Guy DebordGuy Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action (June 1957). Trans. Ken … Continue readingUrban art intervention is not best fit to reflect the reality of the city—for the simple reason that is better suited to revise it.
Brian MassumiBrian Massumi, “URBAN APPOINTMENT: A Possible Rendez-Vous with the City,” in Making Art of Databases (Volume 2), ed. Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder (Rotterdam: Organisatie/Dutch Architecture … Continue reading
As Alan Blum suggests in The Imaginative Structure of the City, the city itself is “nothing but a sign.”Alan Blum, The Imaginative Structure of the City (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007), 24. Actually, Blum writes “The City Is Nothing But a Sign!,” which more accurately reflects his larger claim to interrogate the links between an object of inquiry’s discursive placelessness and its articulated territorializion. In considering the city an object of desire, polysemic and full of “problems” in its genesis within the symbolic field, Blum offers that “while a city is situated in space and time as the site which it is reputed to be, it is also placeless in the sense that an engagement with ‘it’ is always part of an imaginative structure.”Ibid, 47. In other words, the city, as culturally and imaginatively located, sloughs off its inscriptions of place within such a formulation, and assumes a relational veneer according to Blum, who finally asks: “how does the city serve as the locus of the relationships of people to the meaning of collective engagements and the commitment to territorial bonds…?”Ibid, 49.
As noted above by both Guy Debord and (much more recently) Brian Massumi, interventions with the material and urban environment have often acted in the service of elaborating those relationships through transgressive, and as Debord calls them, “passional” acts. In the decades since Situationism first outlined its tactical methodology for reclaiming urban spaces, participatory and, especially, relational art practices have aspired to define the subject-object relationship between citizen and city. Nicolas Bourriaud’s hotly-debated relational aesthetics, challenged in the pages of October by Claire Bishop, dominated art critical discourse in the 1990s: as open-ended overtures towards “possible worlds”—microtopias populated by subjects locked into what Bourriaud later calls “ephemeral modes of sociality,”Nicolas Bourriaud, “Instable Connections: From the Relational to the Radicant, a Theoretical Trajectory,” in Neighbourhood Secrets: Art as Urban Process, ed. Jan Inge Reilstad (Oslo: Koro, … Continue reading. relational art presumes to produce, rather than merely recreate as Bishop notes, the “conditions of our modern fractured culture,” privileging “intersubjective relations over detached visual opticality.”Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004), 21-22. Massumi further observes that urban art “has its sights more immediately on the augmentation of urban reality than its representation. It is a social laboratory: a performative platform for provisional group definitions of potential, in a public innovation of affordance.”Massumi 2003, 30. Emphasis in original. This essay takes the foregoing into consideration in its analysis of “Extermination Music Nights,” a series of guerrilla over-night art and music events that occurred at various locations in the imaginative urban structure of Toronto, Canada between 2005 and 2009. Organized by two independent music promoters, Daniel Vila and Matt McDonough, who were also active as musicians in the art-punk & DIY (Do-It-Yourself) community, Extermination Music Nights (hereafter EMNs) happened mostly in spring and summer in abandoned factories, warehouses, under rail bridges, and in other interdictive sites in Toronto’s sprawling urban landscape, growing in size, scope, and attendance with each event. EMNs featured a diverse array of musicians, dancers, and visual and performance artists from Toronto’s independent music and art scenes, and had become perennial additions to the city’s underground cultural topography during the (mostly) warm months of the year. I myself performed at several EMNs in a number of jazz-based improvising groups, and my perspective in this study is thus colored by those experiences as being part of the events as more than an observer.I performed at six EMNs. In total, the amount of artists involved in various aspects of the twelve EMNs numbers over one hundred.
In this essay, I explore Extermination Music Nights as phenomena that intervene, chiefly through sound and performance, with the imaginative placelessness of urban experience and the tactile contours of the city’s materiality. By appropriating and reanimating parts of Toronto’s lost geographies through transgressive cultural repurposing, EMNs engage in a semiotic play with the city’s darkened and quieted spaces by attempting to “render fake things in the real world,” as Vila describes. In the very “sitedness” of the spaces where EMNs take place, their remote locations force attendees to navigate unfamiliar terrain, in the manner of the Situationist dérive, exoticizing the familiar and known city. In staging events at off-limits sites such as the decommissioned Don Valley Brick Works, beneath the Lansdowne Rail Bridge, and below the Luminous Veil of the Prince Edward Viaduct, to name only a few of the locations, Vila and McDonough enter into a rich subcultural practice of recontextualizing performative acts of music and art in unsanctioned spaces, aggravating the patterned logics of behavior and expectation associated with aesthetic consumption. Throughout this essay, I wish to highlight the role that sound and performance play in creating those spaces, but also in engendering feelings of place in Toronto. Martin Stokes observes that music does not “simply provide a marker in prestructured social space, but the means by which this space can be transformed.”Martin Stokes, “Introduction: Ethnicity, Identity, and Music,” in Ethnicity, Identity, and Music, ed. by Martin Stokes (Oxford: Berg, 1994), 4. But granting access to liminal urban spaces for the pleasure of tactile, sensate exploration also yields transgression of a different sort: EMNs became excuses for people to pressure the boundaries of behaviour, and as I will show, the events required a modicum of policing by the promoters. I end this paper by looking at how the ethos of EMN as relational experiments is tempered by the vagaries and exigencies of their execution, and consider how transgression, as urban-art tactic, might have wider implications outside and beyond the limits of the spaces EMN presume to transform.
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Promoter Daniel Vila told me he was inspired, in part, to stage the first EMN in October 2005 at the Don Valley Brick Works after attending Toronto-based performance artist Jubal Brown’s “Wasteland” events in the mid to late 1990s. Brown came to international attention for vomiting on paintings by Piet Mondrian in New York’s MoMA, and Raoul Dufy at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the mid 1990s, in an incomplete trilogy of interventionist attacks on what he considered “oppressively trite and painfully banal” artworks enshrined in the highest echelons of institutional legitimacy.Anthony DePalma. “Student Says Vomiting on Painting was an Artistic Act.” New York Times (December 4, 1996), 3. His Wasteland series, as Vila explains, were curated art events put on in factories around the city during the thriving years of Toronto’s rave and warehouse party scenes, featuring mostly drum’n’bass and noise music with a focus on performance art.This and all subsequent quotations from Daniel Vila are taken from an interview conducted on February 16, 2011, unless cited otherwise. All quotes from Matt McDonough come from an interview conducted … Continue reading By the mid 1990s, urban centers like London, New York, and Berlin had witnessed the growth of major rave and Acid House scenes, to the extent, in some cases, that municipal laws were created to regulate the impact of massive electronic music parties, drug use, and gatherings of tens of thousands of young people at a time. Toronto’s rave culture crested somewhat later, in the mid to late 1990s, and Brown’s Wasteland events fell on the abstracted periphery of the electronic music scene.
Vila chose to call the series Extermination Music Night as an homage to a now-legendary 1974 concert at the Viking Saloon in Cleveland called “Special Extermination Night,” which has been mythologized as the event that gave birth to that city’s punk scene. Vila has had a long-standing interest, as he says, to “render fake things in the real world,” or to exploit the purchase of cultural myths to inflect his own creative practices, as a postmodern maneuver of cultural extraction and transplantation. From its inception, EMN (singular, as initially Vila & McDonough had no designs on serializing the event) was meant to engage with the “signalic city,” to paraphrase Blum, to play with possibilities of the city as a Deleuzian simulacrum: a simulacrum that is not only “a false copy” but a copy that “calls into question the very notions of the copy […] and of the model.”Gilles Deleuze and Rosalind Krauss, “Plato and the Simulacrum,” October 27 (Winter 1983), 47. As Deleuze explicates elsewhere, “things are simulacra themselves, simulacra are the superior forms, and the difficulty facing everything is to become its own simulacrum.”Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 (1968)), 6. To me, the notion of considering an EMN site in such terms accords with the project’s experimental aim, in that EMNs call to attention the mythic histories of their locations, histories that become resurrected and, importantly, elaborated in a theater of ephemeral play. The emphasis on their simulacral qualities becomes a repeating theme over the course of the project’s development, as the EMN sites become as central an aesthetic dimension to the events as any music or installation that occurs therein.
Located in Don River Valley north of the Prince Edward Viaduct, and just west of the affluent neighborhood of Rosedale, the Brick Works has like many other pieces in the puzzle of Toronto’s civic history faded in and out of obscurity over the site’s 100-plus years of existence.The locations of all EMNs can be accessed via this Google Maps link (courtesy of Daniel Vila and Matt McDonough). The map is (incorrectly) titled EMN locations I-X, but all twelve are identified. The plant opened in the late nineteenth century and changed ownership several times before becoming an abandoned industrial complex in the late 1980s that attracted urban explorers, photographers, and partiers. Its resonance as a negative space in the city—something palpably beckoning to be filled in, both imaginatively and physically by people—made it the obvious choice for a first experiment. EMN was as much about presenting music as it was transforming the site into a copy of itself, where attendees could luxuriate in the temporary “fakeness” of the Brick Works, which otherwise had remained hidden and mute.
Both Vila and McDonough had made early expeditions to the Brick Works independent of each other before their creative partnership began as organizers of EMN, to experience for themselves the site’s strange energy, and indeed this would set a precedent for all subsequent events; the locations, by virtue of their liminality within the perimeter of the city’s habitual spaces—or those spaces regularly populated by citizens as part of the patterns of civic life—and the ambiguous cultural and civic associations attached to them all afforded a “rendering fake.” As Umberto Eco discusses with respect to urban architecture, structures in the built urban environment assume a symbolic function through their connotative rather than denotative ideology, and it is the process of decoding them that “elevates them to art.”Umberto Eco, “Function and Sign: Semiotics of Architecture,” in The City and The Sign, ed. M. Gottdiener and Alexandros Ph. Lagopolous (New York: Columbia Press, 1986), 62. These functions, as Eco tells us, are constantly in flux, subject to “losses, recoveries, and substitutions” and through the infinitely unfolding processes of interpretation, buildings become texts—works of art.Ibid, 69.
One particularly powerful example, wherein the fake was meticulously teased from the detritus of the real, occurred at the eleventh EMN in 2009. The location was the abandoned Kodak No. 9 building in the neighbourhood of Mount Dennis, the only remaining structure from the sprawling industrial complex where the Eastman-Kodak photograph company once employed hundreds of area residents. Since the company shut down the plant (known informally as “Kodak Heights”) in 2005, Mount Dennis has become an economically depressed enclave in Toronto’s northwest end. The No. 9 building was the employee facility and stands at four stories tall as a ghostly sentinel in the ruins of contaminated land and industrial debris.
For EMN, artists Courtney Park and Sarah Kilpack created an installation they called The Office, which existed only for the duration of the event. Deep in the basement of the building, several floors below the level where the performance space for music was designated, Park and Kilpack’s piece recreated with excruciating detail the mundane routines of a working office space as it might have existed a decade or more ago. Costumed in drab work attire, they assumed the roles of office functionaries: filing papers, filling out reports, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, answering phones, and so on. To prepare the space, they cleaned and retrofitted the room with a generator to power the fluorescent lights, and the effect was unsettling for EMN attendees who stumbled upon the brightly illuminated room as they explored dark and sometimes impassable recesses of the building throughout the evening.
The Office Performance Installation at EMN XI (2009) by Courtney Park and Sarah Kilpack. Photo by Steph Cloutier.This video, filmed by an attendee of EMN XI, provides a fragmentary documentary account of the event. In it, the videographer and his companions move about the floors of the Kodak No. 9 building, … Continue reading
As a counterpoint to the invasive misuse of the building that EMN imposed via the illegal entry of attendees, the repurposing of it for music performance, and the transformation of it into a location for pleasure rather than work, The Office offers a jarring facsimile of the building’s past. The effectiveness of the performance is manifest in its concept as well as its execution—the piece invokes a lost history of the plant and the community that prospered because of it in synecdoche. But as a copy of that history, its connotative ideology becomes recovered, or recuperated, becoming mythic in its re-enactment as theatre. The copy becomes perhaps more resonant with its own truth than the original, even in a sense, following Deleuze, “superior.”
Beyond rewriting the semiotic coding of the city and its lost architecture for an irruptive and transient corps of listeners and spectators, EMNs acted in the service of re-historicizing, aestheticizing, and as Vila prefers to term it, “exoticizing” local geographies. Vila believes this exoticization is “embedded in the fact that events happen where people wouldn’t go to for any reason […] that, coupled with the fact that the entry point is obscure and difficult to find.” As Matt McDonough describes, “Travel was paramount. We are not going to make this easy—you get so much out of that, seeing different parts of the city you might not see.” In contextualizing EMNs as places to go to, as destinations rather than merely locations within the city’s cultural cartography, McDonough explains: “Think about a [normal indie rock] show. You just arrive in your own ways, and it’s loud, and you can’t talk.” At EMNs, “you have more of an interaction. And [getting there] probably going to affect the way that you take in whatever is happening.”
As mentioned, Jubal Brown had used the Brick Works for a Wasteland event in May of 1999, and both Vila and McDonough had been long aware of its suitability as a first EMN location. Like all subsequent sites, the Brick Works fit the promoters’ criteria as a “lost” space in the city’s urban schema, which forces participants to navigate unfamiliar surroundings, both physical and symbolic. Vila observes that “anything shrouded in mystery is becoming a rarity,” that with the advent of smartphones and the ubiquity of personal GPS systems, “the idea of being lost is becoming obsolete.” The Brick Works EMN in 2005 preceded the proliferation of smartphones in the consumer market, and as a performer at the Brick Works that very chilly October night, I readily confirm that getting to and from the event location was an exercise in losing oneself in extremely unfamiliar terrain. The access to the site—the location of which was not divulged until very shortly before the event—was posted the night before on the now-defunct independent music Internet message board Stillepost.The first EMN preceded the social media revolution of Facebook and Twitter by at least a year, and Stillepost (formerly at www.stillepost.ca) was at that time a valuable resource for all things … Continue reading Participants and attendees had to locate a break in a fence along a ravine which Vila and McDonough had identified with glowlights, and a path was lit through a densely forested part of the valley leading to the massive complex, which had been off-limits for several years due to planned renovations and redevelopment into an urban green and community space by the Evergreen Corporation.See http://www.evergreen.ca/get-involved/evergreen-brick-works/about/history for the site’s history, and also the various restorative projects which have occurred since Evergreen took ownership in … Continue reading
This crucial aspect of passage attendant to each EMN may be read a number of ways. In a broad sense the movement into threshold spaces readily evokes often-used ritual scenarios theorized by Victor Turner or Arnold van Gennep, replete with symbolic aspects of transformation and reintegration. But EMNs ask of their attendees (and performers) a specifically agentive negotiation of the contours mapped onto the “pyschogeography” of the urban. Situationists, a half-century ago, advocated the practice of dérive, a drifting journey through such a “pyschogeographic” urban landscape. Guy Debord writes that the dérive is “a passional journey out of the ordinary through a rapid changing of ambiances, as well as a means of study of psychogeography and of Situationist psychology.”Debord 1957. The city as a pyschogeographic landscape, in a Situationist orientation, offers the urban wanderer a unique, even revolutionary experiencing of the city. Through the act of dérive, the urban subject transforms the city through which she traverses, alters and destabilizes its semioticity through her experimental passage. As Debord explains,
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive,” originally published in Internationale Situationniste #2 (Paris, December 1958). My emphasis. http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/2.derive.htm
I would offer that the Situationist paradigm of reconstituted relationality to the city brings a richer reading of how EMNs require a symbolic threshold-crossing into “certain zones.” McDonough recalled the first time he journeyed to the Brick Works, when a friend took him through the city to “just wander. He said, ‘I’m not gonna tell you anything about it,’ and we didn’t take the main road.” EMNs are at their most fundamental core instantiated through a dérive-like journey, a traversing through corridors of the city as a “passional” quest of transfiguration, and finally the trespassing into forbidden spaces. As events tailored to elaborate the relationships between not only people and their city, but citizens themselves, there is a temporary, if consummate, placelessness about wandering through the lost city en route to a possible event, or a “possible world” as Nicolas Bourriaud prefers to call it, that rubs against the rigidity of the fixed city.
The locations of the twelve EMNs varied in size, location, accessibility, and each site’s physical and symbolic particularities were magnified in the experiencing of and journeying to the location. The emphasis on passage (or pilgrimage) to EMN locations was acutely resonant in the case of the third EMN in May 2007—which was busted by police during the setup of the event on a very rainy night—scheduled to occur at the Guild Inn in south Scarborough, some thirty kilometres from the downtown core.The event was relocated to Cherry Beach, in the Toronto Port Lands, at the last minute. It was, however, again stopped by the police. Daniel Vila described what happened to me: “That was actually … Continue reading EMN V in August 2007 happened on the Leslie Street Spit along the city’s east port lands, accessible by bicycle or on foot only.This video shows some raw footage of EMN V on the Leslie Spit, filmed and uploaded to YouTube by an attendee. Although by no means an un-used public space in Toronto (the city-run Tommy Thompson Park exists along the Spit), access to the site required attendees to travel some five kilometers in the total dark to reach the “venue”—a makeshift stage erected below the lighthouse at the foot of the spit. EMNs IX, X and XII comprised what the organizers considered their “Don Valley Trilogy,” and transformed places along the Don Valley riverbed, which cuts Toronto in half north-south, into zones of temporary artistic and symbolic efflorescence. EMN IX took place along the Old Eastern Avenue Bridge, having years ago been sealed off from vehicular traffic, which became a nocturnal promenade of sound and revelry that offered attendees a panoramic view of the city’s illuminated skyline from a new, unique vantage-point.
Extermination Music Night IX (September 2008), on the Old Eastern Avenue Bridge. Photo by David Waldman.
EMN X, which the promoters called “Beneath the Luminous Veil,” occurred below the Prince Edward Viaduct that connects Bloor Street in the west to Danforth Avenue in the east, the city’s main mid-town lateral artery and subway line. The Luminous Veil is the name given to the suicide prevention fence city planners constructed in the early 2000s to stop people from jumping off the bridge into the valley 100 meters below; beyond the eerily-charged energy of the site, subway trains rattled above at intermittent intervals throughout the night, shaking the girders overhead and providing a concrète antiphony to the music below. In fact, capitalizing on the site’s imposing structural and acoustical architecture, the promoters programmed sound artist Joda Clément to “play the site” by creating an audio installation that consisted entirely of sonic artefacts derived and manipulated from the structure, along with ambient sound from the environment. Clément, who has since relocated to Vancouver, has made a practice of working with site-specific materials and found sound objects to generate works that “transcend a distinction between audio and source.”Joda Clément, “About.” Accessed September 13, 2014. www.jodaclement.wordpress.com/about Although no recording of Clément’s performance at EMN exists (to both the author’s and Clément’s … Continue reading His contribution to EMN X was as subtle as it was exemplary of EMN’s wider aim in reclaiming discarded urban spaces. Situated at the base of a massive column, Clément processed sound being picked up by ambient and contact microphones, turning the aural textures of space—social and physical—into a sonic replication of itself. At times, it was difficult to hear the distinction between environmental sounds and those that Clément had manipulated and sent through the loudspeakers. Only when noticeable sonic events occurred, such as the rumbling of the subway train traveling underneath the viaduct, was the distinction between “audio and source” put into sharp contrast.
Cultural geographers and scholars working in sound studies have widely commented on the importance of sound in urban life. As a critical texture of any city’s lived and built environment, sound becomes a key means through which citizens engage with and relate to their surroundings. Cities are noisy places; indeed the split between “artificial” and “natural” acoustic environments—homologous to the rise of urban culture versus pastoral ruralism—remains at the polemical core of early soundscape studies.R. Murray Schafer’s foundational text The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1977) deals largely with this issue, especially in Parts I and … Continue reading As Martin Stokes observes, the separation of space from place has become a hallmark of modernity, and music in particular offers a way for people to meaningfully “locate themselves in quite idiosyncratic and plural ways.”Stokes 1994, 3. Indeed, much scholarship in the humanities has taken what Jim Drobnick calls the “auditory turn”Jim Drobnick, “Listening Awry,” in Aural Cultures, ed. Jim Drobnick (Toronto: YYS, 2004), 10.—that is to say, anthropologists and historians are “hearing culture”Paul Carter, “Ambiguous Traces, Mishearing and Auditory Space,” in Hearing Cultures, ed. Veit Erlmann (New York: Berg, 2004), 43.—and sound’s agentive role in configuring spatial relationships and articulating feelings of place has been a key metric studying local cultures.
As well as being transgressive in their repurposing of the city’s off-limits spaces, Extermination Music Nights must be considered within the rubric of Toronto’s sonic geography, for their main goal was to offer radical recontextualizations of musical performance spaces. More than this, music and sound at EMNs contributed to creating a social space that was highly aestheticized in its various sonifications by performers and sound artists, and highlighted the ephemerality of these social spaces. “Social space is sonic space,” writes Jonathan Sterne. “Space is the register in which sound can happen and sound can have meaning. But space is not a static thing. It is in constant formation, dissolution, and reformation.”Jonathan Sterne, “Spaces, Sites, Scapes,” in Jonathan Sterne, ed. The Sound Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2012), 91.
Musical performances themselves, even in traditional contexts, are iterations of transitory social formations; music and sound can bind together a group of listeners in a concert hall across the span of performance in similar ways that a sound-art installation happening underneath a busy overpass in the middle of the night might. In this sense space, as sonically configured, defines itself as the emergence of relations in a fixed temporal setting. Indeed, following Lefebvre’s Cultural Marxist formulation, space is both the locus of the production of relations, as well as the thing produced by those socio-material relationships: “(Social) space is a (social) product.”Henri Lefevbre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 26.
The thrust of the EMN project was to envisage relational space as something bound together by sound and musical performance that illuminated the event sites as revitalized nodal points within the network of Toronto’s built geography. In the same way that EMNs were always intended as temporary gatherings in temporary social spaces—a notion of performance tracing back at least to 1960s conceptualist practices of events, happenings, and environments—the sonic components of each event likewise drew attention to their ephemerality. For example, at EMN XI (in the Kodak No. 9 building, which also featured The Office), the event was shut down shortly after the first band, No White God, started playing. No White God was a short-lived project put together by multi-instrumentalists Colin Fisher (a frequent performer at several EMNs), Matt Dunn, and Derek Madison (also known more commonly in Toronto as “Grasshopper,” which was the name of his popular 1990s grunge band that achieved some nation-wide notoriety in Canada thanks to airplay on MuchMusic—Canada’s equivalent to MTV). The police, who had earlier arrived on scene and had been questioning attendees outside, entered the building soon after the band began and stopped the performance almost immediately. No White God’s performances were typically improvised—sets of long droning washes of sound and ambient textures that Colin Fisher described to me simply as “freedom rock.”Personal correspondence, September 10, 2014. This video, filmed by local musician and video artist Ayal Senior, shows an excerpt of No White God in performance at the Tranzac in December 2008. For … Continue reading At EMN XI, their set might be thought of as much as an intervention into the performance space as Jubal Brown’s bodily excoriation of displayed art put into shocking relief the implicit boundaries of gallery-based exhibitions. By calling No White God “freedom rock,” Fisher does more than provide a handy frame of reference: the description aligns the band with a tradition of rock-based experimentalism rather than other improvisation-based musics historically and discursively afforded more elite designations, such as jazz or avant-garde concert musics. But the most noteworthy aspect of No White God’s role in the EMN story, perhaps paradoxically, has nothing to do with any of this. No White God’s performance is marked precisely for its ephemerality—the creation and dissolution of sonic space that was in its formation only briefly perceivable. The Kodak No. 9 event was important in the series because the antagonism that EMN embodied in a polemical dimension materialized in performance, in the palpable manifestation and disintegration of space as a relational medium articulated in sound.
Returning once again to the first EMN, the Brick Works was unlike subsequent EMNs in that it was a music-only event which was intended to last until dawn of the next morning, and even Vila admits that it was overly-ambitious in scope—other EMNs had a more concise if more multidisciplinary roster of artists. The performers that night represented a cross section of Toronto’s stylistically-diffuse independent music scenes; art punk, neo-wave, free jazz, psych-rock, and faux-goth groups played sets for over five hours, with DJ Rob Gordon furnishing eerie and abstract loops of sound in between performances. Interestingly, jazz and its peripherally associative subgenres—free improvisation, free jazz, noise, etc.—would become a recurring curatorial component to many EMNs. All programming at EMNs ultimately reflected the musical tastes of the promoters, but the cultural ambivalence of jazz and its slippery movement around and within genres was a good fit for the EMN ethos of transgression. Jazz’s malleable semiology has allowed it to fit into various cultural-historical scenarios, from bebop’s classicization as a high art form of the twentieth century,See DeVeaux (1997) and Gendron (2002), 121-160. to free jazz’s cementation as a politically-volatile expression of cultural dissidence in the 1960s,See, for example, Kofsky (1998) and Smith (2003). to its recession to the margins of popular culture as a thing whether critics have been trying to ascertain, without evident success, is or is not “dead.”“Jazz is dead” has been a common lament from musicians and critics since at least the late 1950s, speaking to the genre’s habitual cycling further and further away from any number of vertices … Continue reading
Vila told me that he has always been attracted to the “apocalyptic” sound of aggressive, saxophone-heavy improvisation, and while many EMN nights included at least one horn-based ensemble, Vila was equally interested in presenting jazz-based music to audiences who would not otherwise patronize venues that program jazz and creative music. As a performer in many such ensembles at EMN, I agree that the complexion of EMN audiences differed greatly from the regular community of listeners who attend shows at venues like Somewhere There, the Tranzac, and other small clubs and performance spaces where much of the city’s creative jazz and improvisation is programmed.Somewhere There and the Tranzac are two small performance venues around which, for the past decade, most of the creative jazz and improvised music scenes have clustered. Somewhere There relocated … Continue reading In fact, the reasons that EMN appealed to me so strongly then as a musician had more to do with the charged and unpredictable atmosphere surrounding the events than anything related to their goals as relational or Situationist-inspired interventions with Toronto’s forbidden architectural sites. In a very practical sense EMNs offer a new performative context for the “highbrow” vein of creative and experimental music, played by trained, semi-professional jazz musicians—among whom I count myself—often to small impassive audiences. Colin Fisher, in an interview for EMN with freelance journalist Jay Somerset, notes that within improvised and jazz scenes, at least at the local level in Toronto, “you tend to see the same faces wherever you play — often other musicians. It becomes insular and boring, but at Extermination [Music Nights], you see new faces — not just partying but actually listening.”Jay Somerset, “Extermination Music Night: a Change of Scene,” Musicworks 105 (Winter 2009), 38. For the sake of transparency, I was also interviewed at length for Somerset’s piece, and during … Continue reading
At EMN VII, held at the abandoned Symes Waste Transfer Station, members of the Toronto-based new music group Toca Loca billed themselves as The Walter Haul and set out to perform composed acoustic and electronic minimalist music.I use the term “new music” in place of “contemporary classical” or “modern” or “avant-garde” to reflect the contemporaneous and accepted terminology frequently found in common … Continue reading However, when technical problems marred their plans, the set ended in a “weird hoe-down,” as Vila put it, after the mixer began sending out signals erratically and the performance ended in a kind of abstract but joyful chaos.Personal communication, May 12, 2011. The Walter Haul’s name is a cheeky play on Walter Hall at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, where hundreds of nervous music students perform each year for auditions, juries, and recitals in the tense and often sterile environment of academic adjudication.
The Walter Haul’s presence among the other bands—a mix of stoner rock, performance art punk, and garage-psych groups—as well as the improvised and experimental components to EMN, highlights the easy collapsibility in the polarities articulating what Lawrence Levine has famously called “highbrow” and “lowbrow” domains of cultural practice. EMNs were, in this sense, playful experiments in reordering and “messying” the presumably clear-cut divisions in not only high and low, but also the largely artificial segregations of musical genres and scenes resulting from prescriptive performance venues: punk and rock music in grubby, boozy clubs; art music in sanctified concert halls; improvised music in performance spaces, not to mention the usual imprisonment of contemporary dance, sculpture, and installation art behind the imposing walls of museums and galleries.
Crucially, EMNs caused a disruption to the normative habits governing the dissemination and consumption of music by replacing the safe predictability of the cloistered performance rubric with a new environment, new audiences of largely unfamiliar listeners, and a host of unstable conditions. As other EMN performers have elsewhere noted—including myself—the mixture of all these variables results in a highly-charged and reinvigorated temperament of expectation, not the least of which comes with the very real element of physical danger in traveling to abandoned industrial sites, condemned buildings, and in the case of the Lansdowne Rail Bridge, performing alongside active railway tracks in a uniquely-reverberant tunnel in the city’s west end.See Somerset 2009. EMNs allowed for a deviation from the scripting of performance and expectation by accentuating the variability and instability of the elements habitually taken for granted.
In interviews about EMNs—and his subsequent art performance space, the simulacrally-named Double Double Land in Toronto’s Kensington Market — Daniel Vila has cited the influence of relational aesthetics on his work in staging art events around the city.See Randle 2008a, 2008b, 2010. Randle 2008a refers to a URL which has since been taken offline. EYE Weekly ceased publishing in May 2011, and its archives went offline in September 2011. Relational aesthetics (or relational art) was a controversial movement in art-critical discourse of the last few decades, spearheaded and theorized most notably by French critic Nicolas Bourriaud. He describes it as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Presses du reel, 2002), 14. Emphasis in original. Relational art presupposes to resist the fixity and circumscription of museum- and gallery-based exhibitions of single pieces in favor of what Claire Bishop defines as works that are “open-ended, interactive, resistant to closure.”Bishop 2004, 53. As such, the relational art object or project would be an amalgam of a space itself, the interaction between spectators, the collective elaboration and consumption of an aestheticized moment—what Bishop calls the “experience economy” of performance-based art events.Ibid, 52.
Discourses around relational art are laced with magnanimous language about “possible worlds” and “possible universes” emergent in the systems of relations, subjectivities, and what Bourriaud has termed “ephemeral modes of sociality.”Bourriaud 2009, 308. Bourriaud’s postmodern theoretical scaffolding is indebted to Deleuze and Guattari, and the various social “machines” which generate desire and subjectivity. Machines, as envisaged by Deleuze and Guattari, are apparatuses which both connect, and at the same time confuse, the coherence of systemic cultural flows; they are a break, a rupture, but also “a flow itself, or the production of a flow,” a thing that does not negate the existence of the flow, but critically alters the path and logic of its flux.Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983 , 36. Also see Felix Guattari (1995), especially 33-57) Deleuze and Guattari propose such a notion in the context of desire and its production, and ultimately the production of reality through the process of desiring; as a critique of the psychological ramifications of repression, Deleuze and Guattari discuss the revolutionary potential of desire (following Debord and the Situationists) in late capitalist society.
I am drawn to the Deleuzian machine here, in that EMNs are machinic in their role of simultaneously dissolving, disturbing, and corrupting flows of performance and its consumption. They are apparatuses that are simultaneously tied to and disruptive of cultural flows — namely how citizens engage with music and art in civic spaces. Yet they also afford a realization of Bourriaud’s ephemeral modes of sociality: publics of spectators and participants encloaked in a kind of transient subjectivity, not meant to last beyond the parameters of the event, in their willful misuse of unsanctioned urban sites. EMNs are machinic, finally, in the way the various event spaces themselves become, recuperated, recovered, and as I have earlier termed, “reanimated.”
Kjetil Røed suggests that relational art has the responsibility of activating the power of fiction through situational and playful misuse to highlight the antagonism in social fields; relational art events are as he calls them “fictive machines” in the Deleuzian/Guattarian sense.Kjetil Røed, “Neighbourhood Secrets: Sharing Disharmonies,” in Neighbourhood Secrets: Art as Urban Process, ed. Jan Inge Reilsta (Oslo: Koro, Public Art Norway Press, 2009), 289. I would offer that EMNs might also be categorized this way, as incomplete, open-ended, imperfect, yet definably aesthetic engagements with discrete locations in the geographic and historical continuum of Toronto. EMN’s proposal to exoticize and defamiliarize locality was methodically, if not always successfully, planned out so that participants—attendees, performers, whomever—entered into a fictionalized and undoubtedly relational flux within spaces such as the Don Valley Brick Works, the Leslie Street Spit, the imposing Kodak No. 9 building, the Tower Automotive building—which was sensationally “busted” by police due to hundreds of attendees drawing attention to themselves outside the site—and so forth. This fictionalization, or “glimpsing at utopias” as Bourriaud would say, is enacted through visual, sonic, and kinetic retrofits to each event site, not to mention the various other perceptual enhancements imbibed by the hundreds of young, energized participants looking to make the most of their experiences.
I emphasize that whatever incipient or renewed relationships participants entered into with EMN’s event spaces, they were certainly temporary. Susie J. Tanenbaum, in her ethnography of New York City subway musicians Underground Harmonies, uses the phrase “transitory communities” to account for the fluid composition of audiences listening to buskers on the underground platforms.Susie J. Tanenbaum, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1995), 105. Diffuse, heteroglot, and at times incoherent, the music “scenes” in New York subways produce meaning that is “symbolic and real” for audiences in transit, from the instances of “momentary and shared experience” occurring during the quick stops between trains. Communities at EMNs were likewise transitory, if stretched out over hours rather than minutes, but the meaning and experience produced was generated not only between participants and the event sites, but also between each other in scenarios of heightened co-presence. The excitement around EMNs as marquee summer events at which to gather and celebrate had become so strong by 2009 that Vila and McDonough curtailed promoting the final event (EMN XII) in an attempt at attracting a manageably-sized crowd through word-of-mouth and RSVP only.
When I asked McDonough if his discomfort with the series’ growing popularity had anything to do with attracting the wrong kind of crowd, he rejected that notion outright, relating to me his early foundational experiences attending avant-garde music soirees in Calgary (before relocating to Toronto) as someone who had no connections or familiarity with that scene—as an outsider. It is difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the diversity of EMN crowds as they grew over the four years of the series, but from my observation the bulk of the attendees were, broadly, people already associated in various ways with Toronto’s independent music and art scenes. Crowds were mostly young persons in their 20s, although many people I knew were slightly older, who had been attending indie, punk, and art shows for years. While there was no explicit aim to attract an exclusive or elite audience of such people, EMNs, by the nature of the music programmed and the discrete promotional methods used—word-of-mouth, the indie-rock message board Stillepost, not announcing the locations publicly—tended not to draw attention from people far removed from those social circles. That being said, I myself did notice, especially at later EMNs, more and more people had become unfamiliar to me. The crowd at EMN IX, on the Eastern Avenue Bridge, seemed noticeably different than events prior. In one bizarre and decidedly uncomfortable encounter, I found myself in conversation with a young man drinking hand sanitizer and club soda, who professed that he had no knowledge of any of the bands playing that night. In his backpack, he had a number of flammable chemicals, and proceeded to light some off his arm to demonstrate his prowess with the materials. I asked him what drew him to EMN, and he replied that he had heard about overnight parties in abandoned spaces through a friend, and had no other expectations.
As I have suggested, the critical transience of EMNs and their impermanence is a key component in their constitution as art-event-objects, but also in their ability to reanimate spaces of the built environment which otherwise remain lifeless, invisible, and inanimate. Yet, counterbalancing the idealism of EMNs as relational art events and platforms for saturated social interaction, the very aspect of their ephemerality might dilute the purity of the EMN telos. As the above example intimates, I witnessed no small amount of cultural voyeurism among participants and attendees who used the opportunity of being at an “illegal” art event to behave illegally. The open and ostentatious consumption of drugs, the destruction of public property, massive littering, lighting fires, and other displays of unruly behaviour became a regular component of EMNs as the events became more and more popular. Alongside the installations, music, performance art pieces, EMNs engendered a certain kind of cultural tourism, a pornographic indulgence in the pleasures of liminal play that comes with dissolving normative social intercourse into an episodic removal from prescriptive behaviour. At the Old Eastern Avenue Bridge, Vila and McDonough had to ask repeatedly, on mic, for people to climb down off the bridge trellises to avoid attracting the attention of the police (who unsurreptitiously happened to have a R.I.D.E. stop a set up few hundred yards away).As part of the Ontario Provincial Police’s impaired-driving program, R.I.D.E. (“Reduced Impaired Driving Everywhere”) stops are set up along highways to randomly check drivers near on-ramps, … Continue reading At an earlier event, their power generator was stolen. And at several EMNs, attendees refused to make donations to help offset the costs incurred by the promoters and artists. The list of incidents goes on and on.
So while the EMN mandate has everything to do with urban transformation, revision, and reanimation, it also highlights the inherent paradoxes of what constitute transgressive acts in their potential to recalibrate the various relationships constitutive of subjects, their environment, and the various limens transgressed. Chris Jenks notes that while transgression is that “which exceeds boundaries and exceeds limits,” it is something far more fundamental to how we conduct ourselves every day. We must thus recognize, reminds Jenks, that “the human experience is the constant experience of limits,” and that an ungoverned desire to pressure and extend beyond limits has been an “unintentional” consequence of modernity.Chris Jenks, Transgression (New York: Routledge, 2003), 7-8.
EMNs are not exemplars of transgression in the same way that, for example, Jubal Brown’s unfinished vomit-trilogy quite literally exceeds borders of the body, the canvas, authorship, taste, and so on, in articulating a host of taboos; rather, EMNs illuminate the potential zones in which art, music, and subjectivity might enter into a new relational stance, as inflected by the affordances of a transgressive space. If modernity has programmed in us an insatiable desire to breach the limitations which govern our daily routines—limitations that are not exclusively set for us by external forces, but which Jenks suggests are twinned by interior, moral impulses—it is not altogether surprising that EMNs become spaces of lawlessness and delinquent behaviour.Ibid, 8.
The transgressive, then—the “passing into certain forbidden zones,” to recall Debord—has the most value for urban and civic life as it casts light back into zones of commonplace practices. EMNs ask of us to consider, in new hindsight, the architecture of our experience as music and art consumers, our position within those structures, and to think perhaps a little more critically about the spaces, patterns, and social conventions to which we habitually conform as subjects of the urban. “Transgression is not the same as disorder,” says Jenks. Rather, and more importantly, “it opens up chaos and reminds us of the necessity of order.”Ibid.
Of the twelve EMNs planned, a number were shut down outright by police, and at least two others ended earlier than the organizers anticipated due to the vagaries associated with putting on illegal art events in illegal spaces. But most were executed successfully, and transformed off-limits and unauthorized sites in Toronto’s urban geography into aestheticized spaces of art, music, and indulgence, peopled by “transitory communities” of spectators and listeners. Over its five-year run EMN helped invigorate, and reanimate, however briefly, twelve lost geographies in Toronto’s expansive cultural landscape. Moreover, EMNs invited dialogic engagements within and around these urban spaces that challenge various tropes of cultural legitimacy as temporary, illegal physical and sonic occupations, and as forums in which tremulous dichotomies of high and low art were purposely abstracted as sound art, jazz, punk, performance art, free improvisation, and so on, are presented in charged multidisciplinary performance environments.
The Extermination Music Night enterprise ended following a split between Daniel Vila and Matt McDonough for personal and creative reasons sometime in 2010. As mentioned earlier, Vila has moved on to Double Double Land, a multi-use performance space which presents music, film, dance and all kinds of events in the heart of Kensington Market—one of a few DIY art-event spaces in the city working outside the support network of arts council funding or private patronage. But between 2005 and 2009, EMNs quickly, if uncomfortably, became important additions to Toronto’s underground cultural calendar, and gained unsolicited recognition among independent and mainstream media outlets. EMNs appeared first in the blogosphere (Zoilus, BlogTO, Torontoist), then in local alternative press EYE Weekly and NOW Magazine, and eventually the Toronto Star daily newspaper, and a lengthy feature article in the well-established Musicworks magazine.Musicworks was founded in the late 1970s to report on the activities of Toronto-based experimental music and sound art practice. Initially published locally in broadside format on … Continue reading In 2009, the series was featured in an early episode of ArtStars, a web-based TV show described by critic R.M. Vaughan as “performance journalism.”Artstars, “About.” Accessed September 2, 2014. http://www.artstarstv.com/about Journalist Nadja Sayej and video artist (and videographer) Jeremy Bailey travelled to the final EMN, on the Don River Sandbar, a muddy finger of land making overtures towards permanence in the south end of the Don River. The tongue-in-cheek reportage vividly (and teasingly) documents the process of journeying to EMNs, and features the only on-camera interviews with promoters Daniel Vila and Matt McDonough.The video can been seen here. The ArtStars website (www.artstarstv.com) archives the episodes filmed, dating back to 2009, which include interviews with local artists in Toronto, as well as figures … Continue reading
But EMN ballooned most quickly with the rise of Facebook and Twitter in 2009, and close to 600 people attended EMN XI in May of that year. Its demise occurred as innocuously as its invention: a decision quietly made by two individuals with a peculiar investment in the intersections between art, sound, civic engagement, and the pock-marked cultural composition of Toronto’s urban topography. Perhaps then EMNs, in their messy imperfection and ambivalent commentary on urbanity, tell us that not only is the city a sign, the city is also a palimpsest, something which invites renewed interpretation by urban artists. Like the evanescence of graffiti on canvas-walls of building surfaces, EMNs alter or “revise,” to use Massumi’s word, the perceivable reality of the city on top of its structural textures, and tweak our perspective of the long-view even just a little. EMNs impress on its imaginative structure a feeling of the city’s placeless, unfixed, and never-stable discursivity, against the grain of the irrevocable sitedness of urban experience. This is precisely the moment of confluence where Debord’s systematic interventions transpire: The perpetual interaction of materiality of the city, of life, and the behaviours which “give rise to it and which radically transform it.” But the residue of the artwork of EMN, like relationships between people in communities themselves, is also a product of the tension between the territorial and the imagined city, separated by a threshold that calls for repeated transgressing, and remains ultimately an artefact of memory and experience. As installations themselves, as pieces of urban and relational art, EMNs appropriate the city—reanimate it—as exhibition spaces where sound and performance materialize and disappear without leaving any lingering evidence of their presence. Like any good exhibition, they are not meant to become part of the gallery’s permanent collection.
Jeremy Strachan is completing a dissertation in musicology on Udo Kasemets (1919-2014) and experimentalism in 1960s Toronto. He has published in the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation, and a chapter on modernism in North America (co-authored with David Cecchetto) is forthcoming in The Modernist World (Routledge). Jeremy has contributed articles to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism and currently serves as English language book reviews editor for Intersections: the Canadian Journal of Music. He is the recipient of a 2013-2014 Alvin H. Johnson AMS 50 Fellowship, and received the 2011 SOCAN George Proctor Prize from the Canadian University Music Society.
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