Friday, 23 May 2014



With my summer internship now well underway, the job so far has presented not only new and exciting tasks and learning opportunities, but also a new -- and somewhat challenging -- commute to work. Every morning and afternoon I find myself along with (what seems like) several thousands of other people coping with the slog of traffic and streetcars on King Street, its pace most glacial between about Yonge and Spadina. But the trek hasn’t been all bad. Many minutes spent at a near stand-still on King Street have allowed me to get a good look at all the area’s buildings, people, activities, and -- the focus of this week’s post -- public art.

Toronto Streetcar
King streetcar at rush hour. Source: Toronto Star
While recently gazing out the window from the King streetcar, I noticed an installation of a series of large photographs along the sidewalk. Intrigued, I decided to alter my routine that afternoon and simply walk instead of taking transit so I could get a closer look. Already analyzing the many roles and benefits of public art, in my mind the installation already scored a point by provoking me to interrupt my commute for a bit of afternoon art.

Once I approached the installation near King and John Street, large text panels on either end told me what it was all about: “Touching Strangers,” an excerpt of a larger project by photographer Richard Renaldi. To create his work, Renaldi approaches various individuals on the street, pairing them up and photographing them in close, familiar, and intimate positions usually reserved for -- well, people who aren’t strangers. To me, the art was fantastic and the placement of the installation even more so. Much of my time in that particular stretch of King Street is spent inadvertently touching strangers, squished up right up close to others in a streetcar resembling a can of sardines. I loved how the art made me think about conventions of closeness and intimacy, and where it’s acceptable to touch strangers and where it is an unusual portrait. I also appreciated how it made me think about the appropriate placement of public art, and how I might react to it differently, say, on a quiet little side street. 

"Touching Strangers" Photography
"Elaine and Arly" by Richard Renaldi.
Source: Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival
Later in the week (on yet another day when the streetcar was simply too slow to even bother boarding), I decided to conduct a little “public visitor research” study by watching passersby interact with the art. What I witnessed made me reflect on the wonderful flexibility and spontaneity of public art: some solo walkers glanced at the images as they walked by; others continued on without looking; a few pairs started to discuss the art as they passed; two bikers dismounted and went, photograph by photograph, having a long conversation about each and every one. I appreciated that, while some people wouldn’t stop today, maybe they would stop tomorrow. Maybe their curiosity would be piqued and they would make a note to read the text panel on their evening commute. However people interact with it, I always appreciate when art spills out of the “container” of the museum to find more viewers.

"Touching Strangers" Photography
"Claudio and David" by Richard Renaldi.
Source: Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival
One question I considered as I explored this particular art was, what are the limits of what public art can address? I thought of this when reading the introductory panel, which suggests that the images are “provocative.” In many ways, of course, this is true -- the images certainly provoked me to reflect on contact with strangers, and it is provocative, uncomfortable, and challenging to think of getting so close to a stranger on the street. But it also made me consider other definitions of “provocative,” and how public art really can’t push limits or provoke the public too drastically. I thought back to Alex’s post earlier this year, on the outcry at a particular public art installation as a “site of unnecessary distress.” When does public art cross the line from safely provocative to distressing? What do you think are the limits of public art?

Nevertheless, I love what the “Touching Strangers” installation has provoked for me -- contemplation, humour, delight, people-watching, and a new path to work. Has public art recently inspired you or provoked you to alter your commute? What have been some of your memorable responses to public art?

Touching Strangers is on display in front of Metro Hall until June 1. 


  1. Thank-you for such a wonderful account of your experience, Katherine! One of my favourite public art installations in the city is just outside the Shangri-La Hotel. This stainless steel tree-like structure sprawls over a pool of water, as it is intended to act as a "philosophical reflection of the world around us". It's form, decorated with flora and fauna, closely resembles a dragon. While this sculpture is not necessarily as provocative as "Touching Strangers", it certainly encouraged me to contemplate it's meaning while enjoying its beauty.

    On a side note, I've been investigating concepts of storytelling through digital museum content and how it can be used as a communication device. I really like how you explored "Touching Strangers" through your personal account. Your descriptive language really helped me envision your encounter and impressions of the art. Thanks again! :)

  2. Great post, Katherine! I am a fan of public art. It enables one to get little tidbits of stimulation, entertainment, eye candy, food for thought, etc. in smaller nuggets during our everyday lives. This is something I prefer personally versus an exhausting walk through the AGO or the like.

    I wonder to what extent we can twist that 'provocative' aspect around to consider how this demonstrates and engages with the deeper social and cultural phenomena that have taught us to be uncomfortable with strangers, rather than just focusing our own personal discomfort with such an experience? To what extent can we question this divide we place between subject to subject encounters - an encounter with the 'other', especially in the daily public grind of life and in such close quarters? This in fact relates to both the subject of the photos and one's commute like sardines through the city. And, further, how does this align or not align perhaps with the subject/object encounter?

    As well, why do you say that public art cannot provoke the public too drastically? I wonder to what extent that is censorship. Is not provocation an important way to learn and trigger alternative ways of thinking and eventually doing. Referenced by Roger Simon for a title of one of his articles - is not "a shock to thought" potentially needed, a concept presented by Brian Massumi in his book by the same name.

    1. Great to hear your commentary on the post and on the provocative aspects of our collective discomfort with strangers -- and with courageous public art. What I meant by, "public art cannot provoke the public too drastically," is that at some point, if public art is TOO provocative, it becomes less about jarring people into re-considering their attitudes and surroundings, but more just a force to reckon with that is no longer constructive -- a piece of art that is a nuisance, a burden, an unnecessary eyesore... it risks becoming less about the art and more just a point of negative contention. Then again, one could argue that this ultimately could be a constructive result of public art, in provoking a strong response from the public -- as you say in quoting Simon, "a shock to thought."

      But then, this gets back to the question of what public art should be about: is it about making spaces more enjoyable, enabling them to inspire dialogue, making people want to engage with art? If so, then I do think that there are limits to how forcefully public art should provoke the public.

    2. I find it interesting to consider the affects that you list here – a nuisance, a burden, an unnecessary eyesore. These seem to encompass something that, while not necessarily painful, shocking, or triggering, are somehow unpleasant and aesthetically displeasing. Is the affective encounter by the public ever able to be controlled? And, arguably, I bet there are many people who consider “Touching Strangers” to be a nuisance or an unnecessary eyesore. Furthermore, I would argue that there is no answer to what public art ‘should’ be about. I think that public art can be the only way, or atleast the more acceptable way, of pushing beyond the comfort zone and perhaps passive nature of our everyday grind and the everyday values and relations of our current system. The ‘public’ does not necessarily question our social and political system in which we live – why things are the way they are and what implicit privileges and oppressions are perpetuated and upheld by what structures and practices. While I do not hold permanently to this view, I can’t help but believe that truly provocative art – whether burdensome or painful or pleasurably – should be enabled to be capable of anything. It is so easy for certain groups of the population to continue on in the everyday grind without considering our ‘situation’ that I do truly believe ‘a shock to thought’ is key in public art. As a sidenote, this does not mean that public art cannot be enjoyable nor aesthetically pleasing.

      Just some thoughts that not so implicitly alludes to the radical revolutionary side of myself!

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  4. Katherine, you have touched on my one of my favorite topics in museum studies/art history/communication studies - public art. I love the discussion between you and Nicole about what we consider acceptable public art and what is the role pf public art (to be enjoyable - if yes, what do we mean by enjoyable? to shock - if yes, why and what shocks us in our contemporary culture? do engage us - if yes, will we stop and allow to be engaged?). When I was an undergraduate student, I took an amazing course on public art and we talked extensively about Richard Sera's "controversy" around Tilted Arc - a public sculpture which was considered inappropriate to be publicly displayed, dismantled overnight in three pieces and tossed out to a junk yard (while of course we will consider this act almost violent, it is important I believe to understand why this happened , which goes back to what public art is meant to do in the public space of a city

    1. What an interesting example! I am very surprised to see that that work caused such a stir. I especially liked Serra's commentary about art not being democratic nor meant to please. If anything, I'd say that the sculpture's removal speaks more to Serra's purpose than to the people simply disliking it - it clearly made them very aware of their spatial surroundings and even the temporal use of the space in affecting one's direct movement around the plaza.