There is a new movement that has been growing in this city: the re-branding of Toronto by its citizens, especially contemporary urban artists. But what are the effects that this re-imagining of people and space have on our city? French philosopher Marc Augé first coined the term ‘non-place’ which describes much of the landscape of a city: alleys, grocery stores, and bridge underpasses, all spaces that we travel through every day without giving much thought. ‘Places’ are understood in the words of Augé, as a “proliferation of imagined and imaginary references”: we understand ‘real places’ as having a predetermined meaning, and therefore warranting our attention. In Toronto, these non-places are being re-defined. Neighbourhoods or intersections that usually are not acknowledged are now being revitalized: arts initiatives, like StArt, are funding street artists to beautify areas, and re-contextualize non-places into everyday monuments. This is just one innovative part of the greater culmination of a new identity for Toronto as a sleek, fresh, and urban brand.
A zealous, city-wide pride has taken hold, and with it a surge of art, photography, posters, and handicrafts which highlight all of Toronto’s unique areas and ‘non-place’ landmarks. With this new theme also comes the long overdue acknowledgement of many of Toronto’s graffiti and street artists as formidable city icons. Toronto citizens are suddenly quick to assert their hometown as part of their identity with a bold, unapologetic attitude that is usually seen only in the American metropolis. This is made all the more interesting in a city like Toronto, whose population is primarily first, second or third generation immigrants.
In this feature, the prolific urban photographer and Toronto game-changer SoTeeOh talks about his own ideas on some of these subjects.
SoTeeOh is a Toronto artist who employs an urban guerrilla approach to photography, to create staged compositions in dynamic environments. His work has been selected by Instagram as a featured photographer, and he has been featured by local websites such as BlogTO and Modern Toronto. SoTeeOh has done commissioned work for events such as Scotia Bank Nuit Blanche and MANIFESTO, and his photography has been featured in music videos for artists such as ELMNT and Iman Omari. He posts daily snapshots from across the city on both his own site, and as the photographer for the 1LOVETO Instagram account, where he displays an eye for details often overlooked.
Q: Do you agree there has been a shift to a new identity for Toronto? What specific characteristics do you believe encompass the new branding of Toronto?
A: I definitely agree that Toronto is in a re-branding phase (I actually talk to Complex about exactly that earlier in 2015 [before the opening of the 6:Street exhibition at Project Gallery]). Toronto’s new brand is about pride, but specifically a new kind of pride that’s coming from the “boroughs”; it’s coming from the first and second generation immigrants. Toronto has traditionally been a very conservative place. But the reality of the situation is that at this point the overwhelming majority of Toronto residents are not what Stephen Harper so poignantly termed “old-stock” Canadians. So this generation is searching for a new identity and that’s what we’re seeing. That new identity is the re-brand. I feel like it has a lot to do with hip hop. Like, Toronto has always had a strong hip hop culture but it was an afterthought. It wasn’t widely accepted on a mainstream level. But I think all the success Drake has had in the last 6 years has broken down a lot of doors and opened up a lot of people to this side of the culture.
Q: Do you believe this movement to be a “re-branding”, or is this the first kind of “brand” that Toronto has even had, that is widely accepted.
A: Toronto has had brands before but they were just too conservative to catch on. Like since the 80’s Toronto has really tried to present itself as a multi-cultural mecca, and it is, but it was presented in text-books and government funded ads. That’s too conservative of an approach to really pick up any momentum. The re-brand is coming from the people. It’s coming from pop-culture and that’s why its catching on so fast.
Q: What do you believe was the trigger, or catalyst for this new identity of Toronto?
A: As I mentioned before I think it’s got a lot to do with the population of first and second generation youth who are claiming their space. Youth culture and hip hop culture go hand in hand in most places. And I think Drake came along at the perfect time. Drake’s first big radio hit was called “City Is Mine” and he basically spelled out the word Toronto letter by letter for the hook. You have all the youth looking to express themselves and looking for a voice, you have this richly diverse and creative arts community, the street artists and graffiti artists, you have this strong and proud hip hop community – all the ingredients were there. It just needed a spokesperson and to me that’s what Drake has become.
Q: Do you personally see your artwork and the work of artists around you as catalysts in this movement?
A: Definitely. I feel like especially with the impact and importance of Instagram, photographers are really shaping the visual identities of their surroundings. When people want to see current views from an urban center they are searching hashtags, they’re going online. So photographers especially are really determining the visuals that represent these urban spaces. It’s happening across the world, every city has its new breed of urban visuals but I definitely feel like we’re playing a big part in Toronto’s version of that movement.
Q: What does branding a city mean, and why is it important for the identities of its inhabitants ?
A: I feel like city pride equates to engagement. It just makes people feel more connected and increases the likelihood of them getting involved in civic activities.
Q: Why do you think this kind of sleek, branded, patriotic re-imagining of Toronto is so popular with many Torontonians? Is this an essential element for cities to excel in a time where everything is being branded or given a logo?
A: I think it’s catching so much momentum mainly because it’s coming from a group that makes up the majority of the population but felt unheard for a long time so now everyone is like “this is our chance” and they’re running with it. I do also agree that we live in the age of brands. To make sense in a global context you need to be a brand. In that sense Toronto may have a leg up on a lot of other global cities because the brand we are creating right now is very modern whereas other cities have brands that are heavily rooted in the past.
Q: How would you classify or title the style of this art movement that you are creating here in Toronto (“city romanticism” , “city patriotism”, “city realism” )?
A: I have 2 titles. I call it “Seinfeld Photography” because it’s basically pictures of nothing. If you watch Seinfeld and pay attention to the b-roll it’s actually exactly what photographers like myself are making a career out of. Street corners, steamy sewer grates, the entrance to a building, it all started with Seinfeld. The other term I use a lot is Urban Expressionism because it’s very subjective and it really is about creating moods and evoking emotions but it’s just connected to these abstract slices of urban environment.
Q: What are the larger ramifications when these ‘non-places’ (alleyways, street corners, many spaces that you photograph) are re-imagined, re-beautified, or given a more tangible meaning by artists like yourself?
A: I would hope that over time as more and more people come to appreciate these spaces the powers that be (urban planners, politicians) will also start to value these spaces and utilize them in ways that make them more accessible and more useful for everyone.
9) Do you think that people who have previously not had a voice in sculpting this city’s identity, now have that opportunity? What does this mean for our city?
I feel like a lot of people that didn’t have a voice before have joined the chorus and it’s a great thing. I still go back to the issue of diversity, in that sense, in terms of the make-up of the population, Toronto is unlike any other place in the world. But to get the most out of that fact people need to feel empowered and engaged. Hopefully that’s starting to happen and we will see a lot more of these cultural influences in the new brand of Toronto.
SoTeeOh’s debut art exhibition 6: STREET opened in May 2015 at Project Gallery in conjunction with the Contact Photography Festival. The gallery continues to offer a wide array of unique and edition prints by the artist: visit www.projectgallerytoronto.com.
Follow SoTeeOh on Instagram @soteeoh or on Tumblr.