If you passed through Grange Park during the wee hours of a chilly night in late November, you might have noticed interdisciplinary artist Sean Martindale quietly installing his latest outdoor art piece. Viewed from the side, the structure looks like a forty-four-foot-long stringed instrument, but from the front, it clearly spells one evocative word: FREE. After seeing several of his “guerilla gardening” installations, this one seems less straightforward—more mysterious. To quell our curiosity, we asked him how this piece came to be and what it all means.
Unlike Martindale’s Poster Pocket Plants, which were technically vandalism (well, vandalism of illegal posters, so who’s the bad guy there?), the string project was sanctioned by the AGO before it went up. Martindale conceived the idea, researched the site, and got approval to use this sad square of asphalt, bordered by chain-link fencing. “I look for spaces, infrastructures, and materials that I feel are wasted, underused, or misused in the city,” Martindale said in an email. “Chain-link fences are a perfect example of such a ubiquitous man-made feature.”
With everything being above board, he might have conceivably taken all the time in the world to thread the 21,633 feet of salvaged nylon string between the two parallel fences. Instead, Martindale dug in and worked non-stop for twenty-four hours straight (midnight to midnight), powered by bananas, granola bars, fruit juice, and a large sweet potato, bean, and cheese burrito. Several friends—including fellow guerrilla gardener Eric Cheung—popped in and out, but he was largely alone in the endurance feat. “I felt like the install became a performance, and I didn’t let myself stop and leave until I had finished outlining the word FREE,” he told us. “The final few hours at night and in the early morning were probably the hardest. This was when it was particularly cold and my energy was gone. All my joints were swollen by the time I finished—especially my knees and knuckles. The knuckle of my ring finger wasn’t visible again until three days later!”
If you go to Grange Park and see the piece in person (it’s just west of the OCAD building), you’ll see how such injuries could occur. Each fibre is about as thin as sewing thread, and there are just so many of them. If you press your face directly up against the fence, the strands form lines that diminish to a point in a very “warp speed” kind of way.
And what does it all mean? Like any visual artist, Martindale is hesitant to dictate what we should take from the work. But he did reveal to us that FREE partially refers to “the public aspect of my projects, where I create work experienced primarily by accidental audiences.” And that he is playing with contrasting ideas: “I outlined the word FREE by tying strings within and through the properties of the barrier/constraining structure of the chain-link fence.”
Aside from any meaning, the piece is—like his other works—a beautiful surprise in an unexpected place. It’s impossible to walk by without getting a little lift.
The FREE installation will be up on the chain-link fence next to OCAD until the city’s squirrels and birds chew away the string for their nests.
All photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.