I haven’t been on fb/twitter/wp the past few days as a beautiful friend, artist and activist Will Munro has sadly passed away.
I can’t think of anything to write more fitting than what Benjamin Boles has already written about the gorgeous, talented, kind, thoughtful, political, inspiring man you see pictured below.
The original obit is here.
Will Munro RIP
FEB 11, 1975 – MAY 21, 2010
BY BENJAMIN BOLES
Toronto queer icon Will Munro lost his long battle with brain cancer today, leaving a huge hole in the local scene. I’ve spent the last year dreading this day, and mentally preparing to write this obituary, but when it’s someone who’s had such an important place in your life, you can never be ready. He was an artist, a DJ, a promoter, a bar owner, an activist and youth worker, but his impact on the city is much bigger than the sum of those parts.
I met Munro 14 years ago, when we were both studying at OCAD. We immediately bonded over a shared interest in the hidden queer underbelly of punk rock, and quickly became an unlikely couple. He was a defiantly gay, straight-edge, vegan hardcore kid, and I was a sexually-ambiguous party guy with a rockabilly haircut, and while the relationship only lasted about eight months, I’d like to think we left significant marks on each other’s future lives.
At the time, right wing talk radio was having a field day attacking Munro’s art, for creating work with used underwear rescued from Goodwill, and for addressing youth sexuality. He recognized that the hate was a good thing, and proudly incorporated recordings of loudmouths lambasting him on his answering machine message. While Will might not have been the type to push buttons for no reason, he was always happy to piss off people for the right reasons.
He introduced me to the young community of Toronto indie musicians who would later end up becoming the hipster establishment, while I took him to raves and preached about DJ culture to him. Years later he would take the concept of the DJ party and turn it on its head with his legendary Vazaleen nights, which saw him playing queer punk and gender bender rock tunes to an incredibly diverse crowd. These days it’s normal in Toronto for hip gay scenes to flourish outside of the queer ghetto and to attract a wide spectrum of genders and orientations, but that didn’t really happen until Vazaleen took off and became a veritable community for everyone who didn’t fit into the mainstream homo world. For too long, it was too rare to see dykes, fags, trans people, and breeders hanging out together, and Munro changed that.
Whether he was making art, throwing parties, running the Beaver or doing activist work, Munro always managed to find a way to put the marginalized at the front of the line. Many people long for a place where they feel they belong, but Will actually built those spaces – both for him, and for everyone else who needed it. Queer Queen West is a cliché now, but we wouldn’t have it without him.
He would say we’re over-stating his impact, but that’s just him being humble. Without a doubt, he changed this city, and for the better.
May 21, 2010 at 04:00 PM
Also, here is a fantasic interview with Will by Leila Pourtavaf – the original is here.
One of Toronto’s most prolific producers and promoter of queer culture, Will Munro has been a pivotal member of Toronto’s scene since the mid nineties. Whether it’s through rousing events such as the monthly queer rock Vazaleen party, which he organized from 2000 to 2007, or the hundreds of artist multiples and ephemera, such as the signature hand-stitched underwear pieces that he’s produced over the last decade and a half, or the thousands of iconic queer records he’s spun throughout the city and beyond, this boy imbues all things he touches with a sense of history, glamour and a punk rock edge.
More recently, Munro has harnessed his exuberance to fight a beastly two-year battle with brain cancer. Despite his struggle, he has still managed to produce a stunning body of work for his most recent solo exhibition, Inside The Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy, which was on display at Paul Petro Gallery in Toronto from February 26th to March 27th. The show is both a continuation and a culmination of many of the themes that have run through his previous efforts. Reflecting on his more recent experience, Munro’s new body of work embraces the sense of communal loss and remembrance by linking his fight against cancer to a history of queer struggles against HIV/AIDS.
Will is also a close friend who has been a profound influence on me culturally, politically and personally. We sat down recently to talk about art, life, queer community and little bit of magic.
Leila Pourtavaf: Your work often brings together really disparate themes and images, and relates them to each other in ways that are uniquely marked by your style. This show in particular brings together Egyptian iconography with punk and queer imagery. Talk to me about some of the themes you’re working with in the show.
Will Munro: The show is really about gay culture and a kind of relationship between the past and now. The idea of death and the way it is viewed is something I am thinking about a lot right now. For us, as queers, the 80s was really awful. We lost so many amazing artists and so many amazing queers, and our community doesn’t really know how to deal with death and loss. I wanted to present a more positive and hopeful way of thinking about it. I revived some old liberation imagery of triangles and flags, and related them to ideas about how things live beyond death. It’s funny, at the opening, there were all these people standing around the spider sex sling installation, and there were little kids playing in it. People kept asking me if it was okay, but I loved it. It looked like some kind of weird worship zone and the little kids playing in it made it totally about life, and worshiping life.
LP: There’s a lot of Egyptian iconography in the show. It’s interesting because there’s the huge King Tut exhibit on at the AGO right now, so in a sense, your references are really contemporary, but you deploy the images in a really different way. What is your interest in Egyptian symbols?
WM: I am not really interested in Egyptology. I’ve never been to Egypt. I am white and really have no connection to the culture. But having a terminal illness has forced me to think about death. The ideas around eternal life and general ways that death was viewed in ancient Egypt made me connect my culture to this imagery. I am into the belief in eternal life after death and myths about people living their whole lives to die. I think about it in terms of remembering, in ways that mark death as not the end of your life, but a kind of beginning. I’ve also always been interested in magic. I’ve never been religious. My parents are part of the United Church, but I denounced that at a very early age. I think magic is the closest thing to faith I’ve had. I am really a believer and I look to it for power.
LP: You are working with queer history and your own personal story in really beautiful ways. There’s definitely a sense of other-worldliness and magic in the show, a kind of queer fairytale, but it’s also a very intimate space you’ve created. It might be because you made everything in your living room and I saw it there over the course of a few months, but I think there is a sense of intimacy that comes across in the show.
WM: The center-piece is a bum sex sling! You usually see that in a bathhouse, or sex club. You don’t see it in an art gallery or a living room. And you don’t see it with these bright and cheerful colors. I think the colors and the spider plants in macramé holders do create an intimate vibe, but then there’s the leather sling! I made those macramé plant holders myself, and all my friends really helped with the building of the sling and putting all the elements together. My friend Rick constructed the structure and his wife first thought I was making a macramé hammock. It’s not exactly a hammock, but you can lie in it!
LP: The macramé is incredible, as is the fact that you learned how to macramé in the past few months just for this piece. You’ve always been into both a DIY aesthetic and approach in your art-making. But also, your work references feminist practices of working with textiles. Why these commitments?
WM: Learning to do labor intensive, hand-made crafts has always been something I’ve been into. Even as a kid, I always wanted to help my mom with those kinds of things. I remember asking my mom to teach me to sew, but she never had the time because she was the bread-winner in my family. I mean, part of it is for sure that I am really inspired by feminist art, and part of it is I like making things and working with my hands. I also like to feel like I am producing my own work and learning new kinds of skills. When I was in art school, I always looked down on people who got other people to help them make their art. I always thought you should make your own art. You know, hand sewing things, making things from scratch, doing ridiculously crafty stuff, I thought that was the only way you should make art. The only reason I unlearnt some of that was because I was physically unable to do everything myself and had to get some help from friends since I’ve been sick. Initially, I had a really hard time with it. But honestly it made me a better person. I mean, I realized that my process before I got sick was always a bit ridiculous. I took on crazy things on my own and really thought no one else could do what I was doing and there was no way to share my skills.
LP: I like the bringing together of feminist practice with images of masculinity in your work. There’s the juxtaposition of gay leather culture and granny macramé aesthetic, but also your underwears do this. They are always men’s underwear, but they are hand stitched and many of them use materials that evoke effeminacy.
WM: I guess sewing and working with fibers is still thought of as being gendered. It’s weird because so many men sew, but you still see people flip out a bit about it. Or macramé. So many people were like “you’re gonna macramé???”. But yeah, I just bought some books at a second hand store for $3 and that’s how I learned. But also, I was a boy scout, so I have a background in tying knots. It’s not so weird!
LP: A lot of people who have been helping, both with this show, and also in general providing different kinds of support to you throughout your fight with cancer, are part of a tight-knit queer community, one that you’ve been a very central figure in. It’s a community you’ve helped build over the years. For me, being new to Toronto, it feels amazing seeing that.
WM: Well, it wasn’t just me. But yeah, I see what you’re saying. My whole situation has been all about community and family. I mean just getting ill and going to the hospital and there’s 40 people there with me! I’d never really spent time dealing with the medical system and it was daunting, but people really amazed me. To give just one example, I always worked independently and didn’t have full health coverage, but my boss from a gay youth line showed up when I was in the hospital with health coverage. I’ve worked with them in various capacities for years, but I was working there only a couple of days a week, so it was amazing that they came through for me that way.
LP: I think a lot of us have learned a lot from you about queer culture and having a politicized queer community. For me, Vazaleen was really about that. I learnt about so many different queer performers from those events, and it was also one of the first parties I went to where there was a real sense of belonging, but it was also super mixed and not just a fag or dyke scene. When you started Vazaleen, did you think about it having educational value and as part of building something, or were you just organizing things that you were really into and they ended up resonating with lots of other folks too?
WM: It’s a bit of both. All the people I’ve brought to Vazaleen were people I’ve been really into. And a lot of them were long-term goals, like I really wanted to bring people like Jayne County and her band, or the Toilet Boys, or Joey Arias because of his long history of doing amazing performance. Or more old riot grrrl acts from Portland and Olympia like The Need. That’s what I liked and that’s where I am from culturally. There was a world of that in Toronto before I was around, and by the time I came here in the 90s it had really died down, and I felt like the stuff that was happening was not very imaginative. I also came from a hard-core scene where there really wasn’t too many gay people. People were nice to me, but I was never going to have a sex life, or a fully fulfilled life within that community. I felt like I had to make my own scene. So part of it was, not vengeful, but a reaction to that and the desire to want to create or recreate a queer punk scene. And I really thought we could do it… set up a social network where people can meet each other, have a sense of community and feel like they can survive. And give a venue to performers who wouldn’t otherwise come to Toronto.
LP: There’s a lot of theorizing about gay culture as ephemeral and how it doesn’t get archived properly and this is even more true of alternative queer culture. How did you find out about stuff?
WM: I came out of punk and went to art school, so it was the stuff I was really looking for. I think once you actually start looking for it, you start to make your own connections. You read people who speak about other people, and there were books, records, zines… there were a lot of elements left behind. But also, people talk. The thing about queer culture is that it’s young, and a lot of people are still alive. Their stories are insane, and the fact that a lot of the stories don’t get documented is really too bad. So for me a lot of it was talking to people and finding out what they did, who their influences were… I think that’s mostly how I know my queer history.
LP: I was talking to Onya about how cancer is our generation’s AIDS, not that we aren’t dealing with AIDS still, but I guess it feels more like as a community, queers have more of a grip on that now, whereas we are unprepared for cancer. I guess some of this is what you are alluding to in the show?
WM: The show is about making these kinds of connections between the plagues that we live through. I mean, HIV is still huge. People still die from it. I use to go out with a guy who was positive for a really long time and it’s weird because now, he’s trying to take care of me. It’s role reversal because when we met, he was young and positive, and he was trying to come to grips with it all and carve out a social network. And I was young, but also trying to be a caregiver. I mean, I never would have said that then, but looking back at it, it’s what it was. Now the tides have switched and now I guess we have to take care of each other. I think I understand illness now a lot more. It’s not about HIV or cancer, but it’s about health, and the human body and how it works. And the ways that sex and sexuality intersect with illness. I mean, HIV is directly related to sex and so the links to sexuality and gay identity are a bit more direct. Cancer is not a gay or straight disease, but if you are gay and you have cancer, there’s a lot of weird isolation because you don’t necessarily know a lot of other gay people who have cancer. There’s all these ways that you feel isolated. To me, a lot of it is about coping, and how people come together as a community to cope. With HIV/AIDS, because its effects were so pronounced on the gay community, people mobilized around it. They came together and fought for each other’s lives.
LP: That’s happening with cancer in a sense in the mainstream. There’s a lot of cancer awareness campaigns, but in our community people don’t identify with the pink ribbons, so I think we are still trying to figure out how do we deal with it all.
WM: But I think we’ve come up with a pretty good thing. I am not complaining about my community and my community of friends! You guys have really hit it home for me in every way. I think we actually totally look out for each other.
LP: Yes. Of course, but it’s all these kind of makeshift unstable structures that we’re building from scratch.
WM: Yeah! It totally titter-totters!
LP: But with HIV/AIDS, people have been able to come up with more stable, long-lasting structures. And I think about how we can look back at that and learn from it.
WM: Yeah. Completely. Dealing with the medical system is totally crazy and there’s no mobilization of thousands of people where you could be like… give me good treatment and access or we’re gonna shut you down. That’s not happening. I mean, it’s not just me, this is going to happen to a lot of people and it already is happening to a lot of people. People need to figure out how to deal with it. There needs to be more organization and more organizing. I don’t know if it’s going to be me who does it! But we’re mostly a bunch of activists and socially aware people. We party, but we have brains and we know how to deal with life and that’s what we’re gonna have to do.
Will Munro is a Toronto-based artist and cultural activist, born in Mississauga, ON (1975) and a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design (2000). One of Toronto’s most active promoters of queer culture during the past decade, Munro’s practice, is both well known within the art world, and extends into his community-based activities.
Leila Pourtavaf is a writer, independent curator, activist and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. She was a founding member and Montreal Coordinator of the projet MOBILIVRE-BOOKMOBILE project, a traveling exhibition of artist books, zines and independent publications that toured North America between 2001 to 2005. She also served on the board of La Centrale Gallery Powerhouse and was a member of the programming committee from 2006 to 2009.