By Julia Baird
Lyndall Musselman is on a quest to show that “Who’s Emma” is not just a rhetorical question without proper punctuation. As a part of the DOC/now festival (presenting work by the first graduating class in Ryerson University’s MFA in Documentary Media program), Lyndall’s project, Remember Who’s Emma, is an interdisciplinary documentary portraying a time, community, and place in the history of Toronto’s grassroots culture.
Prior to studying at Ryerson, Lyndall Musselman majored in Contemporary Studies and History, and attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for interdisciplinary art, focusing mainly on photo and video. Stemming from a conceptual art background, Lyndall notes that it has been a shift for her to move from the art world to a more traditional documentary approach — especially because matters are complicated slightly by having to grapple with documentary concerns like impartiality and historical accuracy. That being said, Lyndall has found that exploring the issues and shortcomings that surround representation has been a common thread throughout her artistic practice. Fittingly, she sites Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula as influences, noting that they are also “really into social justice issues, really kind of grounding their art practice in real life concerns.”
So what was Who’s Emma anyway? And who was Emma, while we’re at it? Who’s Emma was a store that was located on Nassau Street in Kensington Market in Toronto from 1996 to 2000. Frustrated by a lack of venues and stores supporting DIY culture and independent punk and hardcore music, Who’s Emma was opened by a collective of people, and was staffed and run entirely by volunteers on a consensus basis through monthly meetings. On top of being a store, Who’s Emma hosted shows, workshops, and provided a space for community, activism, and collaboration. And the Emma in question is Emma Goldman, an anarchist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who lived out the end of her life in Kensington Market after being deported from the United States for her political views.
Lyndall remembers her first exposure to Who’s Emma: “When I was 15, I had a friend whose father lived in Kensington Market and I came to visit her in Toronto. We were walking around the Market and came across Who’s Emma and I was totally blown away by it.” Here were people about her age staffing a store offering zines, books, and music that would have been basically impossible for her to find in her hometown of Collingwood. And that’s not to mention the community that walked in and out of its doors: “It was a hub of being able to run into people from everywhere.”
Lyndall makes it clear that she wasn’t aware about how the store was organized and operated until later on, but she explains that “Who’s Emma stayed close to me. When I was living in Halifax, if I met someone from Toronto, I’d usually ask them if they knew what they were up to at the store. I didn’t live in Toronto when it was happening, but I knew it was happening and I thought it was amazing.”
“Working on the project has helped me to integrate into a community in Toronto,” says Lyndall, “A lot of people connected to Who’s Emma have become friends, which has made it a challenge to stay objective.” In keeping with the consensus approach of the social phenomenon she was working to document, she chose to include everyone involved via posting the rough cuts on the internet and collecting feedback. Lyndall adds that the tricky decisions involved in editing were sometimes painful, but overall, her open-book approach to editing was a positive experience.
For Lyndall, the hardest obstacle to overcome along the way was “realizing that the project wanted to be a film. Initially, I wanted it to be a collection of video fragments that people could navigate in a gallery setting through an interface, but there was such a strong narrative to it that I eventually had to give in to the story that was there. Accepting the shift in vision took a lot of time and it continues to be difficult to balance the film with the exhibition and installation aspects of the project.”
As a whole, the documentary project embraces a multifaceted mindset. On top of being a film, Remember Who’s Emma is also an archival art installation and a variety of events that chronicle and celebrate Who’s Emma. Project 165 on Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market will act as the home base for the bulk of it, which was no accident. Lyndall explains: “It was important to situate the project in Kensington Market. I wanted to base it in that physical place, because that is what Who’s Emma was.” A friend recommended she check out Project 165, because it was similar in size and dimension to the store and it was close where Who’s Emma was located. Serendipitously, it also turned out that Project 165 was run by Methinks Presents, a network of artists who share some similar ideals with the Who’s Emma collective.
So it does seem suitable that, from June 10-20th, Project 165 will play host to an installation inspired by physical traces from Who’s Emma, including financial papers, meeting minutes, and posters and flyers from shows, workshops, and events. Creating the installation was a balancing act for Lyndall. On the one hand, she felt the archival impulse to save and preserve the artifacts, and contemplated whether or not to use photocopies and other reproductions instead of the originals. “If there are 50 kids in the space (at the all-ages punk show), posters will be ripped.” Pulling from the other end is what Lyndall calls the punk, anarchist influence: “Things weren’t meant to last, they were supposed to disintegrate. People used scrap paper, sharpies and newsprint. They weren’t thinking about posterity, they were thinking about getting things done now.”
Remember Who’s Emma:
Thursday, June 11th
Exhibition Opening: 5 – 7pm
Project 165 (165 Augusta Ave.)
Later that night, there’ll be a punk dance party (DJed by people involved with Who’s Emma) at Teranga, 159 Augusta Ave.
The exhibition will run from June 10 – 20th. Project 165 is open on Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 4pm.
Tuesday, June 16th
Punk Walking Tour of Kensington Market, lead by Stephe Perry of Equalizing Distort (a longtime punk/hardcore radio show on CIUT)
Thursday, June 18th
All-ages punk show, presented by Cognate
Place Hands, Tomcat Combat, A History Of & Ancestors
Project 165 (165 Augusta Ave.)
Saturday, June 20th
Panel Discussion “Whose Who’s Emma?” + Artist Talk
Project 165 (165 Augusta Ave.)
Tuesday, June 23rd
Screening of Remember Who’s Emma
John Spotton Theatre
National Film Board
150 John Street
Up-to-date details can be found on the Remember Who’s Emma blog: http://rememberwhosemma.wordpress.com/