If you happen to look up, just slightly above eye level, at hydro poles and streetlights around Toronto lately, you might notice some misplaced Trans-Canada highway signs. No, Yonge Street isn’t becoming a part of the Trans-Canada, and yes, the Spadina Expressway is still dead. These are not the work of some signage installer for the city who has gone rogue, but a project called Art + Identity created by Toronto’s own Ella Cooper.
A closer look at the signs shows how they differ from true Trans-Canada highway signs: the iconic leaf frames a photograph of a Canadian artist; where it would normally read “Trans Canada,” the sign displays the artist’s name; and instead of a province in the ribbon below the leaf, it lists the artist’s hometown. A phone number below that connects you to a series of soundscapes—where you can hear recordings of the artists talking about themselves and their work. The signs feature eight artists from urban centres across Canada: Becka Viau, Mario Doucette, Sonny Assu, Ghislaine Doté, Richard Lee, KC Adams, Marika Schwant, and Terrance Houle, representing a range of disciplines, from visual artists, theatrical performers and dancers, to multi-disciplinary artists.
The signs and soundscapes together attempt to capture some of what makes up a Canadian identity, juxtaposed with a healthy dose of cheesy, store-bought Canadiana. Cooper doesn’t tell us what it is to be a Canadian artist, or even a Canadian; she instead tries to show the range of possibilities. Says Cooper, “Canada is a very fascinating place, and there are a lot of things that take Canada and make it into this blanket, cheesy, kinda-bland, red-and-white-thing.” Cooper shows us more of the patchwork quilt.
Although Cooper initially chose the Trans-Canada signs for their easy familiarity, it naturally led her to think about installing the work outdoors: “There’s something about the Trans-Canada highway sign, everywhere you go in Canada, you see a version of it…and when I decided to frame the artists in Trans-Canada highway signs, which was deliberately cheesy, and I knew I was being a little over the top; it just hit me, there had to be signs out there. But I also I liked the idea of putting it out on the street because art can live and die in a gallery space—you have a set amount of time for a set show, a few people get to see it, and it’s not super accessible in some ways….It’s really about celebrating these artists, so to have their faces up all around central Toronto really made sense to me….They’re a really important part of the community, so it’s like integrating them into the community through these signs.”
One of Cooper’s reasons for creating Art + Identity was to celebrate Canada’s vibrant art scene, and Toronto’s street-art movement in particular helped inspire her and bring it to the streets: “I was totally inspired by stuff you [Posterchild] have done, and stuff Dan Bergeron [Fauxreel] has done, where you just claim something, you know: ‘I’m taking this, and I’m going to make it this type of space.’ I got excited by just doing it, not asking for permission….I want to do this; I don’t have time to wait. There’s a really good street art scene [in Toronto], there are enough people who do public interventions, there are enough people who have done this before me. It laid the ground for me to feel really comfortable about doing it.”
“We’re not defacing anything, you know what I mean? I don’t think there is anything aggressive about what we’ve done, and I think that the fact that they haven’t been taken down also shows that they’re appreciated in some way—they’re respected in some way.”
The fact that Cooper’s guerrilla signage could easily be mistaken for a legitimate art installation could also explain its resilience. The Art + Identity signs, with their contact telephone numbers, bear a strong similarity to Toronto’s celebrated [murmur] project, and that is no coincidence. “I was inspired by Murmur, what Murmur was doing, and there’s no way I could disregard that, so I ended up collaborating.” [murmur]’s co-creators, Echo Mobile, provided technical support.
But why bring all these artists to Toronto’s streets? Do all highways lead to Toronto? Is Toronto the centre of the Canadian Art-iverse? “No,” says Cooper, “but there’s a buzz in Toronto, there’s so much going on. Vancouver feels like a sleepy town compared Toronto—there’s so much frikkin’ stuff to do in Toronto, it’s stupid!”
And, if all goes according to plan, the signs will travel, move beyond Toronto and find themselves in the artists’ respective hometowns, or in areas that aren’t represented by the project—maybe even as far as our fabled snowy North. “They absolutely have to go across Canada,” says Cooper; “that’s the plan.”
Photo of Ella Cooper by Posterchild/Torontoist.
This article mistakenly said that Art + Identity’s “soundscapes were created in collaboration with Murmur’s
So why should the people of Toronto care about the experiences of a non-Torontonian? Why should they see the pictures of an outsider up on their streets? Besides our common nationality, explains Cooper, there is our common humanity: “What I love about listening to other peoples’ stories is that you learn something about yourself, or it makes you think. It gives you an interesting angle of looking at who you are and how you view your world and your experiences….Half the people in Toronto aren’t originally from Toronto anyway, so I think most will relate to people who are coming from so many different places.”
“And also, I think because we all get into our little bubbles, you know? Where Toronto is the centre of OUR world.”
“And for me, am I an Ontarian, or am I a Torontonian? I am a Torontonian. For sure. I’m originally from Montreal, but I’m a Toronto artist now….If I had lived here just four years, I wouldn’t call myself a Torontonian, but I’ve been here thirteen years. It’s my home. But when someone goes, ‘Oh you’re from Ontario?’ I kinda get like, ‘No I’m not.’ If you go out to B.C. and say you’re from Ontario, they wonder how the hell you can ski! It’s kinda funny how you discover your loyalties when someone goes ‘Ewwww. You’re from _______?’ But we all need somewhere where we feel grounded. Somewhere that grounds us in our identity: ‘I’m from here. This is me. These are my mountains, this is my lake.’”
Or, as a street artist would say, “this is my city, this is my street.” The signs, celebratory and aggrandizing as they are, bear more than a passing similarity to the graffito’s tag, but they’re not self-promoting, and that is a key difference. Cooper says, “This is really more about the artists than me, per se.”
We asked Cooper, “Are you a street artist? Do you think of yourself as a street artist?”
“I’ve never been good with labels,” she said.
Art + Identity will run in Toronto until the signs are removed; the phone line will remain open until at least August 10.
All photos courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise marked.