A glimpse of yesterday: Possible Movements lab explores the Grey Nuns Mother House 

By Anna Sarkissian

Archival footage from the 1950s is projected onto a virtual model of the Grey Nuns Mother House, which was built by famed architect Victor Bourgeau between 1871 and 1885. Magnifying glass

Archival footage from the 1950s is projected onto a virtual model of the Grey Nuns Mother House, which was built by famed architect Victor Bourgeau between 1871 and 1885.

From her office in the Faubourg, professor and incoming cinema Chair Marielle Nitoslawska has spent hours staring out at the Grey Nuns Mother House and thinking about the women behind its walls.

“We know nothing about this culture,” she says. “And yet these nuns have created our social institutions, our hospitals. I felt, my god these women are amazing.”

When Concordia announced that they were acquiring the property in 2004, she feared that the building and its histories would disappear.

In collaboration with Alison Loader, a Computation Arts lecturer and new media specialist, as well as several students, Nitoslawska embarked on a research/preservation initiative about the Grey Nuns.

“We’re calling it a living monument,” Nitoslawska explains, adding that they want to explore how people experience the meaning of a space.

Based at Hexagram in their newly created Possible Movements lab for expanded documentary cinema, the artists are experimenting with motion innovation, 3D imaging, acoustic spacialization and new approaches to representation.

“When you walk into the chapel, you walk with an incredible feeling of the past,” Nitoslawska says. To simulate that sensation, they built a virtual 3D model of the chapel, which allows the viewer to explore the space as if they’re floating. The digital chapel also acts as a screen for flickering archival footage projected onto its surfaces.

The few remaining Grey Nuns have given the team unrestricted access to the building and have been wholly supportive of the project. Soeur Blanche Morneault led Nitoslawska on extensive three- or four-hour tours of the building during which they peered into every nook and cranny.

Nitoslawska returned with her students, who filmed the Motherhouse in all four seasons using ultra high definition cameras. They captured lush black and white tracking shots down the long, immaculate corridors. While most of the rooms are empty, the roving camera peers into doorways for glimpses of neatly arranged armchairs, desks, and tables — remnants of yesterday.

“Books are fantastic for conveying ideas, experiences, and facts,” Nitoslawska says. “Cinema can render tactile, spatial, and emotional experiences. It can convey the spirit of the place better than any other medium.”

The project will likely culminate in an installation onsite in the Mother House, and may feature an online component as well. The artists are not product-oriented per se and are open to exhibiting the evolving work via multiple platforms starting in approximately a year.

In addition to the Grey Nuns project, the collaborators at Possible Movements are also working on a film by Nitoslawska about the historic upheaval of the 60s American avant-garde through the eyes of pioneering artist Carolee Schneemann.

Nitoslawska, who has been teaching at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema for twenty years, has worked as cinematographer on over 50 films and recently directed Sky Bones and Bad Girl.

The Grey Nuns project is financed by the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture and the Hexagram Institute for Research/Creation in Media Arts and Technologies. The project is produced with the participation of Catherine Van Der Donckt, Jane Tingley, and students Glauco Bermudez, Zoe Constantinides, Marie-Ève Fortin, Katie Jung, Colin Kent, Myriam Magassouba, Jonathan Ng, Klara Polom, Diego Rivera Kohn, Van Royko, Ryan Spence, Suzie Synnott and Nancy Townsend.


Concordia University