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Issue 131

The Artists Newsstand
by Emily Fitzpatrick

Chester Station is a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway stop that serves the adjacent communities of Greektown, Withrow Park, Riverdale and Broadview North. Being one of the only TTC stations that does not connect to an outbound bus or streetcar, the clientele of Chester Station is familiar and depend- able. For a year, beginning on May 8, 2015, Chester Station commuters have been the primary audience for The Artists Newsstand, the year-long, site-specific project of a collective led by performance artist Jess Dobkin. Occupying a vacant Gateway Newsstand kiosk, The Artists Newsstand offered a range of products, including magazines, snacks and artist multiples, while also acting as a gallery space for performances and installations.

After a busy year of motley programming, it’s important to consider The Artists Newsstand’s impact on its dual audience of the Toronto’s arts community and Chester Station’s subway commuters. The impetus for this project was a desire to create a space that could be activated in a variety of unprescribed ways, and which could be adaptable and responsive to its diverse and ever-changing audience. When considering an unoccupied Gateway kiosk as a site for an artist project, the artists reflected on its initial function as a destination for reading material and refreshments. The function of these kiosks has diminished in recent years, as people increasingly get their news from other outlets, like through their smartphones. Responding to such changes, the collective took on the present-day inconsequence of the site, and attempted to restore it as a conduit for dialogue, and as well as create an alternative venue for exhibiting and distributing art objects.

In most cases, the reason why successful public artworks work is because they respond to their context, often negotiating pre-existing social systems. In this case the artists employed the familiar form of a newsstand kiosk to engage with the general public. With opening hours from three until seven pm, Dobkin described her varied audience as commuters on their way home, people going to Greek restaurants in the neighbourhood, patrons of the nearby Big Carrot health food store, TTC employees and teenagers on their way home from school. Listing these groups with great detail and recollecting the patterns of people’s movement through the station, Dobkin mapped an informal ecology of Chester Station.

For Dobkin, it was critical that The Artists Newsstand functioned as a newsstand, and offered commuter-patron necessities like candy and gum, alongside locally sourced items like artisan lip balm and home-baked cookies. Dobkin recalls the conversations the collective had about what they should sell and what people would want. “Do we sell bottled water?” “Do we sell candy made by Nestle?” It was decided that, while it’s not their politic, these necessity items provided options for people to engage with the newsstand in a way that was familiar, encouraging a comfortable exchange that could provoke further conversation. The $1 potato chip special, for instance, presented an opportunity for kid-commuters to inquire about Mary Tremonte’s ultrasound-imagery in SERIOUSLY, her installation about reproductive rights and gender justice; apple juice encouraged the sale of a Mother Nature is a Lesbian pin to a male commuter; bottled water introduced Sarah Mangle’s The Affirmations Colouring Book to a range of patrons, leading to a conversation about life skills and positivity with a commuter. The curated selection of artworks and sundry fare offered a platform for patrons to contemplate new subjects, and topical issues and events, like Pride Week and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, for example. With gum acting as the relational conductor towards load- ed artistic content, The Artists Newsstand answered in accordance to the pulse of the city, providing alternative forms of political engagement in public.

The program of performances and installations at The Artists Newsstand maintained a similar empathy towards its public and considered the specificity of Chester Station. The audience is transient and able-bodied (the station is not wheelchair accessible), making it necessary that each performance last only 20 minutes. Resembling the $1 chip special, the performances were conduits towards the newsstand, fostering social contemplation and providing different forms of agency to the TTC commuter. Golboo Amani’s Public Reading project had the artist join riders on their daily commute, reading aloud from a publication chosen by the commuter. Amani shared her library, mobilizing a private activity in a public space through performance; she both entertained and informed participants and bystanders, with the likely potential of disturbing others. Jessica Karuhanga performed A Still Cling To Fading Blossom, an elegy that creates a site of black mourning through a private ritual that was on display within the mixed, fleeting setting of Chester Station. Karuhanga moved throughout the space with daisies inserted in her mouth, which hindered her singing and breathing. She was less concerned with whether her gestures would translate to the site, but instead regarded the performative behaviour of both parties – hers and the audience’s – and the moments when they came together and broke apart.

Now that The Artists Newsstand has completed its year-long tenure, after recalling visitors’ and artists’ accounts, and sifting through Reddit comments, it is evident that the project developed a steady alliance with its local community and engaged meaningfully with the concerns of those who habitually occupy the space. As opposed to past examples of public artists’ retail projects, like Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961–64) and David Hammons’ Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), which primarily critiqued the gallery system and the constrictive circulation of objects in the art market, The Artists Newsstand’s success came in focusing attention on community education and activism rather than objects. Offering a productive and much-needed example of alternative artistic commerce, it produced new economies based on knowledge and material exchange, and generated a group of citizen-artists that moved with the city.

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