Interviews

Looking Back at Toronto’s Radical 1980s Underground Art Scene

"The Rebel Zone: Queens Street West" (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
‘The Rebel Zone: Queens Street West (1975–1989) Art & Activism’ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

TORONTO — Long before the Gap, Kiehls, and multiple Starbucks outlets arrived, Toronto’s Queen Street West (QSW) was a hive of activity for an up-and-coming creative community that would quickly make waves for the new intersections it opened between art and politics. A multimedia show at Toronto’s YTB Gallery, The Rebel Zone: Queen Street West (1975–1989) Art & Activism, details this rise with an intriguing mix of sound, art, and music. Curated by filmmaker and singer/songwriter Lorraine Segato, who lived and made art in the QSW neighborhood for decades, the show provides insight into a scene that would set the stage for a whole generation of underground bands and artists, ultimately leading to one of the city’s earliest examples of gentrification.

Album art from some of the musical talents that emerged from the Queen Street west scene (click to enlarge)

Following the 1960s folk music explosion in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood, the QSW arts scene began to flourish in the early 1980s, thanks to a hard-hitting recession that produced low rents and made way for independent businesses. In 1987, independent broadcaster CITY and other broadcast properties including MuchMusic moved into the area, to a 1913 building that was once the headquarters of the Methodist Church of Canada. “Artists originally moved into those derelict buildings as a result of the recession,” Segato told Hyperallergic: when she first lived there in the late 1970s, she paid $266 a month for a 1,200-square-foot apartment. “But MuchMusic made the street very glamorous.” The building is now HQ for the radio and television broadcast hub of Canadian corporate giant Bell Canada’s media unit. On and around the street these days, glass high rises jostle for space with swishy restaurants and retail outlets, while many independent businesses (including a much-beloved indie bookstore) have been forced to close because of skyrocketing rent.

The Rebel Zone is part of the inaugural Myseum Intersections festival, which explores different perspectives on Toronto’s historical, cultural, and natural diversity. Included in the exhibition are photos, poster art, handbills, silkscreens, video work, and various cultural artifacts, from hand-drawn menus to concert announcements, that recall a time when Queen Street was far more scrappy and down-at-heel, with a creative community forced to work against the conservative temperament of the times, including Ontario’s restrictive liquor laws. “After-hours clubs were really important,” Segato said. “There was a prohibition-style provincial government at the time, and you couldn’t drink past 9pm unless you were eating food, so the booze cans [late-night bars] gave rise to this new [street] culture.”

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The “No Borders Here” section showcases posters from musical performances, benefits, and special events that took place along Queen Street West

Different sections in the exhibit are named after lines from key bands and artists of the early 1980s, including Alta Moda, Martha and the Muffins, Rough Trade, and Jane Siberry. The show includes work by General Idea, Charles Pachter, Ray Johnson, and video footage of performance art troupe the Hummer Sisters, who made a fascinating faux run at the mayoralty in 1982.

One of the most striking things about the show is the centrality of the DIY ethos that so defined the musical and artistic pursuits of Queen West’s cultural life. Handmade items, whether drawn, beaded, knit, or painted, feature prominently in The Rebel Zone, with a very specific purpose. “It was a very do-it-yourself [time],” Segato said, “and that’s an activist stance right there, like, ‘I don’t have funding or money but will do it anyway.’ There was a lot of cross-pollination and fertilization of each other’s projects just to get the work done, and that also fed into this idea of community. It made the community strong.”

‘The Rebel Zone,’ installation view with Lorraine Segato (click to enlarge)

Another part of what fostered strong community was the combination of the neighborhood’s close-knit nature and its ever-expanding multiculturalism. Segato recalled Billy Bryans, drummer and co-founder of the Parachute Club, joking about rolling his drum kit up and down the street playing gigs, from “the Rex to the Beverly to the Cameron to the BamBoo. He’d play in an art band here and a reggae band there and then our band… That was just a metaphor for the way everybody operated back then.” Each club had a very different vibe, from punk to new wave to sounds reflecting Toronto’s urban multiculturalism; Bryans’ experience was a microcosm for what made the street — and its burgeoning arts scene — so unique.

A sense of family was also fostered, Segato recalled, through sheer proximity. “You used to be able to walk down Queen Street and you knew everybody, in every bookstore, every restaurant. I don’t know how that works in this day and age. When you’ve got buildings that are moving upwards in the sky, and not this way” — she gestured with her hands in a horizontal motion — “it’s hard to connect with people in a day-to-day way, one on one.”

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‘The Rebel Zone,’ installation view

One section, called “Rise Up,” details what Segato calls a “tipping point” moment for Toronto’s creative community. The infamous 1981 bathhouse raids involved 200 plainclothes police officers raiding four gay bathhouses and arresting more than 300 innocent men. As outlet Daily Xtra notes, that raid “was part of a deliberate and organized campaign by government and police to push gay baths and bars out of business, to silence the gay press and to remove gay voices from public discourse.” This section of the exhibit includes material from the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, including a printed news report in which a police officer is quoted as saying, “Too bad the showers weren’t hooked up to gas.”

Segato took part in the protests after the raids. “As an artist, it was easy to put myself on the streets,” she said. “It was about wanting to live with inclusion, wanting to share freedom, wanting to be equal, wanting to be heard, wanting to be seen, to be visible… This was a moment that really, really galvanized everyone.”

The section offers an interesting look into a Toronto that feels long ago and far away, especially considering the city now boasts one of the largest Pride festivals in the world.

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“Hummer for Mayor,” an original campaign/art poster from the 1982 mayoral race when performance art group Hummer Sisters ran against incumbent mayor Art Eggleton and garnered 12,000 votes (click to enlarge)

Segato has expressed her passion for this history in the past, when she directed the 2001 film The Rebel Zone (after which this show is named), but the point of The Rebel Zone: Queens Street West, she says, is to pay homage to cultural figures she feels haven’t received their proper due, and to raise the awareness of current emerging artists. ”I feel like everything is growing and moving so quickly,” she said “How will anybody know whose shoulders they’re standing on unless somebody says, ‘Hey, these people were here and they took a lot of shots for you’? We were at the forefront of a moment of cutting a path for others to follow.”

The great irony, at least outwardly, is that this show isn’t being held on Queen Street West, but on the other side of town in Regent Park, an area that was, for several decades, plagued by inner-city problems. In the early part of the 20th century, the area was home to slum districts and housed several generations of immigrant families. Social issues led to the area’s affordable housing in the 1940s, but although the developments were intended to alleviate crime, the neighborhood continued to have an especially bad reputation. Today, Regent Park is experiencing a kind of renaissance, thanks to ambitious redevelopment plans that have seen it become more mixed in income.

“There’s an energy that’s bubbling [in Regent Park]” Segato said, “and I recognize this energy because I felt it on Queen Street when I first walked down it. It’s a familiar energy, of things chafing up against each other but doing it in a positive, creative way.”

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‘The Rebel Zone,’ installation view

Segato confessed that she has “very complicated feelings” when it comes to gentrification. “I feel really pissed off about that in so many way,” she said. “I think it’s always the artists who take the chances to build the area, and I think there should be levels of protection that take place to allow people who were there to remain there.” Still, Segato is concerned for the neighborhood’s young artists. “What I hope for is that these artists get the support they need to find venues to put their work into.”

It remains to be seen if history can repeat itself in Regent Park, with creative culture thriving here the way it did along Queen Street West in the early 1980s. But if the glass condos and coffee shops are anything to go on, the next cool downtown neighborhood just may be on the east side.

The Rebel Zone: Queen Street West (1975–1989) Art & Activism continues at the YTB Gallery (563 Dundas St E #201, Toronto) through March 31.

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