I first heard of Unit 2 from someone I met at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2018. He was from Toronto, and I was going to move there in just three months. Naturally, I asked him where I should go to find queer hangouts in Toronto. The first place he mentioned was Unit 2.
My first time visiting Unit 2 was for the release of Issue 21 of Upping the Anti. I found myself at a dance party with nobody I knew, in a very intimate setting with nowhere to hide. I remember opening the copy of Upping the Anti I was given at the door, then sitting down on the sofa and pretending to read while I was actually looking at all these queer lefties dancing together. It was beautiful.
Unit 2 is a place where people come to feel connected. It’s a place where people come to perform, participate, and party. It’s a place people come to organize. Since 2008, Unit 2 has been holding space for community arts, culture, and politics to flourish.
Unit 2 describes itself as a “Do It Together space for 2SQTBIPOC and friends.” Located on Sterling Avenue, between Dundas Street West and Bloor Street West, Unit 2 is a small loft space within a larger building of studios. Sterling Avenue, unlike other streets in the neighbourhood, still has an industrial vibe as it used to have several factories and warehouses, some of which are still operating, like the Nestlé chocolate factory. Other buildings have been repurposed into commercial spaces, studios, breweries, a major art gallery, and a printing press. Some buildings are vacant. Unit 2 is home to two artists: Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murray. The two have a band, LAL, and have held space in their home for several of Toronto’s grassroots arts, culture, and political communities to which they are connected.
Many others call Unit 2 home. Over the years, a handful of people have lived in Unit 2 alongside Rosina and Nic, whether on a long-term or temporary basis. They contribute to the space in terms of organizing, caretaking, training, and event planning. These are people who, alongside Rosina and Nic, have organized to keep Unit 2 alive and running for over 13 years. They have organized dance parties, community dinners, poetry readings, skill-shares, sex parties, vinyl nights, and low-key kickbacks. Truly, any kind of queer cultural event or performance you can think of has probably happened at Unit 2.
Long haul movement organizers have much to learn from Unit 2 in how it mobilizes its abolitionist values to hold a transformative kind of space. As an autonomous live-work space led by a group of artists spanning sexualities, genders, generations, ethnicities, and disabilities, Unit 2 is a rare kind of space in a gentrifying Toronto. Unit 2’s organizers intervene in mainstream narratives around what it means to exist as a brick-and-mortar community space within the context of gentrification and foreclosure of radical community-run spaces.
In this roundtable, you will hear from a few of Unit 2’s current core organizers as they reflect on the space’s history and its future transformations.
Rosina Kazi is the lead singer of the protest electronic duo LAL and dance music duo ROSINA. They/she are a queer/gender fluid/non-binary, culturally Muslim and Bengali-identified artist. Rosina helps run the alternative DIT (Do it Together) community and arts space Unit 2, a space dedicated to supporting queer and trans, Black and Brown folks, and friends. To support the Do it Together and Unit 2 space, please sign up at withfriends.co/unit_2 to donate.
Born in Barbados, Nicholas Murray is a composer and producer of electronic music and a sound designer for theatre. He is a founding member of the Indie Electronic Duo LAL. Check out LAL at lalforest.com or lalforest.bandcamp.com.
Brawk Hessel is a white settler and a genderqueer fag who is also a recovering addict, proudly mad, a careworker, and a performance artist. They are a collective member of both the Bricks & Glitter Festival and Unit 2.
Max ZB is an artist, musician, photographer, and organizer who is imagining a future with others. Max is currently working with Unit 2 and Bricks & Glitter.
What is your relationship to Unit 2 and what does Unit 2 mean to you?
Rosina: Unit 2 is my home. Our home. Being in the art scene and being part of all kinds of different communities, we wanted to create a space that allows dialogue and creativity between our different communities. We wanted it to be for Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks and our white working-class friends, and for disabled folks. I’m just not comfortable with the hierarchy and the toxicity in the capitalist system. I grew up in a Bangladeshi community, so my parents’ home was always a space of culture, parties, people, and food. We’re carrying on that tradition in our own way.
I know Unit 2 as a transformative space. People have transformed here. There was always someone to hold them, talk to them, and give them ideas about alternative lifestyles.
Nicholas: This was a place of living, first. It developed into a very beautiful work space because it was one of the few places where I actually work and live at the same time. I could make very loud music and rehearse here instead of having to go to another studio space. It was Rosina’s idea to make it a performance space.
In the beginning, it was really uncomfortable living in a space where there were often people that I didn’t know. I got into it when we started having cool art stuff here, where it was really experimental. Then the whole punk thing came in, and that was cool too because it was blowing my mind. So I warmed up to the idea of living in a space where the community lives because it represented a rebellion from all that was expected of me. It also spoke to the culture that I wanted to see happening.
I grew up in Toronto during the ’90s, so I always kind of lived in lofts. I also come from the rave and hip hop scenes, so I grew up going to many parties in lofts. There was a huge loft scene that I was a part of in the city. They were much more plentiful back in the day, so it was cool for artists to live in lofts. Lofts were often the only places artists could afford before they became gentrified artistic commodities. It is a space to be creative and experience creativity all around me.
Brawk: The first time I ever went to Unit 2 was 10 years ago for Faith Alexandra Marie’s art installation and cabaret around the themes of addiction and sobriety. The space has changed so much over the years that I almost forgot that it was at Unit 2, but those iconic double staircases stick out in my memory.
My relationship with Unit 2 grew through Daniel Mack. Daniel mentioned that the Bricks & Glitter (B&G) festival was just starting out and needed folks to join the organizing committee. I was totally excited by that because I always found Pride so alienating and overwhelming. I had just finished a Master’s in Sexual Diversity Studies and what B&G proposed to do and keeps doing is something that felt like academia can only theorize about, and I haven’t been back to school since. That’s how I got connected to Unit 2 and all the folks here. Since Daniel decided to step back last year, I’ve tried to fill his shoes with the administrative and caretaking roles.
Together, Unit 2 and Bricks & Glitter mean the same thing to me: generosity. I was so used to going into spaces and wanting to help, but feeling kind of useless because I didn’t have the language, the qualifications, or the clout. But with Unit 2 and B&G, if you show up, everyone is willing to lift you up and you learn how to participate together.
Max: There were already a lot of people existing around Unit 2 when I started coming here, so I jumped in with them. My relationship with the space came out of an appreciation of its accessibility. It was cheap. It was run by cool people. There was queerness around it. There was the opportunity to do whatever was needed in the space and to accomplish your goals, whether that is to educate or party, to celebrate or talk about queerness. It was very interesting because, being a home, there is a very specific dynamic where everyone is a guest no matter what. But it doesn’t feel suffocating or awkward. And I love that this is one of the only arts venues in Toronto that does dinners.
In a city where gentrification has made brick-and-mortar autonomous arts spaces so rare, what is the persisting relevance, or importance, of Unit 2 in bridging politics and the arts?
Brawk: Rent in Toronto is really fucking high and artists, particularly Indigenous, Black, mad, disabled, trans, and/or working-class artists really have to scramble. Unit 2 has to be not only intersectional, but also multi-use, by sheer necessity. Rose and Nic have helped countless artists and community members over the years: through community dinners, a food care program, cheap or pay-what-you-can event space rentals, and by offering up their home for folks to rest and heal.
Nicholas: There’s a certain level of freedom in terms of the low rent, the space itself, and the neighbourhood where most people go to their homes at night.
Unit 2 speaks to the idea of how space is important. In a sense, it rebelled against the idea that you have to go somewhere else to experience culture, as opposed to experiencing and making culture in your home. I really liked the idea of living with artists, but people generally do that out of need. The way people live with culture, in some ways, is based on their proximity to oppression.
This spot defies gentrification in a lot of ways, not only because of the Nestlé chocolate factory down the street, but also because it’s on toxic soil. There’s a mess of toxic goo underneath this building. This building is worth $2 million, but would be worth way more, given the gentrification, if we weren’t sitting on some of the most polluted land in all of Ontario. There was a factory that used to build automotive parts and power conduits right next door. This whole area is toxic as hell. That’s why it took so many years to clear that area of land behind the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). I feel like there’s a certain level of gentrification that is actually slowed down because of the pollution and that has allowed a place like this to still exist.
Max: I think part of just existing here is saying “yeah, fuck gentrification,” which adds energy to the space. It doesn’t affect whether gentrification happens or not, but it speaks to the intersections of where Unit 2 sits. It starts with Rose and Nic and the people who are attracted to the space who also think “fuck what’s happening.” Part of what it means to be oppressed people is you find other people who will help you, who might become your chosen family and uplift you. They’ll engage with you, your art practice, and your social activist practice.
But then, there’s the looming monster of capital, money, and rent that says “hey, actually, I don’t care that y’all have been rallying, this is now a condo.” It’s not hopeless, but it’s dystopian. It’s amazing to belong to a group of people who are all very against the dystopian system and going to resist as much as we can. We’re going to be here until we can’t.
Rosina: My father came to Canada in the 1960s, so they had no choice but to connect amongst themselves because art and politics go hand in hand. Growing up in that community, my experience was listening to music, reading poetry, and dancing—but then you fight, and then you eat together.
So many of these contexts inform what we do with LAL and the culture we bring to Unit 2. As artists, we have always been part of activism and we found ourselves through activism or different art scenes that were actually political. In the 1990s the art scene was hella political. Everything was underground, even hip hop was underground, and there was nothing mainstream coming out of the scene. It’s changed quite a lot. We’re in a time, now, where subversion is co-opted.
We were often the first people to show up, create energy, create a vibe, and then that gets taken away from us. We were able to maintain the history of warehouse culture because we have that old-school understanding. We don’t post much about Unit 2 on social media because you got to be careful. It’s not just “safety,” you got to be fucking careful because what you’re doing half the time is possibly illegal.
We’re from the ’90s weirdo Black and Brown culture, and we all had to share space because the scene was so small. If you were anti-police or anti-prison, you were deemed “crazy” or “radical.” So many of our friends are Black and Indigenous folks who organize. We’re not just artists who make really nice work about political things, we’re actually tight, and we work very closely. Often LAL was helping with the sound systems and on the stages at protests. So we come from a community where you may not like each other, but you have to share space.
What values lie at the foundation of Unit 2, and how might these values relate to abolition?
Max: Being present. The value of being present is especially relevant because we’re in a culture where there’s a lot of cancelling and discarding. People who are hurt don’t know what to do. All of it is valid, but not all of it is productive, and I think the most productive value in this space is observing how people who are present contribute and are willing to learn.
It’s the fact that anyone who has been here has mattered. Even if they just came a few times, anyone who’s been here has been part of cultivating the culture of Unit 2.
Brawk: Unit 2 is centred around collective values, with community care and togetherness at the core. For me, the circular mentorship model is where I see those values the most. We use a model we call “each one, teach one,” and vice versa, “teach one, each one.” 1 Each person has something to learn at Unit 2 and they have something to teach others.
It feels like no one is disposable at Unit 2. Anti-cancel culture feels like an important value there. During the first year of organizing Bricks & Glitter, there was somebody in the community who had a lot of issues with the way B&G was organized. Instead of sweeping it under the rug and labelling their critique as ridiculous, B&G took time to speak with this person and the collective actually encouraged them to protest the events. B&G got somebody to sit down and mediate the conversation. The festival was trying to find a way to include them and to invite them into the organizing process. It was a really pivotal moment for me.
I’m just so used to people dismissing one another, which then makes me feel like I always have to be on my best behaviour. I can bring all of myself here and if I make mistakes, it’s fine. I just have to remain accountable and I know that I’m not going to be X’ed out.
I always thought of cancel culture as a celebrity thing. Unit 2 made me think about cancel culture in the context of community, especially when in a small community, amongst people who have been cancelled already in an oppressive system.
Rosina: Often abolition gets pegged as taking down the system, but often we don’t apply it to a way of being. Some of my Indigenous friends don’t use the word abolition. That’s not a term that they use, it’s a way that they live. All the oppression, pain, lack of mentorship, and lack of resources often mean that people don’t know how to have alternative or transformative processes. There’s such a push to “X” people out. That’s not the way that we organize. Even in this space, I’ve had people tell me that they don’t mess with a specific person. If that person wants to come through, I literally go around calling and letting people know, just in case, that this person is coming. Whether you come or not, or you each go to one corner of the room, it’s up to you. It depends on what the issue is: if it’s sexual assault we have to talk about that. I put a lot of energy behind the scene into making sure people are okay.
Everybody has empathy. Within empathy, there’s a practice of what I call “circular mentorship,” this idea that we learn from each other regardless of our age or experience. There’s something to learn from everybody. We have elders. When I say elders, it’s not just older people. I know younger people who are my elders. In any kind of hierarchy, many of us are made to feel not important. I honestly believe every single person is important. Someone could fuck with you, but that doesn’t deem them less important. Every person holds values and stories that we all can learn. So I listen to people. True listening is crucial, not just an academic idea about the embodiment of the ideas. That’s why dancing is so important here. Often we’ve had people who would never hang out dancing together in the same room. This created a healing energy. Just before COVID, we started the community dinner series. We realized that people want to create intentional spaces and many of us don’t have a lot of money, which is so shameful in Toronto. Even during the first six months of COVID, when we couldn’t have dinners with a bunch of different people, we started getting food and supplies out to people on the streets. Out of that, we started hearing about the financial support folks in our community needed, so we started fundraising for Indigenous, Black, and other racialized folks around housing and survival. That was possible because we had a whole community actively participating, doing more than just donating $10. These were things empathy allowed us to do.
Nicholas: The idea of a big sound in a small space has been a common thread in my whole life. The first dance party I went to was at a community centre. They had their huge Cerwin Vega speaker set-up in a very small space, which planted the seed. Where do I go to hear the big sound in a small space again? There are not a lot of places for that.
The value system of big sound/small space naturally leads to creating spaces for those who don’t have any. It’s a kind of escapism; it was for people who were making really undanceable, unfriendly music whether it was just noise, droning, or punk. There’s always a lot of community activism that happens around that kind of music. For me, it was always about sound that didn’t really fit anywhere and people who weren’t totally understood.
One clear example of this was when David Jones 2 held a series of experimental music shows here. He had an artist, Luis Hernandez, come through. All he had were contact microphones and bricks. He would hit the contact mics on the bricks and create this totally otherworldly sound. It was incredible, extremely loud, and just mind- blowing for me to see. Though there’s a history of music in that style, it was buried at the time. I felt transported into this world, this other form of rebellion that was not based in tempo or rhythm. It was based on something different.
Rosina: In essence, Unit 2 is an anti-capitalist space. I don’t use that term all the time because I’ve seen more and more people claiming all kinds of politics without understanding how capitalism impacts us. How capitalism tells us that our ideas need to get bigger, more exclusive, better dressed, and more expensive. Some of the best artists that I’ve witnessed made something out of nothing, like in the hip hop scene we came out of and the Bangladeshi community I grew up in. But in this city, and many other cities, capitalism tells us: “You can start small, but the goal is to become bigger and more elite so you can have other people make art for you.” That shit is boring as fuck. It makes me physically sick to see some people sit back and get served while others are doing all the work.
What transitions are in store for Unit 2? What do you hope carries into the future and what do you hope might change?
Rosina: Because I don’t think we can be open to the public for a while due to COVID, we have been upgrading the space with new technology—professional cameras, lighting, sound—so there’s at least the option to make the space more accessible over the pandemic. I hope that people can record live performances, or even radio shows, in the space.
I also hope that the community lens continues and that Unit 2 continues to run as a cultural centre in the same space where it’s still accessible for people to stay when there’s an emergency.
On a bigger level, I hope the city gets its shit together. I’m tired of applying for grants to justify the work we’ve done for 20 years. I get upset about this because all these institutions are stealing our work, our community’s work. We need money, but when they hire us, they take our resources and our labour. It makes me mad. I hope that somebody with deep pockets will just donate. And let’s talk about this grant system, because we shouldn’t have to be dependent on it to make our art, we shouldn’t have to justify why we, as marginalized people, need resources. I hope that something changes, and not just in this city. We are being pushed out in all cities.
It would be beautiful to give the space to artists. We need to find a way to get that idea supported, so how and when we get there is still up for debate. Personally, for me, I need a break from Toronto. I don’t want to live in a warehouse where there’s construction happening 24/7. But Nic and I still need a place to live. So, there’s a little bit of room for adjustments.
Nicholas: It was a great experiment of understanding what we mean by community-building and fostering creativity. Being a part of that experiment on a community level was really beautiful. I’ve learned and grown a lot by seeing what has been done within this space. As amazing as it is, it does take a toll on your mind and body. Living in such an intense space really hurt my capacity for making art. On top of physical ailments and family hardships, I realized that I have to set boundaries in order to have a full and creative lifestyle.
Recording our new record was kind of the switch for me. I realized what it really means to be an artist and make a record in a concentrated way. I also think it’s powerful for Black people to see an actual Black person in a space like this. People aren’t used to seeing a Black person living in an artist loft. It’s pretty powerful. Black people need to continue to be present in this space for the future.
Brawk: Unit 2 is unlike any other arts space in this city where there are so many rules, where there’s a board and managers. Because the process is more circular and horizontal, as opposed to linear and vertical, Unit 2 has been able to welcome a lot of events that might be considered too messy or too distracting in other spaces.
I definitely have some fear of Rose and Nic leaving. Will we be able to carry on that tradition when they’ve taken a few steps back? I am not sure, but I have faith that we can keep building on those characteristics. Starting in 2020–2021, there has been an amazing team of folks doing wonders for Unit 2: installing new tech, training a tech team, reorganizing, deep cleaning, and starting a Withfriends fundraising campaign 3 to keep Unit 2 afloat.
I keep going back to the idea of generosity. Unit 2 is a QTBIPOC-centred space, and I’m white, so it’s not really up to people like me to envision its transitions, but I will be there to support the visions people have for what it becomes.
Max: What is the future? While I do agree with not fearing an end, I feel a sense of anticipation for when Nic and Rosina leave. People come here for them. This is a very critical pivot for both of them, not completely exiting the space, but also not living here permanently.
The tangible end is when someone says, “Oh, hey, the plot of land has been sold and you’re getting evicted.” Until then, queers need to be able to come here and leave with power. And if not, then the space isn’t accomplishing what it set out to do, with or without Rose and Nic.
With coordination and compassion, I believe we can easily pass leadership on to the next people. My understanding of the future is that whoever is here, Unit 2 is going to carry on some of the previous intentions, and that includes rehearsing, having dinners, performing, dancing, workshopping, educating, video recording, documenting, soliciting. The future is very hopeful.
Rosina: As Brawk said, Unit 2 is starting a fundraiser for the exact purpose of resourcing. We have a small team working to put together a campaign called “Sustain Unit 2,” and we’re starting with a campaign to cover rent, supplies, new equipment, and to cover labour over the next couple of years. Our goal is, hopefully, to raise $60-thousand to account for all the labour folks put in. I would love for us to raise rent for at least the next two years, which would give us time to catch our breath and figure out a long-term plan, whether that looks like going for more grants or getting the city to donate space for us.
Unit 2 has been able to be so many things because so many different people have helped out over the years. The energy shifts depending upon who’s here. We can shift how we work because we don’t say the work must be done a certain way. There is an interesting fluidity that allows people to work in whatever way that they can or want to. And how do we all support those ways? That’s the question that will have a huge impact on our future. *