while the development at yonge
and Dundas has been mired in unresolved dilemmas, there's been no similar reticence about the bonanza of billboards on the corner. But the massive ad statements altering the skyscape are calling forth their own nemesis -- groups of citizens who want to spark debate on the use of common spaces.
Witness last week's culture jam by Commando Anti-Auto, a Quebec-based group who altered an Acura billboard at the corner of College and Grace from "The completely redesigned Acura" to "The completely redesigned climate."
The activist responsible for the rewrite tells NOW, "We're targeting billboards because streets are public spaces, and billboards are something you're forced to see. It's mental pollution. Our idea here was to reduce the love affair with cars so people become responsible about climate change.'
And just two months ago a new group, the Public Space Committee, was born to chart strategy against the ad invasion. Their first project was to protest a plan by Tribar Industries to construct two animated billboards on the Bloor viaduct -- a campaign that forced the company to move its billboards out of the Don Valley.
"People in Toronto have forgotten that public space is their space," says the committee's founder, Dave Meslin.
The movement that's revving up locally has deep roots south of the border. According to Scenic America, a national watchdog, over 500,000 billboards line major highways in the U.S., while as many as 15,000 new ones go up each year. "This country has enough billboards. There are now wall signs as large as 10,000 square feet,' says executive director Meg McGuire.
McGuire points out that 1,000 communities have already passed laws banning construction of new signs, and some states have their own prohibitions. Four -- Vermont, Maine, Hawaii and Alaska -- don't allow billboards at all. Vermont even advertises itself to tourists as a billboard-free state.
Explains Chris Barbieri, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce: "Vermont has been concerned with the environment for a very long time.' In the 30 years since the state banned billboards, everyone (including businesses) has supported the ban. "It created an environment that attracted investment and people with the same values. It has been a plus."
But nowadays, it's not so easy to go state-wide. The industry in the U.S. has consolidated to such a degree that five companies own over 80 per cent of all billboards there. And when the stakes are raised, so are the coffers.
Given the David-and-Goliath scale of the battles between citizens groups and the powerful billboard industry, it's no surprise that most of the organizing concentrates on bans on new signs rather than total-removal measures. In Reno, Nevada, Doug Smith and his group, Citizens for Scenic Reno (CSR), won just such a ban last year. "We knew that when you start trying to take billboards down, that's when you get into the big battles.'
Last March, CSR successfully petitioned to get a billboard initiative on the November election ballot. It passed, with 57 per cent voting in favour of a ban. Interestingly, Eller Media -- the owner of the 200-foot billboard tower at Yonge and Dundas -- has bought out the company that opposed the CSR proposal.
Says Eller spokesperson Bill Hooper: "Zoning should be left in the hands of city council and not ballot measures. Otherwise, you would have a ballot every time a guy wanted to put in a new driveway." A subsidiary of Texas-based Clear Channel Communications, Eller Media is the largest outdoor ad company in the U.S. market.
Hooper says Toronto has embraced billboards as a way of generating excitement in an area modelled on New York's Times Square. "Toronto is saying that signage can enhance an environment by bringing life to an area that they want to see as a gathering spot.'
Councillor Kyle Rae agrees. "I've advocated this. In parts of the city where you're trying to encourage high-end retail and mixed commercial-retail use, high-end, spectacular signage is appropriate. It brings light, colour and vitality. If we had a Champs-Elysées, then I wouldn't want signs on it. But that's not what we've got.'
Even lefty Jack Layton concurs, saying, "I don't mind some signage in the city. It's a form of artistic and commercial expression.'
But Meslin argues that Toronto has no consensus around the out-of-scale size of T.O.'s new ads and few places in the city bureaucracy for citizens to voice their concerns. "The only people who get access to spaces like Yonge and Dundas are businesses. An exciting environment would be one with community murals promoting events with messages inspired by people who live here, not corporations trying to make a buck.'
What Life's Like Without Ads
by Gerald Hannon
we want bustle, we want
lights, we want movement and crowds and clamour -- at least we do much of the time if we choose to live in cities.
And we find it by going downtown. New York has Times Square. London has Piccadilly Circus. Toronto has.... Well, it hasn't yet. But we're working on it. The official plan for the redevelopment of the corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets envisages a Piccadillian concentration of lights and excitement.
Oh, and advertising, of course, the principal mode in our culture for delivering said lights and excitement.
Some years before the fall of communism in Europe, I took a trip to Prague, Budapest and Vienna, in that order. And visiting them in that order made one vividly aware that there is a "white noise" in one's life that never stops. And when it does, through some chance of travel, you don't at first know what has happened. Prague is lovely, and you think your soaring spirits come from nothing more than an architectural/historical ecstasy.
But when you visit Budapest, also lovely, it feels different. At that time, Hungary was making tentative forays into a free market economy, and advertising was beginning to appear in public spaces.
You think back to Prague, and it strikes you that about all you ever saw on the streets there were posters and flyers announcing concerts and art exhibits.
Then you hit Vienna, a full-frontal market economy of the kind you know so well, and the volume on the white-noise control gets turned back up to high. You realize that while you were in Prague some background throb had stopped -- for the first time in your life -- and there was something giddy-making about it.
I had a similar experience recently in Cuba, where advertising seems restricted to scattered billboards and signs exhorting loyalty to the ideals of the revolution. Their unimaginative didacticism seemed a small price to pay for uncluttered urban vistas and a Cola-free countryside.
In North America, we know how tenuous is our hold on uncontaminated public space. Ads fill the airwaves, our magazines and our newspapers, drift overhead on dirigibles, cover the sides of buildings, get projected onto sidewalks, stare back (at men, at least) from above urinals in washrooms.
And we are so used to the white noise that a mild irritation is usually the most we can muster in response. (It is always a disappointment how infrequently people, and I include myself, resort to vandalism. I don't approve of what the Taliban is doing to statues in Afghanistan, but you have to concede that at least they take the power of art seriously.)
I'm not suggesting that the only way to free us from advertising is to install a totalitarian regime. Nor, oddly enough, am I suggesting that we turn the white noise off completely -- if for no other reason than that advertising is the most perfect artistic product of a capitalist society in consumerist mode.
There are moments when it works thrillingly -- in Times Square in New York City, say -- when the concentration of "buy" messages is so intense that no individual message registers and all that remains is the giddy excitement that comes with the absolute certainty that redemption is only a purchase away. Which is not so far from the exhilaration of great religious art -- where redemption, you become convinced, is only a prayer away.
But there is a difference, a difference that makes the truest art of our time, for all its meretricious brilliance, finally rather flat. That is its narrowness. It can conceive of its viewer in only one way: as a potential consumer.
Even religious art, which dominated the European artistic tradition for hundreds of years and is most comparable to advertising, was able to conceive its audience more generously -- as individuals capable of courage and self-sacrifice, as thinkers, as beings moved by maternal or fraternal love, as mystics, as madmen. Not feelings you can expect to have provoked at Yonge and Dundas, even when the redevelopment is finished.
But do we want to Cuba-fy our cities and our lives? There are signs that we do: culture jammers, adbusters, no-logo crusades. If so, we've come to a version of a realization so famously reached by the poet Rilke, when he, too, was confronted by a work of art that dazzled. In his case, the work, a headless torso of the Greek god Apollo, resonated more deeply and benignly than the advertising art that clogs our lives (though for us, too, the ad industry has ensured that "there is no place that does not see you").
But our response should be the same as his, and as courageous and as simple and as difficult: "You must change your life."