"Toronto has been instrumental to our dance because of the many unique individuals that have shared their art with us. Every dance style whether classical or street has helped us in finding styles of our own within our dance. Observing how others embrace themselves and their own movement has encouraged us to do the same."
"Toronto contains multitudes: rivers of asphalt underneath a rapidly expanding skyline, old neighborhoods increasingly run over by latte peddlers and yoga studios, an immense shoreline studded with beaches and bluffs, leafy avenues and massive suburban manors—all lit by a harmonious orange sodium glow." - Jamieson Cox, Views From The 6: Inside Drake's Toronto
BY ELIZABETH HAQ
The ineffable singer, songwriter, A&R consultant, Drake-collaborator and Twitter shit-disturber gives us an insider’s take on the city’s R&B and hip hop scene.
Shi Wisdom: I grew up in a passionate music-loving family. My grandfather was a singer and musician, both in Jamaica and here in Canada. My mother loved music. We ordered boxes of CDs at a time from Columbia House and our home was always filled with beautiful sounds, from jazz to hip hop to R&B to gospel. I think that the diverse musical exposure helped develop me as an artist today.Do you consider your sound Canadian?
I don't consider my sound Canadian. I don't even consider myself Canadian, despite being born here. As a Black person in this country, it is very difficult for me to accept and claim this land that doesn't necessarily want to claim me. I consider myself African. Those are my real roots. That is where people who look like me come from.What defines Toronto's sound right now?
I don't think Toronto can be defined. We aren't the melting pot that the U.S is; we all claim our cultural backgrounds before claiming Canada or Toronto (for the most part). I think Jamaicans have had the most impact on the "culture" of this city, as you can find any person, of any background, forcing a faux-Patois accent into their everyday speech.How has Toronto's sound evolved in the last decade? In your opinion, is it a positive development?
Toronto's sound has evolved, just like the rest of America. Generally more digital, more chanty. Less substance, in my opinion. The only thing that really differentiates us, is our accents (& most of us, especially rappers, hide that part of us, as well).
How does your music contribute to that sound?
Sonically, I try to stay on par with what is happening in the scene, but musically, I try to set myself apart, by keeping the substance and musicality alive. I make it a personal challenge to not fall into the monotone, mundane, melodic patterns that seem to be the trend right now. I am a singer, I try to use my voice in every possible way I can. I am a songwriter, I try to always have something to say. I take a lot of pride in both.Given Canada's cultural history, including its rural heritage and embracement of "multiculturalism” as identity, how do you define street culture in this country?
Canada embraces multiculturalism? That's news to me. Street culture? We have that here? When I travel into and through downtown Toronto, all I see is mostly fake hipsters. It looks like most people are searching for an identity. I'm not mad at ‘em, though. We all have to find our way. I grew up in government housing or "hoods”. In these areas, the street culture is a reflection of the conditions that people are living in. It can be pretty dark, depressing and hopeless, but there is also a bright light of resilience. Some are very determined to not remain stuck in that darkness, others find contentment in the darkness. To each their own.As Canadians we're used to understanding ourselves in relation to the U.S. and to American culture. Is it possible to define Canadian street culture without referring to American art, music and imagery?
I don't think that Toronto’s street culture can really be defined without making some comparison or correlation to America. We look to them for musical inspiration, fashion trends, lifestyle trends. It's pretty sad but I don't think we have our own cultural identity without America. It's funny, we'll quickly claim that we aren't American, but really, who are we, as Canadians, without the influence of America? I couldn't answer that question.How do your visuals help shape your sound and communicate your message?
I am very drawn to things that are stylistically eclectic. As far as visuals go, I think that I have a long road ahead of me but I am actively working toward it. I can say, though, that I do make an effort to produce visuals that don't look or feel like any of the videos that I am seeing from my peers. I get bored easily and I think that the viewers do too. Something that doesn't look like everything else can go one of two ways: either they'll love it or they'll hate it. I am comfortable and strive to be The Other.What inspired the video for “Young Gunner”?
It was inspired by the Black Experience, both here and in America. The scenes were placed in the street, as a reflection of the countless Black Bodies that are disposed of, without care, there. I am speaking, always, from my perspective as a Black woman, and as a Black human, living in environments where my people are generally undesirable.Do you feel that immigrant, underprivileged youth are underrepresented in Toronto's cultural story? Is this changing?
To be an immigrant in this country doesn't always make you underprivileged. Some immigrants are far more warmly welcomed than others. Black immigrant youth are generally underprivileged and overlooked in this country, and there is absolutely no doubt that they are underrepresented. I don't see it changing and don't see that anyone in power feels the need to change it in the future. If anything, I think the "okie-doke" is just getting stronger. The illusion of inclusion is getting more complex and harder to break down and expose.In what ways does the Canadian music industry have to evolve in order to grow and thrive as the culture changes?
I don't think that more funding for Canadian art is necessary, although it would be greatly appreciated. I think that less bias from the judging panels is needed. Almost every round of grants, every year, the same artists are awarded funding for their projects. Mostly established or signed artists who don't even need the funding! It's very discouraging, as an independent artist, to apply for this funding, round after round, only to receive rejection each time. Most independent artists are doing it on their own because we don't have much of a choice. The support from the grant system almost always favours the artists who have already made a name for themselves. We need more unbiased financial support from the system that says that they support Canadian artists. Period.
The Regent Park of Jason Creed’s youth was characterized by low incomes, single parent families and high dropout rates. Most residents were coloured and many were new Canadians. Over a third of the population collected welfare or disability cheques, and over half of the immigrant population spoke little or no English. Nine murders occurred in the community in 2001 alone. It was Toronto’s largest and oldest public housing project.
Jason, a black man and a twin, was raised by a single mother at the tailend of the acute racial tension that dominated the area throughout the 60s. He dropped out of high school and had his first son at 21. He experimented with criminality, desperate to provide for his family the only way he believed black men with “difficult” upbringings could.
But the neighbourhood intervened. Jason observed the trap of criminal existence, and saw that educated black men were enjoying the kind of freedom his pocketful of cash could never afford. He became involved with Pathways to Education, a multi-city program helps kids graduate, pursue higher education and be successful in their dream careers. He also serves as chair at the Regent Park Film Festival.
Cut to 2015. Overzealous residential and commercial development has gobbled up a lot of the Regent Park area. Shiny silver buildings have cropped up on Sumach and Dundas like glass teeth; a two-bedroom condo will set you back almost half a million dollars. Developers advertise the “changing” Regent Park community and the “unobstructed view” of the new aquatic centre (“When it opened, they charged each person per swim under the assumption that everyone was on the income level of the new condo owners,” Jason tells us).
Jason told us what he thinks about Canadian street identity, hip hop lifestyle addiction and why he wishes rappers wrote advice columns.
I’ve left Regent Park for bouts at a time but I always come back. The longest I’ve ever been away from the city of Toronto would be two and half years. When I was in my early twenties I lived in Thornhill - when I came back to Regent Park I was hyper-aware of all the luxury. It was just me in that house. There was no sense of community. When you walked outside, you play with your dog and you water your grass. Here, when you go outside, there’s a sense of friendship. You go to the store to buy cigarettes and your brand is already laid out as soon as you walk in the door. They know me, they know my habits and my routines - it’s not like I’m just another customer to them. I grew up here and that sense of community keeps me from feeling lost. In a city like Toronto, full of people moving around and doing their own thing and trying to make it work, I’ve never felt lost. The community has contributed more to my sense of self than owning a big house or tons of property ever could. Regent Park is my city within the city.ON THE REGENT PARK OF YESTERDAY
I’m from the southside of Regent. People align themselves with either the northside or the southside, and the divide is Dundas. It’s not a beef thing but I’ve always identified as a southside cat. When the last building came down a few days ago, it made me go through my memories. The landmarks and the monuments to my childhood aren’t there anymore so I recall certain buildings, what the grass looked like, where a tree was planted.
When I was 15, we went to Atlanta on a bus trip and we sold chocolate to get there. We went with the Jane and Finch Community Centre, and those were times when our neighbourhoods weren’t too friendly with one another but we built lasting bonds from that. We had a Regent Park recreation team and we played basketball with other neighbourhoods. Community festivals like Blockorama shut it down. Juiceman Jonathan Shaw’s first Blocko ever was in Regent Park, and I didn’t even know that until we met somewhere while speaking to youth and he told me. A lot of people have passed through here and cut their teeth. I remember sleeping outside until six in the morning, I would feel so safe. But it’s a different time now.ON MATERIALISTIC YOUTH
When I was a kid, we didn’t have the distraction of the internet so I feel there was more of an emphasis on collective youth programs. Every day of the week, there was something to do. There was money thrown at employment initiatives. A lot of kids in the community had the chance to work in the summer which was a fantastic opportunity. Me and some of the older guys in this neighbourhood say that these young kids are missing out. From an early age, they are very materialistic - they focus on what they can buy to convince people that they’re something that they’re not. They don’t even know what they are yet but they need belt that costs more than the desk in their room. When I was young, we weren’t really interested in stacking shoe boxes.ON THE CHALLENGES OF RAISING FUNDS
Unfortunately, those kinds of events - the community initiatives, the cultural festivals, the fun - don’t appeal in terms of statistics, the numbers that corporations look at in order to deduce if an initiative is worth funding. A lot of those programs were drop-in and the attendance varies too much to allocate a monetary value to it. Raising the funds is hard. It seems that a lot of things are funded privately now, which means you have to be able to extensively prove why certain things are worth putting money into. It must have a tangible, numerical result. It wasn’t as stringent before. And I think we fight a lot more as youth workers. The youth that I deal with are often entangled with the law and have some criminal involvement, it would be hard to get on a bus and go to Washington or Detroit.ON INITIATIVES THAT ARE WORKING
Pathways to Education has always been a successful initiative. We have a tutoring program that serves 100-150 youth per night. Our mentoring program offers sports-related initiatives, where we partner with Ryerson University to provide equipment for kids that may not have access otherwise. We encourage girls to apply to the sports program in particular. We help educate kids about law and fuel their curiosity about politics, should they be interested in pursuing a related career. Recently, we divided the kids into two teams - we used to go against Scarborough Village - and present a case to a real judge. He or she would make the final decision. Working in an academic setting like that is fantastic because these kids think law is just briefcases and “Your Honour” - they may not comprehend that a lot of politicians, general managers of sports teams are lawyers, and that anything that involves contracts and policies and large-scale management involves a technical understanding of law. We try to show them that understanding complex systems can offer many benefits. We often many internships and partnerships with colleges, universities, hospitals and agencies. We hold them accountable and make sure they are informed of the opportunities.
With the help of Pathways, the number of students graduating and moving on to post-secondary program is very high. A lot of the youth are battling all kinds of factors including learning disabilities and run-ins with the law and that prevents them from completing school. Our job is to intervene when its most fruitful and help guide towards a more positive outcome.ON GENTRIFICATION IN REGENT PARK
Ever since development and gentrification began in Regent, people have been fighting back against it and arguing that it would deplete its culture and community and identity. Regent Park was defended by the people who love it. Personally, I think it's a big loss and it will become more apparent as time goes on. People are now trying to figure out what Regent Park is, despite all of the shiny condos. When you drive by condos, you don’t consider them a community - it’s a cluster of people that happen to be able to afford that residence. I think, when it’s all said and done, it will be 75% condominium owners and 25% original residents that are largely renters. And at the end of the day, what is that community? It just turns into a suburb - like outside of Square One in Mississauga - it’s a bunch of condos but no one considers them a community. It just a matter of bringing in as much money for the land as possible, as opposed to organically growing a sense of pride, culture or community.ON THE FIGHT TO KEEP CULTURE ALIVE
But there are solid attempts at maintaining the culture. Daniels Spectrum, an art and community hub on Dundas between Sumach and Sackville, has the Regent Park School of Music, the Regent Park Film Festival and Native Earth Performing Arts among other things. The gallery showcases art from Regent Park but also supports artists from all over the city. The Remix Project ensures that talented artists find support within the community. In years before, art was something you did indoors, with friends. Using these avenues, artists can find a network and an audience. And when there’s an idea or an opportunity, you just go back to the community and harvest the talent you need.ON REGENT’S SOUND
The Regent Park sound is the sound of realness. It’s the sound of truth. There is no filter. Mustafa the Poet embodies this, the idea of speaking with a deep level of honesty and forthrightness. There’s a lot of great artists that have come out of Regent Park and each of them has emphasized the sense of community as a major part of their rise to success. There is a sense of pride, a lashing back at the idea of being ashamed at their Regent heritage. Not giving in to people who feel bad for you because you’re from Regent. Reminding yourself that in some arenas, like youth work and social initiatives and rehabilitation, it’s considered a plus when you tell people you’re from Regent - they believe you have what it takes to understand people and help them. We speak from passion and emotion. Our rappers speak to their love for their community. The community breastfed them. Many didn’t grow up with fathers, like me, so Regent raised me. A lot of men in the community held me accountable for my actions. When I talk to my daughter about music, I always tell her where I was and what I was doing when I heard a specific song. That way, music becomes a soundtrack for life. My memories flow from the music. It’s funny because one of my straight-A students recently moved to a quiet street in a quiet neighbourhood. He used to hear gunshots at bedtime. He told me that he still says he’s from Regent. He misses it.ON CANADIAN VS. AMERICAN STREET CULTURE
We can’t differentiate from it because we’re fed it. Institutions like Rap City, which got cancelled again, are not properly supported or really bolstered up, so the youth looks towards other outlets to get their fix. Those outlets are almost always American. I always find it funny, though, that when I speak with my real Nova Scotians, I mean my real North Preston Nova Scotians, that’s as close to an American accent as you can get. When Africans traveled the Underground Railroad a lot of them settled there, Today, the accent is closer to west coast L.A. than anywhere in Toronto.ON DRAKE
There’s a sense of ignorance. Wannabe rappers in Toronto don’t take the time to think about business, they don’t even attempt to understand the inner workings of the music industry. Because we’re the screwface capital, we take everything personal. They say things like “If I see Drake, Imma rob Drake.” Why you gonna rob Drake? Why don’t you politic with Drake and see how he got to where he got to? It makes me laugh when people in Toronto hate on Drake, and when I go to Miami, Drake is every third song. You touch down in NYC, Drake is every third song. You land in Washington, Drake is every third song. Then I go to Trinidad, Drake is every third song. How are we hating on someone that’s putting us on the map like that? Half of his OVO family is from the T Dot. He’s making sure cats are eating good and taking care of their children. That’s a blessed thing.ON CANADIAN RAPPERS IN AMERICA
One of the hardest things for me is when a youth, fourteen or fifteen years old, tells me they want to rap. I know that after that point, he’s not going to pick up a book and learn something. He’s not going to watch lyricists and hone his craft. He won’t watch King of the Dot and see how these freestylers do it. He’s gonna go outside, slang some dope, maybe buy a gat. Do some stupid things so he can tell that story. Through that he’ll rack up some charges and he won’t be able to travel. He won’t understand that Americans don’t need us. There are maybe four places in Canada where you can hold a stadium concert - there’s about 52 places in the U.S., even without going to Europe. So Canadians need to go there, they don’t need to come here. We’re so busy trying to follow them that we pick up charges, can’t travel or do business, and we can’t capitalize on their market. I tell my youth that the population of New York City is the population of Canada. You’d have to do record numbers in every city from here to Vancouver to make that kind of money. Money is made off of tours. You can only sell so many mixtapes online.ON THE MISCONCEPTIONS OF HIP HOP
There’s a misunderstanding among the youth that a lot of these rappers aren’t educated. I speak to them and try to clear up misconceptions. I tell them Plies went to school for nursing. I tell them 2 Chainz was at the top of his class. I ask them, “Do you know how much he has to dumb himself down to sell records to you?” The next minute he’s holding an intelligent conversation with a Fortune 500 record executive. The shit he’s spitting to you is not the same knowledge he’s spitting to his kids. Baby doesn’t go into meetings sucking his teeth and telling everyone to fuck off. He’s not going into a boardroom with a stripper at his side. He has to have intelligence and strategy and knowledge. He’s not richer than the man that’s making him rich.ON KNOWLEDGE AND RESPONSIBILITY
Kardinal is not my type of music but for international acclaim, I have to give him respect. These guys started out on the corner of Dundas and Parliament at Trebas. My boys and I used to run into them and there would be issues about them trying to make videos - had they talked to him and tried to learn, maybe some dudes would be at where they are right now. I wish some of these guys would address the kids trying to make it. Not when they're 60 years old and trying to make more money, but now while the kids still respect them. They say that the game saved their family, so help save other people’s families by steering them off the path of drugs, guns and charges. If you’re in it for the lavish lifestyle, if you’re just trying to eat, then it’s statistically better for you to pick up a book and go to school. Be a doctor or be a lawyer. You’ll have that lifestyle much quicker.BY ELIZABETH HAQ
For this exclusive interview, we got two Toronto photographers to put their cameras down and use their words (just this once). Here’s Joshua Din (@jediris) and Quincy Williams (@appalledq) on what’s really going on in the streets of Toronto. And no, we’re not sorry for that headline.
JD: Where did you grow up? Does your upbringing affect how you see the city?
QW: I grew in the west end of Toronto, around Davenport. My childhood doesn’t really affect how I see the city as an adult — Toronto is much more multicultural than I knew as a kid. When did you know that you see the world through a photographic lens? Was there a single moment that prompted you to pick up a camera?
JD: I think it was in elementary school. You know how schools go on an overnight trip? We went to Kearney, it’s a campsite up north that a lot of schools from Scarborough end up at. On the trip, I was one of the only people that brought a camera and I took pictures of all my friends. But there was one photo that I’ll never forget: it was a simple photo of the lake and a canoe. All of my other photos had my friends in it and this was just different. I made a print out of it and looked at it a lot. I was in the sixth grade.
QW: And it just started from there? That’s dope.
JD: Yeah, that got the ball rolling. Was there a single moment for you?
QW: I started photography when I was in grade 11. I loved photography class. I loved the process of developing, framing and mounting pictures, even making pinhole cameras. I realized I was in control and I could take an image of whatever I wanted. Iconic brands were some of my first subjects. Sneakers and sneaker culture played a big part in my life, so I started taking pictures of my collection and other people’s sneakers. Do you have any photographers that you admire?
JD: We studied photographers in high school and I liked it but to be honest I don’t remember any of their names. When I got serious about shooting, I began to admire Instagram photographers from Toronto. I love that we all live in the same place but we all make it look so different. There’s a lot of people I admire but I’m terrible with research. I want to get into the history more, definitely.
QW: Right, right. For me, I admire Fahim Kassam. He shot a lot of Reigning Champ’s stuff. Vincent Tsang is really great as well, he’s a photographer from Montreal who has shot for Dime and Timberland among others. There are a couple of New York photographers that I admire, like my homie Matt Doscher. But bringing it back to Toronto, what aspect of life in this city do you try to cover more in your art? Do you strive to be a trailblazer in any sense?
JD: The suburbs of Toronto. Everyone comes downtown to shoot, and I shoot downtown every day too, but there’s so much out there. I live in Scarborough, no one makes an effort to get out here. I want to showcase that to other people. Everyone knows those spots downtown. It’s worth exploring other places.
QW: Most people, when it comes to the suburbs, wonder what there is to do there. They assume nothing’s happening. I could see the suburbs popping off after some time.
JD: Exactly. My area — the waterfront — is usually dismissed as a park. There’s so much more. You have to explore it on foot, like a kid. Kids understand spaces so well because they explore them by walking around and getting lost. You have to get out there.
QW: That’s true. That’s dope. I think there’s another area that isn’t given enough attention — High Park. There’s a lot to see, a lot of nature and wildlife right in the middle of the city. I want to put my own spin on it.
JD: That sounds dope. How would you describe the art scene in Toronto? Do you think it’s collaborative? Competitive?
QW: It can be collaborative but I feel that it’s insincere. Some reach out just for the image of cooperation, not to actually go ahead and create something great together.
JD: I feel you on that.
QW: Yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s supportive. I also wouldn’t say it’s competitive but that’s just because I don’t really believe in competition. When you look at what others are doing, you’re just slowing yourself down. It definitely is rivalrous — people have egos and obnoxious attitudes. I’m not down with that. How would you describe it?
JD: There are those who are always open to meeting new people, trying to build a community. At the same time, there is a sense of outdoing one another. When one person takes a shot of something and it becomes a popular thing and another person takes a similar photo, a little beef will start. But others will make an effort to go out and meet up with people. They become friends, real friends, even beyond photography. But then some new person will come in and pick up whatever they need from the group and bounce. That’s not in the spirit of true, open collaboration.
QW: How do you differentiate yourself from other photographers?
JD: That’s a tough one. With the quality of photos that everyone’s phone takes, plus filters and social media, everyone’s a photographer. It’s a task of finding difference in a range of similarities. Looking at what everyone looks at but seeing something different. Sometimes it won’t happen. You’ll take the same photo that someone else took and you’ll have to try again.
QW: It’s inevitable that there will be similarities in all of our work. If it happens, you just go, “Oh, word?” and you move on. For me, I try to work on projects and with brands that are doing interesting things. I’m a bit tired of street photography so these days I like shooting portraits, concerts and sports. I think a solid way to differentiate yourself is to really work on your edit, too.
JD: True. I love shooting sports and concerts. It’s a totally different feeling. So, here’s a big question. How do you think social media has affected photography?
QW: Social media is the best thing that’s happened to photography. It comes with negatives but what in this world doesn’t? It enhances photography careers on such a deep level. Young artists are coming up off Instagram and other social media platforms, enough to fill their pockets. People are eating off this stuff. They’re replenishing their pockets. Social media is godsend, essentially.
JD: I agree. It just depends on how you use it. If you use it to benefit yourself, it’s amazing. If you use it to detriment yourself, it’ll be terrible. You can use it for stupid purposes and get yourself into trouble. I think Instagram is truly social, as far as all social media goes. You actually meet the people you admire, and you can shoot with them and learn from them.
QW: Exactly. I mean, let’s be real: if someone was to add you Facebook and be like “Hey let’s meet up”, you’d find that weird. But on Instagram, it’s an opportunity.
JD: Yup. Of course, it makes it possible for anyone to pick up photography. There are some who think that they’re incredible photographers right off the bat and they don’t allow any room for improvement or feedback. That’s annoying. You have to be humble, whether your stuff is good or bad. People are willing to help but only if you don’t have a chip on your shoulder. But look at how brands and potential clients contact photographers these days — it’s all through social media. I don’t know how half these people would work without it.
QW: So if social media didn’t exist, would you still do photography as a career?
JD: That’s a really good question. I definitely would. Social media has helped me in so many ways but when I got started, I only shot for myself. I didn’t post anything anywhere, and I still really enjoyed it. I would go out of my way, in the freezing cold, to shoot anything. When people asked me what I was taking pictures for I told them it was just for me. It’s great that you can maximize opportunities off of social media but if Instagram shut down tomorrow, you can bet you’ll still see me on the streets. It’s just what I do.
QW: A lot of people want Instagram to crash and burn because the photography market is oversaturated. People feel like photography has lost its spark. But people like me and you, we’re out here to prove that the passion is still strong. What are your thoughts on Toronto’s street culture, compared to other cities?
JD: I haven’t really explored other cities in the depth that I’ve explored Toronto. Arts in Toronto is booming right now — photography, fashion, especially music. All kinds of genres are flourishing. Drake is at the top and we have the Raptors, and everything falls in line under that in terms of arts, culture and the street. Drake will actually try to find people from the city and get them exposure. You’ll see your friends, people you know, reposted on his channels. It’s really nice that the guys at the top give that recognition.
QW: A lot of people think that these kids are just doing it for the fame. Your number one goal is to eat, to get money, off your own passion. Toronto’s cultural scene is booming but it has a long way to go. We haven’t peaked or anything; we’re slowly climbing. For example, the street culture in New York is completely different. It’s been there for so long, it has defined the city.
JD: So if there was any one city in the world you could shoot for a week, where would it be?
QW: I’d have to say New York. The street culture is crazy. I feel a type of way when I go there. I feel I can relax and chill and roam around, and at the same time you can be hustling. There are a lot of vital connections in New York.
JD: As soon as you said it, I already had my answer. I’d say New York too, hands down. I went with my brother in 2011, and I had my camera but I wasn’t shooting seriously. We were only there for a couple of days but I felt like I was in a different world. I study people that are doing well, people who are coming up, and they always say that when they were trying to make it they went to New York and put it all out there. I remember watching an interview of J Cole. He said he came to New York from North Carolina and worked a job making minimum wage just to pay for studio time. It all happened from there.
QW: You bring your all to the city and make it happen. Good to see we’re on the same page. Coming back to Toronto, are there any forces you see impacting this city’s street scene in the years to come?
JD: There are so many names I could drop — people who are shifting the way Toronto is seen around the world. Given how so many disciplines are coming up, there’s the potential for larger creative collectives and movements.
QW: Trust me, it’s slowly building up. Things like that always have to happen organically.
JD: If you could pick out an ideal collaborator, a client or a company or a brand, to shoot for, who would it be?
QW: There’s a few. I’d love to shoot for RETROSUPERFUTURE. I’d love to shoot for Arsenal, that’s a huge aspiration. I love working with up-and-coming brands too, I just really have to feel your aesthetic and your mission. What about you?
JD: Everything started with basketball for me. When I got serious about photography, I started searching for a way to combine the basketball and photography. Today, my dream is to be a photographer for the NBA. It doesn’t matter what team it is, I just want to be on there. Hey, this is something I’ve been meaning to ask you. How’d you come up with “appalledq”?
QW: Man, it has zero significance. I just had an epiphany that I wanted to use Instagram to post my shots and appalledq seemed like the right name.
JD: At first I had an Instagram account for pretty much everything, it included pictures of me that others took and my own shots. But I’m really about the idea of having a clean feel throughout your feed, not necessarily a theme but a coherence. Last summer, I created an account strictly for serious photography. For a long time, I wanted “jedi” - my initials, Joshua Edwin Din, and the photographer’s “i”. But those were all taken. My friend Andre suggested “jediris”, for the iris of the eye. I stuck with it.
QW: You gotta be spontaneous to be original.
JD: Right. At the moment, you don’t have your own camera. Can you explain that to the people?
QW: I just rent a camera. I can’t afford a camera right now. I’m slowly working towards a new one because high quality cameras for my line of work are really expensive. So anytime I have a gig, I just rent it. Once I get a camera though, man, it’s a wrap. I can’t wait.
JD: You appreciate it more because you know your time is limited, but when it’s finally yours…
QW: Lord have mercy.
Using the contemporary city highrise as a jumping off point, Canadian director Katerina Cizek masterminded an interactive documentary experiment that explores urban living and digital realities. With a special emphasis on Toronto, Katerina assembled an all-star team to tell obscure stories about highrise residents around the globe.
Highrise: Universe Within is an extensive collection of documentary vignettes, survey polls and interactive activities mediated by digital avatars. It addresses the isolation that is often second-nature for city residents.
Katerina’s multimedia creation reimagines physical, digital and intellectual barriers. Explore her ideas on thoughtful development, creative collaboration, and the documentary as a constructed medium below — hover over each answer to reveal its question.
Too often, I find, you define the outcome of a project first and then you are tasked with finding the people you need. The National Film Board gave me a very unique platform and allowed me a particular process for creating this project. They encouraged the development of a co-creative process, where we started with the relationships and the work organically sprang from that. To have that kind of trust in a project was wonderful.
I still feel that the work is authored because I don’t see authorship as a core opposite to collaboration. I’m honoured to work with people who are experts in their fields, extremely talented people from a variety of disciplines. We created a new way of working together that conventional media sometimes misses. Everyone has a sense of ownership, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I feel satisfied as an author — I still feel like a documentary director, plus I’ve been able to work with people who are a lot smarter than me.
Did you ever miss the control and precision that comes with helming a film in a conventional way?
I was oblivious to how many highrises there are in Toronto. As a whole, they’re a little hidden and quite far apart. Graeme Stewart’s work was enormously influential in terms of inspirational and pragmatic ways to consider the future of the highrise in Toronto. Then there’s the revelation that Toronto is deeply segregated, there are deep divisions between the rich and poor in the city. Analysts forecast a “vertical poverty” situation. Finally, analysis that posits that suburbs have more to do with each other than the very cities that they are attached to. Suburbanism is a phenomenon that we don’t really understand. We critically consider it in order to shape the cities of the future. Before Highrise, I had just finished filmmaker-in-residence with St. Michael’s Hospital and the NFB, As we were concluding, producer Gerry Flahive and I were approached and asked how we could take the ideas we came up with to a new level.
Do you remember the point that prompted this in-depth interrogation of the highrise?
I wanted to challenge myself to create an experience that was interactive but also linear. I got interested in having a conversation with the user because so much of the project focussed on participatory research, collaborative design and finding out what the subjects think as much as the researchers. I find that too often the documentary filmmaker are far too exploitative, excavating subjects and walking away. I wanted to foreground how the subject had agency and choice, and how they don’t. We had Susan Coyne, who is a brilliant Canadian actor and playwright, write the dialogue. We worked with Secret Location, Canada’s leading digital agency, to create the avatars. I enjoy how the avatars bring another dimension to the conversation, how they remind you that there different ways to conceal and to reveal. The end product is quite haunting, I believe.
Can you speak to the process of creating and writing the avatars? Was the implementation of an “objective” third party to guide the user experience meant as a way to interrogate the notion of reality, and of documentary filmmaking as a constructed medium?
I think the future is used as a way to hide the problems of today. A lot of utopian visions of urban planning ignore where we are, and hide the tragic reality of what we’re experiencing today. That’s why I like the considered futurism of Graeme Stewart. He really takes where we are today and looks at step-by-step solutions with the residents themselves. Instead of mapping out this grand schemes and often benefit those who are already benefitting.
Is urban planning utopia attainable?
I definitely slid back from hope to despair, as far as the capacity of the internet to enact real change. I believe we’re at a critical moment: we must move away from being strict consumers of cities and internet. We need to become active citizens and participants.
Within the documentary, users are asked to plot their moods after watching certain documentary vignettes. Where’s your mood after completing the project?
I’m fascinated by the possibilities of digital for documentarians, for storytellers and for all of us — how it affects our engagement with the world, politically and critically. For Universe Within, project lead Heather Frise and I worked locally in two highrises on Kipling Avenue. We had been there about two years, and we knew a couple of people really well but we didn’t have any real information about who lived there and why. The landlord wouldn’t share much. I could tell that many of them were new to the city, and perhaps to the country, and I wondered who they were connecting with and how they navigated the city. I wondered what they were using in terms of digital technology. I partnered with Dr. Emily Paradis, who specializes in neighbourhoods and urbanization, and Dr. Deborah Cowan who is a professor of geography at the University of Toronto. We created a peer research poll and hired fourteen people in the buildings, all of whom spoke a different language, to talk to their neighbours about their technology usage, their lifestyles, their family dynamic. It was the first time that a lot of people had spoken to their neighbours.
We discovered that we could plot digital maps out onto the vertical. There was something so potent about juxtaposing people’s invisible digital lives to the material, and often isolating and segregating, buildings they live in. It’s a fascinating place to begin analyzing the human condition in the 21st century.
It turns out, 97% of the people who lived there had not been born in Canada. Most of them had not been in Canada for more than 5 years. Over 50% of the households were under the age of 20. You just don’t see that in average Canadian neighbourhoods. Conventional wisdom would connect wealth with connectivity — the more money you have the more likely you are to be very connected — and suggest that the lower the income, the lower the digital connectivity. We have an average of 80% connectivity in Canada, but that goes down drastically when you reduce income. Here, it was shocking to discover that 80% of people were connected, despite a notably lower income bracket. The residents described their connectivity as absolutely vital, as important as the air they breathe. Their friends their loved ones, their families are all somewhere else, so access to the internet is essential to their well-being and to their identities.
You place the highrise at the centre of a complex conversation that involves everything from human relationships to new media and technology. What was the genesis of this idea?