Fire on the Water organizers hope to start a discussion about "public bathing culture" in Toronto, and make people dance.
DJs, art installations, and public swimming are an odd combination. Marcus Boon and Christie Pearson—who are collectively known as The Waves, and who are the organizers of Fire on the Water, an upcoming “swim-in and dance party” at Sunnyside Beach—know this. They just don’t care.
“It’s basically just a meeting of our different interests,” says Boon of Fire on the Water, which happens on Sunday. “Since we met seven years ago, we’ve been talking about doing these events that are kind of parties, but also art projects. We had the idea to do everything that interested us in one project, and who cares if it doesn’t make sense.”
The all-ages event will feature several DJ sets, multimedia art installations, live performances, a tribute to the lake in the form of choreographed dance, and of course, lots of swimming.
Pearson, who is a self-proclaimed “bathing activist and researcher” in addition to being an artist and architect, first became interested in public bathing culture after visiting a hammam while in Tunisia. Since then, she’s travelled the world looking at how different cultures deal with public bathing.
“I just got kind of obsessed with cultures of public bathing,” she says. “I’ve gone to places like Turkey and Japan and looked at these different bathing traditions, and for me, they’re incredibly inspiring. They reflect back cultural assumptions and attitudes towards interacting with people, cultural assumptions towards sexuality and aging, gender segregation and integration… It’s just kind of endlessly interesting for me.”
She adds that, while we may not realize it, Toronto has a bathing culture all its own—one that borrows from other bathing and swimming traditions from around the world.
“We have the public pool culture, the private pool culture, and pool clubs. The beaches each have their own scene,” she says. “We have the Oak Leaf, relating to a whole eastern European tradition. There’s a gay bathhouse scene.”
“Not a lot of people know this, but there’s actually a Korean public bath north of the city that anyone can go to. You can bring the whole family. They have a play room for kids.”
She says that Fire on the Water is an attempt to help sculpt the city’s evolving bathing culture.
“What kind of bathing cultures can be encouraged here? How can it evolve?” she wonders. “How can we build on what we have to make it more rich and more wonderful?”
Boon curated the musical lineup for Fire. As one of the minds behind the MAMA “global bass” parties at now-defunct Kensington Market bar Teranga, he’s been fascinated with dance music from around the world for years. He says it made sense to combine public swimming with a mixture of global club tunes.
“When we were thinking about music representing the twenty-first century, multicultural, multinational population in Toronto, the global bass scene seemed like a good thing to put in dialogue with those bathing traditions,” he says.
He says that almost every DJ he asked to be part of the project agreed almost immediately. The resulting lineup includes both locals like The Slowed DJs, as well as out-of-towners like Montreal’s Poirier and New York’s Venus X.
Pearson says that one of her goals with Fire is to remind people that in the first half of the twentieth century, Toronto had a thriving summertime beach culture, with Sunnyside as one of its social hubs. The grand architecture of Sunnyside Pavilion is evidence of this. She hopes people will take a look at the edifice and realize that Toronto is still a beach town, and that public bathing is more a part of our culture than we realize.
“Sunnyside harkens back to another era when Toronto had this rich beach scene,” she says. “It has this great big arch and this massive stair and you’re looking out at the lake, and you realize that, at one time, people thought this scale of architecture was appropriate for people to get together, put on their bathing suits, and swim or watch people swim.”
“People will walk up the stairs on the day and say ‘Wow, why don’t we have more places like this?’”
Photo of Sunnyside Beach from the City of Toronto Archives.
This post originally listed the address of the event as “1755 Lakeshore Boulevard.” The correct address is 1755 Lake Shore Boulevard West.