Art Activists Take Over Info Pillars
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Art Activists Take Over Info Pillars

Controversial Astral ad pillars get guerrilla makeover.

A group of concerned citizens, artists, and activists got out their tools on Saturday afternoon to “reclaim” roughly 35 Astral Media information pillars across the city’s core by replacing the large advertisements that usually live in the pillars with hand-drawn maps, bicycles, hearts, and giant red-felt solidarity squares.

A representative of the group that took on the pillars, called cARTography Toronto, would only speak anonymously. He said that the info pillars were essentially just gussied-up billboards, adding that “other than that little map on the side, there’s not a whole lot of public good to them.” The information pillars—which contain small area maps and large, often illuminated ads—have been lightning rods for criticism since they were rolled out last year, and have been called everything from eyesores to a safety hazards.

The organizer said that cARTography Toronto is made up of both experienced activists and people with no previous protest background.

“It’s a real mix of people: there are a few activists, but a lot of people who are just concerned citizens, artists, urban-planning people, and designers. There’s a good age range, too,” he said.

He added that the protest attracted such a wide demographic because “the ads are so brazen. They’re really quite insulting and embarrassing to the city.”

Local artist Sean Martindale was one of the people who lent his talents to the project, altering several pillars, and turning one into a midday nightclub called “Sidewalk 54.”

“They’re privatizing pubic spaces with these huge walls,” he said. “I just took that to the next level and made a private sidewalk club with a velvet rope and a bouncer and a disco ball to kind of hammer that message home in a funny way.”

The club, located at King and Portland, was an unexpected hit. Not only were protesters gyrating behind the rope—or, alternately, complaining about having to wait in line while claiming to “know the promoter”—but they were also joined by random passersby who lined up to get in on the action. One woman thought, not totally inaccurately, that the club was some sort of interactive street art. Several cameras surrounded the “exclusive” dance party, and several other observers cheered the dancers on. Another Martindale creation, which saw a bicycle encased in one of the pillars outside of the Bata Shoe Museum, also caught the attention of pedestrians, with people stopping to take photos in front of the bike-turned-statue. Another group of onlookers spent several minutes attempting to figure out the meaning of the bike. No one seemed to question why the ads that usually take up that space had gone missing.

The cARTography spokesman insisted that the group wasn’t vandalizing the pillars, but was rather undoing acts of “vandalism” perpetrated by Astral.

“Astral is vandalizing our city,” he said. “We’re not really trying to do any permanent damage. They’ve done a lot of permanent damage, tearing up sidewalks, cutting down bike posts, and creating a sightline hazard for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists…. We don’t see it as vandalism. We’re just offering an alternative.”

By midday Sunday, Astral already had a crew out removing the artwork, much to organizers’ dismay. The group’s plan to slow Astral down by replacing the company’s security screws with their own wasn’t working as well as they had hoped.

“It seems like they’re just drilling them out,” said the organizer.

UPDATE: 4:13 PM: Earlier today we received the following statement from Astral Media regarding the art intervention:

Astral deplores the acts of vandalism committed this weekend against the InfoPillars in the City of Toronto. The Toronto Street Furniture (TSF) program is a world class project that provides important services to residents of the City—including transit shelters, litter bins and public benches. It also creates revenue that is exclusively directed for reinvestment in city streets. Only 16% of all structures in the program are ad bearing but they are essential to funding the construction and maintenance of an overall rollout of approximately 25,000 pieces. The TSF program will provide approximately $1 billion in value to the city over a 20 year contract (started in fall 2007). We have requested the Toronto police investigate these illegal acts and ensure that appropriate action is taken to enforce the law in this matter.

For even more photos, head over to Martin Reis’ full Flickr set of the info pillar intervention.