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Sarah Barrable-Tishauer, aka DJ Me Time, stimulates dance-floor transcendence at SummerWorks
The one-on-one performance Portal explores ritual rave experiences.
Toronto is in the midst of a renegade rave renaissance. With indoor nightclubs severely restricted and the city in the grips of record-breaking heat, organized outdoor parties are happening every weekend and, increasingly, further afield from downtown.
Partiers are playing whack-a-mole with police, who show up in small armies shining bright flashlights, dispersing dancers and shutting sound systems off.
The authorities seemed too preoccupied with the pandemic to crack down on noisy outdoor parties last year, but that’s not the case this summer. And after video of a crowded rave at Riverdale Park went viral before Ontario had even entered step 1 of the reopening plan, promoters have tried to keep details off social media as much as possible.
“You have to text for address, things are happening under a bridge,” says Sarah Barrable-Tishauer, aka DJ Me Time. “That’s really exciting for Toronto because we’ve been pretty straitlaced. We long to break out of more typical venues but, at the same time, I recognize how those spaces are harder to regulate.”
DJs and promoters might be finding new spaces to throw parties, but this moment isn’t entirely euphoric.
“On the one hand, we’re experiencing all this freedom and that’s exciting. I’m also genuinely concerned about what this might mean for a fourth wave,” she says. “We’re not quite out of the woods yet.”
As a result, a DIY party scene that has been focused on conversations about consent and creating “safer space” now has a host of new safety considerations, namely masking, distancing and contact tracing.
While cities around the world are mandating proof-of-vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests to enter clubs, those policies are only just starting to roll out in Toronto – and only in the biggest concert venues.
For that reason, Barrable-Tishauer is not quite ready to return to organizing parties – indoors or outdoors. Instead, she’s keeping the music alive via the “one-on-one” experience Portal, a 15-minute interactive rave performance piece that’s part of this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival.
“Portal is inspired by the fact that I view the pandemic as a portal,” she explains. “It’s been this time where we’ve witnessed major paradigm shifts that we never though were possible. I wanted to examine how we’re using this shift to create the world that we’re walking back into.”
Produced with site-specific theatre company Outside the March, the pop-up performance runs through this weekend at 76 Geary, the current home of the Black Lives Matter-affiliated Wildseed Centre for Activism and Art. People who went to after-hours parties circa-2015/2016 might also remember the space as 76A Geary.
When you arrive for your solo experience, a member of Barrable-Tishauer’s Rave Institute guides you into a white room with a cubed LED lighting rig (by designer Karl Skene). At the centre is a camera that captures your image and renders it in trippy animated form on a large screen.
An assuring corporate-style voiceover instructs you to move deliberately and slowly, triggering responsive animations. It all feels very prescribed until a live-sounding DJ Me Time hacks into the system and turns up the volume.
She reminds you that dance music culture was born in Black and queer communities, and the dance floor has historically been space for casting off the identities society has assigned us. Her script is personalized based on a questionnaire you’ve filled out in advance, and she goes through it with a sense of urgency – the Rave Institute is about to regain control. But not before you dance to a song you’ve chosen (in my case, Menergy by Patrick Cowley and Sylvester).
Portal plays like a satire of underground raving co-opted by wellness tech. It also feels timely in the way it plugs into the dichotomy at play between bodily freedom and collective concern: you’re alone, but manifesting a group experience.
Barrable-Tishauer describes the Rave Institute as “an entity to cultivate human potential and social change through ritual rave experiences.” Portal is chapter one in a multi-part “immersive rave opera saga” she intends to continue when larger gatherings are safer.
It’s a cheeky, science fiction materialization of her own research into the factors that allow for human connection and joyful expression on the dance floor.
“We’re always in search of that immaterial vibe,” Barrable-Tishauer says. “How do you create the circumstances that allow people to feel safe to connect and express themselves?”
After all, if you can’t let your guard down, how are you going to cast off everyday stresses and have a transcendent experience? Hence her DJ name.
“When I’m surrounded by people I experience this sense of being alone and with myself in a spiritual way even though I’m dancing in this group,” she explains. “I use the dance floor as this radical utopia where we the ecstatic ritual of raving can serve myth-making and solidify community values. I see the dance floor as more than a party.”
Prior to DJing, Barrable-Tishauer was best known for playing Liberty Van Zandt for nine seasons on the TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation. She got into organizing events because, as a Black woman, she says she wanted to throw parties that prioritized safety.
“I say ‘safer space’ not ‘safe space’ because no space is truly safe. We all have the capacity to harm and be harmed,” she explains. “It’s about putting as much intentionality as you can into an event and being able to respond if people need support.”
Her parties Bass Witch and EveryBody started from a desire to create a thoughtful experience – from the DJs and music to security and the “vibe patrol,” a group of volunteers that wear brightly coloured vests and help out with de-escalation and harm reduction.
Discussions around safety and consent grew particularly loud when #MeToo was dominating headlines. COVID-19 has added a new layer to those conversations in the Toronto rave scene, she says.
“We’ve all learned these new ways to talk about safety and understand how we affect other people’s safety,” Barrable-Tishauer explains. “When I’m creating events I feel a sense of responsibility for how people feel. What happens if they don’t feel safe? Is there support on the ground? If you’re just having an anything-goes event, there are potentially challenges.”
She’s still DJing and attending virtual events. Everyone is sick of Zoom dance parties, but she’s still managed to have transcendent experiences online this summer.
On August 7, she attended Deaf Spectrum’s online Crip Rave. For the first time, she saw ASL music interpretation and captioning at a party. “People were commenting ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been to a rave. They’ve never been accessible to me before,'” she says. “That’s a paradigm shift that we could never have imagined.”
During the pandemic, she also created Brunch N Boogie, an online kitchen dance party that involved making a recipe while she DJed. “I’ve converted our living room to a dance floor. I have a laser that lights up a full-sized disco ball. Where we once hosted dinner parties is a full-out club.
Now that lockdown measures have eased and the vaccination rate is high, there’s a tension between those who are ready to let loose and those who are not – or can’t due to personal health reasons.
“There’s this excitement and desire to go back to club and rave spaces, but also the social anxiety of what it is like to be close to other people,” she says. “The main thing I’m hoping people take away [from this time] is that as we start to come out of this, people need to recognize their own agency to create a new world. Specifically within the rave scene, who do they want to support and what expectations do they have from event organizers?
“This conversation has been happening for a long time. The roots of this music is in underground Black, queer culture which was centred around political values,” she adds. “Somewhere along the way that’s gotten lost.”
What are her hopes for the future?
Post-pandemic, she sees a further decentralization of the dance music scene away from Toronto’s few clubs: new DJs, new promoters and new spaces. And she’s more focused on organizing events than being represented on other lineups.
“[Representation] can be tokenistic. It’s done because it’s what you’re supposed to do and not what you think you should do,” she says. “We have women’s night for International Women’s Day. But what does that really do on all your other nights?
“I hope all the amazing talent in this city will create their own spaces rather than hoping we’ll be seen or represented,” she says. “I’ll create the festival that I want to go to.”