From their beginnings hosting pop-up events (mostly raves and electronic dance events), VAL has quickly become one of the staples of underground arts and nightlife in the city, and has been the intersection of different communities and demographics including the electronic music community, the queer community, and fetish community, among many others. In their short, three-year history as a fixed venue, they have been no stranger to the difficulties faced by the majority of the other non-profit, independent, and alternative venues in the city, who continuously struggle under Vancouver’s strict licensing and burgeoning real-estate market. In an all too common situation of rent elevation, VAL has been forced to close their doors at 1965 Main St, and leave a space that has been a hallmark for underground arts in Vancouver since 93’ – the building was previously home to VIVO Media Arts.
We interviewed artistic director Matt Troy, co-founder of VAL, to learn more about their legacy and future programming, and to glean some information about the context of alternative nightlife in the city.
LOTUSLAND: Could you speak a little on the origins of VAL?
MATT TROY: So initially we were a collective of people doing pop up events at random, incredible locations, and at a certain point we decided okay, we needed to make a society, because what we’re doing really calls for that, so instead of someone showing up saying, what are you doing with this warehouse? And saying, well I’m Matt Troy, I’m throwing a rave. Instead we have this creative, non-profit organization, that we can do our cultural events out of and be recognized as a cultural organization, rather than just a sole entity.
We also wanted a community space. We’re all about the DIY arts scene, so for us, having a space is about giving artists a chance to do it themselves, on their own terms, in their own way. Every event we do is a special event run by artists, led by artists, initiated, conceptualized, and the money goes directly to the artist. This space has been able to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into artist’s hands. And for us that’s really important because every artist who gets paid for their craft can spend more time refining their craft in this city and export Vancouver as an international cultural hub.
Could you describe what VAL has meant for the underground and queer communities?
We’ve been really privileged to have so many different communities come through here including the bass community, the trance community, the fetish community, the gay community, the queer community, which isn’t necessarily the same as the gay community. It’s a space where straight and gay people alike feel welcome and can interact without being labeled and put in these small boxes and small spaces; it’s not a space that’s ever catered to the lowest common denominator of nightlife and entertainment, everything we’ve ever done is a niche.
Could you describe the situation around your closing?
We were offered a lease, and they recently revoked the lease we were offered. We were previously on a month to month tenancy, and we’re really grateful for the time that we’ve had here, to be able to do what we’ve done. We always knew that this space was not forever, we have a changing economy, a changing real-estate market, and as a cultural organization we must adapt to the new status quo of real-estate in this city.
Do you think this is an isolated incident, or rather part of a larger trend?
No it’s venue whack-a-mole. You know we’ve fought off everything, we’ve fought off health-inspectors, liquor inspectors, fire inspectors, our building has been condemned, we’ve been slandered on the page of the newspaper, we’ve had the artistic legitimacy of our organization attacked, we’ve fended through attacks from the right, attacks from the left, and we’ve always wanted to make a space where everyone can feel happy, and to do that is an extremely political act. The very land we dance upon has always been contested, whether it was the tradition of the speakeasy, gays sneaking into their own space to meet friends, our bodies have always been illegal to be inside spaces, and what VAL does is it fights for the rights of citizens and artists to access and use their city on their own terms, and we will not be stopped simply by one location. There is always going to be a need for alternative locations outside of the status quo, outside of the commercialized, for-profit ventures.
Besides rent prices, what are some of the other reasons Vancouver’s nightlife struggles?
Vancouver’s nightlife is in a very difficult space right now, we’re suffering from a duopoly of two major organizations who have bought up the majority of liquor licenses available in this city, and if you include a third, that’s almost 75% of the liquor licenses. So what’s happening is we’re having the citizens demand spaces outside of these commercialized, for-profit monopolies. So these types of spaces, our sister spaces like Red Gate, Open Studios, and the Beaumont, are places that provide options for people to do events on their own terms, outside of what a club owner’s terms might be. We don’t run this place in a typical nightlife fashion, for us it’s all about the art, and delivering individual people’s ideas to the public, unfiltered and unmediated by commercial capitalism, and many of the other things that daunt current nightlife. We’ve never had an overdose, we’ve never had a sexual assault, you know our space is one of the safest in the city.
What do you say to other venues in similar situations?
I would say, that with every venue that disappears, for every artist run space, for every illegal pop up, for every studio throwing cultural events, everyone that disappears makes the others less safe. We have safety in numbers, we are a greater community that supports one another, regardless of locale and the status of alternative events is in question in this city when there are no spaces left, and as an alternative events community we need to band together and make new solutions, strategies, to continue to present our misunderstood art form.
What do you think is the future of DIY spaces?
I think it’s going to change, I mean we need some forethought, how people thought, okay we’re going to make Stanley Park a park, and 100 years from now people will enjoy it when we’re a metropolitan city. We need that same kind of forethought, where we’re thinking, where do we want arts and culture in 100 years in this city? Not in 2 years, in 100 years, and to do that we need to start reserving cultural districts, things like Granville Island, we need more.
The fact that we can tear every building down and build bigger buildings isn’t helping. Because it’s taking away low costs buildings that entrepreneurs need to make their new ideas happen. If we only have expensive real estate, we will have a death of entrepreneurship in this city, whether that be arts, cultural, food, tech, all of it. People start their businesses in garages, we need things like that, and if we don’t have that kind of forethought, we will lose all the cultural capital that we will need to export in the new economy of ideas. And as a West Coast city competing against other metropolitan hubs like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, L.A, we need to compete with them culturally as well, and share our history, our skills, our brains, to the creative future that they are trailblazing, and Vancouver is in danger of being left behind.
How will you go about continuing your alternative programming, such as Alternative Pride?
We have a very established history of doing some incredible pops up in this city. We’re not interested in night clubs. we’ll be continuing to do artist-run events where artists are the primary planners and organizers. I mean in Vancouver we need to nurture our alternative events history that we have, because there’s nowhere else in the world that has what we have, this history of these alternative spaces. Even the “No Fun City” history is incredible. The fact that we are an arts community based out of rebellion, and that history is so unique, that we’ve been able to craft this alternative vibe out of the darkness and the shadows, and have it recognized as a legitimate art form in this city, that’s incredible. We need to give big props to Vision Vancouver for legalizing spaces like VAL, Red Gate and others, for as difficult as the housing and real-estate speculation is in this city, we need more creative solutions like the indoor arts and culture plan.
So you’re optimistic about the future?
MT: Oh yeah. There are opportunities coming our way constantly, to do pop ups, and we’re looking for a new permanent location, but it needs to be just right. As a city, we need to work with what we have, we have really expensive real-estate. VAL is going to leverage that fact to help landowners make more income on their property temporarily, we’re going to move in and move out, and it’s going to make our city more healthy, we’ll be providing opportunities for artists and landowners. It’s really easy to play the victim, but we’re going out like Hilary Clinton. Artistically, conceptually, economically, community-wise, we have everything in our hands to produce incredible events moving forward.
Could you give a sense of what your programming will be like until you close?
We’re going to be open every single weekend until the end of May, our last weekend of May we’re having over 100 artists participate, and the second to last Friday of May we’re doing Backdoor which is one of our signature events and then we’re going to go full season into our Pride programming, which we’re still working on, and you know we like to hold our cards really close, but we like to think everybody is waiting on our next move.
To support VAL, follow them on their Facebook page here.