On Thursday, June 27, I was invited—via Facebook—to meet other cyclists for a guided artistic tour of Toronto. To see my town through new eyes, thanks to Art Spin. The website, http://www.artspin.ca, indicates that Art Spin is entering its fifth year, which surprises me. How could I have gone this long and not explored such a fun event?
I arrived at the Strachan Avenue gate to Trinity Bellwoods Park at 6:45. Cyclists were adding art to their bikes and my friends at Bike Pirates were tuning equipment.
Having done one hundred and fifty bike interviews in 2011, I recognized several faces in the crowd. Reassuring.
Layne Hinton and Rui Pimento, organizers for these events, smiled and waved to me as I parked my bike and walked through the crowd. Rui’s bike leaned against a tree, partly as advertising.
After some opening remarks, we headed north through the park, and onto some quiet side streets. We then took over Dundas Street West for a block. Large crowds like this have the potential to overwhelm other commuters. So often, I’ve been bullied off the road by drivers, or felt unwelcome cycling across parklands. Even groups of inattentive (or even mean-spirited) cyclists can be intimidating. Not so, tonight. Yes, having hundreds of bicycles appear around a corner would be imposing, but having many of these cyclists smile and wave to the drivers for their patience, gestures of friendship and gratitude, was touching. I was proud to be part of this display of community.
Our first stop was the nearby Fred Hamilton Park, a park I’ve never visited. As we disembarked, we noticed several actors in costume awaiting us. We sat on the grass, prepared to be entertained by an interactive dance piece curated by Heather Nichol. One of the presenters made it clear that we were all participants tonight! She gave out shakers and horns and colourful glam streamers, for audience involvement. Then, she invited dozens of people to get into costume and become part of the performance. And so, many of us did just that.
A small child beside me laughed and pointed at the costumes, the silly noises, the goofiness of the display. It was loosely based on Swan Lake, which was apparent in some of the dance steps attempted by our participants. I loved the costumes—melons on heads, other, enormous and peculiar heads, and stretchy body bag outfits that forced the participant to move in restricted but imaginative ways. Soon, I was laughing as hard as the child beside me. We shook our noise-makers in vigorous approval.
Riding south next, I realized we were heading into Liberty Village. Two years ago, I worked for a software company in this neighbourhood, and virtually every ride in or out of that area was stressful. I’m no sissy rider, but the streets there are narrow and the car traffic is non-stop and impatient. The ever-present construction along the main street increased the danger factor. As we took the road, I realized this was the first time I’d ridden this route smiling.
There’s always pedestrian traffic here, but tonight it was curious at our appearance. Several people asked what we were doing, and our relaxed pace allowed us to respond.
When we arrived at our destination, at the end of Atlantic Avenue, we were asked to put away our cameras. For the sake of the performers, no photos or video could be captured. An interesting social dilemma ensued. There are always those who believe that rules apply to others, but not to themselves. I spotted two women for whom this held true: as the performers came into view at the end of the street, the two women had their cameras out. They pretended they were taking images of nearby buildings, or the crowd. Their shoes. People stepped in at once, asking them politely, and then firmly, to put away their cameras. One did, the other did not. Not, that is, until the performers’ situation became obvious.
One of the organizers asked us all to step behind an invisible line, to stand as a group, in a particular spot. Two days later, I discovered this request allowed the videographer to tape our reaction to the performers. You see, once again the audience was very much part of the performance. At the time, none of us realized this, which is what made it all so candid and genuine.
The performers moved slowly and carefully from behind the far buildings and took position, several lines in a phalanx arrangement, too far for us to see clearly, but close enough that the crowd’s interest was real and heightened. It appeared that the line of waiting performers—about thirty of them—were in various stages of undress. Squinting, I couldn’t be sure, so I assumed they were wearing revealing costumes, costumes that covered just the necessities.
After several minutes of performers slowly and deliberately appearing and joining the waiting phalanx, the front line began to move, again slowly and deliberately, toward us. We spectators were unusually attentive. There were no side conversations, people weren’t rootling around in their bags or fiddling with their hair. No one was drinking from his or her water bottle. All eyes were fixed on what was approaching. We all wanted to know: what were the performers wearing?
Our attentive curiosity turned to respect with the realization that these daring performers were approaching us, at a measured, even pace, in the nude. These were men and women of all ages and ethnicities. Some bodies were toned, others were not. Some tall, some short. All courageous, they looked straight ahead, their shoulders back, their faces gentle.
As the performers reached a spot some ten feet in front of us, they stopped in their phalanx position and waited for those behind them to take their places. Still, silence. As they stood, I realized I was unashamedly examining their bodies. “Breasts can do that?” I thought, and “He has a lot of pubic hair.” “Is he a nudist?” I wondered at one whose tan was remarkably even. “She’s very pretty. Is this easier if you’ve got a good figure?”
And then suddenly, they were moving again, this time more tentatively. They were moving towards us again, intending to walk between us, the attired. Protected. Shielded. And, completely exposed. Somehow, this experience had turned the tables. Those of us who were seated on the pavement for the performance immediately got up and made way with some deference for the performers. It was startling; I felt moved, far beyond a typical live performance. We were directly involved, all of us, involved and somehow liable for any actions or thoughts.
As the performers walked through the crowd and disappeared behind a building to the side, we continued our now palpably appreciative silence. When the last performer disappeared, the audience broke into thunderous applause. Only in Toronto, perhaps? Then I feel incredibly fortunate that this is my town. This performance was choreographed by artist John Oswald.
We headed south, to a dusty walking path of quaint beauty. Sweetgrass lined the route, a welcome aromatherapy session. The CN tower reminded me of my surroundings again, and that we were headed to the next surprise.
On Liberty Street again, I noted that the trees here continue to be mistreated and are living with awful urban stresses. Sadly, a bike was locked to an immature tree along the route, dampening my spirit.
We took Strachan Avenue, south. By this time, many of us were experiencing childlike delight at being out on the road and heading into spontaneous art installations on our bicycles. Organizers and participants alike corked at virtually every intersection, sometimes even at larger driveways, to allow safe passage of cyclists through the traffic. Corkers always interacted politely with drivers, and when they sensed frustration, they worked hard to diffuse any potential upset. Cyclists at the event invariably approached these situations with kindness, offering apologies or explanations. There was a buffer of good vibes around us, resonating with everyone. Drivers honked in appreciation. Approaching streetcars slowed down and rang their bells. Pedestrians gave the thumbs-up.
Art Spin rode to a side street used for deliveries, and then over a hill into Fort York. Just the view from the grounds presented us with an art installation. The fort grounds are refreshingly simple textures and designs, lots of open space and greenery, old brick and mortar buildings. Being from Kingston, I appreciate these things. Behind the fort rose a terrible contrast: the eternal construction of deplorable, soulless high-rise buildings, a stark reminder that we’ve forgone true architecture.
Inside, we were treated to an excellent live musical performance, accompanied by a visual display of improvised colours and textures on a screen. The timing was perfect: seated in a dark room, I was pleased to be just an appreciative audience this time.(My apologies that I didn’t write down the names of the performers.)
On our way to the final art installation, at Walnut Studios, the group interaction with the public was inspiring. Even when the traffic was backed up, the event carried a festive feel, inclusive and joyous.
On our way to the final art installation, at Walnut Studios, the group interaction with the public was inspiring. Even when the traffic was backed up, the event carried a festive feel, inclusive and joyous. Sadly, I didn’t bring my bike lock with me, so I was unable to attend this final element at the studio. Next time? Because there absolutely will be a next time, for me.
Art Spin is a family-friendly, pay-what-you-can event and everyone is welcome.