** Image Caption: Keith Cole. Mayoral Poster. Courtesy: the artist.**
The Colour Flyer Campaign: A Guide For An Artist Entering Political Life.
By Keith Cole
“Hi. My name is Keith Cole and I am running for Mayor. Can I give you a colour flyer?”
On February 12th, 2010, in front of a very large, unsuspecting crowd at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre I announced that I would be a candidate for the top job in the City of Toronto. That’s right, I was running to be the Mayor.
After my public announcement, and with $200.00 cash in my hand, on the 16 February 2010, I went to Toronto’s City Hall and registered with the City Clerk. After signing a few forms, producing ID and receiving a small pep talk, I was in. I was officially on the ballot. People could put their X beside my name. Democracy in Action!
I am not the first performance artist to enter politics. There is a strong legacy of Canadian artists both intervening in political life in order to reflect its absurdity and genuinely engaging and making change. These of course are not mutually exclusive. Vancouver conceptual artist Vincent Trasov ran for Mayor of Vancouver in 1974 as Mr. Peanut. He received 2,685 votes. Not bad, really, for a man literally dressed up in a large peanut suit complete with top hat and cane. At all candidates meetings he was enormous, not only in size but in meaning. Mr. Peanut got his message across (“elect a nut for mayor”). Mr. Peanut realized that there was an art to politics but politics, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the arts – all the more reason to inject art into politics. For his efforts, he received coverage in magazines ranging from Esquire to Interview. He was also the cover boy for General Idea’s FILE Magazine. If that wasn’t enough endorsement, William Burroughs publically declared, “…it is now time for illusion to take over. And there can only be one logical candidate: Mr. Peanut”.
Performance art trio The Hummer Sisters (Deanne Taylor, Janet Burke and Jenny Dean) tossed their name into Toronto’s political ring in 1982 with a well-documented and well-executed campaign called “ART versus Art,” and to everyone’s surprise they came in second place in the 1982 municipal election with 12,000 votes. Their major competition was Art Eggleton who did become the Mayor of Toronto that year. The Hummer Sisters focused all of their attention on art, rallied and mobilized the artistic troops using a newly popular art form called “video art.” Slowly becoming more accessible to the general public, video cameras and commercial grade technology were the media of choice for The Hummer Sisters, and they used them wisely and well. Political platform issues included live/work-zoned spaces for artists, political accountability to all citizens and a freeze on building development on Queen Street West. The Hummer Sisters made history with their ingenious campaign, which stirred the local zeitgeist with political cabarets that involved hundreds of actors, designers, musicians, artists and art lovers and supporters throughout Toronto. With their 2nd place, runner-up status, The Hummer Sisters paved the way for many artists and arts organizations to finally believe that they could actually be real players in the often unreal world of politics. Their slogan “ART versus Art: This is no Job for Politicians” became an instant hit with the growing population of artists living on Toronto’s now infamous Queen Street West strip — an arts community that The Hummer Sisters put on the cultural map with their legendary campaign.
Many artists have indeed made a play for political office: Canadian’s Wendy Lill (playwright), Lenore Zann (actress) and Andrew Cash (musician) come to mind instantly — all three have had/are having various levels of success in federal and provincial politics and have championed issues that go far beyond the arts. In the United States, punk band The Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra ran for Mayor of San Francisco in 1979 and came in third place.
Flash forward to 2010. This mayoralty race contained a lot of talk about Toronto being in a slump but really we’d been making a lot of progress. Art was under attack, as were cyclists, communities and public health. These four major elements of my platform were both extremely personal and a politics by which I have chosen to live my life and engage with the broader community.
My initial goal was to enter the political process with performance and collaboration. I was lucky because in the early stages of the political race I had a monthly cabaret show at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre called “The Keith Cole Experience,” and this became my soapbox for getting the word out to the voters. I was successful. Using performance, irony, humour, drag, satire and YouTube, my message of art, bicycles, civic engagement within one’s community and public health made it out to people and the media. The strength of the campaign (and listen closely here, future artist/politico types) was that I kept to the four priorities that were near and dear to me — issues that I could speak about with great passion and authority.
This performance art campaign was serious. My slogan was “Get Over It” and I used the idea/action of “tossing” as a way to encourage people to throw themselves into politics and get over whatever barrier was holding them or the city back from progressive social change. I held diaper tosses, meat tosses, salad tosses, shoe tosses and vote tosses to get my word out to the public. I engaged the public with activities that were fun and allowed people to be more open about asking me questions about my platform and political views.
I want to live in a compassionate city where there is room for everyone. Toronto has an incredibly vibrant artistic community that goes well beyond The National Ballet of Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival, Luminato and Soulpepper Theatre Company. Someone needs to speak for the 21-year-old modern dancer, the encaustic painter, the mid-career novelist, the Images, ReelAsian and Inside Out festivals. Toronto has more than enough room for cars, trucks, pedestrians and bikes — we can share the roads and sidewalks. We need to get involved in our own communities and neighbourhoods, taking care of each other around issues of safety, health, food and housing. Public Health is not a moral issue but a citywide social issue, and our municipal government must support people-centred social planning. The health of citizens is something we all need to take responsibility for and engage ourselves in. The NIMBY attitude has no place in a modern, growing city like Toronto that should be looking ahead and becoming an ideal for what a city of the future can be.
We need fewer politicians in politics. I am not a politician.
I am an artist.
Keith Cole is a graduate of York University’s BFA program and he has been an active performer for over 20 years. He entered politics with no experience, money or political connections – he survived and enjoyed himself immensely. Currently, he is a MFA student at OCAD U in Toronto.