#cARTographyTO and Astral Media: subverting the commercial colonization of public space | #TOpoli

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Via The Grid and Torontoist, news of an inspired and inspiring guerrilla action over the weekend.

Dozens of sidewalk-blocking, ad-filled eyesores, laughably known as “info pillars,” were repurposed and turned into art installations, social and political statements, and focus points for satire.

It’s hard not to sympathize with cARTography Toronto. Public space and public amenities are under relentless pressure from the advocates of privatization and the purveyors of commercial messaging; with the dogma of “austerity” comes more and more pressure to find new sources of revenue, especially when we’re saddled with a municipal administration intent on choking off one of the most traditional sources.

I’m sure these goddamn things are good for someone. No doubt they’re good for Astral. And perhaps they get the advertisers’ messages in front of more eyeballs. And who knows, maybe they bring in a dollar or two in licencing fees or something. But, in the words of one of the activists:

They’ve done a lot of permanent damage, tearing up sidewalks, cutting down bike posts, and creating a sightline hazard for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists…

How you see this depends, as do many things, on how you define terms and how you frame the questions. If we’re committed to making the public good paramount, then the reclamation of public space from those who seek to colonize it is something to be encouraged. And while aesthetics are admittedly subjective, it’s hard not to be disturbed by the incessant, intrusive, and garish invasions of public sightlines, the cheapening of the visual environment, and the cumulative assault on our senses.  Factor in the removal of bike posts, the destruction of trees and the interference with pedestrian traffic and it’s hard to see how the community as a whole comes out ahead. Surely we’re surrounded by enough vulgarity already.

Of course, that’s only one viewpoint. If we buy into commercial orthodoxy and the gospel of privatization, then anything that brings in revenue is good, and anything that questions the underlying assumptions or interferes with the sacred operation of the market is suspect, elitist, anti-capitalist, and quite probably a threat to national security. And by that logic, it won’t be long before the corporate media are pounding that drum day and night, the activists (already a word with negative connotations for some) are demonized, and the resources of the criminal-justice system are marshalled in their pursuit.

It would be easy to reduce this to competing visions of what public space should be. And while that’s certainly part of the discussion, not all such visions are advanced with the same energy. Not everyone has the resources for lawyers, lobbyists and SLAPP suits. Not everyone has the same degree of access and influence to the decision-makers or conversation-shapers. And not everyone has the same fluency with the technocratic, class-biased language that informs so many public-policy debates.

As we work for more inclusive and democratic conversations, it’s worth keeping that in mind.

(Image via torontoist)

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