Toronto as a beach town is, let’s face it, a bit of a stretch sometimes. The various options aren’t in a concentrated central area and the water, sand and access to them just don’t have those tropical, beach-centred qualities or that liveliness that comes with warmer climes (read: year-round swimming weather or close to it). During our short but glorious summer, though, we dismiss that notion and enjoy our brief annual hot weather at hotspots like the Toronto Islands or east-end beaches like Ashbridges Bay, Cherry Beach and Bluffer’s Park. We even have a kind of beach culture: music, arts  and wakeboarding on the islands (clothing optional beach included), volleyball and sunbathing galore at Ashbridges, and windsurfing and DJ parties out at Cherry. But on the west side, one location in particular it seems has lost its mojo — and arguably, that’s in a way a symbol of the sometimes disconnected lakeside community  vibe, too. Sunnyside beach and waterfront pavilion was once a hotbed of not only lakeside, beach-loving culture here in Toronto — according to artist and bathing/swimming researcher Christie Pearson, it was more importantly a huge cultural equalizer. Whether it hosted families visiting the lake or lovers strolling the shore, or “low brow” activities like dancehalls and speakeasies, Sunnyside was where the party was at back in the early 20th century.

Pearson, whose arts/events collective THEWAVES puts on inclusive, interactive events involving music and swimming, hopes to bring that glorious beachside culture back to Sunnyside as part of the city she loves. Along with husband and curator Marcus Boon, she is hosting a giant, free, all-ages swim-in party on August 26th at the Sunnyside Pavilion. Dubbed Fire on the Water (a nod to the former practice of burning old boats on the lake by Sunnyside), the event brings together public swimming, multimedia art installations including sound art pieces, dance performances and both live and DJ music from the afternoon into the wee hours. The DJ lineup alone — including the heavily Brazilian influenced Maga Bo, whose latest album Quilombo do Futuro is earning high praise from top critics and booker (more on that from Dos Mundos Radio here) — was enough to draw our support. But after talking to Christie Pearson and Marcus Boon about the upcoming event and what’s behind it, we’re even more excited to see this go down, and to help realize a fine turnout from the Uma Nota massive.

Here is our interview with Christie Pearson and Marcus Boon. See you at the beach party.

Transformative potential: How it came about

Christie Pearson: I’ve been directly working on this project for four years, and indirectly perhaps for 20. As a student of public bathing cultures, architectures and practices, I was motivated by Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion as a key piece of Toronto’s public bathing infrastructure.  The installations, performances and events I work on amplify latent energy around bathing practices, the public realm and the body. Through twenty years of research into bathing practices of different cultures, I see the transformative potential in all the different scales of ritual, from the most intimate to the most public. What sorts of new collective practices might we be able to create here in this place, in this time, with all of us coming from diverse backgrounds? … My good friend, talented artist and performer Michael Chorney always said he wanted to do a performance piece at Sunnyside back in the early nineties.  When he died of AIDS-related causes as a young man, I felt as though it was left to me to do something here. So at another level it is a project haunted by his memory.

Why this matters for Toronto

CP: We now have a post-industrial waterfront and we need to reconsider how we want it to function in the urban ecology. Looking at the past, we have traditions of inhabiting the water’s edge for pleasure and enjoyment of its beauty – how can we build on that? Sunnyside used to be a vast recreation area with dance clubs, amusement rides, baseball stadiums … it was where people went on a hot summer day with their kids or their lovers. Mike Filey’s book I Remember Sunnyside is an amazing document of this era.

Crowded Sunnyside beach scene in the 1930s (Chuckman collection)

 As the site of dancehalls, roller coasters, and Toronto’s first bathing-suit beauty pageant, Sunnyside was decidedly ‘low-brow’. The very social improvers who supported the pavilion’s construction for the masses would not frequent it. … When Gardiner’s expressway tore up the area in the 1950s it was an explicit condemnation of Sunnyside amusements, then described as a ‘honky-tonk’, that should be cleared away in the name of progress.  … We believe that Sunnyside is an important key to our concepts and practices of culture-nature. Beneath its layers are remnants of Toronto’s dreams, from which we find seeds of a future city rich in meaning and connection.

Some history and international context …

CP: Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, built in 1922, is one of the few remnants of the city’s once lively waterside pleasure grounds. While unique in Ontario, Sunnyside was a typical amusement zone of early 20th century lake- or ocean- fronting cities in North America, from Coney Island in New York to Playland at the Beach in San Francisco. ‘Sunnyside’ once described the reclaimed land between Lake Ontario and Queen Street, High Park and Roncesvalles [before the] construction of the Gardiner Expressway in the 1950s. It was a popular park for Toronto in an era struggling to define the good life in the face of world wars, depression, the advent of the automobile and the mass spectacles of modernity. In Mary Louise Adams’ essay Almost Anything Can Happen: A Search for Sexual Discourse in the Urban Spaces of 1940s Toronto, Sunnyside is drawn as a marginal zone of sexual intrigue amongst youth and dubious characters. The zone was clearly for the working class. As the site of dancehalls, roller coasters, and Toronto’s first bathing-suit beauty pageant, it was decidedly ‘low-brow’. The very social improvers who supported the pavilion’s construction for the masses would not frequent it. Its architecture refers to the Beaux-Arts styles of the World Expositions, a particular vision of globalization.

The hordes at Sunnyside (City of Toronto Archives)

Sunnyside housed cathartic public spectacles from sporting events, military displays, dance clubs, and the spectacular burning of aging boats out on the lake. The desire to make the water’s edge serve utility, either social or industrial, has repeatedly transformed this part of the city to facilitate power lines, real estate, and highways. When Gardiner’s expressway tore up the area in the 1950s it was an explicit condemnation of Sunnyside amusements, then described as a ‘honky-tonk’, that should be cleared away in the name of progress. This has left us with a manicured landscape cut off from the fabric of the city to the north and barely connected east-west. This history is unique in Toronto yet typical continentally. We believe that Sunnyside is an important key to our concepts and practices of culture-nature. Beneath its layers are remnants of Toronto’s dreams, from which we find seeds of a future city rich in meaning and connection.

Aerial view of Sunnyside circa the 1940s (Chuckman collection)

The aesthetic and artistic vision  

CP: Our vision has to do with building community, which is why Uma Nota as a partner is important to us. We are trying to reach out and expand musical and artistic networks in the city as agents of the city’s transformation. We are imagining what kind of place we want this to be every time we act here in Toronto. Some of the best parts of our city are the building blocks: we are international; we all are part of the global vision – how rich can we make that? How joyful? How are we going to party together? What new cultures are emerging here – in terms of music, dance, art, community, it’s so incredible. We need new rituals that can bring us together, and they are going to emerge from who we are all together, where we are coming from, and where we are going.

The project will build on our previous event Night Swim, as this will also be an invitation to a venue with some program and framing yet based on audience completion and invention. It relates also to the work that members have done in other context such as urbanvessel, Sound Travels and The Wade Collective. Generally, it draws on the group members’ diverse experiences of making splendid events happen in unusual spaces. Theoretically we are interested in the situational and relational.

Art installations and swimming at Night Swim

Fire on the Water will require participation, where the viewer/audience completes or creates it. It will suggest an enriched and expanded use for existing public space; insert provocations for poetic action into daily life; amplify our bodies’ relation to our natural and constructed environments; highlight water’s sacred and profane aspects in a toxic landscape; serve as a renewal through the personal and collective shedding of skins; relate the individual body to the collective with public bathing as an intersection of private and public; express the city’s organic infrastructure which we continually form and forms us. We borrow extended audiences from the Gus Ryder Pool and the boardwalk and make them part of the event.

The Sunnyside Pavilion used to be entirely open to the public; it is now managed for the city by a commercial operator and few people have been through all of its spaces.

Night Swim was THEWAVES’ last event: an accessible art party for all

The project meets the broader goals of our collective THEWAVES in that it will: suggest an enriched and expanded use for existing public space; insert provocations for poetic action into daily life; amplify our bodies’ relation to our natural and constructed environments; highlight water’s sacred and profane aspects in a toxic landscape; relate the individual body to the collective with public bathing as an intersection of private and public; express the city’s organic infrastructure which we continually form and forms us. The Sunnyside Pavilion used to be entirely open to the public; it is now managed for the city by a commercial operator and few people have been through all of its spaces.

Marcus Boon (source):  THEWAVES is about making events/happenings/installations which somehow connect my interest in new/experimental music scenes and Christie’s interests in bathing culture and installation art.  We transform specific spaces so that new kinds of sociality, play, relationships to sound and water can evolve. Part of the fun of it is that we don’t exactly know what will happen.  The events are experimental but populist: anyone can come, and anyone might enjoy it, whatever age or background they’re from.  Basically we think sound and water are fundamental aspects of human life, experience, environment, and we’re interested in celebrating that, and intensifying our relationships to those elements.

DJs at the pool at Night Swim

… Fire On The Water has given me an opportunity to invite some of the masters that we learnt about global bass from to play in Toronto.  What is global bass?  It’s electronic dance music emerging in different parts of the world right now. Usually with roots simultaneously in Afrodiasporic dance musics (reggae, funk, house, hiphop, techno) and local traditions (Colombian cumbia, various West African styles).  You can’t necessarily tell where anything is from.  But that’s part of the point.  It’s part of a global conversation in which more and more intense musics evolve. It’s heavy and it’s alive.

… Everyone puts it together differently: Venus X’s vicious chopped and screwed style is different from DJ/Rupture’s elegant connections, or Poirier’s soca/dancehall/hiphop rave ups, or Maga Bo’s intense percussion storms.  … Myself, I’m listening to Angolan house, Venezuelan “raptor house”, Traxman and other Footwork stuff from Chicago.

Give us some reasons why this is a can’t-miss event and why people who miss it will be sorry they did.

CP:

  1. This is going to be the most awesomely fun party of the summer
  2. The music is going to blow you away
  3. You love your city
  4. You love your lake
  5. You want them to get back together again
  6. You want to live in a beach city, like Barcelona or Rio – let’s make it here
  7. Nothing can stop us
MB (source):  Sunnyside Pavilion is a gorgeous semi-public space. It has a lovely upstairs open air dancehall that looks out onto the lake, it’s right on the beach, there’s a huge pool next door, two mysterious pavilions at either end that will have highly psychedelic installations in them. It’s all ages.  It’s a party.  It’s a love letter to the lake.

A better collective life for Toronto – community, belonging and the waterfront

MB: One thing I want to add is that it’s not just about revitalizing public bathing.  We really love the daytime parties that are being thrown at places like MOMA/PS1 in New York, or various places in Berlin, London, Paris — they’re all ages, publicly supported, beautifully curated, and they’re a celebration of the city itself and the diverse populations who live and play there.  We wanted to contribute to that vibe and help it grow because it’s part of our idea of a happy collective life in the city.

CP: There are lots of things we are glad to leave behind, but let’s bring back free TTC rides for kids going to the beach, bring back waterways we can drink from and swim in without fear, bring back a sense of community and belonging – but in a new way, as truly global citizens. We are going to get it. The planet is one big unity and so are we. We need to live that way.

What Christie Pearson is most looking forward to at this event

Sweating!

Fire on the Water takes place from 2 p.m. to midnight on Sunday, August 26. For more information, visit the website and Facebook event page. Uma Nota Culture is a proud supporter of this event.