Artists remain in the dark as subway bosses refuse to switch on light installation

Plans to unveil a new artistic installation in a Toronto subway have been halted following concerns that it will be misused as a platform for hate speech.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) spent CAD$500,000 (£294,500) on ‘LightSpell’, an enormous ceiling display suspended over Pioneer Village station. Commuters can type out eight-letter messages on a keyboard in the station, which are then illuminated above the subway platform. The creators of the interactive digital art installation, Berlin-based German art collective, Realities:United, call their work a “super sculpture”, which serves both artistic and practical purposes as indoor lighting.

Due to launch when the new subway station opened in December 2017, LightSpell has remained switched off. TTC cited concerns “about hate speech and the potential for the installation to be misused by some”. TTC spokesman Brad Ross said the decision was about “making sure people feel safe… If somebody looks up and sees a racial slur that they think may be targeted at them, then we have failed them”. The blackout will continue while the TTC can determine a way to prevent members of the public from abusing the technology.

In a statement emailed to Canadian press, TCC spokesperson Stuart Green wrote that TCC ‘are attempting to find a compromise with the artists that honours their concept while recognising that the TTC has an obligation and responsibility to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all’.

The TTC is also obtaining legal advice on the risk of switching on the installation, any potential infringement of the Ontario Human Rights Code and the ownership of the artwork. The Commission acknowledged that “the artist has some control over their art, they always do, and we’re not in disagreement with that”.

Realities:United are astonished by the TTC’s decision and believe it constitutes censorship. Co-founder, Tim Edler, said the collective had discussed the issue of profanity at length with TTC leadership since they began work on the project in 2009. He rejected TTC’s suggestion to create a “whitelist” of acceptable words that commuters could type into the installation keyboard. “If we provide the text that people then are allowed to enter, that sounds more like North Korea than like Canada to me”, Edler said. He also rejected a proposed blacklist with automatically banned words.

Edler and his co-creators remarked on the irony of the debacle and the way in which it has fomented debate over freedom of speech, the very issue their installation was designed to address. “The entire concept of the piece is about the lack of censorship”, Edler insisted.

He believes the TCC should switch it on to see what happens and allow social pressure to curtail troublemakers from typing in offensive language. Worst come to worse, commuters can censor each other. It’s really easy to walk to one of the terminals and hit the button to say, ‘I want this to be erased,’ and it instantly will be erased,” Edler explained.

The TTC board will examine the matter further on 18 January 2018.

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