ATTACK OF THE PUBLIC SPACE INVADERS

In Features /

By Scott Harwood and Jesse McLean

Buried deep beneath her pink toque and scarf, Lori Kufner’s dressed for the weather. It’s cold — even for 3 a.m. in February — as she leads about 50 friends down the fashionista-saturated Queen St. West. A few of them sing, as if to stir the others from the onset of sleep. They’re not allowed to be tired. Their night is just beginning.

As Kufner separates the pack into groups of two, she explains the goal of the night: it’s the Queen of Hearts party, an event hosted by Newmindspace — Kufner and her friend Kevin Bracken’s brainchild. The nighthawks work in pairs, painting the sidewalks and streets with hearts, covering more than two kilometres by night’s end. In a few days, everything will have washed away. But Kufner and Bracken’s goal will be complete: they will have reclaimed Valentine’s Day from Hallmark.

But these folks don’t look like revolutionaries. Some of the participants, who sport butterfly wings and look like they were sidetracked on their way to a Halloween dance, are commenting on how pretty the hearts are. “We love pink,” chirps one. A few others around her agree. Surely these can’t be Toronto’s cultural movers and shakers.

But the growing attention the public art and cultural intervention movement is getting in Toronto galleries and clubs would disagree. And so would anyone who walked past the strip of colourful murals on November 15. Taking the torch from the culture jammers of the 90s, Toronto’s public space movement doesn’t just have the potential to change the city forever — it might be the group’s main objective.

Newmindspace, self-described as interactive art, began in April of 2005, when founders Bracken (who usually sports his hair in the shape of wings over his ears) and Kufner (who wears wings on her back, tiaras and pink) met on a Queen streetcar on their way to a rave. They bonded over an idea to alleviate boredom. “We had a need to find ways to make fun happen,” says Bracken, 21.

For Easter that year, the duo orchestrated a massive egg-hunt. In a matter of days, they hatched the plan, raided party stores across the city and filled more than 2,000 plastic eggs with uplifting messages, hiding them along Yonge Street between Bloor and Queen streets — a great idea considering the only thing usually hiding on Yonge Street is layers of subliminal messages on illboards and TV screens. The stunt led to the organizing of several events to take back Toronto’s public space. The group held a pillow fight in Dundas Square the same day as an anti-gun rally, poetically titled Let Feathers Fly, Not Bullets. They staged an LED-light display to reclaim the skies from the pollution obstructing our view of the stars and countless dance-parties located anywhere from the streets, to Tim Hortons, to the last cars of subways.

But Bracken is adamant that this isn’t just a group of bohemian troublemakers looking to expand their party space. “Without the social activism, people wouldn’t care about what we do,” he explains. No event is planned without undertones of “taking back the streets.” What may look like a bunch of E’d out kids dancing on a subway is actually a statement about the use of public space. And being free is a key part of that proclamation: It’s about using either free or inexpensive resources to stage events for people throughout the city.

For Bracken, Toronto’s burgeoning movement is just the beginning. “We’d like to create a global culture of free events. Free not only in terms of money, but also in terms of liberation that people feel when they come to one of our events,” he says. It seems the group is well on its way. With events under its ever-growing belt in Boston as well as Bracken’s hometown of New York City, Newmindspace is taking over North America with a Dadaist-inspired hurricane of colour, fun, awareness and most of all, art.

The group, like their Toronto-based sibling organizations the Toronto Public Space Committee and the newly formed 1 + 1 = 3 At Least, is not your great-grandmother’s public art. Rather, the movement’s interactive art is current and fleeting. Most importantly, it’s inclusive. Like the painted hearts that lined Queen Street, the moment will disappear as quickly as it came. If you blink, you’ve missed the opportunity to take part.

And that’s the point: Toronto’s public art movement is one that gets off on the spontaneous interactions of the people in the city, not on its potential to be recognized a week, month or year after its creation. And they’re based in Toronto, where there are more bored kids than is healthy, says Laura Dittman, who produced a documentary profiling Newmindspace. “There are so many young people in Toronto. It’s like a bunch of university towns all in one. This is a big city with lots of kids, surrounded by suburbs with a bunch of kids,” says Dittman, a radio and television arts graduate. “People don’t realize how bored they are, living in Toronto or its suburbs can be so monotonous. [Newmindspace] make the most out of every moment, space and opportunity.”

Yet amid the positive response from members of Toronto’s public art movement, there are still some valid questions about the group’s methods. “People dressing up and partying on subways and buses has been happening in Toronto for at least 10 or so years,” says TTC spokesperson Marilyn Bolton, suggesting that the balletic gatherings hardly mark any massive change in the public’s thoughts towards public space. But the TTC has no intentions to stop them. Although the transit system doesn’t encourage the subway parties, as long as the participants avoid disturbing other passengers, their dancing will stay off Bolton’s radar.

Both Bracken and Kufner see it as a fair trade. In fact, the duo shuns drugs, booze, litter and rough play from its events — a rule that is the direct result of a deep respect and admiration for their home. That mentality seems to have permeated throughout the public art movement. “Public art is shared. You can go there no matter how much money you have or what your race is,” says Amanda Rataj, a co-ordinator at the Toronto Public Space Committee and a member of the 1+1=3 collective. The events hosted by the movement aren’t another dance party.

Rather, the groups seek to meld Toronto’s public space art into something that will become an important part of the city’s identity, and in the end, encourage tourism and civic pride. As Bracken explains at the end of Dittman’s documentary: “I love Toronto, and I have a lot of dreams for it. I think it could be our Utopia.”

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