At The Corner of Either & Or

Will Kwan’s “Don’t Toe The Line, Or Toe Your Own Line” by Daniel Cockburn

I confess: I have come relatively late in life to the art world. As such, my criteria for art slouch happily in the shadows of paradigms ingrained in me by a quarter-century of movies-and-TV consumption—and I feel no urgent need to divest myself of this bias. I still proudly contend that any “intervention” which doesn’t make its method/purpose clear to its intervened-upon spectators, or at least provide them with something of or for use, is so much masturbation fodder for the artist and his/her peers. And I still proclaim that Tom Green is (occasionally and, I suspect, accidentally) a paragon of successful intervention-performance video-documentation tactic for the early 21st century (justification of this claim available upon request). In my world, entertainment value is not antithetical to artistic merit, but rather intrinsic to it. “It’s funny because it’s true”: an equation which ideally works just as well in reverse.

So whither Green? And wherefore Art? Enter Kwan: a hop, skip, and a jump away.

It’s a sunny day, but the man in the navy one-piece (with indiscernible name tag) is wearing a toque, and a few flakes of snow are drifting downward. We are in Canada, homeland of the over-polite stereotype. He is laying down cardboard stencils and spray painting the concrete of a pedestrian crossing (Toronto’s College & Huron), with the confidence of a cityworks technician… but there is an odd urgency to his technique, and we note that, bereft of any pylons to deflect traffic flow, he restricts his work to the times when the light is green. He sometimes waves cars past assuredly, but just as often scurries from their path. He almost gets creamed by a moving monolith, which bears the Toronto Hydro logo, (I thought municipal workers were supposed to watch out for one another). So of course something non-kosher is going on here, if you didn’t know already… and our eyes rub their hands together in anticipation of the payoff, as we see a pattern of rectilinears and semicircles take shape between the twin parallel lines that say, in the language of urban convention, “you may safely walk here.”

And of course there are people, always people, crossing as they should between those two lines, the white marks on the street which stave off automotive danger. The pedestrians give passing glances to the nondenominational spray painter, and to the camera, but don’t seem to worry about it. He’s not hurting them. And eventually his work takes recognizable shape, the classic outline of a hopscotch playing field coming together under the walkers’ feet, grade-school nostalgia in the middle of street. Importantly: this is also funny.

There is the occasional interrogation, most notably the cyclist who herself is wearing cityworks-style garb: reflective-orange jacket with a bright “X”, a talisman marking the spot which by virtue of its marking is safe from collisionist danger. The cameraperson briefly explains this venture to her, and she responds amiably: “Oh, so it’s art… Well, I just didn’t know if it was a protest, or advertising, or…”

Indeed. Her shirt similarly begs the question of allegiance; the uniform of a cyclist (power to the people!), it could just as easily be the uniform of a crossing guard to be followed (surround yourself in her municipal force field of safety!). To what organization does the spray painter’s navy jumpsuit denote allegiance? To what bylaws are his actions in adherence? That is to say: what, or who, is this displaced-and-re-placed hopscotch for?

But you could probably see the answer coming. And here it is: for the second half of the video, we watch pedestrians cross the street and gamely attempt to hop the squares. It’s as simple, and simply satisfying, as that. Personalities manifest themselves through hopping style: some people throw themselves into it with happy abandon (you’re only as young as you think); some give up after three hops and stagger across the remainder of the play zone; some keep their hands in their pockets and jump the sectors with deadpan cool. The practitioners of this last style seem reticent to devote themselves fully to the hopping, as if worried that someone’s watching – which, of course, someone is. This is for our benefit as much as the pedestrians’. The playing field is for their physical use, which in turn is for our ocular use – images to be consumed under the rubric of “entertainment” or of “art”? Thankfully, both.

(Let’s not forget that the whole system is for Kwan’s use as well; end credits signify this video to be an entry in an artist’s body of work, an addition to the topography of his performative/interventionist map. But this, of course, in entertainment and art, from Tom Green to Spencer Tunick, is surely fair play.)

Underneath this street action’s modest explosion of convention, its invitational insertion of freeplay into a circumscribed area of prescripted activity (”WALK” or “DON’T WALK”), is a problematic tug at the mind’s sleeve: is Kwan truly offering the public a little dose of liberation, or is their agreeable hopscotching merely another conditioned response to lines on the ground? Bouncing your way across the street may indeed be a rebellion of sorts, but only because it’s out of context. The whole point of the game, remember, is to stay inside the lines. And this is what makes the piece something more interesting, and less easy to swallow, than an enjoyable piece of vicarious insurrection. The public is offered empowerment and entrapment at the same time, an equation, which adds a most tasty bit of bitterness to the mix.

“Don’t Toe The Line, Or Toe Your Own Line” at first glance seems a title followed by a subtitle (along the lines of “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus”), but perhaps it’s a binary choice being offered (along the lines of “have your cake, or eat it too”). If so, its curiously twisty phrasing presents us with two options, thusly: (1) Ignore the path, or (2) Follow your own path. It’s the “or” that mucks things up, asserting that the two options are mutually exclusive. Which is to say: if you ignore the set path, you can’t follow your own. Which is too invertedly and troublingly say: to follow your own path is to automatically follow “the” path. The identity of the owner of the “the” has, at the time of this writing, yet to be determined.