By Kait Fowlie
Photos by Karol Orzechowski of Decipher Images
I really enjoy finding people and places that do things based solely on the fact that it makes life more fun and interesting. Art should be this way, I think. Ryan Ringer thinks so too. He’s created a small universe of art and fun in the market and called it Project 165. When I stop by the space on a rainy Wednesday, I try to get to the bottom of the inscrutable curator’s monthly cabaret habits, love of lemonade stands, and history of road trips to New York.

There is a method to the ostensible madness, however. Project 165 is a physical extension of Ryan’s artistic brainchild, Methinks. Methinks started during his art school years at OCAD, where he studied sculpture and installation – a theory intensive program that left him with a yearning to get down and dirty with hands on projects. Out of OCAD, Methinks built up momentum, and soon, bars, hotels and other venues in the city became restricting. He decided he needed his own physical space for art and community building.

Two years ago, Project 165 was born. There are two parts – the store front which houses installations and exhibits, and nine studio spaces in the back. Project 165 hosts open houses a few times per year, as well as a collection of other events ranging from installation pieces, screenings and workshops to birthday parties. For example, last summer, Ryan hosted a gargantuan garage sale. He took donations from across the city, and turned the space into a junk shop with a lemonade stand out front. It was open all night and saw many stumbling visitors from the Boat across the street who were enthused by the obscure merchandise. One girl was super jazzed about purchasing a vintage radio and continuing the party with her new epic find. (I chuckle at this anecdote as he tells me, however I’m flooded with the memory of once spending 80 dollars in Sonic Boom after a particularly drunken late dinner in the Annex. I am not proud of this, but getting it out in the open helps.)

One of the regular events currently happening at Project 165 is called “Tea and Cookies”, which happens on the last Saturday of every month. It’s a cabaret event which features spoken word poetry, comedy, a little bit of everything in terms of performance art. While Ryan is an artist of various methods – he is a curator, a performance artist, a writer, blogger and event designer, his work has a lot to do with people. Perhaps his overarching goal is to bring art down to an approachable level. It needs to be fun. For Ryan, leaving the stage and entering the social sphere with his performance art was liberating. There’s more potential for reaching out to people this way.

However, says the man who started running New York City road trips out of OCAD, challenges do exist at Project 165. Perhaps biggest of all is Ryan’s personal conflict with his contribution to the gentrification of the neighbourhood. The space is clearly a far shot from a white walled gallery that simply churns out assembly line ideas. It’s raw, and you can feel the time and effort that goes in and comes out of it. He wants to make art accessible and fun, on an everyday level, and for that reason I think his space contributes to the excellence of the market, and the city at large. Spaces like Project 165 contribute a little more character to these pockets of subculture that the market is famous for – and even blaze into the night at times. (Even if they are selling drunks second hand radios while they’re doing it). He also notes the financial difficulties of keeping a space like this afloat. It’s not easy to scrounge donations and maintain quality programming. There’s always a struggle between doing what you need to do and what you want to do. Any artist can relate to this. (ie – last night, my roommate and I really wanted to chug beers and make a collage out of 1950’s cookbooks and playboys but we both had to work. Life is so hard sometimes.)

When I ask Ryan what he thinks is the most special aspect of the Toronto art scene, he seems conflicted. Special, he notes, is a pretty loaded word. So many Canadian cities have great stuff happening, and so too, does Toronto, but our splendid city suffers from the one artistic downfall that Ryan laments – it’s too safe. It has a lot of potential, and it’s a great city to live in, but it’s also very conservative, socially, and politically. He tells me that historically, artists have had to leave, obtain a reputation as an artist elsewhere, and come back to be accepted into the local scene here in Toronto. So will we ever be seeing any Lady Gagas coming out of our humble digs here in the dirty south of Ontario? Who knows. Ryan tells me that he has learned, on his many art – focused road trips to New York, that people there are really curious about Canada, and Toronto specifically.

When I ask Ryan if there is anything else he wants to talk about (I’m out of questions, but only because I have a million more and don’t want to take up too much of his time), he simply says he has lots of shows and workshops coming up, and is always looking for proposals from artists. His shows, he says, kind of remind him of high school when he was doing punk rock concerts in his parents basement. “It’s intimate, really intimate” he says, with a solemn, angst ridden artist look his face. Then he bursts into laughter.