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By Aloysius Wong
December 10, 2021
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Public art projects are set to reshape Toronto and break down physical and cultural barriers in the city within the coming year. However, part of this process, artists say, involves challenging our conceptions of public art and the narratives they create.
The ArtworxTO: Toronto's Year of Public Art initiative is “a year-long celebration of Toronto’s exceptional public art collection and the creative community behind it” that runs from now until fall 2022. Part of this initiative included the creation of an interactive map of Toronto’s collection of public art to encourage the public to “explore the city” and “engage with art in their everyday lives.”
There are also several projects underway for new art coming in 2022 funded by ArtworxTO, the Toronto Arts Council, and local business improvement areas. One example is the Waterfront ReConnect design competition, which seeks to revitalize underpasses under the Gardiner Expressway. Artists say that initiatives like these play a significant role in breaking down physical and cultural barriers within the city.

The final design by Ken Greenberg and PUBLIC WORK of the first Waterfront ReConnect improvement under the Gardiner at Rees Street and Lakeshore. Image from Greenberg's site.

“This infrastructure—the Gardiner—is pretty imposing,” said Alan Webb, an architect working with one of the teams proposing a design for the Waterfront ReConnect competition. “It’s a clear example of how prioritizing automobiles kind of shaped urban form.”
“In general, we have inherited this major piece of infrastructure,” said urban designer Ken Greenberg of the expressway. He says that when it was first built, “it was all about just moving cars,” but that we’ve since seen a shift in Toronto towards gradually prioritizing other modes of movement through the city, including walking and cycling.
Webb hopes that his team’s design will help make the underpass safer and less intimidating for pedestrians.
His team is guiding their work with questions such as, “How can these spaces be memorable, inviting? How can this be a more welcoming experience that’s not something you’re dreading?”
His and other teams’ designs submitted for the competition will be available to the public from early next year, and the winning design for the York and Simcoe Street intersections will be implemented shortly after.
For artist and curator Luis Jacob however, breaking down the barriers between physical spaces isn’t the only role that public art can play. He is particularly interested in seeing how our ideas of whom public art is directed towards—and in which spaces they are held—can change through these new initiatives. 
He says that we tend to assume that “if we put art in public space, it’s therefore public art.”
“I don’t think it’s that way. I don’t think we can take for granted what a ‘public’ is, and I don’t think we can take for granted that there’s such a thing as public space.”
“Sometimes we think that, well, public space is whatever’s not private space,” Jacob continued. “Businesses and homes are private space, so by default everything that’s not that must be public space.
“I don’t think that’s a very good definition of public space; it defines it in terms of what it isn’t rather than in terms of what it is. And I think it naively assumes that anything that’s not private is a realm in which people can enact their publicness together.”
“When the public realm, or the outdoor realm, is designed precisely to prevent people from congregating, I think it acts as an anti-public space.”
Jacob used Life of a Craphead, the collaboration of artists Amy Lam and Jon McCurley, and their work as an example of how we can reimagine where public art can be presented and to whom. 
In 2017, Lam and McCurley created a replica of the sculpture of King Edward VII on a horse that currently rests in the centre of Queen’s Park and floated it down the Don River over four weeks from October to November in 2017.   

Artist and curator Luis Jacob discusses Life of a Craphead's 2017 replica of the sculpture of King Edward VII which they floated on the Don River.

“It poses the question of, ‘Who is this man on a horse? And what is he doing on colonized Indigenous land?’
“And going down the river, it was quite beautiful to look at too,” recalled Jacob. “You know, the Don River is quite slow-moving.”
“It became like a big turd floating down the river. And it looked kind of pathetic and sad, rather than heroic and noble as the original statue is intended to render the royalty. And suddenly other associations became possible.”
Jacob also commended the piece for “creating a public” and not taking the idea of “the public” for granted.
“The people that use the Don River—so joggers, people walking their dogs—they’re not there to see public art, and they’re certainly not there to see statues of British royalty.”
Because of the unique space and method through which it was presented, these everyday people who saw it, he said, would have to think about what it “will have a moment to think about what it means to have this statue floating down the river.”
Interrogating the meaning and purpose of pieces of public art can also drive larger social change. One recent example of this was when the statue of Egerton Ryerson on the campus of then-Ryerson University was toppled after the recent discovery of mass graves of Indigenous students in residential schools. This would lead to the permanent removal of the statue on school grounds and the process to rename the university that has since followed.
A few years prior to this, however, Mohawk artist Shelley Niro also challenged the narrative behind the statue with her photography series Battlefields of my Ancestors. The photographs documented historical evidence of the erasure of Indigenous culture and peoples in Canada. Displayed around the statue of Egerton Ryerson, they created a new context through which his legacy—as evidenced through his statue and the accompanying plaque—could be understood.

Shelley Niro, Battlefields of my Ancestors, Installation view at Ryerson Image Centre, 2017. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Taken from the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival website.

“It was a lasting impact that’s been imposed on space that certainly projects a very narrow narrative, a very scripted idea stemming from those in power who wish to project that,” Webb said of the now-removed statue.
In place of the statue, the university has since placed a sign that emphasizes its commitments to reconciliation and acknowledges Ryerson’s “instrumental” role in the “design and implementation of the Indian Residential School System.”
Jacob hopes that future initiatives, especially ArtworxTO’s legacy projects which include artist-in-residence programs at departments of the City of Toronto, will more holistically document history through their work. 
But most of all, he hopes that, as people engage more often and more meaningfully with public art of any form, that we “remember what it means to be a public” and be truly connected as a community.
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