The Sonic Dimensions of Placemaking: An Urban Screen Festival on the Ground and Online
– by Helen Abbot
Once a month between May and October, the streets of Toronto’s Kensington Market are closed to vehicular traffic while buskers, musicians, and artists perform and shoppers fill the neighborhood’s thoroughfares. Visitors are pushed by the crowds and drawn in by sounds with mobile phones in hands to capture and eventually share online their recordings of the neighborhood. While Kensington is already a tourist attraction, the monthly event known as Pedestrian Sundays (PSK) operates as a kind of urban festival that draws new visitors and customers to the neighborhood-in part through sound. Interdisciplinary scholarship on festivalization and on PSK itself (McLean & Rahder 2013) has explored the interrelationship between cultural and economic agendas of cities and the use offestivals to brand cities with a specific image.
In this blog post, my aim is to demonstrate how the sonic dimensions of placemaking, or place “branding”-a term I use that is heavily influenced by the way Paulo Nunes (2019) describes the effects festivals have on our perceptions of experience and place, and how Yetis-Bayraktar and Jonathan Wynn (2016) mobilize the term to discuss urban branding as related to urban festivals-functions within PSK through two dynamic feedback loops that commodify low-art during the festival, which contributes to the branding of the image of Kensington Market as a creative, inclusive and an accessible place that is “authentically Toronto.” I will explore the feedback loops I identified in my research-one between Kensington Market and Pedestrian Sundays that is encapsulated by a larger feedback loop between Kensington Market and the city of Toronto-with emphasis on the space at which they overlap. I use the term “low-art” throughout this post in specific reference to accessible expressive art forms that are not deemed exclusive and reserved for upper class citizens (i.e opera, symphonies, etc.). Further, understanding the racial politics at play within the high-art/low-art binary will be crucial in my critical reflection, in which I ask what it means to institutionalize what has been established as “low-art” within broader marketing schemes to gain more international cultural capital from governing powers in Toronto.
Online platforms traverse these feedback loops and reify the placemaking processes at play within them. The commodification of ‘low-art’ sensibilities during the event and through online platforms, I argue functions to mark the urban spaces of Kensington as “authentically” Kensington, and “authentically” Toronto. It should be noted that it is not within the scope of this post to engage with the complex and rich discourses of authenticity, but I hope this post might warrant such a response. Both Kensington Market and Toronto have often been represented and/or branded as creative, and inclusive multicultural places that are tolerant of the multiplicity of identities. Sound and music play an important part in the PSK experience for festivalgoers, and represents an “authentic” way to experience Kensington Market, and by extension, Toronto.
I will draw attention to specific moments from my fieldwork during the 2019 Pedestrian Sundays to highlight how the event functions within placemaking processes. Online research into PSK illustrates the role not only music, but also sound and depictions of “noisiness” play in branding the streets of Kensington with specific meanings. Juxtaposing critical findings from my fieldwork with those from my online research into how social media platforms represent the event reveals the two intertwined dynamic feedback loops.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the cultural agenda of cities globally took on a more commercial approach. Festivals increasingly became important in the “promotion of tourism and new marketing strategies” within the context of urban development (Nunes 2019, pp. 148). Within various phases of city development around the world in the late 20thcentury, festivals also became important for economic development, urban renewal, and historic revitalization projects (Nunes 2019). Towards the end of the 21st century, the use of festivals became linked to social strategies to create a sense of community within rapidly developing cities. Festivals were also seen as a vehicle that allowed groups from different cultural backgrounds to express their unique identities.
Festivals can function in a variety of ways, and as noted by many scholars, theirfunctions are becoming increasingly more varied and complex as the world’s cities become more modernized and globalized. The process of placemaking, within a festival, is a common result of the transformation of an urban space into the scene of a festival. Placemaking allows attendees to make potentially new and unique associations with familiar urban spaces. Nunes importantly describes the relationship between a festival and its host city as a “dynamic feedback loop.” In this loop, the city produces the event, and the event is also producing the city.
Festivals can also institutionalize ‘low-art’, and marginalized communities in a way that deems the festivals, and the spaces in which they are held, to be interestingly more “authentically” the host city and by extension, accessible to festivalgoers. Author Carolyn Birdsall explores this aspect of festivals in her 2013 article, “(in) audible frequencies: Sounding out contemporary Branded City”, in which she examines the ways in which Amsterdam has been branded a tolerant and creative city, in part through festivals. Birdsall explains how the commodification of the underground has been pitched through a Nuit Blanche concept within ‘low-brow-art festivals (in contrast to the high-brow Nuit Blanche in Paris), which makes these festivals seem more accessible and ‘authentically Amsterdam.’ These festivals aid in upholding an image of Amsterdam that embodies low-brow sensibilities and cultural tolerance.
While the aim of Pedestrian Sundays is not only to celebrate the market, the way it is represented online through various platforms points towards a more complicated feedback loop in action that reaches to both Kensington Market and Toronto. The image that is being produced and consumed at PSK, both during the event by participants, musicians and through online platforms, is frequently linked to a larger image of Toronto. In other words, participants in Pedestrian Sundays are both producing and consuming an image of the host area, Kensington Market, and the host city, Toronto. Furthermore, these feedback loops commodify low-art, which contributes to an image of Kensington as a creative, inclusive and accessible place that is ‘authentically Toronto.’
Kensington Market, Pedestrian Sundays and Placemaking
During my fieldwork, I attended four Pedestrian Sunday events from May through August. I was interested in how participants and musicians viewed Kensington Market both as a place that exists separately from PSK, and as the place in which PSK is held. My specific interest however, was how the sonic portions of the event contributed to peoples experiences of PSK, and to the realization of the purposes of the event.
The music at the event was incredibly diverse. The majority of musical performances seemed to be bands (folk, blue grass, jazz/hip hop, rock). Other performances included performance art, electronic music, and DJs. It should be noted that there was almost no strictly classical, or Western Art Music, present at PSK.
Pedestrian Sundays, or P.S. Kensington, began in 2002 “in response to concerns over the influx of condominium development throughout downtown Toronto in the 1990s” (McLean and Rahder 2013). For many, PSK originally represented and still represents resistance against the powers of gentrification in Toronto’s downtown. As explored by McLean and Rahder (2013), interest in Kensington is not new. Historically an immigrant area that originally housed Irish and Scottish communities in the mid-19th century, followed by an influx in the Jewish community at the turn of the century, Kensington Market has become known as an affordable area to live that represents the varied cultures that have moved through the market in the form of shops, grocery stores, pubs, etc. In the 1960s, and the 1980s, the area drew in hippies and punks, who incorporated record stores, cafés, among other things (McLean and Rahder 2013: 96) into the market. Kensington has since gained even more popularity. Robert Fulford’s 1999 quote that is used on visionsoftravel.org demonstrates this: “Kensington today is as much a legend as a district. The outdoor market has probably been photographed more often than any other site in Toronto” (Visions, 2012).
Members of the Kensington Market community have been concerned with maintaining the character of the market amongst rapid gentrification in surrounding areas. I experienced this concern while attending various Kensington Market BIA meetings during the summer of 2019, where the maintenance of the market’s essential characteristics was a topic of passionate discussion. It is clear from my fieldwork and online investigations (particularly the PSK facebook page), that PSK is still seen as an important vehicle to celebrate the essence of Kensington, and that the event has the added benefit of exposing more people to the various cultures of the market with hope that attendees will return to spend money on restaurants, stores, cafés, etc.
A 2019 post from blogto.com describes the celebratory nature of the event: as:
A chance to celebrate our neighborhood, and to showcase our unique independent business community. We do not rent booths to outside vendors (with the exception of artists who can participate in our Kensington Market art fair) (BlogTO, 2019).
However, the slogan of PSK from the Kensington Market website (https://kensingtonmarket.to/) aptly captures how the event aims to do more than simply celebrate the Kensington Market community:
“Pedestrian Sundays don’t permanently change the streets, they forever change the way you perceive them.”
The “for-the-people” and anti-car qualities of the event is an important aspect of the event that is commented on in a nowtoronto.com post in which PSK shows that the “streets are for people” (https://nowtoronto.com/events/ps-kensington-pedestrian-sundays/), and finally, the Pedestrian Sundays facebook page pitches the event on its homepage as a community street festival: “…human beings feel their best in vibrant, human scale, friendly environments. Pedestrian Sundays allows us all to flourish in just such a space.”
The way PSK is marketed online resonates strongly with how people expressed their experiences of PSK during my fieldwork. Furthermore, it became evident through participant observation and interviews, that sound and music are important aspects of experiencing PSK that contribute to its function as a space in which people can celebrate feelings of “community” (particularly the KM community), and feel, even if only momentarily, as if participants can fight large, structural political forces.
Participants and musicians almost exclusively viewed the event positively, and expressed to me that it was fun, in part because it showcased different cultures through the wide variety of music and food. The sonic portions of the event heavily contributed to its celebratory nature as well as to its supposed “authenticity.” It was implied to me throughout my fieldwork that the “authenticity” present during PSK was a result of its down-to-earth, inclusive and low-key vibe, which results in a feeling of accessibility to multiple cultures through expressive means. Further, it should be noted that from peoples’ responses, and from various iconography in the streets (such as signs that link Kensington and Toronto, etc.) that through the event, a participant could experience both together, and separately, what is “authentically” Toronto, and “authentically” Kensington. Finally, the “low-key” vibe also speaks to how the event represents a vehicle for anti-corporation sensibilities in which participants and musicians are granted temporary agency against systems of gentrification.
My conversations with Bobby, a resident of Kensington market who sometimes performs at PSK, the musicians Kalyna and George, and three women in Bellevue Park, highlight important aspects of PSK in a way that point to processes of placemaking between the market, PSK and Toronto.
At PSK on June 20th, I spoke with Bobby, Kalyna Rakel and George (musicians), and three festivalgoers in Bellevue Park. Kalyna Rakel and George informed me that they view the gig as a way for the community to celebrate itself, and that in 2016, the busking scene felt more communal. Interestingly, as an example, they said that today people seem to just want to take a picture or video of the musicians, and have little interest in actually communicating with musicians after their set. Interviews with other participants, in conjunction with my own observations, confirmed their suspicion that the event is experienced by many participants through smartphones, and particularly, so participants can share their experiences on instagram. The prominence of media-sharing activity, and the importance of this type of activity in the maintenance of what Baumann (2007) calls a “confessional society” within festival settings is confirmed in chapter 13 of Bennett, Taylor and Woodward (2016) The Festivalizaiton of Culture. Baumann (2007), asserts that sharing experiences online is an “amplified practice of a ‘confessional society’-a society in which identity is continuously updated and displayed in the most public of ways because to do otherwise would risk social exclusion (in Beer and Burrows 2010:7), and arguably, entail a negation of identity” (Bennett, Taylor and Woodward 2016: 6).
Bobby did not identify as a busker, but rather as someone who loves playing music in informal settings with his friends. He told me that he loves Pedestrian Sundays, and that having the streets closed makes it feel more communal and inviting, and by extension, accessible. In our conversation, Bobby emphasized that PSK has remained a community-building endeavor.
When I approached the topic of gentrification, he said that it has been, and still is, a serious topic of conversation within the Kensington Market community. In fact, he expressed that he actively tries to perform in ways that exists “outside the system”, but that he is not always sure he is successful at his attempts. Interestingly, at this point he said one of his favorite parts of PSK was the lack of corporate presence and sponsorship. He proceeded to tell me a story about how during one Pedestrian Sundays, Luna Bar sponsorship came in on bicycles and Bobby immediately told them to leave because Pedestrian Sundays doesn’t represent corporate sponsors. Their immediate departure was empowering for him because it meant that as a resident of the market, he held a level of agency and power during PSK.
On my way out of the market that day, I spoke with three women in Bellevue Park who were eating on the grass. When I asked them why they came that day they said they love attending because it has such a “good vibe” and that when they don’t go, they regret it after seeing their friends pictures and videos on instagram, which makes them want to go and share their own experiences with friends online through pictures and videos. Their favorite part about PSK was the music, and how it contributed to the “low-key” vibe of the festival. Other anonymous interlocutors also spoke to the “low-key” vibe as being an important part of the festival, and that this vibe made the space of Kensington both in general, and during the event, feel like an inclusive and judgment-free zone where they could express their identities.
From the above findings, I believe Pedestrian Sundays allowed attendees and musicians to mark the spaces of Kensington as a multicultural, vibrant and inclusive place, which can provide people within the market a temporary feeling of agency against corporate presence. The sonic portions of the event heavily contributed to the realization of these qualities. Furthermore, the fact that so many people seemed to be drawn into the festival from reading about it online conjoined with the large presence of smartphones at every PSK I attended, exemplifies how attendees are participating in a placemaking feedback loop, in which festivalgoers consume an image of PSK as marketed online, and reify this image with its attendant qualities through interactions that are heavily mediated by technology. Once the event is over, people post on instagram in ways that uphold branding processes between Kensington and PSK, while stretching a second loop from Kensington Market to a larger image of Toronto. This image of Toronto possesses qualities associated with Pedestrian Sundays, that by extension are consequently associated with Kensington Market.
Instagram posts from the 2019-2020 year with the hashtags #pedestriansunday and #pedestriansundays often make direct connections between PSK, Kensington and Toronto. Many posts reference music, and visually depict “noisiness” (i.e. bustling crowds with individuals purchasing goods on the street) in a way that implies these two aspects are important factors in the “authentic” experience of PSK, and Toronto. The hip-hop brass band Bangerzbrass posted with the following hashtags: #hiphop #livemusic #torontomusic #torontolivemusic #citylife #streetperformance. Other music related posts frequently reference the Toronto live music scene, and street music in relation to Kensington’s music scene with emphasis on supporting local business, through the employment of hashtags such as #fromthestreetswithlove #loveTO #livemusic #supportlocal #streetvision #stretsoftoronto. The way many of these posts are crafted both visually and linguistically (specifically through hashtags) demonstrate how PSK is producing an image of its host area, Kensington Market, and its host city, Toronto.
Imagery depicting the vibrant, bustling city that is full of creative cultural scenes, is also how Toronto is marketed on tourism pages, such as the Visit Toronto facebook page. This “institutionalization of noisiness” in marketing schemes on social media platforms, which is often linked to Toronto’s infamous multiculturalism policies, I believe is present in how PSK is understood and depicted within Kensington Market, which has been promoted on the Visit Toronto page as “Toronto’s most eclectic neighborhood.”
What are the ethical implications of commodifying or institutitionalizing “noisiness”, and images of “low-art” on social media platforms as a way to define Toronto’s “authentic” nature? Further, what does it mean that depictions of “noisiness” supposedly represent the presence (and by logical extension, the inclusion) of multiple cultures and ethnicities in Toronto, a city whose motto is “diversity is our strength”? The topic of diversity in Toronto points to the complicated politics involved in how governing bodies regulate and seemingly support a multi racial Toronto. As expressed by Mariana Valverde in Everyday Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity,
“…Certain vectors of diversity-socioeconomic status, housing tenure-were often trampled into the collective rush to express pride in Toronto’s cultural/racial diversity” (2).
Perhaps engagement with discourses of silence might pose some helpful questions in thinking through the ethical implications in how PSK participates in branding processes that appear to institutionalize “noisiness” and commodify marginalized expressive art forms at both the local and municipal level. Many authors have explored the concept of silence and its implantation as a mechanism of colonial oppression, social control and the assimilation of identities. Gabriela Jimenez has explained silence as “a condition of belonging that nation-states attach to citizenship” (Jimenez, 2017). The sonic politics of colonialist nation-states explored by Jimenez (2017) as well as by Jennifer Lynn Stoever (2016), also speaks to the assumed natural relationship between social harmony and silence. In this way, the sonic politics of whiteness associates the unmarked (white identity) with inaudibility, and marked identities (non-whites) with noisiness.
The fact that municipal powers of Toronto depict “authenticity” as linked to “noisiness” and its multicultural schemes implies the institutionalization of marginality. Nunes (2019) explores this process as a common function of festivals, by which festivals can exercise social control over marginalized communities through the process he calls an “inverted diaspora”, in which the culture of marginalized groups are brought to the center of festival aesthetics and activity. Many festivals in Toronto other than PSK, such as Caribana, at times appear to follow similar logic in how they function. As a result, marginal groups can become a factor to be controlled through cultural consumption within a festival.
In the case Pedestrian Sundays as a festival, conversations from my fieldwork lead me to believe that PSK’s positioning within placemaking feedback loops is not problematic, given the overwhelming number of positive responses from residents of the market, reviews online, and from musicians, regarding the good PSK is doing for the image of Kensington, and for Kensington’s economy because the festival often brings people back to shop at the market. However, scholarly engagement with the festival both on the ground and online ethically complicates the way it functions. But, to deny peoples experiences and perspectives also complicates my role as a privileged researcher, who is trained more often than not to find how cultural instances and institutions are not always the way they seem to the people who participate in them. It is often our role to expose these problematic dynamics in a way that “unveils” the “true” (and often frustrating and devastating) reality to those who live in it. As such, I do not feel I can ethically say if it is wholly a bad thing that, for instance, PSK appears to function as an inverted diaspora within placemaking processes. There are instances in contemporary scholarship that investigate how similar seemingly problematic processes of commodifying marginality can actually provide those in marginalized positions with a unique opportunity and platform to re-appropriate the way their expressive cultures have been commodified, in order to grant them agency in self-representation and economic achievements. In conclusion, I hope my post and critical reflections on the racial implications of placemaking in the case of PSK, and of my positionality as a white researcher, can contribute to discussions about the politics of multiculturalism within festival settings, and the way placemaking functions both on the ground, and online.