Just off West Queen West, around the corner from 48 Abell and the Drake Hotel, on the wall of a long blue warehouse complex that is supposed to come down shortly to make room for a condo, stands Mr. Loogie.
It’s a façade in more ways than one. A constructed storefront for a constructed store, you walk in through its front door and find yourself in the workspace of an artist, with wood and construction materials—along with Bell telephones—everywhere. As you exit through what would be the back of the small store, you are taken out into a long and wide warehouse that has been converted into a city street, with fake storefronts on both sides, fake tags and graffiti on the walls, and a real TTC streetcar shelter and bus stop standing tall. A Viacom billboard advertising “Condos for Babies” hangs on the south wall.
The work of Dan Bergeron (Fauxreel) and Gabriel Reese (Specter), A City Renewal Project brings the outside in and turns what’s inside back out to comment on the change going on on streets across the city. From tonight until November 23, Mr. Loogie’s door at 39 Lisgar Street is open for business.
The fake storefronts inside 39 Lisgar are made of nearly life-sized black-and-white portraits of actual fronts of closed or derelict stores from all around the city. Photographed by Bergeron where they originally stood, the stores—no more than a few feet deep—have been reconstructed from (real) condo placards, and paired with fake signage made by Reese. The graffiti on the warehouse walls is all new, too, done by Bergeron, Reese, and countless other street artists who the two got to tag along.
Other features of the exhibit follow more in the ideological footprints of a zoo—preservation by physical transplantation. There’s an old TTC streetcar shelter swiped from near where Dundas West meets Lansdowne, where it was about to be replaced with a piece of new street furniture anyway. (The guys asked for permission from the TTC first, but, frustrated with waiting, took shelter themselves. “They take them to the dump but they can’t give you one,” sighs Reese.) The Viacom signage below the Babies billboard is stolen. There are leaves and bits of garbage accumulating on the cement floor, all of it brought in. In the back, a wall is covered by an enormous print that started its life laid out on the street outside and that now bears car tracks and footprints as evidence of that fact, made by Matt Janisse.
A City Renewal Project is, then, a little like the world of a video game, a constructed space that is only half-real and that necessitates exploration and interaction. (It was also, when Torontoist visited it on Thursday night, not entirely done yet—the photos with this article depict a work in its final stages but still one that is in progress.) As Reese says, “it can’t be a work you look at once,” because there are “so many little subtle things.” Like, for instance, the contents of the artist’s workshop; everything in it is material that was used by Bergeron and Reese (and those who helped them, like Bergeron’s dad, Don) for the construction of the space that physically surrounds it. There’s also an accountant’s office at the back of the warehouse that you may or may not be allowed to break into and explore.
Taken together, the artifacts that fill the warehouse are testament to a city in the midst of an all-encompassing transformation. Bergeron himself is not against that change, but this latest project conveys the same ambivalence towards a changing city that his brilliant Regent Park portraits did: he worries that condos will decay just as some of the buildings being torn down for them have, and that condos will soon become the “new ghettos.” Lost history is a steep price to pay for change, perhaps too steep, says Bergeron, and “we don’t do a good job of remembering our past.”
Reese—who, until recently, kept his identity as Specter a secret, and who has spent his recent time split between New York, working with a Canada Council grant, and Toronto, working on the Project—agrees. “Restoration,” not destruction, “is the way to go,” he says, adding as a general apostrophe to the city: “be careful who you sign with.” A City Renewal Project is, he says, a “monument,” an “archive” and, as such, a “validation” of the spaces that he and Bergeron recreated. Reese says that that’s the reason for the work’s name: “we’re renewing these spaces, these objects, these things that are on the street.”
Specter’s warning to “be careful who you sign with” might as well be a warning to the city’s artists as much as its residents and developers. Though A City Renewal Project is not street art proper (as Reese puts it, “it’s not that fuckin’ ‘street’ anyway”), and, save for a few elements, is hardly guerilla art, it has nonetheless already raised a few eyebrows for its corporate backing. The project was made possible, in part, with Red Bull’s money—their Gallery 381 is helping to put it on—but the sponsorship’s also not nearly as simple or awful as NOW made it seem yesterday (the founder of Adbusters actually said that the artists have “lost their soul,” which we guess makes them a lot like hipsters). Bergeron, who is of course no stranger to the murky waters that the conflation of art and business create, maintains that the Project wouldn’t, for one thing, have even been possible without the funding that Red Bull provided. (The show’s other sponsors include Show & Gallery and Grolsch.) Besides, adds Reese, “a lot of this is on our own”: both men poured their own money into the exhibit.
To immediately resort to hating on the exhibit for its backers, says Reese, “such a lame argument.” As they see it, you need money to do something like this, and receiving cash from Red Bull—who gave them support and free reign and who provided the only detectable bit of branding, a Red Bull umbrella, only upon Bergeron’s request for it—is no different from receiving funding from the (L’Oréal-sponsored) Luminato or the (Scotiabank-sponsored) Nuit Blanche or the (publicly-sponsored) government. That, and to dismiss a work out of hand is to avoid considering it on its own merits. It’s a cop-out, and, for the artists, it’s totally beside the point.
In any case, the project will almost certainly need more money if and when Bergeron and Reese take it to its next venue: Vancouver. Bergeron says that he hopes they’ll be doing something like this for British Columbia’s largest city—a city undergoing many of the same changes that Toronto is—for the upcoming Olympic Games. Good thing that the winter games are a good two years away: renewing a city is no easy task.
A City Renewal Project holds its opening tonight—Friday, November 7—from 7–11 p.m. It remains open until November 23 at inconsistent hours [PDF].
All photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist