The winning sculptures from an international design competition that drew throngs of people to a frigid Toronto beach this spring ended its run just as the city entered lockdown.
The Winter Stations temporary outdoor art exhibit has been in the city’s east end for the past six years. Each year, a handful of hopeful designers are selected from hundreds of applicants and win the opportunity and funding to display their piece on the Beaches shoreline.
This year’s displays were planned for teardown on March 30, which was coincidentally the same day that a province-wide closure of outdoor recreational locations took effect. The city-wide closure leaves public art designers and planners — many of whom already had commissions and plans in place for upcoming art in the city — wondering how to proceed with an outdoor future that’s so uncertain.
Winners of the Winter Stations design competition discuss the importance of art during the coronavirus pandemic:
Although some remain hopeful that restrictions on public spaces will be lifted in time for summer, there’s no guarantee people will be allowed back into parks and public squares. That leaves city organizers unsure of whether to move ahead with issuing commissions.
“You don’t want to put a piece of art down on the waterfront and, one, have no one be able to go there, or, two, have people going there and putting themselves at risk,” said Chloe Catan, public art manager with Waterfront Toronto. It’s an infrastructure project that was formed by the federal, provincial and municipal governments that aims to transform Toronto’s waterfront into liveable, sustainable spaces.
Beginning in May, Waterfront Toronto was scheduled to host their next major temporary art exhibit in the Port Lands in conjunction with Scotiabank CONTACT photography festival. The piece is five large billboards depicting what Catan describes as quirky photography of construction sites.
According to its website, the festival is continuing to be adapted on a day-by-day basis to reflect that COVID-19 has “transformed how art is experienced.” Online profiles for this year’s exhibitions include descriptions and a preview of the exhibition, but they remain dateless.
“I had a huge list of projects to roll out over the summer and fall. They haven’t been cancelled. They’re just sort of on hold,” said Catan. “I’ve struggled with whether this is a good time to commission art. I always want to give artists opportunities. But maybe they’re stressed and can’t think of art right now. Maybe they’re sick.”
The planning and design team Catan belongs to is responsible for procuring permanent art for developing neighbourhoods and precincts on the waterfront.
“We choose important or obvious locations to put art,” said Catan. “Places that are in the public realm and create a sense of connection, make the space more vibrant.”
While permanent pieces are important, Catan said the temporary art program was started last year with the intention of bringing the public back to the waterfront again and again.
“Huge, permanent pieces take years and years to happen,” said Catan. “I wanted to do something that dealt with timely issues.”
The first installment in the temporary art program, the SOS (Safety Orange Swimmers) installation, floated in Lake Ontario by Harbour Square Park from July to September of last year. Each of the 25 brightly coloured figures represented one million displaced refugees worldwide.
Catan recalls being approached by a woman as they were preparing to pack up the exhibit in September who told her that someone had put a photo of The SOS exhibit on the bulletin board in her condo, and that it frequently inspired discussions about refugees among the tenants.
“Whether it’s about climate change, or Indigenous perspectives, or refugees, or just about the role of aesthetics in everyday life,” said Catan. “I just think it’s important that people connect to it in some way and talk about it. And to connect to each other.”
Catan wants to host a new piece in the same location every summer. Success, she said, is measured by the buzz it generated online and by the stream of people who came to see it.
Despite the current isolation orders, Catan is hopeful that Torontonians will continue to adapt and plan for better days in the future.
“We all need art. We can’t just stop making or thinking about it.” Catan said, noting that she has continued to reach out to artists to discuss new pieces and potential future plans. “We can’t just say that we’ll have to wait until August or September. We can find ways of connecting to each other in these times.”
Ben James of iheartblob, an architectural design studio based in Vienna, said that he and his two colleagues started their studio because they felt as though architecture had become stagnant, and hadn’t kept up with modern technology.
In their pieces, one of which was included in this year’s Winter Stations, they use augmented reality, artificial intelligence and have even a repurposed MRI machine. Where other public art designers and architects have been struggling to work in a purely indoor context, he and his colleagues have found themselves in their element.
The studio’s contribution to the Winter Stations was Noodlefeed, a colourful art piece made of recycled parachutes and straw. But the art also had a digital component: Visitors could add videos or draw onto the space on their phone. These things would remain visible to anyone who visited afterward by using an app — illustrating one way public art can stay with people long after they wander by it.
The trio discussed how this technology could be used in homes in isolation to give viewers a more accurate understanding of a three-dimensional piece of art.
“There’s a desire: How do you bring things in that you’re not able to have in your daily life if you’re stuck inside,” said Shaun McCallum of iheartblob, discussing working with augmented reality in the midst of isolation. “It’s a question of how do you get to an art museum? Or how do you get to a public space and bring a plaza to your bedroom?”
No stranger to unconventional artistic decisions, Aaron Hendershott is an architect from RAW architecture and organizer of Winter Stations who has been with the annual event from the start.
After participating in the Warming Huts competition in Winnipeg, held annually in late January, he and his RAW colleagues were inspired by how many people came out despite the cold.
Hendershott recounted that it was decided that they would try to bring a similar concept to Toronto. He and another colleague who grew up in the Beaches picked it as the location, noting that he wanted people to experience art in a completely new environment. When asked about art in the context of the pandemic, Hendershott said that although Winter Stations is temporary, the dissemination of pictures and stories of art pieces online mean that an event that inspired a strong sense of community locally in the Beaches has also already reached a global audience.
“There’s many, many ways we can experience the world. Whether it’s how we experience time, or ideas, or things online,” said Hendershott. “In our world, in the modern world, we have many other ways of reaching out and experiencing our world and our community.”
Editors note: This story has been edited to clarify Waterfront Toronto’s art selection process.