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nomorepotlucks » What Ever Happened to Queer Street West?: Queer Artistic Imaginaries on Toronto’s Queen Street West – Erin Silver

What Ever Happened to Queer Street West?: Queer Artistic Imaginaries on Toronto’s Queen Street West – Erin Silver


By queer culture we mean a world-making project, where ‘world’, like ‘public’, differs from community or group because it necessarily includes more people than can be identified, more spaces than can be mapped beyond a few reference points, modes of feeling that can be learned rather than experienced as a birthright. The queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies.

– Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner[1]

How to Have Queer in an Exhibition

Analyses of queer aesthetics from a variety of theoretical standpoints have revealed its troubled, and troubling, position in aesthetic discourse. This position has been anchored through close examinations of certain paradigmatic works that introduce both obstacles and solutions to queer art display. Queer aesthetics further evades conventional analysis due to what can be perceived to be its ideologically conflicted relationship to mainstream institutional and public space. Certainly, curatorial attempts to exhibit queer art have been and continue to be made, but is queerness itself necessarily compromised? In regard to the institutional space that is the museum, artist Carrie Moyer argues that “It isn’t possible for a museum to be queer on a consistent basis. By the time the artwork gets into the collection, the so-called transgressive moment has already passed.”[2] Does Moyer’s statement affirm a reality about the implicit outsider position of queer art, or does it challenge the limits of curatorial practice and exhibition space?

To engage with these questions, I want to conceptualize a space in which queer art can be appropriately accommodated and encountered. Moyer’s contention that queer cannot exist within the institution is, in a sense, refuted by such artists as Brian McGrath, who argues that “‘Queer’ space exists potentially everywhere in the public realm … it is the individual’s appropriation of the public realm through personal, ever-changing points of view.”[3] Is it possible for both of these stances to be true? This essay seeks to reconcile the social position of the queer artist with these two opposing positions by critically engaging with what cultural theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner call “queer world-making” as a performative methodology that can contribute to an understanding of the work that queer artists do and do not do.[4] Chronicling one historiography of the transformation of Toronto’s Queen Street West, from its designation as a locus of DIY-spirited creative energy in the 1970s and 1980s, through the resulting shifts in the strip’s makeup due to gentrification, to its present day uses as a site of commercial tourism and arts commercialism, will show how queer art spaces on Queen Street West, despite speculation that the galleries along this strip are complicit in this cyclical process, nevertheless practice queer world-making, or a queer Gesamtkunstwerk, by innovating discursive queer space and welcoming queer tourism to subvert public perception of the uses of the street..[5]

The Old (New) Guard

Attempting to create an art movement, community, or identity category completely removed from dominant society may very well be a futile task. Pierre Bourdieu argues that it is, indeed, the intersubjective relationship between the artist, the art world, and the social conditions that produce the art world that imbue the artwork with value. Bourdieu writes that

The quasi-magical potency of the [artist’s] signature is nothing other than the power, bestowed on certain individuals, to mobilize the symbolic energy produced by the functioning of the whole field, ie. the faith in the game and its stakes that is produced by the game itself.[6]

To Bourdieu, it is not possible for the artwork to exist independently of the society that informs its production. Thus, meaning is determined through what might be construed as a parasitic relationship, one by which dominant culture influences the production of the elements of which it comes to be comprised. Even the most radical and emancipated arts communities gain their radical edge via their resistance to the dominant art world. The recent history of Toronto’s Queen Street West serves as an exemplary model of this relationship and parallels this phenomenon as it applies to the street’s present day queer interventions.

Queen Street West, once part of Toronto’s garment district, has been the site of several generations of cultural occupation. The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a migration of cultural activity away from the Yorkville, Annex, and Riverdale neighbourhoods to the west side of town.[7] During this time, several disparate arts communities responded to the relative lack of venues in which to show (the three main ones being A Space Gallery, Carmen Lamanna, and Isaacs Gallery) and a belief that Canada lacked an art scene of its own by mobilizing on Queen Street West, first at bars such as the Beverley Tavern and with art collective General Idea (GI) at the core of this coming together. As GI member AA Bronson relates his personal chronology of the development, in the early 1970s, of Canada’s own artistic identity:

As such a Canadian artist desiring to see not necessarily himself, but the picture of his art scene pictured on TV; and knowing the impossibility of an art scene without real museums … without real art magazines … without real artists … as such an artist desiring such a picture of such a scene … it was natural to call upon our national attributes—the bureaucratic tendency and the protestant work ethic—and working together, and working sometimes not together we laboured to structure, or rather to untangle from the messy post-Sixties spaghetti of our minds, artist-run galleries, artists’ video, and artist-run magazines. And that allowed us to allow ourselves to see ourselves as an art scene. And we did.[8]

Art critic Earl Miller points to GI’s 1977 move to Simcoe Street (just South of Queen Street) and their founding of FILE “Megazine” as critical moments in the formation of the Queen West arts community: GI’s social notoriety and the way in which FILE set out to chronicle and promote this new scene, in effect, gave birth to the scene. Miller writes, “From its first issue on, FILE was a progenitor of the cultural changes—artistic, political, sexual and musical—that the postmodern movement embodied.”[9] Miller also sees in FILE an early queer sensibility; the megazine featured

numerous bondage, leather and drag references and images: like those of the artist Michael Morris, a.k.a. Marcel Idea, who won the 1971 Miss General Idea beauty pageant, or the ongoing use of a fetish motif, the word appearing in various layouts and on GI’s black Fetish T-shirts.[10]

FILE also came to feature “BZZZ, BZZZ, BZZZ,” a gossip column and, in 1975, what has come to be perceived as GI’s manifesto, whereby they wrote:

We wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamourous we could say we were artists and we would be… We knew Glamour was not an object, not an action, not an idea. We knew Glamour never emerged from the ‘nature’ of things. There are no glamourous people, no glamourous events. We knew Glamour was artificial. We knew that in order to be glamourous we had to become plagiarists, intellectual parasites.[11]

GI’s belief in Glamour being born of a sort of cultural recycling points to a critical embeddedness within a larger culture and the coming to self-recognition via resistance—an interest in consuming society’s assumptions in order to project something radically new. GI’s founding, in 1974, of Art Metropole as a distribution site for artist books and ephemera helped to further materialize the national art scene that Canadian artists aspired to create.[12] Other factors have been recognized as contributing to the new energy that came over Toronto’s arts community as newly-anchored in the Queen West neighbourhood. For example, art critic and curator Philip Monk notes a burgeoning sense of radical social responsibility, resulting in the cross-community support of such events as the censorship battle fought by the city’s gay newspaper The Body Politic. In her 1986 “What Ever Happened to Queen St. West?” cultural historian Rosemary Donegan comments on the intersecting political, artistic, cultural, and recreational interests of Queen Street West’s demographic, writing that

With the coming of age of the Queen St. West scene, Toronto of the 1980s appears to have developed its own official “art scene,” full of budding potential and style. The scene not only focuses on music and the visual arts, but is also associated with theatre, design, and the perennial favourites—eating, drinking, and dancing. In recent years, the community has also developed a consciousness of black, feminist, gay and lesbian issues.[13]

Donegan’s view of the street points to its development from an artist colony to a more overarching way of life for its residents. However, by the time of Donegan’s designation of the street as such, the demography had, arguably, already begun to shift. As Monk writes,

Today, the designation “Queen Street” is shorthand for Toronto’s downtown entertainment and shopping district…the current boom in administered loft-living trades on the imagined lifestyle of the artists who for the most part no longer live there and who, in fact, started to depart in the mid-1980s in the first wave of suburban discovery and commercial gentrification…art communities dissolve, as Toronto’s of that time did. Some deconstruct due to internally motivated ideological disputes; others collapse with the departure of the generation that created the scene; all respond, inventively or disastrously, to the boom and bust of economic cycles.[14]

As Monk relates, Queen Street West’s economic development partly initiated the departure from the neighbourhood of many of the artists and art communities that had originally defined it and had come to be defined by it. However, this story is not unique to Queen Street West; countless studies of the causes and effects of gentrification position artists at the core of this phenomenon and demonstrate how artists seeking to resist commodification unwittingly participate in its cultural manifestation. Urban geographer David Ley attributes two main factors as influencing artists’ decisions to occupy inner-city neighbourhoods: one is the obvious affordability of these neighbourhoods, and the other is what Ley identifies as the “authenticity”[15] these neighbourhoods provide—a necessary element for the individual with an “aesthetic disposition.”[16] This mindset, Ley argues, allows the artist to provide aesthetic valorization to decaying neighbourhoods. Ley writes,

It is the aesthetic eye that transforms ugliness into a source of admiration … Such an aesthetic sensibility is found particularly among social groups rich in cultural capital but poor in economic capital. At the core of such groups is the urban artist.[17]

Ley follows Bourdieu’s thinking on the relationship between aesthetic disposition and economic and cultural capital—the term Bourdieu uses in showing how non-financial assets, such as education levels, intellectual sophistication, and overall cultural awareness, contribute to one’s social status—and argues that artists, though disproportionately economically poor despite generally higher levels of education, are nevertheless members of the dominant class. But artists, Ley argues, “are very special members of the middle class for they stretch its imagination, its desires, even its practices, beyond its norms and conventions.”[18]

Choosing to live and work in places “valorised as authentic, symbolically rich and free from the commodification that depreciates the meaning of place…”[19] Ley contends, nevertheless becomes a valuable entrepreneurial resource, and “The accrued cultural capital of a location can be traded in for economic capital, as the edge becomes the new centre.”[20]

Artists are not the only ones who occupy this core position: queers are also considered to contribute to the ‘rich’ development of the cosmopolitan experience as a whole. Studies such as Richard Florida and Gary Gate’s “Technology and Tolerance: The Importance of Diversity to High-Technology Growth” determine that “diversity,” namely, high gay, artist, and immigrant populations, are key factors in the economic growth of cities, with a high “gay index” being the leading indicator of a metropolitan area’s high-technology success.[21] Florida and Gates write, “Gays are frequently cited as harbingers of redevelopment and gentrification in distressed urban neighbourhoods.”[22] Originally drawn to affordable, high-density neighbourhoods away from “property, family and the high class: the old triad of social conservatism,” this first wave of queer settlement tends to be driven out by more affluent gays whose presence ushers in a new wave of development, increased property values, urban appeal for non-homosexual potential buyers, and commercial appeal for both gay and non-gay businesses alike.[23] With this commodification has come a form of queer tourism, undertaken by non-queer visitors, by which queers both become spectacles and are subjected to a policing of their identities and practices to appeal to non-gay audiences. Urban geographer Dereka Rushbrook provides the example of Montreal’s 1992 Pride Parade by which organizers issued “prohibitions against cross-dressing and ‘vulgar’ or ‘erotic’ displays to avoid offending straight spectators,” going on to explain how annual Pride Parades across the world have become major sources of revenue for the cities in which they are held.[24] This cursory explanation highlights the implicit tension that exists between queer communities and their host societies and serves to demonstrate how, like artists, queers attempting emancipation from dominant culture nevertheless end up at its service.

There are hopeful moments nestled within what might be perceived as a shroud of assimilative occurrences. Apart from describing the troubling effects of gentrification on minoritarian communities, queer urban geographers show how these sites of assimilation also offer ideological opportunities to reclaim and strengthen identificatory practices. Rushbrook suggests that the “zones of difference” that are produced within these sites function as what Michel Foucault terms heterotopias,

countersites where other sites in the culture are “represented, contested, and inverted” … Foucault notes the bounded and isolated yet permeable nature of these sites, where entry is either compulsory or requires permission; instances in which entry appears open to everyone conceal that “we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded.”[25]

Within co-opted spaces, Rushbrook argues, exist aspects of queer identity that remain unattainable to dominant forces by the very nature of their uniqueness to queer experience. The term “queer world-making” also seems to carry this connotation: in “Sex in Public,” Berlant and Warner argue that the formation of hegemonic culture is dependent on both intimacy and the upholding of sexual privacy, pointing to the ways in which this delimits culture as heterosexual. They write,

A complex cluster of sexual practices gets confused, in heterosexual culture, with the love plot of intimacy and familialism that signifies belonging to society in a deep and normal way. Community is imagined through scenes of intimacy, coupling, and kinship; a historical relation to futurity is restricted to generational narrative and reproduction. A whole field of social relations becomes intelligible as heterosexuality, and this privatized sexual culture bestows on its sexual practices a tacit sense of rightness and normalcy. This sense of rightness—embedded in things and not just in sex—is what we call heteronormativity.[26]

Berlant and Warner are quick to elaborate that to be against heteronormativity is not to be against norms, but that to “relax from an artificially stimulated ‘fear of normalcy’” carries with it a sense whereby the “price [people] must pay for social membership and a relation to the future is identification with the heterosexual life narrative.”[27] Berlant and Warner are intent to loosen the stranglehold heterosexuality has on innumerable aspects of hegemonic culture by engaging in a queer world-making project, a project they characterize as queer culture. They argue that ‘Every cultural form, be it a novel or an after-hours club or an academic lecture, indexes a virtual social world,” a world that subsequently contributes to the concretization of a queer counterpublic.[28] Berlant and Warner note that queer world-making is, in fact, a long-standing project:

Queer insurgents have long striven, often dangerously or scandalously, to cultivate what good folks used to call criminal intimacies. We have developed relations and narratives that are only recognized as intimate in queer culture: girlfriends, gal pals, fuckbuddies, tricks. Queer culture has learned not only how to sexualize these and other relations, but also to use them as a context for witnessing intense and personal affect while elaborating a public world of belonging and transformation.[29]

Acknowledging that affective—in other words, personal, or intimate—life is constantly overlapping with professional or political life, creating so-called “border intimacies,” Berlant and Warner argue that the public sexualization of these intimacies remains a transgressive act.[30] The zones in which this occurs are often regulated by the state but, according to Berlant and Warner, inevitably spill out of their designated areas.[31] Quickly, the zones come to denote more than their pre-determined zoning stipulations would indicate: “A critical mass develops. The street becomes queer. It develops a dense, publicly accessible sexual culture.”[32] Berlant and Warner’s belief in this queer counterpublic serves as a reminder of the distinction between ‘queer’ as a tangible community (e.g. Toronto’s “queer community”) and ‘queer’ as an ideological position; to delineate the difference between the two aids in setting limits on the degree to which ‘queer’ can be co-opted by the mainstream, for queer, as an ideology, necessarily evades this co-opting. So, there is a sense in which multiple layers of queer can be enacted in public: some are visible, commodifiable, and there for the taking, while others remain the unique ideological property of those who live ‘queerly’, those for whom assimilation is not possible by the very nature of existing outside of heteronormativity.

Queer world-making introduces non-normative sexuality into the public realm, but it also refashions heteronormative culture into something decidedly queer. José Esteban Muñoz emphasizes the performative function of queer world-making, writing that

The concept of worldmaking delineates the ways in which performances—both theatrical and everyday rituals—have the ability to establish alternate views of the world. These alternative vistas are more than simply views or perspectives; they are oppositional ideologies that function as critiques of oppressive regimes of “truth” that subjugate minoritarian people. Oppositional counterpublics are enabled by visions, “worldviews,” that reshape as they deconstruct reality.[33]

Muñoz argues that world-making, what he calls disidentification is a practice that, in upholding the dominant, ultimately “disassemble[s] that sphere of publicity and use[s] its parts to build an alternative reality. Disidentification uses the minoritarian culture as raw material to make a new world.”[34] To be a queer artist working in and alongside mainstream cultures, it can be argued, provides the conditions for numerous creative acts of disidentification.

An Army of Lovers

Amid the rapid transformation of Queen Street West into a site of mainstream consumerism exists an enclave of queers who both recall the collaborative efforts of their artist ancestors and engage in acts of queer world-making. The 1990s saw the inauguration of a new wave of art spaces along Queen Street West, creating a new conglomeration of artist-run centres, not-for-profits, and commercial galleries “engaged with social commentary and dangerous aesthetics” that permitted artists to “flit back and forth between the artist-run centres … and the commercial galleries run by art dealers … circling their easels like pioneer wagons against commercial convention while selling work nonetheless.”[35] This newfound commercial appreciation of so-called “dangerous aesthetics” has perhaps permitted for the development, preservation, and continued legacy of such galleries as Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Zsa Zsa Gallery, and, after the closure of Zsa Zsa, Paul Petro Special Projects Space, which opened in its place (962 Queen Street West).

Paul Petro Contemporary Art has been a fixture on Queen Street West since 1993. Covering two floors, the gallery represents a combination of established and emerging artists, and the space is usually divided between two shows, with an upstairs room reserved for Petro’s multiples collection—a combination of Petro’s personal ephemera, as well as ephemera collected from the artists he represents. Down the street from Paul Petro Contemporary Art is Petro’s other venue, Paul Petro Special Projects Space, a small one-floor storefront gallery that opened in 2005 after the closure of Andrew Harwood’s Zsa Zsa Gallery (1998-2005). Harwood is considered by some to be one of the first artists to establish a queer presence on the Queen Street West strip, no doubt due to the high concentration of queer exhibitions at Zsa Zsa during its seven-year run. The continued collaboration between Petro and Harwood’s artists, as well as Harwood himself, has extended the tenure of queer representation on the strip. Both Petro and Harwood seem to approach queer art as a curatorial challenge to visually emphasize the ideological, rather than tangible, components of queer identities and communities, seemingly favouring installation-based practices that have the affect of creating temporary alternate realities. The employment of the historically commercial storefront window for artistic ends creates the feeling of looking into a full-sized diorama—Jacques Louis Mandé Daguerre’s early-nineteenth-century invention that predated Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk as an immersive virtual experience. These storefront dioramas portray not a seamless illusion of what is, but rather, what could be, or perhaps, what exists in the ideological worlds inhabited in the queer imagination.

An emphasis on performative installations and the recycling of the cultural detritus of mass culture points to the way in which spaces such as Zsa Zsa Gallery, Paul Petro Contemporary Art, and Paul Petro Special Projects Space can be conceived of as discursive venues of disidentification. Art critic Jon Davies notes the tenure of Zsa Zsa’s storefront performative installations of the Toronto/Creemore-based queer-Witch duo FASTWÜRMS (Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse).[36] The artists’ use of kitsch, vernacular, high art, and mass culture to create “residual mise[s]-en-scène… of crafting, socializing, play and performance” figured prominently on the strip between 1999 and 2008.[37] Reflecting on two FASTWÜRMS installations at Zsa Zsa, Unisex House of Bangs (1999), a hair salon featuring walls covered in wigs and hairdressing tools and featuring FASTWÜRMS and Harwood as hairdressers, and Blood and Swash (2002), where an ideological tattoo parlour was set up, and needles were replaced with pen and marker, Davies writes,

Attesting to Zsa Zsa’s openness and its status as an interactive, semi-public space, its bite-size floor plan blending with the street life outside, the hair salon and the tattoo parlous were service-oriented projects where enthusiasm trumped expertise and everyone who walked in—artists, queers, mental health patients and neighbourhood residents—could depart transformed, not only by their new ‘do and Sharpie tattoo, but by the class-mixing, queer-inflected sociability encountered within.[38]

This sense of “queer-inflected sociability” has also thrived in the queer installations featured at Petro’s two galleries, where samplings of various segments that have come to comprise a notion of ‘the queer community’ have been represented through a combination of art, ephemera, and props. Queer textile and installation artist Allyson Mitchell’s Lady Sasquatch installation was displayed at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in 2005 and featured a combination of furs, fun furs, sculptural and embroidered sexualized half-human, half-animal figured amid a backdrop of vernacular objects that created a kitsch-inflected wilderness environment. As art critic and curator Helena Reckitt described the scene,

Mixing elements from natural history displays, roadside sculptures and 70s rec rooms, the installations faux diorama houses 9-foot creatures with teddy-bear eyes and snouts, opulent curves and multi-teat breasts upholstered in fun fur, baring their incisors in mock scary poses. A fake fire and a corner sofa draped with homely fabrics, flanked by plastic ornamental trees, encouraged thoughts of lounging, snacking and making out.[39]

A curatorial pattern can be discerned in the similarities between FASTWÜRMS’s use of mass culture’s objects and their use, by Mitchell, for similarly queer ends. Calling on her own adolescent memory of mainstream sexual imagery, Mitchell appropriates this reserve to reflect her own sexual reality, “recycling for dykey ends images that were intended for straight men,”[40] in a manner that, Reckitt suggests, exemplifies Eve Sedgwick’s account of “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”[41]

Queer group shows, such as the 2006 Queercore Punk Archive, curated by queercore artist and filmmaker GB Jones and Petro at the Special Projects Space, and Wild Things, the 2008 incarnation of Paul Petro’s annual Pride exhibition also at the Special Projects Space, attest to queer world-making as a ‘family’ affair. Queercore Punk Archive was comprised of Jones’s personal collection of posters, zines, record sleeves, and correspondence that document the queer punk movement, as perceived to have originated in the 1980s with the founding, by Jones and Bruce LaBruce, of the zine JDs. Jones reflects on Toronto’s gay scene at the time. He writes, “You were supposed to look a certain way, you were supposed to behave a certain way… Anything outside of those very narrow parameters was scoffed, your politics were scoffed at. And the fact that you were really poor didn’t help either.”[42] Seeking refuge in the punk scene, Jones and LaBruce came up against more resistance—this time, for being queer. As LaBruce explains, “that made us even more marginalized and more angry, because we rejected the gay community and we were rejected by punks. So we were doubly alienated.”[43} The Paul Petro installation visually reflected the ad-hoc community created by like-minded queers through the linking of ephemera plastered across the gallery walls by pieces of black tape decorated with silver arrows. The grid-like image wall also served a mapping function by grouping documents according to geographic origin, “capturing the more-or-less spontaneous creation of self-made culture across a continent.”[44] The Wild Things show, which featured John Abrams, Patrick DeCoste, FASTWÜRMS, Clint Griffin, Andrew Harwood, Matthias Herrmann, Sholem Krishtalka, Allyson Mitchell, and Will Munro, was displayed in the gallery during Pride Week—what has arguably become the most blatant display of gay commercialism in cities across North America. The show’s description read:

“Wild Things” … the concept came from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” … dark forests and wild creatures lurking behind the trees… or in the shadows of the parks or bars on the Queer West strip. Shades of “Snackers”, a long-running weekly Tuesday night of music and video at the now-defunct Vatikan … where we coined the phrase Queer St West. A night that was so far under the radar the plant life was white and the fish were translucent… And now the question emerged… Where Are the Wild Things? … and what makes ‘em wild?[45]

Featuring works such as rugs by Mitchell embroidered with the words “Dyke Pussy,” Krishtalka’s sketches of Robert Rauschenberg, and Abrams’s paintings based on the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, the show combined subverted representations of mainstream cultural perceptions of gay and queer identity with a positioning of the radical queer as an endangered species within a rapidly homogenizing world.

In his article, “Show’s Over Folks, Move Along: The Institutionaliztion of Art and the Secret Life of the Underground,” Monk expresses concern over the constant assimilation of subcultural expression into the mainstream, asking, “Can an image alone sustain some reference to the underground within being its actual documentation? Are reprising roles enough to keep a dialogue with the idea of the underground at least intermittent?”[46] If the curatorial and artistic practices of Queen Street West’s radical queer arts community are practices in queer world-making, then they are not images, but interventions, not passive documentation, but active preservation. The brief sampling of queer exhibitions at Paul Petro and Zsa Zsa points to a much larger curatorial interest in not only representing artists engaged in queer practice, but also playing an active, directorial role in producing radical sites of display. Amid the constantly looming threat of hegemonic consumption, Queen Street West’s radical queer artists define themselves, their practices, and their spaces via counter-consumptions of their own.

Back in the “Real” (Art) World…

At the beginning of this essay, I considered Carrie Moyer’s argument that queer art could not survive transplanting into the museum and asked: Do queer art exhibitions, and the queer communities that produce them, benefit from a degree of institutionalization, and to what end? At first glance, institutionalization seems to counter the emancipatory attitude of queer art and to increase the risk of assimilation at the hands of the mainstream public. The cycle of gentrification functions as a parallel to the threat of queer assimilation, by which queer cultural production, which can never be completely disassociated from the mainstream public, might maintain its autonomy by approaching dominant culture from a queer perspective. For, as artist Sheila Pepe argues in regard to whether or not a queer moment can exist in institutional space,

Not really. A queer moment can be experienced here but we are the performer. It’s the way we interact with the collection. I mean they don’t have to be interested in me for me to be interested in them. I don’t have to wait for their acceptance to participate in the dialogue and I can use the collection for my own needs, for my own queer moments.[47]

Queer exhibitions in alternative spaces teach both queer and straight audiences how to look at art queerly; they ask for a critical evaluation of assumed heteronormative modes of interpretation, and demand that these assumptions are checked at the door. But they also encourage audiences to maintain this perception after leaving the gallery, to consider other visual experiences via a queer framework. No, queer space doesn’t disappear when queers leave. But present-day queer art interventions, such as those that continue to take place on Toronto’s Queen Street West, serve as reminders that perhaps the task for artists, curators, and audiences, is to make it appear upon entering.


[1] Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Intimacy (Winter 1998), 558.

[2] Gay City News, “A Conversation with artists Carrie Moyer, Sheila Pepe, Stephen Mueller, Andrew Robinson and Frank Holliday,” Gay City News, Volume 3, Issue 353 (December 30, 2004 – January 5, 2005), http://www.acrstudio.com/projects/word/queeringmoma/index.htm.

[3] Brian McGrath, with Mark Watkins and Mao-jung Lee, Queer Space, exh. pamphlet (New York: Store Front for Art and Architecture, 1994), unpaginated

[4] Berlant and Warner, 558.

[5] The Gesamtkunstwerk, a term traceable to Richard Wagner’s 1849 essay “Art and Revolution” and attempted by Wagner in his operatic productions, refers to the “total work of art”: the intention to create an art experience fusing disparate elements into a unified whole and engaging all of the senses. See Wagner, “Art and Revolution,” as well as Wagner, “The Art-Work of the Future,” (1849) where he expands his meaning of the concept. A socially and politically relevant update on the Gesamtkunstwerk is provided by Annette Michelson in “Where Is Your Rupture?”: Mass Culture and the Gesamtkunstwerk,” October, Vol. 56, High/Low: Art and Mass Culture (Spring, 1991), 42-63.

[6] Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 81.

[7] David Ley, “Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification,” Urban Studies, Vol. 40, No. 12 (November 2003), 2540.

[8] AA Bronson, “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Spaces as Museums by Artists,” in From Sea to Shining Sea, ed. AA Bronson with René Blouin, Peggy Gale, Glenn Lewis (Toronto: The Power Plant, 1987), 164.

[9] Earl Miller, “File Under Anarchy: A Brief History of Punk Rock’s 30-Year Relationship with Toronto’s Art Press,” C: International Contemporary Art, No. 88 (Winter 2005), 33.

[10] Ibid.

[11] General Idea, quoted in Diedrich Diederichsen, “Glad Rag,” Artforum 40.8 (April 2002), http://www.aabronson.com/art/gi.org/artforum.htm.

[12] Art Metropole, “History,” Art Metropole, http://www.artmetropole.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=about.FA_dsp_history.

[13] Rosemary Donegan, “What Ever Happened to Queen St. West?” Fuse, No. 42 (Fall 1986), 10.

[14] Philip Monk, “Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years,” C: International Contemporary Art, No 59 (Fall 1998), published in conjunction with the Power Plant exhibition, “Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years,” September 25 – December 20, 1998 and available online at http://www.yorku.ca/agyu/curate/site_design/essays/PicturingToronto.pdf.

[15] Ley, “Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification,” 2534.

[16] Ibid., 2531.

[17] Ley, The New Middle Classes and the Remaking of the Central City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 301.

[18] Ley, “Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification,” 2533.

[19] Ibid., 2535.

[20] Ibid., 2541.

[21] Richard Florida and Gary Gates, “Technology and Tolerance: The Importance of Diversity to High-Technology Growth,” The Brookings Institution Survey Series (June 2001), 2.

[22] Ibid., 3.

[23] Manuel Castells and Karen Murphy, “Cultural Identity and Urban Structure: The Spatial Organization of San Francisco’s Gay Community,” in Urban Policy Under Capitalism, ed. Norman Fainstein and Susan S. Fainstein (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1982), 250.

[24] Dereka Rushbrook, “Cities, Queer Space, and the Cosmopolitan Tourist,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 8, Number 1-2 (2002), 191-92.

[25] Ibid., 185. See also Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), 22-27.

[26] Berlant and Warner, 554.

[27] Ibid., 557.

[28] Ibid., 558.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 560.

[31] Berlant and Warner cite former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s 1994 development of an antiporn zoning code that delimited the physical parameters of the sex trade business. His code prohibited any sex trade business larger than 10,000 square feet or operating within 500 feet of residences, churches, day-cares, schools, or one another. The city was also granted the right to remove any visible markers of the sex trade that were deemed to not meet the approval of the zoning board. The population density and overlap between residential and commercial zones made the effects of this code immediately predictable: many of the businesses were forced to close. Katherine Liepe-Levinson writes, “Giuliani appeared less interested in actually forbidding the sale of erotic or pornographic goods than in eliminating any explicit signs of sexual desire (along with any signs of ‘social trouble’ in all senses of the phrase) from the official map of his city.” See Liepe-Levinson, Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire (London & New York: Routledge, 2002), 20.

[32] Berlant and Warner, 562.

[33] Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 195.

[34] Ibid., 196.

[35] Kevin Temple, “Toronto needs freakier rich people,” The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto, eds. Alana Wilcox, Christina Palassio, and Johnny Dovercourt (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2006), 75.

[36] Jon Davies, “Props to the Fairy People,” C: International Contemporary Art, No. 98 (Summer 2008), 27.

[37] Ibid., 28.

[38] Ibid., 29

[39] Helena Reckitt, “My Fuzzy Valentine: Allyson Mitchell,” C: International Contemporary Art, No. 89 (Spring 2006), 15.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, ed. Sedgwick and Adam Frank (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 151-2.

[42] GB Jones, quoted in Sholem Krishtalka, “We are Queercore: Toronto Punks / A ‘porntastic fantasy’ made flesh,” Xtra! (Thursday, January 4, 2007), http://www.xtra.ca/public/viewstory.aspx?AFF_TYPE=3&STORY_ID=2528&PUB_TE….

[43] Bruce LaBruce, quoted in Krishtalka.

[44] Krishtalka.

[45] Paul Petro Special Projects Space, “Wild Things,” Paul Petro Contemporary Art/Special Projects Space, http://www.paulpetro.com/projects/2008/wild_2008.shtml.

[46] Monk, “Show’s Over Folks, Move Along,” Future, Present, Past: La Biennale di Venezia, XLVII Esposizione Internationale d’Arte (Venice: Electa, La Biennale di Venezia, 1997), 452-54, available online at http://www.yorku.ca/agyu/curate/site_design/essays/Show’sOver.pdf.

[47] Gay City News.

Erin Silver has been involved in various writing, publishing, curatorial, and activist projects since 2001. In 2009, Silver curated inter–, the fifteenth edition of Concordia University’s annual HIV/AIDS exhibition—a component of Concordia’s interdisciplinary course on HIV/AIDS. A former collective member at Montreal’s now-defunct Alternative Bookstore, Silver also coordinated, in 2002, the successful effort to unionize Montreal’s Indigo Bookstore—the first Indigo to gain union certification. Currently, Silver is on the Board of Directors at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse. She is pursuing a PhD in Art History at McGill University, focusing on where queer visual culture meets critical pedagogy, radical curatorial practices, and social histories and activism.