Whimsical Winter Public Art in Montreal

Often public art provides pleasant backdrops for urban life but does not always evoke the playful side of city dwellers.  In a cold winter city particularly, pedestrians may not be as apt to stop and engage with a piece of art. This however does not have to be the case.  What if cities instead displayed interactive artworks that did successfully encourage people to pause and play for a while in the cold and the snow?

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Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles by day

During my recent trip to Montreal I came across a number of public art pieces that were specifically designed for winter. Using a combination of light, color, projection technologies, and music these works were strategically designed for dark, snowy winter nights, successfully encouraging a number of people to pause, observe and simply play for a while. Three of my favorite works are described next.

Projections: “Magician”

The “Magician” was one of eight video projected works as part of the Fascinoscope exhibit by LÜZ Studio.  Together with “Prismatica,” these works composed Luminothérapie, a winter exhibit hosted by the city now in its fourth year.  I enjoyed this piece particularly because it used a historic clock tower, which I may normally have passed by at night, to catch our attention.

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The Magician by LÜZ Studio in Montreal

This piece also had a map of the other works in the series, leading us to conduct a self guided adventure searching for all eight works.  Unfortunately the focal point piece at the Saint-Laurent Metro station, was not functioning when we visited. According to many other reviews of this exhibit this piece had interactive games previously set up for users to play as they left the Metro.

Music: “Des sapins à manivelle (Crank Firs)”

Compared to the large scale works of Luminothérapie projected on large buildings, the small musical trees in this series of works are much smaller, fitting perfectly into their neighborhood setting of two to three story row houses. For three years the neighborhood of Le Plateau Mont Royal has worked with design firm Dix au carré to place musical Christmas trees in public places throughout the neighborhood. Each piece uses a serious of different devices, bells, chimes, and giant xylophones, to invite people to play a specific Christmas carol.  The piece we came across used cranks and chimes.  After coming home and translating the French instructions I now realize it was intended to only play the song correctly when three people worked together.  A collaborative, interactive work like this has the potential to encourage people to pause and make music with neighbors and strangers alike as they pass by. Another little way public art can build closer communities.

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Musicial Trees by Dix au carré in Montreal

Color & Light: “Prismatica”

Finally, my favorite work was Prismatica. Located on the Quartier des Spectacles, a plaza used for various outdoor art events, this piece was conveniently across from where we were staying in the city center.  The piece displayed 50 colorful, spinning, chime filled prisms across the long plaza, inviting people to spin them as they passed, and to enjoy the changing colors reflecting on the white snow. Both evenings we walked through, the plaza was filled with people of all ages, even by 10pm at night, playing and photographing the prisms.

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Prismatia by Raw Design in Montreal

Additionally every Friday and Saturday night of the exhibit food trucks were to be at the plaza for people to enjoy local snacks. Unfortunately the weekend we were visiting they were canceled due to “severe cold.”  As we observed this severe cold though did not prevent everyone from enjoying themselves outside, playing with the art that weekend.

Other Examples of Playful Public Art

Besides Montreal a few other cities have also curated individual works or short term exhibits of public art designed for winter. For three days in December 2014, Washington D.C.’s neighborhood of Georgetown hosted Georgetown Glow, a curated outdoor exhibition featuring seven light art installations set against historic buildings. In early February Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood will also be displaying a piece of public art specifically curated to bring light in winter, titled Celestial Objects. Both of the exhibits however are more light focused than play centric works.

For cities or citizens looking to develop more interactive winter public art following these precedents of using light, color, projections and music is a helpful start.  In general though cities can broaden their search for public artists beyond the traditional mural painters and sculptors, to also include metal workers, musicians, event production companies and other interactive design firms. Even in smaller towns like Ithaca there are many professionals and even students with the creativity and skills to design more whimsical public art works.

Besides the physical presence of this art there is the hard question as to whether art works can really help foster whimsical exploration through interactions? While I realized my sense of exploration and joy from playing with Montreal’s works of public art was also partially because I was on holiday, I can’t help but hope Montreal’s own residents might also find a bit of childlike wonder as they experience these works for the first time. Even if the projected works near their metro stop serve as a daily reminder to enjoy themselves and embrace winter these pieces will have achieved the goal of helping people be more whimsical in winter.

Being interactive works I couldn’t help but share videos of these pieces too. Enjoy!

Prismatia by Raw Design in Montreal

Musical Trees by Dix au carré in Montreal

The Magician by LÜZ Studio in Montreal

All photos and videos in this post were taken by the author, Melissa R. Lim.

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