Take Down, Spread Out
by Benjamin de Boer
Amy Sillman was absolutely right in her assertion that the second question confronting artists is: “What would make it better?”1 This puzzle becomes even more apparent when the artist is offered an invitation, a grain of hospitality extended by an organization wishing to incubate an aspect of their work.
Due to this apprehension around what affective ambiguities would make “better art” in the face of an invitation to participate in modes of action concerning public space, my collaborator Phát Lê and I deconstructed every motive after we received an email from The Bentway last autumn. In it, they presented an opportunity to participate in their “Safe in Public Space” (SIPC) initiative, which seeks to acknowledge the role that public space is playing in systemic injustices, and the fact that—although public space may feel important to our collective recovery—not everyone feels safe and comfortable therein. Of course there are many nuanced reasons for those experiences, which SIPC is mandated to explore.
Turns out The Bentway had seen our YouTube video2 where we poured concrete on an uneven bench to flatten out its seating area so that someone could comfortably lie on it, countering Toronto’s efforts to make these benches uninhabitable. We had played this video on a loop on the TV in Albany Pizza, where we had also put out a set of binders filled with essays we wrote about changes in the city that we had witnessed through routines of performative psychogeography. We wanted to intervene in the City of Toronto’s subtle implementation of hostile architecture in public space. Our research into this phenomenon served to share the typology of strategies that those with power use to overdetermine the use of public space, thereby limiting the possibility of sidewalks, parks, and plazas to embolden the polymorphous desires relationally constructed by their inhabitants. In other words, the city doesn’t want anyone taking a nap, or hanging out with their friends for too long.
Our first thought was: “Wait, isn’t The Bentway the organization that rented out their park to host that graceless pod dinner?”3
And second: “What could they possibly want from us?”
The Bentway is a charity gone spatial, the functional trajectory of an investment piece disguised as a park for the adjacent inhabitants of waterfront condos. It’s a multimillion-dollar concrete rectangle, replete with a public bathroom, picnic tables, and power outlets slapped down on city land-in-limbo until the Gardiner Expressway inevitably gets torn down, at which point it will be promptly sold to a developer who will erect even more condos on top. Seemingly, the only explanation for this sudden ethical upswing was to save face following the pod dinners, slow its roll toward the heat death of neoliberal singularity.
Call us paranoid but we are iffy on the ways that non-profits work in general, wince at the bureaucratic hyper-maze whose serpentine loopholes are designed to reiterate expressions of the status quo. There are of course amazing exceptions, mutinied by brave teams ishing to reroute capital. Unfortunately, though, plenty of citybacked organizations are basically the Business Improvement Associations of the Cultural, moderated by boards investing in safe projects depicting Toronto as a cheery surface upon which to play the real-estate game. While Phát and I have a pretty solid grasp on
the kinds of saccharine artwashing that developer-affiliated organizations conjure up, in response to the invite, we felt like children: supreme non-experts on the issues faced by multiple publics, unfit for this kind of undertaking. We could have said no to this invitation, but knew that if we did, someone could use the $10,000 grant attached to plop down a plaza turd.
Being dilettantes, we were down to explore the potential of acting through this feeling. So we decided that if we were to do anything with them, it would be in drag as them, administering their vision of career-based organizing. Like iodine contrast fluid, maybe we could help diagnose just how bad their capacity for mutual aid actually was. Perhaps dropping the art-object in favour of tactical programmatics would serve a critical function. If we could learn the organization’s tendencies toward power-to and power-over, as well as the ways these capacities were slipping, maybe there could be some kind of lasting change to the way this charity functions. We would also get the money meant for our personal budget out there and into the hands of networks with real know-how.
Our proposal began with telling them our general feeling of apprehension, our concern that pilot projects are ineffectual when their effects are felt only during their temporary instantiation. Unsure of exactly what The Bentway expected, we figured we would start by indicating what we weren’t interested in and why. We didn’t want to dedicate money to putting up a temporary sculpture that could inadvertently get in the way of someone using that space for something else. And, especially considering the political nature of this initiative, we thought it non-negotiable to address and amend hostile elements. In this case, the presence of not simply spikes, bars, and other barriers—surface control features The Bentway has made sure to avoid—but also ideological and financial structures. In our proposal, we addressed their non-consensual planning of space and subsequent programming; corporate encroachment on city land; quiet support of profit-governed luxury housing developments nearby that result in policing, displacement, and the construction of inaccessible housing; and coercion of energy away from grassroots organizing by hoarding donor money within a non-profit industrial complex, for the production of facile public spectacles.4 To be clear, these kinds of organizations don’t strive for something “good” and then fail; they were designed to work in this feckless manner. Their philanthropic work is tightly controlled, with grants contingent on deliverables they define, obligatory community meetings deliberately scheduled at inconvenient times, and conversations with developers organized under the logic of capital. Such charitable conservancies have replaced grassroots collectives of people working together for goals that don’t rely on private or government agencies.5
This impulse must be replaced with solidarity, a behaviour that builds social relations that support the self-determination of marginalized people, and approaches public safety by way of harm reduction. To reduce the potential harm done by this money flowing in weird ways, we demanded the divestment of the $10,000 budget toward those impacted by profitdriven real estate. If The Bentway accepted our proposal, the existing staff members would join us in meeting with members of aid groups we felt The Bentway could learn from, and splitting the grant up between them.
This amounted to $2500 allotted for each aid group, to help meet the needs of the communities they support. They were to be compensated in funds, hard goods, or some combination thereof,
delivered on their preferred schedules, whether lump sum or at regular intervals. We also offered the organizations an open line of communication with The Bentway to discuss how they could better support these smaller direct-action networks through advocacy, space sharing, and other partnership possibilities beyond funding—all if the groups in question wanted these elements, of course. The groups we were ultimately able to get money to were: the Encampment Support Network (ESN), the Jane-Finch Housing Coalition (JFHC), the Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council (TASSC), and Friends of Chinatown Toronto (FOCT).
The Bentway accepted, and really embraced, this criticism as what they called “a helpful fuck you” in one of our meetings.
Some of ESN’s volunteers spoke with members of The Bentway’s staff, educating them about how to provide support and basic supplies to their unhoused neighbours. Resultantly, The Bentway took on some additional winter initiatives to support the community in tangible ways, such as producing and disseminating care kits. With the JFHC, we agreed that housing security is deeply tied to autonomy, and that extending consultation beyond the downtown core develops a more nuanced understanding of those experiencing housing insecurity. The JFHC used the funds to continue to support their network of residents, service providers, and community organizers. As for TASSC, we left it up to them to define how our relationship could be most beneficial. They pointed us in the direction of the 7th Generation Image Makers, where our reallocation of funds assisted their initiative to provide Indigenous youth of Toronto and the GTA with arts supplies and professional development programming. We set up a peer mentorship program where young image makers could meet with working artists to receive insight, criticism, and general information about pursuing a career in the arts. Finally, we had The Bentway extend our offer to FOCT, who have been exploring the implementation of a neighbourhood-improvement network as well as community land-trust models for Chinatown, which could include affordable housing, culturally competent community services, community gardens, and affordable commercial space for Chinatown’s immigrant-owned small businesses.
This decentralization of resources let the recipients use them however they needed. As individuals concerned with exclusionary urban-planning practices who are just beginning to realize our
place in ongoing direct-action strategies against them, we looked to the experts. Now we know what we suspected all along: our energy is better spent organizing within the communities we are a part of and stand with. We hope (hopefully not naively) that The Bentway can be continually steered through ongoing, coordinated communication with proximal groups that engage in direct action and commit to policy work to aid unhoused residents and advocate for the decommodification of housing. By doing so, these strategies support the lives of BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ2S+ community members, as well as people with disabilities and members of other marginalized communities. This demand was the beginning of a larger call to unsettle the framework of this institution and transform its harms or potential harms into harm reduction, and other opportunities for community selfdetermination. As for Phát and me: will we focus on working within institutions to conduct the kind of work direct-action groups are already doing better? Probably not.