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Damaged instruments make beautiful music

By Liv Ingram, January 15 2015 —

When floods swept Calgary in 2013, countless homes and businesses suffered catastrophic damage. Among the destruction was the National Music Centre’s (NMC) collection of rare instruments, kept in their basement on 11 Ave. S.E.

The flooding damaged 200 artifacts, totaling millions of dollars in damage.
Following a one-week residency with the NMC and the Stride Art Gallery in July 2014, Montreal-based artist Jonathan Villeneuve was inspired by the damaged instruments.

“When I came [to Calgary] I saw these people on the weekend going down the Bow River on inflatable boats. There was that contradiction between that leisure, fun-specific nature of the Bow River to that being where all the damage came from,” Villeneuve says.

This experience led to the exhibition currently on display at the Stride Art Gallery entitled When I am gone let happen what may / Après moi le déluge, which examines Calgary’s complex relationship with the Bow River.

The installation Life Saver features keyboards from two reed organs set atop snowmobile-like skis attached to an inflatable life boat. Inside the boat is a survival kit containing water packets, flares and other emergency tools, which are juxtaposed alongside a beach chair, umbrella and coin-slot instructing, “In case of emergency insert $1.” With the chair positioned in front of the organ, the installation encourages people to climb aboard, insert some change and push the organ pedals to make the sculpture play the theme from Phantom of the Opera.

The exhibit also features Sérénade, an industrial music box crafted from an oil drum. It’s outfitted with metal brackets that pluck copper pipes to play Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

“[Both installations] roughly try to play a riff a bit like a music box, but they don’t sound good at the same time,” Villeneuve says. “They’re kind of clunky and outdated. There’s something nostalgic and kitsch about it.”

Villeneuve was also given damaged accordions, a grand organ pedal system and a piano mechanism from the NMC’s collection, which he intends to include in future work.

As Villeneuve likens his work to a “visual vocabulary” that is continually evolving, Sérénade grew to include a three-minute mock-documentary on the instrument’s creation by a resurrected-gangster Elvis.

Sérénade also includes the technical plans to construct the work. They’re laid out in a step-by-step pictorial set of instructions, which Villeneuve calls an “open source assembly kit” reminiscent of Lego instructions.

“The way I work I feel relates a lot to what I was doing as a kid when I was doing Lego, which is repurposing what [the pieces] were meant for and doing something other than what is on the original plan, then making them function together as a system,” Villeneuve says. “I’m just lucky enough to still play Lego at 35.”

When I am gone let happen what may / Après moi le déluge is on display at the Stride Art Gallery until Feb. 13.

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