WFP Column: Turning the table

Duets: Turning the table – The Vinyl Salon DJ collective creates space for collaboration and reinvention

Everyone designs. From inspired entrepreneurs full to the brim with ideas for our city to the many pop-up shops that have emerged in our downtown. From the local coffee shop on the corner to the delicate, delicious artisan pastries that we can’t help but devour, design is everywhere. Duets is an exclusive Winnipeg Free Press monthly series that pairs design experts with local champions and innovators to brainstorm new opportunities for civic building. Duets is written by HTFC Planning & Design’s Jason Syvixay, with imagery and photography provided by Kal Barteski and David Moder Photography.

Key themes, illustrated by Barteski.

In Winnipeg, a collective known as The Vinyl Salon are beginning to create space to play music, learn from one another, and collaborate. Co-founded by Renee Girard, Brittany Curtis, and Rachelle Bourget, The Vinyl Salon convenes in coffee shops, cocktail bars, and on stage at places like The Forks. Girard, Curtis, and Bourget joined HTFC Planning & Design’s Constantina Douvris and Chelsea Synychych to explore the resurgence of vinyl records. This trend follows the adage, “Everything old is new again,” as more people desire a return to what once was. Douvris, a landscape architect of nearly 20 years and senior associate at HTFC, recalls how she proudly purchased her first record when she was 12, at a time when music couldn’t be streamed online. She reminisced about a time when records created a reason to congregate. “There’s value in The Vinyl Salon as an opportunity to create a sense of community and sharing,” she said. Revisiting and reinventing this type of vintage is particularly true in our contemporary landscape – as the planning and designing of spaces and places often rely on the interpretation of history and heritage. As The Vinyl Salon explained, their on-stage communication is based on collaboration, openness, and trust – the same principles, as Douvris and Synychych explain, are needed for good design.

The Vinyl Salon started as a vinyl book club, Girard says.

Girard, a café manager at Forth, a local bar, coffee shop, and café, recalled her love for music beginning at a young age: “I love collecting vinyl because music has always been part of my life. I grew up playing piano. Music hits you. It hits you right in the heart.” Curtis, a city planning master’s student, grew up playing music as well. When asked about her favourite vinyl, she declared: “The love of my life, Tom Waits. I will always and forever have a soft spot in my heart for ‘Closing Time’ because my dad played it for my mom the first time she went over to his apartment.” Bourget is a contemporary dancer who curates her own vinyl record playlists for her artistic discipline. Her vinyl collection has grown over time. “Growing up, my dad had a pretty big record collection, but we didn’t have a turntable. He’s been giving me a couple of them over the years– some are questionable,” she said. Synychych, a landscape planner and designer at HTFC for five years, has spent much of her time working with northern communities on land use planning, design, and traditional knowledge studies. With fond memories of her favourite childhood vinyl, Fred Penner, she now plays the same music for her nearly two-year-old daughter.  

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind The Vinyl Salon? What are some of the goals and objectives?

● Girard: We started it three years ago because we felt like there was a void in representation in the local music scene. It’s very male-dominated. We also understand how important it is to support artists by purchasing their music, buying vinyl at their shows – not just downloading tracks online. So, I put a call out to some friends of mine who I knew collected vinyl records to meet, and things took off from there.

 Curtis: And it started at one of our apartments.

● Douvris: Was your goal to collect records and just listen to them?

● Girard: And to talk about them. To talk about our experiences and what the music brought to us. The Vinyl Salon wasn’t originally a performance group. It started almost as a vinyl book club. Instead of each of us buying the same record, we would pick a theme and people would bring three records related to that theme. Each of us would talk about why we chose the records, and what they meant to us.

● Curtis: Some weeks, it was ‘60s garage rock. Other weeks it was albums that make you feel sexy, or an album that makes you feel nostalgic about your childhood, or an album you put on when you’re feeling blue.

● Girard: Rachelle hosted one that was called “The Witching Hour!”

● Curtis: It ended up being, like Renée said, a book club. Maybe Rachelle would bring something to my house that I loved and had never heard of, so that inspired me to look more into that artist. Or maybe someone chose a genre that I didn’t know anything about, so that would mean that I would go to Into The Music and talk to the guys who work there and say “What can you tell me about this genre? What do you like? Who should I definitely know in this genre?” It ended up being a way to advance your hobby, in a way. And an excuse to learn more about music in a really comfortable space because you were with a bunch of really close friends that you trusted. Everyone was likeminded. You didn’t feel embarrassed about not having an opinion about an unfamiliar genre of music, or a specific album someone else praised.

The return of vinyl records is a way of bringing back what’s old. Is that important in design?

 Douvris: The design process is about understanding a place. Places are steeped in cultural history, tradition, and events – and speak to their social, political, and economic meanings. So, yes, it’s definitely important to consider the past when designing. Not only does this provide inspiration and direction, it helps to build on the authentic essence of it.

You mentioned how The Vinyl Salon has evolved into more of a performance group. Can you expand on this?

 Girard: It was really eye opening to put ourselves out there. Because it was such an intimate environment, at first you may have felt nervous, but you immediately, almost upon walking in, felt comfortable. And like Brit was saying, and I’m sure Rachelle has felt this as well, even if you didn’t know that person or if their musical tastes or genre didn’t match with yours, you just wanted to learn from them. You wanted to hear what they were saying. You wanted to see how this artist made such an impact on their life. Even if it was just one song. Music does that to people. I can’t even explain how much it means to me.

 Curtis: And then it opened the doors to talk about work, and school, and relationships, and friendships, and families. And also an excuse to drink wine and eat cheese!

● Douvris: How did it turn into performing?

 Curtis: So many of the people involved in the Vinyl Salon have so much on the go. We all have so many projects and so many interests that are being balanced. A lot of us have worked in the restaurant industry. And I think our transition to performing started because some of our close friends who work in the industry started saying, “Do you want to come and play your records at our restaurant or at our bar?” It started very naturally in that sense, because they were friends of ours who had heard that we were doing this. Initially it was men who were asking us to play, because they thought it was kind of cool that we were a group of people they didn’t often see doing this, and also they weren’t allowed to come join. So it started by people inviting us into their spaces.

● Douvris: So what was your first gig?

● Curtis: It was at The Tallest Poppy for First Fridays, then Albert Street Cocktail on the Saturday.

 Girard: Oh right! The first time we played, we were like, “Let’s just do a double whammy in one weekend!”

 Douvris: Is it just the three of you that perform?

 Girard: There are eight of us. But we don’t all perform together. It’s difficult, and that’s why we want to bring it back to the original version.

As a man, it was amazing to see The Vinyl Salon form, to watch all of you working together. I wanted to be part of it, but thought, “That’s their thing. They’re creating their own space to learn all of these different things about each other.”

 Curtis: And it’s not that we ever wanted it to be exclusionary in terms of gender. We never meant to become these so-called ambassadors of safer spaces. It was just our safe space. It was about being together and to learn about music together and to have this support network of people that you trusted. The very first gig that we did, I remember it so specifically because that night I had served before the gig and I had a horrible experience with a male customer who just made me feel like nothing. I hid in the back until he left. My manager closed the restaurant. I felt as though he had undressed me. If I had met him on the street I would have felt unsafe and I felt horrified with how quickly he’d stripped me of my power and value. And that night was my first gig. I texted the group and said “I’m having the worst night. This man has made me feel like nothing.” I felt embarrassed and ashamed and angry. And then I went to this gig and had the best night with my friends. I was going to this venue where, yes, I was going to be standing up front as a performer, but I had this group supporting me, who without many words, knew exactly what the experience I had just had was. I felt safe and lifted by that. And I feel that’s what this is about.

 Synychych: That’s beautiful. Horrible, but beautiful.

● Curtis: There are multiple groups in Winnipeg that are doing such incredibly important work of creating safer spaces for different groups of marginalized people. It’s just about shared experience.

 Syvixay: Safe space can be defined differently for all sorts of people and groups.

What kinds of venues do you perform at?

 Curtis: We’ve been invited to perform at all sorts of venues – some indoors, some outside. It ranges.

 Douvris: Is it the venue that makes you feel safe or is it being together as a collective?

 Girard: There are a few places that we’ve turned down because we felt like it didn’t represent us or we didn’t feel comfortable performing there.

 Curtis: And venues where we felt like it wasn’t our place.

 Girard: We try to be very conscious about where we’re playing, whom we’re playing for, and the entire environment, versus just booking a gig.

 Douvris: Today, there is more gender parity in architecture and landscape architecture in academia. What happens, sometimes, is that this dwindles off when you enter the workforce. While our office has a woman for a founding partner and many female Principals, we still work within a male-dominated industry. As a senior person in our office, I try to support the younger women in the office in terms of building capacity and helping them find confidence in their voice. Women in our office look to one another, and it’s great we can support one another.

 Barteski: I’m an artist, yet I still get called “sweetheart,” and “kiddo.” Even men that I admire and work with, and ones that don’t talk over me, call me these things. They still say things like, “Good job kiddo, you really rocked that one!”

 Curtis: Women are scorned for some of the same qualities admired in men. However, I am still a white female living in Canada. There are times when I’m a minority in a group of men, but I’m certainly in a position of privilege. I can only imagine the difficulties faced by people in a variety of minority groups. If somebody goes to The Good Will Social Club and sees our group DJ-ing and having fun, hopefully that’s going to make women and non-binary people feel more welcome. But we can’t replace amazing groups like Queer Trans People of Colour (QTPOC), who are doing immense work to make people feel included in spaces. I think it’s just about being seen and having shared experiences and shared voices. If you can go into a space and be with people like you, that’s what makes spaces safer in my opinion.

 Barteski: I had a meeting last week with 40 men who are conservation officers. They carried guns and bullets and all kinds of things, and you could just see them wondering what I was doing there, but I rocked it! And by the end of the meeting, they were asking me questions and asking for suggestions, and I felt so much power rise up inside. And I was like, how can I share this power, because it felt so good, and it doesn’t happen very often.

 Douvris: Being represented at the table is empowering. It’s encouraging to see more of a balance. At the same time, having experience being in the minority really sharpens awareness of what other excluded groups may feel.

 Girard: We’re still new, petit bébés in the scene. We’re still learning. It’s extremely flattering and exciting that we’re getting all of these opportunities. We may not know the proper terms when speaking to sound-techs because we aren’t digital DJs, we’re strictly vinyl. So Sarah Michaelson, DJ Mama Cutsworth, has been so helpful. We were like, “How do we do this? Sarah, tell us your ways, please help us out!” It was really amazing to work with somebody who has been DJ-ing for years and who has so much experience. I felt so good after that. She made me feel so empowered, and not talked down to at all.

The Vinyl Salon is about shared experience, says Curtis.

● Curtis: It was like she opened her toolbox and handed us all of these tools. Which is another nice thing that I feel sometimes in these safer shared spaces, it’s about building people up and helping each other rather than competing.

Are there specific designed spaces or outdoor spaces that could be played, should be played? How can music enhance space?

 Synychych: Music kind of creates its own space, I think. When music is played, especially in an outdoor space, it attracts people and activates the space. It draws people in. Sometimes the act of finding where the music is coming from is just as exciting; navigating through different streets of the Exchange District, for example, in an attempt to find the musical source. As you get closer to the music, the excitement builds, the atmosphere changes, and the sound creates a temporary space.

 Curtis: We played outside at The Forks for New Year’s Eve, where that little circular skating rink is! We were in one of the warming huts, that orange and blue warming hut, and we played when the fireworks were taking place.

 Girard: And it was snowing on our records!

 Curtis: We were trying to protect them. We were trying to protect each other. It was windy and it was cold. They didn’t have a heat lamp and we had our bare hands out. Yet we still had the best time!

 Girard: But that’s the thing. We were all there. It was Brit, Chloe and I playing. And Brit was telling us to cover our records. It was snowing and while we were in a warming hut, the three of us had to move our table to get out of the snow. The three of us were squished in there, and we could not move beyond where we were physically standing. But there was a crowd! The Forks told us we only had to play until the fireworks started, but we were having such a good time, and everybody else was too! And even though our records might have been damaged, we still went for it. We kept playing, and people were screaming, “Encore!” There were hundreds of people dancing outside this little warming hut in the freezing cold. It was the most incredible experience. I feel that dancing is such a big part of what we do now as performers, even though we’re not playing instruments, we’re curating the night, and if we’re having fun, they’re having fun. It was so incredible.

Winnipeg is embracing design curation, explains Douvris.

 Douvris: Something incredible is happening in Winnipeg. We’ve embraced this very broad notion of curation and have made it our own. Graphic designers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, fashion designers, and graffiti artists – we’re all coming together, with open minds, to think about how to activate places like The Forks. A skating rink becomes a place for salsa lessons. A warming hut on the frozen river becomes a place for culinary innovation. This spirit of collaboration is combining and remixing disciplines, and in many ways, helping to reinvent and repurpose our spaces and places, making them much more appealing to others.

DJ-ing is all about transition from one song to the next. Communities, too, transition over time and throughout a city. How do you transition from song to song? How does that come about?

 Bourget: One thing I find really interesting about us is how we transition between songs. The way that we figure out what works for us is really fun, because we all have different styles and tastes but we’re really communicative, like “Ok, who’s going next?” I think it’s pretty unique because we’re really right in it, and we’re making things happen. Sometimes somebody will just drop it and change, which is like, “Oh, what am I going to do after this?”

Synychych DJs for the first time, with help from Bourget.

 Synychych: I often find the transition between spaces or materials and elements the most exciting; that’s where I find excitement in design. This is also true of existing landscapes. For example, the transition between the sand and the water, or a forest edge opening up on to a prairie; there is a lot of excitement, energy, and wonder that occurs at the transition between elements and in how those elements interact with each other. And I think music is similar. The transition between songs is often so important in the excitement that a crowd feels, at least that’s the way I’ve experienced it. And so that’s really fascinating to hear you speak of your musical transitions. I’m so excited to hear you play!

 Curtis: Design is collaborative. Well, the best design should be collaborative, and the decisions are collaborative. So in a way, because we have a collective, it’s not one person choosing the mood and atmosphere of the night. Maybe we’ve decided that we’re each going to trade off after three songs, or one song, or maybe we’re going to do half-hour sets, but regardless, we’re always communicating with each other. So maybe I’m playing, and I say to Rachelle “I have one more left” and she’ll say, “What is it?” And I’ll say, “Well I could play this or this, what are you feeling?” and we try to line it up so that the mood or the vibe is consistent and then we’re working with each other to maintain that mood or build or slow down or whatever we’re doing.

 Douvris: What we do as designers is collaborative. Our process includes not only understanding who we are designing for but also being aware that spaces are in transition by nature as well. People and surroundings change, so it’s our job to make sure that people are comfortable and can take ownership of the spaces we design.

 Barteski: That skating rink at The Forks is so transformative.

 Douvris: Because it’s not a “stage.” It’s flat so it’s multi-functional and lends itself to varied activities. Oodena is another example at The Forks that has taken on a whole life of its own. It’s the people that make it, and activate the space – helping it become more than just brick and mortar.

 Curtis: And the collaboration makes you stronger because you can’t just design for one amorphous public. You need to be considering so many different individual citizens that make up the public, so using a group or having collaboration amongst individuals hopefully will help to see the different sides of what the public needs.

 Douvris: I think landscape architecture is particularly rigorous in terms of input from the public as all of our work is outside. We try to be sensitive to this and to get it right. To communicate well throughout the process, we need to speak to the people who don’t normally speak and look for those quieter voices.

 Curtis: Yes, people who aren’t necessarily in charge of the planning operations or design operations.

 Douvris: Exactly, we have to be perceptive so we can draw on the ideas of those who aren’t speaking as loudly.

Do you have any other comments?

 Douvris: I love what you folks are doing. You are creating a safe environment for one another just by being together, performing together.

 Curtis: Music is a version of language and communication. One of the beautiful things about music I think is that you hear a song, say for example you’re sad, and you hear a song that rings true, you feel less alone. You feel like someone else has this experience of mine, and that they can speak to you in that way.

 Synychych: Design, in a similar sense, is a universal language. While there will be different people with different interests – just like music – creating spaces that allow for flexibility to explore and support those different interests is a part of great design.  Barteski: I think music is a vehicle for connection and creating that organic safe space that you found through your group

 Curtis: Considering individuals, all people are important, but individual experiences differ. I feel like being part of this collective has made me aware that it’s that shared experience that makes me feel safe. I still need to be aware of all the positions of privilege I may be in. I don’t take that for granted. And people who have different experiences than I do also need to – deserve to – feel those connections.

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