Watching a Toronto mayoral campaign debate on TV a few weeks back, I kept spotting people in the audience wearing an unusual T-shirt featuring a cartoonish black oval on a white background. Who are those people and what are they protesting, I wondered. I tweeted out my query but nobody seemed to know the answer.
This week, Jason Samilski, co-director of a youth arts initiative called Cue, got in touch and told me about his group's infiltration of the current municipal campaign. I took a look at Cue's "Margin of Eras" videos and there was the black oval – it's an egg, actually, with a white doughnut in the middle. The image is a little character of sorts who adorns T-shirts, wheat-paste posters and lawn signs, and also stars in a campaign launch video full of gnomic slogans. My favourite is, "The public purse needs a new strap," but there's also, "We need a leader to lead this better leadership," and, "If we can't change reality at least someone will."
The egg fellow was designed by Samilski's co-director, Zanette Singh, and symbolizes the frailty, yet resilience, of people who live on the margins, the kind of people whom Cue serves by providing easy-to-access funding for artists between the ages of 15 and 29. (There are no complicated application forms and there's lots of mentoring about how to apply.) But a clear message about the margins isn't really the point; my puzzled curiosity is the kind of response Cue is looking for.
"As artists, it's our job to shine light on new perspectives, to ask questions," says Samilski, who has also pretended to be a journalist in the campaign's media scrums. "The elections are about direct messaging: Showing up with this non-partisan symbol has really thrown audiences at the debates and in the [candidates'] camps. We are not pro this or anti this; it's a surreal infiltration."
He says John Tory, Olivia Chow and their campaign workers have generally ignored Cue while Doug Ford's camp is very suspicious about their motives. The audience members at debates, meanwhile, are generally amused.
"There is something cheeky about it," Samilski says of Cue's political efforts. After all, the group did recently win a Toronto Mayors' Arts Award for its work with youth.
At the opposite end of the institutional spectrum, the eight largest arts organizations in the city also got involved in municipal politics back in June with a statement calling for a mayor who is inclusive, visionary and passionate about Toronto. Leaders from an elite group that included the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto International Film Festival, Royal Ontario Museum and Canadian Opera Company wanted to encourage citizens to challenge candidates to seriously debate civic issues such as building transit and supporting diversity.
Cue's satirical campaign has it roots in disruptive performance art of the kind produced by the Yes Men with their elaborate hoaxes on the U.S. political scene. In Toronto, it harkens back to 1982, when the Hummer Sisters campaigned against then-mayor Art Eggleton (art vs. Art) using a new thing called video art and winning a whopping 7 per cent of the vote – although the Cue artists themselves were not aware of the precedent.
Meanwhile, the big cultural leaders' more earnest approach builds on initiatives such as ArtsVote Toronto, a long-standing campaign that rates candidates on their support for the cultural sector, and organizes the mayoral arts debate. The City of Toronto lags far behind Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa on per-capita arts spending, but what is admirable about the cultural leaders' manifesto is the broad range of civic issues it addresses: It is not a plea for funding.
Honestly, whether they come from the margins or the centre, these campaigns are unlikely to sway votes; arts leaders are often preaching to the converted. The cultural executives' June manifesto got polite responses from insiders to a document that is now buried deep down on their respective websites. Cue's videos have drawn a few hundred views on YouTube.
What these initiatives are, however, are good reminders that culture is a useful tool for looking at things sideways. The arts can bring different characters to the table and can infuse civic debate (which in Toronto has degenerated into sloganeering and name calling) with creativity and critical thinking.
"We know we are not going to save the world," says Samilski. "But in our own little pebble-in-the-pond way, we are trying to change things."
Meanwhile, Cue is making its final push: From Friday evening through election day on Monday, it is holding a pop-up art show featuring its campaign designs, plus work by the artists it funds in a storefront at 832 Bloor St. West.
With no votes to count, it will be a surreal kind of victory party.