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Exploring Toronto's Sewers
The CONTACT Photography festival's 'Contacting Toronto: Under This Ground' installation takes you down into our hidden water systems

Michael Cook, Contacting Toronto: Under this Ground, Pattison Onestop, 2013

Toronto’s subway system is one of the few places where we, as Torontonians, come in contact with the underground infrastructure that lies beneath our feet and facilitates our daily lives. But it is also a place we find ourselves disconnected and disengaged, eyes trained to pass over advertisements without a second thought. Underground, our thoughts turn inwards and into our devices. With Contacting Toronto: Under This Ground, one of the 9 public installations taking place as part of the month long Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, photographers Michael Cook and Andrew Emond take their work down into St. Patrick Station and onto Pattison Onestop Screens with the aim of using this underground space to push us to re-engage and reconsider our relationship with the sewers that carry our water.

Cook, who has been taking photographs of Toronto’s sewers for almost a decade, believes that there is an “immense social value to be gleaned from revealing and rediscovering [this] infrastructure,” giving people an opportunity to make a connection with “it in the context of their neighbourhoods.” He believes that this could help us do a better job of managing pollution and of caring for the landscapes of our neighbourhoods which require undiverted rainwater for their maintainance.

Michael Cook, Contacting Toronto: Under this Ground, Pattison Onestop, 2013

Cook’s background in landscape architecture gives him a unique perspective on this niche branch of urban exploration. As such, he says it was natural for him to raise questions about the creeks and water in the places that he lived, looking to see where they went and how they worked.  While he doesn’t recommend the hazardous hobby to others, he does hope his photographs will help bring the subject of water infrastructure to a larger public audience.

“Hopefully they will question a bit why so much water is down there. In many parts of Toronto we live closer to creeks or to rivers, or to creeks that we’ve buried into sewers, than we do to the lake and we spend a ton of time talking about the waterfront and about what we should do to get closer to the lake when there’s almost always water within our own neighborhoods.”

Cook’s work on display at St. Patrick Station. Michael Cook, Contacting Toronto: Under this Ground, Pattison Onestop, 2013. Photo credit: Susana Reisman

Thirty-three of Cook’s photographs are on display at St. Patrick Subway Station until the end of the month. The underground setting does give one the sense of the oppressiveness one might feel exploring these dark underground passageways, but it is worth noting that except for a handful of backlit images on the top level of the station, the majority of the photographs are displayed opposite the platform on the lower level, preventing visitors from getting any closer than 10 feet from the shots. This takes away slightly from the majesty of the shots, whose gleaming damp brick and concrete surfaces would benefit from better lighting and the sense of scale one gets from standing directly in front of a large print. However, there is something to be said for Pattison Onestop Curator Sharon Switzer’s choice of locations. Down there, it’s impossible to deny that we don’t give enough thought to how the infrastructure (sewers, subways) that enables our daily routines has shaped, and been shaped by the city above.

The work of fellow photographer Andrew Emond  is also on display as part of Under This GroundEmond’s stop motion videos composed of several hundred photographs depicting the Garrison Creek, Small’s Creek, and Black Creek tributary sewers are meant to take onlookers through a particular scene, helping them feel more truly the sense of being in these hidden spaces. Emond, who has explored the underground infrastructures of both Montreal and Toronto, hopes to give these natural paths of water that have been relegated below our feet for the purposes of city planning, a new “sense of life, motion and surrealism” and draw attention to the fact that they should be restored to their original above ground states. His videos will be running on Pattison Onestop Screens across the system every ten minutes, and continuously on dedicated screens at Bloor, Dundas and St. Andrew Stations for the first week of May. Again, the small screens and surrounding advertising somewhat take away from the sense of immersion one requires to imagine themselves within these spaces, but a closer online viewing at gives viewers a more complete idea of how these creeks have transformed from natural spaces into artificial hard constructs from which it is easy to detach.

A screen cap of Andrew Emond’s Undercurrents 3 at Black Creek tributary. Andrew Emond, Contacting Toronto: Under this Ground, Pattison Onestop, 2013./caption]

When we speak, Emond shares his wish for these creeks to be restored to their original states, an initiative that would take drive and money but that he believes is feasible. “It’s taken place already in various parts of the world” he tells me, explaining that there are movements for similar action in Toronto. “In Toronto there’s…a larger awareness of water and the importance of water in the city than say a place like Montreal…where 80% of the water has been pushed underground and…it’s been erased from people’s memories.” With Under This Ground, Cook and Emond have certainly made a contribution to making sure Torontonians remain aware.

Contacting Toronto: Under This Ground is only one of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival‘s many exhibitions. Throughout the month of May, the work of over 1000 aritsts and photographers will be on display at 175 locations in the city. Since it’s inception, the festival, now in it’s 17th year, has grown to the largest photography festival in the world. 


Eva Voinigescu is an intern at Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter @EvaVoinigescu.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard and subscribe to our Newsletter.

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