As It Happens

$500K Toronto subway digital art installation kept offline over hate speech fears

A group of German artists spent eight years designing an interactive digital art installation for a Toronto subway station, only to learn it hasn't been turned on.
The TTC paid $500,000 for this art installation, which it commissioned. (Realities:United)

Story transcript

Toronto's transit authority is refusing to turn on the $500,000 interactive digital art installation it commissioned for one of its new subway stations.

Called LightSpell, the giant ceiling display that hangs over Pioneer Village station lets the public type out eight-letter messages and broadcast them in bright lights above the subway platform.

But the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is keeping the artwork offline for the foreseeable future, citing concerns "about hate speech and the potential for the installation to be misused by some."

LightSpell will remain offline until the TTC can figure out a way to guard against hate speech. (Jan Edler/Realities:United)

In an emailed statement to As It Happens, TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said: "Senior management didn't become aware of the potential for misuse until very recently, hence the TTC's recent attempts to find a solution."

That came as "quite a surprise" to Tim Edler, co-founder of the German art collective Realities:United, which designed LightSpell.

He told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann the group had been working on the piece since 2009 and has had several meetings with TTC leadership. 

"We've been through many rounds of discussion regarding the issue of profanity, etcetera," he said.

"There's a chance that information got lost. But of course these things have been discussed thoroughly before."

Allegations of censorship 

The TTC says it is working on a solution to the problem and will bring the matter before its board in January if no compromise can be reached. 

Edler, however, is not pleased with the solutions that have been put on the table so far.

 'If we provide the text that people then are allowed to enter, that sounds more like North Korea than like Canada to me.'- Tim  Edler , Realities:United artist

He said the TTC suggested creating a "whitelist" of acceptable terms that people can type into the subway terminals that control the installation — a proposition he called "an ironic distortion of the initial idea."

"I mean, if we provide the text that people then are allowed to enter, that sounds more like North Korea than like Canada to me," he said.

The other option is to program a filter to block out certain terms. But Elder said that could backfire if people "make it a game" to find ways around the filter.

The interactive art installation allows members of the public to program eight-letter messages to light up above the subway station. (Realities:United)

Instead, he said the TTC should just try it out for a while and see what happens.

If social pressure doesn't keep people from writing terrible things, he said 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," he said.

'Free speech, not hate speech'

While the art collective says the decision to keep the installation offline is tantamount to censorship, Stuart said: "We support free speech, not hate speech."

"We are attempting to find a compromise with the artists that honours their concept while recognizing that the TTC has an obligation and responsibility to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all," he said. 

Elder, meanwhile, said he's glad the issue is being aired publicly.

"I think it also gives the chance for people to think about whether providing a technical censor mechanism is really something we all would want there, or whether we have the opinion that there should be some risk in the end as soon as we also create new forms of expression for people," he said.

"I hope for the latter."


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