The water fountains may flow more regularly on steamy days, and security guards don't bother skateboarders or the homeless as much. But Yonge-Dundas Square's concrete-cold open-air space remains as resistant as ever to anything besides ads for anti-aging creams, SUVs and cellphones.
The Transmedia :29:59 project, which wraps up next month, was supposed to change that. Under the project, one-minute videos by 24 artists were chosen to be shown (at 29 and 59 minutes past the hour) on the large video screen on the square's southeast corner.
But the "media art in public urban space" project hasn't been without its glitches. First, Clear Channel, the U.S.-based media behemoth that owns the video screen in question, spiked a short that critiqued the square.
"Yonge-Dundas Square and the city of Toronto are our landlords," says Clear Channel Outdoor VP of marketing and sales Alan High. "And we are not going to put up anything that is in any way derogatory or negative concerning the square. Our mandate is to generate money for that board. This is not a public service."
Two other artists were forced to edit parts of their work, ostensibly over copyright issues although it seems Clear Channel didn't want to upset its other advertisers by showing work that included the corporate logos of competitors.
Artist Duncan Walker, of the City Beautification Ensemble, those wacky folks who fight urban blight with a paint can and brush, thought of his video as a rallying cry to help bring colour to the square.
"I thought a company like Clear Channel or Yonge-Dundas Square's board of directors, knowing public reception of the square has been lacklustre, would take it upon themselves to extend a hand to those who might be a little critical and embrace that criticism," says Walker. Oh, the naíveté.
Walker soon got a call from Clear Channel saying he'd have to re-edit the video or add more positive commentary or else it was no deal.
"There's nothing worse than a big company that has no sense of humour about itself," Walker says.
Patrick Carnegie, manager of programming and events for Yonge-Dundas Square, says the square's board of management "didn't play any part" in the decision to kill Walker's video. "It doesn't mean anything to us if people want to make comments about the square on the screen."
But Transmedia curator Michelle Kasprzak defends the decision, saying, "A museum would rarely or never permit a work to be shown in its space that was critical of the museum."
She adds, "It's easy to paint corporations as the bad guy [but] artists are well acquainted with compromise and negotiation when it comes to presentation of their work." But Walker's wasn't the only piece to meet with Clear Channel's disapproval.
Brenda Goldstein's Economies Of Scale, "a critique of the pace of change and the financial economy versus the pace of the natural world," only aired in April after sections showing a video board of one of Clear Channel's rival advertisers was edited out from the background.
Clear Channel's High says the video had to be altered to avoid copyright infringement - namely, a Bank of Montreal logo in the background. He denies Goldstein's claim that a competitor's video board in the background was the real problem.
"I didn't want to see a billboard in the background, competitive or otherwise," High says. "I'm not sure I understand the piece, but I respect the artist's creative nature. I felt that making that one change would not affect the creative integrity."
Copyright and intellectual property lawyer Glen Perinot says it's generally permissible to show copyrighted logos for educational purposes or media broadcasts. However, artists who stand to gain financially from their work - Trans participants were paid $100 for their work from an Ontario Arts Council grant - need the company's permission.
Video artist Myfanwy Ashmore ran into a similar copyright issue with her Mario Brothers takeoff, "a metaphor for the choices people make in life." She offered to sign a waiver and put a disclaimer in the video absolving Clear Channel of any potential liability for her use of the Nintendo logo. But Clear Channel's High says the company needed a release from Nintendo.
Says High, "You have Clear Channel, which is a big public company, and an unknown artist with no money. Well, guess who's going to get sued? Some people would call it censorship. I would just call it good business."