Airport Space

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Welcome to the airport. Photo by Ivan Makarov

Long lines, delays, security hassles. Going to the airport brings to mind a number of things, but art, especially interactive art with a political conscience, is generally not one of them. That’s where Terminal Zero One comes in: A new art project at Pearson International Airport, it hopes to transform one of Toronto’s busiest — yet, because of security concerns, most restrictive— public spaces into a place for open dialogue.

Located on the public departures level of Terminal 1, the exhibition brings together five digital installations that explore the experience of contemporary air travel. Passage oublié is arguably the most ambitious one. It’s a politically charged take on extraordinary rendition, the CIA’s controversial practice of covertly transferring suspected terrorists from Iraq and Afghanistan to secret prisons where it is alleged they are likely to be tortured. Airports around the world are believed to have been used as transfer points for these prisoners.

Passage oublié allows passersby to learn more about extraordinary renditions by interacting with a world map displayed on a large video touch screen. Its real goal, however, is to turn the airport, Toronto’s gateway to the world, into a space for public dialogue. Through the Internet or text message, anyone can send a message to Passage oublié that will be displayed on its virtual map and “flown” — using real-time flight data supplied by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority — to one of the international airports used for rendition flights.

“If you send a message at 11:40 and there’s a flight to Frankfurt at 11:41, it will go to Frankfurt,” explains Maroussia Lévesque, the Montreal-based artist who helped develop Passage oublié at Concordia University’s Obx Labs. “The idea is that here’s only one degree of separation between where you’re going and where these rendition flights go. You could be at an airport where this happens.”

Lévesque chose to focus on extraordinary renditions as “a bit of a reaction to the super-aesthetic things” that are the subject of most art. “But I’m also half-Arabic and it’s something that personally gets to me — the racial profiling at security checkpoints, the fear and ignorance of others.”

For Lévesque, Passage oublié is a way to bring the post-9/11 politics of air travel to the place where it is most relevant. So far, the public has responded enthusiastically. Since the installation’s launch on Canada Day, she says, “I have received a lot of long, really well-constructed messages. It’s a diverse demographic [at the airport]. People don’t necessarily agree with my artsy lefty views. People were so free of mind. They weren’t censoring themselves at all.”

Terminal Zero One will be available for viewing and interaction at Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 1, near the C concourse, until Jan. 8, 2008. Text messages can be sent to 416-300-7669 or passageoublie.org. For more information, visit year01.com/terminal01.

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Passage oublié in action. Photo courtesy Obx Labs

This article originally appeared in the National Post’s Toronto magazine on Saturday, July 7. One of the things I didn’t have space to explore was the issue of private control over public space. This is a theme that Lévesque has explored in her other projects, too, including Cityspeak, which I covered in the Logo Cities preview I wrote for the Gazette in May. The interactive video screen technology that has been developed at Obx Labs allows people to engage in a kind of discourse that is not normally afforded to them in the public realm. This is especially true for highly-regulated spaces such as the airport.

In fact, the restrictions imposed on public space were underlined by Lévesque’s experience of preparing for Passage oublié. Part of her work has been to collect interviews from strangers on extraordinary rendition. Last month, she was hoping to do just that when she headed to Dundas Square, a popular square in downtown Toronto. As soon as she started questioning people, a security guard rushed over and asked her to stop. “I thought this was a public space?” she asked. “Yes but not — it’s complicated,” the guard replied.

As it turns out, Dundas Square, which is meant to serve as a central gathering place, is managed as a business by a private corporation. (Its revenue comes from renting out parts of the square for commercial events.) Luckily for Lévesque, the guard was friendly and he decided to turn a blind eye to her questioning, but it still left her unsettled. “There is no such thing as a place of openness and social friction,” she told me. “Surveillance is taking over a lot of spaces. I don’t think this is different from before but with new technology it’s even more pervasive.”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday July 09 2007at 11:07 pm , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Interior Space, Public Space and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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