Tom Dean’s THIS IS PARADISE, inside the Cameron House. Image credit: Peter McCallum, 1983.
Cities are mutable, both culturally and creatively. Driven by a sometimes carnivorous impulse, the metropolis feeds on its own past, the various pasts of its individual neighbourhoods, in order to evolve into a future version of itself. But what remains of the past? Can we track the cultural, artistic, and social bonds of an area, map the essence of any given ’hood in its progression through time? How is the integral artistic spirit of a place—in the form of art, music, theatre, and storytelling—kept alive in the present?
The This is Paradise Collective, headed by director Rae Johnson, seeks to address such theoretical and practical questions with a new project that connects creative communities from the past to those of the present, and even reaches out towards the future. The collective’s website states its mission: “PARADISE counters cultural amnesia, revels in the unique phenomenon of downtown Toronto, and celebrates its history. New creative energies that come to life in visual art, music and theatre, can trace their lineages to the early experiments and collaborations which lead to the creation of the public and artist run galleries and performance spaces which have become cultural mainstays.” With this in mind, This is Paradise uses the Queen Street West arts scene of the early ’80s, and the Cameron Public House specifically, as the focal point for its three-tiered approach.
The first phase begins with This is Paradise, an exhibition curated by Johnson and Herb Tookey, at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Also included in this space will be a complementary exhibit from the National Gallery of Canada Collection, co-curated by Johnson and Jonathan Shaughnessy.
“This show is definitely about the past,” Johnson said when we spoke with her. “It’s an attempt to reclaim the cultural memory of a time and place. If you want to see the real deal on a tight budget, this is it.” She noted that, despite curatorial constraints, they tried as much as possible to be inclusive with the artists featured. The exhibition focuses heavily on the visual art aspect of the period, though video installations will feature music and performances captured at the time.
A highlight of the exhibit’s opening night reception were the incidental theatrical performances by Lisa Marie DiLiberto of FIXTPOINT, who acted in the guise of a conniving condo developer. DiLiberto’s The Tale of a Town—Queen West (video below) will open the 2011/2012 season at Theatre Passe Muraille in September. Passe Muraille was an integral part of the multi-disciplinary Queen West scene in the 1980s, and DiLiberto’s site-specific documentary theatre serves as a direct living link to the creative forces of that time. Her interactive live performances draw on collective community memory, and her Queen West show in particular addresses the gentrification of the area since the ’80s.
Echoing the lively nature of DiLiberto’s work, the second phase of the collective’s initiative is called Paradise Now, which links the Queen West scene of the past to today. Featuring an impressive list of renowned artists, musicians, writers, and videographers, concurrent performances will be happening at the Cameron and the Rivoli to complement the historical exhibition at MOCCA.
A shortlist of performers for Paradise Now includes Lorraine Segato, Linda Griffiths, CCMC (Canada’s pioneering improvisational music ensemble featuring Michael Snow, John Oswald, and Paul Dutton), the Gravitons, Donna Lypchuk, Jim Masyk, Steve Koch, John Borra, Cleave Anderson, Dr. Sketchy, Keith Holding, and many, many more. Johnson says she hopes to develop this aspect of the project into a video/arts magazine, in order to add an additional voice to the dialogues happening in today’s artistic chorus.
Barbara Cole’s Tomorrow (1984). Appliqued c-print. Courtesy of the artist.
Finally, in a sort of culmination of these first two components, the last installment of the Collective’s ambitious undertaking is an online collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art database, called the This is Paradise Project. The intention is to create an ongoing, online archive that will synthesize past and present artistic endeavors into an accessible resource for future generations. “I want to help counter a blind spot,” Johnson says, “and show people that Toronto has a very important and vigorous artistic legacy. This project is also a means to showcase a model for artists of all kinds to operate outside the [corporate] system.”
Johnson’s passion for Toronto’s creative communities is infectious, and her artistic commitment is clearly genuine. In a way, this project is what she calls a “gift” to future generations—not necessarily because what she and others have gathered together is so good, but because of the quality and importance of the local art, music, and theatre made in and around Toronto to date. She is optimistic about the potential of the Collective’s project, and not at all resentful of the way the Queen West scene she helped build has changed in the last 30 years.
Still, things aren’t perfect. “It’s unfortunate that some artists or small galleries today can’t afford to stay in that neighbourhood,” she says. “They are being pushed westward and into other parts of the city. But other communities will form in those new places. You have to have faith and keep going.” When asked if, compared to now, everything was better in the good ol’ days of the ’80s, she simply laughs and says: “I hope not.”