Underground Venues Toronto's Unconventional Spaces

The Music Gallery, Claire Harvie
The Music Gallery, Claire Harvie | Photo: Claire Harvie

Toronto has a thriving underground scene, so naturally these performers and artists need spaces where they can showcase their work. From film and music to comedy or performance art, alternative venues in the city cater to the unconventional and manage to skirt around the red tape and restrictions imposed by more mainstream – and bureaucratic – venues that may enforce strict door policies or charge high fees.

Due to the unpredictable and DIY nature of these non-mainstream places, most don’t last very long. The venues that tend to survive often serve more than one function; in addition to being a cultural hub for certain niche communities, they also double as a home or business (or even a church). Nurturing and encouraging new talent, ideas and experiences are their passions and priorities, while profit is not. The following spots are some of the city’s best-kept secrets.

CineCycle is a bicycle-repair shop by day that transforms into an underground cinema and events space by night. Located in an unassuming old coach house hidden down a laneway off Spadina Avenue since 1995 (after various other incarnations and locations since the ’70s), the charmingly shabby interior is decorated with bicycles hanging on the brick walls. It’s part of the heritage-designated 401 Richmond building, an arts hub created by Toronto urbanist Margaret Zeidler, the daughter of German-born Canadian architect Eberhard Zeidler.

Owner Martin Heath is passionate about bikes and experimental film – he’s even built bicycle-powered film projectors. CineCycle’s aim is to serve the community of local and international experimental filmmakers, and the 70-seat venue hosts three to four screenings per week. It has shown everything from Nosferatu in 16mm with live music accompaniment, to more contemporary works, such as German filmmaker Dagie Brundert’s Super 8 films.

Heath, who occasionally rents out the space as a DIY music venue, sometimes screens films from his personal collection, which he refers to as “the vault.” He estimates it contains 1,500 films (including a few he made himself), from 8mm to 35mm reels, ranging from silent films dating back to 1907 to European classics and American movies to obscure Scopitone films, made to be shown in jukeboxes in the ’60s – essentially the precursors to music videos. “I project these and people really like them,” Heath says, “It’s like a cultural artifact.”

Similar to CineCycle, the Music Gallery is a place where music lovers can hear something they may not hear anywhere else. Since 2001, it’s been a tenant of picturesque St. George the Martyr Church, tucked away on the edge of Grange Park just south of the Art Gallery of Ontario and OCAD.

The Music Gallery was founded in 1976 by Peter Anson and Al Mattes of the free improvisation group CCMC (Canadian Creative Music Collective), “kind of as a reaction to the artist-run art galleries in the ’70s – none of them had a lot of music programming,” explains David Dacks, its current artistic director. It’s dedicated to showcasing experimental and innovative forms of music, from improvised to noise to music from around the world (German electronic musician Frank Bretschneider performed the North American premiere of his Kippschwingungen here), including cross-pollination between genres and audiences. Dacks’s goal is for the Music Gallery to be more representative of Toronto as a whole, with all its cultures and influences. “It’s getting there, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Performances take place in the 150-capacity stone-and-stained-glass structure, and occasionally out in the courtyard. Since it’s still a functioning church, set-up and take-down for shows must be done the day of, but the effort is a worthwhile tradeoff for the venue’s beautiful acoustics. “I would say it’s the most listening-oriented room in the entire city, so if you’ve got real detail or subtlety or introspection in your music, it’s a fabulous place to play,” says Dacks.

Double Double Land, a DIY, multi-use arts space in the heart of Kensington Market accessed through an alley off Augusta Avenue and up a flight of stairs, started up back in 2009 when two friends, Jon McCurley and Daniel Vila, were looking for a cheap place to live.

Vila already had a reputation for organizing events around Toronto; he’d founded two guerilla music series that took place in abandoned warehouses and other locales around the city. McCurley is one-half of performance-art-and-comedy duo Life of a Craphead (DDL’s name is adapted from the title of one of its plays), so both he and Vila were uniquely qualified to run an unconventional place like this.

McCurley says they created DDL “to have a performative arts place that’s not a bar and that we’re the boss of, so we can control it and have things happen that we like—” Vila finishes his sentence for him, “—that don’t make sense in other spaces. We can just do whatever we want and two people can show up and it’s not the end of the world.”

Programming is eclectic; whether it’s a theatre performance, dance party or comedy show, there’s usually something interesting happening. For the venue’s fifth anniversary, Vila and McCurley flew in The Space Lady (Susan Dietrich Schneider – a famous San Francisco street performer in the ’80s) for a show, a personal highlight for them. “There’s definitely been nights that have made it all worth it,” says McCurley.

Those who live at DDL share in all the duties of running the space, from programming to daily upkeep. “It’s totally vertically integrated,” Vila says. “Everybody does everything.” DDL’s profits are essentially a rent reduction for its tenants, based on an honour system of how much each person worked that month. Unsurprisingly, everyone also has a day job outside of the venue.

The beauty of a place like this is that it doesn’t have to be profitable to survive. “We can just pay more rent – it doesn’t have to make a certain amount of money a month,” Vila explains. “It’s gonna last forever – it’s never gonna end,” McCurley half-jokes. Vila adds, “I can’t think of anything better than that.”