MONTRÉAL — At sunset in the oldest streets of Montréal, ghosts of the city’s past animate on its walls. Marie-Josèphe Angélique, an enslaved woman falsely accused and executed for burning the city in 1734, futilely flees from the flames; the procession for the 19th-century philanthropic tavern owner Joe Beef moves silently on a nearby building; a Jewish orphan departs a train to join a new family after World War II; and faces of the people in the 21st-century city appear ghostly on trees along the Jacques-Cartier Quay. Each is part of Cité Mémoire (Memory City), marking the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017.
The Cité Mémoire projection project has 19 different “tableaux” around the Vieux-Montréal and Vieux-Port sections of the Canadian city. Using a free mobile app, you can access music and narratives synced with the projections, or just watch them quietly as they illuminate the night. Multimedia artists Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, a duo who have also worked on the hometown spectacle Cirque du Soleil, collaborated with fellow Québécois, playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, on the narratives. Some are interactive, like an Algonquin-inspired story of creation on the sloping ruelle Saint-Dizier, where visitor pathways morph the projections of water, grass, and stars. Others are witnessed, such as the 1890-themed “builders of the city” that toil on skyscrapers above the Place d’Armes.
Cité Mémoire describes itself as “loosely inspired” by the city’s history, so these aren’t meant to be lessons but rather tributes to the past. I encountered the projections on what was my first visit to the city, so it was all new to me, and really emphasized the depth of the three centuries of its past, both good and bad. By daylight, the atmospheric Quai des Enfants Trouvés had caught my eye, and I’d read about its distant past when the alleyway once led to the water (now it dead ends at a wall). By night, I returned to find one of the most moving of the projections, which depicts the Grey Nuns who took in orphans near the site. The slow choreography has the nuns emerging from shadows and eventually the foundlings soaring into the darkness.
The app gives you the option to have narration (in four languages: French, English, Spanish, or Chinese), which is necessary for some to have their power, like the circa 1910 projection on Éva Circé-Côté. I’d never heard of the librarian and author but the piece with her words on equality and feminism recited through the app and accompanied with the image of her standing among women of various eras was particularly captivating. Others I felt were better watched in silence, like an unnamed gay man who in 1648 could choose to either be executed for his sexual “crimes,” or become the executioner himself (he chose to live, no matter the dark cost). This is also true for the story of Marie-Josèphe Angélique. The projection of Angélique’s story cleverly used the ghost building of a destroyed house and encircled it in flames, although the linking of this with a local tale of Jackie Robinson (yes, he played for the Montreal Royals baseball team in 1946, before the “color barrier” in the US was broken the following year) as a sign of greater tolerance was a little too neat.
Cité Mémoire is currently scheduled for every night through April 16, and more projections are planned to be added next year. (There are also reports that it may be extended to last a total of four years.) Some of it is definitely a little cheesy, like a couple of sailors bumbling through the red light district, yet it would be exciting to see more cities install longterm multimedia art projects to evoke their history, especially in areas where tourism and development can mask the nuances of the previous centuries.
For the most part, the projections aren’t on landmarks but they appears in side alleys and around parking lots. You might not get the full story of, say, the burning of Parliament in 1849, but the digital flames might lick into your memory and pique your curiosity about history.
Cité Mémoire starts at sunset each night in Montréal’s Vieux-Montréal and Vieux-Port neighborhoods through April 16, 2017.