#SpaceCrisis: The critically important Toronto Media Arts Centre that the City tried to subdue

At the end of 2017, several organizations critical to arts and creative development in Toronto will become homeless. They represent themselves under the not-for-profit organization called Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC) for an accessible public space to media arts, comprising of member organizations Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC), Charles Street Video, Gamma Space and Dames Making Games (DMG).

TMAC is my home-away-from-home, and I have been a regular member and contributor of the Gamma Space co-working community and DMG since 2013. The founders and board of directors of both organizations have a combined wealth of experience spanning community facilitation, diversity and inclusivity strategies, web and graphic design, video game and VR development, business development, film production, computer programming, marketing, sound production, music composition, visual arts and installations, new media training, and familiarity with running both not-for-profit and for-profit businesses.

DMG’s Damage Camp taking place temporarily at 36 Lisgar St., drawing a sold-out attendance to professional discourse about video game scholarship and development. 2017–09–30, used with permission from Henry Faber.

DMG’s and Gamma Space’s lease are up, and in 2018 new tenants will take over their previous space at 862 Richmond St. W. CFMDC had extended their lease but could no longer in 401 Richmond, and their film library of key Canadian films sits in a storage facility. CSV has extended its temporary use of a TAC provided space. None of this is tenable for media arts groups that were already set up to move in at the space designed around their needs at 36 Lisgar St.

The Agreement of Purchase and Sale between Urbancorp, TMAC and the City was finalized in 2014 for 36 Lisgar St., and even throughout 2012–2015, TMAC has designed the facility, invested close to $1m in public funds and thousands of volunteer hours to oversee the construction. An elevator plaque even designates the space as “TMAC”. This is a space that, in the legal Agreement between all parties, was meant to be a permanent home for TMAC under the City’s Section 37 development provision. The development provision allows higher density buildings to be developed if a portion of their ground and lower-level spaces goes towards a community organization with local community support. According to a Toronto Star report, the agreement for TMAC at 36 Lisgar St. was celebrated as a hallmark of the Section 37 deals.

Unfortunately, the City is now using every pretense to prevent TMAC even temporary occupancy of the space. Now the situation will go to court on Jan 17, 2018. Based on what the Globe and Mail article reported, a spokesperson from the city’s strategic communications office suggested that TMAC’s member organizations have “no assets” and “no experience in operating a very large number of events, which was the core of TMAC’s proposed business plan” as the reason why TMAC cannot take occupancy of the space that they had signed an agreement on. I will demonstrate how this is factually incorrect.

Henry and Jennie Faber at TMAC, on the same day that the City attempted to delegitimize Jennie Faber’s not-for-profit games education organization by not naming either her or Dames Making Games’s works in the media arts space. 2017–12–20. Photograph by Steve Russell of Toronto Star.

Gamma Space is the hub for indie game development and a centre for many cultural events within and related to this thriving industry. To the uninitiated, game development is rarely about sitting around to play games (rarely any of us have time to for fun rather than a deep-dive examination to know our market anymore). Rather, it is a heady production that requires balancing an incredible array of moving parts. This includes a complex web of working with designers, artists, software developers, programmers, marketers, producers, biz dev, musicians and videographers, in an ecosystem of break-neck fast changes in new hardware and software. Or, to put it another way, not only are we creating storytelling experiences, but players have to find it compelling and engaging and know how to interact with it. And that takes damn good coordination and design.

Gamma Space was never just about a space to facilitate artistic and technical equipment, desks and speedy WiFi. Gamma Space and DMG are communities that I’ve seen grow because they’d offered opportunities to folks who otherwise will not have access. DMG’s mandate as a not-for-profit is to create space for marginalized creators to make, play and critique videogames within a cultural context. Thus, the stories and artistry that come out of these communities do not follow the conventional scripts of the status quo, but are open to the humanizing complexity of experimentation and finding our own personal meaning.

DMG members creating games at a 48-hour game jam at Gamma Space’s original home at 864 Richmond St. W., 2017–02–18, used with permission from Henry Faber.

They’ve been spaces that brought people out of despair, by offering a safe space to experiment with artistic creations and personal stories through interactive media arts. It is not just an expressive outlet, but one where we can strive to make a living out of. Because this kind of artistic development empowers deeply, encourages others to be the authors of their own fate. It’s never just about the profit generated, although Gamma Space and DMG have had their share of successes with companies that are borne out of this community. But the point is that Gamma Space and DMG are like no other communities — and I’ve worked at various start-up communities before — because they are characterized by its willingness to embrace those with precious little resources, and let them come to their own power.

And when I say offering opportunities to folks with less resources helps the community grow, I literally mean that this benefits everyone, including those with resources. There’s a professional culture of sharing and respect from one another that comes from that, of being open to sharing our experiences so that we can all make more diverse art. Positive, engaged work culture is something that takes so much time to grow in a community that you can’t just take it for granted. It also benefits other international game development communities because in the digital age, we all learn from each other. We collaborate with partners around the world.

DMG’s Damage Camp taking place temporarily at 36 Lisgar St., with local games showcases. 2017–09–30, used with permission from Henry Faber.

And that’s exactly what art needs. Art is at the forefront of being responsive to our day-to-day pressures, to our systemic sociopolitical ruptures. And sometimes, when people with resources see what someone experimenting with the art form can do, they themselves become less risk-adverse, and so we don’t see the same old story. We start to see them ask pertinent questions of how art affects society. And so this creates a positive ripple effect outwards, from one creator at a time.

Take for example, at Damage Camp, DMG’s most recent conference, Senior Game Designer and Educator Osama Dorias from Warners Brothers Montreal gave us an actionable guide to increasing Muslim representation in games in a positive, engaging manner. It was a talk that encouraged all game designers to question their commonly held misconceptions and open up a dialogue of consultation with each other. Writer Rokashi Edwards and Designer Liesl A.’s talk about Speed Culture and Sonic, and illuminated how the game franchise engaged with Blackness and fandom. DMG Co-director and Game Designer Meagan Byrne spoke about her process in developing Wanisinowin|Lost, which navigates cultural belonging through video game interactivity of an emotional, evocative platformer game.

Osama Dorias talking about Muslim representation in games, and how we can improve. 2017–09–30, photograph by Tanya Kan.

I am emphasizing this because some people like to think in dollar values of gains and losses, and cast this as “charity”, or giving without return benefit. That’s an assessment that doesn’t consider social benefits. It’s about building a work culture and community from the ground up that accepts the notion that everyone ought to feel welcome and respected to contribute to society.

This is the heart of what makes the creative city. The TMAC space at 36 Lisgar St. addresses the rampant gentrification in the West Queen West neighborhood and was supposed to be the boon of increased density in city spaces that finally gives back to the community. And when DMG ran Damage Camp at the space, members of the local community such as the OMG on the Park Cafe and other community members are so excited that respectful creators are finally using the space. This is truly how a revitalization of an area takes place. We are the embodiment of the transformative creative class as described by urban studies theorist Richard Florida: We are building upon a new manner of workplace organization that is respectful, socially responsible and engaged, which has a huge net positive effect on the economy, in jobs as well as sociopolitical outcomes.

As the Founder and Director of Vivid Foundry Corp., I have connected with uniquely talented collaborators through Gamma Space. By contracting talent within Gamma Space, including bringing on Gamma Space founder Henry Faber as Producer to Vivid Foundry’s flagship project, Solace State, we are able to make crucial business networks with funders, investors, and other market opportunities at home and in the US. This brings more creative jobs into our city.

I also augmented my skills in ways that I would not have were I not part of the community surrounded by like-minded peers; I improved not only prototyping and agile development, but how to write grants and business pitches. I not only learned through failure but learned how to lead and manage teams with kindness. Commercial work can exist alongside social responsibility in my model, and experimental art can exist within the space of an entertainment medium. What businesses like mine have developed is not only financial assets in the traditional sense, but human, creative and social capital.

Tanya Kan of Vivid Foundry at Indiecade East, New York, speaking about game mechanics, narrative and visuals that have an articulation of diversity in 3D visual novel Solace State. 2016–04–30. Photograph by Emi Spicer.

Dames Making Games, led by executive director Jennie Faber, gave me the opportunity to speak, mentor and give back to the community. DMG continued to grow their relationship this year with Oculus and gained a studio-full of VR equipment, computer rigs, and phones, and DMG included Vivid Foundry in a meeting with Oculus to present our startup vitality. Jennie and Henry Faber also co-chaired at Indiecade East (the pre-imminent International Festival of Independent Games conference) in NY and curated Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Pop series for artistic VR experiences, where they amplified speaking and showcase opportunities for women artists and developers. Jennie Faber also connected me with Regent Park Film Festival, which led to Solace State’s official selection there, and Jennie Faber and DMG member and curator Paige Goodman recommended me to be a guest speaker and industry contact at TIFF 2017.

Regent Park Film Festival picture: Tanya Kan of Vivid Foundry showcases Solace State as official selection of Regent Park Film Festival 2017. It is part of their programming of Possible Worlds, Unseen Worlds | Virtual Space, a critique of spaces that systematically and politically disadvantages those most vulnerable. 2017–11–18, photograph by Tony Le.

Although I am not a member of Charles Street Video and CFMDC personally, CFMDC just celebrated its 50 years in existence in preserving and curating Canadian avant-garde art film, but is currently pushed to the margins to use a temporary storage locker. Film archival footage may be highly sensitive to erosion and damage from the elements and lack of proper facilities. As someone who wishes to see the transformation of games to engage closely with transmedia and film worlds, this is also heartbreaking to hear. Charles Street Video offers numerous professional workshops and talks ranging from 360 film, to transmedia digital content, to legal workshops and more. CSV also does equipment rental at accessible costs, which is highly necessary for more indie productions.

TMAC would be the perfect space for all of these member organizations to work alongside each other and have a cross-semination of learning from different production standards. We are in a time of technological convergence where film and interactive media will see an overlap in the audiovisual language that we use, and the market that we have access to.

Gamma Space and DMG has have a wealth of events and community facilitation over the years. DMG alone has had 180 professional talks and 400+ workshops on artistic and professional development. Here are some highlights:

Dames Making Games Holiday social annually shows many games made within our community. Used with permission of Henry Faber.

DMG’s workshops and talks have covered everything from VR development to sound design to writing for video games in different genres. DMG has also partnered with Indigenous Routes to create a completely free game design program called Indigicade, with artist fees paid to all who exhibit their work in a show following the program.

DMG has also thrown numerous parties and socials that combine with the art and games showcases of its members. These have been sponsored by big Toronto studios such as Uken and Ubisoft because they see the value of the work that we do, and their professionals have come in to offer talks and training as well. They have also sponsored DMG’s 2017 conference Damage Camp. Dames Making Games is a recognized partner organization of the Game Developers Conference, and each year brings a cohort of 25 female developers to San Francisco to experience the largest industry conference in the world. This year, the focus is on bringing fresh talent who haven’t had the opportunity to access conferences at this scale yet with a free all-access pass and support network.

Gamma Space has also hosted the Honorable Minister Reza Moridi of the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science; staff from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport; Ontario Media Development Corporation, and Interactive Ontario. They made their funding announcement for the growing interactive digital media sector at Gamma Space, and a number of incorporated companies who are members to the space are grant recipients. Interactive Ontario also invited incorporated teams to showcase and talk about their games, including Vivid Foundry’s work, and Laundry Bear’s acclaimed release of Mortician’s Tale.

Funding announcement by the Honorable Minister Reza Moridi is celebrated by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, Interactive Ontario and OMDC fund recipients. 2017–07–06

Gamma Space has shared expertise, programming and equipment through partnerships with ImagineNATIVE, TIFF, Regent Park Film Festival, AluCine, and brave waves. They have offered business consultation, business writing, and professional development skills learning to their members. They have hosted Bit Bazaar, a festival of indie games, zines, comics and local food, which brings thousands of participants each year. Some Bit Bazaar festivals were organized in partnership with the Canadian Videogame Awards, Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), and Pan Am Games. Gamma Space has been also the lower-than-market cost space to host game testing events; Highly crucial to the quality of creative work in our industry, game testing events allow us to get early-production and mid-production feedback about playability of a game from a public audience or a focus group, and many universities with game design programs such as OCAD and small studios have taken advantage of this opportunity.

Bit Bazaar Summer 2017 took place at the CNE. Vivid Foundry’s 2D Character Artist, Seage Howlett, watches over our game. Next to us, Picnic Game Labs’ James Brownlee shows off his his mobile game Grumz. Photograph by Tanya Kan.

I personally travel an average of 2.5 hours both ways to reach Gamma Space. Some members have travelled even further or have moved to Toronto because of Gamma Space and TMAC.

Here’s what Programmer and Game Designer James Brownlee has to say:

I moved to Toronto because of TMAC. A few years ago I was living in Thunder Bay dreaming of being a game developer but I couldn’t find anyone else who shared my interests in making games. I saw that Toronto had a large amount of video game related events and almost all of these events were hosted by Gamma Space or Dames Making Games two of TMAC’s member organizations. Due to those events I felt Toronto would be a great place to live and I wanted to be a part of the Toronto game development community.
As soon as I moved to Toronto I went to Gamma Space to work on my own games and I was immediately welcomed into the space. Not only was everyone incredibly friendly they gave alot of advice about making games and finding a job as a game developer. Thanks to the connections I made there I now have a job as a game developer. To this day I still enjoy going to Gamma Space and connecting with the game development community there.
There simply is no other place like Gamma Space. Henry and Jennie work tirelessly to make sure there is a space where everyone can come and feel welcome. Thanks to the support and guidance they provide and through the efforts of TMAC members the Toronto game development community has grown to be a diverse and welcoming community full of unique and creative voices that may never have had the chance to express themselves if it wasn’t for TMAC.

Diana Poulsen, art historian and video games scholar, says:

Brazilian artist and wizard-developer Gabi Kim, who somehow wrestled Unreal 3’s Kismet back in the day to do a 2D platformer (which is arguably the most difficult, under-documented game programming ever conceived), has this to say about DMG and Gamma Space:

Even Dani K., writer, on the other side of the country, has this to say:

Jen Costa, DMG programming committee member, mobile game producer and sound designer, compiled a list of tweets from DMG members, illuminating how the organization has changed their lives. It’s an amazing, heart-felt read:

There seems to be a misunderstanding by the City staff as to the value and legitimacy of TMAC and its member organizations. It is my hope that this inexhaustible explanation of what we do clearly demonstrates how crucial TMAC is to both the local and global games industry. Refusal to let TMAC have lawful access to the space that was the culmination of years of legal agreements and negotiation, fundraising, architectural and programming design of the space is an affront to a culture of work that allows women, non-binary folks, and ethnic minorities to strive for an equal contribution to a field that still remains heavily limiting to those groups.

TMAC is a 2017 Stakeholder of the UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts, and yet TMAC is not permitted to have access to a space that was designed with us, and with the legal agreement signed between TMAC, realty developer Urbancorp and the City back in 2014. The answer is simple: We need to retain what was set out in the original legal agreement. Otherwise, how can the local community have any faith in future [Section 37] real estate development that was meant to bring in community organizations? How does a space sitting empty actually contribute to the feeling of safety and compassion in a neighborhood?

View of Lisgar Park from 36 Lisgar St., home of TMAC. Used with Permission from Henry Faber.

One thing is for certain — We’re artists, business owners, developers, and we are used to digging in our heels and collaborating to defend our rights. Come support us and celebrate diversity and creative innovation in our beautiful city.

Here’s what you can do: https://www.tomediaarts.org/help

Read more: 
1) https://www.tomediaarts.org/dispute
2) https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/toronto-arts-hub-fights-for-right-to-occupy-condo-space/article37391532/
3) https://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2017/12/20/toronto-media-arts-centre-locked-in-legal-battle-with-city-over-space-at-queen-and-dovercourt.html
4) https://venturebeat.com/2017/12/02/dames-making-games-must-find-a-new-home-for-its-inclusive-nonprofit-workspace/