The GAYle Village and The Lost and Found – Marco Castelli

Ever since I was a young boy I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. I was mesmerized by the soulful quality of Judy Garland’s voice as she serenaded with me with her flawless rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I was captivated by the exquisite, magical and colourful land of Oz all while learning valuable life lessons as Dorothy Gale, and her new found friends, took their iconic journey down the yellow brick road. Most notably, I lusted after the famous red ruby slippers. I still hold a grudge against my family for making me dress up as the Scarecrow for Halloween while my sister got to portray the beautiful Dorothy Gale (dawning the iconic ruby slippers…of course).

It was precisely for this reason that I grew terrified of my initial plan; a plan to replicate and manipulate the design of the iconic ruby slipper as a Drag Queen’s pump, while recreating Toronto’s infamous “Gay Village” as a twisted version of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz”. However, it was ultimately my desire to ‘do these shoes justice’ that allowed me to realize that this was the ideal area and idea to explore.

As I was getting lost in Toronto I happened to notice that colour and vibrancy was scarce and that most buildings lacked any sense of character. It was not until I was walking, head down, that I came across a crosswalk painted the colours of the rainbow. I immediately began humming Somewhere Over the Rainbow to myself. Upon looking up, I realized I had stumbled into the area of Church and Wellesley (the Gay Village). My quest to find colour and character in the city was realized. I knew instantly this was the area I would explore. In doing research about the history of Toronto’s Gay Village, amidst articles chronicling how streets (Wood St, Alexander St and Church Street) got their names, I came across a blog post discussing the future of this queer utopia. To paraphrase they speculated about the future of the area of Church and Wellesley; as Toronto becomes a more queer friendly space, with more LGBTQ friendly businesses and services, does this render the area of the “Gay Village” obsolete? This methodical framework fits nicely into the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz has been analyzed through the lens of Queer Theory by various scholars. The Emerald City is regarded as the land where all dreams come true; in the same vein, the area of Church and Wellesley is considered the heart of Toronto’s queer community. It is an area full of historical significance. I began to wonder how the expansion of queer culture would impact the future of this neighbourhood. Would its history be erased? Would it be forgotten? In conjunction, was the spread and further acceptance of queer and LGBTQ culture, outside this neighbourhood, a negative thing? These thoughts reminded me of a quote from Buckmorss text chapter Spatial Origins:

“One only knows a spot once one has experienced it in as many different dimensions as possible. You have to have approached a place from all four cardinal points its you want to take it in, and what’s more, you also have to have left it from all points. Otherwise it will quite unexpectedly cross path three or four times before you are prepared to discover it” (Buckmorss 25).”

I put Buckmorss idea of viewing an area from all angles and contexts into consideration by visiting the area of Church and Wellesley on numerous occasions and at different times of day. Each time my connection to the place was slightly different. Thus, in constructing the box I wanted there to be both a familiar and foreign like quality; Oz feeling both foreign and alluring to Dorothy.

The sides of the box were adorned with old CD’s with the names of other Toronto street and areas which have gained a reputation in recent years as becoming more queer friendly. The reflective surface of the CD and lights in the box were meant to showcase (yet not entirely make visible) these not fully yet realized queer utopia; the centre of the box (The Emerald City if you will) being the area of Church and Wellesley. My Emerald City was represented as the popular Drag bar, Crews and Tango. This was my first exposure into the queer community of Toronto’s downtown core.

Truth be told, the inspiration behind my second addition to the collection, The Lost and Found, was inspired by the ultimate omen. As I was walking away from the TIFF Bell Light Box with the Tania (one of the other talented student artists involved in the project) we stumbled upon these shoes; left and abandoned in the middle of the street. I became obsessed with hypothesizing who these shoes could have belonged to and what potential story they possessed. As I explored the concept for The GAYle Village it became clear that these two ideas were quite singular and thus needed to be explored separately.

I asked several friends to respond to a photograph of the shoes found; receiving stories set decades before they were even found, a philosophical exploration on life (a comment on the infamous fork in the road) and one set in modern day Toronto. Shredding and combining those narratives, I stuffed them into the shoe; later asking those patrons who engaged with the shoe to construct their own narrative. Responding to the same photograph others had responded to days prior. The possibilities were endless; which was evidenced in the work created by the engaged participants in the metroARCADE.

I began to think about how this project, The GAYle Village specifically, materialized performance theory. I began to think of spacial practices and their relationship to the spreading of queer identities. When I purchased the stiletto for the Drag Queen’s Ruby Slipper, there was a part of me which hoped that the show fit. To my dismay it did not. Alas, perhaps I was never meant to wear Dorothy’s ruby slippers! Then I recognized the connection between the recreated iconic shoe and spatialization. The expansion of queer culture is represented in my inability to fit the shoe. The shoe still exists as a starting point, an origin, and my foot represents growth and expansion. In the same way that my foot could not be contained by the shoe, the label of queerness not entirely befitting me, the LGBTQ community is expanding beyond the reach of the area of Church and Wellesley. Despite this, the area will persist as an oasis for queer culture. The metaphor of the shoe and box, allowed me to explore the expansion, origin and limitations of queer culture and the area of Church and Wellesley in a way I never thought possible.

After spending a year in a classroom discussing theory and its performative potential it was a challenge to exercise my creative muscle. However, once the creation began it was second nature. The metroARCADE served not only the purpose of highlighting the complexity and diversity of the Toronto landscape, but also the intersection between research and creation. – Marco Castelli


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