004).

Further Links: Wellcome Trust Library; Group Material; Museums by Artists (Art Metropole, 1983)Museo Galileo: 80 years of Display

[Image References: all images are of Le Musée des Sciences by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1984) with the exception of the second image on this page (Wellcome Trust Library Reading Room) and the fourth (Museo Galileo obstetrical models room, 1983). The third image on the page is of the working drawing with which we created the walk-on anamorphosis in the project.]

 

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Projet Building / Caserne #14

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.

Lyne Lapointe:

‘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).

Further Links: Arte povera; Gordon Matta-Clark

[Image References: all images are of Project Building / Caserne #14 by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1983)]