ADIAN BLACKWELL'S MODEL FOR A PUBLIC SPACE [SPEAKER] as part of NUIT BLANCHE at Grange Park (Grange and McCaul), Saturday-Sunday (September 30-October 1). http://nuitblanche.livewithculture.ca. Rating: NNNNN
If Adrian Blackwell had his way, Dundas Square would look a lot different.
The Toronto-based artist/architect entered the original design competition, a project that would eventually lead to many of the ideas that drive Model For A Public Space [Speaker], his contribution to the spectacular all-night art event Nuit Blanche.
"When I heard about the competition I was very excited," says Blackwell. "I was very interested in the idea of making a new public space for the city. But everything about the competition was making the square subsidiary to all the development and commerce around it. The plaza was going to be a conduit for the advertising."
We're struggling to find a place to talk near the site of his project in Grange Park. It's telling that we can't find a spot, since much of Blackwell's work over the past decade concerns the use and policing of public space.
We decide to perform an experiment: we venture into OCAD, hoping no one will ask us for student ID, and sit down beside a group of students practising breakdancing in a common area.
"I wanted to approach the competition as a critique of its own parameters," Blackwell continues as a dancer spins on his head behind him. "I had very specific ideas of a public space as a space for dialogue and also a place where impromptu things could happen.
"In the first phase of the competition, I actually worked with the company that won, but I disagreed with their ideas. They wanted to make a convex space, which is about thinking about the square as larger than the land it's on and allowing people to see it from further away.
"I was concerned that would cause things to kind of roll off it. It wouldn't have any power to engage people to stay in and with it, and I felt that day-to-day life was more important than the few days a year that you might be standing on the other side of the street watching some event."
Despite his objections to the winning design, Blackwell admits that the end result isn't as bad as he'd feared. He doesn't believe it's the design that's rendered the space somewhat soulless.
"Spaces in real life are complicated. It's easy to have fixed ideas, but once the space is built, of course people are going to appropriate it, of course people are going to use it. I think the problems with the square now are more to do with how it's managed than with the space itself."
His contribution to Nuit Blanche will be the third incarnation of MPS. The first version provided a forum for discussions about the relationship between architecture and the public, and the second dealt with the condo explosion and gentrification of Parkdale.
This time the structure houses discussions and music programming (in collaboration with the Music Gallery) dealing with the concept of the creative city, invoking some utopian concepts of how common spaces could be used.
Blackwell has more experience than most artists in coming to terms with the disparity between intentions and result. He generally builds potential for audience interaction into his work, much of which is done collaboratively or as part of a collective.
"It's hard to work as an artist in a really collaborative and community-based way, because the art world demands personalities, kind of like how NOW Magazine demands a single face for the cover.
"There's so much pressure on artists to create their own identity and make the creative act be intensely personal. But I'm more interested in the active and communicative aspects of art. I find collaborative work a very rewarding and essential way to figure out how to make things."
"As an anarchist, I think things have to work that way you're always working with other people. Anarchism is really about horizontal organization organizations that are not about hierarchy. The problem with the individualism of the artist is that it eventually creates hierarchies."
Though Blackwell tries to balance his own ideas with viewer interaction so his work doesn't become didactic or preachy, he's discovered that sometimes an audience's input can actually unravel and contradict his own intent and beliefs.
He cites a piece which became known as Monster as an example. He spliced together huge tractor inner tubes to make a large cone that rolls around in a circle.
"It was very heavy a couple of hundred pounds or so," he recalls, "which I thought was a lot. In fact, when you get a bunch of people together, it's pretty easy to move."
"It was installed on a raised plaza at McMaster University, above a student bar. The opening went fine, but at 1 am people leaving the bar completely drunk started interacting with this thing. At first they were just pushing it around, but at some point they started chanting, "Over the edge!' and were going to throw it into the courtyard with people inside the inner tubes. Finally, this huge guy decided to take it upon himself to be the bouncer and single-handedly held them back."
It's his combination of the playful and the political that's made Blackwell's work stand out from all the terribly serious "message" art that dominates the contemporary Canadian scene.
An example that thousands of Torontonians experienced and likely got a perverse thrill out of was the porta-potty he installed at Queen and Spadina several years ago.
"A lot of my work around that time centred on issues of public space and the specific problems that [then premier Mike] Harris introduced. For example, Portolette Piece, which was a portolette with a one-way mirror for a door (you could see out but not in) at Queen and Spadina, was a response to the Safe Streets Act and the crackdown on squeegee kids. It was about the question of who has the right to use public space, and tried to reverse the dynamic of surveillance."
Even if you missed the political subtext, it was undeniably great fun to watch pedestrians walking toward you as you did your bathroom business. Portolette reached people who wouldn't give a second look to a more angrily political piece.
Like Blackwell's projects, Nuit Blanche has great potential to bring contemporary art to the people without the intimidation factor. At the same time, it reminds us that this city is here to use and enjoy, and that public space is indeed public.