Brianne Savage, Student, Arts & Humanities. OPENWIDE Volume 16 Issue 2
The audience spills onto Richmond and around the corner of Horton between sets at Forest City Gallery’s curated concert series, Hear Here. First on tonight’s docket is Stuka, a lo-fi electro band from Toronto whose music is both ambient and dancey; second is Whip Kisser, a screamy grrrl fronted band; and headlining is Soupcans from Toronto, a weirdo-noise group whose appearance has the gallery packed with folks ready to experience something creative and intense.
But I’m not here to write about the bands, I’m more concerned with the audience. These eclectically wardrobed folks are what make up London’s underground arts and culture scene. A small but mighty force that seeps into the nooks and crannies of the city’s downtown spaces. Even if you don’t recognize it, it’s always there, just beneath the finely polished surface of London’s mainstream nightlife. London’s arts scene is a tight knit, supportive community of people who want to “just play loud with their friends,” as Ashley Houghton, a local artist and musician who runs an arts collective called Squeek, puts it.
If London has such a burgeoning arts community, why am I constantly met with complaints from fellow Western students that “there’s nothing to do in this city!”? The answer it seems, has to do with a serious lack of funding and venue space.
Holly Painter, a self-employed spoken word artist/public speaker and the volunteer Director of the London Poetry Slam says, “that with funding at a premium there is often competition between arts groups for audiences and grant money, and that can cause rifts in the community rather than people working to grow together.”
Another such rift in the community is between local artists and local businesses. “Our band was banned from the APK… and another group was kicked off stage and had the cops called on them for burning a Bible,” says Houghton about the Alex P. Keaton, a local venue that used to be a hub for experimental artists and musicians. Another local musician, Andrew Weiss, talks about “one bar in particular that a huge part of the scene has sworn off because of its lack of real support for musicians,” that has left a void in the community. As with any community, there are deficiencies and politics, but London has “a lot of really passionate artists and organizers who do the best with what they have, which is not much,” explains Western student and visual artist, Jacqueline Dee.
Filthy Rebena is a vintage and consignment store on Dundas that hosts art shows, concerts, and even stage-plays in the basement. “I think it’s important for people with space to use it for everything possible in order to support the artistic community. I have all this space, so I’m happy to let people use it,” Natalie Bradshaw, the store’s owner, explains.
Another space that has become popular for shows is Out of Sound Haus, associated with the boutique label Out of Sound Records, and is literally someone’s house where shows are put on because there is such a lack of supportive space for musicians to play. It’s not the only space of its kind either. The Loft is an apartment that hosts shows and has become another popular venue for performers, and in the past, the Open House Arts Collective ran out of a house known as the Yale Street Speakeasy. Unfortunately, as people graduate or move these spaces close down. This seems to be a big reason why London’s art scene is kept so underground: the spaces and faces are always changing as people come to the city and then inevitably leave for cities like Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and Vancouver, which have better artistic prospects.
Creating a sustainable arts community is not just about funding and venues though, it requires an effort from the community itself. “I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of just having our own artistic economy, where people are collecting each other’s stuff, supporting each other’s stuff, there for the sake of the art or the music, and not there for the sake of themselves and their own performance,” Houghton explains. This lack of financial support from members of the arts scene is a common complaint from local artists. “I’d love to see a more diverse crowd, and more willingness to open their wallets to keep local artists going. I get more people who complain about the cost of artisan goods here than in any other city,” Dee says of her experience selling art all over Ontario.
London may have an exciting and intense underground arts scene, but the fact that it’s underground means that it’s hard to break into. Megan Arnold, a local visual artist and musician, explains that “it’s almost always the same faces at every event. It’s like getting a new kid in your class when someone unfamiliar shows up: you notice.” There is certainly a desire among people who are part of the arts community for new people to show up to events, but because artists must self promote and events are held in out-of-the-ordinary locations, it’s hard to get the word out to different social spheres. “Even if you get a special events license so that you can serve alcohol, those events are required to be invitation only,” Bradshaw says. Since that is the case, events are mainly promoted on social media, so, as Arnold puts it, “in the independent scene, it’s all about who you know.”
If you’re looking to get involved in London’s arts and culture scene, check out LondonFUSE for event listings and articles about what is going on in the city. Don’t be put off by events that are held in a store’s basement or someone’s house because that is often where the most novel and creative artistic experiences can be had. Once you know where to look in London, a whole new world will open itself up to you. Have fun!