10  years

                            Bearing witness to a megaform

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                     'le meilleur intérêt c'est celui des non-artistes, non-architectes et non-urbanistes...'

                                                                                                                  Suzanne Paquet, art historian

These images document "informal interventions" Montrèalers employ getting from one side to the other of a double track CP line running East-West through the city that separates Mile End/Casgrain-Gaspé/Parc du Carmel to the South from Little Italy/Rosemont Petit Patrie to the North. The main focus is the section between Cristophe Colombe to Parc—its illegal entries and exits, repairs by contractors or CP Rail, the demolition of these repairs, weathering, plant growth, vandalism, plus general wear and tear. This long, curvelinear space enclosed by fences erected parallel these tracks to stop pedestrain traffic, the very territory they were erected to isolate, has not been rendered a no-man’s land by the steel mesh wall. It has become, on the contrary, a verdant every-person’s land.

Taking Olmstead’s NYC classic as an example, Central Park was designed as a “picturesque” imitation of nature yet almost immediately suffered the de-naturalization of overlaid human use patterns (paths worn across grass, garbage, canine feces) and industrial activity (hotdog wagons, pretzel kiosks, parking meters). The railway began instead as an industrial system designed to defy nature (both the variations of topography, flora or weather and the need for animal - horse, dog or human - muscle power for terrestrial movement) and as such still fulfils its original purpose. Nature and this “informal” human activity have repositioned it however; it has, and will continue to proceed in a direction opposite Central Park's as it metamorphoses from industrial to natural, park-like, 21st century urban picturesque.

Yet weather and climate, in the same time frame, at the same speed, cause the plants to grow on an identical cycle in both the industrializing “park” and the naturalizing “industrial site”. Same for the corrosion's patina, the covering effect of snow and rain.


The only definitions possible are open-ended and pardoxical, more conditioned by theatre and nature than industry or logic. After one year of photography, archiving, and discussion I came to the conclusion that this work documents a collaborative public sculpure using galvanized chain link fence. The main participants in the moulding of this material are: the CP workers who repair the fence from inside it, the contractors who erect and repair the fence from outside it, City of Montrèal crews who maintain the bicycle/pedestrian paths that parallel it, and the myriad individuals and groups who cut, bend, tear, rip, snip, clip, rend, and saw holes of various heights and widths and shapes in the fence to suit their manifold needs. Some of this human activity is sudden; whole sections of fence torn down (up to 50 meters) in a one night then re-erected in one day. Other activity can be slow; anonymous hands worrying and bending the wire till it breaks, this then casually repaired with plastic ties. The use of saws, bolt cutters, cordless grinders, and welding torches supplements the effort of both those who mend the fence and those who would raze it.


The track, once the long arm of colonization, is now a communications system between cities for trains at the same time its a boundary seperating city neighborhoods and a barrier for their residents. The structure is profoundly transitional in that CP customers pay per kilogram to use the rails as a means of transport while those who are paid by the hour to facilitate this treat it as a workplace and those who traverse it, informally, do this not only free, but in so doing transform it into something unique to them, which transformations in all probability would not occur if this space were not a formal barrier. At the same time they all, locomotive engineers, track workers, repair contractors and the many who cross—with different needs and ideologies—transform themselves too, whether it is the engine driver's fantasy of being Casey Jones high in the cab of a smoke belching steam locomotive, the CP employee's sense of 1930's unionized solidarity, the nighttime builders of a clandestine fire imagining their lives transformed from middle class comfortable to tramp or nomad desperate, the fence cutters' transformation of chopping wire into a political event of activist defiance, the bird watcher, medicinal plant collector or dog walker's transformation of an industrial landscape reclaimed by nature into a vast wilderness tract.

Such is the strength of these transformations that the rail workers have labeled many of those anonymous people who intervene (the beekeeper, grinder guy) as well as the sites of their activity (chicken farm, two tree pass). My obervation is that tolerant respect for this defience is the norm. As well, some crossings with their entries and exits (Home Depot to the “welding project" park triangle, Parc du Carmel to the bike path near St Denis) are subject of so many interventions they've become icons, consecrated and temple-like, part of daily discourse for those who frequent them. I submit that these informal, or illegal if you wish, sites are often employed instead of formal, legal, ones nearby (viaducts or overpasses) expressly because, now sacred, they represent this transformitive power, thus resolving or satisfying, aside from the practical, a multitude of social, ideological, artistic, or emotional needs on the many informal users' part.


Finally, these transformations also have, sad to say, a component of blocked non-transformation. If this were the countryside, or a North American or European city 200 years ago, or a city in some other part of the world, a trail might become a cow path then a buggy lane then a tractor road then graded for a truck, later graveled, subsequently surveyed, paved and named or numbered by the municipality. Now, in our city and others like it, no matter how dense the informal traffic, no matter how strong the desire, the energy level of informal transformation, if there is a formal response (the construction of an overpass, the building of a park) all these accumulated informal efforts will have no effect on the "planned" result. Thus, not only are both the holes cut in the fence ephemeral transformations (because they will be repaired) and so too the repairs (because they will be cut), never will either activity, this work of human minds and hands, so intense, constant and profound, be recognized and given permanent form. Nor will it be recognized for its power as sculpture even while various attempts at such, to varying levels of conceit, are strewn along its length.

Perversely, near the tracks, facing Home Depot, North of Beaubien between St Urbain and Waverly, lies recent evidence of Montrèal style “urban planning?”. A huge swath of wooded land—an unused rail bed reclaimed by volunteer trees as well as groundhogs skunks, raccoons and what birds the feral cats do not kill—has been cleared and bulldozed flat thus rendering a fertile, free, park sterile wasteland. What will happen next....the planting of 3 meter tall saplings chosen by a landscaper? In this context the rail road, the fences both sides of it, the various interventions involving these barriers, are all the more vital, humane and permanent expressly because of the "ugly" galvenized wire barricade and rusted but still in use iron rails. An asthetic pariah, commercially viable after a century, this zone is too nasty for a designer or planner to condescend to “improve”. Besides, its so much fun, so satisfying, to hate. Thus its ever-changing, delicate beauty is protected, its plethora of exotic flora and fauna are safe, and its importance to all that use it---CP Rail customers, employees or repair contractors, school children, factory workers taking a shortcut to or from home, or the oft sentimental multitudes who build camp fires beside it, walk dogs along it, and cross it for reasons of convenience, pleasure, or personal politics---retained. All this in a place bereft of the usual resources that create successful urban spaces, be those resources grants or capital, designs, planners, political systems and permits from the city or permission from landowners.

The second year of photography began with a terrible reminder that this time tarnished coin has a flip side. The tragic loss of life in Lac Megantic caused by an exploded tank car train, one that traversed Montrèal on these very tracks, reveals an opposite aspect of railroads; their potential for destruction, whether it be nature's ruin or devestated human populations, a repeat of what tranpired when they were first built across Asia, North America, South America and Africa.

A sequential spring, summer, fall and winter of work have changed me and altered my approach. For the subsequent four seasons, rather than concentrate on a similar sequential documentation of how people change the fences from an exterior point of view, I'll attempt to capture how the fences change people from an interior, spatial, event-based point of view by concentrating on the zone the fences enclose, paying greater attention to activity on the inner, track, side and what lies opposite. My observation is that the fences' physical fact creates a buffer zone yet a boundary, an edge, and in many ways this locale - were values, purpose, laws and geography clash - displays greater varience of interaction than the sonombualnt neighbourhoods bordering it. The fences seem to cause, or choreograph for want of a better phrase, a kind of public dance. Efforts to capture the movements of this dance when and where they occur also render me very much a participant. Is such activity stalking, shooting, capturing, hunting? What comes to mind, in terms of skills, patterns and outcomes, is trapping, the terrestrial activity that brought Europeans here in the first place and the decline of which was concurrent with the rise of this very same rail road.

Good fences make good neighbours

-Qin Shi Huang

If you are in an image and do not want to be we will erase