We Asked Five Innovative Toronto Artists About the People, Spaces, and Movements Inspiring Them Right Now

Some of our favorite producers, promoters, and venue owners share their 2016 favorites and discuss the challenges facing the city.

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Dec 15 2016, 7:30pm

Julia Dickens

All illustrations by Julia Dickens. This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.

2016 is the year where we've all been left asking ourselves "what's next?" The political chaos in the United States, matched with countless tragedies around the world, has made it difficult for anyone to remain hopeful in these trying times. For the communities that make up Toronto's eclectic arts scene, pushing forward with their creative pursuits, along with sparking a greater dialogue around inclusivity, racial discrimination, and economic barriers has become more crucial than ever. From the directors making visuals to the DJs and collectives making room for new identities in nightlife, these folks all contribute to the cultural zeitgeist of their city in diverse, meaningful ways. To get a picture of Toronto in 2016, we spoke to five multidisciplinary creatives about the people, places, and movements they see making a difference, and the challenges they face moving forward.

Above Top Secret

"I think the one thing that stands out to me in Toronto art is multiculturalism and people's connection to their culture. Whether it be people from East Africa, India, most of the artists I know connect their music to their cultural past, outside of just being Canadian.

I think being apart of different collectives has been really important for Above Top Secret. I think the number one resource is people and networking, so communities like 88 Days Of Fortune and Omit Limitation, who feed off each other and help other out are very important. I know there's grants and organizations willing to help people, but I don't think it's always that accessible to everyone. In terms of helping youth, there really great organizations like SKETCH who do really amazing things, like helping with grant writing and providing immediate financial support if needed.

We're really excited for [88 Days Of Fortune member] Yasmine. We've been working with her for seven years and we've seen her grow so much, she's at a point where she could pop off at anytime. Next year is our eight year anniversary and we're joining forces with a lot of different community organization to showcase everything in the city and just outside the city. We'll also be working with 8-11, which is a non-for-profit gallery space downtown."

Above Top Secret is an electronic hip-hop group.

Brian Wong

"Toronto is funny because it's a "small" big city. To clarify: London and New York are just as cosmopolitan, if not more, mainly due to their sheer size. Toronto's different... huge swaths of semi-suburban residential areas within a 30 minute drive of the downtown core, transit is kind of meh, industrial zones are further out. The artist communities in general are not very big either—it seems like most active people eventually find each other.

Living here is difficult. At the same time I've heard horror stories from people living in New York or London, so I think in some ways the hustle keeps you sharp. From an events perspective though it definitely seems like we're just shy macro-economically to make a lot of the more adventurous programming work here on a frequent basis, although as the city grows, maybe that will change. From a dance music artist's perspective, it's very difficult to subsist entirely off your art from North America alone, unless you work within a few narrow EDM/Beatport lanes.

Our gear and record shops are natural hangout places. TRP was awesome when it was around. I've met most of my close friends just hanging out at various parties. It's Not U It's Me is working on building a more focused directory and workshop series to help seed collaboration between artists interested in dance/experimental/electronic music... more on this to come in upcoming months."

Brian Wong (aka Gingy) is a DJ and organizer with It's Not You It's Me.

Isaac Flagg

"One thing that sets Toronto artists and DJs apart from their contemporaries in Europe or other major cities in North America, is this commitment to initiating community-oriented projects on their own, without historical precedents or already existing institutional support. Within the arts community, we are currently seeing a lot of new, small-scale spaces being created that operate somewhere between a private, commercial gallery, and a traditional artist-run centre, all occurring without operational funding or a successful commercial practice.

By bringing people with similar interests together to dance, dress up, perform, and present themselves according to this or that aspect of their sexual orientation and identity, parties play a key role in fostering the kinds of friendship and emotional bonds that allow us to work cooperatively and support each other in other contexts. Like anything, there are also a lot of problems and problematic relationships that play out and find expression in these environments, but I do not believe it is the party itself that is the primary function of the community being created. It is the party that serves the construction of the community. Each one is little more than a moment in a long-term narrative of personal and collective growth.

I would say that people in the arts are probably more equipped than others to mobilize and generate critical discourse in relation to the broader political issues determining their lives—and therefore in addition to the various forms of oppression they might face on a day-to-day basis, they are also having to contend with very real, basic problems of self-organization. Breaking down barriers to intimacy, untangling ourselves, and each other from tendencies towards competitive entrepreneurship and self-interest, learning how to actually love each other and live in a way founded on mutual support and respect... all the while attempting to keep moving, stay alive, and produce meaningful work. Trying to be a politically or socially relevant artist requires a constant and open-ended work on the self. There is no end to this."

Isaac Flagg is the co-owner of Redd Flagg and co-hosts Techno Tuesday at the Embassy.

Young Teesh

"It's just as important to reach out and build meaningful relationships with other creatives, as it is to have individuality and independence. That's the easiest and most effective way to thrive. Although 'you' technically got to where you are at this point, the possibilities with like-minded people who happen to be in the same city are endless. In addition, pay cover, buy a print, pay for someone's time if you can. If you pour into the system of having a community, it'll grow to befriend, support, and advise you back.

Josh McIntyre and Talvi Faustmann of the duo Prince Innocence, with whom I have a mentoring and meaningful relationships with, LA timpa, Bambii, Aneela Qureshi (DJ Nino Brown of Yes, Yes, Y'all), and JIMINY are some widely influential artists and DJs in the city. I've been within arms' reach with some of the best creatives Toronto has to offer and that's been very inspiring and helpful to my own process.

I think it can be a challenge to allot equal parts energy and finances to your craft, while pursuing the spirit of Sex and the City, and wanting to eat food. Although you strive to make it as evenly full force as possible, at some point one area can take a hit. You're always doing a juggle of sorts. Getting paid enough as an artist to support yourself counts as a success. Much recognition to the creatives that are living on their own, being a 'socialite/tastemaker,' buying paint, fabric, film, and eating all on the same schedule, because in a sense they've 'made it.'"

Young Teesh is one half of DJ duo Baby Blue with Josh McIntyre.

Sammy Rawal

"I think when you're working alongside so many people from such different backgrounds, that energy just elevates everyone's creativity. As the city grows and continues to define itself as a global hub, the work coming out of it starts to become way more indicative of the cultural landscape that exists in Toronto, something that's really special to the city and that doesn't exist elsewhere. I've also been blessed enough to be part of the queer arts scene within the city. It all feels like a tight knit family. We tend to share similar reference points, inspiration and, political views. That sense of community is so huge for me, because we're all encouraging each other to work more, hustle harder, and jump higher.

I find I make the most meaningful professional connections and friendships through going out for a drink down the street, rather than going to things like industry parties and such. I'm a bit of a weirdo introvert and sort of hate those forced interactions with random people in the industry. But on top of that there are some really amazing resources for filmmakers that are totally accessible such as LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers).

Funding is the biggest challenge for creatives in my community. Budgets for film projects are becoming so minuscule it's forcing people to do more work for less money. That being said, it's also kind of forcing people like me to wear more hats than usual. I'm a director by profession, but depending on the project and budget, I've had to be editor, art director, stylist, and even movement coach. I find that I'm always looking to learn something new to add to my creative tool kit."

Sammy Rawal is a video director and co-founder of dancehall monthly Yes, Yes, Y'all.

All interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Max Mohenu is on Twitter.