Posters on St. Viateur Street, Montreal.
Posters are the city. For community groups, musicians, activists, small businesses, and hell, even people who’ve lost their cat, they’re often the only way to get a message out. They cover lampposts, service doors, construction hoardings and blank walls, livening up grey and depressing winters and turning underused spaces into interactive bulletin boards where the city’s goings-on are announced to anyone who might be interested. Despite their importance to civic and cultural life however, posters are an all-too-easy target for municipal politicians and bureaucrats who want their city streets as bland and orderly as a Lego metropolis. Posters might seem innocuous, but they are in fact a sign of a city’s vitality and diversity—how municipalities deal with postering is a measure of just how willing they are to accommodate that vibrancy.
Posters are used to promote all sorts of things: concerts, protests, movies, language classes and so forth. For many cultural, community and political events, postering is often the only affordable way to spread the word and attract an audience. Dave Meslin, coordinator for the coyly named Toronto Public Space Committee, points to the two most important reasons why postering is important: “Freedom of expression and diversity of voices. Take away posters and you’re reinforcing a monoculture.” Postering, he continues, “guarantees that streets are a space for anyone to express an idea. Obviously, not everyone can afford a billboard or an ad on a bus shelter. Everyone can afford a poster—even a homeless person.”
Posters are more than just a perfunctory means of communication, though. Increasingly, posters have taken their place alongside stencils and graffiti as a form of street art, documented by influential sites such as the Wooster Collective. Art and design are a big part of ordinary posters, too: if they want to get their point across, they have to be eye-catching. Many of Montreal’s cultural organizations employ well-known artists and graphic designers to design posters, earning the medium enough respect to spawn two exhibitions on postering in the past year alone. One, a touring exhibition mounted by the Centre de Design of the Université du Québec à Montréal, exported a thirty-two-foot long chunk of posters from Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street to a town in France; in another instance, the Canadian Centre for Architecture worked with a local cultural postering firm to erect a constantly changing wall of bills. Set behind glass, like a museum exhibit, the message was clear: posters are art.
Nevertheless, posters are a favourite target of city politicians looking to make a quick political buck. Outright bans on posters are considered unconstitutional, thanks to a 1988 Supreme Court ruling, but that hasn’t stopped many cities from doing everything they can to eliminate postering. Just recently, Toronto city councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong proposed a bylaw that would ban posters on all but 2 percent of Toronto’s hydro poles, making an exception for lost-person notices and garage sale advertisements. “It’s pollution and it’s litter,” fumed the politician in the Toronto press. “You’re going to have to find another way to promote your event. You’re going to have to find another way to promote your business.” Others were even less kind: “Posters are totally disgusting. A lot of it is pornography,” harrumphed one very sensitive councillor.
Last March, members of the city’s Planning and Transportation Committee, led by Minnan-Wong, approved the bylaw. It was so poorly thought through, however, that councillors were forced to reopen debate on the matter. No consideration had been given to exactly how the city would keep ninety-eight percent of Toronto’s utility poles free of posters, or how one would even go about applying for a postering permit. Media reaction against the bylaw was critical; the Toronto Star dismissed it as “nonsense,” adding that, “if [the ban] were enforced, the measure would seriously infringe upon freedom of speech. Community groups with limited funding would be unable to advertise special events.” The controversy was not lost on Toronto’s city councillors: in May, they finally rejected the bylaw, referring it to the mayor’s office for a five-month review period. Mayor David Miller, meanwhile, has strongly defended the value of postering, declaring, “Our first principle has to be about freedom of speech. This is an issue that no city council should take lightly.”
Opposition to posters stems almost exclusively from their supposed unsightliness. They are blamed for making city streets look cluttered and junky. That may be true but, as a feature on postering in Montreal’s La Presse put it last December, “Even if this ephemeral ‘artwork’ is sometimes ugly and quickly forgotten, only sad concrete would remain without this chaotic tapestry.” Posters, with their eclectic designs and bright colours, liven up otherwise drab surfaces. They turn city streets into public forums where anyone can make their event known or opinion heard. Besides, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to bash postering when cities are doing everything they can to solicit corporate advertising dollars, from erecting giant billboard pavilions in Dundas Square to installing huge ad-intensive video screens in the Montreal metro? “[I guess] commercial clutter is okay, but clutter coming from actual human minds is not,” huffs Meslin.
Meslin, for his part, is looking forward to working with the City of Toronto to draft new regulations on postering, ones that wouldn’t hurt community groups, small businesses and artists. It is essential that a dialogue be opened between city governments and posterers. Three years ago, St. John’s, Newfoundland, reversed its long-standing ban on postering, installing metal sheaths around all hydro poles on which posters can be taped. Every few months, the sheaths are stripped and postering begins anew. Such a proactive approach is exactly what’s needed elsewhere. In Montreal, posters are legal on construction hoardings, but that isn’t enough, since just about every mailbox and every other lamppost, bus shelter and utility box around the city is festooned with posters anyway. Kiosks dedicated exclusively to postering should be erected along the city’s main streets to cope with this demand, a solution already adopted by cities such as Calgary. It’s time to embrace posters as a full and legitimate part of the city.
When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of Urbanphoto.net. The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.