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Michele Pearson Clarke at the Bentway within Art Activation.

Together Outside: Toronto’s Year of Public Art

Author: Michele Pearson Clarke

Published Date: Sep. 22 2021

Image: adé abegunde

Growing up in Trinidad, the word gallery had multiple meanings. Yes, it meant a place to display or sell works of art, but it also meant to make a show of yourself, either in the form of boasting or just by strutting around. Peacocking, if you will, when you were feeling yourself. Anywhere could be your stage, the show could start at any time, and anyone could be your audience. More than anything, the theatre that is living was made explicit. 

When you come from such a place, your relationship to public space is forever charged. Performance is ever possible, and artistry may erupt at any moment. Words and gestures move minds and mountains, from friends and strangers alike. In a complex place like Trinidad, where so many are deprived of so much, it is a rich way to live. 

In this complex place we call Toronto, where too many are deprived of too much, our relationship to public space has been forever changed. Over the past 18 months, public space has simultaneously become a newly contagious threat as well as a newly controlled relief. Grappling with the pandemic has meant both staying away from the public realm while also moving a great deal of our lives into the outdoors. For many of us, outside has become the place to work, to play, to eat, to exercise, to pray. 

Public space has changed in nature and quantity too. Streets have been claimed, sidewalks have been transformed and parking lots have been repurposed. With this expansion, we have been living in front of each other more than ever before, and that energy has felt familiar. Even through the immense pandemic grief and suffering, in seeking connection and stimulation and relaxation with and through and from each other, here in Toronto’s outsides, we have begun to gallery

Wherever you look, there are now more everyday spectacles on view. Perhaps the choreography of a physically distanced park gathering has dazzled your eye, or the poetry emanating from patio diners has made you shine. That public space has so often become a paradoxical haven is reflected in the ways that we are displaying ourselves to each other. Despite it all, we are feeling good out there and letting it show. 

Such ground is the fallowest for artists, many of whom have likewise shifted things outdoors. Whether their work is public art or not, their art has become public. A park is a stage, a fence is a gallery, and a porch is a concert hall. No matter the production, the experience is buoyed by the sheer pandemic bliss of Outside. The mutual potency between artist and audience blurs lines and casts spells, leaving us thinking, knowing, or feeling differently about our city than we did before we arrived.  

This is public art at its best, though it bears scant resemblance to what has largely filled the city’s collection to date. While our monumental sculptures and stunning murals indeed have plenty to offer, it is art that galvanizes a communal public experience that stirs my heart most. Work that asks us to share space and time binds us as a community, even if it’s asking difficult questions, challenging cultural narratives, or serving as a memorial to historical atrocities. There is alchemy in the crowd, and those shared interactions both embed us in this place and let us soar. More traditional forms of public art can get us there too, but the broadening definitions and priorities for Toronto’s Year of Public Art promise intriguing civic engagement opportunities ahead. 

In advancing Indigenous place-making city-wide, encouraging new methods of community-engaged public art works, and funding temporary public art, the forthcoming public art strategy is saying all the things I want to hear. We will be brought together more often, in a greater number of neighbourhoods, by a truer diversity of artists. We will take up more space for discussion, debate and exchange across difference. We will have more chances to connect, bear witness to stories that have yet to be told and establish a sense of belonging.  

As the fissures widen and the world continues to burn, this is the work to which our artists are committed. We need to look back as we look forward, and we need to care for this land and each other. As we work to build a more flourishing city for us all, our public art can help us to gather and to cope and to rejoice. In the ongoing conversation between this city and ourselves, it can help us to confront our hard truths and to imagine beyond what we think is possible. All this help will be needed to see us through these coming cruel and precious days. 

Image of Michele Pearson Clarke

About the Author

Michele Pearson Clarke

Michèle Pearson Clarke is a Trinidad-born artist who works in photography, film, video and installation. Using archival, performative and process-oriented strategies, her work explores the personal and political possibilities afforded by considering experiences of emotions related to longing and loss. Her work has been included in exhibitions and screenings at Le Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal; the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; the Royal Ontario Museum; LagosPhoto Festival; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Maryland Institute College of Art; ltd los angeles; and Ryerson Image Centre and Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Art, Toronto.

Based in Toronto, Clarke holds an MSW from the University of Toronto, and she received her MFA from Ryerson University in 2015, when she was awarded both the Ryerson University Board of Governors Leadership Award and Medal and the Ryerson Gold Medal for the Faculty of Communication + Design. From 2016-2017, Clarke was artist-in-residence at Gallery 44, and she was the EDA Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Toronto Scarborough for the 2018 winter semester. Clarke’s writing has been published in Canadian ArtTransition Magazine and Momus, and in 2018, she was a speaker at the eighth TEDxPortofSpain. Most recently, Clarke has been awarded the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts 2019 Finalist Artist Prize, and she was a nominee for the 2019 Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award. She is currently the inaugural 2020-2021 artist-in- residence at the University of Toronto’s Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, and the Photo Laureate for the City of Toronto (2019-2022).

Photo Credit Jessica Laforet

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