Saturday, June 06, 2009

Remember Who's Emma?

Remember Who's Emma?  I certainly do.  For those of you who don't, Who's Emma was an anarchist space/infoshop in Toronto's Kensington Market which existed from 1996-2000.  It served as a centre for grassroots political activity, and was also a gathering place for local punk rockers. Who's Emma was completely volunteer-run, sold punk records, zines, subversive/radical books, coffee, vegan empanadas and pamphlets to make the rent, while hosting punk rock shows, workshops, meetings, and benefits.  

For the past year, my pal Lyndall Musselman has been gathering info and ephemera, as well as conducting interviews and shooting footage for a documentary project called Remember Who's Emma: Punk, Politics and Place, which maps out the rise and fall of WE. Through a series of interviews with former volunteers, the documentary weaves through Kensington Market's subversive early history and individual accounts (from approximately 10 former collective members- my estimate is there were upwards from 50 or 60 in total...) of Who's Emma's beginnings, how it operated and the purpose the space served to both activists and punk rockers.  The film ends with perspectives on the space's eventual demise on the heels of two devastating break-ins, and alludes to the lack of interest which ultimately closed the space in September of 2000.

I was involved with the space as a volunteer collective member from July of 1999 until Who's Emma closed.  My love of zines brought me to the space as a volunteer collective member- I had just turned 17 years old.  Looking back, my time at Who's Emma taught me a great deal. For one, it taught me how to take initiative and take matters into my own hands socially and creatively.   I met a couple of people during my time there that I keep in touch with to this day and who's friendship/acquaintance I value immensely.  Among my favourite memories of Who's Emma involve meeting younger girls from the Who's Emma community years after the fact, and having them tell me that zines I did back then and my presence as a collective member inspired them to make things, get involved, and find their personal voice through zines.  As trite as it may sound, they looked up to me and were like the little sisters I never had; similarly, I looked up to and was inspired by the older women in the collective. (One of my few criticisms about the finished documentary (film) is this "interpersonal" aspect of Who's Emma is rarely addressed in the film...personal analogies such as this are largely absent from the film, curious considering it aims to depict the "social dynamics" of the space) Thinking about those relationships for me represents the best that Who's Emma had to offer someone like me who was marginally interested in the theoretical/capital "P" politics side of Who's Emma- it provided me with a great deal of personal empowerment through positive relationships, collaboration, and it served as a venue for free, informal learning.

This is not to say that all was peaches, cream and sunshine at Who's Emma.  For me, the above photograph of two girls, taken early on in Who's Emma's history, speaks volumes.  The following piece of writing was found online, written after watching a rough cut of the doc by a friend of Lyndall's which reflects on a conflict caught on video, included in the documentary:

"It begins with a Drop Dead show in which someone brought their dog down with them to the show space. The band, hardcore vegans that they are, started shouting down the guy for being cruel to his dog...I mean the guy who brought his dog to the venue was clearly a jerk, no argument, but that the band took it upon themselves to humiliate and make an example of this guy in front of his friends was such a classic example of this overbearing and shitty nature of political hardcore punk of that era. I saw shit like that at Submission Hold shows where teenage punks would be too loud while they describe their songs and rather than deal with the situation diplomatically they decided to make a public example of the people and then, in a sick way, brought their politics into it saying that it was misogyny (not the booze apparently) that made them talk over Jen and Andy. "Some people" Jen said, "get really uncomfortable when they hear a woman speaking their mind." Never mind that it was a guy and a woman making all that noise. That's kind of fucked up and oppressive in it's own way isn't it?"


Something rarely discussed openly is the political/punk divide that existed within Who's Emma volunteers.  Frequent and worse yet were situations similar to the one described above, which- if I may be so bold- is an (argueably) typical result the destructive power of combining radical politics with an often confrontational punk subculture.  Disagreements happened...disagreements that were hurtful, unhealthy and ill-managed.  Passive aggressive guilt tripping, exclusion and shutting-out, feelings of superiority projected themselves, and negative vibe-ing were even more commonplace at Who's Emma, during a time (the 1990s) where political posturing within punk attempted to hide the (perceived) illness beneath it's surface- jealousy, anger, and competitiveness.  All qualities which are perfectly natural, and perfectly (or shall I say imperfectly) human.  

Is it any wonder that Toronto punk rock took a turn towards the vaguely nihilistic and pointedly apolitical after Who's Emma's closure- like clockwork- in the year 2000?

Time and time again, I come across people who have negative feelings or experiences tied to Who's Emma.  One woman's sentiment echoed my own feelings about Who's Emma at it's worst- she claimed Who's Emma made her "feel stupid."  This was largely due to some collective members' heavy-handed, academic, theory-heavy approach to radical politics and activism.  Another woman who I spoke with unexpectedly yesterday initially about Lyndall's project claimed that something that happened to her at Who's Emma made her more or less lose faith in punk, and caused her to disengage herself with the local punk community.  Will these telling, and incredibly valid feelings be represented in Lyndall's documentary?  Likely not...which is nobody's fault, really.  

On that note, forget what I've said Lyndall the justice of seeing her thought-provoking tribute to an essentially "failed revolution."  Like the many failed revolutions which came before Who's Emma, it is well worth the documentation.

For more information on the film screening and satellite programming, see the Remember Who's Emma blog.


lyndall said...

Thanks for this post Tara. I just want to point out that I actually included 14 volunteers from Who's Emma in the video, rather than 10 as you mentioned. And everyone who I interviewed on camera was included in the end.

The video ideally is meant to serve as a historical document to explain and introduce, and for some to reflect and remember, the rise and fall of the social experiment that was Who's Emma. It's a 27 minute overview of what happened over the four year existence of the place. There are many voices and issues I was unable to represent given the nature of the time frame I had to work in. However, I should admit that I was weary of really getting into "interpersonal" issues because I was worried about sensationalizing, name dropping, gossiping, and generally creating a negative social environment. Maybe I played it safe. But the video is only meant as a catalyst to spur discussion and further analysis, and maybe even future projects similar to Who's Emma. I'm terribly idealistic. And I also wasn't a volunteer at Who's Emma.

Thanks again for the feedback. Please let me know what you think of the project and exhibition in it's entirety and more finalized form.

Tara Bursey said...

Hey Lyndall,

The more I think about it, the more I realize I really shouldn't have prematurely referred to particulars of the video in this blog post, which was meant primarily to a) endorse your project and advertise the film's screening on Thursday and b) to reflect on my time at Who's Emma, good and bad times alike. So I apologize for making reference to aspects of the film before it was screened. Pretty unprofessional, and yes, premature...hopefully they will teach me how to be a "real" art writer in school next year...ha, ha!

Another thing I wanted to mention is that I really meant for this post to be a reflection on my time at WE, and I did in so many words criticize the 90s for being a politicized yet essentially conflicted and hypocritical period in (local) punk. My original intention was to lead up to linking your blog and project information with some personal the time I wrote the post, I felt that anything said about the film was sufficiently neutral in tone. I in no way meant for it to be a critique of the film or the project. I think you did an admiral job...I know it wasn't easy, and you've been nothing if not responsible and considerate.

I guess in writing the blog post, I was trying to sort out my thoughts surrounding why people still have bad feelings associated with the space...10 years later! I jokingly thought to myself at one point that maybe waiting 20 years to do this project instead of 10 would have been a better idea...!

Hopefully people in attendance at the artist's talk/panel will take you up on your invitation to discuss their individual experiences pertaining to the space and what it meant to them.

everyoneisdoomed. said...
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everyoneisdoomed. said...

kudos to both you and lyndall for this exchange. and especially big kudos to lyndall for seeing this project through. i've been lucky enough to see glimpses of this project as it's grown, and i feel privileged to have been a small part of the process.

my two cents, for what they're worth:

the scene with drop dead is probably my favourite scene in the film, because for me, it represents punk at it's best: not afraid to call something out if it's fucked up, even if it makes people feel uncomfortable. that takes courage and principles. and, full disclosure, i have a soft spot for people who actually give a shit about animals. i doubt that if someone was actively gay bashing someone, or harrassing a person of color at a show, and a band called them out for it, people would see that as overbearing or the "shitty nature of political hardcore of the era"...

so kudos to drop dead too. :)

Megan said...

hey, i realize its 2013 and i'm commenting on this really old post, but i just posted up an article about the history of anarchist freeschools in Toronto and I used this photo from this blog on the Toronto Media co-op version as it touched on who's Emma (I was a teenager living in Oshawa back then and wasn't involved). Hope thats ok, I can take it down if there are any issues, posted a link to this blog in the photo caption.

Tara Bursey said...

Hi Megan,

Not a problem! Enjoyed the article on TMC a lot.