Try to picture the word “Real” with extra italics.
By Jenny Bundock
For a long time now I’ve been going to gallery shows in Toronto. I did my undergrad at York in Photo, and during that time I pretty much had to be a gallery hopper to survive. Looking back, I really wish I had taken more advantage of my time in what I have come to refer to as “the real art scene in Toronto.”
Toronto is kind of screwy, because what you would assume to be the cultural hubs of the city (the ROM, the AGO, etc.) are kind of, well, old. Occasionally you see these institutions try to branch out and grab something fresh from the streets and basements of Toronto, but rarely does it survive. It’s like bringing your flower garden inside, in pots, for the winter: it just isn’t the same and you’re probably going to kill it.
So what is the real art scene in Toronto? In my opinion it is made up of the unjaded, motivated, consumed, and hungry artists that are about 18–25 and either in art school, or recently graduated.
Example: I went, two weekends ago, with a friend to a one-night-only art show at Cinecycle. For those of you who don’t know what or where that is, it is a bike repair shop by day, and art gallery by night, behind a building and down an alley on Spadina. You think you are entering what appears to be an expanded version of a Unabomber-type shack with “Cinecycle” scrawled on the door, but instead of facing a maniac with a beard you find art.
At Cinecycle that evening was this sort of, bohemian explosion. The art was sort-of post-modern student art. Unpolished, cheaply made, low-tech,and tightly packed into the space. The piece we went to see came complete with an inhalant; you were supposed to huff from a bottle right before you watched the artist remove one of his toenails with tweezers on video. I opted not to inhale the drugs, as I was already feeling like shit and thought adding a swift inhalation of alkyl nitrite was not going to help anything. In retrospect, I maintain that that was a good call, as people that were with me partook, and 15 minutes later when their heart rate returned to normal, expressed how unprepared they were for the jolt.
That is the real art scene in Toronto. A room full of 19–22-year-olds who were all trying very hard to pretend Toronto was New York, and that this really quite awesome show was going to be recalled by anyone but their personal friends. It was brief, explosive, and contained communal drugs to enhance the experience. We got there by work of mouth and back alley, and the people who were there (like, really there because I was not — I was sort of watching, rather than participating) they believed in that time and space that they made it. They believe that this show and their work is important and relevant and urgent… and I believe them… I want to help them… and THAT is a strange feeling for someone as jaded and cynical as I have become.
Which brings me to why this is the art scene in Toronto. Art is supposed to make you feel something, it is supposed to offer a new perspective, to challenge your preconceived notions about the world around you, to challenge your own beliefs about who you are and where you fit in. When I go to a show that offers me drugs, that has a projection of dancing water on plastic that is responsive to music being played in the room, that pulls off its toenail with tweezers, and has an Olsen twin look-alike wandering around with smeared lipstick schmoozing the third-year art students — that becomes the art. Not just what is on the walls, but what is in the room — and that feeling, that authenticity of youth is something that the AGO will never ever capture.
The Drake/Gladstone/AGO etc. are like, a retirement home for Toronto art in comparison. I mean, they are pillars in the community, but truthfully they will never ever be able to tap into that edge, that sincerity, or that effort. The Olsen Twin girl herself could have been a piece. A response to the existing culture, saturated with the bohemian-rich, matted hair, and red lipstick brand of effortless-effort, Value Village plaid and fake leather belts, artist boyfriends — all before curfew. She was probably the most genuine reflection of our idea of an artistic identity out of any of the art there. (Unfairly, I’m singling her out — there were a lot of those types of people in the room. It was just so genuinely reflexive. I apologize in advance though as she probably hates being compared to the Olsen twins.)
In closing, the show made me feel alive and excited for the first time in a long time. But it also made it painfully clear to me that just like you can never go home again, you can’t go back to art school either. Part of me wishes I had really dove in, really immersed myself in that party while I had the chance. For now I will live vicariously though the “teenage whore” vibe in that room, and try to grow up to be one of the cool adults who turns a blind eye, pays the rent in a building downtown, and lets 19-year-olds drink smuggled-in schnapps at the gallery shows they throw. Because it is not just important to these artists or Toronto, it’s important for Art.