Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins: the Accidental Activists Discuss "Art Train No. 9"

Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins: the Accidental Activists Discuss "Art Train No. 9"

Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins have been raising the political stakes in their artistic practice for several years, now, with projects evoking the visual language of authority, security, terror, and statehood, while dressed in a formalism both minimalist and pop. However it wasn’t until they engaged in their most recent project that they acknowledged themselves to be verging on activism.

In a collaboration with No.9: Contemporary Art and the Environment, Marman and Borins’s “Art Train Conductor No.9 “ links contemporary art, the environment, and social-minded engineering in a GO Transit train car. “No.9” tracks Toronto’s environs wrapped in the artists' signature abstract pop aesthetic, while plumbing the vagaries of transit itself. A site-specific yet mobile work, the train car, titled “tetAtet,” offers an App that engages in issues of public transit, social engineering, sustainability, and community. 

As Marman and Borins realized in an interview with ARTINFO Canada, this summer, the project pushed them to acknowledge their newly activist agenda. “It occurred to us that you can have the traditional artist-as-activist archetype, or that, simply, an artist can be a facilitator towards activism,” Borins reflected.

Art Train Conductor No.9, is a moving, mobile public art project accessible to GO riders until December 1st, 2012, and operating on various corridors of the GO Transit Greater Toronto and Hamilton area networks. The design-wrapped train offers its riders an App featuring video clips of a cross-section of diverse and informed individuals discussing transit issues. From literary intellects like Margaret Atwood, to architect Bruce Kuwabara, Spacing editor Shawn Micallef, and transportation expert Eric Miller, subjects speak on issues pertaining to public transit, sociologic engineering, and community.

The project was originally conceived as a facet of MOVE: Transportation Expo taking place at the Evergreen Brick Works this summer, but, in the hands of a University of Toronto PhD  seminar, and artist collaborators, Marman and Borins, it became something much bigger.

Says Borins, “we realized that a lot can be done with the right resources.“ Art consultant Andrew Davies “had thought about raising awareness around transit, so he got a hold of a GO Train coach, and wanted to have a multimedia component to it. We were working with grad students at U of T at the time, in the former Faculty of Library Science (now called iSchool), and they had done a term project around integrating a train and tablet computing.”

On the subject of their own established art practice, Borins says that “although we've made a lot of political artwork, featuring critical of power structures, or surrounding issues of the authority or oppression tied into it, we're not necessarily environmentalists.” However, he notes, “we ended up thinking about sustainability, urban planning, architecture, and the integration of art into it. It seemed like a good starting point.”

What Doesn’t Work

“It doesn't work to do a project that's an obtuse juxtaposition -- you can't just put a picture of fried eggs on a train, or turn it into a goldfish. It's not going to work that well. We had to think about strategies around working with a public service, and turning a platform of transportation into a space for debate.”

Marman adds that “another factor was that the project runs five months, and we needed something that would endure for a five month period, not just be a game you play a couple of times and be done. So the App we developed has new content each week.”

Arriving at Ideal Candidates

Borins: ”There's a tendency in media, like television -- and even more so on the web -- to reduce a talking head to a sound bite. Thirty years ago, interviews would be long and expansive, and people assumed there'd be an audience for what was being said. Our format is unusual, now, because there's a 90 second segment, but also a longer 15 minute segment available. We’re suggesting content to a range of attentions.”

Marman: “We wanted to get people who were recognizable public figures, but from a cross-section.”

What They Didn’t Want

Marman: “We didn't want to represent just one view point; we didn’t want just hardcore environmentalists, we didn't want a conversation just about transit, because that's just a part of the whole. In our research, certain names came up again and again, and grew from subsequent interviews.” 

Borins: “We weren't trying to be partisan. We were reaching out to a lot of different people. But the consensus is really high! Everybody really wants stupendous service, and everyone knows there are problems with it as it is.” Of course, the current municipal government has proven relevant. Says Borins, “the way it's reported is quite different, but Rob Ford was probably elected on a $60 vehicle registration tax -- that was the big issue.”

Regarding Toronto

Marman: “There should be an ongoing discussion, rather than just having these issues brought-up at elections.”

Borins: “Torontonians have a lot of aspirations for their city; ten years ago, public space started coming up in conversations. I don't know that people ever articulated what that was supposed to be, at the time. But it’s been an issue of particular concern for the community for a long time.”

He goes on, “livability, quality of life: these kinds of metrics became part of urban geography.” He notes that “now we have regular columns being written about urban development, which is totally amazing. You have increased numbers of neighborhood activists, who have great intentions, but might not have it all put together. People have begun to understand that the city is an ecosystem.”

Marman: “Just by starting a conversation, you're getting people involved already. There's a greater level of action if there's debate around issues.”

The debate needed an engine, and Marman and Borins’s catalogue of experts is rapidly growing, “There's an ever-growing library of videos,” Borins says, “and we are continually collecting people's thoughts.” Simply put, “the project is supposed to be about awareness, and also to aestheticize the part of public space that doesn't normally get aestheticized.”

Aesthetics vs. Politics

When asked how they approached balancing their aesthetics with elements overtly political and sociological, Borins replies that they “were looking for a visual logic, something that came out of our own art. Fragments of our paintings are in the train design. We were also looking at elements that exist in nature, like camouflage,” a common element to their more political work.

Onto this, Marman notes the project’s continuation of their aesthetic. “We were thinking of camouflage as a form of adaptation, and adaptation as a form of innovation or survival in an urban environment.”

However, Borins notes, their use of camouflage couldn’t be too convincing. “We wanted to express digital communication and disruption of everyday life. So we have this very loud and complex design that will be eye-catching. Andrew Davies put it simply: ‘I want people to think riding on that train car is cool, so they'll choose that one’. So we were looking at art historical references, references from nature, subtexts of adaptation and survival, the current cultural phenomena of mash-ups and digital mixing, but also historical moments like Vorticism and Cubism. I think Metrolinx/GO Transit wants to show that these agencies aren't so rigid that they can't change and develop in dynamic ways; that they're not one-sided, that the public can speak to them and they'll listen.”

He adds, “it's a humongous task for an independent artist to work on. It's hard to work for an independent art agency -- there's always a lack of resources, and it's difficult to integrate with the bureaucratic intricacies of an agency like Metrolinx. It's hard to produce a project that's worthwhile to the public.” 

But, Marman says, “we did all the steps ourselves.”

Who’s Their Favorite Talking Head?

When asked which of the featured experts had most impressed them, Borins quickly replied, “Gil Penelo. His interview bowled us over. It never occurred to us that mobility is a right, beyond the idea of accessibility. As in, if we don't provide universal mobility, then people will be cut-off. The low-cost solutions that he wants to offer …“

Marman interjects, “and that he has successfully implemented in Bogota (the difference he made in that city just with bike lanes and walkability),” she trails off, shaking her head.

“Ideas of Innovation Expressed Differently, Uncomplicatedly, Pragmatically,”

Borins: “These things are happening, and it's nice to have someone talk about them that way. We didn't know this would happen, but we kind of became activists because of it. We have much stronger awareness levels, and we've shared that knowledge with a broader audience.”

Has This Changed Their Future Practice?

Borins: “We’ve experienced an unintended consequence -- we're getting asked to do things that have ridiculous levels of technical problem-solving. It seems like people are coming to us to do difficult projects, which is nice, but there never seems to be a project with a simple answer.”

He reflects further, “studio practice is an amazing part of being an artist. It's an incredible privilege to have. I don't know what artists are talking about when they say they want to be ‘post-studio’. People don't realize how complex and difficult it is to implement a multi-partner project in the public sphere. You don't have the administrative resources a corporation would have. But it's nice to be recognized for that. We're being referred to as project artists now. And we’re thinking of ourselves, more and more, as activists.”