What's up with Kensington Market's oldest DIY venue?
Double Double Land is synonymous with those mysterious/practical directions "down the alley, up the stairs," which sounds simple enough until you try to get a friend to meet you there at 1am. Kensington Market's longest running DIY venue is about to hit its five year anniversary, but even if you've been along for the ride the whole time it's okay if you still walk past the downstairs bakery at unassuming 209 Augusta sometimes.
There are few places in Toronto where art is put before all else, and that coupled with a certain feeling-that-cannot-be-named (maybe it's love), has made the tiny venue my favourite place to see a show in the city. While DIY spaces come and go, imagining a Toronto without Double Double Land is a vaguely apocalyptic proposition. Where would the thrift shop riff raff go?
Before the big (really big) anniversary celebration, I met up with founders Jon McCurley, Daniel Vila, and their escaping cat to talk about what gap the venue fills in Toronto's arts and music scene, and where the space is headed. It was like entering a portal to a distant, condo-less past, or a city far far away: five year plans are hazy, profits are low-priority, and someone is actively trying to figure out if music is "good," rather than marketable.
While for now the ever-scroungy venue isn't ready to join the establishment because, to quote one very wise man, "people like to be in garbage," it's clear that something in DDL's relaxed and noncommercial strategy is working, one night at a time. I've included some of the venue's richest, if meandering, war stories here for posterity's sake.
From all night dance parties to pirate internet media junkets, the heartbeat of Double Double Land has become a defining force in the neighborhood, even to those who will never know they were there. Here's how an ex-bakery with an "animal room" transformed into the Market's longest running DIY venue.
DDL was founded in 2009 by current members Jon McCurley and Daniel Vila (also behind Extermination Night, with a habit of throwing shows in nunneries), plus Rob Gordon (who now plays drums for Owen Pallett) and Stephen Thomas (now working as a writer). The venue got a loose start at Jamie's Area, a short-lived venue in a basement apartment at 193 Augusta co-run by Vila and Bonny Poon in a space that now houses the Toronto School of Burlesque.
Neighbours weren't into the noise from Jamie's, so Vila found 209 August in summer '09. Then came months of renos. "The place was full of garbage, cockroaches, graffiti, and smashed walls" Vila remembers.
McCurley joins the walk down memory alley. "Someone lived here in a very gross way. In the back it was all garbage... The room that I eventually lived in for a long time was the animal room. It had animals in it."
Vila laughs. "There was a wall full of industrial sized drawers that had bulk underwear and garbage in them, and we sold them all for $100 to this guy who took them over the course of a month."
"On the hood of his car." McCurley adds.
"Yeah. And the first time he tried to tape them down with duck tape, but they weighed like 50 pounds each and a cop had to tell him it was a bad idea."
"There was a big steel unit - a long steel thing that you put your crates of underwear on - and this guy wanted it. He ran a flower shop and he promised us all these flowers we never got." McCurley remembers.
Vila nods. "We never got the flowers."
Over the past five years, Vila and McCurley speculate about 20 people have called Double Double Land home (not counting the crashing bands and scores of visitors), including Jesi the Elder (currently artist in residence), Laura McCoy, and "this guy who used to take beer all the time."
I ask what their initial goals for the space were beyond getting the garbage out, and McCurley and Vila are at a loss for words. "I think it's been pretty organic" McCurley struggles.
"We never had a mandate." Vila adds.
"If you asked us why we still do it, we probably wouldn't have a good answer either. It just doesn't stop," they both laugh. "But we wanted to clean up the garbage... we've had ideas, and some of them we pull off and some of them we don't."
"The goal has always been to provide performance experiences that don't make sense in other places." Vila says more seriously.
"For a while I was motivated by [making] a place where people can fall in love." McCurley says with sincerity. Vila laughs but McCurley keeps going.
"Why do we run this thing we've built, this thing where people show up at night all the time? I started thinking people come to fall in love here and have these beautiful memories. And it's true. There's been love that's come and gone. You can see it, when people come up and they're really happy. I've also thought about how it's like going on vacation... a cruise or you're going on a trip somewhere. You don't need to go on vacation, because you can have that feeling in Toronto."
Vila explains, "Especially with random people - we do get a lot of random people who don't know what the place is or what it's called, they just end up here somehow really late at night, have an experience, leave, and then don't know where they were or what they did. And maybe they fell in love."
McCurley is enthusiastic. "And that happens on vacation all the time. Maybe you can just tell that [DDL] isn't run like another place. There's a freedom in certain things, you can just feel it. When we first started there was a negative Yelp review that said 'it feels like it's someone's clubhouse.'"
"No, that was positive. It was a four star Yelp review." Dan corrects him.
5 YEARS IN KENSINGTON MARKET
The first event at DDL, in fall 2009, was an Eileen Myles reading. Since then the space has served as an art gallery, music venue, cinema, theatre, studio, music video set, and, of course, dance floor. They've also been robbed twice, witnessed fights, had a guest who "fell asleep and never woke up," and currently boast, in Vila's words, "the best bathroom in Toronto."
"I think there's definitely, in terms of music at least, a scene that is somewhat associated with Double Double Land. Man Made Hill played here eight shows in a row, and there are people who play here more than anywhere else." Vila says of the venue's niche in the city. Sometimes, it seems it only makes sense for a touring artist to play DDL. The venue also hosts performers overnight, and helps however they can so that artists can still, in McCurley's words, "live out their dreams and fall in love - tour the world and stuff."
Aside from monthly performance show Doored, regulars who define the space include Antoine 93, Wham City, Ami Dang, Petra Glynt, Jason Lescalleet, Drainolith, Tasseomancy, Doldrums, New Fries, and Healing Power Records. Grimes, Le1f, and Owen Pallett have also played the stage.
The founders name a Clown Rave (a clown/archeologist rave), the Whack Magic parties, Ian Svenonius, Dieter Moebius (Cluster), and the recent Chandra album re-issue show as other fond, non garbage-related memories.
McCurley stresses the lack of performance art venues in Toronto, which Double Double Land was built to be. "If it wasn't for this place, in my experience, the other places people get to perform that kind of art are really crappy places. Where people don't see you and there's no lights, no audience, no sound, and people don't get paid - you're at the Power Ball and no one cares."
When I ask about their booking strategy, the answer is, predictably, that there isn't one (except there is). "We get all these emails from seemingly random people who don't seem to know what the space is... we'll have weekly meetings where we go through the emails we've received and by the end of it I'm confused about what I think is good." Vila admits, only partially joking.
McCurley continues, "the booking strategy has evolved to where we listen to everything people have sent, then we sit around at the meeting and look at each other saying, 'I don't want to stay up all night on this night, do you?' And they'll say 'I do!' and it's like that, endlessly."
"It's great. And maybe that's why we don't stop. It's always surprising. Someone will come in and it will be really full and exciting and you have no idea who they are, or someone will be nobody and three weeks later become Grimes, and you can hear them in the airport in Mexico City."
Dan adds that they often book artists they know from the community, and that "sometimes we'll think two people are going to show up, but it's really great so we'll do it."
"Maybe that's one way we're different." McCurley adds. "It's not 100% run by whether we can make money off of it. We'll do stuff because we like it."
McCurley is glad that more DIY venues are popping up such as 8-11 on Spadina and Videofag in Kensington. "Down the street Videofag is more theatre and performance based - so now we don't do as much stuff like that, because it can go to Videofag."
When I ask about changes in Kensington Market, he laughs. "The chocolate store closed; the popcorn store opened. It goes in waves - sometimes it feels dangerous. That extremely violent guy isn't around this summer, which was nice."
"You still really feel it. The market's wonderful even if it's changing." McCurley waxes. "If fancier stores are coming in, it still feels the same."
"The I Deal Coffee patio is very different from five years ago, because all these cafes where people have MacBooks have opened up, and the weirdos are left at I Deal." Vila adds.
"A lot of coffee shops have opened up. It's coffee shops and bars, there weren't bars five years ago. It's still the wild west at night."
"It's more going Yorkville, but it's still going both ways."
"There are still silly stores that open that are like really Kensington Market - silly ideas. Like "Nice Stuff Off the Truck?" What's it called? "Nice Things... Off the Truck."
"Mecca Body Oils is still there, and hasn't seemed to change over five years. There are places that are unique and they aren't going anywhere. Maybe there's going to be more bars and more restaurants, but it's going slow."
"The anarchist store that nobody goes to is still open somehow. People always say the Market's over, but it just persists. I don't think the Walmart will have any effect on anything. People who come to the Market might go there for cheap things, but they're not going to go to Walmart instead of coming to the Market"
Double Double Land wasn't meant to last for five years, but they owe some of their success to the unconventional strategy of living in-venue, voiding the chance of not making rent. "For the first three years we never counted the money." Vila laughs. They name punk and hardcore venue Soybomb HQ as the only other long standing DIY venue in Toronto.
Over the past half-decade DDL have floated plenty of ideas, including a pirate radio station. "We wanted to start a network where we broadcast internet from a tower" McCurley reminisces.
"Remember free internet for Kensington Market?" Vila asks.
They laugh. McCurley explains "That idea didn't come around. That idea was we'd get a tower for a network where you'd only find stuff in the market."
"I think it was, intentionally or not, in the spirit of UK grime era pirate radio where you'd have a very short range transmitter in an apartment block."
So like, Double Double Land Internet? "I think that's right." McCurley answers.
Vila shrugs. "We never worked it out. It was an idea to provide content of some kind that would be only available within a certain radius. An intranet."
"It's gonna happen" McCurley grins, half joking. "Ideas like that have been simmering for a while. Doored is almost there, and we'll see what happens after. We're incrementally closer now because we have a livestream set up with five cameras... [Doored] is on the verge of something that's exciting: almost running a TV station. It's a step away from us programming a livestream stage all the time. So that maybe is what we'll do in the next five years."
Doored is a two hour long show that's broadcast live from Double Double Land once a month (people in Toronto can attend in person too). "It's kind of like the flagship show of Double Double Land." Vila says. There are 13 episodes left until the project enters the great unknown.
If Doored is the future, it's also tied to the beginning: "Double Double Land" isn't a clever nickname for Canada, country of Tim Horton's. Double Double Land Land was a play produced by McCurley and Amy Lam's Life of a Craphead who host the monthly Doored broadcasts. They've performed at the AGO, and will be releasing a feature film called Bugs in early 2015.
For a venue with no mandate and no plan, McCurley and Vila have a long list of dreams for the coming years including new studios and more artist residencies (they've already hosted a few), starting a Double Double Land record label (mostly for reissues), flying in offbeat artists, finally properly hosting that Awesome Tapes talk, and someday buying out the bakery downstairs to run as a restaurant like Casa Del Popolo in Montreal - "or like Bambi's and Mr. Flamingo - but reversed."
Hardworking and psychedelic (do those things even go together?) Healing Power Records now run an office out of Double Double Land, which could be a beacon of things to come.
When I ask if DDL would ever go the artist run centre route McCurley asks "isn't that what it is already?" and something in my black heart melts. Bureaucracy's shadow apparently can't figure out the down the alley/up the stairs thing either.
Vila admits he's thought about getting grants to make running DDL a full time job, but isn't sure it would be a good thing for the space. "I kind of like the idea that we've never gotten it together enough to do that." Vila says. "Maybe part of the charm of this place is that things are always a little bit shitty - it's kind of nice to go to a place that's a little bit shitty."
"Carl Didur worked at the Green Room a long time ago, and he was talking to, maybe the owner? He was telling Carl - 'You see the couches here?' (The couches and chairs are all ratty and mismatched.) He's like, 'People like to be in garbage' and it's true. I kind of like to be in garbage. I think it's important to maintain that"
McCurley agrees. "At 8-11 I've seen people perform on a stage made of skids with no lights, and I'm like, this show is great."
"When 8-11 opened that was really exciting, and there's that new place Ratio. I think it would be great if the Double Double Land model was more prevalent. "
Double Double Land are "taking a stupid risk" and flying pop street performer The Space Lady in from San Francisco for their fifth anniversary party, which will carry on over three nights from Thursday, November 13 - Saturday, November 15th. Also performing are Carl Didur, Man Made Hill, Prince Nifty, Tenderness, New Chance, and many many more. See more info here.
Doored photos by Yuula Benivolski
Join the conversation Load comments