Celebrating 50 years of publishing a Radical Journal of Geography, 1969-2019
by Heather McLean, York University
Toby Sharp is an urban philosopher, a think tank hipster, a TED-talking ‘creative city’ guru with the vision to transform any city. A composite character representing my interpretation of the gendered performances driving neoliberalized urban policies and planning, ‘Toby Sharp’ recently made an appearance in the Dirty Plotz cabaret at the Buddies in Bad Times theatre, a space promoting queer theatre and performance in Toronto. This short video was part of a series of performances by an ensemble of female dancers, comedians, and performance artists who came together to explore the historical exclusion and erasure of women in art and social justice movements. In the cabaret’s brochure, curator, writer, and activist Alex Tigchelaar explains that this ongoing erasure makes some women feel “fucking crazy”1. But she also claims that the margins are resourceful spaces: in them, women are continuously, resourcefully, and resiliently finding ways to decentre dominant ideologies. My creation of Toby was an attempt to highlight the patriarchal practice of creative city discourses and their effect on women artists, community workers, and low-income, under-represented residents.
I am a huge fan of Alex’s work, so I jumped at the chance to work with her. And I found it easy to tap into frustrations and create a character that fit with the cabaret’s themes; I just had to delve into my doctoral research, an activist research project exploring the gendered and racialized politics of neoliberal creative city policies. My research adds to the work of a few feminist geographers tracing the gendered dimensions of neoliberal urban policies (Parker 2008; Kern 2012). Specifically, I demonstrate the impacts of public and private sector organizations’ efforts to mobilize culture-led ‘revitalization’ strategies on grassroots community organizations, low-income residents, and workers in Toronto. These initiatives include collaborations between big-ticket art festivals and public housing redevelopment initiatives. They also include Business Improvement Areas, boutique hotels, and community arts organization partnerships in rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods. In many cases, these activities rely on a gendered and racialized work force of community workers, interns, students, the working poor, and underemployed and unemployed residents to ‘roll-out’ the responsibility of enlivening neighbourhoods they most likely will be priced out of (McLean 2009; Richter 2010).
Also, as arts organizations and urban development stakeholders naturalize entrepreneurial strategies, arts funders claw back funding and support for underrepresented artists (Indigenous artists, artists of colour, queer artists) and organizations that support critical, politicized, less easy-to-market and consume work. This dynamic echoes Sarah Schulman’s (2012) analysis of the simultaneous corporatization of MFA programs and the decline in public and private grant support for critical lesbian writers and artists.
Toby is also a visceral response to my experience working as a community development planner on various urban ‘revitalization’ initiatives, including efforts to turn public housing neighbourhoods into ‘socially-mixed’. ‘creative’ condominium ‘hubs’. And he represents my frustrations with a sped-up, corporatized university system that is driving nefarious partnerships. Professors and students engaging in community-based projects entrench uneven power dynamics. These dynamics are intensifying as research centres, think tanks, and research funding institutions promote and benefit from profile and network building collaborative work. Additionally, students, contract faculty and faculty trying to take the time to develop relationships with communities and implement mutually beneficial work also end up being eaten by the hungry edu-factory (Participatory Geographers Research Group 2012). Recent writing by scholars addressing these challenges and calling for solidarity and collectively in our work is truly inspiring. However, these contradictions are still pretty confusing and frustrating.
But why wallow in bitterness when there is performance? As feminist scholars and performance artists point out, women are continually dismissed in ‘official’ political discourse (see Cope 2004). Drag performance is one way to play with and disrupt dominant gender roles that maintain power through repetitive, embodied acts (Butler 1989). Cabaret is also an important surrealist and queer counter-space, a retreat from dominant discourses and practices that marginalize women – sex workers, burlesque artists, queer women, racialized performers. Cabaret spaces provide room for women artists to play with and decentre dominant performativities. Inspired by these feminist traditions I set out with a tensor bandage, a fake moustache, a permanent public speakers’ head-set, and became my own self-appointed creative city expert.
Toby was well received in the cabaret. Some fans have already invited him to lead a fake community-planning workshop at this year’s Pride Festival. He has also already recruited three fake interns: underemployed and unemployed women loaded down with student debt excited to critique privileged urban elites.
Toby Sharp is also feminist because the character is a collectively-produced project. The videographer, Chris Rahim, contributed a few images of community arts projects taking place in the middle of the Regent Park public housing neighbourhoods where she worked as a community planner. Chris has 20 years working with grassroots youth and women’s organizations, labour groups, and community arts-based organizations. Her arts-based approaches stem from her interest in community development work with people who face socio-economic, racial, and gender injustices. However, she has first-hand experience advocating for low-income, racialized communities in ‘award winning’ arts-led redevelopment initiatives that boost elite city builders’ careers but displace poor residents. The editor, video artist Iris Fraser, has also worked on several projects with artists challenging corporate agendas.
Heather McLean is currently employed as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Scarborough and as a contract instructor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. She has a background working in affordable housing and food security planning and has co-created various projects with Toronto-based artist and activist collectives.
Thanks to Michelle Buckley for editing feedback.
Butler J (1989) Peformative acts and gender constitution: An essay on phenomenology and feminist theory. In Case S-E (ed) Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre (pp270-282). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
Cope M (2004) Political acts. In Staeheli L, Kofman E and Peake L (eds) Feminist Perspectives on Political Geography (pp 71-86). New York: Routledge
Kern L (2012) All aboard? Women working the spaces of gentrification in Toronto’s Junction. Gender, Place and Culture DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2012.701201
McLean H (2009) The politics of creative performance in public space: Some Toronto case studies. In Edensor T, Leslie D, Millington S and Rantisi N (eds) Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy (pp. 63-74). London: Routledge
Parker B (2008) Beyond the class act: Gender and race in the ‘creative city’ discourse. Research in Urban Sociology 9:201-232
Participatory Geographers Research Group (2012) Communifesto for fuller geographies: Towards mutual security. AntipodeFoundation.org
Richter A (2010) Exploiting an ‘army of friendly faces’: Volunteering and social policy implications. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure, and Events 2(2):184-188
Schulman S (2012) The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.Berkeley: University of California Press.
1 Alex is creating work with her new performance company Operation Snatch. In Dirty Plotz she described a play she is currently developing: “I’m working on a new play. It’s called Lezziestrata. It’s a dyke version of Lysistrata. Here’s how it’s gonna go down: instead of depriving the men in our lives of sex, we deprive them of our support and our gift of uncredited collaboration without acrimony. Because really, what do we have to dangle over our gay brothers’ heads? Money? Pussy? Even the straight ones. How ridiculous was it of Aristophanes to imagine we don’t know that…. It’s the vacuuming that really needs to be done. The wheat pasting, the button making, the fist pumping, the administrative work, the fundraising. The bibs and bobs of it all.”