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How alternative culture is putting cities on the map

By Shawn Micallef

We might see our own hometowns up close, but we get to know most cities from a distance. Their essence trickles over, through various channels, and eventually we get a sense of their cultural identity. But this sense may not accurately represent how the city operates at street level–a lot of what we know about some cities we only know because of what their institutions have told us. The national ballet company, the government-subsidized art gallery, the official museum: these are the things that define a city’s cultural identity to the world, most of the time. But that’s starting to change, even if very slowly: some cities–even some cities in Canada–are letting their indie and underground culture put them on the map. When you think of these places, you may still think of their institutions, but you might also think of the indie-label band that comes from there or the artists’ collective that operates downtown or the magazine that’s making the place worth reading about. And it’s these indie contributions to the city’s cultural identity that give you a more vivid imaginative sense of the place.

The institutions we’re discussing here are those places that have a concrete presence in the city–they might dominate architecturally, or mount multi-million dollar capital campaigns to build new wings to house multi-million dollar art works and hold benefits where people in multi-million dollar shoes write big cheques. They’re the big museums and art galleries with names of cities or provinces on them. They’re the kind of places that the Spanish city Bilbao wanted, and got, when they built their Frank Ghery Guggenhiem. This is a capital I institution, and it put Bilbao on the map. Bilbao might have a punk scene, or a really great performance art scene, or some kind of activist- painter scene, but we’ve never heard of them. Instead, it’s a city defined by its institutional layer: industrial city becomes international destination. There’s obviously a lot of room there, somewhere in town, for the indie arts, but we can’t see them from a global perspective: they don’t define the city from afar.

Paris, on the other hand, though its institutional culture is monumental and almighty, also leaves room in the world’s imagination for its underground arts. It has the Eiffel Tower, of course, and the Arc de Triomphe and Sacre Coeur; on top of that, the Louvre is probably the most institutionally-nutritious properties on the continent. When we think of Paris, we think of these things, to be sure. But if we think for a few seconds longer we might also think about the uprising of May 1968, when radicals like the Situationists sided with students who in sided with workers and shut the city down. We might think about Guy Debord and the coterie of whimsical flaneurs that pastiched the culture of the day, or we might think of Gertrude Stein’s salon full of American expatriot writers. It’s the role of that bohemian element that stands out the most for some people, even overshadowing the monolithic Louvre. These underground details are what make Paris seem like such a wonder, a place where magical social and political things can happen–they’re the details that make us feel like we know the place.

London (UK) has a similar effect on the imagination, particularly if your imagination is Canadian. When I think of London, I immediately think of its institutions–the political ones like the House of Parliament and the House of Windsor, and the cultural ones like the British Musuem, the Victoria and Albert Museum (even before I went had enough colloquial knowledge about it to call it the V&A), and the Tate Modern (perhaps my favorite place on earth, or so I like to say). Because we are a British colony, still somewhat active in the Commonwealth, with our money, street names and Governors General constantly referencing the mother country and its vibrant institutions, the London I think of first is formal and official.

But as soon as I think London is a city defined institutionally, I remember the writers, like the ones in the Bloomsbury group. Though some of them seem nearly institutional and larger than life now–their marquee-sized names taking up a big chunk of the western canon–they were once independent writers, struggling just like the independent writers I’m friends with struggle over here. And then I think of the Punk scene of the ’70s, which redefined the city because it was a counterpoint to the excessive and bloated remnant of Swinging London. So well did Punk define the city that when I first visited on a family trip in 1990 I was shocked to find there weren’t multi-coloured mohawks everywhere and that London didn’t look like the cover of an Exploited album. I was soon informed that the postcards lied and real Londoners don’t do that anymore. Punk is problematic, because its popularity and commercial potential made it part of the institution and not of the underground. And that’s mostly true for the top echelon of bands that made it and got international record deals and were able, as the Sex Pistols were, to pull off iconic stunts like floating down the Thames on a barge signing God Save the Queen during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. But without a real scene behind it, without a legion of fans and other boilerplate bands that didn’t make it internationally, it’s unlikely that something as messy and disorganized as Punk could have so vividly defined our imaginative version of London’s cultural identity.

Closer to home and to our own cultural vernacular, there is New York. New York’s bohemian and independent cultural scenes have always been as important to its identity as its institutional side. It’s difficult to think of a period in post-war New York where independent culture hasn’t been a part of the city’s popular image. In the 1950s there were the beat poets, jazz musicians, filmmakers and artists who made Greenwich Village their home–making the very name “Greenwich Village” shorthand for “struggling artist” and for independent culture in general. Its house organ, The Village Voice, was read not only locally, but had national and international influence. People looked at it, and to the Village, for clues about where the next big underground thing was going to come from. Even during the 1980s, when the stock market soared and money flooded the streets and skyscrapers of the island, the dirty, poor and struggling creative side of it still had currency in the national consciousness. This could have been a result of the rise of underground stars like graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (who, incidentally, made it big, championed as he was by Andy Warhol –he became, if there is such a word, unindependent). With Basquiat, it was the idea of the underground that was important –New York’s underground scene was such a part of its cultural identity that it actually became a commodity.

So it doesn’t matter that the Ramones became rock stars who went on big nationwide tours, sometimes supporting bands that seemed at odds with their punk rock sensibility. What matters is when the idea of New York comes up, the culture that spawned them has lodged itself in the popular consciousness. People wear CBGB’s T-shirts, probably not knowing what the letters actually stand for. Even the dullest and least original tourists make a point of visiting the place–and the other “underground” sites that surround it–after they’ve stopped at Ground Zero and seen a taping of Letterman. The first time I went to Greenwich Village and wandered around the Lower East Side and Alphabet City, I had a real sense of déja vu. Because that part of town, and the culture produced there, is so much a part of New York’s (and even America’s) mythology, I felt like I had been here before.


Other American cities have been identifiable by their indie scenes, in one way or another: For a while in the ’80s, Boston was producing post-punk and college rock from the likes of Mission of Burma and, later, the Pixies, meaning that some kids, disinclined to history lessons, thought only of Frank Black when they thought of the city. Seattle had its eminently problematic Grunge movement. That conflux of music, awful fashion, and a Hollywood movie or two venerated the scene in the popular imagination. When I was in high school (1989-1993) Chicago meant lovely Skyscrapers at the institutional level, but somewhere down on the street the Wax Trax record label was pumping out industrial bands like KMFDM with other luminaries like Ministry hanging out nearby (or at least that’s what it looked like from Windsor, Ont., where I lived).

But the story across the river in Canada is different. Where so many American cities can be defined, in some way, by their indie culture, Canadian cities have, until very recently, largely been defined by their institutions alone. Much of our time has been spent defining the country by what it isn’t: we’re not British, we’re not Americans, and we’re also not all that cold. Little room is left to think about ourselves and our details, so the institutions become a default signifier, and our urban landscape is defined by iconic images rather than small details.

There are other reasons for this institutional gloss. One is our size. California alone has more people than Canada, and we’re spread out across great distances. We’ve always had cities, but the vast space in between is so wide it gets our attention and makes the cities seem smaller than they actually are. A quick glance at the map would imply that Canada doesn’t have the critical mass of people–the teeming masses–to make urban centres capable of producing anything but a generic level of urbanity. The casual observer would never accuse Canada of having a Lower East Side or Tenderloin district. Canadian export Leonard Cohen summed up the kind of depth and density you find in America in his song Democracy: “It’s coming to America first,/ the cradle of the best and of the worst./ It’s here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.” It’s that depth, measured in people alone, that the United States and Europe have that a place like Canada can’t match. And our cities pay the price.

Canada has always been thought of as a rural place. Think of all that Canadian literature devoted to frontier life, wilderness and gothic tales from various small towns across the country. It turned our cities into footnotes, places one went grudgingly on a yearly trip to get some special commodity or deal with a bureaucratic matter of great importance. Even Canada’s superstar painters, the Group of Seven, are known most for their work on Canada’s bucolic, natural geography. Walk through the old, dense quarters of our cities today, and there’s proof they existed during this time, but for some reason their stories were never told. There was no Canadian equivalent of Charles Dickens, writing about the city (in fact, Dickens wrote briefly in his American Notes about Toronto after he visited in the 1840s). The cities were left with a mythology deficit somewhere in the shadow of all those wild landscapes.

The vision of Canada as a giant wildnerness, punctuated here and there by negligible little civilizations, is one that has been held up in institutional culture for all the years we’ve been a country. The idea of Canada as a cityless expanse is an institutional idea in itself, and it’s indie culture that is doing the most to counter this conception. It is indie culture, not institutional culture, that is paying attention to the details and quirks and up-close cultural phenomena of our cities, and is broadcasting it far and wide. By and by, the world will come to know Canadian cities by their indie rock bands, small-press authors, and independent photographers and artists.

It was only after World War II that our cities started becoming “important”–that is, they began to grow bigger than their traditional cores, acquiring suburbs, freeways and landmark structures as they went. It was then that the country began to notice its cities, but this happened almost exclusively at the institutional level. It was almost like the actual people didn’t exist, just the magnificent edifices and civic infrastructure, built to show that Canada is a real country that had cast off whatever colonial provincialism that our history gave us.

The institutional renditions of our cities still haunt them. Take Montreal, our cultural capital until separatism scared everybody to Toronto: it dragged Canada onto the world stage with Expo ’67, which is nice, but nothing since has compared to the way this event defined not only that city but also our entire country. Montreal has lived in the cultural shadow of Expo ever since. In the west, Vancouver had to compete with nature at all times, but the city really only entered my conciousness, beyond whatever drabble the CBC imparted to me over the years, when Expo ’86 took place. Though not quite on a par with Expo ’67, the Vancouver event instantly came to represent that city for a long time and gave it an almost-indelible cultural identity. At the same time, Halifax represented Atlantic Canada, and as such we came to know it only as a hub of our Navy and of museums like the Citadel. Winnipeg, “gateway to the west,” was known as a city that built itself in a grand manner with an eye to the future when the railroad would bring endless prosperity to the city. And Toronto, known to the world for the cartoon phallus that cracks its skyline, has found its cultural identity dominated by institutional giants like the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Ballet of Canada, things like the Hummingbird Centre, and by whatever goes on over at the Sky Dome.

Certainly there was always independent activity taking place in Canadian cities, but it was mostly under-the-radar stuff that only the locals knew about. However, things started shifting, eventually, and by the late 1980s you could see it happening at opposite ends of the country. Vancouver started producing a number of punk and industrial bands. Some of them signing to the Netwerk label, and Netwerk changed what outsiders thought of that city–suddenly, Vancouver had a reputation for indie music, and there was a chance people might think of this when they thought of Vancouver (right after they finished thinking about totem poles and Emily Carr). Even more remarkable was much smaller Halifax in the 1990s, when a pack of bands like Sloan, the Super Friendz, Jale, Eric’s Trip and The Inbreds made a lot of people forget about fishermen and Naval officers. Today, Vancouver and Halifax both have thriving indie arts scenes. Vancouver is notoriously sympathetic to its visual and media artists and Halifax just keeps cranking out bands; both cities are letting indie culture redraw the maps they’ve been languishing on for so long.

Though the Royal Winnipeg Ballet may define the Manitoba capital for many people because its road show stopped in their town, the rise of bands like the Weakerthans, publishers like Arbeiter Ring, film makers like Clive Holden, and especially art- star presences like Marcel Dzama and the Royal Art Lodge, might make them think twice. These small-scale artists have given Winnipeg a reputation as a hotbed of the indie arts, making its dot on the map a lot bigger and a lot more visible to the rest of the world.

Similarly, for a generation of people today, Montreal is as known more for its anglo indie music scene than for its Place des Arts opera house. The Arcade Fire’s success has been an embarrassment of riches, and several other indie bands have managed to expose themselves to the world. Magazines like Matrix and Maisonneuve have given the city indie-lit cred, and paved the way for a ridiculous torrent of zines and small-press publications. Writers published by indie presses are populating the literary scene in Montreal, rewriting the streets we’ve heretofore known only by what Mordecai Richler and Gabrielle Roy had said about them. Because of indie culture’s muscular ascent in that city, Montreal is finally climbing out from under the shadow of Expo.

And Toronto’s cultural identity has been a matter of very particularly self-conscious discussion for a few years now. Magazines like Spacing and Broken Pencil–if you’ll pardon the conflict of interest–have made a point of registering the city’s independent identity on the world map. Indie culture here has flourished and burgeoned so much that some of the zine festivals are too crowded to even be enjoyable (see Canzine 2005); so much that it has seeped into surrounding territories like Brampton and London and Guelph. The city’s photobloggers are letting the world–or at least the Internet–know what the city really looks like, showing it that not all shots have to centre on the CN Tower. And it’s not surprising, any more, to hear one of Toronto’s many indie bands on college radio stations in the States–they’ve heard of us, down there, and they know we’re more than the sum of our institutional arts. In fact, the ROM and the AGO are both undergoing massive additions and renovations, perhaps scrambling to keep up with the indie influx. (At its recent Frank Gehry opening, for example, the AGO made a special effort to invite members of Toronto blogging community to the launch, knowing the importance of appealing to the indie demographic as well as to the ones that read the Globe and the Star.) Indeed, Toronto’s indie profile is making its way up and out of the city limits: once solely the terrain of magazines like this one or of the alternative weeklies, indie Toronto is being written about in places as–well, institutional– as the New York Times Magazine. The world, even the world that lives in New York, is starting to notice that the city has more to it than opera and the Lion King.

The identity-building of Canada’s cities is shifting, slowly but surely, into the hands of the independent culture makers. After decades of institutionally-induced postcard images that got it all wrong–in which the whole country was reduced to a coming-of-age tale in rural Saskatchewan or a painting of a glacier or a song about death in the coalmines; in which the only glimpses of Toronto on the big screen had it dressed up as New York or Chicago for a Bruce Willis blockbuster–indie culture is reclaiming the landscape. The maps of Canada’s cities are changing to reflect the indie identities that rise up from their undergrounds.

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