'It turns the city into your art gallery': Ride along with Hamilton's first bicycle art tour
The inaugural Art Spin Hamilton cycled through the North End to celebrate the city's sense of community
Construction hoarding, property development notices — there are literal signs that Hamilton's North End, the neighbourhood shared by more than 5,200 residents and many of the city's heavy industries, is changing rapidly.
While driving its streets alongside some 100 other riders on the inaugural Art Spin Hamilton — a bicycle-led tour presenting artworks in under- and unused spaces — the questions "What was that building?" "What's happening there?" and "What will it be?" are heard again at almost every corner.
Perhaps a bit drunk on the joyous and surreal nature of a group ride, when bicycles take over from cars and the everyday seems disrupted, discussions move easily towards these Big Ideas: contemplations of the past, the future and our sliver of the present. "That has started to feel like a really important responsibility to us," Art Spin co-curator Rui Pimenta says — documenting and sharing these brief transitional moments. They have the power to ignite the imagination.
After a 2016 spin that visited, among other sites, the Honest Ed's parking garage and a CAMH campus, local artists David Trautrimas and Jordyn Stewart decided they wanted to bring Pimenta and co-curator Layne Hinton's open-source Art Spin project to Hamilton. It would be the first new Canadian chapter after a spur group in Berlin and an event at the Bristol Biennial. Stewart had spent two summers working on Pimenta and Hinton's Toronto rides. When she said she and Trautrimas wanted to similarly explore Hamilton's nooks and crannies, the pair offered their blessing and mentorship.
The sense of change in Hamilton is dramatic, Trautrimas says. And it's happening with alarming speed. When he and Stewart were scouting locations, they'd identified the Port Authority warehouses at Pier 8 as a potential site. When they returned a few months later, the facility had been levelled. He's learned soon there'll be residential developments and new parkland there. Ground breaks next fall, he says.
City planners have their grand schemes, but ultimately, it's the community that decides how a thing gets used.- Ivan Jurakic, TH&B artist
The ride's first stop brings the group to a mid-century steel truss bridge passing over CN rail lines — the Emerald Street Footbridge, which was installed to join communities disconnected by the tracks. Below, "No Trespassing" signs are posted, but nobody really uses the bridge anymore. In fact, there's an unofficial path — a desire line — worn through the flora and straight across the railway. Hometown collective TH&B invites everybody up onto the bridge where their performance begins. With the help of a few volunteers, they haul three skids built to form the shape of their crest up the staircase, across the bridge and down the other side, transplanting a patch of wild grass from the north to a TH&B logo-shaped hole they've prepared on the south. The audience follows. And then, because it's easiest, the whole group trespasses across the tracks back towards their bikes, closing the circuit. TH&B's Ivan Jurakic calls it a "wonderfully soft sort of subversion. City planners have their grand schemes, but ultimately, it's the community that decides how a thing gets used."
Riding north towards Burlington Street and the main industrial sector, the pack pulls into a roofing company where, on a loading bay, the collective (F)NOR have assembled a medley of sculptures formed of various candies and fruit and skewers, modular and delicious-looking like mini Memphis Group designs. The collective's four artists hand out brown paper bags and invite everyone to dig in. The work, titled "Lunch Lady", takes inspiration from the shapes of the nearby factories, warehouses and smokestacks. The group were thinking about the cafeterias — another type of assembly line — serving these facilities and the acts of nourishment and care they can represent.
"Imagining different possibilities is exciting," (F)NOR's Margaret Flood says, "but sometimes it's an exercise that makes people overlook what's actually here. Within the North End specifically, with some of the proposed development, there's a lot of talk about 'building a community.' But there's already a pretty solid community here now." Sometimes, she says, there's a nefarious aspect to the practice of reimagining: it's an act of erasure.
Before ending the night at the Hamilton Artists Inc. courtyard to take in a new sculpture by Brandon Vickerd, as well as hot dogs and beers, the group heads towards the bay. Riding across this barren concrete expanse (the remains of that Port Authority warehouse, actually), the sound of seagulls overtakes — then of frogs and cicada and various other birds. From a parking lot in the distance, emanating from a wood and concrete cannon the size of a minivan, Hamilton-based artist Matt Walker projects the noise of a natural landscape, hung strangely over that thoroughly man-made one.
Pimenta, who with Hinton came along for the ride, calls the moment "sublime." "We rode into this apocalyptic-looking lot and the sun was just beginning to come through the clouds," he says. "The seagulls start flying and suddenly you hear them. It's theatre and this is the backdrop. You're at the mercy of the site. But when it comes together, that combination of the calculated and the incalculable, that choreography, it's sublime."
"It turns the whole city into your theatre," Hinton adds. "It turns the city into your art gallery."
Find more information about Art Spin Hamilton here. The next Spin is planned for summer 2018.