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EXCLUSIVE: Complaint an attack on artist-run queer space, says VAL

Everyone benefits from creative cultural expression, says Vancouver’s Art and Leisure Society

Vancouver has a long history of successfully fighting the injustices of homophobia, morality policing, and artistic censorship, says Matt Troy, executive director of Vancouver’s Art and Leisure Society. Credit: Chase Porter

Almost since its inception, Vancouver’s Art and Leisure Society (VAL) has faced challenges to the art it presents and the spaces of free expression that it strives to foster.

Complaints about the sex-positive nature of the queer society’s events triggered several City of Vancouver inspections in early 2015, says VAL’s executive director Matt Troy.

Daily Xtra asked city officials about the inspections in March 2015. Officials at the time raised some concerns about allegations of over-capacity parties, but said “city and partner agencies will continue working with VALS to help them comply with regulations for any future events they organize.”

Troy says city officials have since been supportive, and credits Vancouver’s Indoor Arts & Culture pilot program, which supports groups like VAL holding cultural events in unconventional spaces, such as warehouses.

On Nov 23, 2015, The Province ran a story alleging that a new report, this one filed by a private investigator working for an unknown client, again makes claims about sex acts and overcrowding at a VAL event on Oct 30, 2015. The Province won’t say who commissioned the private investigator’s report.

Troy asked Daily Xtra to publish VAL’s response to the latest round of allegations. This is his reply, on behalf of the Vancouver Art and Leisure Society:

Vancouver Art and Leisure Society was conceived in late 2013, and launched in September 2014, as a radical artist-run group devoted to presenting, programming, and advocating for art and leisure in unexpected places and ways.

Over the past year, we have worked closely with the City of Vancouver and the public to create events that enrich our local arts ecology and civic life.

Our aim is to present to the public professional artist projects that don’t discriminate on the basis of artistic intent, political expression, gender or sexuality. We believe this enriches our culture in ways that benefit us all.

We welcome the ongoing discussion of the status of cultural events in our city. We will not be further commenting on allegations we have already addressed.

Regarding the current media firestorm of sensationalist headlines, salacious, unsolicited and anonymous complaints: please understand that this is merely a political attack.

This is an attack on alternative, artist-run event spaces and their right to program and participate in culture.

This is an attack (and an infringement of privacy) on the morality of gay men, queer spaces and queer events.

This is also an attack on the City of Vancouver, Councillor Heather Deal, and Mayor Gregor Robertson, who have all worked very hard to help artists succeed in the city.

There may be establishment forces at play that seek to restrict the public’s access to art and culture events and may use this unsolicited anonymous complaint to their political and economic advantage. We reject these attacks on Vancouver culture, but we always welcome the discussion of the important issues facing artist-run spaces and artistic vitality in the city.

It wasn’t long ago that gay gatherings were entirely illegal, but much has changed. Two men kissing was once thought to be immoral, and liquor service was prohibited in most places.

Vancouver has a long history of successfully fighting the injustices of homophobia, morality policing, and artistic censorship. In 1984, Paul Wong’s work Confused: Sexual Views was deemed not art by the Vancouver Art Gallery and removed from exhibition because it featured frank discussions on bisexuality. Today, that work is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In its famous, decades-long battle against book seizures, Little Sister’s bookstore took Canada Customs all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to protest the border agency’s censorship of queer authors.

Into this history Backdoor emerged, conceived as a gender-future space, where people can leave their labels and judgments at the “backdoor” — and gay, straight and gender nonconforming people can come together in a respectful, supportive and, most importantly, safe space.

This investigator’s report violates our queer space and the privacy and safety of our guests. The report may try to characterize our event in simplistic, sensational terms, while avoiding any mention of our queer ideals and politic. But our morality, and our sexual and artistic expression, is under scrutiny.

We know we can depend on our VAL community to help lead our shared struggle for free expression and artistic growth in the city.

Backdoor helps fund many art events and presentations at Vancouver Art and Leisure, and is an important part of our mandate. We present a wide range of programming, including workshops, exhibitions, screenings, artistic presentations, fashion, and advocacy.

Events like Backdoor help us to provide space for these types of artistic ventures by subsidizing the high cost of cultural participation. We also provide subsidized studio space to a community of artists, and because of this Backdoor has become one of the leading gender non-conforming events in the city. We have an established record of serving the public and enriching the city we live in. We seek to provide opportunities for artists of all identities and rank.

Seeking to shut down Backdoor, and by extension VAL as a whole, is seeking to shut down the many small and medium-sized artistic ventures we foster.

We will fight every day, and in every way possible, for the rights of artists, the larger public and for gender and sexual expression.

We believe we are seeing art history unfolding in front of our eyes, and history will be the final judge of the matter. We hope our struggles at Vancouver Art and Leisure, and our sister venues in the city, will make alternative events safer, more accessible and easier to present for future generations. We want to make “no-fun-city” a struggle of the past.

What we are asking of our supporters and all those who believe in creative freedom of expression:

1. Don’t shoot the messenger: As salacious and sensational as headlines may be, please do not attack the hardworking editors, writers and journalists who are developing this ongoing story. Remember, most journalists seek to present fair, balanced reporting and it is up to each individual to read the stories in their entirety very carefully. Much information is contained between the lines.

2. Please do not accuse or publicly attack any suspected saboteur, whomever may have funded the private investigator’s report. I know some people may be suggesting it is a nightclub that may be upset with the competition offered by arts licensing, but it is important to treat others with the fairness and due process that we expect ourselves. When we seek to attack and destroy others, we become symptomatic of the very struggle we fight against.

3. Please counter negative media and share your positive experiences with VAL and how that has impacted you as an artist, audience member, and citizen of Vancouver. We welcome all feedback and are very thankful for the community to rally with us in these trying times. We will continue to fight — VAL is here as long as you are. We want to thank you for all your support.