The CAMERON HOUSE TEN- ANTS
My name is Napo and I inadvertently created one of the most enduring features of the Queen West street art, the Cameron House Ten Ants.
In 2009 for Nuit Blanche the ants that scaled the walls of the Cameron since 1984 where in need of repair if they were to remain on the buildings face. A crew of four people, Napo B, Jamie Osborne, Sean Wakfer and Tara B where able to totally remove repair and re-install the ants while large crowds of people looked on. The Cameron Ten Ants represent the ongoing activity of a creative colony that has thrived at this very special location for over thirty years, producing world class music, art, performance and video and continues to support creative individuals that have crossed it’s threshold to live and play in this very unique and influential institution in the heart of Queen Street West in Toronto.
This is the backstory to the TEN ANTS…
In 1982 I was introduced to Paul Sanella by Rebecca Baird, my studio at 2 Berkley Street had been robbed and I needed a pied de terre, to get my bearings. I remember walking threw the building from floor to floor looking for a room. Many rooms where empty but some of the old guys from the former existence still lived their. After the second and third floor I found a small eight by ten room on the fourth floor with a sink, I spray painted an alien on the window and it was mine. The room was bare and the prevailing odor of the building made it a rather unpleasant place to sleep, so I spent as little time as possible in the room.
By 1983 I got the opportunity to remake the second floor lounge and so I conceived “The Alien Lounge”, a large room on the second floor of the building with an adjacent kitchen. Because of no cash being available for the materials I decided to paint twenty three panels on vinyl, each panel was pre sold like stock. I numbered the back of each panel randomly and as agreed at the end of a three year period the panels would be removed and given to the corresponding stock numbers. I was able to sell all twenty three panels this way.
Herb Tookey, another one of the owners of the bar put in an amazing decco bar to finish up the lounge, and we inaugurated the space by shooting a scene for one of our Fastwurm films, which was followed by a film screening night. I had talked to Paul and Herb about the front of the building, and let them know that something had to change. So discussion began on how we would remake the front of the building.
My work with Fastwurm was nearby at our holdout on Queen Street next to Trinity Bellwood Park, we had burnt a crucifix on the front door of the studio to keep B & E people away which worked very well. The local church had requested we cover up the cross for the upcoming papal visit, mainly because the Pontiff was going to be visiting the adjacent church. We responded by putting chain link fencing over it to protect it.
I suggested to H & P that the front of the Cameron needed that big American city after dark metal gate look whichI would paint it Papal indigo purple and have the corner pillar in the entrance in metalic gold. The automotive metallic paint finish completely would transform the current angel stone facade.
The doorway was made to simulate a Neolithic cave entrance, with bone and antelope horn imprints in the concrete. The work was carried out during the night a lot of the time because to many people coming and going from the bar. Paul Sanella and I would spend many nights out their working, one night when we were doing the concrete entrance way we were talking about the rest of the building, I felt it needed something to hold it all together, a unitary object that would reflect what was going on inside.
We started right away with insects and after a few minutes realized that it had to be ants. It was perfect, art history has so many ant references, Dali, Ant Farm, Wojnarowicz, and it was the perfect metaphor for the interior activity. Picking a number I concluded ten, and Paul started to laugh,” Get it, Ten Ants”, and the rest is history.
They had no more money for the exterior reno, so I got paid with free rent for almost ten years; I made the ants out of coat hangers and found scraps of wood from the Cameron basement, with gaffing tape, spray paint, and two of the more fortunate ants where created with fiberglass resin and cloth,they still exist today in 2011.
I spent 1985 to early 1987 living in NYC. I worked with Kenny Baird at Area Night Club for the Goode Brothers and Sean Hauseman. I worked on club interior change overs coming up with a new theme every eight weeks. One theme was Surrealism, and so I constructed over thirty ants to go along with a human scale chess board. Most of those ants disappeared into Manhattan after the change over.The Pope did go by the Cameron and Paul had tried to get a Papal blessing, which was flatly refused by the local Archdiocese. But years later while in Rome, we (the Fastwurms) were shooting a film of “Napo on the wagon”, trying to be redeemed at the Vatican, and we found ourselves at Saint Peters. That is when we discovered that you could buy a Papal Blessing for thirty five dollars, so we got one for the Cameron House. It use to hang on the wall behind the bar downstairs, but over the years disappeared. Maybe the Pope took it back.
|Make-over of original ants in 1994
On my return to Toronto I was contacted by AA Bronson who was curating a show at the Powerplant Gallery in June of 1987 “From Sea to Shinning Sea” so I was commissioned to make ants for the outside of the building with help from local artist Reid Diamond. The arrangements was that the ants would then go to the Cameron to replace ants that had been vandalized or stolen over the years.
Later in 1994, all of the ants where removed from the building for a tenth anniversary make over. People watching me repelling and removing the ants where shouting at me to leave the ants alone. I had to constantly shout down to people that they where getting a makeover, most of them needed minor repairs and fresh paint, and that is when I decided to introduce a queen ant which was twice the size of all the other ants.
| Install at the MOCCA in Toronto
Finally in 2009, during Nuit Blanche, close friends Sean Wakfer and Jamie Osborne and Kara B helped me remove the original ants, mummifying the salvageable ones in shrink wrap plastic and giving them new legs. Also, as a request from my daughter we crowned the Queen Ant .
During the summer of 2011, a crop of ants from the 80s 90s along with new ones where installed on the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art in Toronto as part of the “This is Paradise” retrospective.
February 2012, five ants remain on the MOCCA’s exterior. I have enjoyed how people who discuss the Cameron Ants are surprised when I let them know that I was responsible for the ants. Many younger people talk about how the ants to them is quintessential Queen street lore, and represents important milestones in there lives. Fodor guide to Toronto suggests you visit the ant clad building and check out the amazing musical entertainment and art inside. Over the years thousands of photos have been taken of the ants as busloads of passengers on tour buses make it a photo stop on the Queen West tour.