The Fall of Active Surplus and the Rise of the Gorilla Store
For most artists, a quick trip to the local art supply store provides them with a one-stop-shop that gives them easy access to pretty much all of the art supplies that they need for their practices. But for Ace, sourcing art supplies requires a lot of sleuthing around in dank, dark and dusty electronic surplus stores and warehouses, hodgepodge hardware store basements, or on-line supplier websites in search of a treasure trove of antiquated circuit boards or bulk quantities of colourful capacitors, resistors, transistors, light emitting diodes or a plethora of other electronic related paraphernalia.
One source that Ace frequented prior to its closing in the Fall of 2015 was Active Surplus on Queen Street West in Toronto. This weird and wonderful store has a longstanding 50-year history and an intimate relationship with artists and art students from nearby Ontario College of Art and Design University. Professors would regularly send their students to comb the jam-packed warehouse-like shelves and narrow aisles for odd but fascinating materials to integrate into their art assignments. The staff at Active Surplus were incredibly knowledgeable and could give you the complete history and technical specifications and function of the most obscure gadget in the store.
Ace’s contact at the time was Graham Green, who was manager and buyer for Active Surplus, sourcing weird and wonderful inventory for the store. Graham knew exactly what lurked in every nook and cranny of the second floor walk up retail space. Each visit was always charged with excitement and anticipation that began with a greeting by the Active Surplus life-sized stuffed and tatty Gorilla, affectionately dubbed Professor Banana, who was habitually posed directly in front of the entrance to let customers know that the store was open for business. As with most of the unique stores that made Queen Street West a vibrant arts district, Active Surplus was just one more victim in a long line of closures due to gentrification.
After Active Surplus closed, Graham Green and Imma Gobunquin mounted a pop-up exhibition titled “Active Surplus Electronics: A Group Exhibition” in Projector Gallery at 592 Markham Street to showcase former artist clients, whose work incorporated electronic components and Active Surplus inventory. The exhibition ran from November 9 to December 3, 2015 and included; Erin Ademoglu (Jeweller); Barry Ace (Mixed Media Artist); Eric Au (Custom Slingshots); Sheryl Dudley (Painter/Photographer); Peter Roth (Kinetic Sculptor); Steve Schnier (Puppeteer); Patrick Svilans (Kinetic Sculptor); and Eugen-Florin Zamfirescu (Painter/Photographer). The Active Surplus neon signage and Professor Banana the mascot gorilla were important icons and integral components to the exhibition.
Post Active Surplus, Graham Green opened his first store inside the Ontario Science Centre selling electronic supplies in support of the Science Centre’s robotics program. A year later he opened the Gorilla Store on Spadina Avenue in a shared space with Makerspace where he offered supplies, electronic components and support materials for workshops. In February 2020, Graham opened a new storefront at 609 College Street that is a hybrid model of educational materials, electronic components, plastics and metal supplies and workshop space. The Gorilla Store also has room for the installation of artwork. It also carries some of the same weird and wonderful inventory of its predecessor Active Surplus, and with Graham Green’s extensive network of supplier connections, he can pretty much source anything as a special order.
Embedded and encoded in each one of Ace’s signature electronic component works lies this unique history of Active Surplus and the Gorilla Store.
The Gorilla Store at the Ontario Science Centre (here)
The Gorilla Store on Twitter (here)
Toronto’s Active Surplus closing (CBC video)