Getting to the Bottom of Upper Toronto
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Getting to the Bottom of Upper Toronto

Illustration by Brett Lamb/Torontoist.

You know how when you were a kid, sometimes you would get an idea in your head, and you wouldn’t let the fact that it didn’t make sense or that it didn’t play by the rules of logic and physics or even that it was actually a terrible idea stop you from just imagining the shit out of it? The world could be guided by the principle of “What if…?” and the answer could be “…then everything.”
Jacob Zimmer, creative director of performance company Small Wooden Shoe, is bringing something of the magical thinking of kid logic back in style. Zimmer’s latest project-in-the-making asks the question “What if we took Toronto and built a new city on top of it and called it Upper Toronto and moved everybody up there?” The project is in its infancy stages, but the folks at Small Wooden Shoe think that it will take a village to raise a city to the sky, and they want your help.

Torontoist: How do you see Upper Toronto playing out, both in the process of its creation and in its final form. Will it end up as performance? Material art piece? Something else?
Jacob Zimmer: Upper Toronto is an idea for a performance—but a performance that requires a city to be designed and thought about, so there will probably end up being a bunch of different results. I imagine there will be both digital and analog models, images, policy documents, and whatever else is generated in the process. I’m excited by the multi-platform possibilities, though as a theatre guy, the show is still the thing.
The final performance will be a design pitch—like condo developers and public space competitions—with the objective to get the audience to call their city councillor asking for a referendum on Upper Toronto. And I want that city to be a good as it can be. The pitch can’t just be a joke, or fail because no one would ever want to live there or that it’s completely physically impossible.
Where did the idea come from?
I’ve wanted to do something about cities for a long time. I was really into the Situationists and Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon for a while. (I still have a big soft spot for it.) There’s a whole tradition of imagined cities as well as planned cities that I find fascinating and troubling.
At the same time, living in Toronto, I was curious about urban development and the sale performances involved in that process. Those of us who make art performances can be heard, from time to time, complaining about a lack of social impact, yet here’s this performance genre that re-shapes our cities and our lives.
Another source of inspiration are these persistent images of the CN Tower as a walk-in restaurant and the abandoned Lower Toronto as a national park.
Who do you need to make this project happen?
So many people: geographers, model builders, community activists, urban planners, science fiction writers, policy makers, anthropologists, front-line workers, architects, engineers, condo marketers, and real estate folk. People who are good at the logistics of large scale collaboration. People who care about the suburbs and the people who live there. Maybe an institution or two to host the project. Anyone who responds to the proposal with curiosity, rigour, and the appropriate amount of silliness. Toronto has a lot of people who think a lot about cities and how they work, and we’d like to play with some of them.
You set up this framework where the overall structure is acknowledged as a fundamentally bad idea, but the specific plans to enact this bad idea must be good ones. Can you tell me a little bit more about that tension between bad/good idea–making? Is there something in particular that we get out of working through bad ideas with good ones—or, put differently, working through illogical ideas with logic?
Most huge, all-encompassing ideas are, at best, questionable, but working on the fantastical and flawed scale allows some freedom of thought I find useful. Yes, living in the sky might not be such a bad idea (though it probably is), but the forced relocation of three million people is just a terrible and wrong thing. Since we admit the flaws right away, we can get past some of the boring questions of plausibility or completeness. I don’t want to add to the mass of dystopia/utopia stories out there, so the first value has to be that we would want to live in Upper Toronto. With that in mind, the chance to imagine starting over, knowing what we now know, is a great thought experiment. As long as we stay honest about our desires to live there.
Looking at some of the other projects you’ve done recently—Dedicated to the Revolutions and Life of Galileo, for example—it seems like the apocalyptic turn in science is a bit of a theme for you. What’s the draw there?
My dad left a lot of Scientific Americans and sci-fi novels around, neither of which I read that much of, being an arts student and fantasy fan, but maybe they seeped in anyways?
I’m interested in the future and the stories we make up and re-tell about the past—of which science is a huge part—as is science fiction and other genre fiction. I like the imagination and the scale of all those things
I’m not sure where the apocalyptic nature comes in. I try to be optimistic, or at least helpful. The bad guys are winning, and so something different needs to be proposed.