For Making a Scene: 50 Years of Alternative Bay Area Spaces we interviewed T. Kebo Drew the Managing Director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP) in San Francisco. QWOCMAP “creates, exhibits and distributes new films that authentically reflect the lives of queer women of color and address the vital social justice issues that concern multiple communities.”
As an organization that creates your own alternative spaces as well as collaborating with others (like the Brava Theatre), how has your experience with Bay Area alternative spaces changed over time?
There are a couple of things at play. One of them is, the organization was founded with a California Arts Council Artist in Residence grant so by necessity there has always been a need to partner because that particular grant was about partnering with an organization in order to provide free classes to a particular community. That necessitated needing to partner with Luna Sea Performance Project back then, and as that relationship changed, then also moving on to the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center, which has been a really great partner for about 11 years. They provided workshop space; they allowed Queer Women Of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP) to use some of the equipment that they had purchased for their own program, so it was a really great relationship and when we started traveling with the workshops that also meant we needed to kind of figure out where to go next. We’ve been partnering with other organizations to be able to provide those workshops. I think part of what we do is create a space wherever we are. As we learn and grow, we are pushing the spaces that we are in to learn and grow as well.
That has been one of those challenges that always comes with whatever space we happen to be using, and we are educating people a lot about what we do and how we do it and the reasons why we do it, and some people are really open to that and to that learning, and [for] some people that is like way too much for them, so we’ve had various challenges in terms of space. I think the other thing is that a lot of venues are having this issue where the spaces that we have just aren’t quite right. We serve free food because that’s part of community building and is culturally significant to most of the people who come to our event. So we’re always constantly balancing cost with what we do and how we created community, so it’s a different set of considerations all at once.
Through the Queer Women of Color Film Festival, QWOCMAP has created and maintained alternative spaces for queer women of color to present their stories and find an audience. Why do you feel it’s important for this to be a regular and ongoing part of the community dialogue?
I think that it’s always great to have a space that allows you to tell the story that you want to tell. The other thing is that QWOCMAP does great things for the community but then some people want something different, and I think that that’s okay to have all those different voices because I think that we need something that speaks to us on all these different levels. I think that the one challenge in the Bay Area is that we expect all things to be all things to all people and I think that’s really hard to do, but I also think that we have to consider how sustainable it is to have tonnes of events. There’s only so much that we can all do and then it starts to play into issues around sustainability. Basically, if we’re counter programming against someone and we steal the audience from someone else, or they steal the audience that would normally come to our thing, then that just means it’s unsustainable for everyone. So I think we have to spend a little bit more time being intentional about what we’re doing.
QWOCMAP goes beyond filmmaking; your training and distribution programs reach out to Queer Women of Color both in- and outside of the Bay Area. How do you feel your scope has affected your mission?
The training program has always been the heart of the organization. That’s what the organization started with—the training program. Now, how we do workshops is we can travel with them, take them wherever people happen to be, but we partner with local organizations on the ground. That means that the next time we travel with a workshop we’d be partnering with an organization and saying ‘Do you have a space that we can use?’, and we do have some criteria for what makes those spaces great. So even if we’re using other spaces we’re using them in a way that makes sense to us. And we’re thinking about space because we’re a population that tends not to have space in terms of owning space or space that’s designated for us, so space for us is very temporal, and if you’re looking at a queer and trans community we’re used to always creating space, taking over whatever just like we take over the Brava Theatre—so that’s the training piece of it.
And then the film festival, like I mentioned, is its own thing. We’re constantly pushing at people’s edges in ways that I don’t think that they recognize but there’s always this little bit of tension. When we look at the audience surveys from the film festival one of the things that they kept saying over and over was that they felt welcomed, or they felt included, or that it was warm or friendly. That’s intentional, you know; we have a policies and procedures document that’s over 200 pages and it outlines all of these things about how to create welcome, inclusion, and respect, and the values behind everything that we’re doing, because we believe that logistical decisions are political decisions and you can’t pretend that they’re not. If you choose to have something in an inaccessible venue then that says something.
Once we get to distribution that’s where things get really interesting, because we’re not in control of the space in the same way; we’re not in control of how the films are put together or received. But, one of the things that we’ve been able to do, because we’re the kind of distributor that we are, is that no other distributor offers boutique curatorial. So we customize the curation. With us, people can come and say ‘I really want to look into films around displacement,’ and we will come up with a whole custom program just around that. Looking at films that explicitly deal with displacement but some other films where that’s a part of the story, so not only are you getting a program about displacement but it’s touching on other issues that go into displacement, like poverty. So we do film festivals, we do universities, we do small organizations that are like ours, like our partner organizations can use the films for training, fundraisers etc., and then we have partnerships.
One of the things that QWOCMAP is working on is a particular project for queer and trans people of color around displacement, because again we’re talking about a population that doesn’t necessarily own a lot of space and we end up creating organizations or creating spaces. Because we’re such a temporal population we’re working on a project so that we can start to take over not just the inside of spaces but the outside of spaces, and not in the sense of queer and trans people being on parade but us taking over space the way we might take over Brava to the point that it becomes a tipping point on the street. That’s the next big project that we’re working on, we’re trying to get some funding for, and we’re looking into projection mapping and a few other things to kind of show how we have to roll deep to create safe space for ourselves and what that means to other people. Because usually when people start talking about gentrification they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s much safer’—but much safer for who? Because that’s not a space that is safe for us. So when people start talking safety I immediately go on guard, and most of us will immediately go on guard because their sense of safety or their racial imagination does not encompass the community that we’re talking about. That is something that we need to talk about. Not just place-making but place-keeping, or even the sense of recreating place. I think that’s kind of what QWOCMAP does very naturally because of the population that we serve, so I don’t necessarily think that the scope of what we do has affected the mission—that is our mission. We need a space that centralizes our stories and our experiences because the reality is that when we create spaces that center queer women of color —and that includes cisgender and trans women but they’re queer and of color—when we center our experiences, everybody comes. Everybody. If you want to see a lot of young people in one place in a multigenerational space it’s going to be in a QWOCMAP-like space. If you want to see people of mixed abilities in one space it’s going to be a QWOCMAP-like space. I think part of what we’re trying to do is to make it so that people can say, ‘You know what? I don’t know anybody but it’s going to be okay,’ or ‘This is a place where I can feel comfortable and I’ll feel intentionally welcomed, not like other spaces where people act like they could care less whether I’m there.’ Because there’s actually people at the door saying welcome to you, because that’s actually the intent. Society is set up so that you don’t have to intend to hurt someone and they’re going to get hurt. But if you plan to make people feel welcomed and included and respected and honored then you do have to be intentional, you do have to pay attention, and I think that that makes the arts experience very different, I think that it encourages a certain kind of community dialogue.
The exhibition: Making a Scene: 50 Years of Alternative Spaces is on view from July 9th – August 20th, 2015.
About the Author:
Alexandra Fulks is a senior at California College of the Arts and a Communications Intern at SOMArts Cultural Center.
Photo and video courtesy of QWOCMAP