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r.m. vaughan

A Piece of a City

Until June 10 at various venues on Danforth Avenue, from Coxwell Parkette to West Lynn Avenue, in Toronto;

On a stretch of Toronto's Danforth Avenue better known for its no-refund discount shops, quirky family-run businesses (a kill-'em-all pest-control concern, a model-plane-enthusiast supply shop), and hallelujah-hollering storefront churches (those folks know a thing or two about showbiz themselves), public art of a quieter kind is blooming.

Curated by artists Anni Onyi Cheung, John Loerchner and Laura Mendes, A Piece of a City is a cheerful, community-based multidisciplinary series of sidewalk interventions staged by east-end artists. Livening up the flat stretch of the avenue running from Coxwell Parkette to West Lynn Avenue, the project is presented as part of the month-long Art of the Danforth festival.

If nothing else, A Piece of a City is a breezy enabler, an exhibition meant to encourage the kinds of casual connections between strangers that Torontonians, normally a more guarded bunch, indulge in during the brain-baking summer months. They'll have plenty to chat about.

Brian Cauley's Neighbourhood Messages (at the northwest corner of East Lynn Park) is Twitter gone analog. Deep analog.

Cauley has decorated the low branches of a large tree with lengths of white string. Beside the tree, a typewriter and a supply of paper tags wait at a desk. Visitors are encouraged to take a tag, type a message on a tag, and then hang the message from one of the strings. Or, participants may respond to an already placed message, or take a message they like, or hang some other form of paper note (one snarky type left a losing lottery ticket).

Referencing the communal magic that fuels so-called wishing trees (trees considered spiritual entities that are bedecked with gifts and messages, common in Asia, the more Druidic parts of Britain, and South America), while coyly rejigging our current addiction to text messaging, Cauley has created a communications hub – one that clearly kindles, judging by the masses of tags attached to the tree, visitors' primal story-sharing impulses.

Everything from the absurd to the poetic to the maudlin can be found on the tags, especially in the longer tag-and-response-tag chains that fill many strings (exchanges that could, of course, be labelled "threads" – another nod to contemporary messaging).

Meanwhile, Matt Greenwood offers a visual complement to Cauley's arboreal status updates. Greenwood's project, entitled Take Picture, Don't Steal, is cheeky clever and adorably good-natured.

Greenwood has strung a series of disposable cameras along the strip, off signposts and benches, and provided the titular instructions. Each day, the cameras are collected (the ones that don't actually get stolen), and the photos that people take, of themselves or whatever else they wish to capture, are processed and then posted on the website

The photographic results are exactly what you'd expect: silly, sweet, off-centre, and occasionally performative (one kid did a series of priceless diva poses). But the visuals are secondary to the actions, the willingness people have to share a bit of themselves with the world.

I'm not certain if this project speaks, at its core, to a deep loneliness in our culture, a grasping for connection, any connection, or/and the opposite, a sense of well-being and interconnectedness coupled with a confidence in the goodwill of strangers. More pessimistically, perhaps we've all just become rabid exhibitionists.

Any reading is possible from the photographs Greenwood has collected, and the impossibility of fully knowing what motivated each photographer is part of the fascination.

Other interventions along the road are of the more standard (but no less pleasing) interactive kind: Adam Herst's nightly performances, which ask passersby to play street chalk games; Gram Schmalz's motion-activated storefront sound sculpture; Amy Barnes's "yarn bombs" (colourful knitted works, made with locals, that are attached to poles and lifeless civic structures); Willy Chyr and Cara Spooner's window display of a balloon sculpture (rapidly shrinking, which is part of the show), a sculpture that replicates a dance performance by Spooner; the collective TIMEANDDESIRE's faux street signs that alert pedestrians that walking on the sidewalk is permitted at all times; and Alex McLeod's two-minute looped animation, projected every night through the windows of the Danforth-Coxwell public library.

The art vs. community art debate (which is all about the non-issue, to my mind, of validity), hovers over A Piece of a City, almost daring viewers to judge these friendly, participatory works as less considered than anything the art initiated might see in a proverbial white cube.

Sitting, appropriately, on the sidewalk, the curators tackled the question head on.

"Our interest was how artists would respond to this stretch of the Danforth, specifically," Cheung says. "The artists had to have some investment in the community, either by living here or working here."

Mendes adds, "All of the artists have a sincere interest in making the neighbourhood a better place, because it's theirs."

"We programmed the works for people who live here, who walk up and down the street every day, not just for the opening-day arts crowd. We want people who live here to see their neighbourhood brightened up, with work that is engaging and colourful," Loerchner says. "But its not done in a condescending way."

"The festival describe the area to us as a 'problem stretch,' but once we shaped the project to be primarily for the people who live and work here, we started to question what art's function is, to expand the definition of creativity, beyond capital-A art. And we found creativity everywhere," Cheung concludes.

Art, apparently, does grow on trees.

In other venues

Clint Griffin at Katharine Mulherin Art Projects

Until June 3, 1086 Queen St. W., Toronto;

Last chance to catch Griffin's relentlessly inventive hybrids of painting, photography, sculpture and found-object "collaborations." Griffin is an artist who sees five (or 50) possible other realities for every single observation the rest of us make. The former art brat has matured into a cultivator of the exquisite (but still kind of nutty).

Double or Nothing at First Canadian Place Gallery

Until June 29, 100 King St. W., Toronto;

This assortment of artists from the Edward Day Gallery stable focuses on works that play with and against viewers' deep rooted, almost atavistic valuing of harmonious balance and symmetry. Featuring ace contributions from Doug Guildford and Penelope Stewart.