"Playful Interventions" Put the Political Back in Public Space
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“Playful Interventions” Put the Political Back in Public Space

Toronto street artist Sean Martindale on how we interact with the city around us.

Guiding the audience through a series of childhood photos, street artist Sean Martindale paused at an early photo of himself, his chubby arms cuddling a Coke can. He remarked how early we’re exposed to corporate branding. The audience guffawed, but Martindale was dead serious.

In a chat before his lecture (titled “Playful Interventions”) at the University of Toronto’s Hart House last night, Martindale insisted that almost all of his work is political in nature, either overtly or not. Thoughtful, earnest, and crisply dressed in logo-free attire, he said dryly, “I have had a lot of thoughts about pieces that are more specifically pointed towards certain people that are running our city right now.”

Martindale was born in New York State, but grew up in British Columbia. On family trips to Montreal and Florida he remembers being drawn to both the graffiti he encountered, and the unexpected ways people interacted with their environment. Educated at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, with a master’s earned from OCAD as of last year, Martindale has been committing his own “interventions” ever since.

The execution of his ideas appear deceptively simple. Cardboard letters spelling “NATURE” were left on a Toronto residential street on recycling pick-up day, while Martindale filmed the aftermath from a nearby window.

Watching the film is oddly compelling, not so much for the letters themselves, but in seeing how people react to this kink in the quotidian. A man who lived across the street from the letters thought the words were specifically for his benefit. He bobs in and out of the periphery of the camera’s gaze. This turned into a series of long conversations with Martindale, after which the man bought a green bin and began pressuring his roommate into recycling.

In another Martindale-led intervention, illegally posted condo ads were re-purposed into tents, and faux sandwich boards advertised a tent housing development. Even a fake presentation centre was created. A tent situated in Trinity Bellwoods park lasted the longest of the bunch, and was eventually visited in mid-winter by a donated bag of clothes and mandarin oranges. Am eviction notice from the city eventually necessitated the tent’s removal.

For these spontaneous interactions to happen, Martindale is adamant that our public spaces be conducive to organic individual and community engagement.

“There is some good engagement here in the city, but I think a lot of people just pass through,” he said. “They don’t really consider ways where they could engage more, or even think that they can, because I think our public space in general is overly privatized, and it’s under real threat of becoming more privatized.”

Yonge-Dundas Square is Martindale’s top example of a corporatized, heavily regulated space. Dufferin Grove Park he favours as a space that fosters organic community initiatives, though he feels it too is under the threat of corporate interest and too much regulation (you’ll notice that Martindale’s focus is on downtown locations. During question period, one audience member asked him about this, to which he responded that he prefers to work in places he frequents).

Occupy Toronto then would be the ultimate manifestation of the political aspect of public space, and Martindale championed the movement’s ambition to foster dialogue (in St. James Park, no less). “Getting back to how everything is a little bit too corporatized and privatized,” he said, “that’s really what’s at the root of what they’re talking about, is the imbalance, the 99 per cent versus the one per cent who control most of the wealth, and that’s private, corporate entities for the most part.”

Getting your butt down to St. James Park is one option to boost engagement with this city, but Martindale stressed that small actions are just as crucial. “Start looking at your surroundings more and questioning things, thinking about if there’s something that bothers you, how could that look different, or why it looks the way it does.”

In a parking lot fence near OCAD, Martindale employed 2,000 feet of string to weave in and connect the words “FREE” on either side. It’s oddly dazzling to the eye, likely because you’re not only seeing the word, you’re experiencing it. He noted the tension of all that string bowed in the fence on both sides. “No one string could do that,” he said wistfully, “but many strings can have a bigger influence.”

Photos courtesy of Sean Martindale.