A general rule when taking the subway in Toronto is to check the seat before sitting down. You never know what might’ve been there before you, so caution is key. After all, you don’t want a stain on your pants being the talking point at the office for the rest of the day.
Commuting and Other Lonely Thoughts are the words inscribed on business cards strewn throughout the TTC. If you happen to stumble across one, disregard the instinct not to touch things you find on the public transit.
Instead, pick it up, give it a read, and take a moment to reflect. That’s what Yasmeen Nematt’s intentions were when starting this project.
Nematt, a Toronto based artist, has been putting business cards (more than 1,600 at time of publish) with introspective messages inscribed on them all over the the city’s buses and subway trains, with new words potentially to be found on each new commute.
She started the project partnered with STEPs Public Art, a public art collective hoping to reimagine the way we view and interact with public spaces. Nematt wants to show how subways, buses, and streetcars, and all sorts of transitional spaces compound that sense of loneliness ever-so-present within cities.
“I’m really curious about how loneliness captures and becomes one of the main emotions that we think about during these commutes,” Nematt said. “How that is a product of a society that doesn’t allow us to feel anything beyond the tasks that we commit to day in and day out.”
Loneliness has been a common thread many tugged on throughout the pandemic. As the seasons change, those feelings of isolation can increase during the colder months, and can be a product of things like seasonal affective disorder.
Nematt wanted to share her loneliness with others, no matter who they are, and give them a chance to share their thoughts on their own loneliness. She wanted to allow people to express vulnerability in a world that often represses that sort of interaction.
She is a visual artist and storyteller that explores these themes often in her work. Nematt says her focus on these concepts tends to revolve around the emotions of grief, loneliness and coping felt within Black and Brown communities. However, this latest endeavour takes a more comprehensive and universal approach to isolation.
“So, I basically just posted a question on Instagram: ‘Where do you cry the most in Toronto?’” Nematt said. “I got over 100 replies, and people were like, ‘I cry so much on the One [Yonge-University-Spadina] line’, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, me too, actually.’”
She wrote down some of her lonely thoughts and sent them to get printed onto business cards. She chose business cards as the mode of communication because they are “something that you can pick up and keep.”
With nothing but a short message and a phone number on the cards for people to text in order to partake or learn more about the project, Commuting and Other Lonely Thoughts was ready to go.
“I want it to be a coincidence; I want it to be luck. I want you to find it because of serendipity, because you needed to find it, not because it was forged,” Nematt said. “I very much want that to be a very organic thing.”
When you text the number on the back, within seconds, you’ll receive a message asking if you’d like to share a moment of loneliness followed by a yes or no prompt. Though it’s an automated message, the words were written by Nematt with the hope that authenticity would shine through.
In that transitional moment, commuting from one destination to another, instead of keeping your thoughts to yourself, you instead get the chance to share your state of mind.
In return, the respondent gains insight into Nematt’s loneliness and shares with her a connected sense of vulnerability. Nematt shares a tale of her own loneliness, her experience on a bus and the reflective moments that ensued.
“I really believe in exchanges that are fair. I would never want people to put labour into an exchange and not feel that their labour is returned,” Nematt said. “So the offer of me telling them my loneliness for them to tell me their loneliness becomes almost this lovely moment of back and forth that can stay with us later.”
Nematt hopes this exchange of vulnerabilities will create a sense of community, one that Toronto, according to her, is sorely missing. She believes that community-driven art is in itself a form of communal care and hopes that this project can contribute to that through these free mini communal therapy sessions.
A large-scale version of the Commuting and Other Lonely Thoughts will feature responses collected from participants to be projected at arts space 918 Bathurst sometime in November (date to be announced).
To learn more about this project and keep up with its development, you can follow @yasmeennematt on Instagram.