It’s 6 a.m. in Kensington Market on a Sunday morning, with the sun out but only barely, and Eric Cheung and Sean Martindale are busy planting flowers. At College and Augusta, on the two large posterboards on the west wall of Sam’s, they cut the outlines of large triangles deep into the thick layers of posters, through and past the topmost movie ads for The Ugly Truth and District 9 on one board and the PSP on the other. Then they pull those triangles out, folding and curving them into a pocket that’s shaped like something between a cone and a pyramid, using a staple gun to firmly attach it to the wall. When all the triangles across both boards are cut and folded and curved and stapled, which won’t be for another few hours, Cheung and Martindale will fill each pocket with dirt and place a plant inside, spraying it with water.
It’s the biggest and most impressive installation yet of a project that Cheung and Martindale started together about a month ago, turning poster-covered utility poles and walls into makeshift plant-holders. (At Queen and Spadina, Spacing‘s Wire caught one such transformation shortly after Cheung and Martindale did it and returned to cover it again a few days later.) As Martindale explained in an email earlier last week, he and Cheung are “activating public space,” introducing nature “to the urban environment in ways that might encourage others to do the same, or to at least consider such possibilities.”
While similar projects such as guerilla gardening intend to have their completed projects mostly assimilate with their new environment, and others, such as Posterchild’s planter boxes, bring outside materials like wooden frames into an environment to work by juxtaposition, Martindale and Cheung are able to call attention to their planters without using much of anything that didn’t already exist where they were put up; all that’s new is the soil, the plants, and the staples—and, if and only if thinner pockets need some reinforcing, a bit of wheatpasted art by Cheung.
The simplicity and accessibility of those materials means that anyone can duplicate the planters, which is exactly what Martindale and Cheung want: Creative Commons–licensed templates for the two existing shapes of planters are posted on their blog for the project, as well as pasted directly onto some of the physical walls where they’ve actually been made. “Throwing the template out there is simply a polite push for others that this is a pretty easy thing to do and that anybody could (and should?) do it,” Cheung explains. Martindale, too, hopes that “people will pick up on these concepts and spread the ideas around. We want to support more engagement…Anyone is welcome to use one of our patterns or to make their own variation, as long as it isn’t for a private profit–driven initiative. We want to keep it open-source, as was always intended. It belongs to this city and other urban environments.”
Unlike other forms of ostensibly illegal public art, the planters have been so well-received that Martindale and Cheung can afford to take their time. “No one’s complained yet,” explained Martindale as he cut another triangle; “a lot of times they thank us.” That held true on Sunday morning, as most passersby seemed pleasantly surprised that the two young guys with gloves and box-cutters going to town on a wall of posters not long after dawn, claiming that they were planting flowers, actually were. (One woman shrugged off their explanation until she got a closer look, and exclaimed, “oh, you really are putting up plants!”) It helps that the two only make planters out of pre-existing posters, avoiding ads for not-for-profit organizations or awareness campaigns and trying to carve up only illegal ads in illegal spots. According to Rami Tabello of IllegalSigns.ca, that’s just what the poster boards on the side of the convenience store are—”totally illegal,” he says—erected, appropriately, by a company called Grassroots Advertising.
It’s keeping the plants alive and up that’s proving to be the bigger challenge than getting them up in the first place. “Horticulturists are probably crying right now at some of the stuff we planted,” Cheung jokes. The two—who regularly return to previous installations to water the plants that haven’t been torn down—have started experimenting with the plants they choose, trying to figure out which can survive best in the different lighting and heat conditions that they’re put up in. (Since they insist on not taking plants out from the ground to plant them on walls, and haven’t yet grown any of their own, plant costs are high, too: filling the Kensington wall planters cost a few hundred dollars.) Even if the plants are the right ones, their lifespans can be extraordinarily short. “These physical interventions are ephemeral by nature,” Martindale wrote in his email, “and we recognize that the plants will eventually die—even if our planters are left undisturbed.” But, he adds in person, “if enough people see it and think about it before it gets taken down, it’s worth it.”
As it turns out, the wall of plants at College and Augusta would last barely a day. By Sunday evening, many of the plants had been stolen, and by Monday night, all of the plants and planters had been torn down, replaced by the boards’ previous inhabitants: posters for District 9 and The Ugly Truth. But by Tuesday, those posters had been torn down, too, by someone who left only bits and pieces of text mounted on the boards, carefully ripped scraps that had originally been part of the larger posters: “The Ugly Truth” on one board, and “You are not welcome here” on the other. Given the reaction to his and Cheung’s short-lived work, Martindale assumes it’s a show of support.
All photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.