Unit 2, 2020 Finalist

Unit 2 is an arts and community space that is run by a collective of artist-activists whose affiliations span the QT2S (Queer, Trans, Two-Spirit), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), mad, and crip communities. They centre and serve artists-activists with any or all of these affiliations, thus supporting and investing in their core community with a “for us, by us” approach.

We asked Rosina Kazi of Unit 2 to tell us more about the organization and how it feels to be a finalist for the 2020 Community Arts Award.

Artwork by Amber Williams-King
Tell us about the inspiration behind Unit 2. How did the creation of this space happen?

Nic and I have been in the electronic duo LAL since 1998. Frustrated with the arts scene in Canada, we decided to team up with Toyin Coker around 2008 to create a safer space for Queer, 2S and Trans and / or BIPOC artists and friends. As artists, we decided to channel our anger and frustration to create a space that helped us heal, make art and connect with others in order to build something new and needed in Toronto- that was inclusive and accessible.  Unit 2 also provided us and many others affordable housing, studios, and events space. Over the years, many people have supported Unit 2- Ange Loft, Syrus Marcus Ware, Kevin Jones, Melissa Watson, Cara Eastcott, Daniel Mack, and BLM Freedom School, to name few. We currently work with Brock Hessel and Max Zimmerman to help run and support the space but it is a community effort.

You put a lot of emphasis on accessibility, providing detailed information about the space that is often hard to find with other venues. Why is this is so important?

Many of us who work with and for Unit 2, and many in our immediate community are mad and crip identified. It was important for us to try, and keep trying, to make things accessible so that all could participate. We still have work to do but have built relationships with communities to address care and access needs. We have so many friends and community members who cannot come to events because they’re not physically accessible, or there’s no ASL, or even an attempt to reach out to Deaf and crip artists and community. It was through learning about these experiences that we began to work towards creating accessible space, which also includes affordable ticket prices. It is very important that we make everything we do in society accessible and create frameworks to ensure that accessibility is built-in feature, and not an addition to our organizing.  Even if we DIY/ DIT it, we need to do better. Also, as we age, we understand that we all may have to deal with being mad and/or crip, so it’s important for us to understand and try to make space for not just the new generations but for the older ones as well.

What has been the response from the neighbourhood regarding the space?

When we first moved in, it was a pretty low-key industrial neighbourhood with a long history of artists taking up space, so there wasn’t a lot of ‘response’, apart of 1 or 2 complaints from our upstairs neighbour. Mostly we just had to negotiate with our neighbors, at least in the building, to make sure everyone was ok. We come from a warehouse/underground culture and made sure that we were informing and connecting with folks on the block who saw value in what we were doing. Most of the artists around us appreciated what we were doing and how, but we worked very hard to keep it under the radar in some ways. Because the space is small, and because our communities have specific needs around access and safety, we also needed to be careful of how and who we promoted to.

So far most in the neighbourhood still doesn’t know we exist, and if they do, they don’t bother us! Unfortunately, with the gentrification of Sterling Road, we have had to be more mindful and alert, but we have the support of most artists in our building and in the community. However, the bigger institutions and businesses don’t really make an effort to support the work we do. There are exceptions in some cases, however, where they support our work and understand its importance, but also that it looks different because we aren’t capitalists. With the rising costs in housing, many artists on Sterling Road have been pushed out, and we are hoping something in this city will drastically change so that we can have more spaces like Unit 2. We had to help house friends who are Trans and 2 Spirit during the pandemic, and it just really shows us that we need housing supports for many of our QT2S/BIPOC community members.

Tell us more about your “DIT (Do It Together)” motto. What kinds of projects are emerging from this philosophy?

Many of us come from a “Do It Yourself” culture, but we realized very quickly that we didn’t really do things ourselves. Often it was a group effort, as friends, community members, artists, chosen family, organizers, and activists. It is not really project-based, but rather an ongoing negotiated understanding that we can, and are, building and making things happen together to create a new collective future. Often as artists and community organizers, we need an audience or folks to help support. As a group of artists we have been collaborating for over 25 years. Without the support of our community we would not have survived. Our community dinner we started pre-covid for QTBIPOC and friends, and also our food support program for folks on the streets during COVID are a few examples of how we do things together. The Bricks and Glitter Festival, a more DIY and grassroots Pride festival, is an example of something that was created through Unit 2 and our broader community to highlight the talent and amazing organizers in the Queer and Trans community, who are generally interested in sustainable and ‘safer’ models of survival. We want to dismantle colonial and capitalist ways of moving in the world, and so we must do this together to make another world is possible.

How does it feel to be nominated for the Community Arts Award?

It feels strange, because we try to hard not to be noticed! (hah!) But after 12 years of running Unit 2, we are deeply honoured to not just be nominated but to make the short list. It truly shows the impact that Unit 2 has had on many of us and that it is possible to work slowly and co-operatively and have an impact even though we are a small space. We don’t do this to get awards, but being nominated shows that you don’t have to follow the path of any industry and that you can build an ecosystem that is made up all sorts of people and energies.