With blistering LED screens and a slick, post-minimalist design rife with futurism, the newest addition to The Guvernment complex transports Toronto’s most storied nightclub closer to the 22nd century.
A large tank labeled “Liquid Nitrogen” is probably the first thing you’ll see when you turn that third corner to finally reach the main entrance of The Guvernment Entertainment Complex. Deep in a downtown corner—on the last street before Lake Ontario, below the Gardiner, past a too-out-of-place Loblaws, out of civilized public transit reach—lies one of Toronto’s oldest nightclub venues, yet one that manages to remain a fixture for those in search of a party “from dusk ‘til dawn.” Since it opened in 1996 on Queens Quay (formerly known under the name RPM/The Warehouse), the mega-venue (affectionately referred to as Guv, preceded by the word “luv”), which currently boasts five different rooms with five different sounds and the cavernous Kool Haus concert venue, has managed to outlast almost all of its contemporaries (the Comfort Zone ranks among them).
On Saturday night, it was the grand opening of Chroma, the complex’s newest paint-still-fresh room renovation that takes the place of the ever-iconic Orange Room. It’s the second newly re-designed area to be unveiled this month alone. Last Saturday, The Drink—the second-floor hip-hop/R&B room that developed legendary status in the late ’90s—was officially re-introduced as the 3,000-square-foot Surface, outfitted with gold-mirrored pillars, decadent chandeliers, and polished black finishes. The new Chroma space—the complete antithesis of Surface—is just the latest in a string of transformations fashioning the renaissance of the Guv brand for a new generation.
One hour and ten minutes after the intended 10 p.m. doors open time, the new Chroma still isn’t quite ready. Renovations started almost immediately after January 1, and the crew capitalized on the post-New Year’s lull to expedite the process with minimal business impact. As venues like King West’s Bloke & 4th have taught us (with their umpteen soft launches and this-doesn’t-count nights), complete preparation is, well, completely impossible. But when this new dominion belongs to the empire of nightlife impresario Charles Khabouth, known for his hands-on approach and clear-cut conceptions of what nightlife in this city should feel like, the devil is really in the details.
As much as you’d want to think—as I bet any drink-downing, pleasure-seeking nineteen-year-old would—that this really shouldn’t be a big deal (just stock the bar and hook up the speakers, man), it defeats the entire purpose of what Chroma is trying to achieve: a new kind of audio-visual clubbing. There’s something to see, a “world” unexplored. When you go into Guvernment’s main room, for example, it might as well be any other DJ show with a little bit of cash as a cushion. When you step into Chroma, regardless of the fact that there’s a mere twisting tunnel separating both spaces, you’re stepping into something greater: a carefully-designed place of worship that shows the next elevation of not only the Guv venue, but the brand itself.
Photograph by Jason Yee
How do you attract a newly incumbent cohort of the ADD generation (those born after 1992) without alienating everyone else? It’s simply the next cast of the characters who will play out a scene of the Guvernment’s story, those who grew up with information and with technology, with access and taste that extends well beyond their immediate surrounding, and often beyond their immediate reach. Some of the targeted Chroma crowd might not yet be able to roll with ease in comparable, always sub-par, Entertainment District venues, nor would they want to try to fake it either. There’s too much effort in that. Give them something modern (read: attractive/appealing/important-feeling) to serve as the backdrop of their youth, yet still accessible and away from words like “entertainment district,” and you’ve got a curious, if not willing, crowd.
To upgrade the Orange Room, Khabouth and co. enlisted production artist and designer Kenny Alvin Baird, whose credits include The Standard Hotel in Hollywood and Area Nightclub in Manhattan. The Guv’s mission statement has always remained the same: “attract the city’s social hedonists.” This also serves as the ideology behind the interior design, the driving force of the venue’s attraction. Baird is known for his intricate yet post-minimalist design and hard, tough lines that speak to a crisp, uncluttered aesthetic. If Chroma feels familiar to you, it’s probably because Baird also had a hand in creating the ambiance of the short-lived Circa at Richmond and John, Toronto’s greatest nightlife blunder to date. The two spaces have much in common: similar names, and similar visual cues, like the use of stark black mannequins that shine like the back of an iPhone. (Indeed, it’s easy enough to lift similar design elements since Chroma isn’t exactly going to turn into a Marshall’s department store anytime soon, so you can’t hold its reductive nature against its designer.) In the official release, Baird explains his inspiration succinctly, with plenty of allusions designed to appeal to a “think fast, think little” generation: “Chroma’s ethos is a funky fusion of Blade Runner and Tron. It will attract a young fresh demo of nightlife revelers who are style, tech and social media savvy.”
What I love about the Guvernment—and what is often taken for granted—is that it’s the most salient institution for music in this city, known for attracting international DJ talent that defined an era of club culture, DJs like Deep Dish, Paul Oakenfold, and Carl Cox. On Saturday night, recently-reunited San Francisco duo Gabriel & Dresden were booked alongside Main Room mainstay Mike Oliver. I’m betting this was no mistake; it all contributes to the humming of anticipation for the continual crowning of Guv 2.0. It really feels like a last big push for the true end, or re-invention rather, of the ’90s rave culture, where concept thinking, not concept dressing, is key, and the sole act of participating is enough to create that sense of collective cultural belonging that weaved ravers together originally. It’s not about being low rent anymore, it’s all about high art.
Photograph by Jason Yee
The line-up for Chroma is stretching around the block outside, and a crowd is forming in front of the connecting corridor from the Main Room. With a 600-person capacity, the new 3,000-square-foot room features two full bars, one that stretches almost the length of the entire room itself, and a DJ booth that looks like an elevated pod designed to put visions of spaceships in your head. It’s surrounded by billowing LED screens controlled by its own “video DJ” on the opposite side of the room, elevated in a corner high above the bar, doused in fog (that liquid nitrogen special effect). This would explain all the references to “futuristic” this and that, and why the Guv is calling it a “DiscoTech.” There’s a VIP/bottle service area, but, in a surprisingly smart, perhaps unintentional, move, it’s unnoticeable from the dance floor, hidden in a corner of Chroma that looks a bit like a planetarium would, featuring a screen displaying twinkling stars.
I regret to have to make this tiny connection, but after a while (or when you’re so sober all you’re doing is looking around) the Chroma space starts to feel eerily like a mash-up of imagery from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video. Its bartenders, clad in pink neon bob wigs and skin-tight white bodysuits (and variations thereof), morph into an army of femme fatales (or possibly a troupe of back-up dancers), especially when paired with those peculiar, yet trendy, futurisms. (And I’m saying this as someone who isn’t much of a Gaga fan and has probably only sat through that entire video three times, once just now to confirm this sneaking suspicion.)
Suddenly, screams come rushing in, and before I know it, the place is filling up faster than Union Station at rush hour. I often like to follow along with that the lack of a (still-dying) “dress to impress” code means: younger dudes in polos and plaid, girls in nothing but mini-dresses and tube tops, or barely-there skirts and too-high heels that result in that stumbling back-and-forth dance. (When the weather feels like -15 degrees, as it did on Saturday night, you can always count on the resilient Canadian girl to rock the bare leg like it’s no one’s business.) There are also a few standouts: there’s a boy wearing a blazer with jewellery dripping off protruding, padded shoulders (yes, like Lady Gaga), a woman in fur jacket with a platinum wig to match, an LED shirt that pulses with the music. One of the servers, or maybe it’s just a sheer act of coincidence, is rocking a pink tutu. Every form of glow-jewellery is present, including foam lightsabers that flash all the colours of a Skittles bag—and all given away for free by women dressed like 21st century Barbarellas to match the bartenders. Makes sense, since there’s also a guy in a Stormtrooper mask to match the poster hanging on one of the walls for Chroma’s next intergalactic bash (depicting two troopers holding a lifeless, life-like mannequin hostage). It’s not that no one knows how to dress, but rather that no one seems to care what that means—go at your own pace, stay within your own comfort levels. Despite Chroma’s stylized quest to appeal to the savvy, the last thing anyone cares about is having actual style.
Photograph by Paul Aguirre-Livingston
While the Guverment continues to evolve, there will still be remnants of its former self to comfort the not-yet-converted or discourage the true gloss-seekers: the bathrooms, for example, look like they haven’t been touched since 1996. The tunnels and mazes that connect the rooms are dark and constricting as usual, a charm I personally appreciate because the other side of these open to reveal bigger, airy spaces that assault the visual senses with a rush of “grandeur.” Ultimately, though, these tiny, as-yet-untouched details may end up making the space feel disjointed from any sort of “elevation” of the Complex as a whole. (Of course, I suspect, maybe hope, that these corridors will also face renovation, probably paneled with white and lit from underneath the surface, glowing so that patrons feel like they’re walking along the inside of a halo or through last year’s Powerball gala.)
But, as the excitement builds, the layers come off. It’s due, in part, to the Guv’s new resident DJ and the first to spin in the new Chroma space, Mike Toast, who does a good job of parading out his miscellaneous blend of dubstep, house (so new, barely old), and “mash-up club anthems.” Within an hour, we hear a mix of Jay-Z and Kanye’s “N*ggas in Paris” and a dubstep synthesis of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s a rainbow of colours and sounds. Walking back through the Main Room, people are still dancing on speakers, the strobes so intense you might have a seizure; you can’t hear anything or see anyone. If you’re looking for Toronto’s last great clubbing experience without pretense, if not guest list, then Guvernment is the place. I leave the Chroma experience reminded of a beloved song from Kelis’ last album: “Welcome to the 22nd century / Everybody’s dancin’ / ’Cause we are the stars, we are the stars.” Indeed, as Mike Toast drops the confetti at 12:30 a.m., everybody’s dancing. And in the future, that’s what will ultimately matter.
Let Chroma make a believer out of you when Benny Benassi plays The Guvernment on Sunday, February 19.