Working mainly during the wee hours of the night after the bars let out, Toronto artist Vanessa B. Rieger's Nightlifeguard project provides a service to the chronically underserved: Toronto's urban population who don't have pool access on the hottest days of the year. Hundreds of people flock to popular downtown pools after the bars let out. "There's this whole subculture of people who figure out which pools they can gain access to," Rieger explains at her studio in Toronto's soon to be condo-ified Coffin Factory, continuing, "Dundas-Bathurst, Christie Pits, or people even sneak into condos. When it's hot, you don't have AC and you work all day long, chances are by the end of the day the pools are closed."
Toronto pools do sometimes stay open later (up to 11:45 PM) on summer's hottest days, but Rieger adds these relatively late hours are painfully rare, probably due to budget restraints. "There were days that I would consider a 'heatwave day' and I called the pool up and they weren't open late," Rieger sighs.
The idea to become a guerilla-style after-hours lifeguard came to Rieger in 2010, the summer two of her friends injured themselves while late night pool-hopping, and out-of-town cops were violently raiding public pools by night when they weren't corralling G20 protesters by day. Rieger made some DIY t-shirts, packed up some supplies, and integrated her new role as outlaw sheriff of the swimming pool into her art practice, naming the project Nightlifeguard. 2016 has been her sixth summer watching over Toronto's pool hops.
Over the years, Rieger's early bleached tees morphed into glow-in-the-dark screenprints, but her unconventional fun-meets-functional lifeguard kit has remained basically the same: water bottles, first aid supplies, inflatable beach balls, glowsticks, and of course, a plastic whistle.
"One of my set rules for myself is that I don't blow the whistle until the cops come," Rieger tells me, adding, "I'm not there to narc on people."
People are going be at the pools late at night no matter what, Rieger's philosophy goes, so why not make that experience a little safer, and a little more magical (that's where the beach balls and glowsticks come in). Though she's not an actual certified lifeguard, as Rieger told me, a Nightlifeguard's job is "keeping the pool cool," which could mean handing a water bottle to a potential heatstroke victim, helping a drunken newbie navigate fence-jumping mechanics, calling out creeps lurking for skinny dippers, or keeping the space clean. "If someone leaves garbage or decides to do graffiti all over this community centre, the whole pool will get shut down and that ruins it for everybody," Rieger said.
Supportive responses for Nightlifeguard no longer only come from friends and drunken randoms at the poolside. Rieger has presented the performance art-meets-social service project at music festivals, art galleries, bars, and nightclub events from the shores of Toronto Islands to the Rideau Canal to Meaford's Electric Eclectic Festival, which doesn't even boast a body of water. Nightlifeguard's growing relevancy as a safe space promoting performance piece was unplanned, but whether watching over Dun-Bat's 3 AM poolside or monitoring It's Not U It's Me's Power Plant party for creepers and those-about-to-vomit, Rieger's aim remains as unwavering as her kit: Keep cool.
I got a peek into the toolbox and world of Toronto's guerrilla lifeguard over the Labour Day weekend.
What kinds of incidents have you dealt with as a Nightlifeguard?
Vanessa B. Rieger: Not as many as you might think. A lot of people go to the pool with their friends. If you've got a loner, a guy who's there by himself, he's there to look at women [but] for the most part these types of people aren't confrontational. If I go up to a guy who's staring at women, I can go "Hey, they don't appreciate that," and they're just embarrassed that they got caught.
I help people educate themselves to learn how to do things in a safe way. If they're already hopping a fence, I'll tell them "those aren't the shoes you should wear" or "put a towel over the top so you're not catching the spikes," things people don't think about in the moment when they're drunk. It's about preventing injury.
Most people don't realize the work you've done because you being there means nothing happened. I've done a good job Nightlifeguarding if nothing bad happened. With my presence, just standing there wearing the shirt that says "Nightlifeguard," people are already policing themselves.
Tell me about first time you were a guerrilla lifeguard.
It was in 2010. Two of my friends were injured [pool hopping]: one broke both of his feet, and my other friend impaled her hand on a fence, which sent us to the ER. I realized this was a need that wasn't being addressed. I had an art studio in Kensington Market, up the street from one of the most popular pools in Toronto, and I kept all my [lifeguard] gear there. It was really crude, I bleached t-shirts to say "Nightlifeguard" on them.
It was a performance experience. I viewed it as a social experiment and art project: it was a social commentary on people getting hurt, the lack of accessible pools, people who can't afford A/C or time off during the day to go swimming.
A lot of people thought I was legit. They thought Toronto was paying me to be the Nightlifeguard, [saying] "oh, Toronto's so cool," and I'd be like "No, Toronto has nothing to do with it." Or people thought I was a narc, and then I'd give them a beach ball or a glowstick to play with like, "No, I'm cool."
Do you feel like this is part of your personality? Are you the one who watches over people, cleans up, and makes sure everyone's okay?
I wasn't always. I was quite a party animal in my early 20s, and could have used a Nightlifeguard myself on a few occasions, but I had to redefine my role in a party atmosphere when I was 25 because I had health issues where I suddenly had to get sober. I had to figure out how to participate in a party without consuming alcohol or drugs. For anyone who's tried to do that, it's really awkward. A part of relearning my social interactions at parties was giving myself jobs to do, to be that person who's like, "hey are you okay, do you need water?" So Nightlifeguarding applied that in a pool atmosphere, and it's something that's gone beyond the pool now, to the "social pool," or general party atmospheres. I've used the original context of Nightlifeguard as a metaphor that I take into the bars and clubs with me.
How does a party atmosphere at a bar or a club compare to the atmosphere at a late night pool?
There's no preventative measures at the pool at two or three in the morning, everyone's already fucked up. At the bar, you can do preventative measures to stop people from getting too fucked up, which would lead to things like falling off a fence or slipping and impaling yourself, or misjudging the depth of the pool and diving in headfirst. At the bar you can get to people before they're at that point.
Did your experiences poolside prepare you for your work in bars, because you knew how people could end up if you didn't intervene?
If you're dealing with the aftermath of a person who spent their night at a club or a bar, you're dealing with the monster that person becomes. Most people don't like being fucked up to the point where they're hurting themselves and puking all over the place.
One thing that started at the pool was paying attention to how women are treated. Women were in their bathing suits, their underwear, or skinny dipping—and that's great, skinny dipping late at night at a public pool? That's awesome—but then you have the guys who gawk and stare and accost these women. And it's not just women, gay guys get accosted a lot too, not just by men who are interested but by homophobes who aren't comfortable with someone else's sexuality.
Is Nightlifeguard something that could spread to cities beyond Toronto?
I would love that, but are these people going to do it respectfully? Without me being there to train these people, I worry about my project being coopted. I built this persona and role, and when I train friends to be volunteers the first thing I tell them is, "when this shirt is on, it's a uniform, take this seriously." [Nightlifeguard] is changing from this small insulated performance piece to this thing that's bigger than me.
We have people talking about safe spaces, issues at festivals, and people are asking, how do we prevent this? The Nightlifeguard project is resonating now more than ever. RaveSafe programs have been in rave culture since the 80s, and that's what I grew up in: PLUR, which I've turned to "Pool Love Unity Respect."
I'm really interested in creating partnerships with venues and promoters. I can't just give all the rights to reproduce my project without my involvement in some form. That has to do with my rights to my own artistic...
Yeah—it's not like I'm making money off it, but I've seen people posture themselves as safe people or feminists, who then use that to exploit people who are at risk. Say some bro on King Street bought a Nightlifeguard shirt? That idea scares me, someone taking my project and doing it for evil. It's like Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility.