_PHOTO: PAUL TEREFENKO/THE GRID
Over the weekend, the city’s despicable sidewalk-ruining “Info Pillars” were redecorated by the group cARTographyTO. As culture-jamming political protests go, this one was really pretty great. As installations, the one that roped off part of the sidewalk as a VIP nightclub was hilarious and I like the way the brick wall suggests plainly what these pillars represent to pedestrians. My favourite for a different reason is the one that did not remove the ad at all (as far as I can see), but added a bench and planter to the pillar, showing how this annoying obstruction of the streets could actually be turned into something useful and kind of nice as real “street furniture.”
Of course, as always happens with these things, the question arose of whether this kind of intervention is “art” or “vandalism.”
“Those ‘artists’ are vandals” one commenter at The Grid wrote, and Astral Media, who manage the pillars on behalf of the city, said the same. Over at Torontoist, one of those responsible said otherwise:
The cARTography spokesman insisted that the group wasn’t vandalizing the pillars, but was rather undoing acts of “vandalism” perpetrated by Astral [Media, who install and manage the pillars]. “Astral is vandalizing our city,” he said. “We’re not really trying to do any permanent damage. 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…. We don’t see it as vandalism. We’re just offering an alternative.”
On Twitter, Matt Galloway of Metro Morning promised to discuss whether this was “artistic intervention or vandalism.” I didn’t get to listen to his show this morning, and the podcast is not up yet as I type this [UPDATE: it is posted now], but I hope he and his crew settled on the right answer: this is quite obviously both art and vandalism. And I’m not sure why we’d need to call it one of those things rather than both.
This is a false dichotomy that comes up all the time in conversations about graffiti. Those who claim it is not vandalism and that it should not be considered a violation of the law point to the time and effort and skill that goes into making it, and further point out that it beautifies the street.
But here’s the thing: “art” is not, so far as I know, a defense available under the law. It may be a mitigating factor in the case of a crime where motive helps determine sentencing, but the statement being made, and the skill with which it was made, does nothing to change the underlying offense. If you break into my house and paint the Mona Lisa on the wall without my consent, you have still broken and entered, and still vandalized my home. No matter how many people will agree that my home has been improved rather than defaced, the fact will remain that my property has been changed without my permission.
The beauty of the work in question is irrelevant to the question of consent. As in the case of so many laws, consent is the key.
In the case of the info pillars, many argue that the act is legitimized by the objectionable nature of the pillars themselves—that the ads are put there on our public property without our consent. They’d point out that Astral should not have been given a big 20-year contract to sell advertising on the street, and that even with that contract they should not have been allowed to put these ridiculous ads on the sidewalk that block our sidewalks, which are public property.
Here’s the thing: that public property, owned by all of us, is managed in trust by our elected representatives and the government they lead, the City of Toronto. And those democratically elected representatives of ours entered into a contract with Astral Media on our behalf that both allows and requires them to put these things on the street. Many people disagreed with that decision. David Miller was the mayor at the time and activist/journalist (and Grid contributor) Jonathan Goldsbie accused him of being a “pimp” for negotiating that contract. Still: the city government, acting under the authority granted to them by our democratic system, entered into a legal contract with Astral that gives them license to put those ads in public places. In exchange, Astral is paying the city in cash and amenities over the course of a couple decades.
So they have rented that space from us. If some people think we should break that contract (and pay whatever legal penalties are involved in breaking that contract) then one thing they could do is work through the democratic process to make our elected representatives do that on our behalf.
Another alternative is to break the law, steal the posters that are contained in the pillars and otherwise deface the pillars. Which is what caARTographyTO has done here. Acts of civil disobedience may be morally justified, but they are by definition intentional violations of the law. If you engage in civil disobedience, you have to expect to be held accountable for breaking the law—in fact, part of the effectiveness of the technique as a political protest is the public willingness to be arrested or punished for your actions. The punishment is worth it for the chance to draw your attention to an injustice, is the point.
Anyhow, I don’t think this is any particular big deal. I like this particular act of vandalism. It does a lot of the things I think public art should do—it surprises, delights, creates an emotional reaction, makes you think about both the message and the medium by which it is being delivered. And as a political protest, I think its message is a valuable one: any public street furniture of any kind should serve the needs and desires of people who encounter it, not obstruct them and interfere.
I’d also suggest the harm done to Astral and the city government is relatively minor and reversible, suggesting that prosecution of this might be pursued less vigorously than if the harm was greater.
But just because I happen to like both the message and the art in this case doesn’t make me inclined to try to pretend it is somehow absolved from being an act of defacement, an attempt to illegally undermine a contract we collectively entered into—just because it’s “art,” and I like it, doesn’t make it legal. And conversely to those who take the opposite view: just because you don’t like it, and because it might break the law, does not disqualify it from being “art.”
Here’s what Anthony Kalamut, a professor of creative advertising at Seneca College, told the National Post: “This is vandalism at its best…. I have to applaud the creativity that’s involved in this. It’s a massive amount of creativity and co-ordination.” Sounds about right to me.