The legacy of a late great Canadian queer art space
Co-founders William Ellis and Jordan Tannahill look back on four years of Videofag
When Videofag comes to an end this week, it will live on as an iconic chapter in Toronto's queer cultural legacy. In under four years, the venue has featured hundreds of performances, exhibitions, readings, screenings, salons, potlucks and parties that will not soon be forgotten by those in the community it so distinctly represented. Nothing like it existed before in Toronto — and it's likely that nothing like it ever will again.
Co-founded by artists William Ellis and Jordan Tannahill in October 2012, Videofag's origin story has become fabled in itself. Ellis and Tannahill were roughly a year into a whirlwind romance and decided it was time to move in together — but when they came across a "for rent" sign on the window of an old barbershop in Toronto's Kensington Market, they had another idea.
"We thought, 'Maybe this is a good time to not only move in together but also start some sort of collaboration,'" Ellis tells CBC Arts. "I think from there everything evolved pretty organically. We had friends who were doing projects and we asked them if they wanted to be a part of the space. It never felt like were preparing what things would look like and what things would be like. We just sort of went with it."
With that, Videofag was born both as Ellis and Tannahill's love nest and a considerable hub for queer Canadian artists. Names like Vivek Shraya, Michael V. Smith, The Hidden Cameras, Jess Dobkin, Donnarama, Adam Garnet Jones, Ryan G. Hinds, Salvatore Antonio, Jon Davies and Keith Cole are among the countless examples, with some of the work they developed in the space going on to play at New York's The Kitchen and Dixon Place, Vancouver's PuSh Festival, Montreal's Festival TransAmérique and Toronto's own Buddies in Bad Times and Harbourfront Centre.
On Wednesday night, Videofag will host one final party, and all of that will come to an end. Which was always sort of the plan.
"We had imagined the end being there from the beginning," Ellis says. "It didn't feel like something we wanted to become the next Buddies in Bad Times or a big institution. We definitely talked about that, but the idea of going on forever was not really something that we thought would happen. We were always thinking, 'Okay, we'll go for another six months or we'll go for another eight months or whatever.'"
But when Tannahill and Ellis broke up, it began to become clear to them it really was beginning of the end of Videofag. Tannahill recalls having to continue sleeping in the same bed as Ellis for months after breaking up because they had a shaman-in-residence, Michael Dudeck, staying in their guest bedroom (he also notes that they had to shower together every morning because the space only had five minutes of hot water).
As the Videofag finale officially nears, both Ellis and Tannahill have heavy hearts.
"I've been thinking a lot about those first few shows," Ellis says. "I guess just it seems like those shows sort of established us. We've also been working with a lot of those artists again in different capacities. It feels almost like a bookend to the space."
Tannahill reminisces about sitting backstage in Videofag's tiny kitchen with fourteen actors (including a saxophone-playing drag queen and a man in a panda costume), along with several large set pieces, during Sheila Heti's All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, or walking out of the shower in just a towel and into a kitchen full of actors preparing tea for their rehearsal.
"[We also hosted] the very first Queer Songbook Orchestra — in which [musician] Shaun Brodie managed to fit an entire chamber orchestra into a living-room sized space," Tannahill adds. "The orchestra is now wildly popular and touring Canada."
And these clearly represent only a tiny percentage of the memories Ellis, Tannahill and the extraordinarily long list of artists who have joined them at the space will take with them after tomorrow night (check out the complete archive of programming below for some perspective). Though its doors may be closing, its impact will last forever. Long live Videofag.