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Seeing Double Double -- keeping Toronto's lo-fi art scene growing

Last month, hundreds of young dancers nostalgic for the Much Music 90s-era dance parties rushed past the front doors of Double Double Land for "TOP TOP POP COP," a YouTube dance party where you get to see the music video play as you grind on the dance floor. The revolving roster of DJs who projected their play lists onscreen threw in a few monkey wrenches. Whether they would show booty shaking bedroom dancing videos to eerie remixes made by strangers online, there were moments when the crowd came to a standstill.

There are bars and clubs in Toronto, but there is nothing quite like Double  Double Land, located at 209 Augusta Avenue. The Kensington Market spot for all things offbeat has gained a reputation for its eclectic programming and well-kept space -- though it exists well below most radars. This is not your typical boombox club you'd find on Richmond Street. It's more like an art studio apartment, a very intimate place with no sign outside.

It's hard to find. The entranceway is down an alley, then up a rickety staircase into what feels like a handcrafted, paper-mache studio. Air conditioning pipes dangle above the kitchen table and out by the back there's a patio door that never opens -- if it did, you'd see there is no patio, just a wall.

The space used to be a second-floor apartment but when four friends took over the space in September, 2009 (Steve Thomas, a fiction writer, Daniel Vila, a musician and artist, Jon McCurley, a playwright and artist, and Rob Gordon, a musician and DJ best known for his work with Owen Pallett), they transformed it into a community hub where all things arty shake down, booties included.

They cleaned the place up and started renovating. Currently they're building an artist residency in one of the old washrooms where they offer a foreign artist a room to stay, a studio space at the White House down the street and a solo show at Double Double at the end of the month.

They're part of a new wave of indie do-it-yourself art spaces in Toronto where you build your living room into a studio, exhibition or venue space and then live behind the white walls. Just like the now-defunct Mind Control gallery on Gladstone which artist Derek Mainella founded in the late 1990s, Double Double, Super Joy, Good Blood Bad Blood and the nearby White House are all part of this movement.

Double Double was first a "big room full of trash," said McCurley, of the space when they found it. Now the 800 sq. ft. apartment with 10 foot ceilings is filled with sculptures, a wooden stage, amplifiers and soon enough, curtains.

They host unconventional events not found anywhere else in the city. Be it artist-run dinner parties to Tom Green's birthday party (he sadly wasn't present but artists reenacted their favourite skits of his). They also have a mixed tape library where guests can borrow a walkman to peruse Kensington Market while listening to a tape created by a local artist.

"The goal is to do weird things that you'd have to go through red tape for," said Vila.

It has been called many things: a performance space, an apartment-slash-venue, a multi-use space, an artist's studio and a collective.

"Right now, it's a big oven room," said McCurley, reaching up to adjust the air-conditioning pipes.

But the soul of Double Double resides deep within what they have to give. Part-community center, they are constantly lending out speakers, mixers, generators and projectors to friends in the neighbourhood.

"That's what this place is about and built on," said McCurley, who has lent out the space pro bono for theatre troupes and band rehearsals.

Currently a performance artist from Kansas City is their visiting artist, working at the White House to create a solo show at the end of the month -- she makes You Tube videos of herself dancing, which caught the eye of Vila.

They may not have top of the line technology, solid air conditioning or heating in the winter, nor do they always send out press releases or even have a light above their front door or a sign outside marking the venue.

But that's a part of the nature of the place.

"There are certain imperfections and flaws, hopefully in the right kind of way," said Vila.

They pay rent and every penny they profit from (at their day jobs) has been funneled back into renovations, which have been ongoing up until now (there is no concrete revenue model at the moment, but they do rent out the space for yoga classes and rehearsals). They've built in two bathrooms in the main space and insulated it with plastic sheets on the window. They're building a fifth bedroom for the artist in residence and McCurley points out the bed will hang above the entranceway to another bedroom to help save space.

"We don't have a lot of things that other people have, but we have something," said McCurley.

That extra "something" could be an alternative of an ever expanding blockbuster art scene in a city like Toronto which is swimming with commercial galleries and publicly-funded institutions. It's a breath of fresh air in a money-minded art market.

Though the winters have been chilly the sense of community they've built, literally from scratch, keeps the place cozy. Thomas, for example, recalls sleeping in his winter coat this past Christmas. When asked if it's worth it, he says, of course. From writer recluse to social connoisseur, it has been quite the ride.

"It's such an experience," he said. "It's been a total transformation for me."

Nadja Sayej is the host of ArtStars*, a contemporary art travel show. She has been compared to Jeanne Beker, writes for the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and has made front page news with Art in America. Follow her @ArtStars.

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