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Kids of Kensington

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Breaking into Toronto’s well-established arts scene can present a huge challenge for even the gutsiest BFA graduate. There’s the intimidation that comes from approaching well-known artists and galleries, the fight to get noticed in a competitive field, and rents that rise whenever the New York Times declares your once-affordable neighbourhood “the next big thing.”

So, what’s a twentysomething artist to do? Band together with others in the same predicament, of course. Three new collective-run artist spaces in Kensington Market prove that they can tough it out with a little help from their friends.

The venue: Double Double Land (209 Augusta Ave.)

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“Did I mention I can bring big propane burners?” Julia makes notes to her sketchbook using a thick marker.

“Yeah, that would be great,” Dan replies.

“Good, because I want to cook with them in the back room.”

Julia Kennedy is planning a barbeque soirée, the first in a series of themed culinary events that Double Double Land is hosting this year. She’s discussing her proposal in the kitchen of the combined performance space/apartment with residents Jon McCurley, Daniel Vila, Rob Gordon, and Steve Thomas. The room’s industrial appliances and vents, relics of a past life, are softened in the presence of tattered cookbooks and Craigslist lamps.

The loft space atop La Rosa Bakery used to be an office, then an after-hours club. It was Vila who discovered it after being kicked out of Jamie’s Area, a multidisciplinary Kensington space he had co-founded with Bonny Poon last spring. At first, Vila had been interested in an apartment a few doors north of their current location, but the rent turned out to be exorbitant. The real estate agent there recommended 209 Augusta instead.

“The place was in awful shape,” laments Vila. “There was garbage everywhere.”

“We say we’ve been here since September 1, but that’s only when we were legally allowed to move in,” explains Thomas. “It was roach-infested, and we had to paint every surface, so it took longer.”

“So far, the renovations have all been over-budget, so we haven’t been able to put space money to rent as of yet,” Vila says. “But once everything is paid off, we’ll be fine. Really.”
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Double Double Land itself is no more than a big room: 780 square feet cluttered with amps, church-basement chairs, and costumes from McCurley’s past projects. They named the space for a performance McCurley wrote and directed at Gallery TPW last year, but the group isn’t sure whether the moniker will stick for very long.

“It’s just a malleable, empty space,” says Gordon. “It’s not a legit venue or anything like that, so we can really transform it from one week to the next.”

The rest of the apartment space has literally been carved out—Vila’s room, for instance, was once part of the hallway, but a friend helped to put up walls and create a fourth bedroom.

“Living where I work is pretty important to me because it inspires me to put a lot of effort into doing events,” he explains. “Having a space you live in frees you from a lot of money issues. You can be more adventurous with programming. The idea is that we’ll have insane things happening in the back room. Ideally, there would be a complete division between that and where we live.”

Still, the model presents just as many challenges as it does benefits. As Thompson notes, “There have been three separate incidents of graffiti, and somebody broke our bathroom mirror.”

“Plus,” adds Gordon, “I walked into Jon’s bedroom, and someone had their penis out, about to piss on his desk.”

“It’s hard because it doesn’t pay for our lives,” McCurley says. “Everyone has a shitty job, and then you come home to work someone’s birthday party, and then someone writes ‘fuck you’ on your wall. But there’s a good side, too. It’s great to have this enormous room.”

Vila adds, “When you have a big room that you have complete control over, it’s pretty good in terms of generating ideas.”

What does the group make of the other artist spaces cropping up around them in Kensington?

“It’s an old standby neighbourhood,” says Gordon. “Unlike the Junction, there aren’t a lot of preconceptions.”

“And unlike Queen West,” Vila continues, “you couldn’t just graft Kensington onto another neighbourhood if it were to get too gentrified. All the artists would have to move elsewhere.”

What’s next:

The aforementioned food series begins on January 31. As well, Double Double Land will be hosting a Zeesy Powers film screening on the 23rd and an ArtStars party on the 27th. The quartet may or may not have a website at press time (depending on whether they’ve changed the name of the venue).

The store: Good Blood Bad Blood (13 Kensington Ave.)

Alicia Nauta and Joele Walinga have just polished off an entire pizza and are energetically changing the prints on display in their store-gallery Good Blood Bad Blood. It’s been a typical day in terms of street traffic: “We get lots of people just stopping in,” Alicia explains. “Even families, and high school kids who are coming here for the first time—to Kensington Market! It’s funny, their reactions to this place.”

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Perhaps it’s because the collective opened shop last May on a strip of Kensington Avenue often referred to as “vintage alley.” In a sea of neon t-shirts and vibrantly patterned saris, their simple white store is an oasis of calm. Sitting inside on a plush red couch, we watch passersby on the sidewalk taking snapshots of the boutique, beckoned by its outward simplicity.

It hadn’t always been so pristine—in its previous reincarnation as clothing store The Rage, the whole place had been painted hot pink. Good Blood Bad Blood founders Reid Jenkins and Jesse Labreche had lived on the second floor of the shop, and when they heard The Rage was moving, they snapped up the lower level. Their goal was to create a shop where young artists could sell their wares without being intimidated by the gallery scene.

“It can be really hard starting out in Toronto,” Nauta explains, “especially going down Queen Street, thinking, ‘How am I ever going to get my stuff in this gallery?’ We’re just trying to create opportunities for young artists.”

“It’s very easy to feel like you don’t have a place in the arts scene,” she continues. “You’re too young, you’re too inexperienced, you don’t have enough schooling. But I think it’s important to try things anyway, to fight those things.”

No member of the collective, which also includes Zoe Fox and Sarah D’Angelo, had any business experience before opening shop. “We’re all young, in our early twenties, for the most part,” Nauta says. “For all of us, it was a totally new thing.”

“We’ve gone through so many trials running a business,” Walinga adds. “But being together has helped us overcome our inexperience.”

As it turns out, their struggles have had less to do with finances and more to do with personal differences. As Walinga explains, “I think they were so desperate for members initially that they took anyone, so it didn’t quite balance out. It’s hard to bring a collective together when you’ve never even met five of the members before.”

“It’s so hard to reconcile different views on what art should look like, or what a space should be,” Nauta agrees.
“Clashing of ideas just seems to happen, but I think we’ve come out of it. There have been yelling meetings, but that could happen anywhere.”

After initial struggles, though, Walinga feels that the group has come together. “We’re entirely supportive of each other. Being able to have your friends care about your things, and being able to trust that there’ll be a lot of respect between us—it’s great.”

After hours, the store also holds exhibitions, concerts, and reading series. “It’s really not pretentious,” says Walinga. “People just sit on the floor, nobody dresses up. It’s just community.”

Ultimately, though, the artists feel the greatest reward is being able to run their own practice.

“It’s not like a job where you can phone in sick and not feel guilty about it,” Nauta says. “It’s your own effort, so you’d be letting yourself down.”

“I like that we’ve done this,” Walinga adds. “For me, it’s especially reassuring because I dropped out of high school, so this is like a nice pat on the back from God! This is like our baby.”

What’s next:

Good Blood Bad Blood hosts Stop Talking, a reading night, on Jan. 29, and an installation in their back room in February. Find them online at goodbloodbadblood.blogspot.com

The studio: The White House (277 Augusta Ave.)

The White House isn’t the easiest place to locate—ask even the artiest people hanging around on Augusta, and they’ll look at you quizzically, guessing, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?” The airy loft is actually situated in a converted karate school, with a main door offering a phone number to sign up for lessons.

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Unlike the other collectives, the White House isn’t indigenous to Kensington Market—the group actually got started renting out affordable studio space in a house down at College and Landsdowne.

“Originally, [co-founders] Xenia Benivolski, Christy Kunitzky, and Jon McCurley were looking to cheap studio space in the city, but they couldn’t find any good solutions,” explains resident artist and U of T student Adam Cowan. “They got a bunch of friends to all go in together on a lease. It’s hard finding a place capable of putting even three or four people in every room and working out to $150 a month for each person, but they did it, and we’re able to do it here.”

Soon enough, though, a move was in order.

“We wanted to be in Kensington first and foremost,” Cowan says. “We were also jumping on an opportunity, though—it’s hard to find giant warehouse spaces like this where it won’t be completely out of the way. I found this one posted on Craigslist at midnight, and I emailed [the landlord] at 12:15 a.m.”

Spaciousness is probably one of the greatest advantages of the White House’s new location, along with a woodshop and silk-screening room in the works, there’s ample workspace for the collective’s 25 practicing artists. Not all of the artists participate in the studio’s operations, however.

“We realized a lot of people just wanted studio space as opposed to doing community outreach and all that sort of stuff,” says Cowan. “Our board of directors really helps to streamline getting things done.” They also help to boost the collective’s credibility with their landlord.

“He did want to make sure we weren’t crazy. Imagine, you go to one and say, ‘Hey, we want to run a non-profit studio! It’ll work out!” without a business model or anything. We had to get to know each other first, but he likes what’s we’re doing here.”

One thing they have yet to figure out, though, is how to hold events in the space.

“At our old place, it almost turned into a house party every time. We’ll probably hold our crazy party shows at other venues—Double Double Land is sort of meant for that—while having our exhibitions here.”

So far, though, Cowan has loved his time at the White House. “The biggest thing I’ve gotten out of this is the networking, getting to know so many people. Kensington is just more open [to collectives]. Even galleries like F13 and Hotshot are doing something different—this place isn’t typical at all.”

What’s next:

The White House is aiming to host its first exhibition in their new space in mid-March. Stay tuned at theotherwhitehouse.ca.

All photos by Dan Epstein