It’s a Monday evening and Spacing magazine’s creative director, 31-year-old Matt Blackett, is holding an editorial meeting at the house he shares with two roommates and a roving squatter. Sitting on a turned-over milk crate, his wavy hair tamed by a hat, Blackett opens the meeting with his latest rant. This time it’s about Toronto’s deal with Eucan, a company that wants to install monstrous ad-covered garbage cans on the city’s sidewalks. Blackett has just gotten wind that, in order to get citizens on board with the idea, the cans are going to display art and public service announcements during the pilot project. Then, once the project is approved, advertisements will replace the art.
“That’s evilly clever of them,” says editorial collective member Dylan Reid.
“Yeah, there’s a guy we know who was approached by the city to submit art and Mez told him, ‘This is fucking evil,’ Blackett says, referring to his roommate Dave Meslin, coordinator of the Toronto Public Space Committee, the activist organization that launched Spacing.
“Well I guess it’s that old toss-up: money, principles, money, principles,” Reid says, moving his hands back-and-forth.
The young idealists behind Spacing have opted for the latter. While Spacing‘s modest success in the past year has been celebrated – it’s been favourably mentioned in two Toronto dailies, called an “inspiring jolt” byNOW magazine, and nominated for “Best New Title” among independent publications by Utne magazine – the 3,000-circulation, three-times-a-year publication isn’t a money-maker. Spacing‘s often-romanticized coverage of all things public space, from playgrounds to transit to graffiti, appeals to an esoteric crowd. Though city councillors have been spotted perusing the black-and-white glossy, most of Spacing‘s readers live in Toronto’s downtown core, don’t own cars, and never wear suits. The profit Spacing does make (from newsstand sales and fundraising parties) is funneled back into publishing costs. All of Spacing‘s writers, photographers, and editors (including Blackett) work for free.
Since Spacing launched in late 2003, its supporters have been galvanized by the feeling that they’re part of something bigger than themselves: “The anti-globalization movement is evolving into this idea of thinking globally, but acting locally,” explains Blackett. “People have opted to work on the local level instead of going to huge protests and fighting with tear gas.”
Rather than trying to overthrow corporate influence in national politics, the new movement is targeting the things they can change, like postering bylaws or the lack of a bike-lane infrastructure. So instead of “culture jamming” corporate billboards, the new activists are engaging in their own community-based forums of political expression. The optimistic and creative protest form not only rekindles hope among the weary activists, it attracts those who, though aligned with the movement’s issues, were intimidated by its tactics.
Back in Blackett’s living room, Spacing‘s contributing editors – Lindsay Gibb, Anna Bowness, Dylan Reid, and Shawn Micallef – have all arrived. (Managing editor Dale Duncan is away teaching English in Korea for a month.) The group is bandying about story ideas for the next issue. Micallef proposes writing on interactive light-art installations in public space.
Blackett is immediately inspired by the idea: “It’s like those things they set up for the McLuhan festival. On top of the Drake Hotel, they put up a big board with light bulbs on it and there was a switchboard so you could pick which light bulbs to turn on and off. So I spelt ‘fake’ and put an arrow pointing down to the people going into the Drake.”
“There was another guy who did the most fucked-up, wonderful thing,” Micallef says. “He set up light beams in the middle of a park in Mexico City and you could go on the internet and map out how you wanted the beams arranged and they would actually move!”
“That is so cool,” Bowness says, echoing the sentiment of the nodding group.
“Okay, so Shawn, you can write about this, and you should also include that place in Berlin where you could play pong with the lights on the building,” Blackett says.
This light art example is just one manifestation of the new ‘think local, act global’ movement. While all the displays were orchestrated on a local level, collectively they show that, worldwide, people are refusing to quietly assimilate into their grey skyscraper background.
The Torontonian examples of resistance Spacing promotes – road curbs painted pink, transit scavenger hunts, and stories written on posters – might seem trivial, but readers grasp the implications. “By encouraging people to be informed about, involved in, and to fight for their community you are not only strengthening our democracy but providing a ballast against destructive, commercializing forces,” writes Susan Towndrow from Cornwall, Ontario. The Toronto Star urban issues columnist Christopher Hume agrees, saying Spacingrepresents “a backlash to this neo-conservative homogenization of space.”
Hume thinks the backlash is a consequence of more people living in dense urban areas, a theory echoed by Ryerson design professor Andrew Furman: “Enough people are moving back downtown. There’s a new breath of youth that’s changing things.” As a result of living more densely with others, people are moving outside the isolation of their houses and cars. They’re becoming more aware of the public realm, according to Furman, deciding what they like – and don’t like – about it. Both Hume and Furman think younger generations are driving this phenomenon, but Micallef says he’s surprised at the number of “minivan moms and guys in golf shirts” who have approached him, concerned about the lack of playground space for their children or the state of their sidewalks.
Even the city government recognizes Spacing‘s political clout. “Spacing represents a constituency that is very astute and politically aware,” says City Councillor Joe Mihevic. And because Spacing not only shows how public spaces are being ignored and exploited, but also researches ways in which they can be improved, people in City Hall are taking the magazine seriously. Early last year, Mayor David Miller appointed Blackett to sit on the roundtable of his city beautiful campaign, feeling that, “Matt and Spacing magazine are an important voice,” according to Andrea Addario, Miller’s communications director. Miller is also a fan of Blackett’s subway buttons, which mimic the tiles of every subway station in Toronto, and is often seen sporting the “High Park” button.
Still, for veteran activists Janice Etter and Rhona Swarbrick, the idea that Spacing’s ideals are permeating City Hall is na?ve. “It’s one thing to talk about the issues, it’s another to stand in front of a committee and try to get a policy changed,” says Etter who, with Swarbrick, has lobbied the municipal government for the last 25 years to make the city more pedestrian-friendly. “The magazine is really great, but they are preaching to the converted.”
Meanwhile, suburban values are still dominating the amalgamated city: “There’s still a greater demand for car-oriented development than for mixed-use development,” according to Toronto’s director of urban design, Robert Freedman. And while Blackett thinks Miller will rejuvenate the public realm by investing in transit and green space, Etter and Swarbrick put much less faith in the new mayor. “He ultimately answers to the ratepayer groups,” Etter says, explaining that the progressive initiatives that Miller is supporting are small-scale and downtown-oriented. Furman agrees: “The city beautification budget is nothing when you compare it to the public works budget.” And when I ask Addario if Blackett has had any influence on planning policies since he joined the roundtable three months ago, she says, “No, the roundtable has only met twice.”
But it is perhaps premature to judge Spacing on tangible success. After all, as Hume says, “Public space is an intellectual space as well as a physical space.” And once the public can wrest control over the intellectual space through debate and discussion, concrete policy changes will naturally follow. The momentum of this new wave of activism may be slower than the old one, but it’ll likely prove more effective in the long term, as activists have become more articulate, media savvy, and practical in their political aims. As Etter explains, “Once you’ve built up your knowledge about the issues, you feel you have a responsibility not to walk away.”