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2005 10 08
Dave Meslin - Public Space vs Advertising
On the occasion of Toronto City Hall's 40th anniversary, City-tv's Breakfast Television invited me to offer my thoughts on what the future held for the city. I was to be one of two guests. Arriving at Queen and John Street too early I wandered down to the CBC building with the idea of asking the picketers when they'd be back at work. This was not done without self interest though because I was growing increasingly tired of having to listen to 680 News - ALL NEWS ALL THE TIME - in the morning.

The strikers were not optimistic and, as I walked back to City-tv, I worried that CBC Radio 1 might never return. But my spirits picked up when I found out that the other pundit that morning was going to be Dave Meslin, founder of the Toronto Public-Space Committee. Dave and I introduced ourselves joking that this really was an ungodly hour of the day to try and appear knowledgeable and coherent. We were directed onto the set to the left of Liza the morning show's host. An assistant asked if we wanted water or coffee and the cups were placed in front of us while we introduced ourselves to Liza. To the surprise of the assistant, and maybe to everyone in the room, Dave asked if he could have a cup without the sponsors logo on it. Whoooa! With one minute left before we were to go live Dave launched into the reasons why he did not want to be associated with a Brand. The thought that this is an experience you don't have every day made its way through my mind only to be smacked down by an adrenalin rush when someone said, "ten seconds." Dave's cup disappeared from the table. I kept mine. Then we were live.

As anyone who does unscripted morning television live will probably tell you, there really isn't a lot of time to think about the answers you're going to give. You either know your stuff or you don't. So I really don't remember much of what I said but I've been told a couple of times since that it made sense. But I remember thinking that Dave had shifted gears and our on camera interaction was complimentary. After four minutes it was over. We took the six steps or so over to the in-studio cappuccino bar and the barista, Angelica, asked if we wanted anything to drink. She served us with the same logoed cups.

When Dave and I left the building we stopped for a moment to talk about the cup incident. That segued to a discussion of outdoor advertising and finally to the mother-load of public space integrated advertising, Dundas Square. Now, I have to be up front about this. I love the place. Steve Mann, Canada's Cyborg, calls it an urbeach - short for urban beach - and has studied it with great interest. You can read his thoughts here. I've often talked with the designers Kim Story and James Brown about the square which has either been celebrated or pilloried, but unfortunately for them, probably more of the latter than the former. So Dave and I talked and I think both of us unleashed our best pro and con arguments but we'd both heard them before and had developed an interesting and even complex series of responses to each point. In the end we agreed to disagree and maybe tackle the issue over a beer some day. Time passed.

So it was with great interest that I read today's Globe and Mail coverage of Dave and the Public-Space Committee. I respect his views about the encroachment of advertising into the public realm. Think of it like CBC radio. Our tax dollars support the corporation. Using our money they create a thoughtful series of programs that can run without the adverting that 680 News has to air to remain viable. The city is like that too. Our taxes and the sweat equity of a lot of contributors have created our urban environment. We've paid for this so why would we want to have advertising noise intruding unasked? Right? The only problem with this comparison is that the CBC is one part of a public spectrum and I'm glad I have the choice to go to other places on the dial to get alternative sources of entertainment and news. So, like Dave, I think we have to be very careful about what we allow to intrude on the public realm. Unlike Dave, I believe that there are some places that can and should be open to the full spectrum of forces that make up a complex urban culture - even advertising. And Dundas Square is one of those places. Still I have to thank the Public_Space Committee for making the discussion a vibrant one. We're better off being aware and informed about the forces that shape our environment because once a precedent is established it is hard to reverse.

See Jeremy Keehn's discussion about the sqaure.

Photograph by Jeremy Keehn, Walrus Magazine
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 10/08 at 02:11 PM

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