The bewitching city

Some things that have made me love Toronto in the past few weeks: The City Beautification Ensemble spray painting dull bicycle posts with pretty colours; the clay, true-to-life-sized sculptures of cartoonish heads that the artist Kristi-Ly Green has been leaving on street corners; learning about a group of local men named Bill who printed up flyers with famous people named Bill on them (Bill Gates, Bill Clinton) which they stuck on the temporary walls of construction sites under the stamped injunction: Post No Bills (see article on pg. 23). And I was really surprised today by a pencil-crayon drawing of a red covered bridge which someone taped to the swinging door of a phone booth on my street.

There is a need in this city for a certain type of public art not the kind purchased and placed by business or government but the kind that happens spontaneously, that could come from anybody, and that is proof of the living humanity that files onto buses and walks down the street.

Recently I’ve become frustrated by public art of the culture-jamming variety, which felt useful once but now seems incapable of helping the unhappy city dweller break out of the oppressive tedium and one-noteness of city life. Perhaps culture-jamming was never meant to do that, but far from taking a hatchet to capitalism, its techniques reinforce it. Living in a metropolis is partly maddening because of the billboards we pass at bus shelters and the ads in washroom stalls and the ones perched importantly on rooftops that collectively send out a single message: “This is all you should be thinking about; the human experience is the consumer experience.” I think much of the claustrophobia and blandness of city life does come from accepting this message. But what the typical response of the culture-jamming artist ultimately communicates (take the skull painted on the underwear model’s head, for instance) is acquiescence: “You are all I’m thinking about,” it replies. They don’t like the way the king is ruling, but they see no other king.

My desire for Toronto is that its streets be filled with acts that reflect imaginations that aren’t limited by a dialogue about consumerism, but are liberated enough to engage in other conversations for instance, about beauty, language, not-knowingness the things that actually make life interesting and vivid and rich. We need something to counter the ever-narrowing city-dweller’s mind with its relentless focus on Things That Matter and the ordered thinking-through of these things, with acts of public art that surprise and baffle as non-sequiturs do. Only when we’re taken by surprise by something we’re never encountered before are we vulnerable enough to respond authentically, with the part of our mind that is not made up and so is most curious and intensely engaged.

The best public art masquerades as the city, and turns the city into a place where expressions of gaiety and darkness manifest as authorless details. I am thinking of the bicycle tire at the corner of Markham and Barton, where I have been living, that several times over the past few months has changed its position locked to a post, hanging off a street sign, lying flat on the ground. Is an artist responsible for this? Is anyone? I can’t think of the reason someone would be making this gesture, except out a sense of play and mischief. And if no one is moving the bicycle tire around (which, though strange, seems just as likely) then the city is a pretty bizarre and magical place, which is the best thing a city can be, and which makes being a city-dweller bearable, even exciting. As the Situationist Guy Debord put it, “The most general goal must be to extend the non-mediocre part of life, to reduce the empty moment of life as much as possible,” in order to ensure “the future reign of freedom and play.”

One of the reasons humans who have been affected by art continue to need art is that it reminds us of those parts of ourselves that wither and are neglected in the course of things, which happens not because our confusion and wonder and grief are not important and valuable to us, but because they’re less useful. They don’t help us to do our chores. They make our chores bizarre. Polemical public art accepts the central tenent of industrial life: that everything must be for a purpose even leisure, even play while public art that baffles and has nothing to say is a more truly radical gesture. It subverts not simply a specific ad or advertising, but sense and nonsense in general a firm grasp of which is the glue of capitalist life, and of any political regime. While the culture-jammer might scrawl “Shopping is bad,” the truth is that shopping is neither bad nor good, but deeply beside the point, so completely not at the core of what is most interesting about our humanness.

To speak about money for a change Toronto spends eleven dollars for every person, every year, on what the city calls Culture. Vancouver spends twice that. New York: sixty-three dollars a head. We’re lucky that the city bureaucrats would rather have each ordinary citizen take on the task of beautifying and filling our streets and sidewalks with art and theatre and question marks, and we should all be grateful for the fifty-two-dollar tax rebate available to each one of us to spend on paint or clay, as we prefer. As Joseph Beuys wrote, “Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline…Every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself.”

Sheila Heti is the author of The Middle Stories and organizes the Trampoline Hall lecture series