Cherry Street's Expressed Body of Resistance
“This is Superconnected” is a monthly series about television in Toronto. In every establishing shot there’s a whole universe of people, ideas, and things with relationships to each other and the city. It's a tested and rewarding method in screenwriting to ground the viewer in the time and place of the story they're watching, and for television fans it will have added value by giving them a central theme with which to interrogate the ideas I'll be writing about in each article.
In Black Mirror’s “Arkangel,” Brenna Harding’s character Sara hitches a ride from a truck just before it crosses a bridge. In the distance the towers of an urban skyline are dim profiles in the late afternoon sun, but all around her are the signs of an industrial neighbourhood — a factory, construction pylons, and decaying municipal infrastructure. Although set in an anonymous American town, the scene was shot on Cherry Street in Toronto’s Portlands.
This area is on the brink of change that will make shooting future scenes like this one from Black Mirror impractical, as one of the largest businesses on the planet is proposing its redevelopment into a place full of the Internet of Things. The privacy concerns around an unprecedented large scale use of data collecting networks that will record data like your location to efficiently organize and coordinate traffic has ramifications for our privacy and agency. The transformation of the Portlands from the manufacturing industry born in the 1880s into a 21st century tech commercial space makes it an apt location for the episode’s themes of surveillance and control.
“Arkangel” tells the story of Sara and her mother, Marie, from Sara’s birth until she’s 15 years old. Marie panics when her toddler runs off at a small park, screaming after her lost daughter in their blue collar neighbourhood until Sara is found nearby almost on the railroad tracks. After the show credits roll, Marie takes Sara to Arkangel, a high-tech clinic named for their primary product. As a clinician injects Sara with Arkangel, she explains how it works to Marie: a tablet allows her to monitor Sara’s location via GPS, what she sees, her health, and even provides the option to alter what Sara sees and hears depending on the appropriateness of the content.
Sara is shown a video of a soldier shooting a gun as a demonstration, with the Arkangel application blurring the image out and muting the sound in response to increased cortisol levels in Sara’s brain corresponding to stress induced by the violence on screen. Marie at first uses Arkangel to simply keep tabs on her daughter’s location and to help her learn and grow, remotely through the tablet while Marie works on paperwork in a different room. But when Sara grows up a little and is exposed to a fight in her grade school, she cannot discern what is happening due to the Arkangel content control.
It turns grim quickly, Sara stabbing her hand with a pencil in an attempt to see her own blood which is blurred out. Marie learns from the child therapist she takes Sara to that her daughter is not autistic, but simply has some anger issues as many children do. The therapist explains the Arkangel never ended up launching fully (Sara’s Arkangel installation was a trial run prior to the company’s full roll-out), and its subsequent ban in Europe means that the application will be “pulled here, too, by the fall.” Marie evinces guilt and sorrow at having done this to Sara, and resolves to let Sara grow and mature on her own, storing the tablet in a box in the attic.
When Sara becomes a teenager, Marie’s resolve breaks when her daughter lies to her about going to a party. Frantic to find her, she turns on the tablet and locates her via the GPS tracker. When she switches to monitor Sara’s visual input, she sees the boy Sara’s been flirting with having sex with her from Sara’s vantage. Upset and angry, she starts monitoring Sara again, and when Sara and her now-boyfriend experiment with cocaine, the Arkangel alerts Marie to the presence of narcotics in Sara’s body.
Marie uses the recorded video content to find the boyfriend on social media, and blackmails him into breaking up with Sara. Worse, the Arkangel informs Marie that Sara is now pregnant. Marie gets an “EC” — in the near future of Black Mirror, emergency contraceptives now work as an abortifacient — and laces her daughter’s breakfast smoothie with it. At school, Sara becomes nauseous and is informed by the school nurse that she’s no longer pregnant due to the EC and puts it all together. Only Marie, through the monitoring afforded by the Arkangel, could possibly have known Sara was pregnant.
Sara confronts her mother at home and assaults her with the tablet, unable to see the trauma she’s inflicting until the hardware in the tablet breaks and she sees Marie’s bruised and bloodied face. She flees the house, and ends up hitching a ride just before the show ends and the credits roll.
One of the choices made in this episode of Black Mirror was that the technical aspects of the Arkangel device are superfluous to the story. The injection of the technology itself into Sara’s brain is bloodless, its mechanism for interacting with her brain and body glossed over save for the brief discussion of her hormone levels providing a trigger for the content filters. The human body, with its blood, sweat, and tears (and other messy by-products), is a drag when we focus on the future and the applications technology allows us to play with.
Early ideas about “cyberspace” in William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy were always promoted by the hackers and cyber-space cowboys in his books as opposed to meatspace, the space of the body. The media that created stories for screens seized on these ideas espoused by Gibson and many of his peers in the cyberpunk genre to transform our stories about our unease with technology to instead advertise technology and its attendant disdain for biology as highly desirable. “Arkangel” could be set in Gibson’s Sprawl mere decades prior to the events of his first book, Neuromancer, as the deserted former industrial spaces and the interface of technology with the mind are key aspects of both.
Jodie Foster, who directed this episode of Black Mirror, introduced these ideas about how the future could look in Arkangel very specifically. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Foster says that, “I felt that some of what informed this mom’s life is that she was from this hard-scrabbled American town that had died. It was a town where there’s no opportunity. Everything had been closed, the infrastructure hadn’t been fixed... like in a Detroit suburb or Pittsburgh or something.”
This image of the anonymous Rust Belt urban landscape is testified to by the details in the scene where Sara hitches a ride, the peeling paint on the guardrails, the cracked sidewalks, and the uneven pavement faded by salt and sunlight. Foster’s concept of the myth of the depressed former factory town is presaged in Arkangel in many of the location shots she’s chosen: quiet streets comprised of small houses and suburban plazas with outlet stores and lonely loading docks. For me, it is a quick visual shorthand explanation that the labour and capital that drove North America’s boom after World War II has moved from the gross physicality of manufacturing to the sterility of the tech sector.
The factories, warehouses, docks, and siloes in and around Cherry Street make for great locations for television productions shot in Toronto. Deserted places where villains can hold kidnapped heroes are a staple of so many television stories, and where better than the spaces industrial manufacturers have underutilized or outright surrendered?
These spaces are tempting for production reasons as well — decommissioned and derelict like the Hearn Generating Station (nearby on Unwin Street), or at least clear of workers and staff after 5pm, with plenty of electrical power and parking, it’s gotta be so much easier to shoot in than closing off a residential street or a busy arterial. But despite the forces of budgets and pragmatic production decisions, deserted places hold a special power in our narrative fiction that is undeniable.
These are the places that the State’s observation fails in part or completely, where illicit activities happen; they are where enemies and opponents of the State — criminal organizations, terrorists, and evil corporations — engage in development and production, whether it is drugs, human trafficking, illegal research, or weapons sales. In 2004, a massive marijuana grow-op was shut down by the police inside a former Molson brewery five hours north of Toronto after years and years of operation. Stories like these find each other in the news and our narrative television and reflect like mirror images.
Although crime, terrorism, and corporations gone rogue make for fun and exciting television, more important is that these are hidden and secret spaces. Now desolate either at the end of a work day, or due to the banal pressures of globalization empty as workers have been laid off, Toronto’s Portlands were once a busy place. Goods shipped from around the Great Lakes or from the big port down the St. Lawrence River in Montreal were offloaded and refined here.
As the manufacturing and refining industry completes its retreat to elsewhere, the city is increasing its focus on transforming the area, although the process is as slow as any savvy observer of municipal bureaucracies would imagine. As Shawn Micallef wrote in the Toronto Star, “…the area remains a taste of what old industrial Toronto was like, an element we’re continuing to remove from our city.” Television productions shot here continue to leverage the remaining industrial landscape to generate spaces where characters can do things without others knowing.
In the Lost Girl pilot, the Essroc Cement silos just past the Keating Channel on Cherry are the site of the Glass Factory, neutral ground between the Dark and Light Fae where they conduct rituals involving both sides. Again, the exterior shots tell us that this is a place where hidden and secret things can take place: from the depth of field that blurs the fence in the foreground, to the brutalist concrete of the bridge footing and the building.
Orphan Black uses the Lafarge factory as a background for an empty lot where Sarah and her daughter Kira are transferring from one escape vehicle to another. Both of these scenes require secrecy from prying eyes: in Lost Girl, the general public that has no idea the Fae exist, and in Orphan Black the evil medical science research corporation Dyad; the location is elastic depending on where on the property you’re shooting, and where you aim your camera.
Soon the cameras of television productions won’t be the only ones unlocking the secrets of the Portlands. Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, is planning on redeveloping a part of it with a premise that they can do so starting with internet infrastructure. Reporters covering the story have focused on Sidewalk’s tech proposals for the new neighbourhood, including what Jeff Gray outlines in his coverage in The Globe & Mail: cameras and sensors that detect pedestrians at traffic lights or alert cleanup crews when garbage bins overflow; robotic vehicles that whisk away garbage in underground tunnels; heated bike lanes to melt snow; a new street layout to accommodate a fleet of self-driving cars.
Susan Crawford, writing for Wired, contends that Sidewalk will “…collect data about everything from water use to air quality to the perambulations of Quayside's future populace and use that data to run energy, transport, and all other systems.” Sidewalks Labs’ submission to the arms-length agency Waterfront Toronto proposes that Quayside will have connectivity as a critical aspect of its foundation, including two layers in its platform concept that includes a network of sensors collecting real-time information about the surrounding environment and a secure portal through which residents will be able to access public and private services. Sidewalk promises that the platform must and will have rigorous privacy protection.
Given the issues many have had with privacy with their parent company Google’s products, this is contested by privacy and other activists. As we can see with the Arkangel, there are instructive examples in our fiction and television that warn us of the dangers of what could happen if things go wrong.
Arkangel collects data on Sara’s life for her mom’s real-time monitoring and previously recorded content for later playback. Marie clearly wants her daughter to be happy and healthy and safe — the trauma of losing Sara as a toddler leads her to install the technology that will allow her to keep tabs on where her daughter is, what she sees and hears, and what she puts in her body.
Many parents in North America desire the advantages technology offers to raise their children, but also are increasingly afraid of the dangers our dense urban environment poses to children: sexual predators, vices like alcohol and illicit drugs, and accidental injuries. Despite knowing that Arkangel caused Sara to unknowingly harm herself as a child, Marie cannot resist using the application to monitor when Sara grows older to control her daughter’s behaviour. Although Foster never has Marie protest that she’s controlling Sara through Arkangel in Sara’s best interests, it’s apparent that this is what motivates Marie.
Sidewalk outright states their collection and use of user data will “…make Quayside a thriving community where data-driven services make life easier, healthier, and more productive.” The surveillance and control offered by applications owned and operated by the private sector are simply parental content filters writ large.
When the engineers and captains of industry set about to drain the wetlands on Toronto’s lakeshore and develop the area into the shipping and manufacturing area it became in the 19th century, it was not intended as a guarantee of privacy for individual citizens. Even what we understand today as the importance of privacy as a right and critical tenet of our civic fabric is different from what the residents of that older Toronto knew and believed back then.
But what we understand as the privilege and luxury of privacy now was extended then to those with the wealth to buy it, chief amongst those the business men who profited from the manufacturing industry Toronto was developing. That industry’s near century of profit and influence was critical in how it shaped the city, from where we built homes, to who we elected to office, to the laws we passed.
The globalization of the 1980s and its shuttering of manufacturing centres in North American cities had the unintended consequence of creating private spaces, places where the State would or could not observe and police. Popular with the poor and homeless as shelter, they also attract criminals and other illicit activity operators, and this threat perceived by the state led to the dedication of resources to clean up these places through policing and development.
In Toronto, the push from its citizens to clean up these places led to the creation of Waterfront Toronto, an agency supported by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments to engage the private sector in developing the lands along the lake and in particular the Portlands. Sidewalk’s proposals are in many ways simply a response to the desires of the public, including their forays into large-scale data collection and surveillance embedded in an urban infrastructure.
The television we watch continues to tell stories about the deteriorated places like the Rust Belt and the Portlands, encouraging our beliefs that they are synonymous with danger, attracting undesirables, criminals, and terrorists by dint of their hidden and secret nature. They’re also linked to the body, that dirty and sweating thing that works in a factory, whereas the promise of technology-dependent future residential neighbourhoods like Quayside hints at a cyborg future of robots and computers freeing us from labour and the limitations of the body through the Internet of Things’ automation.
These hidden and secret places are transformed from assets under capitalism’s tenets of privacy and property rights to a liability in the modern surveillance state, foiling its efforts at controlling its populace. It’s no mistake that when Sara escapes her mother she steps up into a truck, disappearing from view. Sara’s chosen the autonomy and agency of her body, with its attendant private spaces and messy opposition to the surveillance of the state, on Cherry Street.