This is Torontopia

This is Torontopia
It’s 2.30 on a humid Friday morning, Trinity Bellwoods Park in the heart of Toronto. Seventy people gather around a shadow show, listening to three musical saws emanate ghostly sounds while a frail singer bows his banjo. It’s followed by a bizarre performance by seven men in loincloths playing recorders, jaw harps and bowls. The clandestine performance closes with two droning acoustic guitarists singing of "wyrd visions.” Their attempts to fade out a song by walking away are thwarted when the entire audience follows them. This is Torontopia.

It’s a hot summer night by the water, Harbourfront Centre. Thousands of people from across the cultural spectrum have come to pay homage to a bunch of old Jamaican guys who ruled the soul scene on the Yonge Street strip back in the ’60s; nowadays they’re all retired barbers. But for one night, at a free show before a fervent crowd, they are the toast of the town, finally getting overdue recognition from a city that’s ready to celebrate its own. This is Torontopia.

The Hidden Cameras play the main stage at Guelph’s Hillside Festival in front of thousands of people. The band that started as more of a Queen Street art project has not only survived, but prospered and evolved. They now tour the world, and their fourth full-length is getting an international release on Broken Social Scene’s Arts and Crafts label. Today’s line-up features original members and people they met yesterday, along with veteran Gentleman Reg, newcomer Laura Barrett, all of Torontopian advocates Republic of Safety, and most of young upstarts Spiral Beach, not to mention the founder of the activist Public Space Committee. This is Torontopia.

Three years ago, in the midst of the city’s current cultural renaissance, the term "Torontopia” started appearing on posters, on flyers, in blogs and song titles. What began as a sly wink in the indie music scene soon evolved into a genuine philosophy applied to larger civic engagement. Torontopia was/is about re-imagining your city, creating new models, forging new communities, building sustainable institutions, celebrating diversity. It’s not foolish enough to boast of a perfect society; it relishes the imperfections, the mundane, the everyday, and in the process inspires art that could be either ephemeral or epic — or both, in the case of its most mainstream manifestation, Broken Social Scene.

Katarina Collins is a vocal Torontopia champion, who knew nothing of the Toronto music scene when she was asked by Steve Kado to join the Barcelona Pavilion in 2001, a band that epitomised the city’s newfound DIY spirit and fondness for conceptual art.

"To me, it seemed that Toronto was this wonderland of fantastic creativity,” says Collins. "Everyone was so open to new ideas and so positive, so interested in collaborating and being productive and active. The term Torontopia seemed like a fantastic shorthand for all the things I had been experiencing. It really signified this new attitude I had about the city, which was not in fact a utopia, but it had the potential to be whatever any of us wanted to mould it into.”

Steve Kado is credited with popularising the term, but he didn’t invent it. Kado heard it from someone he met playing Fototag — along with Manhunt, a popular game that has helped Torontopians re-engage with their urban space. "This guy whose name I forget had this idea for a hilarious magazine called Torontopia. It would be about how awesome Toronto was, but it would be about really boring stuff. It would be based on Japanese magazines that freak out about ‘stuff,’ about the corner of Grace and Dundas or something, which has a church and a convenience store and nothing else.”

Kado put the term on a show poster and it took off from there. "The way people talked about Torontopia wasn’t in purely musical terms,” says Republic of Safety’s Jonny Dovercourt. "We talked about how one lives in the city, your personal relationship to where you’re from as an artist and a citizen. It becomes more universal in that sense, and not something that only musicians can take a lesson from.”

Naturally, the term’s geo-centrism is somewhat troublesome — especially when Kado recorded, compiled and released the 2004 compilation Toronto is the Best! Torontonians have always been terrified of expressing pride in their city in case someone else in Canada takes offence. But the city you love to hate finally grew tired of self-loathing. No one in the rest of Canada wants to think of Toronto as any kind of underdog, but that’s how Kado felt in the face of the city’s reputation.

"We are all alone here, in the centre of evil in Canada,” says Kado. "We’re regular guys who feel a part of an extended neighbourhood, but then there’s this other stuff that runs the whole thing and represents you to the outside world. People say, ‘Oh Toronto, that’s where the MuchMusic building is.’ And we say, ‘Yes, this is where the bank is that made the decision to close all of your farms. We’re from the place where some guy in a blue suit fucked up your fishery and then closed it. It’s got nothing to do with us.’”

"Initially it struck me as a pompous term,” says David Ravensberger, editor of Vancouver monthly Discorder, who wrote an article earlier this year praising the Torontopian concept and arguing that its fluid nature can easily apply to other cities. "I’m sure many other people had visions of Toronto cliques and exclusive guest lists. But I realised it was more of an attitude, an orientation towards the process of making music rather than an exclusive thing.”

The roots of Torontopia begin in 2000, when a group of disgruntled indie rockers got fed up with Toronto’s old-school music industry model. They started curating a weekly music series called Wavelength — a nod to Michael Snow’s 1967 avant-garde film, itself a touchstone of Toronto’s underground cultural history. Wavelength was pay-what-you-can, and aimed to showcase the side of Toronto that didn’t get covered in the weeklies, and to cross-pollinate the indie rock scene with more experimental sounds.

Co-founder Jonny Dovercourt explains, "Wavelength started with a small group of people taking a good hard look at itself. In terms of our acceptance and recognition from the rest of the world, all we did was complain about the lack of it. That led to this sentiment of, ‘Oh, because we’re in Toronto, Toronto sucks.’ We thought we shouldn’t blame Toronto; we should blame ourselves for giving up in advance. Maybe we’re not giving the rest of the city enough reason to care. Maybe we need to figure out how to generate more excitement around what we’re doing. That was the purpose of Wavelength: let’s celebrate our own music, let’s celebrate our rich history that goes undocumented, let’s celebrate the cool stuff that’s going on here under the radar. There wasn’t one nexus to the music scene; we realised we had to create it.”

At the time, Toronto’s underground was still a no-fun zone of shoegazers and math rock. That began to change with the arrival of Three Gut Records, who treated show promotion as an art project, creating a sense of excitement and engagement that Toronto wasn’t used to. Will Munro’s monthly Vazaleen parties mixed punk rock, electro, gay porn and performance art, DJs and live bands, giving a well-deserved slap to Toronto’s notoriously tight ass.

The Hidden Cameras took momentum from both and, for the first time in recent memory, had Toronto audiences dancing to live music; their mild-mannered on stage army would go on to spawn many of the city’s best bands. Broken Social Scene, a band born at Wavelength in the same month that Hidden Cameras played their first show, took that community spirit and eventually brought it the world stage. Dovercourt’s band, Republic of Safety, includes Hidden Cameras’ Maggie MacDonald and Kat Collins.

New labels like Paper Bag, Permafrost, Weewerk and others acted as facilitators. Between 2004 and 2005, Steve Kado’s Blocks Recording Club put out about 15 no-budget, hand-assembled CDs by the likes of Final Fantasy, Ninja High School, Creeping Nobodies, Bob Wiseman and Deep Dark United. The Blocks motto of "Don’t Try, Do!” was in full effect.

That Toronto would experience a cultural flare-up is nothing new — it seems to happen once a decade. But whereas previous art and literary explosions have resulted in lasting institutions like YYZ (20 years), Artscape (27 years) and Coach House Press (40 years), Toronto has a dearth of sustainable musical outlets, unlike other cities that have long-running record labels or a DIY infrastructure outside the club scene. The sole exception is the Music Gallery, an avant-garde venue that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and is undergoing a new lease on life since Dovercourt signed on as co-artistic director.

But at the beginning of the decade, indie music was a joke to the larger cultural cognoscenti. Its isolation finally made musicians realise the parallels to other marginalised culture groups, namely visual artists, as opposed to the rock star dreams — however modest — harboured by even the humblest indie types.

Torontopia is about not waiting for permission, or fitting into existing models. "What’s exciting about Torontopia is that the only way to participate in that experience is to do something for yourself,” says Kado, dismissing the suggestion that a counter-intuitive complacency might set in. "You really couldn’t relax about it and think, ‘Don’t worry, they have it taken care of,’ because then you aren’t having any of the fun. There aren’t many non-participants.”

Arguably, the first identifiably Torontopia festival was the CD release party for Toronto is the Best!, an all-day, all-ages gig held on February 29, 2004. Kat Collins recalls, "It was such a celebratory mood. I met a lot of new people who were almost overwhelming with their enthusiasm, and would talk to me for 45 minutes about how inspired they were. It validated a lot of my feelings about Toronto, that it could come off so great without any cynicism.”

Cynicism would settle in soon enough. No matter how inclusive, inevitably there are those who don’t feel invited to the party. Maybe they’re a traditional rock’n’roll band that doesn’t feel cool enough to have Wavelength return their calls; maybe it’s someone who thinks the whole idea is just the domain of middle-class white kids.

From the outset, Torontopia was meant to be a loose, fluid term. But as it became more popular, even entering mainstream discourse, some critics started demanding specifics.

"Obviously, every sort of label has its shortcomings because it can’t possibly encapsulate everything,” says Dovercourt. "In order for those labels to work, they have to be open-ended enough that they can encapsulate a lot of things that are different on the surface, so that you’re not rejecting someone on the basis of whatever formal structures they’re working within. To sit around and have debates about what is or is not Torontopia is really dumb and counter-productive. The term is specific, but the notion is not. Every town is different and has its own things it wants to celebrate, its own problems it needs to overcome. Any city dealing with similar issues can transfer it to their own reality.”

Meanwhile, some of Torontopia’s biggest boosters argue that the term is now more trouble than it’s worth. Carl Wilson, of the influential blog Zoilus, called for its retirement in February 2006. "If there is always that debate going on then it’s just a matter of redefining what Torontopia will mean in the future,” says Kat Collins. "In a way that is healthier and will ultimately breed a more sustainable community. It also fights that tendency to become complacent.”

For Kado, the last couple of years have gone downhill, as more people talked about Torontopia than he felt put back into it. "I felt like a lot of energy and ideas sprung up in 2003 and early 2004. By the end of 2004, things definitely mellowed down and got a bit worse. I thought it was a little dip, but all of 2005 was hideous,” says the man who mid-wifed the unexpected success of Final Fantasy that same year. "Not to say that nothing good happened or no one did good work, but what was special about one time was definitely not special about the other. People keep asking me when I’ll do another Toronto is Great compilation, and I say, ‘Well, I’ll do it when Toronto is great.’ I can wait. I’m patient. I’m not going to blow my load on ‘Toronto is okay’ or ‘Toronto is fine.’

"My proximity to it makes me feel more defensive,” Kado admits. "I feel like me and my friends have been stolen from while having the same group of MuchMusic video bands rebrand themselves as a Toronto community of artists. I felt a bit dinked around by that on a personal level. Now I feel like lines have been drawn again and everyone knows what’s what, who’s on what side of what line.”

Dovercourt counters, "One of the unfortunate things about this movement is that it can become about ‘who’s with us and who’s against us.’ That’s when lines start getting drawn, and the original founders feel like they’re getting shoved out of the limelight. That can lead back to the same kind of resentment and falling back into the same divisions and rivalries that this open, inclusionary movement was supposed to counteract.”

It seems like such a typically Torontonian and self-sabotaging question to ask, but has Torontopia’s time already come and gone? "It probably has outlived its usefulness, because I kind of don’t care,” says Dovercourt. "If it’s done now and we’re going into a new phase, that’s fine. But if it catches on in some other weird stream of popular consciousness, then that’s great as well.”

What if it shows up on a campaign poster for Mayor David Miller’s re-election? "I wouldn’t feel like ‘Damn, where’s my cut?’” laughs Dovercourt. "It would be cool. Earlier this year I had this worry that all the chatter around Toronto’s cultural renaissance was just that — mere chatter. I had this sense of, ‘Are we spending so much time celebrating ourselves that we’re not actually improving ourselves?’ That’s not what the whole Torontopia idea was supposed to be, which was a meaningful call to arms. It is meant for people to respond to and get to work — not to read about it and bask in it.”

Ten Torontopian Touchstones

August 23, 1999: Three Gut Records’ Jim Guthrie/Feist joint CD release party at the Rivoli, announcing the arrival of the most important label of nascent Torontopia, one of its resident geniuses and one of its eventual stars.

February 13, 2000: The first Wavelength is held at Ted’s Wrecking Yard. Though the first month features standard indie rock fare, the next month includes improv, electronic and experimental bands.

December 28, 2000: Hidden Cameras’ debut performance at West Wing Art Space. The band not only injected an art-school sensibility into feel-good pop and got audiences to dance, but it also spawned or incorporated a dozen other bands including Final Fantasy, Barcelona Pavilion, Kids on TV, Gentleman Reg, Phonemes, Matias, Republic of Safety, Laura Barrett, and the activist group Public Space Committee.

October 15, 2002: Broken Social Scene releases You Forgot It In People to unanimous five-star reviews in the Toronto press, and a later Pitchfork review fuels global buzz. The band that was meant to be a fluid workshop of sorts has to adjust to playing a regular set list.

November 10, 2003: David Miller, a left-leaning Jane Jacobs disciple and public transit advocate, is elected Mayor of Toronto. Unlike his predecessor, Mel Lastman, Miller does not deem it important to make his views on the Spice Girls public.

February 29, 2004: Toronto is the Best! all-day CD release party at all-ages venue Cinecycle.

December 4, 2004: the launch of the unabashedly Toronto-centric Spacing Magazine, which celebrates and questions municipal issues such as postering, public transit, and architecture.

June 4 to 5, 2005: The next generation of Torontopians from Guelph’s Social Arts Club hold a two-day sleepover called Track and Field, which unexpectedly attracts 400 city dwellers to a farm, listening to drone music in the dark woods, folk music in fields, and a mix of rock, electro and jazz on a front porch stage.

November 20, 2005: Coach House Press launches uTOpia, a book of essays celebrating the new Torontopian spirit. It proves to be so successful that a sequel is in the works.

February 23, 2006: Katarina Collins posts a "Bad Bands Manifesto” on message board, which posits that a sense of spontaneity and experimentation is essential to resisting the codification of indie music at the core of Toronto’s commercially successful stories.

Torontopia Is Not a Place

Brantford, Ontario: Home of the Ford Plant, a gallery space, record label and all-ages live venue located on a boarded-up boulevard in a depressed auto town, Brantford is an example of resisting hometown bring-down and creating a vital scene from scratch.

Guelph, Ontario: Home of Torontopian originators in Three Gut Records, more recently it spawned the Social Arts Club, who were instrumental in the Track and Field and Living Room festivals. Most of the SAC, led by the band We’re Marching On, now make their home in Torontopia.

Brampton, Ontario: Home of Friendly Rich, a mad vaudevillian who hosts the annual Brampton Indie Arts Festival, bringing comedy, film, children’s parades, rock, hip-hop and country to a suburban cultural wasteland.

Victoria, BC: As chronicled in Discorder, new labels like Aaargh! and Self-Righteous Records are following DIY models similar to Blocks Recording Club.

Your town: It’s probably happening right now, and if it’s not, ask yourself why. Don’t try, do!