Lately–belatedly–there’s been some Toronto-intelligentsia talk about “personal branding.” Anyone who wanted to know what “personal branding” was already knew about it ere that Walrus piece (in which I’m obliged to tell you I am featured) hit the stands. Anyone who didn’t want to know is unlikely to feel differently after reading said piece. Gen Ys are narcissistas. Well, flip the page. What’s missing in all the Millennial-ist clangor about how self-obsessed “we” are is how self-employed we are; how, as the young precariat in an increasingly untenable, untenured world, we’re left to feel like we are all we have. I’m not about to get all Occupy in here, because the B-side is that almost everybody I know in this creative-classy, kind of bullshit city wants to work for themselves. The assistant curators want to open their own galleries. The copywriters want to start their own magazines. The journalists want to be novelists. It all seems mathematically impossible, but then again, if we were good at math we would be living in Waterloo.
Still, for reasons economic and otherwise, we won’t all work for ourselves. More and more of us, I think, will work for each other. Not in the old ladder-climbing way, but in a new friends-with-benefits-and-maybe-someday-a-salary way. There is both naturally and necessarily a collaborative, bartering spirit among people who do things on their own for not enough money, and that spirit has–with new economic necessity and the impetus of conservative politics–galvanized into something like Zeitgeist. (I wish there were a better word than Zeitgeist, or that we could steal it back from Tyler Brule.)
This I think is why there are so many “collectives” springing up, and I say collectives in quotes not because I’m unsure of their merit (I mean, sometimes I am) but because the word collective is often right there in their names. The most cred-heavy advertising agency in Canada began as Sid Lee Collective in Montreal (they now have offices here and in Paris and in Amsterdam). The Fashion Collective has been credited with making Toronto Fashion Week relevant, and if they haven’t, I’m going to do the crediting now. The best art show the AGO put on all year (with apologies to that Russian guy) was a retrospective of the ’80s Toronto collective General Idea. Still the famousest Toronto band is Broken Social Scene, the household-name musical collective that variously comprised up to 30-odd members. The Urban Repair Squad is a guerrilla bike-activism collective, while Yamantaka//Sonic Titan is a sort of cultural-activism collective. The Weeknd isn’t just Abel; it sprung from a small collective of Drake-associated talent, and if you’ve seen the Weeknd’s new “Montreal” video, you know it’s made by High 5 Collective. I feel like you’re really tired of the word “collective” already, but too bad.
All this micro-Gestaltism is more than a balance struck between mythic individualism and corporate-level income. On an immediate, political level, it could be a reaction to a conservative climate in which arts funding is seasonally under threat. “It feels like whatever brown tide brought Rob Ford to the forefront has been rolling for a while,” says Xenia Benivolski of the White House, an artist-run cooperative in Kensington Market. “Toronto has changed a lot in the last 10 years, it’s becoming more interesting, more diverse, maybe more cultural? And of course there is resistance. And then we resist the resistance. And it goes on forever! But then you know, look at Toronto in the 80s, that whole Art vs. Art thing, and it was the same. One interesting thing about Toronto is its massive case of cultural amnesia. It’s because no one is from here and the ones who are don’t stick around, maybe.”
Benivolski says gentrification is another major factor, and sure enough, the apartment I’ve spent two years cohabiting is a factory that once housed masses of hungry, if not starving, artists.. Same deal with the Abell Street lofts and the similarly ex-industrial spaces in the east end. “This commercialization of industrial spaces obviously has its reflection on the perceived status of art production as a commercial, rather than professional, cerebral, meditative or what-have-you activity. People need space for different reasons, not just to “make paintings.” If someone wanted to rent a space to arrange flowers or upholster couches or make muffins, they should. I think that a lot about the White House is this sort of meditation on space–what does it mean to have a few square feet or whatever for some sort of activity? Is it meaningful, and what will come of it?”
Adam Cowan, another founding member of the White House, calls it “a shit boat for poor, young artists.” It consists of 26 studios or practices, about a third of which comprise the current board of members; collectively, they make decisions about which shows to hold and how to spend a small budget.
“No surprise, but many young artists are poor and work a few jobs to scrape by. Arts funding is low in Toronto compared to similar cities, but every artist will say that and every artist will agree that it should change,” says Cowan. “The matter is even if work is considered commercial or ‘sellable’ art, there is a high financial barrier to entry. Collectives help to bridge this gap by working as a patchwork of artists who support one another, share contacts, and provide warm bodies at showings.”
Dylan Thompson, who last year launched Forgetus Gallery on Sterling with his partner Cia Mellegers and a network of twenty-whatever friends, says the barrier isn’t just financial–there’s a social hierarchy in the art world that dictates who gets a solo show. “The whole collective idea is that anyone can bring their ideas to us,” he says, “and we can shine a little light on people whose work you wouldn’t see in a traditional gallery. We give them a pro bono space and make some money through sales and donations, which goes toward the next show. Hopefully it grows from there.”
Thompson notes that with the closings of Our Space, the notorious ’00s art and party lair, and Whippersnapper Gallery, both on College west of the university, there was a dearth of space for pre-establishment creative shit. (Whippersnapper is still going going going, but in a scaled-back or focussed way, given that their new Dundas and Augusta space is the size of my closet.) That concern was likewise the catalyst for art quartet Team Macho’s recent, well-publicized interactive installation at the Weston Family Learning Centre community gallery. “If you don’t have space to work,” member Nicholas Aoki told the Globe’s Siri Agrell, “you end up collapsing in on your own life.” So much for the urbane myth of the tortured, singular genius-artist living between four canvasses on a bed of broken Jack Daniels bottles. Few will deny there’s a certain egotism–a certainty of self–required to make work for other people to look at. But most artists I’ve met or know or know of are far more social and sharing than they’re mythologized to be.
And because everyone thinks they’re a goddamn artist now–whether they’re making commercials or painting nails or Instagramming–and because they’re not necessarily wrong, the idea of the collective has spread into even the most hierarchical places. In Anupa’s piece on Press Pause Play, she outed us at the Toronto Standard as an “editing collective” (my joke, but it’s true). Between myself, two other section editors, and a production assistant–don’t worry, we’re hiring a managing editor–we float this boat without a captain. It helps of course that we have a highly energetic and hands-on publisher, but still: the weirdest thing about this disordered system is how not weird it feels.
Recently, my friends and their friends opened Common Good, a commercial and artistic directing studio on Dundas West. There are three partners, two of whom–Jamie Webster and Eric Makila–are also directors; neither of them have an office. Instead, they’ve donated their significant square footage to the cause of ideation. You have only to walk through the glassy, open-minded, Scandinavian-Japanesey hybrid space to get it. Tables are modular and multi-purpose; so are the felt couches that often serve in place of desk chairs. Emil Teleki, who designed the place along with Jessica Nakanishi and is also a founding member (with Webster and others) of N/A Collective, calls it “a landscape, not an office.”
“We wanted to encourage the creative flow of ideas without geographical or physical boundaries,” says Webster, who used to work at MTV (quite autonomously, he says) and once beat Harmony Korine out for a beer commercial. Meaning: he could easily work under his own name, but he’d rather not. “There’s nothing else like Common Good in Toronto so far,” he says. “I could be a singular director with a singular idea and everyone around me would work toward my vision. But here–it works because we’re all passionate and the strongest ideas always prevail.”
Common Good connotes socialist ideals, and certainly there’s a contra-Republican-individualism to be read from the collective scenario. But the intent here isn’t explicitly political, and in fact, the more hang around the more it just feels… familial. Last weekend, the New York Times had a story on how more of us are living alone and how that makes us, contrary to what they deem popular beliefs, more–not anti–social. What we hope to gain from collective bargaining is a new kind of tribe, one predicted by the postmodern French dude Michel Maffesoli back in the ’90s, in which we create our own families to survive the Jamesonian loss of individual strength. When Teleki describes his inspiration as “the campfire, the primitive circle of sharing,” it all makes sense. That’s makes these collectives not so new or Millennial, but rather merely human and very, very old; in fact, ancient.
All photos of Common Good studio by Jamie Webster.
Sarah Nicole Prickett is the Style Editor at Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @xoxSNP.