Pictured above: Kirsten McCrea painting her mural. All photos by Kristel Jax.
“Come try to figure out why we’re the happiest city in Canada.” Sudbury, Ontario's Up Here Festival challenged, as gleeful about their national glory as Winnipeg was about their (now stolen) “murder capital” title, minus most of the cynicism.
Up Here returned for its second year this past weekend, renamed because the original handle, Up Fest, infringed on a street art festival of the same name from the UK, which must have been a little weird for them seeing as Sudbury’s event is as much about visual art — mostly murals — as it is bands.
Not to knock Up Here’s musical lineup: Up Here’s Canadian music programming strives to be on point: last year’s fest featured both A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq. 2016’s headliners included Stars, Holy Fuck, Young Galaxy, and U.S. Girls.
Four hours north of Toronto, Sudbury, tucked in an ancient, mineral rich comet crater, is a city with with a long history as a working class mining city. We roll in on Thursday afternoon just in time to catch the end of the all ages punk show at Sudbury’s only gay bar, Zig’s.
We’re trying to change our own perception of our city and other people’s perception of Sudbury
HSY and SIK RIK’s merch is laid out on a covered pool table nearby, and the bar is serving $5 fruity cocktails with gummy bear embellishments. Outside, Toronto’s Kirsten McCrea (of Papirmass) is painting a vibrant mural in her signature ornate patterns. Locals are quick to chat, we’ve picked up free bottles of glitter and snack packs in lieu of swag, and it’s easy to feel at home. Locals and artists share secret show tips on the street outside while the rain spits down.
A bowl of glitter
Launched by two tech-savvy graphic designers/marketers (Andrew Knapp and Christian Pelletier), Up Here has a solid iPhone app — but I haven’t figured that out yet when we try to find Hooded Fang’s Thursday night secret show. A Toronto pal and I trace a maze through Sudbury’s muggy, mostly-empty streets before we finally find the YMCA parking garage that’s full of swirling psychedelic projections and Hooded Fang’s shrill guitar riffs.
It seems like everybody is taking advantage of the quasi-outdoor space by smoking something, and the excitement that comes with venues and gigs that feel like outlaw events, however civically condoned they are, is buzzing.
The Toronto garage punk vibe is carried on over at the Townehouse Tavern by New Fries. Much of the festival is dominated by Toronto based artists, turning downtown Sudbury into something of a Little Toronto — members of acts like Fresh Snow, LAL, Phèdre, Dilly Dally, and ZONES mill through the streets for portions of the weekend.
Though Knapp and Pelletier say the Toronto phenomenon is due more to their connections than any conscious choice, it gives the festival’s new name extra weight. “Up” is literal for many passing through this weekend, globe-wise.
Up Here Fest began as project We Live Up Here, a community arts endeavour that saw photo books, parties, pins of inside jokes, and large-scale murals celebrating the city.
Inspired by FME (Festival De Musique Émergente) in Quebec’s Rouyn-Noranda, another small northern Canadian community with a superstack we’ve visited, We Live Up Here is now mainly focusing on their annual festival.
The official beer of Up Here
The heavy self branding does vibe like it has something to prove to newcomers and Sudbury ex-pats who are returning for the weekend, but that pride appears deserved: the music programming, art and light installations, and ongoing murals inject vibrancy into a city that’s clearly struggling to keep its downtown from doughnutting any further, an especially daunting task given that Sudbury is, land wise, the largest city in Ontario (five times the size of Toronto with less than one fifteenth the population). It’s not hard to become swept up in the ultra positive enthusiasm.
Up Here’s commissioned murals (about 16 so far, they tell me) play a huge part in their city-approved plan to revitalize Sudbury and change the narrative about the city. “We’re trying to change our own perception of our city and other people’s perception of Sudbury,” Pelletier tells me, adding that pollution stricken Sudbury has a harsh nickname, “the asshole of Canada.”
"Walk Safe Don't Slip" mural by Trevor Wheatley
The founders hope Sudbury can become something of a destination for art lovers. “We have this not so secret agenda of wanting to turn downtown Sudbury into an urban art gallery,” Pelletier confesses, “by inviting artists from across the world and across Sudbury to do these big pieces.”
2016 bodes well for that with its inclusion of French artists Ella & Pitr’s new neuroscience themed entry to their “Sleeping Giant” series, which will now be visible via Google maps on the roof of the sprawling Science North building.
Music programming is often just as fresh and boundary pushing: Iskwé appears on the outdoor main stage with with experimental cellist Cris Derksen, who will later play the festival’s most Track Could Bend-ish set solo on a host of pedals and gadgets opening for U.S. Girls, who delivers Up Here’s most memorable performance by far.
Iskwé and Cris Derkson
In an upscale restaurant called Respect is Burning (don’t ask), where the sightlines are possibly even worse than those at the Townehouse Tavern (Sudbury is hard up for sightlines), Meg Remy (U.S. Girls) is solo tonight. She’s packed a table with cassette players, samplers, and pedals in a setup similar to those of her early noise shows. Between songs, she moves across the stage to pace or change costumes while distorted samples play off cassettes.
The costumes literally add new layers of complexity to music that already challenges: Remy begins in full cowboy-Bowie primp, furiously mimicking masculinity, switches to a glittering gown, and suddenly she is singing “Sororal Feelings” dressed as a nun, lashing herself with a pine branch kneeling down on the floor, before finally returning to her regular clothes and shutting down the set. It’s performance art meets pop show, both as brutalizing and uplifting as I’ve ever seen U.S. Girls.
Three versions of U.S. Girls
It’s satisfying to see women take charge on stage at Up Here Fest: LAL’s electronic, revolution-ready secret set amid Philippe Blanchard’s installation at Galerie Du Nouvel-Ontario is the weekend’s best dance party, Townehouse is packed for the '90s indie rock of Sackville’s Partner on Saturday night, and Montreal francophone acts Marie-Claire and Paupière were powerful highlights with very different energies: sadcore rock VS high energy, theatrical pop (according to Up Here’s guide, Sudbury is home to the “2nd largest francophone population in Canada outside of Québec”).
I ask if Up Here’s impressive gender parity is purposeful, and the fest’s founders grin and shrug. “We didn’t look at the programming like, hey, where’s our ratio at?” Pelletier explains, “but as things were coming down, doing calculations, we were like okay, we got this.”
“Anyone who doesn’t do that in their programming is just lazy,” Pelletier adds.
Social justice issues festivals are battling out further south from inclusivity to sexual assault haven’t gone unnoticed, though Up Here’s “Official Guide to Being Cool” is about as chill a safe space policy as I’ve ever seen, emphasizing silliness alongside bystander intervention. It’s a little light handed considering what’s been a pretty fucked summer for women especially, with sexual assaults at Osheaga earning criticism from across Canada just weeks earlier.
I don’t always feel safe at Up Here Fest as a woman: a few partying dudes get too close for comfort, and desolate urban streets stir the instinctive anticipation of the violence I learned from the strife of Winnipeg’s hollow downtown core, but staff have clearly been brushed up on basic watchfulness. At one point I’m loitering with my phone by myself and a volunteer asks if I need her to call me a cab.
Knapp and Pelletier assure me that safety is a priority for Up Here, and will be in the years to come. “There’s just no compromise on that. If someone’s being a dick, then that person isn’t a part of our team anymore,” Pelletier says bluntly, agreeing that he’s committed to believe women and survivors who come forward — something Osheaga’s security has struggled with.
“If anyone was exhibiting intolerant or unjust behaviour that would certainly be addressed in a very severe way,” Knapp adds.
For the most part, everyone my pals and I encounter is more than lovely: Sudbury is home to hard partying, open-hearted, enthusiastic and supportive people, who may or may not be aware Up Here artists have been warned in an introductory email about “CHUDs who have never left Sudbury and have no idea what goes on on the outside.”
(CHUD, Toronto artist Vanessa Rieger, who’s double-timing fest both as an installation artist and a projectionist, informs me is a horror movie reference meaning "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller.”)
As Up Here emerges and takes shape in Sudbury’s cultural landscape, it hasn’t come without criticism, and protest.
One anonymous silkscreen on Elgin Street warns “Smile!! You’re being branded” in a graphic style and shade of cyan mimicking Up Here’s own, and a flyer posted at Townehouse read in part:
"Do not pretend to be a community festival when your shameless overworking and exploitation of volunteers in 2015 proved we were an afterthought. Do not pretend to be about us when you choose out of town rockstar muralists over struggling downtown folk, or when you co-opt and homogenize local DIY counter cultures for your motherbrand. Your festival - your zippy zany corporate career venture isn't about community, it's about you.”
Photo by anonymous
Many locals I chatted up seemed on the fence about Up Here’s gentrifying, and perhaps commodifying or even exploitive, influence on Sudbury. Artist Brendan Lehman tells me over Facebook, “I don't think [the protester’s] principles are wrong,” then adds, “I’ve lived there for 10 years and it was the best weekend I’ve had.”
Others who were critical of aspects of the festival were still supportive, attending events and sharing tips — one of which led me to a super cute reunion show for local, much beloved punk legends Statues at aging Sudbury opera house The Grand.
It’s no surprise that despite the benefits of artists coming up and sharing ideas, information, and networking opportunities, locals are conflicted when it comes to Sudbury’s changing identity and streetscapes, or that questions of gentrification and hipsterization have landed in the crater. As rents and temperatures keep rising in southern Ontario, northern communities may do well rebranding themselves as cool alternatives where urbanites can find familiarity, from art to board game cafes, and gluten free pizza.
But sprawling, lake filled, slowly regreening Sudbury, for all its jokes about the water tower being for sale, downtown Tim Hortons dramatics, white drugs arguably all variations on some form of speed, and the nicknamed “Hedley Arena” (“Hedley plays there every three months,” Pelletier jokes), is the happiest city in Canada already. A community so successful in the pursuit that matters most will have to follow its intuition and play its strengths to keep the title.