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Bursting the bubble: Mind the gap

Priam Poulton-McGraw steps into an often-overlooked urban microcosm

Dirty, mundane, often crowded, and rattling-loud, the subway limits our personal space, packing us tightly together and intensifying self-consciousness. But the metro can also bring us into brief contact with unfamiliar and unexpected beauty. More than just a mode of transportation, the subway is itself a space for social interaction – or just a spot to spend a few minutes preparing for, or reflecting on, the day. The subway has seen parties, riots, pickpockets, and terrorism; it’s been puked on, vandalized, and buffed clean countless times over. Not surprisingly, it has been the centre of numerous debates on public space and freedom of expression.

The light’s reflection on dark subway windows tends to divert our attention back at ourselves and at the people around us. Like all public spaces, there are certain unwritten rules of behaviour. Eyes move constantly – studying shoelaces, scanning advertisements, or watching the abstract landscape of tunnel lights between stations. Other gazes rest patiently, staring blankly into space, but are ready to shoot a questioning glance if other eyes should cross their path. However, most eyes are eager to meet if they can find a valid reason – a look of relief after a loudly singing drunk disembarks, or a warm smile between strangers watching a mother with her baby.

In a culture where we are often isolated within subcultures or pods of shared interest, we tend to see ourselves constantly mirrored and affirmed in the people around us. To say that the metro is a great equalizer that unites people of different class or race would be naive, but it does bring together people who might not normally associate with each other, presenting us with difference, and potentially asking us to evaluate ourselves – that is, if we’re not too busy listening to our iPods.

On the metro, we can observe how people carry themselves: their odd mannerisms, attitudes, and postures that may hint at their profession or family role.

In New York in the 1930s, street photographer Walker Evans used a hidden camera to photograph candid moments of people aboard trains, compiling a powerful document of the city, its people, and the cultural climate during the economic depression. In the early years of graffiti, the train cars were an important mobile canvas displaying tags or images across a whole city, while every inside surface was covered in dripping black ink from homemade markers. Footage of these writers and their assault on public space was captured in the 1982 documentary Style Wars.

Recent years have seen renewed battles over photography in public space. Fearing terrorism aimed at public transportation, New York City Transit proposed a law in 2004 that would prohibit all photography and filmmaking in subways and bus systems without a formally issued permit. Denounced as an ineffectual attempt to project a sense of security, the bill was challenged by photography, press, civil rights, and free speech groups. Over 100 photographers protested for freedom of expression, gathering at Grand Central Station with their cameras, and spreading across various tube lines to take photographs.

This year, professional photographer Jam Abelanet caused a stir with his series of nudes shot on the Paris Metro, seemingly without the awareness or permission of the transit authorities. The photographs were intended as a playful response to people’s declining attention to their surroundings.

Metro parties – social events held on a moving subway train – also address anti-social behaviour by renegotiating the rules of social interaction within public space. They often involve costumes, decorations, and music. Though bewildering to other passengers, the gatherings often grow from station to station.

While in England this summer, I accidentally found myself in the midst of a huge metro party while trying to get back to where I was staying in north London. Londoners held parties on the Underground on May 31 – the last night before a law banning consumption of alcohol on the Tube was implemented.

For some, it was a protest against Borris Johnson, the newly-elected mayor, and what they perceived as his social conservatism. For others, though, it was merely an excuse to get drunk and wear costumes. Six stations were closed due to riots – including the one I was trying to get to – and 17 people were arrested. Many people understand the law as an aim to eliminate an anti-social behaviour through punitive measures rather than through social change. Given how anti-social the metro space has become in general, it seems to be a fairly ineffective gesture. Ironically, the only time I talked to anyone on the London Underground was when a metro partier gave me a beer.

The subway has been a fixture of the world’s largest cities since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the case of cities like Moscow and New York, the insides of stations are time capsules that have remained the same, while the underground lines grow and the face of the cities above them are drastically remodeled. Though Montreal’s metro is the younger sibling of the world’s underground systems, its futuristic 1960s modernist architecture and diverse artwork make it an intriguing addition to this bilingual city’s character.

Over the next few weeks, The Daily will take you outside the familiar bubble of student life in Montreal and expand your knowledge of the city with a series of articles on metro stations and their surrounding neighbourhoods. While travelling, you might also want to put down your book, take off your headphones, and watch the people around you to learn more about the city we live in.