I went for a walk the other day. Since March 2020, I have taken many — walking, of course, being one of the few things a person can do for fun, or something resembling it, in pandemic Toronto.
But on this particular walk, the city was surfacing from its record-breaking lockdown. Since last Friday, as Toronto entered Step 3 of Ontario's reopening plan, residents are suddenly faced with more recreational options than they've had in months. But still, it's July. And now, as in the Before Times, people will take advantage of a sunny day, making use of whatever outdoor space they might claim. Gyms are open, but as I wandered west from downtown, toward the thicket of condos that shadows Fort York, I could spy the lycra-clad signs of yoga classes in the park, bootcamp in the park, even Zumba in the park. Playgrounds — once restricted by ribbons of yellow caution tape — have long been free for the swinging and sliding and whatever else the preschool set might busy themselves with doing. Still, as children have done since they first toddled upon the Earth, a bench or a fountain will substitute for a city-maintained jungle gym quite nicely. And if I'm not mistaken, I even saw a bunch of middle-aged dudes using a patch of concrete near Strachan as their own personal skatepark.
I took in all of those sights before reaching The Bentway, home of a summer exhibition that's another reminder of how creative — playful, even — city dwellers can be with the public space afforded to them. The exhibition is called Playing in Public and it features eight new outdoor artworks that have been unveiled along a route they've dubbed the Play Walk. Beyond The Bentway itself, installation sites stretch north to Niagara Street, south to Queen's Quay and east toward Canoe Landing (home to their new expansion project The Bentway Studio). And there's further programming hidden along the trail. Strategically placed QR codes, for example, might interrupt someone's grocery run, prompting them to queue up a curated playlist or "Tiny Game" while they make their way home on foot.
Over the last year and change, Ilana Altman, co-executive director at The Bentway, has noticed more people walking through the site than ever before. Located directly under the Gardiner Expressway, near the entrance to Fort York, the space and its programming are entirely outdoors — a boon, perhaps, during lockdown. "Our space remained open and a resource to the community throughout the pandemic," says Altman. "And as a result, I think, the community has really adopted it as its own. Every day that you come to the site, you see something different: groups meeting for workouts, birthday parties or baby showers."
And since launching Playing in Public, the activity happening around there is even more eclectic. Someone might be practising their layup technique in Esmaa Mohamoud's Double Dribble, a basketball-themed installation that defies the design of a regulation court but remains entirely playable given enough creativity. (Its assortment of hoops range in size from five feet across to a tiny six inches.)
Big Red, a sculpture resembling a pinwheel of playground slides, is enormously popular with dog-walkers, says Altman.
Walk Walk Dance lets passersby make music together while walking or biking — and yeah, maybe even dancing — along its length. The piece doubles as an ordinary sidewalk planter.
Over at Canoe Landing, archival photos from the Canadian National Exhibition have been installed on a parkour course of wooden structures (Play Public). Altman says it's found occasional use as an al fresco neighbourhood gym.
Like those four examples, many of the featured works are inherently social, and designed to be enjoyed (safely) in groups. In putting together the exhibition, Altman says that The Bentway team wanted to assemble projects that would get people engaging with each other while looking at the city through fresh eyes.
"A lot of the questions that we started to ask ourselves [are about] what role play will play in our urban recovery," says Altman. "How can play be a lens to engage more people in discussions with the city that we want to emerge as after COVID?" And as part of the programming, The Bentway is hosting two panel discussions on the subject. Video of the first roundtable is already online, and a second is scheduled for Sept. 7.
But if nothing else, the sight of, say, supersized iPhones or schoolyard toys beneath a highway overpass provides a bit of whimsy — a shake-up to the same neighbourhood walk people have been making forever. On the surface, the exhibition's a cheerful welcome back to the world. And its one roaming project — a 2008 piece by the British artist Stuart Semple — is unabashedly joyful.
Happy Clouds releases actual happy clouds — smiley faces made of foamy bubbles — into the atmosphere. The installation has popped up in secret locations near the exhibition path for the last couple weeks, with a final iteration scheduled for the weekend of July 24. "It was a project that [Semple] first developed during the recession in the U.K.," says Altman.
"He really just wanted to make people smile and to encourage people to feel a sense of joy after a very difficult period. And it felt like that was what people needed after the last 18 months," she explains. "We're hopeful that it brings that same sense of joy to the city of Toronto."