And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Ned
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And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Ned

Photo of a “Ned” stencil at Bay and Bloor by John Matheson.

Here’s a good question: what are two prominent local companies devoted to design and architecture—the Design Exchange and archiTEXT—doing stenciling teaser ads on Toronto’s sidewalks? The stencils are simple, vague, and identical: they say “ON APRIL 15TH, NED IS COMING,” with a cross below the text, all in pink. And they’re everywhere: outside of subway stations, and at intersections throughout downtown, like Augusta and Nassau, Queen and Spadina, and Bay and Bloor. The lattermost intersection is where reader John Matheson snagged the above photo and sent it to [email protected] late last week, with an e-mail that read: “On my way to work this morning I noticed pink plus signs/crosses spray painted outside some ttc stations downtown. I’ve heard they are all over the city. Do you know what they mean?”
We discovered a few days ago, thanks to the hints dropped in a message from the Design Exchange to its mailing list, that the stencils are tied to the launch of an exhibit called “What has architecture done for you lately?”, presented by DX and archiTEXT, that launches on April 15. But, confusingly, while both companies happily admit that the stencils are for their event, they also deny any and all responsibility for creating them.

The graphic above—pink cross, “P.S. NED IS COMING,” and all—was sent out to the Design Exchange’s mailing list on Tuesday, about a week after we first heard of the stencils.

Claudine Crangle from the Design Exchange told Torontoist:

As the title [of the event] eludes, this exhibition is both curated and marketed in a communal spirit—with many voices coming together to create an overall message. Part of the marketing of this grassroots project includes the encouragement of outside participants to get the word out on the upcoming exhibit in creative new ways. Recent “Ned is Coming” messages found painted on downtown sidewalks are a result of this somewhat “guerilla” marketing approach. The Design Exchange is not behind this provocation—but is pleased with the interest it has stirred in the project.

Zahra Ebrahim, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of archiTEXT, was even more excited about the stencils when we tried to find out how many of them there were, who came up with the idea for them, and what the plan was to do with them when the event was over:

The stencils are pretty cool, eh? They are promoting our upcoming exhibit….we don’t know who has taken it upon themselves to promote our exhibit, but it’s an interesting testament to citizen activism (around architecture at that!)….so far I have seen [the stencils] here and there in the neighborhoods I use frequently, and I’m not sure how many there are in total. As this is associated with the DX, and we’ve noticed that most of them seem to be fading quickly from when they first started popping up, we have looked into simple graffiti removal for once the exhibit is over—there is a standard product sold in hardware/arts supply stores that cleans up the paint.

There you have it: some grateful citizen who’s enthusiastic about architecture and who just loves creating buzz for things they’re totally unaffiliated with has taken it upon themselves to go around the city, stenciling vague slogans to hint—only hint—at an event that was in no way promoted with any kind of connection to the content of those stencils until after the stencils were painted everywhere. And the Design Exchange and archiTEXT have no idea who’s behind it, and it’s certainly not them, even though they sure do like the promotion and marketing and are looking at cleaning the stencils up when the exhibit’s done. How curious!
Not that we don’t like stencils, sometimes. But when companies do campaigns like this, it’s hard not to be a little ambivalent. Remember Absolut’s sidewalk ads in 2006? The sentiment we had then remains the same: when you have other means of advertising at your disposal, in any number of other legal mediums, and when you receive tax breaks for advertising through those venues, why use public sidewalks and public space? And, if you didn’t think that anything was wrong with doing that anyway—if you wanted to use the ads to, say, make a point about the boundaries between public and private space or some old chestnut like that—why would you deny responsibility for them? And why oh why couldn’t we resist posting about this campaign, when we know that in doing so, we’re just giving the exhibit more cheap publicity, however negative?
Maybe we’ll be able to figure out the answers to some of those questions this Sunday when, somewhat awkwardly, the Design Exchange, archiTEXT, and Torontoist are all programming partners for the Bunch Family Salon devoted to city building. (No word yet on if the kids in attendance will be given free cans of pink spray paint, stencils, and a primer on “guerrilla marketing.”)
Oh, and one last thing: the photo, at the top of this post, sent to us by “John Matheson,” that led us on the hunt in the first place? It’s identical to a photo uploaded by Zahra Ebrahim to archiTEXT’s Facebook group on the day we told her that Torontoist was working on an article about the stencils. On that same day, we’d told Matheson that we were planning on doing a Torontoist post about the signs, and that we thought we’d figured out who was behind them, but couldn’t say until we knew for sure. He—or whoever was actually operating the account under that name—asked, that night, after Ebrahim had already uploaded what was allegedly his shot to Facebook: “Should I keep my eyes on the torontoist or can you spill the beans about the 15th?” But we’ve got a feeling that John Matheson already knows just a tad about Ned and the people behind it, and that archiTEXT and the Design Exchange should never, ever, ever try to do something like this again.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Goldsbie.