Artist compares TTC censorship on installation to North Korea

The Toronto Transit Commission hits the red light on a subway art installation that has been in the works since 2009

Two artists behind a controversial art installation commissioned for a newly opened subway station in Toronto say the city’s refusal to greenlight the project has ironically achieved what the art was meant to do — spark a debate about free speech.

German brothers Jan and Tim Edler, owners of realities:united, a Berlin-based art studio, say they’d been working with the Toronto Transit Commission on the project since 2009. But they say it was only days before the new Pioneer Village subway station’s scheduled opening last month that they were told authorities had concerns about the art piece.

At issue is LightSpell, a public art installation that would allow users to enter eight characters on a control panel in the station that show up on giant light screens that hang from the ceiling.

It was intended to pit freedom of speech versus the collective conscience of other users at the station, Edler said in a telephone interview from Berlin.

“The entire concept of the piece is about the lack of censorship,” he said.

But the Toronto Transit Commission, which paid $500,000 for the project, said it was concerned about its potential use for hate speech.

TTC spokesman Brad Ross said they made the decision to leave the installation dark until they figure out a solution.

“This isn’t about limiting free speech, but making sure people feel safe on the TTC,” he said. “If somebody looks up and sees a racial slur that they think may be targeted at them, then we have failed them.”

Ross said the art was commissioned ”a lifetime ago,” adding that senior management has changed “significantly” at the transit authority since 2009.

“The focus was on getting the extension finished, getting the subway built, getting the track in, the new signalling system, doing all of that work. To be frank, the art was not on anybody’s radar in any way shape or form and it wasn’t until quite literally the last days before opening it was discovered that you could type anything in.”

The TTC is getting legal advice on its risk and exposure related to the Ontario Human Rights Code, he said. They are also getting legal advice on the art’s ownership.

“The artist has some control over their art, they always do, and we’re not in disagreement with that,” Ross said. “We’re trying to come to a resolution, otherwise we would just do what we wanted.”

Ross said he’s hopeful the TTC board will discuss several legal options in its next meeting in mid-January.

Edler said he first realized there would be problems when he was at the station working on the final touches of the piece just before Christmas and saw TTC officials type the word “f—k” on the control panel and take cellphone photographs of the words on the screens.

He said shortly after that he received an email from the TTC brass saying they weren’t opening the installation to the public. He begged them for a last-minute presentation at the station, but that didn’t work.

Edler said he called then-TTC CEO Andy Byford and they discussed using a filter for a black list of words, but both agreed that wouldn’t work — there were too many ways around those systems.

“And, of course, that’s censorship,” Edler said.

The TTC then proposed a ”white list” of safe words that users could choose from, Ross said.

But Edler scoffed at that idea.

“Of course that’s completely crazy and (George Orwell’s) ‘1984’-like and definitely sounds more like North Korea than Canada,” Edler said.

Part of the goal, Edler said, is to provoke discussion about censorship and the use of public spaces.

“I am thankful to have this discussion via the media, whether it’s wrong or right, so in some way the piece is working on a different level,” he said. ”Although I would prefer to have the piece working on site.”

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

VIDEO: This is what buying legal pot in B.C. looks like

Take a look inside B.C.’s first and only legal pot shop located in Kamloops

Pacific Insight to lay off part of workforce

The company says it is transferring automotive production to its Mexico facility

Black belt tests on this week at Kootenay Martial Arts

Grandmaster Brenda Sell returns to assist in testing

UPDATED: Four Nelson marijuana dispensaries to remain open after legalization

Nelson’s police chief has no plans to close them down

Nelson candidates debate climate change at forum

Mayoral and council candidates had the chance to speak on five fictional resolutions

VIDEO: Candidates at Nelson election forum

Mayoral candidates joined 18 council candidates for an evening of very short answers

Great British Columbia ShakeOut earthquake drill reminder

Don’t miss the opportunity to participate in the Great ShakeOut

Jagmeet Singh says marijuana pardons are not enough

Trudeau government will streamline pardon process for Canadians convicted of simple possession of marijuana in the past

BC Ferries begins taking debit in two-month pilot project

Company is giving customers option to use Interac on two-month trial on select vessels

Caregivers banned from smoking, growing cannabis around children-in-care: MCFD

Ministry has limited cannabis use for caregivers, stating it may “pose a risk to children and youth.”

Cheaper strains sell out within minutes on online BC Cannabis Store

Province says new strains will become available in the coming months

Only 40% of B.C. car dealerships have electric cars available: report

Researchers found buyers frustrated at the lack of options

VIDEO: Millionaire Lottery returns to give back and win big

Since 1996, Millionaire Lottery has raised $52 million for the VGH+UBC Hospital Foundation

Most Read