How these rising Toronto artists pivoted to make lockdown work for them


In Toronto, with the second wave in full force, residents are bracing for an isolating winter indoors. As stay-at-home orders persist, the usually bustling city has been quiet, with many of us about to enter our tenth month of working from home.

But some jobs are easier to do from home than others. For many creatives who work with the public, these changes have posed a new challenge. With the latest lockdowns and creative spaces like music venues, theatres, clubs and studios closed for the foreseeable future, how can artists keep up with their craft?

Creatives have had to employ resilience and ingenuity to rethink their approaches, and some have even ended up discovering new connections with their art that they might not have found otherwise. We spoke with three rising Toronto artists about how they've pivoted to make restrictions work for them: DJ Ace Dillinger, photographer Alyson Hardwick and comedian Brandon Ash-Mohammed.

Ace Dillinger, DJ

2020 was off to a great start for DJ Ace Dillinger.

She had gigs booked in Europe for the first time in her five-year career and planned to tour extensively in the U.S. One of the shows she was most excited for was an afterparty for Afropunk in Brooklyn, an annual arts festival for live music, film, fashion and art produced by Black artists which she has attended herself in the past. Dillinger also had big plans for Strapped.TO, a Toronto-based monthly BIPOC and queer-focused dance party. As their resident DJ, she and the event's founder, Marisa Grant, were going to team up with different collectives around the U.S. to put on local editions of the party.

Having finally saved up enough money to travel, Dillinger remembers thinking, "This is gonna be the best year ever."

And then in March, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, shutting down all non-essential businesses and services, including the bars and clubs where Dillinger used to perform. Travelling abroad was out of the question, too. At the time, there was hope this arrangement would be temporary — a few weeks, perhaps. But those venues ended up being closed for the majority of the year.

DJing in a club is all about people gathering in a crowd to dance — something that's impossible in the era of COVID. "It was like swallowing an elephant," she says.

After coming to terms with the fact that nothing would be reopening anytime soon, Dillinger pivoted to virtual performances. Strapped.TO moved its party online using Zoom, and in the summer, they were even able to host an outdoor, socially distanced dance party in celebration of their one-year anniversary. But now that the cold weather and heightened restrictions are forcing everyone back inside, online DJing is really the only option.

While Dillinger loves to DJ no matter what, there's nothing quite like the actual dance floor. "Real-life parties are not something you can replicate," she says. "It doesn't have the same vibe at all — no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try."

There are also a lot of things about DJing in front of a screen that have taken Dillinger some time to get used to. Without the energy of a crowd, it just doesn't feel the same. And closing a laptop at the end of a set, rather than socializing and continuing on with the night, can be depressing. On top of that, performing on Zoom puts all the spotlight on the DJ — something Dillinger is not used to. "I don't really like to be the centre of attention," she says. "I just like to play the music."

But since the Toronto party scene won't be going back to "normal" in the near future, the show must go on. People still need a way to let loose and socialize during these strange times — so with this in mind, Dillinger and Grant started rethinking the concept of the party, wondering how to make it more engaging and not just another event for people to "sign in to" after a long day of working remotely.

On Halloween this year, they launched the first adaptation of their party: The Strap House. In collaboration with Maggie's Toronto, an organization by and for sex workers, The Strap House is a monthly virtual strip club that celebrates Black and queer folks in the industry. The night features various different forms of entertainment instead of just DJing, making it more engaging for both Dillinger and the other people who attend.

"You can be at the strip club in the comfort of your own home, still listen to great music, still connect with people," she says. "There's an entertainment aspect where you're actually being visually stimulated, as opposed to just listening to music. I think that has helped."

Heading into 2021, Dillinger is taking things step by step. "I think this year taught me that nothing is certain, literally nothing," says Dillinger. She's currently looking forward to a virtual New Year's Eve party with The Strap House, and continuing to make R&B mixes for her weekly radio show Dilly's Dose on ISO Radio.