“Who is this city for?”: Meet the performance artist calling out bad drivers and condo developers

“Who is this city for?”: Meet the performance artist calling out bad drivers and condo developers

Last summer, Martin Ries caused a stir posing as a “crosswalk referee” and handing out yellow and red cards to aggressive drivers. Now, he’s painting human silhouettes on abandoned homes slated for demolition

Performance artist Martin Ries posing as a “crosswalk referee”

You may have seen local performance artist Martin Ries dressed as a soccer officiant last summer, handing out yellow cards to bad drivers in the downtown core. “Crosswalk Referee” debuted during the FIFA Women’s World Cup as a community safety initiative—and a very public way to address the dangers of car culture. Stirring debate over civic woes via guerilla art interventions is a semi-regular side hustle for Ries, a documentary photographer and arts administrator. More recently, he was part of a group of artists who painted human silhouettes on the boarded-up exteriors of abandoned homes on Raglan Avenue, in the St. Clair and Bathurst area. Ries and his collaborators want to start a conversation about the future of our neighbourhoods: gentrification and condo development may add density, they say, but at what cost?

Your new Raglan Avenue installation has sparked quite the Twitter debate. Are you trying to ruffle feathers?
I wouldn’t say we set out to be controversial. The point of this sort of intervention project is to put art somewhere that people who may not normally engage with it can interact with it, and hopefully that starts some dialogue. This project came about when I started talking to my friend Stephanie Avery, whose art often focuses on abandoned buildings. We both live in the area, where so many old homes have been purchased by condo developers. This particular site—5 to 15 Raglan Avenue—is supposed to become a 28-storey high rise, but the homes have been sitting abandoned for several years. The people who lived there moved out, and there have been some squatters, but there’s been no development. Homes and lots and even mid-rise buildings are being bought up to create condo towers all over the area. We wanted to comment on how alarming it is to see the neighbourhood changing so much.

Martin Ries was part of a group of artists who painted human silhouettes on boarded up exteriors of abandoned homes on Raglan Avenue in the St Clair and Bathurst area.

Where did the idea to paint silhouettes come from?
Steph had done a silhouette project quite a few years ago on a boarded-up apartment building on Havelock Street. I really liked that work, and when we started discussing treatment, it made sense to do the same thing. Before we started painting, we spent some time imagining the people who had lived in the homes. We know that the community is a mix of families, senior citizens, young professionals and pets, so we wanted to make sure to represent that range, which made the area so vibrant.

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So the silhouettes aren’t based on real people?
We didn’t know anything about the residents at these specific addresses before we started. But, after the project began to get some attention on social media, I got a message from a guy who had previously owned three of the houses. He lived in one, had his office in another and rented out the third to tenants. He told us that the images we painted were accurate to the community he remembered living there, so that was cool to hear. 

This is guerilla art, so I’m assuming you didn’t reach out to the development company for permission.
No, but we weren’t hiding what we were doing. We painted during the day. It was great because people would come over to check it out, and that led to some great conversations about how the neighbourhood is changing. Residents are worried about what’s happening. They’re sad to lose family homes that have seen generations go through them, and they’re concerned about practical stuff like noise and neighbourhood resources: public space, parks, parking spaces. 

Human silhouettes on boarded up exteriors of abandoned homes on Raglan Avenue in the St Clair and Bathurst area

Your project is obviously anti-high-rise. Can you get more specific in terms of what you’re trying to say?
Our work is about what’s happening at that specific site, but it’s also about the condo wave that seems unstoppable under the current system, where developers have carte blanche. There used to be the Ontario Municipal Board, but now it feels like companies get approval for whatever they want. Honest Ed’s was replaced by a huge condo development. All over the city, older homes are being destroyed, residents are being displaced and our neighbourhoods are being converted into revenue streams for the rich, full of investment properties and Airbnbs. We want people to be aware of these changes and to ask themselves what kind of city they want to live in. Who is this city for?  

What do you say to the YIMBY argument that the new development of 160 condo units will provide housing to a lot more people, at a time when housing is in perilously low supply, than seven single-family homes would have?
I would say that, overall, the city doesn’t need more high-rise buildings. Mid-rise would be a lot more appropriate in terms of scale and neighbourhood character and sustainability. Secondly, who can afford to live in these condos? If you look at the people who were displaced on Raglan Avenue, would they even be able to afford to move into the new building? What the city desperately needs is affordable housing: co-op housing, rent-to-income housing and all of these programs that were done away with under the Harper government and never brought back. 

Okay, but the Raglan homes would sell for millions on today’s market. Not exactly affordable.
But they were affordable to the people who were living there and the renters who came in. Toronto used to be a place where a regular family could buy a home or rent in a nice area; people could age in the same communities where they’d spent their lives; they talked to their neighbours in the street. When I came here from Germany forty years ago, Toronto was the “city of neighbourhoods”—that was what made it so great. But we’ve been moving away from that for a while now. Is Liberty Village still a nice neighbourhood to live in? I’m not so sure.  

Human silhouettes on boarded up exteriors of abandoned homes, slated for demolition, on Raglan Avenue in the St Clair and Bathurst area.

I’m sure you saw the joke on Twitter where someone said that the bag one of the silhouettes is holding is probably full of the money she made selling her property to a developer.
The bag was full of groceries, but yes, I’ve seen the joke. It’s funny. I don’t have any problem with people making a profit on real estate, but what we’re talking about is an overall affordability issue, a human rights issue, people being forced out of their homes through renovictions. Everyone who worked on the silhouette installation has had friends leave the city because they can no longer afford to be here, and my partner and I are in the same situation. We rent a two-bedroom apartment. At one point last year, our building owner was thinking about selling, and we were extremely worried. Rental housing on St. Clair starts at $2,500 for a one-bedroom with no rent control. I appreciate that we are in need of more housing, but there are other solutions. Paris doesn’t have high-rises, yet it has come up with ways to house a lot of people in buildings that aren’t as tall, with larger apartments for families that are also more sustainable and beautiful, with vibrant shared spaces. And the building materials are better: brick rather than steel and concrete and glass. 

So in Europe they’re all about quality, longevity and beauty, and here in Toronto we want cheap, fast and ugly?
Whatever makes a lot of money. 

Okay, let’s talk about your other passion project. You got a lot of attention last summer for posing as a traffic-patrolling soccer referee during the World Cup. Where did that character come from?
I started noticing, especially after Covid, that cars were constantly blocking crosswalks. I work near a Shoppers Drug Mart where elderly people are often going in to get their prescriptions, and they couldn’t get across the street. These are the places where pedestrians are supposed to be safe, and I found myself feeling a lot of anger and frustration. I remembered something that a friend once said to me about performance, which is, “The angrier you get, the funnier you have to get.” Nobody wants to be yelled at and made to feel bad about themselves, so I started thinking about what might make people laugh. 

This was in late 2022, during the Men’s World Cup. I was watching a lot of soccer, and I started imagining the intersection as a soccer match and how all of these bad drivers needed to be officiated. By the time the Women’s World Cup came around this summer, I was ready to go. I positioned myself right at Richmond and Pearl and started handing out yellow and red cards when drivers would break the rules, try to inch into the crosswalk or block the intersection altogether, which was an automatic red. I would walk with pedestrians to keep them safe, and then it was a lot of gesturing and blowing my whistle. Referees don’t talk a lot, so it was mostly a physical performance. 

Crosswalk referee

What kinds of reactions did you get?
Pedestrians and cyclists were really supportive, partly because nobody else has done anything to help. So I got a lot of thank-yous and Finally, somebody is dealing with this issue. I think there were drivers who were confused and had no idea what was going on, but then on the other hand, I think there was always some relief that they were just getting a card and not an actual ticket. 

You must have gotten at least a little bit of road rage.
There were a few people who got angry, and for that I gave them a red card. You’re not allowed to yell at the ref. 

Obviously, traffic in Toronto sucks. Even Tom Cruise thinks so. But what else were you trying to say with that performance?
I think we live in a society that privileges cars and drivers. Not just in Toronto but in North America. Drivers feel entitled, and cars and fuel and roads are subsidized by our tax dollars. I think drivers need to recognize that they are being extended a huge amount of privilege on the roads. Other people also have the right to feel safe on the streets. You’re in an air-conditioned bubble, comfortable, listening to music. People who are walking or biking are also trying to get somewhere, and we need to show respect for each other. 

Any chance the ref will be re-emerging any time soon?
I think so. I may go out to Hamilton. My friends who live there—the same ones who have been forced out of Toronto—tell me they’re dealing with a lot of traffic issues. The other thing that came up a lot when I was patrolling the crosswalk was the amount of honking we hear in the city. It’s horrible, and it’s getting worse, so maybe that’s something that needs to be refereed. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.