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Here is my thesis proposal:

Updated January 9, 2009

Remember Who’s Emma: punk, politics, and place


Can a vague non-profit project bridge the gap between subculture aesthetics and political activism? And how does such a project reflect a means to informal education and social engagement? This documentary project is an attempt to revisit a collective called Who’s Emma, which was located in Toronto’s Kensington Market from 1996 to the year 2000. The social dynamic of the collective and the significance of the store and venue will be investigated and represented through a video documentary and book project.

Project Description

Who’s Emma was considered a social experiment, an autonomous zone, a record shop, a bookstore, and primarily just a ‘cool’ place for youth to congregate. Named after Emma Goldman, the notorious anarcho-feminist who once resided in the neighborhood, this volunteer run retail operation brought suburban punk youth, downtown punks, and anarchist activists together to work collectively. What is significant about Who’s Emma is discerning the very diverse interests members of the collective had for the space and the all important levels of trust and cooperation that were shared. Dr. Alan O’Connor, a professor in Cultural Studies at Trent University, took the initiative to fund and begin this non-profit project during a year of sabbatical in 1996. He built the physical place that became Who’s Emma and initiated the consensus decision making process of the collective. Who’s Emma existed initially without a clear mandate or operational structure and then as time passed committees were formed and a mandate written as the group was eventually incorporated under the name “Who’s Emma Urban Youth Services.” After two back to back robberies left the store with hardly anything to sell, Who’s Emma closed indefinitely on September 2, 2000.

The documentary video I will create will investigate the idea behind Who’s Emma’s conception and will illustrate the diverse social dynamics of the multifaceted anarchist storefront and venue. Volunteers have very distinct perspectives on what Who’s Emma was. Certain people were primarily interested in the records sold and some only interested in the books and workshops the collective offered. Operationally and philosophically the collective could not reach consensus on issues of gender politics, and other topics that left unsettled social divides. Interviews will seek to capture the different sides of the major debates raised at the collective’s monthly general meetings. These stories will be recorded on video as fragments, individual reflections on what happened at Who’s Emma and what these people did to play their part. Did volunteers consider their involvement with Who’s Emma a means to informal education or social engagement?
An early screening of the video will be publicly announced and all interviewees will be invited to provide feedback. This screening will double as a meeting. It will be an opportunity for those who were involved in Who’s Emma to come together 10 years later to reconsider what significance the space had and for those who are interested in what the collective was – and what this current project is, to contemplate Toronto’s punk, anarchist, and activist community today. At this meeting everyone will reflect on Who’s Emma, what happened, and what potential there was, and possibly still is.
Project Rationale

Since the 1960s the concept of counter culture has proliferated in popular media, and academia. A distinction between style and activism or culture or politics can be made as rebelling youth are often swept up with the image of an alternative lifestyle rather than working toward political or collective goals. Author Jim Munroe explains how mixing punk style and paraphernalia with political content can make for an interesting combination:

Anarcho-feminist Emma Goldman’s quote “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution” echoed the originators desire to mix fun with radical politics. But when referential names like “Emma’s Dancing Emporium” were tried out on some of the punk kids, the response was often: “Who’s Emma?” The need for a source of radical history was never so clear – and the collective had a name that was both meaningful and pleasantly mysterious (

Who’s Emma sold independent records, books, zines, hand printed patches and T-shirts, vegan baked goods and coffee. The space was used for workshops and there were infamous musical performances held in the very small basement. The space also functioned as an infoshop – an anarchist and social activist information sharing location. Alan O’Connor played a key role in establishing Who’s Emma and has written about the collective in terms of cultural theory and the “memory of failed revolution.” Who’s Emma, in effect was a social experiment, a subcultural centre aimed at nurturing radical lifestyles and taste without a solidly defined political agenda. O’Connor writes about Who’s Emma being bound up in the punk subculture, in being a ‘cool’ place but realizes that because the place existed and was open for four years it tested the limits of contemporary place claiming and social organizing. O’Connor writes:

To say that [Who’s Emma] is counter hegemonic or that it represents politics through culture does not really say much. But even to get this far was a struggle against a world that imposes limits and exerts so many pressures to destroy an alternative such as this. We were limited in resources, in experience and skills: above all in the personal and political skills needed to get further than we did. We started something and we grew. Yet the doubts remain. Is this also the memory of failed revolution? (Alan O’Connor, “Whos Emma and the Limits of Cultural Studies” Cultural Studies 13 (4) 1999, 691-702. 700).

I would say yes, Who’s Emma expresses the memory of failed revolution – especially in remembering Who’s Emma and attempting to revive the energy and collective ambitions responsible for creating the place. However, in this remembering there is also re-creation – the focus is not on an over-arching sense of failure, but rather a lasting legacy and potential for new beginnings. While critically looking back at the radical history of the Toronto punk and anarchist community centered around Who’s Emma, this documentary project will mobilize past participants and ask the current community to remember Who’s Emma.

Presentation Format

The mode of presentation is that of a book and video. I will select key photographs from volunteers; gather minutes from the collective meetings; collect posters and flyers from shows and events held at Who’s Emma, and all of this ephemera will be laid out in a full colour book format. The video, which is the primary focus of the Remember Who’s Emma project, will be in included in the book as the DVD with additional footage of shows and extended interview footage with volunteers.  At the screening event there will be photocopied version of the book that will be free for the taking – this version will keep with the minimal zine format that was so popular at Who’s Emma.

Annotated Bibliography

Antliff, Allan. Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the fall of the Berlin
. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007.

This book is relevant to my thesis project in that the history of anarchist and artistic movements are discussed. I will be drawing parallels between politics and art, or social activism and aesthetics, and this text will provide examples of the anarchist influence on certain art practices and the artistic influence on certain anarchist movements. Allan Antliff is a Canadian art historian who specializes in anarchist and social activist currents.

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis/London:
Minnesota University Press, 2006.

Attali presents a cultural historiography of music and frames it in relation to economics and politics. The prophetic quality of music is discussed as musical trends are argued to foreshadow wars and social unrest. If music is a mirror of society as Attali says throughout this book, then the project of Who’s Emma certainly is a special case study in this regard. Attali’s economic insight into the music industry also provides very useful ideas in relation to the major label record debate that went on in the mid-1990s punk scene in North America and at Who’s Emma.
Barry, Mike. “Hardcore, Homocore, Bookstore: Trouble’s Brewing at Who’s
Emma?” TRADE Queer Things Issue 1, Volume 1 (Winter, 2000) 9-11.

Barry interviews three volunteers at Who’s Emma and asks them about Emma Goldman, how the place runs as a collective, and about involvement with gender or queer social movements. Having to deal with “wingnuts” who wonder around Kensington Market comes up as well as the distinctions between hardcore and homocore within the larger punk subculture. This text is relevant because of the documented perspectives of the volunteers and the fact it is a media representation of Who’s Emma.

Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy,
Poetic Terrorism
. 1985.
Accessed April 22, 2008.

The Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) is a social space that is free of structures of control. The TAZ also can be considered a tactic for socio-political place claiming and creating a system of non-hierarchical relationships that liberate the potential for individual creativity. This book is organized into three sections, “Chaos: The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism,” “Communiques of the Association for Ontological Anarchy,” and “The Temporary Autonomous Zone.” Various historical and philosophical examples are used to demonstrate the significance and different applications of the TAZ – such as the Boston tea party, pirate communes, and convergences on the Internet. Music is described as an organizing principle. Bey’s TAZ is rooted in a very Nietzchean theory of returning to the realm of Dionysus and the desire to turn the world into a holiday. Foucault and Baudrillard are also key theorists as the TAZ can be considered a tactic of disappearance as it is rooted in the realization that it is not worth confronting a system that has lost all power and is bound up in simulacra. Bey sees the role of art in TAZs as being that of creating presence, or emphasizing performance through positive gestures. Numerous descriptions of Who’s Emma cite Bey’s idea of the TAZ.

Bookchin, Murray. Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism – An Unbridgeable
San Francisco: AK Press, 1995.

This deeply polemic book argues against lifestyle anarchism and calls for a renewed focus on social anarchism, or collective and communal political organizing. Bookchin explicitly opposes Bey’s idea of the TAZ because of the lack of actual or systematic political change. Writing from the position of the 1960s generation, Bookchin is highly critical of the later wave of anarchists who represent a personal commitment to individual autonomy while abandoning a serious collectivist commitment to social freedom. The theories of collectivist anarchists such as Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin are reworked by Bookchin to contrast the bohemian and stylized approach to anarchism that is embraced by contemporary subcultures and figures like Bey. Bookchin’s critique of lifestyle anarchism is very applicable to the case of Who’s Emma in that punk subculture and aesthetics played a dominant role over working toward social and political change.

Day, Richard J.F. Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social
. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2005.

Day presents an argument that contemporary radical social movements do not strive to take control of the state and instead try to develop new forms of self-organization that can exist underground, or parallel to mainstream social orders. There are very relevant chapters on “Zero-participation: crusty punks and lifestyle anarchists,” “The incredible lightness of cultural subversion,” and “The problems of white middle-class movements.”

Duncombe, Stephen. Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of
Alternative Culture
. London and New York: Verso, 1997.

This book studies zines, self-published booklets and printed matter, in the context of alternative social networking, subversive self-expression and documentation of the punk subculture in particular. Who’s Emma was one of the only places in Toronto where zines were for sale and where workshops on zine making were held. For many volunteers and members of the punk community in Toronto Who’s Emma offered a first introduction to the world of zines.

Falk, Candace. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman: A Biography. New
Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

In this biography Falk provides a detailed description of Goldman’s life. Goldman was exiled from the United States and ended up spending a number of years in Toronto. She had close friends who resided in the Jewish community in Kensington Market and lived on Spadina Avenue. Goldman spent the last few years of her life living in a house on Vaughn Road where she passed away in 1940. That Goldman’s history is tied to Toronto is especially relevant to the context of Who’s Emma and the punk community based in Kensington Market.

Goldman, Emma. Anarchism and Other Essays New York: Dover Publications,

This collection of essays by Goldman represents the political and philosophical positioning of the namesake of Who’s Emma. Essays entitled “Anarchism: What it really stands for,” “Minorities versus Majorities,” and “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation” can be related to specific issues the Who’s Emma collective encountered. Goldman’s books were usually available at Who’s Emma and her writings were clearly an inspiration for the collective’s existence.

Gramsci, Antonio. The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1919-1935.
Ed. David Forgacs New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Gramsci’s analysis of the split between culture and politics is very relevant to Who’s Emma and the split between punks and anarchists. The chapters on “Working-class Education and Culture,” “Hegemony, Relations of force, Historical Force,” “Popular Culture,” and “Art and the Struggle for New Civilization” can be applied to a theoretical interpretation of Who’s Emma.

Hebdige, Dick. Hiding in the Light: on Images and Things. New York and London:
Routledge, 1988.

In specific essays, “Hiding in the Light: Youth Surveillance and Display” and “Post-Script 1: Vital Strategies,” Hebdige considers at youth culture and the punk subculture as playing with the only power at their disposal: “the power of discomfort.” This perspective is bound up with creating a spectacle and the aesthetics of rebellion, which is a stereotype of punk that Who’s Emma had to tend with in terms of trying to be a political punk collective. Who’s Emma was not simply selling the punk image to its community. Hebdige’s account provides insight into the aesthetics of punk in a complex and postmodern context as he describes the political shift from “Anarchy in the UK” to “Save the World”.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York and London:
Routledge, 1979.

Hebdige investigates the expressive forms and rituals of subordinate groups such as teddy boys, mods and rockers, skinheads and punks in England of the 1960s and 1970s. These subcultural groups, especially punks, represent a refusal to fit social norms and in expressing this style, communicate this oppositional aesthetic. It is in this aesthetic mode of communication that political content can be conveyed – this was probably a goal of Who’s Emma, to spread radical politics through distributing punk records and anarchist reading material.

Leblanc, Lauraine. Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’
. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

In this autobiographical and sociological account of being a punk girl in Montreal throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Leblanc analyzes what compels girls to engage in the male-dominated youth subculture of the punk movement. This text is relevant to the study of Who’s Emma as feminist and gender politics were a significant issue for the collective.

Lull, James. “One the Communicative Properties of Music” Communicative
vol. 12 No. 3 (July, 1985) 363-372.

This article argues that music is a social utility and source of entertainment, for young people especially, that helps unify social collectives and introduces new topics – this is relevant to Who’s Emma as records and having bands perform in the basement served a major attraction for collective members and people from the punk scene in general. Lull offers some anthropological examples of cultures that use music to communicate social values and politics. He even describes punk music as being extreme and recognizes that some punk bands make a point of remaining on the periphery of the music scene as they continue to “hammer away at political themes and stir musical anarchy.” The popularity of Music Television (MTV) and mainstream music in terms of youth culture is discussed by Lull which relates to the major label debate the Who’s Emma collective wrestled with.

Munroe, Jim. “Ask Us About Anarchist-Retail Opportunities! A short history of
Who’s Emma, a Toronto punk collective.” Punk Planet. (July, 1997) Accessed April 21, 2008.

This article offers a very animated description of Who’s Emma. It serves as an overview of the first year the store was open and addresses debates that arose – whether Who’s Emma would sell major label records and whether Much Music could do a story on the collective. Munroe presents a very positive and almost mythical version of Who’s Emma as he talks of his time being a volunteer and feeling like he was getting his “energy’s worth” out of it. The community networking between radical collectives in North America is also discussed. However, it is Munroe’s perspective of the mixing of punk aesthetics with subversive politics and activism that is especially relevant to the crux of this documentary project.

O’Connor, Alan. “Whos Emma and the limits of cultural studies” Cultural Studies
13 (4) 1999, 691-702.

In this article O’Connor asks if it is possible that cultural studies might do things, things such as motivate a social experiment or ambiguous non-profit project based on the punk subculture and a desire to promote radical politics. It was actually O’Connor himself who built the bookshelves and bins to hold records and paid for the rent of Who’s Emma in it’s first year of existence. In this article he presents cultural studies and Who’s Emma as memory of failed revolution, as a form of action that has certain limitations. He discusses the tensions between various parts of the punk scene, suburban Straight Edge punks, downtown “drunk” punks, and a small number of anarchists. Gender politics at Who’s Emma are touched on as a women’s committee is formed and Mondays are women’s day, a day for women volunteers to work that later became an exclusive women only space. This article is extremely important to this documentary project as the major issues and theories are specifically addressed.

Only A Beginning: An Anarchist Anthology Ed. Allan Antliff. Vancouver: Arsenal
Pulp Press, 2004.

This anthology focuses on anarchist theory and practice in Canada between 1976 and 2004. It offers two short articles on Who’s Emma, one by Alan O’Connor and the other by Jeff Shantz. Both are brief overviews of what the collective was and why it closed its doors on September 2, 2000 after four “mostly good” years and two crippling robberies in the summer of 2000. Antliff, the editor, places these articles on Who’s Emma in a section called “Autonomous Zones,” referencing the notorious theories of Hakim Bey.

Romalis, Coleman. Emma Goldman: The Anarchist Guest 42 min. Toronto: York
University, 2000. Videocassette.

This documentary film explores Goldman’s life and focuses on her time spent in Toronto. Footage of Who’s Emma is incorporated as the contemporary legacy of Goldman as an inspirational figure for anarchist and radical social movements is touched on.

Storer, Russell. Situation: Collaborations, Collectives and Artist Networks from Sydney, Singapore, and Berlin. Sydney: Contemporary Museum of Art, 2005.

This is a catalogue of exhibitions held in Sydney, Singapore, and Berlin entitled Situation, curated by Russell Storer. All three exhibitions are group shows organized around the idea of working collaboratively or in a Collective. This text offers examples of installation works and an essay of significance called “Art as vis-a-vis: Meeting as Medium” by Solvej Helweg Ovesen. As I plan to curate an exhibition about a collective and also plan on organizing a meeting so participants and viewers can meet face to face, this reference is very helpful as both of these aspects are addressed.



  1. hey there.

    my name’s karol and i’m a friend of ryan’s at project 165 in kensington market… do you need help editing this? let’s talk? i’m so stoked about this project! contact me:

    e v e r y o n e i s d o o m e d {AT} g m a i l . c o m


  2. Thanks a lot for posting the bibliography, do you know how I could get a hold of some of these books/journals/zines?

    Also, if you need any help with this project in terms of gruntwork, send me an email; besides myself, I know a bunch of people who would be more than glad to help. We see Whos Emma as an inspiration.

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