The built city shifts from being an articulation of zones and maps and blueprints to something that has tone, tempo, and flavour when its inhabitants step out of their doors, enter the streets, and make their paths through the unfolding of daily life. A community’s network of paths forms a constantly evolving story that is specific to each neighbourhood. These worn paths connect one thread of urban fabric to another. Every day we make choices about how we navigate and operate within the city. Our choices—our wanderings, detours, shortcuts, pauses—activate the possibilities of public space; our movements as pedestrians give our city shape and form.
Overlaid onto the physical geography of the city is a mythical geography that comprises our dreams, stories, and memories. The stories of a place—those we hold close, those we are told, and those we tell and re-tell—allow us to make sense of our environments, understand where we are and who we are, and how we got to be here. Michael de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life, suggests that to tell legends is to invent spaces. Stories are plural and multiple and layered and can open up the possibilities of place. We in cities are not told enough of the legends about the places we live in or come from. Often, the stories we hear are selected and edited by those with power and privilege. All the same, we are shaped by the cities we live in, and in turn our cities reflect the many narratives of our lives. Mundane, ordinary, or extraordinary, what has come before, heard or unheard, shapes our surroundings and our selves. In the words of de Certeau, “Fragments of [memory] come out in legends. Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps…”.
In cities around the globe efforts are being made to bring forth the unheard stories of the streets, buildings, and land we each call home. Some projects invite us to pay attention to places we would normally walk past, ask us to wander farther or pause longer or wonder a little deeper. Last spring in the east end of Toronto, Art of the Danforth offered its community a festival intent on responding to the specificities of place and local culture. Every two years, through public, participatory, and performative art projects, the festival holds up a mirror to the stories and diversity of its neighbourhood. The approach is one that curatorial collective Aisle 4 embraces. Based out of Toronto, the curators of Aisle 4, Emily Fitzpatrick, Shannon Linde, Patricia Ritacca, and Renée van der Avoird, foster connections between art and daily life through socially engaged practices and site specific works. Aisle 4 chose their name for its reference to creating corridors and pathways into and between diverse communities. The collective has put this underlying reference into practice by integrating their work into communities that are largely ignored by the art world and its institutions—communities like the Danforth.
As one of three curatorial teams for the 2014 festival, Aisle 4 regularly walked the streets of the neighbourhood and developed relationships with community members. They became regulars at local cafés, stopped on the street to chat with business owners, knocked on doors of family homes to offer introductions and extend invitations, and were brought into the back kitchens of restaurants initially for art projects and later for impromptu dinners. Over many months, they slowly stripped back the barriers that exist between strangers and developed a network of collaborators and participants, some of whom were admittedly reluctant in the beginning but who eventually became fully engaged in the projects. Self-reflexivity was key to Aisle 4’s process of building relationships in a community that wasn’t their own. Woven through their conversations about curating in the Danforth were questions like, why does this community need art? Does it need art at all? What is successful art within the context of this neighbourhood? How can we work together with the community, rather than producing projects for them? They challenged the artists they were working with (Sean Martindale, Rebecca Noone, Ryan Park, Mango Peeler, Mahmood Popal, and VSVSVS) to become animators of the neighbourhood—to reach out to community members, dig deep for local stories, and engage with everyday life in the area. In order to create projects that were of the place, the artists began by walking the streets, reflecting on what they experienced, and finally responding and contributing to the stories and spaces of the Danforth.
Grounding their approach in the idea that art could be a form of interaction that exists outside the realm of commerce, Aisle 4 worked with artists to develop projects that created exchange and interaction between varied groups within the community. It was important that locals encounter the projects as they moved through the motions of daily life, as they wound their paths through the area. Over the course of the ten-day festival, the projects were integrated throughout the neighbourhood, activating spaces in both dramatic and subtle ways. Some projects took the form of community events, others temporary installations, and still others performative pieces that engaged with community members throughout the festival.
The artist collective VSVSVS built an obelisk, a towering wood structure, a monument to hold memories. On a Saturday night, the community—children and parents, teenagers and nonnas—gathered in Felstead Park and lit the obelisk like torch. Earlier that day, a cold rain had quieted the community. But with the arrival of dusk the sky cleared and one by one people began to gather. In the initial falling darkness the fire was tentative and families milled about the park. As the darkness and the cold grew stronger, the fire began to blaze and the crowd gathered close for warmth and conversation. Together, they “marked the end of one thing with the beginning of another”.
In a piece called From Here To…, Rebecca Noone asked the community to consider the networks of paths they travel daily and create a collective interpretation of the neighbourhood. For thirty days prior to the festival, Noone wandered the streets asking strangers for hand drawn directions to parks, shops, the library, a school, or a spot to sit quietly and read. She collected sixty drawings and from them created a conceptual map of the area. In her words, these are “sort-of maps, impressions of a neighbourhood.” The collected maps were installed in a travelling information booth that invited community members to linger over, exchange, and contribute to maps of sites known and unknown, sites that were possibly imagined, or that may once have been. The roving installation prompted conversations and stories about the nuances of a changing neighbourhood, insights into the myriad ways different people perceive physical space, and sometimes requests for directions that couldn’t be given.
One evening during the festival, passersby suddenly noticed a shadow puppet cast large in the front window of a family home, prompting questions of whether a performance was at play. Rabbit, a video by Ryan Park, captivated community members of all kinds with its playfulness and mystery. Installed in a living room window that overlooks the Greenwood subway stop, the projected shadow puppet of a bunny revealed the limits of human endurance as the long-held static pose began to quiver and jump. Expressions of surprise and joy from people exiting the subway station were a nightly occurrence. Children cried out in wonder, grown men smiled quietly, hipsters pulled out cell phones to snap photos, and strangers stopped to ask each other who was performing this age-old parlour game. In the dark of night, people paused on their journeys home to wonder about the possibilities of their streets and the stories that may be unfolding behind the doorsteps they walk past each day.
Memories and legends accumulate in the streets, at the corners of buildings, in bus shelters, on doorsteps. They drift through parks at night. Sometimes art that responds to place can offer a moment to remember and layer a new meaning over existing stories. Every so often, projects reach into and beyond the community, spurring tensions and wonderment and reflection through process, concept, and the generation of meaning. Some work resists the limits and boundaries of dominant narratives, instead searching out the subtle and nuanced significance of a place. These are the kinds of projects that Aisle 4 seeks to create. By gathering a community together, inviting people to linger, asking them to observe and reflect and wonder, art can remind us that it is possible to reappropriate spaces and re-write the city according to our own narratives.
 Michael de Certeau. “Walking the City” in The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: Berkeley, 1984.