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The art and light installation Lightspell is an oversized text display hanging from the ceiling of the Pioneer Village subway station.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The most contentious piece of art in Toronto doesn’t hang in a museum.

It’s not even obviously controversial – nothing like Andres Serrano’s crucifix dunked in urine or that Robert Mapplethorpe self-portrait involving a bullwhip. Instead it’s an installation in the subway system that would allow people to write messages to be displayed in overhead lights. But one year after Pioneer Village station opened, its artwork has yet to be activated for public use.

The Toronto Transit Commission fears people will use the art to create hate speech. The artists argue that the agency was aware all along of the risk and say they were blindsided by the decision to keep the piece turned off.

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After months of internal TTC debates and protracted negotiations with the artists, the two sides seem to be nearing agreement on a vetting committee that could pave the way for the installation – called Lightspell – to go live.

“It has been a long conversation,” one of the artists, Jan Edler, acknowledged in a phone interview from Germany. “Of course, we have not expected [this]. We expected to unveil the piece last year.”

The artwork involves lights running the length of the northbound platform at Pioneer Village. There are terminals in the station where people can type their thoughts – messages that would be spelled out in the overhead lights.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

When the station opened last December, passersby could type on one of the four terminals, though their words were not displayed in the lights. The terminals have since been shut off as well, the whole project held hostage to the ongoing dispute between the TTC and the artists.

In theory, the TTC holds all the power here. They paid the artists $200,000 – part of the $1.9-million cost of the piece – and don’t ever have to turn it on. But the agency is also answerable to politicians and the public and wants to find a way to make use of the art it commissioned.

Debates over artistic propriety have played out in many cities. Politicians sometimes like to make hay by decrying public funding of art they don’t appreciate, and galleries periodically face calls to remove a piece that offends someone. In most cases, though, the artwork in question is a fixed object, a known quantity.

Lightspell has the unpredictability of audience-driven performance art. With the public calling the shots, it recalls, albeit in a much less visceral form, Marina Abramovic’s famous 1974 performance in which she invited an audience to do whatever they wanted to her over a six-hour period. The TTC can’t know exactly what will be displayed if the public is allowed free rein with the piece.

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Talks on how to manage this uncertainty are progressing. Discussions have not been finalized, though, and the situation is still so delicate that some of those connected to the artwork are reluctant to speak about the process.

Brad Golden, the consultant who helped facilitate the piece’s inclusion in the station design, declined to comment via e-mail due to the “sensitivity and profile of the project.”

Mr. Edler initially took a similar approach, saying it could be imprudent to discuss the negotiations while they were under way. He did acknowledge, though, that the process has taken much longer than he expected and said the two sides were so far apart earlier this year that “it took quite a while in the beginning to figure out what we’re talking about.”

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The artists’ original intent was that the installation would be self-policing: If a bystander didn’t like the message being displayed, they could overwrite it with a different one. The TTC says it assumed all along that the artists would include a more robust mitigation measure to prevent misuse of the piece.

An agreement on a vetting committee would be a big step toward solving this impasse. It’s unclear who would sit on this committee, though it would not be transit officials, sparing them the thorny task of determining the bounds of public decency.

“We’re not concerned about expletives, we’re concerned about hate,” said TTC spokesman Brad Ross.

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Mr. Ross explained that the committee would probably not start with a blacklist – beyond safety-related words such as “jump” and “fire” – and would pass judgment on specific words if they spark complaints.

However, any such blacklist becomes a fundamental part of the artwork, Mr. Edler argued, and would need to be displayed near the installation.

“We are trying to come to a point where we feel we have not corrupted the artistic intent,” he said.

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