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

Two fires of note burning in Southeast Fire Centre

As of Saturday afternoon there were more than 20 fires burning in the Southeast Fire Centre.

‘Farm the Kootenays’ creates supportive community

Helping hobbyists and serious producers alike, the Facebook group has grown to nearly 12,000 members

Who will fill the Greyhound void in the Kootenays?

Minister Conroy, MLA for Kootenay West sees opportunity for local operators

Equipment lost in arson at Greenwood landfill

The cost of replacing equipment is expected to be significant.

What you see …

If you have a recent photo to share email editor@trailtimes.ca

Update: Police probe Toronto shooting that killed 2, injured 12; suspected gunman dead

Paramedics said many of the victims in Danforth, including a child, were rushed to trauma centres

Feds looking at ways to tackle wave of gun violence in Toronto: Minister

Toronto mayor John Tory spoke to the press following a mass casualty event in Toronto.

Inquest set in death of RCMP’s spokesperson for Robert Dziekanski case

Former Mountie Pierre Lemaitre died of self-inflicted injuries in Abbotsford in 2013

Man charged in 2006 B.C. murder extradited to Canada from South Korea

28-year-old Jui-Kai Weng was charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder

Soaring temperatures, high winds could worsen fires in B.C.’s southern Interior

Environment Canada’s forecast for the next week in the southern Interior does not inspire confidence, with temperatures in the 30s and winds gusting over 40 kilometres per hour.

Iran dismisses Trump’s explosive threat to country’s leader

Trump tweeted late on Sunday that hostile threats from Iran could bring dire consequences.

Why do they do it? Coaches guide kids to wins, personal bests at the BC Games

Behind the 2,300 B.C. athletes are the 450 coaches who dedicate time to help train, compete

Government sets full-time salary range for Justin Trudeau’s nanny

At its top range, the order works out to a rate of $21.79 per hour, assuming a 40-hour work week

Lower Mainland teams battle for baseball gold at BC Games

Vancouver Coastal squeaked out a 3-2 win against Fraser Valley

Most Read