Telling Secrets on the Subway
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Telling Secrets on the Subway

A video art project enables ordinary people to unburden themselves to transit riders.

The TTC seems like an odd place to bare your soul, but that’s exactly what people have been doing there once every 10 minutes for the last two weeks.

Confessions Underground is a public art project that started on July 2. It wraps up this weekend. A collaboration between Labspace Studio (a local creative agency with a history of doing sociologically oriented work), and Pattison OneStop (the company that owns the TTC’s information screens), Confessions features recordings of people from all walks of life confessing their secrets. The secrets run from the silly, like a girl who farts when she gets nervous, to the profound, including a woman in her 60s who admitted to giving a baby up for adoption when she was 16.

Pattison OneStop has been donating screen space to art projects for years. In fact, thirty seconds of every 10-minute loop on their screens consists of some sort of art project. The projects rotate throughout the year, and have involved work sponsored by groups like TIFF and the Contact photography festival. Sharon Switzer is the founder of Art for Commuters, Pattison’s arts programming partner. She says that she decided to bring in Labspace after watching co-directors Laura Mendes and John Loerchner as part of a panel on art, community, and collaboration at a gallery in Windsor.

“[Switzer] basically gave us carte blanche to come up with an idea for 2012 programming,” says Mendes.

Mendes says that the idea for the Confessions project was shaped by the need to create something smart that still had broad appeal, and that would work in 30-second increments on 300 screens.

“We really wanted to do something other than pretty pictures,” she says. “We wanted to do something that had a mass appeal, was collaborative, and would involve participation. We were really interested in the idea of secrets. Everyone has secrets. They’re universal.”

Switzer admits that she was a little apprehensive when Loerchner and Mendes approached her with the concept.

“I was nervous,” said Switzer. “I thought it was a very fun idea, but I thought there would be issues with people confessing in a public space to a million people. It was going to take some vetting to make sure that no one got in trouble and things were appropriate, but I loved the idea.”

Switzer wasn’t the only one who was nervous about the project. Loerchner says that convincing people to participate was the hardest part of the process.

“We set up a website where people could record it with a webcam and upload it,” he said. “A few people did that, but what was really effective was, we created a booth where people could come in and record their confessions. We took it around to Montreal, Buffalo, Chicago, and then a bunch of different locations across Toronto. Then, we just asked people ‘Do you have a secret you want to get out?’”

The Confessions Underground booth records a secret on the Danforth. Photo courtesy of Labspace.

Mendes says that some secrets were deemed inappropriate for public transit.

“There was one criminal one, with a woman confessing to robbing banks in her youth,” she said. “We opted not to air that one. We didn’t want to get a phone call from the police. We had some sexual fetishes and things, which is fine, but we had to keep in mind that we had all ages as an audience. One guy admitted that he secretly wanted to marry his sister, and I respect that, but I don’t know if that would have been appropriate.”

Mendes says that while the confessions ranged from the poignant to the hilarious, the common thread that ran through all of them was how honest and sincere they were. Switzer agrees, and adds that the sincerity of the confessions is, at least in part, a result of how well Loechner and Mendes executed the project.

“I’m incredibly impressed with what Laura and John did,” said Switzer. “They managed to do something that got really sincere confessions, and that’s not an easy thing. It shows that they did it with a lot of sensitivity.”