$1.9M and 5 years later: Why isn’t this TTC public art installation turned on?

Five years after 'LightSpell' was put in at the TTC's Pioneer Village subway station, the $1.9-million illuminated installation still hasn't been turned on. Nick Westoll looks into why that's the case.

When the TTC opened the $3.18-billion Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE) in 2017, there was much fanfare about subways finally being able to get to Vaughan and the six modern stations that would serve several neighbourhoods.

With design front and centre as part of years of community consultation, the City of Toronto mandated public art be in all major new facilities.

“Go around the world, public art exists everywhere in the public realm. It is for the public. It is an investment forever in these projects,” then-TTC spokesperson Brad Ross said in a 2017 interview for a story looking at how millions were spent on art for the TYSSE.

At the TTC’s Pioneer Village subway station, the signature piece entitled LightSpell spans an impressive length across the entire northbound train platform.

But five years (roughly two-and-a-half times longer than it took to dig the tunnels for the entire TYSSE) after the $1.9-million illuminated installation was attached to the ceiling, there’s a problem: It still hasn’t been turned on.

“I’m just kind of a bit puzzled why now this has come to a standstill,” Jan Edler, a partner and a co-founder of the Berlin, Germany-based art and architecture studio realities:united, told CityNews in an interview. “Maybe they’re not interested anymore? Maybe they tried to rather get rid of it in the end and not need to worry about it anymore. I just don’t know, but I think it makes no sense and … a lot of money went into the development of the project and the production and so on.”

“The public also has a right, I think, to get that piece and to decide for themselves and maybe then 10 years later or five years later, you can decide again.”

RELATED: Millions spent on art at 6 new TTC subway stations

LightSpell is made up of 40 2.5-metre-by-2.5-metre lights chandeliers, and each one has 16 individual luminaires. Each chandelier can generate all the characters of the element, special characters, and numbers zero through nine. Using one of several touchscreen panels installed along the platform, riders can create eight-character messages to be displayed.

Edler and his brother, Tim Edler, were selected by a jury in 2009 to be the artists for the public art project at Pioneer Village station (previously known as Steeles West station). The art commission was $500,000 and officials said the installation of the light system and related infrastructure was around $1.4 million.

But just days before the long-anticipated and delayed TYSSE opened on Dec. 17, 2017, TTC staff shuttered the installation.

“I was working on platform level and got a call by the project manager and he said, ‘We’ve got news, it’s not going to be handed over to the public due to concerns of the management board of the TTC … so that came to complete surprise for me,” Edler said.

This happened even though, according to a 2011 TTC board document, it was “developed and approved” by the TTC’s “Steeles West station art design review committee.”

The document, which went to the TTC board for approval, said the brothers worked in “close collaboration with the architectural design team” to create the LightSpell “super sculpture.”

RELATED: Toronto-York Spadina subway extension delayed until 2017

“LightSpell is a piece about the freedom of speech and an experiment of the interests of the individual versus the interests of a larger group,” Edler said.

However, it was seemingly that very principle that brought a halt eight years after Edler’s company was selected as the designer. TTC staff said there were concerns about hate speech and inappropriate messages being displayed.

“The concept for LightSpell was developed more than 10 years ago and at that time of course the world was different. For instance, social media and the way we use social media and the way we have discussions about hate speech and so on on social media was not existing to that extent or at a different level definitely,” Edler said.

“So you can say the fear behind that decision by the TTC to not kind of take the project seriously and to say, ‘Let’s go forward’ and to see what happens. This courage kind of got lost on the TTC side.”

After the subway extension opened and for nearly four years, there were extended talks about how to move forward. He said despite the original intent of the project, he agreed to changes — namely the “quarantine” of hate- and safety-related messages and for an independent, third-party to review phrases that should be banned or allowed to be displayed.

“We agree that certain words can be excluded from being shown on LightSpell automatically, but these words are terms that are against the illegal laws in Canada and they are put into a black list if someone complains. The idea was that basically we trigger the passengers and waiting people on platform level to contact TTC if they feel … offended,” he said.

“So the idea of having an installation about the freedom of speech was transformed to become a process in that minute, which allows you to follow that process.”

In late 2020 and into 2021 during the course of the pandemic, Edler said the TTC paid for LightSpell‘s software to be overhauled to accommodate the changes. Edler said it was handed over to the TTC and all that’s left to do is a technical check-up since it’s been dormant for a year, do the actual software installation and commission the piece.

However, since October 2021, Edler said there has been silence from TTC staff.

“There were a couple of attempts to say, ‘Hello, what’s going on? The pandemic is slowly coming to an end, can we kind of come to an agreement on how to proceed and get the whole thing finished? Because also we would like to get it into the world and get it off the table.’”

TTC LightSpell Pioneer Village public art installation

A LightSpell touchscreen device is seen on the platform at the TTC’s Pioneer Village subway station. CITYNEWS / Nick Westoll

Why has the TTC not activated LightSpell and what’s the installation’s future?

CityNews first posed a series of questions about LightSpell in the latter half of August after a reporter saw the darkened installation and inquired about the status. The initial response was a one-line statement sent back the same day.

“We are still in discussions with the artists about activating it,” the statement said.

After speaking with Edler, CityNews followed up again to ask for an on-camera interview about the points he raised as well as what the plan going forward is for LightSpell. Instead, a statement was issued in response to the inquiry.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said “safety and inclusion” has been at the forefront for the agency.

“What we’ve been trying to address with the artists is a way to ensure that our customers and employees are not subject to vulgar, racist or threatening words or phrases,” he said, noting executives decided the keep LightSpell off “until solutions” were figured out.

“Discussions with the artists have been protracted as we try and reach agreement on the best way forward.”

Green also said the TTC board issued direction in 2018 that the piece could only be turned on if the following happened:

  • Displaying the artwork’s terms of use
  • LightSpell would be turned off “at certain times of night based on a reduced volume of customers”
  • Banning safety-related words from showing up on LightSpell
  • “Inappropriate” content contrary to Canadian laws
  • An independent, third-party panel to evaluate content to review complaints and make recommendations for removal or reinstatement of messages, posting decisions publicly

During Edler’s interview, he said there was agreement on many of the points in the direction. CityNews followed up to ask what specifically is keeping both sides apart and again asked about the statement that TTC staff haven’t been in communication with Edler and his team since 2021.

“We have had discussions but there’s still no agreement from the artists on the issue of how to manage the offending material,” Green wrote.

“The door to dialogue remains open. If it closes, we will make further decisions at that time with respect to the infrastructure.”

Green said since the lighting infrastructure installed is TTC property, “we can repurpose it without the artistic (software) features.” But there were no clear indications of when a decision on that will be made.

Meanwhile, Edler said he would like to see the whole matter settled.

“There’s a saying time heals any wounds and so on, but of course I mean there’s disappointment. But to be honest, it’s more… all the work we do is usually somehow experiments. This is a social experiment and maybe that we went into these problems is also due to the long process of the project. Maybe it would have been much easier if the project would have been developed in 2009 and we opened the subway station in 2012 and maybe we would have run into problems during using it,” he said.

“I hope we come to a solution finally and I would like to encourage anyone who is interested in the project to also get in contact with the TTC and ask them to get the whole thing up now.”

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