October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Darkness Visible, Walking Through Walls: Towards a collaborative, cross-institutional strategy for public participation in arts and heritage across the creative city

Liss Jeffrey, Founding director, Bydesign eLab/eCommons-agora consortium, Toronto, Canada


After introducing the cultural ecology of creative cities approach, Jeffrey reports on street level participant observations of the successful events Nuit Blanche 2006 & 2007, and Doors Open Toronto 2007, endorses the value of these citywide events and specifies their particular appeal. She suggests a reframing of the idea of public participation by replacing the notion of ‘visits’ with ‘threshold crossings’ and ‘relational engagements,’ and the term ‘visitors’ with ‘participants.’ These semantic shifts permit a finer focus on the fluid experience of interaction in outdoor and indoor urban settings, between audiences, artists, and works, so characteristic of these popular events. Site examples are provided. One challenge is how to transform such ephemeral experiences into invitations for future engagement with heritage institutions and arts. Jeffrey contends that addressing this challenge requires a commitment to public participation and creative engagement in what Landry (2006) has called ‘city making.’ Various tactics for more effective leveraging of enthusiasm for these cultural events are proposed -- drawn from an informatic inventory including both legacy and social networking media – and certain implications are spelled out for policy, programs, and key actors required. The case is made throughout for strategically placing a priority on funding collaborative, cross institutional events and informatic tactics that demonstrably encourage inclusive public participation and creative engagement in city-making. The guiding value is civic solidarity.

(Nota bene: This draft essay remains a bit edgy and supplies conceptual scaffolding for the intended interactive presentation of “Darkness Visible” at ICHIM07. During the live interaction, the theory will mostly be omitted, and delegates invited to contest or refine these propositions, which will be further illustrated. As time permits, the live version may feature an improv sketch of an original concept developed at Jeffrey’s byDesign eLab that illustrates a homegrown vision of public participation as creative engagement as recommended in this account.)

Keywords: cultural heritage policy, creative cities, Toronto, cultural events, public participation, cultural ecology, Marshall McLuhan, informatic strategies


Introduction to a cultural ecology of creative cities approach

Perhaps surprisingly, this essay had its origins in several discoveries made while serving as a Canadian expert on access to new media with the Council of Europe’s culture committee project on cultural policies for a new millennium. At the time, concern had surfaced over a threatening digital divide between information haves and have nots, and the Council was the first of the UN family to recognize that access to ICTs was not simply relevant for economic and infrastructural policy, or censorship and freedom of expression, but also of direct concern for cultural policy. What was at stake with Internet access for cultural policy was full participation in citizenship and democratic life. While writing for what became our report, Vital Links for a Knowledge Culture: Public access to new information and communication technologies (Jeffrey Ed. 2001), three consequential trends became evident. First, digital media -- notably the Internet – were having revolutionary impacts on all forms of life and culture, at differing rates depending on many factors, notably degree of development and economic resources with the result that lack of access to ICTs and the competencies required to use them threatened to exacerbate barriers to full participation in cultural, economic and political society. Secondly, there were many signs of the emergence of what Paul Hawkens ( 2007) has recently called ‘the movement with no name’ an informal, civil society ‘third sector’ made up of NGOs, volunteers, activists, and grassroots community members, many of whom used the Internet for mobilizing and communicating. This third sector -- which included creatives and knowledge workers of all ages -- was seeking ways to participate in decisions about a common future. Closed doors, hierarchies, and top down governance were rejected in favour of openness, transparency, and participation from the ground up. Finally, most of the world population was settling in cities, and thus any prospect for developing policies and programs for sustainable development of knowledge cultures must come to terms with the dynamics of city life and municipal governance. It was discovery of the third trend that had the greatest impact, since the locus of my expertise had been on civic engagement and creative development at the national level, and the first two were familiar in outline (if not in degree) as a new media producer running a civil society based not for profit).

The larger project anchoring this essay thus began as an attempt to develop these discoveries at the intersection of media, city and culture. This ambitious anchor project presumed, with Marshall McLuhan, that information and communications technologies are necessary constituents in any adequate account of city life, just as necessary as buildings and streets, and that understanding the transformations of our times must include understanding media. City dwellers (and indeed most people) inhabit hybrid virtual and material spacesand live in their media environments which seem just as real as life in the neighbourhood. This presumption that media are environmental, and evidently about more than content or conduits for content (McLuhan 1964) is now widely accepted. Such a presumption long predates the Internet and discussions of virtual reality. Sir Peter Hall’s (1999) deployment of the ‘Toronto tradition’ of McLuhan and Harold Innis in his historical explanation of the rise of major cities of the 20th century is worth note in the context of ICHIM07.

Figure 1
Figure 1: “Yonge St. Willowale #4” by Robin Collyer (1995)
(Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art online)

Two preliminary illustrations can help to introduce the particular linkage between culture, cities and media that I propose. In the mid 1990s Canadian artist Robin Collyer created a series of retouched colour photos in which he obliterated the alphanumeric typographical print in the cityscape. This work is hard edged, profoundly disorienting, and proves very useful when introducing students of media and cultural ecology to the idea that we live in environments that we make, and take for granted, often “as unconsciously as the fish in water” as McLuhan puts this, until something or some artistic intervention forces us to wake up and pay attention to these invisible environments. (Another effective example of a material wake up call is a serious power blackout..) In a case of life unconsciously imitating art, how much more disorienting and reorienting than Collyer’s eerie images is the recent example of Sao Paulo in Brazil, where the mayor famously banned all commercial and advertising signage in 2007, which he called ‘visual pollution,’ thus radically transforming the Paulista cityscape and compelling a new language of urban legibility now minus the commercial signage. , which the mayor


Figure 2
Figure 2: Media and cultural ecology: Sao Paulo after the 2007 Clean City Act
(Photo Tony de Marco, Adbusters online)

This idea that cities, culture and media interpenetrate, and effect parallel transformations has gained ground (eg. Mitchell 1996, Graham and Marvin 1996), however full recognition of the dynamics of cultural ecology, or more accurately if more awkwardly, techno-cultural and media ecology, has proven more elusive. This is unfortunate and one aim of the larger project is to demonstrate the value of a cultural ecology approach, complete with the indispensable media and technological dimensions. Briefly illustrating, in a manner familiar to urbanists, McLuhan observed that the most significant effect of the car (which he considered a medium) was environmental. He was not talking about pollution. To make a long list short, in North America, the introduction of the car and its rise to predominance as a mode of transportation brought with it a network of roads, a system of gas stations, and an industry from Alberta to Saudi Arabia, a geo-spatial extension into suburbs, changes in attitudes towards identity, mobility, freedom and the open road, and shifts in cultural behaviours and attitudes including social rituals such as dating, coming of age and the rite of passage of obtaining a license at age 16. . It is now commonplace to conclude that the car has reshaped the city, culture, and even civilization (Safdie 1997) This is not technological determinism, rather it is ecological awareness of patterns of techno-cultural transformation. Cultural and media ecologists attend not to changes in the car (or any other medium) as an isolated object or figure, but to holistic changes in the figure’s ground and shifts in the environment. Whether applied to computers, cellphones, or Blackberries (known colloquially as addictive crackberries), attending to their blatant or subtle effects, the insights derived from a cultural ecology approach are plentiful.

These insights become even more productive when conjoined with recognition of the creative cities approach (Landry 2000). The idea of the creative city emerged in Europe in the later twentieth century and was part of the expansion of the scope of cultural policy, as we have already seen happening above with the Council of Europe. Culture as a concept began to expand beyond the aesthetic domain of high arts, into economic and urban planning, as cities with declining or sunset industrial bases in manufacturing sought alternatives. The city has historically been a wealth generator and aggregator, also serving as a cultural crucible (Hall 1999). Born in the despair of dying cities such as Manchester and Edinburgh, the creative cities idea saw factories successfully regenerated into arts communities, showplaces for entertainment and services and sources of urban renewal. After the artists and other creators had reclaimed these districts, like pioneers settling the frontier, they had to move on in the wake of gentrification, as their former cool haunts became desirable territory for those less adventurous but more flush with cash. Charles Landry (2000) formalized the idea of the creative city in his book of that title, and provided a “toolkit for urban innovators” with enormous influence on cities and cultural policy makers.

Street level reports from participant observations

The specific task in this section is to present and reflect on the successful events Nuit Blanche 2006 & 2007, and Doors Open Toronto 2007. These qualitative observations and hypotheses are generated from a method of participant observation conducted by a team recruited to simulate the target groups roles of interest (a ‘multi-perspectival point of view field collaboration’ honed over the years at the byDesign eLab). Built into the workflow process is reporting to an audience of target roles, such as policy makers or other accountable decision makers who require evaluation, and need to consider the value and significance of events or programs, and make decisions regarding allocation of resources. In a consult, the parameters for reporting would be negotiated in advance with the decision maker and supplemented as required in the field.

2.1 Nuit Blanche 2006, 2007: Darkness visible

Figure 3Figure 3: Nuit Blanche 2006 (Tents: Thom Sokoloski)
(photo contest winner TOblog online)

The idea for Nuit Blanche originated in Paris in 2002, and was introduced to Toronto in 2006, where it was an instant public hit. No one predicted this overwhelming public enthusiasm. The key metric for inaugural success in Toronto was visitor numbers. 250,000 members of the public were projected to attend, and a reported 425,000 actually turned out on a drizzly, cool fall night. I was there, and it was magical. Nuit Blanche 2007 happened exactly a year later, and again for one night only at the end of September, when possibly double the original number of visitors (estimates were not complete at time of writing) participated at more than 195 formal site specific installations, and many informal events. In both years, from just after 7 PM to just after 7 am, the city came alive with music, performance, image projection, and artistic interventions.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Nuit Blanche 2007 (Facing ROM Crystal) 2007
(Fraser McAninch eLab)

We go now to the streets of Toronto, back to 2006, and begin with likely the most popular installation, the fog sculpture. Recalling this memorable experience prompted the metaphor for Nuit Blanche, Darkness Visible. In Milton’s famous phrase from Paradise Lost, the poet brought to life the alternative world where Lucifer and his co-conspirators had fallen after their unsuccessful revolt against the heavenly host. Darkness is usually a time for sleep, but at Nuit Blanche the darkness of sleep is pushed back in the determination to see and stay awake. The darkness becomes illuminated, fitfully. The fog sculpture, whose buzz was whispered from person to person, reaching me over near Museum subway station, had us slipping in the mud, alone but together, disoriented, barely able to see yet enveloped by the moment.

figure 5
Figure 5: Nuit Blanche 2006. Fog sculpture by Fujiko Nakaya
at U of Toronto’s Philosophers’ Walk. (CCCA)

Being inside the crowd in the fog, while the fog machine gently wafts every so often accompanied by an expectant and satisfied hush, we are like kids being splashed and waiting for it, loving it. This is an experience, we all feel it, share it, a kind of darkness visible, still early in the prematurely dark evening, under a fall drizzle, we are together, moving slowly alone in a crowd, strangers temporarily co-present in a shared urban experience, slipping on a muddy hillside.

Fog can be chaotic, a profusion, creative – a moment when the spooky air is visible, the wraith like moisture is visible, a shape shifting moment that accompanies the changes of seasons – hot meeting cooler air, the transition, it clings to the skin even if It is not possible to trust even your own senses. At this moment, in a creative state not an anxious state, anything seems possible. This is such a moment in Toronto – and more broadly I would argue in the world. It is the fog of change and transition, experienced wherever we are.

So the stage is set for our interaction. Fog rolls onto the stage, the Toronto cityscape and the civic mood is foggy. Fog is also liminal, it is the place where the change happens. The seasons change, something comes out of the fog. It is an atmosphere, hazy confused paradoxical.

On a second interpretation, this fog shrouds our senses, we try to peer through it and the fog makes it hard to tell where we are, where we are heading; the fog obscures the identity of place and time. But it also makes it hard to tell whether this is dangerous terrain or not.

Back on Bloor Street, the sidewalk is crowded but not packed. It is spooky and quiet. The Royal Ontario Museum building is under construction with the Daniel Liebskin crystal protruding alien onto Bloor Street. A silent film of construction and deconstruction plays in an endless loop on the side of the ROM. A volunteer docent slides up beside me and talks about this work, made by German artists who have been invited to town by the curator of this Zone (1 of 3) to create a work celebrating the crystal’s construction. She hands me a program and the human contact warms me quickly. I thank her, stare at the construction reconstruction loop, but it turns damp and chilly so I move on.

Figure 6
Figure 6: “Hold that Thought”
Church of the Redeemer at Bloor and Avenue Road
(Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art online)

If you are familiar with Toronto, then you recognize the next pause place in our flow. At the point where traffic on Avenue Road hits Bloor Street stands a small billboard with messages that change weekly. It is a heavily trafficked spot, and the old fashioned bill board is a landmark. (This landmark would be outlawed in Sao Paulo I recall now.) If you know all of this, then you ‘get’ the meaning of the witty installation “Hold that Thought.” First the neon sign on top of the church gently echoes and garishly restates the modest billboard. The women encouraging us to enter reinforce this sense. The sacred is conducted by the profane (or so it looks). If you do not know this landmark or cannot quite make it out in the dark, then it is no longer a site specific installation (Kwon 2004) and it could be anywhere.

Inside the church (which you would not get to from the online archive posted thanks to the Centre for Contemporary Candian Art), you find a marvellous place of rest with lit candles all around the space. People move in and walk up past the altar area, and then leave or pause to sit in the pews. The church is packed. Groups of friends are reconvening using their cell phones to connect or to direct their friends to the buzz hot spot, notably the Fog machine at Philosophers Walk (a short distance away). This gathering spot along with the fog sculpture captures the meaning of Nuit Blanche: it is an experience. Interaction between diverse publics is the central actor, not art and the artists. The publics include the creators, the volunteers like the kindly docent I met outside the ROM, the artists and curators. This is a co-created event experience. We are creating the city of Toronto through our engagement. To regard this event as art, solely or simply about art would be to mistake what is happening here. Without the public in the streets, in the mud and fog, in the church pews, talking on cell phones, lit up and holding that thought, there would be no event.

Over at Hart House, University of Toronto, a stellar feature of Nuit Blanche presents itself in a fun tent to crawl into by the arts collective Instant Coffee. The place is packed. The curated artists are not the only names on the program. Wisely the Nuit Blanche organizers have included many more who were not n the A list. In this inclusivity lies an insight into how to grow this event.

Insight on the cultural ecology of Toronto as a creative city: Nuit Blanche is misunderstood as an art event. It is truly an “all night contemporary art thing” as the 2007 tag line had it, but above all the question arising was NOT is it art, but what did you see and what happened to you? Nuit Blanche is an experience, where the public flows past the exhibitions.

Figure 7
Figure 7: Nuit Blanche 2007: Church of the Redeemer: Art with Greek consulate
Note Museum style description board
(Fraser McAninch, eLab)

Nuit Blanche 2007 was different in numerous respects, starting with a more organized and slightly more homogeneous quality. For example, each of the 195 official installations included a free standing museum style plaque featuring a description and a number that the visitor could cross reference to another description in the main printed program or online. There was far more interactive media, but mostly it was aimed at cell phone users and text messagers. It was wonderful to be able to access artists’ talks on the intended meaning of many works, via cell phone, or downloaded beforehand.

The sites were indoors and outdoors, in the streets and alleyways, and this year also in many small galleries. There were long line ups this year, which I did not see last year. We wanted to attend the jazz at a Yorkville gallery but it was too crowded. The ghost of the Bay Street subway station audioscape was very popular, and the line up stretched from the entrance to Bellair.

Figure 8
Figure 8: Lining up
Nuit Blanche 2007 in Yorkville
(Fraser McAninch, eLab)

Like last year, formal works were curated in 3 main Zones. Additional informal happenings sprang up like weeds in this carefully curated garden, for example several musicians opportunistically set up in the heavily trafficked Philosophers’ Walk behind the Royal Ontario Museum. I overheard last year’s Fog Exhibit fondly recalled by many participants passing by. Another example was the impromptu red light theatre late in the University of Toronto district on St George St where a woman attracted a sizeable late night crowd, moaning orgasmically in silhouette behind a vertical bed-sheet illuminated by a red light.

Artists of all persuasions, the public in all its diversity, volunteers, the Mayor, flowed and mingled, sampling, tasting, looking, moving on. The police reported no criminal incidents.

Again, Nuit Blanche is an experience with many participants. The stories people told one another as they compared experiences are the DNA of the creative city.

Shuttle buses were put on this year by the TTC, but the line ups were long and tedious. Luckily we rode around on a motorcycle. Nuit Blanche is about flow and show (to rephrase impresario and CityTV co-founder Moses Znaimer). Next year Nuit Blanche needs to add producers as well as the abundant curators. Producers pay attention to the cultural ecology and flow of the participants as they engage in the show. Many people reported online (e.g. FaceBook, TOblog, and Flickr) and were overheard saying that they enjoyed people watching as much as any of the installations they saw.

Figure 9Figure 9: Mobile byDesign eLab (BMW) motorcycle
(Fraser McAninch elab)

Doors Open Toronto 2007: Walking through walls

Figure 10Figure 10: Doors Open 2007
Crossing the threshold
(Fraser McAninch)

Doors Open has been a successful annual event since its introduction to Toronto in 2002, when the city was the first North American venue to import this European cultural innovation. The Doors Open concept is to invite the public into heritage and culturally significant buildings for two days on a spring weekend.

Doors open bills itself as about architecture and cultural heritage. Instead, participant observation indicates that Doors Open is about crossing the thresholds of buildings and spaces that are typically off limits to the public. This may aid architectural awareness, however, what appeared to be happening was that participants (reframed from visitors) were filling in their cultural experiences of Toronto, as if a map was being coloured in from terra incognito to a known and more familiar space. Like turning space into a place, and walking through walls, this act of threshold crossing marks a stage in moving from mystery to material presence, and is part of the stages of belonging.

Figure 11
Figure 11: To the Lighthouse, Doors Open 2007
(Fraser McAninch, eLab)

Take a hardy hiking location, the Lighthouse near Fort York, which allowed participants to see the old shore line, walk up steep wooden stairs and hear a young volunteer giving a small talk on the heritage site –perhaps one of his first talks – cheered on by the other volunteers and eventually by the friendly crowd of strangers. The magic in doors open was like the scavenger hunt (and Nuit Blanche had some of this quality.)

Figure 12
Figure 12: Upstairs inside the Lighthouse, Doors Open 2007
(Fraser McAninch, eLab)

Doors Open then is about the experience of stepping over the threshold and walking through the walls of the cultural imaginary. Much has been made of a legible city – but there is more than signage to this notion of legibility – walking through walls is the metaphor I select to indicate how the cultural imagination is expanded through physically going inside structures that had formerly seemed alien.

On the second day of Doors open 2007 I decided to reverse angles, and volunteer inside one of the structures. I selected the oldest church in Toronto, the Cathedral Church of St James, Anglican, the seat of the formidable and influential Bishop John Strachan.

Figure 13
Figure 13: The Cathedral Church of St James
(Liss Jeffrey, eLab)

Volunteering brought a fresh perspective on the meaning of what happens at Doors Open. The small groups of volunteers at each of the locations greet the visitors, and escort them around as required. Policy makers should consider rewarding or inviting all of the participants who volunteer for Doors Open, Nuit Blanche or other citywide events to become ambassadors, or docents, or in other small ways admit them into the backstage of the city. (Goffman)

Doors Open participant observation as both participant and volunteer discloses that the urge to photograph could be better accommodated. Where is the encouragement to display the images in a public gallery, online or at a special post event gathering? At least half of the visitors to the Cathedral avidly shot photos of every exposed surface of the church. With Nuit Blanche, image making was a creative act in its own right. There were a number of online sites for posting photos for an admiring community of interest, and TOblog held a contest with prize for the winner.

2.3. Specification of success factors

These events were highly successful and popular, and organizers and all participants are justifiably proud of their contributions. Criticism is intended to be constructive.

It is important that the objectives of these events be clarified. Above I have presented reservations regarding the stated goals of both events. Nuit Blanche is in my view only partly about art. Far more important is its contribution to citywide creative engagement in the city making. Nuit Blanche on this view is about public participation. The participants engage in relation to their own goals and aspirations. Without the general public the event would fail and would be discontinued. The public enthusiasm results from the interaction of participants.

The value of these cultural events lies at multiple levels, and a major locus of value is in a sense of engagement with the city as a whole, through multiple senses, seen in a new light, heard with fresh ears. For Doors Open, it is as if a map had been filled in. In ancient maps the terra incognito was labeled here be dragons, and in the city there are places where the public is not invited and other places where one does not normally go. Doors Open lends meaning to the delightful former slogan of the city: Toronto, you belong here. Considering that Toronto is a city where most people come from elsewhere and engage in a process Mike Savage and his colleagues (2005) significantly call ‘elective belonging’ -- which refers to the fact that most people in communities come from away and start to belong by telling and learning to tell stories about how they came to locate where they are, how they got there, and make the strange place home – Doors Open allows the filling in of gaps in the cityscape. If the experience is welcoming, or interesting, a story will be told, and others may be invited along in future. Doors Open allows role playing, trying on of presence in unfamiliar spaces.

Nuit Blanche encourages role playing, experiencing the exotic and unfamiliar with no pressure to do anything in particular. The profusion of choice permits stopping, looking, grazing, becoming entranced or just passing on. Nuit Blanche does not force an engagement and this is its graceful strength. The participant can form a relational engagement that is strong weak or even non existent. The relationship between participants is one whereby given the definition of the situation (Goffman), the reticence of all potential participants is respected. The expectation is that something will happen, there will be something else to move on to (and thus choice), and thus there is no awkwardness of possible disappointed expectation.

There was a phrase I learned when co-curating an exhibition with the ROM for at a very small TV Museum (but with stunning objects): some visitors are streakers, some are scholars, and others are strollers. This variety of participant behaviours applies with additional room for pace, speed, and temperament in the events Nuit Blanche and Doors Open.

Here are certain core questions that eLab put to these events during preparation, during the participant observation, and in the subsequent reflection phases:

What can we learn about public participation in the creative city from the popular success of these special events? What conclusions can be drawn about the ingredients of success, at this point in the 21st Century? What lessons can we learn for policy-making, programming, and setting priorities for funding and resource allocation in the cultural heritage and arts sectors? Should priority be given to development of the cultural ecology of a creative city as a whole and how might this be accomplished? What values and objectives should guide such policies and shape priorities for spending and program direction? How can the public enthusiasm for these events be leveraged more effectively, and to what ends? Are there informatic strategies -- meaning nuanced uses of legacy media and ICT to encourage public participation in ways appropriate to diverse communities -- that could assist with this leveraging? Obviously, no one has all the answers, but the questions seem worth addressing because they are important, for Toronto, and presumably also for other cities in this increasingly urban world.

Appealing features of these events that make them attractive and provide ingredients for their popular success:

  • they are free or mostly free
  • they are different, exciting and expose the city to another kind of view yet not raucous or rowdy not scary
  • they focus on experience
  • they leave a great deal up to the participant as to what they will do or how they will enjoy themselves
  • they are family friendly, and have warnings where events are not suitable for typical families (as with the Gay Village ‘red light district’ show on Church Street
  • (The respect for reticence point above) they do not force involvement – in urban fashion it is possible to be an anonymous spectator or a participant – it is a matter of choice whether to get involved or not
  • not a matter of just gong to one place, locale, location it is a matter of having lots to choose from all within public transit or walking distance
  • it is safe. There were many families and single women observed at all venues in both events.
  • They are entertaining but not excessively didactic – learning is optional
  • Conversely there is a chance to learn or to experience new things
  • people are not put on display not embarrassed not forced to buy things – respect for reticence (again)

Success factors and features that work from a policy perspective, cross institution – like a sampler

The focus should be citywide, on the city’s rich cultural and artistic diversity. Thus it is worrisome that Nuit Blanche is branded not Nuit Blanche Toronto but Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. Scotiabank is very generous, and unquestionably their support for two years has been crucial, however this should be a creative city branding exercise, and this must be addressed.

It does not matter if one grows bored, or does not enjoy a particular event or performance. It is possible to move on without offense or embarrassment.

Toronto is like small pieces loosely joined – households, neighbourhoods, third places, communities of the arts, ethnic, linguistic, racial communities. All effort to detract from the citywide nature of this event should be resisted. Priority, and resources should go to those institutions and participants who support the citywide identity

The flow is key. In Nuit Blanche visitors get to major areas and witness them anew.

Figure 14
Figure 14: Trinity Bellwoods Park in a new light
(Fraser McAninch, eLab)

Inclusiveness applies to creator participants and general public, as Nuit Blanche included independent artist projects as well as commissioned and curated projects. But it need more collaboration across platforms. Tthe Scotiabank text art and listening to curators is a great addition (but this must be branded as citywide, not so strongly in the name of a bank).

There was some provision for the public gallery, but needs to be more for all the citywide events. This is where community producers would be valuable additions to the participant manger team.

Policy implications

There is more work to be done on silo busting. At this time in the emergence of Toronto as a creative city, citywide events should be encouraged and solo institutional blockbusters discouraged.

The creative communities also need to come together, as they do not tend to cross silos except at the volunteer levels. Support the volunteers.

The value endorsed here is civic solidarity.

3. Reframing core concepts to make room for interactivity

Public participation has been reframed to make room for interactivity. The notion of ‘visits’ is replaced with ‘threshold crossings’ and ‘relational engagements,’ and the term ‘visitors’ with ‘participants.’ These semantic shifts permit a finer focus on the fluid experience of interaction in outdoor and indoor urban settings, between audiences, artists, and works, that is characteristic of these popular events.

Back to theory: In search of insight into a dynamic techno-cultural and media ecology situated at the intersection of culture, technology, and the city, it became necessary to ground the macro insights of McLuhan and the Toronto tradition in specific fine grained observations, for reasons effectively argued by Joshua Meyrowitz in his book, No Sense of Place (1986).

The technique chosen here is participant observation, close to the micro sociology advocated by Meyrowitz’s second inspiration (after McLuhan), Erving Goffman. The eLab practice of participant observation has roots in field work traditions of anthropology and ethnography; Clifford Geertz’s work is inspirational not only because of his sophisticated and perceptive ethnography, but because of his intense civic humanism and highly developed sensibility, as evident in his essays on culture. An environment or ground cannot be perceived directly, rather it is necessary to find ways of apperception, ways to witness the shifting ground by closely observing figures against that ground, or watching behaviours and attitudes in relation to an unfamiliar event. The participant observations conducted with associates of the byDesign eLab are collaborative by design and based on a “multi perspectival point of view.” In this approach, observation is never innocent, and there is no communication without bias. The way to address contested views is to recruit, enlist and mobilize diverse senses and sensibilities in a witnessing of events in the field, capturing live moments with mobile media, and engaging in strenuous interpretation of observations and artifacts.

Two additional insights from McLuhan inform the particular focus of this account. First, as McLuhan’s thought became more ‘ecological,’ and (he said) as a result of the onset of a satellite and surveillance era, he reworked his metaphor to say that the global village had become a global theatre. From karaoke to the Jenny-cam, McLuhan’s emphasis on the theatrical, games and play seems unexhausted as an instrument for research. It is worth reminder that McLuhan was one of the first to acknowledge the significance of advertising and popular culture; the pervasiveness of advertising, media and marketing accompanied by the abundance of goods and the economic necessity to move those goods to market, add their own psychic and physical force to this theatrical scenario. These games people play are material as well as symbolic. For purposes of a cultural ecology, it is highly useful to approach the fashioning of symbolic identity and expressive behaviour in hybrid virtual and material settings and situations from within a theatrical frame. There are additional advantages to this approach when considering how public participation plays out as creative engagement against the backdrop of the city. Goffman’s relevance for this account is considerable, particularly his emphasis on the dramas of everyday life, backstage and frontstage behaviours, sensitivity to the different roles played in different situations, for instance with peers as contrasted to with parents, his relentless focus on self presentation and the facework and frames so central to the presentations of self and others in the rituals and role playing of public and private life.

McLuhan’s second insight for this project’s particular focus lies in the observation that, “It is the framework, which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame.” I would hazard the hypothesis that citywide cultural events such as those under consideration here resonate with a shift in sensibility. Such events permit expression of fluid identity, experimentation, mask wearing, role playing, gaming. The participant flows from scene to scene, grazing until mesmerized or satiated. Again, these tendencies are reinforced by the commercial culture of media and marketing which envelops the city.

The pioneering insights of McLuhan and the Toronto tradition have been taken up by a new generation of scholars, within an eclectic inter-discipline of media ecology. (http://www.media-ecology.org/) A basic proposition is that one medium does not replace another, rather each medium finds its niche in relation to previous media and social uses and users, often in unexpected ways. Old dominant media make room for new media forms. An excellent example is the introduction of television into North America, when the previously dominant radio medium did not disappear, but rather was taken up for use in the bedroom (instead of the living room), where it became a wake up hybrid clock alarm radio; went mobile and became a feature of the car, and after the transistor, an extension of the teenager’s ear, precursor of the Walkman, and eventually under digital conditions, the ancestor of the I Pod. An example from the artistic and cultural realm is the shifting artistic role playing accompanying the coming to predominance of digital media, such as CDs, and parallel obsolescence of LPs and vinyl records. Instead of disappearing, an art form emerged, and artists such as Moby transformed the role of disc jockey from DJ in a back stage service role to front stage starring performer and impresario, sampling vinyl live and recording the product to CD. (http://archives.cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/Music/02/08/moby/)

A cultural ecologist carefully attends to multiple, often subtle changes in the uses of technology and media, attitudes towards and behaviours with media, popular fads and fashions, and language (notably slang). The car was once a horse-less carriage, the radio was an early form of wire-less. The goal of such observation and reflection is to grasp dynamic patterns of change by paying close attention to transformations of life. This is the terrain of (techno-) cultural and media ecology. Change is continuous and understanding the dynamics of change on this view means understanding the ways in which we shape our environments and are subsequently shaped by those environments. It is a continuous process of interaction, and metamorphosis. This is the task of cultural ecology, which includes life with technology and media, as we live intimately with our technologies in a media saturated environment. McLuhan’s theory of techno- cultural transformation becomes a mediamorphosis (Jeffrey 1997).

This essay has sought to reframe understanding of public participation in urban cultural events, never as a matter of media determinism, but instead as a continuous consequence of paying close attention to the environmental dynamics of change and testing our ability to make sense of what’s happening, uncover fundamental drivers and dynamics of change, and then to decide what might be done about the transformations under way. We focus on figures, events, and relevant situations in order to become aware of the environment. The point as Clifford Geertz noted, is always to seek to make sense of what’s going on, by tacking between the particular and the general, the specific observation and the larger context. Again, I am indebted to Joshua Meyrowitz (and indeed to all of the text companions mentioned in this section) for pointing in these directions, however widely our ultimate destinations may diverge.

More recently, there are two thinkers whose work shapes the reframing of this essay in ways no longer possible to identify with precision, despite the fact that their work was unknown at the time of most of the participant observations recounted here (as I am primarily a media ecologist and commentator on cultural policy, who has arrived at a focus on the creative city by following the subject in the field or rather in the streets.) UK urban visionary Charles Landry (2000) is the key figure in concretizing the idea of the creative city, as discussed in the introduction. His decisive recent innovation is taking this a step further into the idea of an art of city making (2006).

From a distinctive direction, Arjun Appadurai (2002) has managed to push forward the idea of a working imagination, and to clarify that all denizens of the city are potential co-creators of the city (2002).

Following this brief encounter with some of the theorists whose work contributes mosaic style to this cultural ecology of the creative city, we can again retrieve the participant observations and continue to reframe some of the key terms in light of encountered challenges.

4. Strategic informatic challenges

Understandably, many experienced cultural heritage administrators wonder how such annual experiences can be translated into return visits to their institutions. Let me clarify that the priority focus advocated in this essay is a strategy suited to the times, and would not always and in every place represent the one and only best practice. One size never fits all, everything has its season, and it is always important to evaluate and follow the unfolding events and make policy based on evidence, while leaving room for taking risks the new. This risk may succeed, as with Nuit Blanche, or it may not; a cultural event popular for a time may lose its resonance as with the dated and once innovative Caravan, or a traditional event or institution may reinvent itself or find new audiences, as the venerable Canadian National Exhibition seems to have done with an influx of newcomers to Toronto and Canada.

At this time in this place Toronto, the popular successes of the very new Nuit Blanche and the somewhat older Doors Open Toronto are definitive and require close attention. Programming should focus on the city as that place where special events can be organized, in all their diversity for the diverse publics and creators (sometimes interchanging roles) who have shown themselves willing to mobilize and interact. This is what is special about these special events, and while this popular appeal exists, it should be reinforced. Back to the challenge then: how can ephemeral experiences become return engagements, particularly with cultural heritage institutions?

Above we took the first step, by reframing ‘visitors’ as participants, recognizing that interaction is the key dynamic, so we do not have a binary audience versus creators, with the latter acting on a stage, separated from the audience, acting as spectators. The situation is more fluid. This is about the flow, not the show as impresario Moses Znaimer puts this. Addressing this challenge requires the next level of commitment to public participation. The relational engagement that was part of reframing the visitors as participants now can be seen as a creative engagement. But in what? Here is the crucial step that can reframe how the cultural policy maker (and cultural heritage administrator views the challenge). The creative engagement is with what Landry (2006) has called ‘city making.’ In his discussion of who is responsible for city-making, Landry (2006:7) compares the spirit of city-making “with its necessary creativity and imagination” to improvised jazz, rather than the scripted and scored chamber music. “ There is experimentation, trial and error, and everyone can be a leader, given a particular area of expertise. As if by some mysterious process, orchestration occurs through seemingly unwritten rules.” Landry affirms the importance of leadership, but not just one conductor. For those familiar with Toronto, and its often timid, risk averse climate, this recommendation will seem positively off the wall. I conclude that to deepen the commitments of the public to the cultural heritage institutions and arts, and to the creative city as a whole, it is necessary to transform the one off experiences and threshold crossings into invitations to return by leveraging the virtual and material impressions.

5. Informatic Tactics

Several tactics for more effective leveraging of enthusiasm for these cultural events can be proposed -- drawn from an informatic inventory including both legacy and social networking media. It is a truism of impression management, and one of the core ideas behind branding that memory is now the key to findability. Each location that seeks return visitors needs to work harder on conveying a soft invitation. However, the main contacts and memorable impressions should not be hijacked by corporate sponsors unless there is a clear public return. The Doors Open Toronto association with the Toronto Star is desirable because it involves legacy media (print) as well as new media (the online links). Scotiabank is generous and innovative, but this relationship must be reviewed.

Other tactics were mentioned above, including targeting the volunteers and making them ambassadors, further engaging the creators as participants notably those on the ground, and ensuring public galleries for display of public images.

The younger public should be encouraged to participate in tagging, and genuine grassroots buzz should receive rewards: free tickets? How about a scavenger hunt for Doors Open?

Leveraging can simply mean providing something photogenic and letting the crowds in:

Tours and mapping could be leveraged to better effect, with GPS, Google maps and other locative and ambient findabilty applications.

6. Policy Implications and suggested priorities

There are strategically grounds to place a priority on funding collaborative, cross institutional events and informatic tactics that demonstrably encourage inclusive public participation and creative engagement in city-making.

Of course, numerous additional challenges exist. One key challenge is especially important to some: global city competition, and how to market the distinctiveness of the city and its heritage institutions in the race to attract tourists, knowledge industries and workers. This is a consequence of the convergence of cultural policy and economic rewards, and has been a theme in the writings of Richard Florida and others. Undeniably, prosperity and growth must be enduring goals for policy makers. Cities must choose wisely in this area to achieve sustainability. However a comparison of various lists that rank cities show how subjective these mobile elite attractor scales are. What is attractive in the eye of one beholder, say the readers or editors of Monocle (2007), is abhorrent in the eyes of another, say the Economist Magazine intelligence unit (2007). For Monocle Toronto is dull, boring and not worth bothering about in any list of desirable cities. For the Economist intelligence unit, and its expats, those cities that mix excitement with danger attract the prospect of terrorist attack, and suffer the side effects in surveillance and fear (London, New York). Such cities fall off the Economist list, while Toronto places number 5 ( Vancouver #1). Clearly these metrics may sell magazines but do little for policy making or quality of life! Are the mobile elite as fickle in their civic loyalties? Perhaps an emphasis on civic solidarity and genuine public engagement would make more sense and achieve both value and values.

It does not yet seem to be apparent to city policy makers much less their denizens that there is choice in these matters. Toronto has come a long way since its boring and sleepy past, yet remains curiously insecure. Has nostalgia for the 1970s when Toronto began to emerge from its sober sided image and was the city that worked, known to some as New York run by the Swiss, has clouded judgement. Is there a cultural renaissance or an edifice complex underway, or perhaps a little of both ? Too often we seem back in the fog of that image from Nuit Blanche 2006 (Figure 5). But that is a creative place to be, as we observed.

The choice of social sustainability and relative harmony would be a significant one, and there are no guarantees anymore that things will work out. Toronto can and should choose to be guided by the values of civic solidarity. Adopting pro-public participation policies for citywide cultural events that open up the city and encourage interaction with non traditional experiences and arts, and open the doors to allow those who wish to come out to cross the thresholds and broaden their civic imaginaries and extend the virtual territories of the known city are symbolic and material means to the end of this civic solidarity. Those who together co-create the city through engaging with it may wish to preserve and conserve it.

7. Conclusion

The arguments developed here using a cultural ecology approach are designed to accelerate the recognition that priority should be placed -- at this moment in the city’s history -- on encouraging public participation in the co-making of Toronto as a creative city. The argument is vulnerable, and already various arts curators have clearly indicated that Nuit Blanche is really for and about artists and the arts. I beg to differ on this point, gently and with respect. This argument exceeds the case for a creative city where culture is a remedy for industrial decline, and also avoids a calculus based on the many economic spin off benefits of culture and the arts. The value chain endorsed here is a values network, with civic solidarity is its central value. The paradigm model for settlement, now dated as an exemplar, would be the inclusive creativity of Toronto’s St Lawrence Market district, where rich and poor are co-present, and not just during entertainment hours, in contrast to the model of a regenerated Distillery district with its faux Disney feel. (This may be unfair and doubtless will pass, as Toronto can and should have many models in this experimental phase.) To restate, on this strategy, citywide cultural events like Nuit Blanche and Doors Open can become means to an end of civic solidarity by opening up the possibility of creative engagement in city making. Arguably this values network is non partisan and in everyone’s interests, economically, socially, politically. Culture in the widest sense is good for the city, good business, and prudent politics. Of course every orchestra needs a conductor, to retrieve Landry’s model for city making, but while we wait for the conductor to arrive, let’s make creative music together from each according to his or her talents.


Special thanks to eCommons/agora associates for assistance to eLab on the ‘cultural ecology of a creative Toronto’ field work in 2002. I witness these events as a Torontonian by choice, an independent researcher, producer, and professor by training. Collaboratively, eLab and eCommons/agora co-create civic engagement events and animate democratic dialogues, online and offline.

Associates of the byDesign eLab contributed to the reflections and street level participant observation. Founded in 1997 at the McLuhan Program, University of Toronto, to produce “Canada byDesign: Building a knowledge nation using new media and policy” with my graduate seminar “New media and policy: Canada in global context,” eLab is now an independent research and production consultancy based in Toronto. http://www.bydesign-elab.net. Fraser McAninch (photos, video, logistics), Frieda Luk (research), Sal Greco (photos and video), Loretta Valasciennes (web site).Thanks also to the Media Ecology Café and New Democracy Workshop nomad circles. http://www.netizen-news.ca.


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Cite as:

Jeffrey, L., Darkness Visible, Walking Through Walls: Towards a collaborative, cross-institutional strategy for public participation in arts and heritage across the creative city , in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/jeffrey/jeffrey.html