TOSAT-Website Up and General Thoughts
It has been a week since the TOSAT project happened, the website is up, and I figure it time to write my thoughts on the whole thing. First off, this was really a test to see if something of this scale could be done in a city away from home, and the result is a resounding yes. While things went smoothly-no arrests and a one hundred percent success rate in getting work up-it became abundantly clear that this would not have happened without the incredible help of several individuals who did all of the initial groundwork months before the action went down. They are in no particular order, PosterChild, Sean Martindale, Martin Reis, and Vanessa at the DuSpa Collective. As well, without the 60 plus artists that donated work for this production, TOSAT would not have happened. I want to make it clear that submitting work for this project is an act of beneficent citizenship and all of the participants should be commended for supporting this type of action which does more for the city of Toronto than it does for any personal interests they might have.
That said, planning for this Toronto action began with the last NYSAT project. Upon completion in NY, I was immediately interested in taking this model to other cities. I was duly impressed with the Toronto contingent of NYSAT which took a 13 hour bus ride all the way to NY to be a part of the action. Surely if they were willing to make that trek, their dedication to this kind of public space reform was profound, and they could be counted on to take the planning of TOSAT seriously. After many email communications it was decided that Pattison's Core Media Pillars would provide the right venue for a submission based project. Standard sizes and a dense network in Toronto's downtown core made them a perfect target. Martin Reis took the bull by the horns and went out to photograph every location he could find, giving us a detailed map from which to plan both the numbers of pieces we could handle, as well as how our teams could most efficiently hit a large number of locations in the shortest amount of time.
Next an email went out to our mailing list and we quickly reached 85 artists who were willing to submit work for TOSAT. This list included artists and activists alike, but partially because of the submission based aspect of the project, it seemed many more street artists and gallery artists were sending work. I was extremely happy about this fact for a number of reasons. For one it meant that the project was growing and interest was expanding beyond the hard core public space activists. It also meant that the "quality" (for lack of a better word) of the submissions would be raised. While these street advertising projects are about creating a large enough event that the public begins to questions advertising's use of public space, often critics will harp on the fact that much of the work is less than MoMA quality. Of course these critics fail to acknowledge that many of these works are either done under extreme time constraints and risk of arrest, or that artists are unwilling to polish a work knowing that the piece will quickly be removed, likely ending up in the garbage. Either way, the easier submissions are to look at, the less ammo the critics have and that can only help our cause.
While much of the project was planned before hand, I arrived in Toronto a week before the action to take care of final issues. My first task was to collect the works which had been trickling into Toronto over the last month. After counting the packages that had been received, there were only 45 artists who had sent in work, totaling only 70 some pieces. While I was under the expectation we would have 85 participants, I was obviously worried that the project would not have the support it needed to create a serious reaction. I sent out an email to those whose work I had not received to figure out what was going on. Responses varied and included some whose work had been returned because of customs fees which our receiver could not afford to pay (something we have learned can be escaped by warning participants to declare their works value to be less than 20 dollars) others had tracked packages which were still en route having been held up by customs or other delivery issues, and lastly about 15 artists had just plain flaked out. While the last response is typical of a project like this, it is also very difficult to deal with as the scope of the project and planning done before hand is dependent on people coming through on their obligations. In the end everything worked out and much of the work which was on its way when I first counted arrived without incident.
Now knowing exactly how much work we were in possession of, the serious planning could take place. I sat down with Vanessa and figured out just how many installers/activists we would need. DuSpa, being a collective that includes an incredible roster of progressive and caring individuals came through in spades, providing 16 participants to install the daytime pillar action and a similar number for the night time billboard action. It was decided that the "Ground" teams (handling the pillar locations) would depart at 5pm to insure daylight protest aspects of the project as well as insure photographs could be taken after installation in the event that the works were removed the next morning. The "Sky" teams would install under the cover of darkness, leaving our hideout at midnight with the expectation of a 4am return.
As we gathered at 3pm on Sunday, the day of the project, it was still pouring rain outside. Journalists, videographers and installers waited impatiently knowing installation could not begin until the rain stopped as many of the pieces were done on paper. Meanwhile, time was passed going over legal issues, briefing installers on how to enter the pillars and generally milling about anxiously. By 4pm the rain had stopped and by five it looked like the night would stay clear. We set out in six teams to blanket 41 pillars in less than 2 hours. While the first aspect of the project took place with little incident, it should be noted that initial scouting had turned up locations that had subsequently been removed by the time our action took place and some quick thinking was done by teams who found a few locations no longer existed. Again these issues will be dealt with in the next projects.
After removing over 160 ads, leaving PSA's in place, and installing over 90 pieces of artwork, participants returned exuberant and ready for the Sky team action. This aspect of the project was broken down into two teams. One containing the DuSpa contingent and the other Posterchild, Sean Martindale and myself. Each of our objectives was to whitewash 10 billboards in downtown Toronto, add some "art" and return home safely. While I was not on the DuSpa side of things I cannot attest to the ease of their outing but our team ran into no trouble at all. We painted out advertising with impunity for 3 hours in front of pedestrians, night shift workers, and transit employees until the very end. At our last location, ecstatic at our progress, we decided to end with a few photo ops. Having successfully painted the date of the project and a total of nine billboards we began to pack our truck.
Out of the corner of my eye, as I peeled a Pattison sticker from the side of our vehicle, I saw flashing lights. Knowing the police would box us in I continued at my task. Once they had pulled in behind our truck, they exited the car. At this point I looked over and said hello. The officer driving asked me to come over to him which I was already in the process of doing, saying something to the affect of "How you doing tonight?" He then looked me up and down, most likely because I was covered head to toe in paint drippings, and asked "Did you paint that billboard?" referring to the billboard painted with a giant 20 not 30 feet from our truck. Knowing I could not say no believably, I nonchalantly answered "Yes." He followed "You work for Pattison?" My truck said Pattison on the side so my only answer was again "Yes." He then looked me up and down slowly, I assume trying to find a reason to doubt me at which point he asked again quizzically. "You work for Patisson?" He clearly was not sure if he should believe me. It was at this point that I stupidly or maybe smartly responded, "Yeah we are just wrapping up our night, did a few of these in the neighborhood."
I do not suggest ever giving cops any more information than they ask for but in this situation it seemed to work in my favor. I seemed to truly believe that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and I think it rubbed off. Without any hesitation I had told him what he didn't expect to hear, and offered more information unsolicited. It was too real and he motioned to his partner to get back in the car. Their engine started and they quickly left. Needless to say we jumped in the back of our vehicle and drove as far away from that area as we could, returning to our hideout around 4am.
All in all the project was a complete success and I hope everyone involved felt the same way. The media in Toronto reported about the project widely and we hope that some of the issues that Torontonian's wanted raised will be reinvigorated by this action. Mainly, how the billboard by-law will play out in the coming months. Working in another city was a definite challenge. My tendencies to over control everything had to be let go and I was happily surprised with the results the true magicians behind this project ended up pulling off. While there are small details which will help us plan other cities more thoroughly, prevent us from loosing work, dropping participants, live mapping locations, etc. it was all about having a network of people in place willing to do some serious work. As much as we talk about the public space/anti-advertising activism world growing, this was truly an example of an international effort. Many of the participants had never met one another and had come together on faith and only our principles as common ground. Indeed a community of people exists floating around this type of activism and when that community hits, more people are brought into the fold, or at least into the conversation.
While this may be only a small step or too much work for so little return, I continue to believe that these projects are an important marriage of the art and activist world. With over half the world's population now residing in major metropolitan cities, the means of representation are becoming an ever important issue for our public spaces. If we let this issue go and do nothing about it we may find ourselves living in environments in which we have no say at all, where the normal array of visual elements becomes so privatized that questioning it may not even be a question at all. In fact we might already be there. If we choose to disobey current property laws and throw into question current tendencies to monetize and thus privatize our public experiences, we might just find our public spaces are missing a public element they might desperately need. And if this is a wild goose chase, citizens barking up the wrong tree in an effort to gain a better understanding of their relationship to their public environment and thus the society around them, then what have we lost?
In the end all the citizens of our cities have only to gain from non-violent civil disobedience like this. Ad revenues are quickly absorbed into multi-billion dollar budgets and our cities, if only for a moment, question something they pay little attention to otherwise. If anything these moments of contemplation are enough for me to continue forward but ultimately one would hope that opinions will begin to develop, seeds of ideas which will slowly alter the way we think about our public spaces, the people around us and the cities we want to live in.
more info at: www.publicadcampaign.com/tosat