Archivist, Curator, and Arts and Cultural Programmer
by Sara Layton
Q. Within the realm of public art at The Bentway, how do you recognize the many layers of history in that area of the city?
A. The Bentway and its place in the city are inextricably linked; it’s a space and an ethos that couldn’t exist in this form anywhere else. However Torontonians might feel about the Gardiner Expressway, it’s a piece of infrastructure that has shaped—and continues to shape—the city. But the Gardiner is just one part of the narrative of our site. There are so many features and narratives that either predate or live alongside it, respond to it or were altered by it. We make it a point to walk the site and to share those layers of history with every collaborator, so that every resulting work feels, as we say, “generative”—so that it embraces the site’s conditions, its histories, and its possibilities. To us that’s slightly different than “site-specific,” which has become a bit of a buzzword as of late.
Our fall 2018 exhibition, If, But, What If? is a great example of this. The exhibit explored what could be, what maybe should be, and what may never be within our ever-evolving city. We see The Bentway as a disruption, in the best possible way, of Toronto’s trajectory, and were interested in drawing parallels between the project and other radical acts that we feel contributed to an unexpected future for Toronto. Wally Dion’s work, 8-bit Wampum, for example, expanded on the form of the wampum belt as a record of Indigenous agreement—consider the contentious Toronto Purchase as one such “agreement”—and re-envisioned it for a new era when Toronto’s lands are again being ceded to “digital settlers” like Google. Instead of stringed shell beads, he uses repurposed circuit boards in the belt’s construction. Instead of purple and white, for example, he uses the neon colours of graffiti and street art, which is itself an act of claiming space. It’s a work that truly collapses the city’s past, present, and future into one piece, and [it has] the effect of provoking a lot of thought about the lands we reside on.
The same could be said of our spring/summer 2018 programming, CITE: A Celebration of Skateboard Arts and Culture, which saw The Bentway partner with Build for Bokma, whose members actually created an unsanctioned skate park on the future Bentway site before construction of the space began. It was a priority of our CEO that The Bentway not displace anyone that could, in fact, be welcomed back into the space once it was safe for the public to be there. And so the purpose of our inaugural spring/summer season was to give Build for Bokma free rein in expanding on that smaller, DIY skate park by completely taking over the site through large-scale skateable sculptures, free skateboard lessons, skate-adjacent arts practices like screen printing and videography, musical programming, and so much more. Like Wally’s work, there was a terrific continuity there in terms of the space’s past uses and its present and future possibilities. There are so many more examples I could cite, but for us, history isn’t born of one specific place or moment in time that we reference in lip service; history continues to be made, and as a result it will always be felt in the works that we present on our very layered site.
Q. What are the multiple different entry points into “successful art,” in your opinion, and how do you harness this and utilize it in your public art?
A. I don’t personally believe in “good art” or “bad art”—art resonates with different people in different ways—so I think it’s imperative that you framed the question in this way. To me, art that is successful—or that has a greater capacity to be successful, if that’s not too diplomatic!—is, yes, art that provides multiple entry points for public engagement. Some people are extremely savvy about art, and specifically the relatively new frontier of temporary art in public space. Whereas other people have not traditionally felt welcomed into arts institutions, nor compelled by the kind of work that makes its way into those spaces. And maybe that makes them less inclined to engage with art in public space as a result. I think that there’s something radical about the act of meeting the public on common ground, and accepting the fact that their reaction to the work might be overwhelming or underwhelming, or that they might see things that you yourself didn’t see.
The Bentway witnessed this with Waterlicht, the immersive intervention by Studio Roosegaarde that created a virtual flood on The Bentway site in October 2018. Some visitors were drawn to the environmental message and implications of the work, while others were interested in having a shared aesthetic experience onsite. Some people used the installation as a backdrop for their own creative practices (photography, videography, performance, etc.), and others were interested in the work’s educational possibilities and in the sense of wonder it elicited in their kids, even if they didn’t fully “understand” it. To me, variety is key, since you never know what might spark a person’s interest. Is it the material or the scale of a visual work? Is it a singular “wow” moment in a performance? Is it the sense of community that a work—regardless of discipline—creates in its midst? Or is it a feeling about the overall experience that you can’t necessarily define? Each of those possibilities is exactly that: an opportunity to enter into the work and be changed by it.