Telephone Booth Takeover
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Telephone Booth Takeover

Don't tell Bell: Artists have been transforming Toronto's neglected phone booths into temporary galleries.

Phone booths at Dupont Street and Lansdowne Avenue, redecorated as part of the Tel-talk project.

A brightly coloured chalk drawing reflecting the day’s forecast and a familiar saying, at the base of the booth.

Geometric paneling, reminiscent of a stained-glass window, surrounding those who enter to make a call.

A large, white wrapping covering the entire structure, with the words “Transformation Booth” replacing “Telephone Booth.”

Those are just a few of the ‘art interventions’ that appeared across Toronto over the past few months, part of a project called Tel-talk. Starting last September, various artists were tasked with choosing a telephone booth and creating something with it.

The different installations are chronicled online and at an exhibit featuring the project now on display at the Telephone Booth Gallery in the Junction. Some reflections were also written and published in a book titled Tel-talk: art interventions in telephone booths, edited by Paola Poletto, Liis Toliao and Yvonne Koscielak, the team that also coordinated the project.

In the inaugural blog post about Tel-talk, the project is described as a hunt for a once-iconic symbol that is increasingly rare in a world where people use cell phones, and where automation is replacing face-to-face customer contact.

The project is also a reflection on seemingly private moments in public spaces, something that Telephone Booth Gallery director Sharlene Rankin says extends to the exhibit itself. “[It’s] a place where people can come and just be quiet and think and figure out what the artist is trying to communicate to them.”

And with participation from numerous artists in various media, there is an eclectic mix of approaches and ideas to consider.

Dyan Marie chose a booth at Dupont Street and Landsdowne Avenue—one that she says is still used often.

“Many of the people who live there, who live in that area, can’t actually afford a phone, so they use that phone,” she says. “So in the phone booth you can see families there. You can see people dealing with their landlords. You can see people doing drug business. You can see people calling people for their various reasons. And often it seems fairly dramatic.”

Inspired by many of the old churches she saw on a visit to Rome, and the idea of quiet spaces for thought and conversation, she put up translucent, coloured panels, not unlike stained glass windows.

Her palette came from photographs she took of the area, and especially of a man who frequents the neighbourhood of the telephone booth.

“In this one, I’m glorifying the fact that those services are still available to people who actually need them, in an area that is well used,” she says.

Artist Dyan Marie at the Telephone Booth Gallery.

Denise St. Marie and Timothy Walker, who call themselves TIMEANDDESIRE, looked for a booth that was less noticeable. They settled on one at Spadina Crescent, in the University of Toronto area. Walker, a student at the school, says he’d passed that particular telephone himself many times without seeing it.

They wrapped the booth in white cloth. “It’s essentially a large papier-mâché project,” Walker explains.

Inside the cocoon-like structure, they left a notebook posing a series of questions about social change, asking people to write down their responses.

Walker says they hoped to get people thinking about how the city is constantly in flux and the ramifications of that.

“The idea was just to get people who are going by probably thinking ‘I need eggs, I need orange juice, I need to meet up with Bill’ or whatever, and then they see this thing, it pulls them in, they enter it, they’re reading these questions about change, and now their mind is kind of operating on a new level. They’re looking at the city with new eyes.”

The piece was up from May 21–25, and Walker says in that time they received numerous handwritten replies, ranging from the “absurd” to “thoughtful.” Many are included as part of their Tel-talk exhibit.

One comment: “Before cell phones, people used to get really, truly lost. Like, middle of nowhere lost. Not anymore…”

A work on display at the Tel-talk show, at the Telephone Booth Gallery.

This concept of getting separated also emerged in Tara Cooper’s project. Her artwork was done at telephone booths on the Toronto Islands.

“You can really feel like you’re being stranded when you’re on the island,” she says.

She was surprised to find so many telephone booths there—27 by her count.

From May 20–26, she chose different telephone booths on the island and drew with chalk on the ground, incorporating a common phrase or saying about the weather that related to the day’s forecast: for instance, “the calm before the storm,” “shoot the breeze,” and “watch out for fairweather friends.”

Many of the booths were not covered ones, Cooper notes, meaning the forecast may be particularly relevant to the caller, as both they and the drawing are exposed.

“There’s an immediacy about that, and I like that the piece itself gets affected by weather. So if it ends up stormy, that advice becomes less evident,” she says.

The weather may have washed away Cooper’s work, but a collage of her project, including photos of the drawings, is on display as part of the Tel-talk exhibit, which will stay up until July 14, 2012.

And though the red telephone booth in the front of that gallery is a permanent fixture, Rankin’s involvement in the project has made her nostalgic for telephone booths throughout the city. “It makes me kind of sad to see them go,” she said.