Brandalism and the Art of Public Engagement

Ever since the City of Toronto gave Astral Media a grudging thumbs up in 2007 for the job of providing our city’s street furniture, their branded benches and bus shelters have caused a stir in the debate on public space. Astral’s new sidewalk garbage bins are a particular sore spot, with broken foot pedals leaving garbage spilling onto sidewalks everywhere from Kensington to King West.

The introduction of Astral’s new InfoToGo columns has headed up the battle between public space advocates and Astral Media. On July 7, public space group cARTographyTO  hijacked about half of Astral’s 48 InfoToGo columns, replacing them with citizen-designed “art-maps”.

A spokesperson for cARTographyTO stated, “These structures are billboards masquerading as sources of useful public information. When you look at the pillars, it’s hard to find the maps, and this goes against the City’s own public space guidelines. How could City Hall allow this to happen? Beyond mere visual pollution, these pillars are a safety hazard. And Astral’s influence on our city is a public insult and embarrassment – more power has been given to those who already have the loudest voices, to the detriment of all who use these spaces.”

cARTographyTO has taken the search for meaning into its own hands, elevating culture jamming beyond Adbusters activism to create significance content for public consumption, from a charming Annex commentary to  hand-drawn street maps. The surge of public criticism and public debate begs the question of how Astral can include meaningful information in public spaces to create civic engagement and attention, rather than be perceived as rallying against it.

For more on advertising subversion, see the results of the world’s largest act of ad subversion, “Brandalism”.