In anticipation of Nuit Blanche, we asked artists and curators how public art can better reflect the city’s overlapping social, political and historical realities
By Chris Rattan
Sep 27, 2017
Courtesy of Cadillac Fairview
In an example of privately funded public art, Montreal artist Aude Moreau spelled out “LESS IS MORE” in the Toronto-Dominion Centre’s windows over Labour Day weekend to mark the building’s 50th anniversary.
Public art is an undeniable fixture of our city’s modern landscape. Toronto’s rapidly growing built environment is transforming the face of the city but works in the public realm are defining its character, uncovering its history and opening up new possibilities for cultural expression. The Artful City, a Toronto-based collective exploring public art issues, has noted that of the city’s 700-plus public artworks, 64 per cent of those commissioned in the last 50 years appeared after 2005, the result of both civic and private development support.
Cameron Cartiere is one of the few public thinkers to have written a definition of public art. Waving at the stacks of books in her Emily Carr University of Art + Design office during a Skype interview with NOW, the associate professor says that every text ever written about public art agrees there is no one way to define it.
Art movements are at times galvanized by a manifesto, which can include definitions and intentions writ large. Cartiere co-authored The Manifesto Of Possibilities: Commissioning Public Art In Urban Environments, a statement of beliefs, concerns and recommendations about the commissioning of public art.
Cartiere cautions that for all its possibilities, public art isn’t a fix-all. A city’s bad social policy is its bad social policy. But it does have transformative power. As an art form that exists in the public realm, it can comment on, resurface and even question the multiple social, political and historical realities of the sites it sits on.
It can cause citizens to think differently about the spaces they habitually tread, an idea that will weave its way through this year’s Nuit Blanche, which will emphasize artwork inspired by social change, resistance and cultural endurance.
Proscribing to art what it should do is a fool’s errand, somewhat similar to telling a river how it should flow Whether art or water, such endeavours attempt to force phenomena to go straight when meandering is in its nature. However, Cartiere notes that when embarking on a public art project it’s imperative to ask, “What do you want it to do?”
With that question in mind, we’ve compiled the insights of curators, directors, artists and an academic into a five-point manifesto that sets down what public art in this city ideally should do.
Monsters For Beauty, Permanence And Individuality, an installation by Omaskêko Cree artist Duane Linklater unveiled on September 23 in Don River Valley Park. Inspired by the city’s straightening of the Don in the late 1800s to better serve industrial needs, Linklater planted 14 cast-copy gargoyles from downtown buildings to highlight the ways harmful resource extraction led to the growth of the city.
EXCAVATE LOST HISTORIES
A rapidly growing city, Toronto can seem so new that it almost seems ahistoric. But the same sites that host our ever-intensifying built environment also house deep political histories.
Public art should excavate these forgotten stories.
Barbara Fischer, executive director and chief curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House, is curating the Nuit Blanche installation Taking To The Streets, an exploration of protest in Queen’s Park. The site’s history of “innumerable uprisings and public manifestations from those who feel invisible,” as Fischer puts it, will rise up in participating works like Hazel Meyer’s Where Once Stood A Bandstand For Cruising & Shelter.
Queen’s Park may be the site of the province’s legislature, but it has a dual life as a gay cruising spot, which was under police surveillance in the 1970s. In the tradition of activist banner drops, which made social justice demands in conspicuous spaces, Fischer will unfurl large-scale banners attesting to Queen’s Parks multiple identities through time, particularly those that “Toronto the Good” would rather sweep under the rug.
“Public art can play a role in restoring public memory,” says Fischer. “Instead of the built environment becoming part of the everyday that people no longer notice, habitually unexamined and unquestioned, we should recognize that it stands for something and to question whether we still agree with what it stands for.”
Director X’s Death Of The Sun was a focal point of Nuit Blanche in 2016.
CONTEST THE POWERS THAT BE
Like cities across the U.S., Toronto finds itself grappling with problematic public monuments.
Temporary public art interventions should respond through counter-works that contest the power on display.
On three occasions between October 29 and November 12, comedy-art duo Life of a Craphead (lifeofacraphead.com) will send a replica of King Edward VII floating down the Don River. A pompous equestrian statue floating downstream uses wit to invalidate the in-perpetuity nature of public art monuments, especially when the public calls for a revolution in the way we commemorate history’s supposed victors.
Nato Thompson, artistic director of Creative Time in New York City, curated Nuit Blanche’s Monument To The Century Of Revolutions exhibition. Featuring Russian collective Chto Delat and local artists, collaborators and activist groups, the “living, breathing” monument will transform Nathan Phillips Square into a collective artwork of mass shipping containers. Unlike monuments that generally praise one person or event, it elevates multiple voices.
“People will say, ‘Why can’t art just be beautiful? Why does it have to be so political?’ I say, it just depends on where we’re at as a society. If the world we live in feels entirely egalitarian and our other civic functions are balanced, then perhaps art can be dreamy,” says Thompson. “It just strikes me that more often than not power is not addressed and so art has a capacity, because of its expressiveness, to take on issues that others don’t have the bandwidth to address.”
Over 19 days in September, Thelia Sanders-Shelton and Julie Ryan created a 25-foot androgynous figure out of driftwood at Humber Bay Shores Park. Called El Corazon (“the heart” in Spanish), the sculpture is located directly south of the Green P parking lot at the intersection of Marine Parade and Waterfront Drive. The duo built it without city permits after the positive public response they received to another unsanctioned art project, a driftwood sign spelling out Toronto.
HELP EMERGING ARTISTS GET PAST THE GATEKEEPERS
Paddy Leung left art school for much of the same reasons they didn’t bother entering the commercial art world: as a queer POC artist, they didn’t feel there was a space for them.
Instead, they tapped into opportunities to create temporary public art work, like their series of display window installations and DIY art events, which wound up catching the attention of the AGO.
Systemic barriers prevent marginalized voices from accessing the commercial gallery system. Public art should dismantle those barriers.
“In order for artists from marginalized communities to gain the authority to make decisions related to the curation of public art, they need to first rise up through a hierarchy of institutionalized art spaces, largely dominated by white men with money,” says Leung. “So long as marginalized artists struggle just to break into the first tier of this system, it remains unlikely that we will see the realm of permanent public art populated by voices from marginalized communities any time soon.”
Temporary public art work, however, tends to lack the bureaucracy or the boy’s club of the commissioned permanent works process.
“I am starting to see more temporary art projects throughout the city that allow emerging artists to share their voice,” says Leung, citing art commissions in music festivals and events like BIG on Bloor and Nuit Blanche, where their colourful, linked archway installation Garden Tunnel will transform the Drake’s streetside patio into a space of acceptance.
“Often, it is in these types of unconventional spaces that artists like myself are able to be represented.”
A mural painted by Flemingdon Park youth that combines graffiti lettering and portraiture reflecting the neighbourhood’s diversity, as well as its past, present and future.
MOVE FROM THE CENTRE AND SPEND TIME IN THE MARGINS
Toronto’s Percent For Public Art policy, which mandates that private developers allocate one per cent of capital project costs to public art, has resulted in a concentration of artwork in the developing downtown core. Neighbourhoods at Toronto’s periphery are left lacking in cultural works.
“We take special care to work in neighbourhoods that aren’t typically thought of as real cultural hotbeds,” says Alexis Kane Speer, founding director of the STEPS initiative, a public art charity that fosters community-based projects like the world’s tallest mural in St. James Town. “Visible community art in the public realm often creates local landmarks in communities that may otherwise not have them works people can feel proud about, especially when it reflects their community.”
Paulina O’Kieffe is the director of ArtReach, a high-engagement funder that works with marginalized youth on community-led projects that also prepare them for art-industry careers. “I’m diligent about engaging youth in the hardest-to-reach areas,” says O’Kieffe. “Public art isn’t confined to the restrictions that gallery spaces have. It gives the opportunity for art to be accessed by those who can’t afford to do so in traditional institutions, and it gives a sense of freedom for young people trying to express what’s going wrong in those spaces.”
This mural by Chief Lady Bird and Aura celebrates Indigenous motherhood. It’s part of Woman Paint, a street art project in Parkdale celebrating intersectional feminism.
FOSTER CULTURALLY REFLECTIVE AND NOT REACTIVE ART
Commercial art spaces hold a curated vision of what art is. Indigenous artists feel it most acutely when they’re expected to fit into the confines of stereotyped Native art (think romanticized ideas of totem poles) as opposed to reflecting their multiple realities.
Public art should provide space for the full and unfettered expression of cultural groups.
For Nuit Blanche, Marianne Nicolson will stage a large-scale art intervention on Old City Hall. The Many Large Houses Of The Ghosts will address the dispossession of Indigenous people by projecting hand-drawn pictograms on the building’s exterior.
Nicolson’s intent is to disrupt a site whose colonial-based power “is accepted as completely normal, which for Indigenous people has never been experienced as normal at all, but as oppression,” she says.
“We get fit into a western colonial dominant narrative and it’s frustrating because if we had our land rights recognized and our potlatch wasn’t outlawed we would have been able to sustain our cultural production and expression on its own terms,” says Nicolson.
“All we can do is interject our ideas into that narrative and say, ‘There is another way.’ I have to strategically leverage the public art opportunities I get in order to be able to do a lot of the community based-work I do. But I often wonder what would we be doing in our communities if it was all on our own terms?”