2012 Hero: Astral Media Info Pillar Hackers
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.



2012 Hero: Astral Media Info Pillar Hackers

Nominated for: taking Toronto's sidewalks back.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. From December 10 to 19, we’ll unveil the nominees, grouped by category. Vote for your favourites from each batch, every single day! On December 19 and 20 the winners from each category go head-to-head in the final round of voting, and on December 21, we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

In July, the members of the cARTographyTO artists group culture-jammed their way into the hearts of Torontonians, and into the empty souls of Astral Media’s sidewalk info pillars.

The pillars are the latest spawn of the City’s 20-year contract with Astral, a media company that’s providing Toronto with street furniture in exchange for the right to sell advertising on some of it. You can find the pillars on sidewalks all throughout downtown. They have pint-sized city maps on them (that’s the “info”), but they’re more notable for their huge advertising panels, which can take up a significant chunk of a sidewalk’s width. In other words, the pillars’ public benefit is secondary. They serve the private sector first and foremost. (It’s why we named the pillars a Villain last year.)

The laundry list of complaints against Astral Media is nothing you haven’t heard before: the furniture doesn’t work, it’s ugly, it’s unhelpful, and so on. But a more important consideration is that the stuff lacks a sense of place; there’s nothing eye-catching or iconic (or simply “Toronto”) in the designs.

In an act of “brandalism,” cARTographyTO removed ads from the pillars and replaced them with art. Local maps, a brick wall, and even a bicycle replaced posters shilling for phone companies and clothing chains. The group did it in plain sight; the police didn’t even stop them, and Astral Media itself didn’t notice a pillar being hacked outside its offices.

And this is why cARTographyTO is worth celebrating: it turned banal, utilitarian structures into temporary Toronto landmarks.

This type of civic engagement, even if it is unlawful, is something we can get behind. Sean Martindale, one of the artists involved, said that cARTographyTO opposes the “privatization of public spaces.” The group successfully pushed back against that trend using a hands-on approach.

You can choose to get caught up in the surface debate of whether this was vandalism or art. It doesn’t matter. cARTographyTO gave Toronto a little more of itself to love, Astral Media pouted like an evil adult at the end of a children’s film, and, for a while, Toronto was the coolest place to be.

See the other nominees in the Cityscape category:

Adaptation of Maple Leaf Gardens, for giving our history new life.  

Andy Byford, for bringing customer-focused change to the TTC.  

Ontario Place Revitalization Plans, for preserving and renewing where each are needed.  

David Mirvish, for ambition writ large.  

The Ryerson Image Centre, living up to the university’s ambitions.  

Cast Your Ballot