Toronto's subway platforms are the busiest waiting rooms in the city. Artists John Greyson and Sharon Switzer looked at that enforced group idleness and saw an opportunity for a serial murder mystery that is being shown in daily, 30-second clips on more than 300 Toronto Transit Commission screens.
It's called Murder in Passing, appears every 10 minutes all over the city, and there are still 21/2 weeks until we find out who killed bike courier Mars Brito with an SUV. Greyson, who wrote and directed the series, has been teasing commuters since Jan. 7 with an array of clues and plot twists that wouldn't be out of place in a whodunit by Agatha Christie. The cast includes such well-known performers as Guillermo Verdecchia and Arsinée Khanjian.
It will be harder to solve the mystery of whether people waiting every day for the next train to Union Station will notice and follow a two-month silent narrative, on the platform or at the serial's website (www.murderinpassing.com). Can public art thrive in the most transient of situations, on screens that are devoted mostly to ads, news and weather?
"People are desperate to look somewhere, so if they're not looking at the print ads, they're looking at the screens," says Greyson, who is best known for provocative features such as Lilies and The Law of Enclosures. "Anything to avoid looking at each other, engaging with each other. If we're captive and forced to experience these screens, there should be some give-back."
Murder in Passing grew out of the annual Toronto Urban Film Festival, which puts one-minute artists' films on Pattison Onestop screens in the TTC every September. Switzer, who founded TUFF and programs art for Onestop displays in transit stations and malls across Canada, thought that the platform audience might be ready for a long-form serial narrative. A murder mystery seemed a good option, because the tropes and expectations of the genre are already so well ingrained.
Adopting a familiar narrative container and giving it a twist is really just an extension of what video artists have been doing in public spaces for decades. Ever since American video artist Jenny Holzer flashed her work on the big Spectacolor board in New York's Times Square in 1982, artists have sought ways to infiltrate commercial public screens and take an unprepared audience by surprise.
It's common for a little friction to develop between the artists and the well-meaning companies that donate the screen time. A few films chosen for Year Zero One's year-long TRANSMEDIA :29:59 festival at Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square in 2006 were put aside when Clearchannel, owner of the square's pedestrian-level screen, objected to contents that included other companies' trademarks or was critical of the square.
Greyson's first title, Murder in Transit, was vetoed by TTC officials, who feared commuters might get the wrong idea. Onestop balked at a few words in the script, which is why a homophobic policeman's reference to a "fag parade" was changed to "pinkie parade" – but Greyson says that "the cop became more interesting when all his swear words became anachronistic."
Writing and shooting a full-length story in 30-second bursts without sound was a challenge, he says, but "I became fascinated with how much could be crammed into 30 short seconds. In some ways, it was easy, because of advertising. The whole world is hard-wired to read and understand narratives over the short term."
Like most Greyson projects, Murder in Passing has a lot to say about sexual identity, gender display and social reactions to sexual difference. Mars Brito is a transsexual, the murder may be a hate crime and the detective who unravels the mystery is played by a man in drag (Alexander Chapman). Brito may remind you of other actual bike couriers or transsexuals killed with automobiles, just as Khanjian's blustering mayor might seem like a cross between Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Margaret Thatcher. Even the series title, as Greyson points out, flicks at the idea of "passing" as straight, female or whatever you choose, though in theory the drama is set in the town of Passing, B.C.
The series website shows all the episodes to date, along with a 30-second "fugue" section for each instalment with music by Toronto composer and singer David Wall. Many of the real-life connections and inspirations for the series appear in those musical sequels.
The hope was that people who were intrigued by a few episodes in the subway would catch up with the whole story online. But Switzer says a lot of traffic has run through Facebook, where she discovered that promoting the series with social media is a lot tougher than she expected. "Going viral doesn't happen the way it used to," she says. "Facebook has changed, and it takes a lot of work and strategy if you don't want to pay them to do an ad campaign for you."
Dropping clues on the series website, and running a contest around solving the mystery, haven't caused any great spikes in page views, which stand at around 7,000. Greyson says more might have found the site if the Web address on the Onestop screens had been embedded right on the black-and-white footage.
Greyson plans to adapt the series into a feature, but its primary form remains the platform screenings, whose impact on a shifting audience is bound to be nebulous. Will people miss their trains in the days leading up to the big reveal on March 1? He promises several climactic episodes of clue unravelling by Detective Epicene in the presence of all the suspects, in the tradition of classic whodunits.
When it's all over, Greyson is ready to do it again. "Christie's Hercules Poirot and [Ruth] Rendell's Reginald Wexford get their kick at the can multiple times, and we want another one too," he says. As Poirot might say, the little grey cells are already working.