November 19, 2012, by
15 comments

A Crisis of Space: Why I Started Videofag

Viceofag Launch Party

by Jordan Tannahill

Last month my boyfriend William and I signed a one year lease on an old barbershop in Kensington Market, spent three weeks in our long johns scrubbing the walls and floors of hair, painting it, installing lights, and launched a storefront performance space called Videofag. It is our home and the first one we have shared together. But it also one we want to share with Toronto’s cultural community because we believe we can offer something vital to our peers – space. From Le Chat Noir and Gertrude Stein’s rue de Fleurus salons in Paris, to Warhol’s Factory and the Chealsea Hotel in New York City, to VideoCaberet, A Space Gallery, and Rochdale College in Toronto, space for experimentation and discourse has been critical to the development and evolution of artistic peer groups and cultural movements for generations.

I believe Toronto theatre has suffered from a deficit of truly independent, radical space over the past decade. While many young theatre artists, including myself, have benefitted greatly from development programs run by established theatres we are in danger of becoming an overly institutionalized generation of artists. A generation who places value on recognition from the establishment, tentative to seek opportunities for ourselves outside the support of pillared companies and festivals, with selection committees, boards of directors, operational funding, and other structural hierarchies. The theatrical institutions of today were iconoclastic spaces carved from the cultural landscape in the 60s and 70s with a sense of urgency and purpose. As crucial as they remain in our ecology, they are now the establishment – with corresponding programming and financial obligations – and are limited in their capacity to represent the  needs and identities of the emerging zeitgeist.

Our generation cannot afford to exist perpetually in the demi-world of workshops and staged readings. Rather than striving for recognition based on a value system prescribed by the establishment, we need to stake out new territory for ourselves. Instead of standing by to inherit old institutions, or to be programmed by them, we should be actively making new space for ourselves, on our own terms and for our own needs.

There is a crisis of space in Toronto – a lack of affordable venues founded and operated by our young peers where year-round access to dialogue, experimentation, creation, and presentation is possible. A space outside the world of the four-hour tech call, the commercialized, review-centric, festival environment, or developmental programs of larger institutions who lack the ability to produce most of what is seeded within them. What is needed is an accessible, year-round space for emerging creators where ideas have the proper time and context to gestate, be torn apart, and reformed. Where the very nature of why we make performance, and what our generation wants out of performance, can be questioned and defined for ourselves. A space that costs nothing upfront to use – affording us more time in the theatre and less time at our day jobs (and mitigating the financial risk in creative risk-taking).

Videofag is @ 187 Augusta Ave in Kensington Market across from the park.

There are many inspiring models for peer-based collaboration in our own theatrical history – the founding of Theatre Passe Muraille in 1969, Factory Theatre in 1970, and the coming together of six independent companies in 1979 to create the B.A.A.N.N. Theatre Centre – and more recent examples, including Hub 14, Unit 102, Toronto Free Gallery, and companies like Native Earth Performing Arts and fu-Gen forging a home for themselves at Daniel’s Spectrum. Furthermore, many informal spaces like family rooms and kitchens have played critical roles in the evolution of Toronto theatre over the years. So there are many working models, historic and present, from which to draw inspiration – without, of course, fashioning replicas of existing institutions.

A few weeks back over coffee, Brendan Healy conveyed his support of Videofag and our hope to present risk-taking and transgressive work there – Buddies was founded on this ethos and continues to embody it to this day. I left the conversation, though, with the understanding that spaces like Videofag shouldn’t attempt to emulate even the most groundbreaking of institutions, but rather embrace their DIY nature and understand how they are specially positioned to present different kinds of work. This is not to say that we shouldn’t pursue opportunities to produce our work on established mainstages, but rather we should not wait to make work solely in these conditions. We should look at our independence as an asset – a freedom from commitments and expectations – to radically explore and innovate on our own terms. I suspect many of the exciting projects of our time will be pieces we create in the spaces and contexts of our own making.

With Videofag William and I want to bring together boundary-pushing artists, academics, curators, and shit-distrubers operating within a wide range of mediums and socio-political communities to form an atelier where new ideas can be explored and worked on over a timeframe tailored to each project. And it will succeed not because of anything William and I do but because a community of creators have already begun to invest emotionally and artistically in it, and are in the process of making it their own. Ultimately, it is the kind of space that I want to create work in. The kind of space I desire as an artist. The kind of space that inevitably will evolve to the point where it no longer fulfills the needs of the next generation and will, in time, be replaced itself.


Videofag is a storefront cinema and performance space in Kensington Market. While one of our primary focuses is supporting new queer voices in the city, we want to nurture transgressive work from shit disturbers of various ages, orientations, cultural backgrounds, and creative mediums. Ultimately, we are interested in creating an inclusive space for risk taking and discourse. www.videofag.com

Jordan Tannahill is a Toronto-based playwright, theatre director, and filmmaker who runs Suburban Beast, a performance company. He launched Videofag with his partner, actor William Christopher Ellis, in October of this year. For more information, or to propose a project to Videofag, feel free to email Jordan at jordan@videofag.com.

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15 comments:

  1. Jordan Tannahill says:

    I should add: other excellent recent examples of space-making in our city include the lemonTree {Studio} and Pandemic Theatre’s Theatre Lab. Two very inspiring projects.

    http://www.lemontreecreations.ca

    http://pandemictheatre.blogspot.ca

  2. Although I deeply appreciate (and support) Jordan’s desire to create a new space in the city with Videofag and agree with a lot of what he writes here, I do have to express my objection to what I believe to be a somewhat oversimplified and unexamined assessment of the context that he is creating in. I believe that the piece perpetuates some ideas that I think are false – ideas that, frankly, limit the depth of conversation about art in the city.

    The presuppositions that I believe are false in this piece are:
    1) There are art spaces that are “institutions” and there are art spaces that aren’t
    2) there is some kind of thing that happens when an art space moves into the realm of being an “institution” which prevents it from being “radical” or “exciting” and,
    3) you can somehow make art that is “outside” of the “institution”.

    In my opinion, whenever someone in the Western world engages in art-making, they are automatically entering into an institutionalized process. As Andrea Fraser so brilliantly puts in her essay “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” (which happens to be my Bible): “the institution of art is not only “institutionalized” in organizations like museums and objectified in art objects. It is also internalized and embodied in people. It is internalized in the competencies, conceptual models, and modes of perception that allow us to produce, write about, and understand art, or simply to recognize art as art, whether as artists, critics, curators, art historians, dealers, collectors, or museum visitors. And above all, it exists in the interests, aspirations, and criteria of value that orient our actions and define our sense of worth.”

    The solution for creating the conditions for the kind of art that Jordan wishes to see is not a question of space, although that may be a piece of the puzzle. The reality is that the “institution” is us – all of us. To claim that that the “institution” somehow exists outside of us and is contained within walls (or granting bodies, or schools, etc.) is to pretend that we don’t all play a role inside maintaining its presence. Again, to quote Fraser: “Every time we speak of the “institution” as other than “us,” we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions. We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship-above all, self-censorship-which are driven by our own interests in the field and the benefits we derive from it. It’s not a question of inside or outside, or the number and scale of various organized sites for the production, presentation, and distribution of art. It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to. Because the institution of art is internalized, embodied, and performed by individuals, these are the questions that institutional critique demands we ask, above all, of ourselves.”

    I believe that companies that are well-funded and have long histories can be “exciting” or “radical”. I believe that small independent poor spaces can be the most formulaic and unimaginative places around. New does not mean better. Independent does not mean exciting. Art comes from vision, opinions and values – not walls or budgets or a “DIY” aesthetic. I believe that Jordan has plenty of vision, opinions and values and I look forward to seeing how they are manifested at Videofag.

  3. Really appreciate this call and response. A great conversation!

  4. Joanne Williams says:

    Brendan, thanks for introducing me to that article!

  5. I also enjoyed this ‘call and response’. Happy to see these complex and essential concepts that encompass our creative process being discussed.

    In response to Brendan’s critique, although I appreciate the broader understanding of what an institution is, I also wonder if we aren’t missing a bit of meat and potatoes discussion of resources.

    Because older companies were established at a time when public investment was more robust those institutions have more resources. There is a big dividing line between those companies and theatres founded in 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s. The older they are, the more operating funding they have.

    Because of the peculiar way theatre has developed in Canada, those companies that create work for older audiences have increased resources through both fundraising and box office. Take a moment to think about those theatres that have excellent resources and think about the age of their audience. There is an intense positive correlation.

    So bottom line, if your company is older, and you make art for older audiences, you have a way different situation in a rarified ‘institution’. You might even have a house and *gasp* savings. So while Videofag may also be its own kind of institution – it’s heavily subsidized by sweat and passion not dollars. So we can call them both institutions, but the practical reality of creating work in them is much different.

    There is a whole generation of theatremakers coming around to the realization that there are very few resources for them and the type of work they want to make. These resources are tied up in institutions that often have different objectives, interests and values than them.

    Anyhow – just want to throw this out there. I actually don’t think Jordan’s piece is about space as much as it is about resources and the commitment of an older generation to share them. Betting this will be an ongoing topic of debate moving forwards.

  6. Oh I should also add that Buddies as, “the oldest facility-based queer company in the world” is a bit anomalous in this regard. Many younger artists get access to resources to make work geared to younger audiences there.

  7. Bobman says:

    I’m so tired of art for old people. All hail Videofag! I love it when I see young, bold artists re-think the entire, antiquated model. Kudos!

    Bobman

  8. Evan Webber says:

    A tough one – a lot of reading between the lines to be done here!

    I think Brendan’s point about the institution is very connected to what you’re reading from this, Michael, about resources: The ‘70’s Toronto theatres and their descendants (the ones Jordan’s cited, mostly) cohered as organizations around particular groups’ images of identity and their search for the recognition of those images. The way that resources are distributed is not only about the age of companies and audiences. It’s reflective of the politics at the time of their foundings and how that politics came eventually to serve, or at least achieve compatibility, with the agenda of the government. The name of the new space, Videofag, is a very traditional gesture from this perspective. Reducing the terms of the conversation only to age is a problem. If young artists don’t think any differently than their predecessors then what difference does it make, handing off the baton?

    But the impulse to make a new space is surely an oppositional one, and I’m curious to see how that opposition gets articulated. I respect your courage, Jordan, in starting that process. I think Dave Hickey wrote that the best part of having your own gallery is getting to enact what is impossible or impolitic to say.

  9. [...] greatly from development programs run by established theatres we are in danger of becoming…  (follow this link to read the rest.) 0 [...]

  10. Melanie Hrymak says:

    I absolutely agree that so-called “established” companies have produced some of the most groundbreaking and experimental work that I have seen. As Michael Wheeler pointed out, these companies have the security of subscribers and a great deal more funding, which in a way makes it easier and less risky to produce this kind of work. Interestingly, it sometimes feels like younger artists feel or are forced to rein in their projects in order to make sure they are viable and to take some of the risk out of producing their own work.

    That being said, I am very happy to see a new space open up in Toronto. Give artists a venue and they will fill it!

  11. Jacob Zimmer says:

    My impulse for a space is a home. First, selfishly, for the work I do or dream on with Small Wooden Shoe. Second, for others whose values and/or work speak to similiar impulses. I want a place that can I can belong to. Somewhere I walk through the doors and – for all the labour and hardship that is involved in space running – and feel a sense of belonging and possibility.

    While I can understand the way in which this can be oppositional, I think instead of *distinction*. Of course it implies that none of the existing structures produce that feeling for me, but me wanting that space doesn’t mean others shouldn’t have theirs.

    It seems very hard in this theatre world to make distinction, in part because it is seen as oppositional. “Alternative” has become a meaningless term – though if a mono-culture remains, it remains in theatre. And yes, beaurocratic thinking (institutional) is not specific to size. And age, old or young, doesn’t have a causal relationship with vitality or depth.Yes, there are imbalances to correct and equalities that need championing and there are distinctions to be made – material, aesthetic, historical, social and political.
    Maybe we could use more distinction with less stigma?

    This doesn’t answer Evan’s very valid concern that the buildings with the most resources will be the ones that speak to a place of power (econimic, social, governmental.) Spaces outside of power are most often temporary, a bit mobile and supported through sweat-equity and solidarity. And maybe there is a way to move back and forth, find something in the shimmering middle. And if there is, it is certainly up to us to find it.

    Which will probably take a bunch of work, some dancing and a solidarity that doesn’t rid us of distinction.

  12. Ok, first of all I want to thank Jordan and William for their hard-work and risk-taking. I don’t know either of you and have never seen a Praxis Theatre production, but I know how much work, time, money and energy it takes to maintain a space. Turning any old space into a new space for art is risky business financially speaking and I hope they have a decent support network behind them with grants, and part time jobs, and maybe even full time jobs, so that the landlord remains happy and all business transacts on time because if it doesn’t and ends poorly for the landlord, it will be one less landlord willing to rent space in the city for artistic ventures. So congratulations on the christening of another little tiny space available in Kensington Market to make some art. Cool. I’m all for it. Congratulations and enjoy. Leave the space better than you found it. Before Videofag there was Lorraine’s Comedy Space, and Bread and Circus. Currently House of Energy, and Alternative Thinking basement and Whippersnapper Gallery is available and around the corner and the list goes on and on. These spaces usually come and go as the amount of time and energy that goes into them does not meet the financial obligations of renting in the city. You guys are making yourselves patrons of the art, and we are thankful, but I hope you have plenty of beer, wine, food, merchandise and tickets to sell and that the space is spilling over with patrons who buy lots of stuff.

    But seriously, to make it out like renting an old barbershop and cleaning it up to make room for art is a way of challenging the system or making less institutional art is a bit presumptuous. Most institutions have a mandate to make challenging and radical art. And who says there is a crisis of space in the city? Toronto is HUGE! There are churches and libraries and city owned buildings and outdoor band shells and parks and a lot of them sitting empty everywhere. It takes a bit of writing, and meeting people and looking outside the “theatre community” to find them, but they do exist and perhaps its the theatre community itself that needs to think outside its own box. A couple of questions: How many people does this performance space fit? What size of cast and audience can one expect? If we are talking peer based collaboration, how many of our peers can we have here? In the photo, I see more people outside than in. From my outside perspective, Videofag is a queer centered cabaret space available for small groups of arts experimenters to surprise and delight each other with songs, dances and mostly individual pieces like the Great Canadian Rant (an art form Daniel MacIvor invented, and Rick Mercer perfected).

    It should be a lot of fun, and could be the spark of something bigger, especially if running and cleaning and booking and fixing and administrating space becomes something that you both love and enjoy, then hopefully there are bigger and better spaces on the horizon! Maybe you’ll be the next people to take over stewardship of Alumni or Factory or Buddies, and bring with you some experience and practical know-how as well as a scene. That’d be cool.

  13. [...] was recently hit-on-the-head through the newly opened Video Fag space – please check out the Praxis Theatre blog for this bubbling exchange. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in: Uncategorized [...]

  14. [...] board of directors dismissed Ken Gass over a renovation dispute. Meanwhile, there’s been a significant amount of debate about the existence and accessibility of space where emerging artists can create and show work, [...]

  15. catherine landry says:

    I think you guys are beautiful and this expression is super cool.
    The way the windows open out onto the street is the same way you have flung open your heart and soul to the world.
    VIDEOFAG=brave+bold
    XOXOX
    Catherine