Re-territorializing Public Space

With the dismantling of monuments of controversial figures, calls to change the names of streets and public places, as well as protests seeking a just recognition of minority groups, the public sphere, associated with the democratization of exchange between citizens, has undergone profound change, even re-territorialization over the last few years. Having taken hold in 18th century Europe, the notion of public space is closely linked to democracy and corresponds—notably through the written press—with the free flow of ideas. In the name of information transparency, the public sphere gives people the possibility of expressing divergent opinions. It promotes the freedom to express oneself and to protest. On the artistic level, particularly with sculpture, notably with sculpture, it has particularly favoured a public art that represents a vision of the dominant history, which is primarily embodied by bourgeois society, the new figure of a henceforth liberal power.1

Regardless of the political regime, the public sphere has always been enriched by monuments that celebrate the victorious power. But according to democratic principles, the public sphere allows dissent when it is peacefully expounded. However, this is not always the case. Very recently, the statue of John A. Macdonald, erected in 1895 in the centre of Place du Canada, in Montreal, was targeted by a group of activists who took on the statue of the co-founder of the Canadian Federation. The sculpture of this lawyer, instigator of the residential schools and reserves for Indigenous Peoples and the first Prime Minister of Canada, has often been the focal point of demonstrators for whom Macdonald symbolizes contempt for Indigenous, Metis and French-Canadian communities. Created by the British sculptor George Edward Wade (1853-1933), this statue, which is now under the responsibility of Montréal’s Public Art Bureau, has now been placed in storage for as long it takes to evaluate the place it will occupy in the future history of the country. But to this end, it is important to reconsider the democratic ideal of public space and, as philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) reminds us, to focus on the development of a common world that does not exclude the plurality of a people made up of different individuals who are committed to building a more just society.2

In telling the story of Montréal’s foundation in the film Hochelaga, Land of Souls (2017), director François Girard evokes an important aspect of this recomposition of public space. A subsidence at Percival-Molson Stadium provides the opportunity for archaeological digs that will make it possible to confirm the origins of the Quebec metropolis to come: that of a city built up on an island inhabited by Indigenous populations. As is the case for several Canadian cities, Montréal was established on an unceded territory. Furthermore, when this reality is transposed to the field of public art, one would be well advised to bear this in mind. In 2017, following a competition, the Calgary public art program jury selected the proposal of artist Del Geist, a well-known US sculptor. Titled Triassic Towers and located in front of the Canada Olympic Park, this work was installed on traditional Indigenous territory. Made up of stones and steel, the work recalls—despite the artist’s intentions—a funeral rite with which many Indigenous people identify, triggering a feeling of unease for many of them and by the same token, reflecting the importance of including members of their community in the public art selection process. In underlining this controversy in his text, Laurent Vernet, the editor of the thematic essay section, insists on “the necessity of decolonizing this institutional practice,” which must integrate more positive efforts to bring about reconciliation and inclusion, and also to involve a re-territorialization of public space and the artworks one encounters there, if not the artistic actions arising within it.

From a perspective of openness and renewal in this field of public art, many artists appeal for greater diversity. A diversity of artists, of their works and the territories they are set up in, but also diversity in the decision-making bodies. This presence of artists from a wide range of origins is a major cultural issue that requires a revision of public space, making it open to the social reality of today. Moreover, this reality is never politically neutral, it consists of multiple perspectives that come up against each other and clash, but which must build bridges to ensure harmonious co-existence. It is due to this plurality of viewpoints that the world to come is forged, and art can contribute to maintaining it by way of its various sensory expressions, consensually or not.

Expressing this plurality as a new way of experiencing public space is what many artists from various backgrounds are trying to do. In this context, and with a desire for recognition, it is about rethinking the place that monuments occupy in order to enable other histories and other narratives. This can be carried out through expanding the field of monumental representation as Analays Alvarez Hernandez underlines in her article, focusing on the “performative practices” of three Canadian artists of Latin-American origin. It is also from this perspective that Martin Zebracki’s text highlights the importance of sculptors and performative interventions linked to the demands of LBGTQ2+ communities that make it possible to counterbalance the “heteropatriarchal” world, which is openly displayed in public space. As Julie Richard proposes in her text, this “right to appear” outside of the heteronormative matrix can also be carried out with performances that assert bodies and identities in all their plurality. As the mass protests in the US during the summer of 2020 remind us, the calls for a right to exist in public space also speak to racialized communities. Eunice Bélidor and Camille Larivée analyze these issues in particular, addressing various projects that took place in the Petit Bourgogne and Saint-Michel neighbourhoods. They join their voices to reflect on new ways to correct and reappropriate an urban space that is all too often marked by colonial history.

To complete this issue, the “Events” section presents a text by Daniel Fiset on the Biennale nationale de sculpture contemporaine in Trois-Rivières that took place in circumstances that were hardly favourable for a gathering. Thirteen artists and collectives applied a variety of approaches to explore the event’s thematic Croire/Believe. This is followed, as usual, with the “Reviews” section in which ten texts report on recent exhibitions, and which is also where we review publications such as catalogues devoted to the practices of artists from here and elsewhere.

Translated by Bernard Schütze



1. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Poltity, 1989).

2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958). Primarily chapter V: “Action.”