Toronto’s Venus Fest Is Carving Out Space

September 12, 2018

Lido Pimienta @ Venus Fest 2017. Credit: Tanja-Tiziana

By: Matt Williams

With its inaugural edition having happened only a year ago, Toronto’s Venus Fest—a festival celebrating feminism, which focuses on women-identifying and non-binary artists—emerged from a conversation that’s been happening in the music industry for a while now, about its inherent challenges and imbalances, founder Aerin Fogel says. The festival, which runs September 20-22 this year, began out of a desire to enact some proactive change to that, and to work on building solutions as opposed to focusing on the problems. But more than anything, Fogel notes that the conversation is essentially one about space.

“Some of the structural challenges in the music industry and certainly the lack of gender parity is an issue of space—who gets to take up space, who has space with their resources and connections and capacity to build their careers,” Fogel says over the phone from Ontario. “So I think of Venus Fest as a way of taking up space for artists and staff and tech folks who might not traditionally have had as much space in the industry.”

Not only is the festival focused on women-identifying and non-binary artists in performance roles, but they’re also heading up all the behind-the-scenes ones on the production side as well. Maylee Todd, a multimedia artist and musician from Toronto who’s performing at the festival this year, also believes that carving out those spaces, and the fact that Venus Fest is femme forward, is important. “I’ve been in a lot of industries for the past 15 years that have been pretty male dominant,” Todd says. “And it’s nice that there’s a platform for femme identifiers to feel safe and included, and have space be made for them. It’s just a different variation that should exist.”

At first, Fogel figured she’d just put on a show, on a single day, to showcase some artists she wanted to bring attention to. But the response from Toronto’s music community was so overwhelming that she soon realized it probably wasn’t going to be the kind of thing that stays very small.

“The response from the very beginning was so beautiful and passionate that it led me to realize more people wanted to be a part of it and maybe it was a bit bigger than I had envisioned,” Fogel says. “People kept saying, over and over, ‘We need this, and we need this now.’ That was the repeated phrase that helped us build it and grow it.”

Getting it off the ground was a challenge, of course. Fogel, who has experience as a performing artist—her current project is Queen of Swords—but not on the side of festival production, had to find the people and the resources and build all the relationships that come along with putting on an event. But with a lot of hard work and a little funding, what began as a small project quickly turned into a much bigger venture. Not only was the first edition received as a major success, showcasing artists like the Polaris Prize-winning Lido Pimienta, Grouper, Witch Prophet, and Weaves, but Fogel has continued the celebration since with a monthly Venus Fest series. While she’s still learning, Fogel says, the goal now becomes creating something that can be sustainable and lasting.

  • Lido Pimienta. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

  • Grouper. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

  • Weaves. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

  • Queen Of Swords. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

  • Phedre. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

  • Ice Cream. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

  • Witch Prophet. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

  • Highest Order. Venus Fest 2017.

    Credit: Danielle Aphrodite

Fogel thinks of music as a form of healing we have in our world, and that the festival itself is a space for healing and a space for people to connect as a community. And the community aspect, she says, has a lot to do with what’s going on in the space in addition to the music itself.

“Going to a show or going to a festival might be a familiar experience to a lot of people, but what else is happening there that we can create in a new way?” Fogel says. “So last year and this year, we’re trying to create some more restorative areas at the festival. We have some community engagement activities happening, and last year we had a community art installation going, and we have tarot readers and some fun activities that are there. And we have a speaker’s corner that’s going to be at one night of the festival this year. We’re trying to create spaces that help people engage a little bit more so that it’s not such an internal experience to be there listening to music.”

The actual festival has grown to three nights this year, which Fogel is very excited about, as it allows them to offer more to experience, and create an even bigger ‘atmosphere of inclusivity, love, and celebration of our amazing community,’ as the website says, than they were previously. If last year’s one-day version and the series shows following have gifted Fogel some amazing memories—like a completely silent crowd hanging off every word of one of Lido Pimienta’s stories, or Jennifer Castle’s winter solstice gig—then three days should create a lot more. And as Venus Fest grows, they’ll hopefully be able to achieve more of their long-term goals. “Part of what we’re trying to do is create jobs for women and non-binary artists,” Fogel says. “So the more work we do as a festival, the more jobs we’re creating as well.”

Right now, Fogel says the festival’s proudest achievement is the fact it exists at all. It took the support of a lot of incredible people, she says, and she thinks it’s found a place in the music industry and Ontario now. She didn’t expect it to be so visible in such a short amount of time but loves the way people have responded to it.

“It’s a really special experience,” Fogel says about being at the festival. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that, and that was the feedback we got from a lot of people last year. They had never been to something like that and were just really moved to find a space that really spoke to them and felt so safe to them.”

This year’s edition will feature the lush R&B of Toronto’s a l l i e, Partner’s hooky, riff-rock odes to crushes and getting high, Isla Craig’s glowing, understated pop tunes, and the soul-pop of TiKA, among many more. But with the continuation of the monthly series, the festival will continue to carve out space at a regular pace. And the 2018 festival will hopefully become one of many entries in Venus Fest’s story.

“I just hope it continues to exist as long as it’s needed,” Fogel says. “I think it’s really born out of a need for something like this, so as long as people need and want that kind of space, I hope we can continue to be there and meet that.”

Venus Fest 2018 runs from September 20-22 in Toronto. For more information or to purchase tickets visit: www.venusfest.net

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer living on Canada's beautiful East Coast. He was born and raised a flatlander. He's on Twitter @MattGeeWilliams.

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