Toronto 2012: The Year of the Bike

Last year a bright neon orange bike showed up in front of our neighbour’s store at Model Citizen. It sat there for a few weeks until me and a couple of people at the White House art studios started wondering who’s bike it was. Since we are a group of emerging artists, we can’t afford transportation like cars. Some of us even have a hard time paying public transportation fare (since 3$ a ride can add up with our meager budgets!) so we rely heavily on our bikes to get around Toronto. The bikes we can afford are usually second-hand/used and break down a lot. Lots of cyclists salvage deserted bikes for usable parts and recycle bikes headed for the dumpster.

So you could imagine our amazement when this bike showed up glowing as if a gift from the gods! Practically brand new, tires full of air and possessed wonderful accessories like reflectors, handle bars and a basket. We waited and waited and waited, and after a month of it just sitting there unmoved we decided it was fair game. When we tried to remove its usable parts we realized that they were in fact unusable because someone had primed/spray painted the entire bike, sealing all bolts and screws, seizing brake lines, sticking the gears and pretty much rendering it completely useless. We stood there puzzled, trying to figure out what the point the was. Why would someone take a perfectly good bike and make it totally unusable? Was is just meant for an aesthetic ornament?

Then I remembered a few years ago there was this project called Ghost Bike which was an international project that used white bikes as signifiers, or urban landmarks, for cyclist fatalities. I remember seeing them all over Toronto as Toronto’s cyclist community used Ghost Bike as a form of social awareness and protest against the City for cyclist rights and safety issues. They would lock up bikes are dangerous intersections and locations of cyclist fatalities. The Ghost Bikes had an eerie presence as if they were tombstones scattered among the city streets like debris. Since I thought that maybe this project was related or perhaps similar we decided to look it up on the internet and see if we could get more information. The first image we came across was this:

"First time on a bike?"

Scary, isn't it?

All of our jaws dropped (aka WTF?!?!?!). First of all, why would Toronto’s notorious Mayor Rob Ford, who is known for his cruel and unsympathetic stance on bike lanes and cyclists, be doing on a bike?! Secondly, why was it this same neon orange? What did it mean? This was all very shocking and confusing so I decided to do more research into the matter.

Here’s an article by the National Post that talks about Rob Ford riding into council on a neon orange bike and hamming it up for the cameras. Big photo opportunity centralized around an art project turned political feud. Turns out two artists who run the Ocad student gallery decided to paint a deserted bike in front of the gallery neon orange and create a garden in the basket, then they got a ticket from the city for vandalism. If you didn’t already know, Ford (like many before him), is on the anti-graffiti crusade band-wagon. I guess busting street art “vandals” just looks so good in the headlines to taxpayers but doesn’t it make you wonder: “Aren’t there bigger problems that need solving?” Adam Vaughn had some interesting quotes about street art documentation and cultural protection and he used this neon bike thing as an example. With support from the City, the two young artists started The Good Bike Project, which is similar to the Ghost Bike Project, but using colour coded bikes to signify different cultural landmarks throughout the city (neon orange representing the visual arts). However, the two artists: Caroline Macfarlane and Vanessa Nicholas felt that Rob Ford’s actions, as well as other counciler’s use of their project was a form of political hijacking for their own agendas. They had no idea Rob Ford would jump on their bike and use it for a photo opportunity and they felt a serious backlash from the arts community once this made the media. Here is an excerpt from an email interview I had with Vanessa and Caroline:

“Our hearts sank soon thereafter when, against our express wishes, Mayor Ford initiated an impromptu photo-op with our bike, which we’d left on the floor of Council in order to field questions from reporters in the media gallery. Within minutes the image of Ford sitting astride our bright orange two-wheeler was all over Twitter and Facebook, making it easy for outsiders to confuse the initiative as the Mayor’s own. Ford’s agenda was confirmed the next day when we realized that his assistant, Tom Beyer, had started a Facebook page and Twitter account for our project, which he then insisted on managing for us.

This sequence of events marked the first in a series of shortcomings and broken promises that left us largely alone to realize a project started at the City’s prompting. As it turned out, the City never connected us with sponsors, was unable to coordinate all of the bicycle deliveries we requested, and did little to help us transport bicycles to our project sites. To add insult to injury, Mayor Ford never replied to the letter we hand-delivered to his office, in which we advocated for the protection of the Jarvis bike lane and politely asked him to explain how he could support our project whilst also giving cyclists something to protest. Furthermore, no one from City Hall donated as little as one dollar to the campaign we started on the crowd-funding site, RocketHub. We worked on this project for part of every single day between June and October; and the City’s failure to sustain the fervor of interest and support of those early days shows a lack of respect and appreciation for the long-haul work of artists and art administrators.” -Vanessa Nicolas and Caroline Macfarlane of The Good Bike Project

One can’t help but ask the question: Why would the City attempt to derail an art project that the City itself helped initiate? As unfortunate as it is for the artists involved, this project highlights and acts as a perfect example of how contradictory the City is towards the rights of its citizen cyclists and local artists. The more I read about this issue, the more I realize how important it is for citizens and artists to use “the Bike” as an art object, as a medium, because whether you intend for it or not, riding a bike right now in Toronto is a political act. Now, I’m not saying every bike rider is a tree-hugger or an activist, but what I mean is that there are ulterior motives within current Toronto politics and “The Bike” is hitting a strange chord with politicians. Is it because of the oil industry? The recession? The fact cyclists don’t pay for gas, insurance or parking spaces? Is that the reason cyclists are demonized in the media? Who knows, but the most important fact beyond all speculations, is that our rights to safety on our city streets is slowly being taken away from us, and that riding a bike in the eyes of many car-commuting conservatives is seen as an act of defiance whether you like it or not.

Painting by Matthieu Leferve

After last summer and heading into fall, Torontonians mourned the tragic deaths of two Canadian cyclists: Jenna Morrison, a pregnant mother and yoga teacher and Montreal artist Matthieu Leferve. Both were killed by trucks with wide turning trailers, and both drivers were not charged even though both deaths were considered “preventable”. What is even more scary is the increasing tensions between cyclists and motorists. 2 years ago, I myself was the victim of assault and roadrage. I was assaulted and my bike damaged when a strange man in a Black Toyota Tacoma decided he would “teach me a lesson” for crossing queen street on my bike while he was stuck in traffic. Despite the fact he followed me, assaulted me and spouted hateful remarks about me being “gay” (because I have short hair and ride a bicycle???), the police interrogated me as if I were the assailant even though the man who assaulted me was 3 times my size. Why does riding a bike put you at a disadvantage? Because, like I said before, whether you like it or not, riding a bike is considered a rebellious act. The only reason the police let me go is because I had a clean record, and the strange man already had reports written up on him all having to do with road rage. Other than that, I swear from the looks in the cops eyes, I was guilty because I was an artist and a cyclist aka: up to no good.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve learned a lot from this whole situation. I know this article is currently painting a dark picture, but there is a lot of good that can come from all this. I know that personally, after the assault, I dealt with a lot of issues. There was the bitterness, the lack of faith in our police service, but overall, the fear of getting back on my bike. For a brief moment, I was scared of getting back on the road for fear of assault, pissing off the wrong driver, or finding myself again at a disadvantage because I was a cyclist. But maybe that’s what this is all about. Perhaps fear is the tool to get you to buy that car so you can feel “safer on the roads” or perhaps, take the TTC because it’s the “safer way”. I just simply refuse to be bullied off my bike by road-raging drivers with delusions of self-righteousness or by politicians who drive to work everyday making decisions that potentially put myself, my friends and family at risk.

Last summer, fellow artist Jeff Garcia initiated a PSYCH BIKE Workshop. He invited the community to come to his artist residency space, Halo Halo Village, and get creative with their bikes with lots of provided materials and found objects. The three main functions for the Psych Bike: 1. anti-theft (because of personalization) 2. Road Safety (because they’re flashy drivers see you coming) and 3. It looks PSSSYCCCHHH!!! Taking cues from the Scraper Bike Movement originating out of Oakland California, Garcia’s Psych Bikes has more of that Toronto-Canadian-psychedelic-urban-folk-trash-art inspired edge. At the workshop I decked out my bike, giving it a new paint job, flashy rims and also helped others with their bikes. What I enjoyed the most about this project was the smiles it produced while biking down the street. Children and adults alike would stop and smile, and I even received compliments from other cyclists on the street. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by positivity by riding a bike. Even car-drivers would roll their windows down and compliment my bike. Who would have thought?

In the end, despite all the negativity and politics that has been circulating around cyclists and bike lanes, I think it’s really important for people to get out there on their bikes and do something positive with them! MORE THAN EVER, now is the time to reclaim this whole situation and steer it away from the negative side where politics take it. Bike initiatives like Critical Mass and Art Spin are good places to start by participating in activities that celebrate cycling and promote public safety. In general, bikes are an amazing invention and when used as a tool or medium for artistic expression you can really make an impact on the world and people around you, and have a fun time doing it too.

See you on the streets!


Toronto? Berlin? Different Place, Same Story.

At the beginning of April I went to Berlin for two weeks to visit a friend who has been living and working in Berlin as an artist. Using the trip as a self-made residency, I spent the entire two weeks going to museums, galleries, flea markets and biking around the streets getting to know the city. Only after a couple days did I start picking up on an incredible tension.

The banner hung up out front the squat I was staying in.

Being born and raised in Toronto, the city makes you kind of jaded after a while. It’s described as a “cold” corporate oriented city that has an inferiority complex and a so-called “centre of the universe” attitude. All these characteristics I personally don’t identify with being a “Torontonian”. In fact, I think it’s a shame the city has these types of labels, and maybe that explains why most people who are born and raised Toronto move to other cities? Despite this, Toronto is actually a great city, it just gets a bad rep, especially for working artists.

A beautifully old low-key artist squat in Mitte.

When someone in Toronto hears of a place like Berlin, at first it sounds like paradise.
A multi-cultural hub for artists of all kinds to find affordable places to live and work in a culture that appreciates the artist?! What a dream! Or at least so I thought. Little did I know the good things I heard about Berlin were the very problems the city is currently dealing with.

At the moment… Berlin locals hate tourists.
Maybe hate is a strong word… but there is a growing anger in Berlin and I witnessed it first hand. At first I didn’t understand why a city with such a great reputation would condemn such a thing as tourism. But then I started to see the negative effects of a “good thing”. At first it was the wastoids. I watched a waitress push a group of wasted British 20somethings out of a bar, yelling “FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING TOURISTS” only to have one of the Brits yell back “FUCK YOU, YOU STUPID FUCKING GERMAN BITCH!” I suddenly found myself in between the two groups and had to run out of the way in case any punches were thrown. The group of belligerent Brits finally started to leave and I could hear one of the guys say to his friends “How rude! We spent so much money there!” Perhaps this is a general attitude “tourists” have when they visit other cities like Berlin, a skewed sense of entitlement to act like pricks because they have money?  Who knows… but I might not be too far off.

“Refugees welcome, tourists piss off”

One of the first days I was in Berlin, it was a beautiful sunny day and me and my friends walked down the street to Tacheles, one of the biggest and oldest art squat/venues in Mitte Berlin.  We had been walking all day long and were exhausted, so we sat in the backyard metal garden in the sun and drank beer, people watched and listened to the strumming of guitars.  We must have been sitting there for 20 minutes when my friend chirpped up and said “Hey, we haven’t said a single word since we got here”. And he was right. We all just nodded at that fact and basked in the sun and scenery.  It really was a peaceful moment.

Little did we know that the very next day that entire scene would be bulldozed to the ground.

A spectator plays a sad tune while city workers dismantle the bar.

I couldn’t believe it at first when we got the phone call from our friend who lived right across the street from Tacheles and could see them tearing the whole area down. We walked down the street and witnessed it for ourselves. It was true. That peaceful place that I had spent such a serene moment in, was replaced by dark clouds and a grim destructive scene. A handful of people were standing on a makeshift stage staring in astonishment over what was happening.  A trumpet player serenaded the city workers with melancholic melodies as they tore the place apart.  How could such a thing happen in a city that was supposed to respect their artists and the culture around these communities?

Turns out it has nothing to do with Berliners’ respect towards the arts, but the property owners’ and investors’. It’s the same old story time and time again.  Artists move into an area left abandoned and desolate, they spend years cultivating a community and developing the neighbourhood, then the property owners move in, kick everyone out, and then capitalize off a community they’ve contributed absolutely nothing to.  The same thing that is happening in Toronto, is happening in Berlin… and happening all over the world… the only difference is that Berlin actually had time to cultivate a community and a culture before the corporate take over.  In Toronto we never even seem to get that far. It’s sad that this is happening in Berlin, but at the same time, they’re lucky for having squats that lasted as long as they did. Most cities aren’t so lucky.

So obviously, people are angry and upset. By why direct the anger towards tourists?

“A precedent for big changes has already been set in former squatters’ residences across Berlin. In 2005, the police stormed Yorck 59, a kind of political collective that existed in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district for 18 years before investors bought it. The building has since been turned into luxury lofts.”

Because locals dont live in loft condos, tourists do.
So instead of getting mad at the city, the politicians, the property owners or the investors,
the anger is directed towards the tourists who come to Berlin to make “the scene” and get shit-faced every night.  Frankly, I dont blame them… because if there wasn’t a such a market of try-hard suckers willing to pay for overpriced “lofts” to live in a community that no longer exists, i’d be pretty pissed off at tourists too.

I read in a Berlin paper that Tacheles had been bought out for 1 million € but when I talked to some of the artists who still worked at Tacheles during the demolition, they said that was all bullshit. Turns out, the few people who managed the “Zapata Cafe” out in the backyard area that I was sitting in the day before, made this slimy deal without telling anyone, took the money and fucked off, leaving over 80 artists to deal with the aftermath. These artists who currently run and work in the space haven’t seen a dime. One artist who I was talking to became more and more upset as he explained the situation and ended it off with “Yea, everyone is mad at those greedy fuckers, and people are trying to track them down.”

Harsh tokes.

So at the end of my trip, I felt really disillusioned, and kept asking the question…will artists ever have any rights to the property and communities they cultivate?   Are artists always destined to struggle??  Would we be real artists if we didn’t suffer?  Some people will argue this fact, that this cyclical problem is necessary for the creation of ‘true’ art… however… to me it sounds more like artist denial.  Like a battered wife going back to her husband because “he really does love me”, artists who support their own oppression and degradation seem to be conditioned to tolerate such defeats.  Honestly, I think we can do better.

Maybe one day… in a perfect world… in the (not so?) distant future.