September 8, 2017, New York City
Editor’s Note: This conversation was sparked by Cláudio and João’s visit to New York in the late summer of 2017, which Kendra was alerted to by Todd Lanier Lester. I was asked to facilitate a conversation in my role as Digital Publics Fellow at The Center for the Humanities. My year-long project, Building Racial Equity and Expanding Community Engagement in NYC Dance and Performance Networks, has brought me to work with the City University of New York (CUNY) Dance Initiative, a residency for New York-based dance artists that utilizes underused space on CUNY campuses. We invited Alyssa Alpine, Director, and former CDI Artist-in-Residence, Maria Bauman, to join. We also invited, at Todd’s suggestion, Pato Hebert, who experienced some of Cláudio and João’s work in São Paulo, and has a long history in artmaking, pedagogy, and activism in the US and around the world. This conversation was audio-recorded at the CFH, and then transcribed. For the sake of brevity, I have cut out the intros from Alyssa, Kendra, and myself, and trimmed text where possible while trying not to change the original shape of the conversation.
– Jaime Shearn Coan, February 2018
Space and time, rhythms and vibrations. Creating space for bodies to be together, particularly LGBTQI people of color. Unregulated bodies, embodied bodies, moving bodies, still bodies. Alive bodies. What can happen in the duration. The hard work of alignment, liberation, transformation. Collectivity. Connectivity. How to live together—in the space of listening, in the space between rhythms. How to be rather than do, within racial capitalism. Centers and peripheries of power, spatial politics. Two-way travel between the academy and publics: meeting-places, pedagogical exchange. This is a held breath you might release to prepare for the polyrhythmic conversation that follows. We invite you to enter.
Cláudio Bueno: I’m Cláudio. I have a PhD in Visual Arts, I just finished it in 2015. When I finished the PhD, I was a bit disappointed with the visual arts field, and the academy, and how it operates. What is the connection between the academy and the world, how the world operates, and the connection between the research and the text, the ideas and the real world? And then, with Tainá Azeredo, I started a project with pedagogy, mapping and developing and experimenting with ways of learning today, in Brazil, and then in Latin America, and then, in the global world, but mainly the global south. The name of this project is Intervalo-Escola, it’s like “Interval-School.” So this field of pedagogy is important for me, and then, I started to develop the Explode! platform, with João.
At the same time, we were looking for the productions from the periphery, from the city, from São Paulo, from the outskirts. For me, for a long time, the voice of the academy, of the high intellectual, was so important. Now, we are in São Paulo, we are feeling how the periphery is vibrating. How they are thinking—their bodies, their presence, their world—moving ideas, moving politics. We have huge problems with education in Brazil. So they bring their experience, or the learning process comes from their bodies, from their experience with the city. There are some parties, like Batekoo, there are people voguing, and urban dances, social dances, coming up and creating strong movement. And also, through the digital platforms, we started to observe how video clips were being produced, and how important it was to return to the visuality of the body, because after MTV, video clips started to disappear. The production of video clips was not disappearing but it was less than the 80s or 90s. And then we started to observe the queer rap movement, people that identified themselves as LGBTQI in the middle of the rap, the hip hop scene, and how it was important to accept their bodies and say, “We’re here.” Then we started with Explode!, creating a space of knowledge, exchanging experiences—not only in the clubs, as defined before as a space for the LGBTQI community—but also creating daily encounters, conversation, and not exactly in formal spaces, because it’s also a problem to access these spaces: the university in the city for example.
João Simões: I’m João, and I’m with Cláudio in the Explode! Platform. I think it’s good to say that we had these activities in São Paulo. The first one is the Explode! Residency that happened in São Paulo, in partnership with Lanchonete.org and Musagetes Foundation. And the huge project called Queer City that happens during the year with other activities like queer walks and jantas/dinners, the Attack Ball (the first international ball from São Paulo), and other actions. And after that, we’ve been part of this curatorship in São Paulo in an institution called Sesc. This exposition was called Motumba, and Motumba was this huge exposition about black arts and culture in São Paulo, and we were invited there to be part of the LGBT “cut” into the black movement of art. So we invited some performers, dancers, and people to talk during the activities, and some of the artists were also part of the Explode! Residency. For example, Jota Mombaça, Michelle Matiuzzi, Ezio Rosa—these artists in particular bring the idea of the black context into the LGBT experience in the urban context. And after that, we have had another project called Rainbow Riots. We invited three artists from South Africa: Umlilo & Stash Crew. Umlilo is a performer/artist/singer, who has a music project, and Stash Crew is a duo, an electro-duo, who always perform with Umlilo. But actually Stash Crew brings the idea of whiteness in South Africa, and this understanding of what it is to be a white person who does not support this apartheid system, and the history of all that. It was important to bring this experience to São Paulo and share and compare what happens in these two different countries.
Beyond Explode!, I work with a black contemporary dance group, called Sansacroma. Cia Sansacroma is from Brazil, led by Gal Martrins. Gal Martrins is from the outskirts of São Paulo, from a neighborhood called Capão Redondo—it’s on the south side. She developed, over fifteen years, her own pedagogy, and her own way of dancing, through these bodies from the peripheries of São Paulo, black bodies. And she is very connected to the scene but she is always struggling with the structure of contemporary dance in Brazil.
I’m also part of another collective called Amem, and Amem started with some parties called Amem parties. Amem came from the expression Amen Brothers, from the hip-hop singers, but they took the Brothers off because it’s a kind of manly thing, and the parties are more inclusive to queer people in Brazil, to black queer people especially. And all these events start with conversations and discussions about the questions around these communities. And after that we have a party with performances and dance and everything. That’s it. [laughter]
Maria Bauman: What do you do with the dance group, Sansacroma?
JS: I’m a producer for them, and I research with the dance group. I’m not like this big producer guy, with all this money and everything—for me producing is research. All the things I do are research. Every time. It doesn’t interest me to be part of a mainstream company with white people dancing—not white people but people who are not connected to the things I am trying to research: race, gender, and all these issues that interest me now.
MB: Okay, great. Well, I’m Maria Bauman, and, like you both, I wear many hats. Maybe not hats, but just ways of being. My primary ways of being are as a dance artist and a community organizer. My organizing work is around undoing racism, and I do that in a few different ways: as a core trainer for The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and also as co-founder of ACRE, which is local here, Artists Co-creating Real Equity. That really came about organically. Myself and two other artists: Nathan Trice and Sarita Covington (Nathan in contemporary dance here, and Sarita in theater), hosted, put together, organized, a few Understanding and Undoing Racism trainings in a row, specifically for artists, because we had all been part of the People’s Institute trainings and said, Oh this is great, and we need it in our fields, particularly we want to talk to artists about it. And the demand has been overwhelming, actually it continues to be, people still ask: when are you doing another one, and we say, that’s just something we did, when are you doing one? [laughter] But what we found was that afterwards, so many of us were saying: we have a lot to talk about, as far as how race is constructed in this country, how we’ve exported it, our idea of race, around the world, and what means in our own field in the arts. I think now—well first of all, there’s a lot of money being poured into our field, performing arts, in New York, around undoing racism. And I think that has a lot to do with the political climate we find ourselves in—not that we find ourselves in, that we created, here. But I’ll say, before that, before that kind of en vogue, there’s a lot of money going to it, I think that we were suffering from a bit of romanticism, that “Oh we’re artists, everything is everything” utopia—and of course, unfortunately, we know that that’s not true. And it’s great to be an artist, I wouldn’t want to be anything else, and, that we have racism in the US means we have racism in the arts in the US.
So that’s a big part of who I am and what I do on the organizing side, but as far as dancing, I have a dance company, MBDance, and I’m running right now, because on Thursday we’re opening a piece called dying and dying and dying, which is an evening-length work. I’m calling it a meditation on different kinds of endings—physical death, but also other kinds of dying, and really looking at capitalism as the opposite of death, not life. I’m been feeling into it, I’m thinking about it a lot, and researching, and realizing that, wow, if death is about pausing, or stillness, or emptiness, or rest, the opposite of that is like always adding, not pausing, doing more, things that are tangible. Death is about an unknown—which feels like capitalism: a rush to constantly produce, to not ever have a cycle. You know, death says that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Capitalism says [snap], go. Just keep making, do, do, do, do, do. So anyhow, the piece, it involves a gallery installation that I created with a visual artist, that includes video work and, lots—dancing, singing, ancestor items. And really centers blackness, and black ways of being in touch with our ancestors, and each other. I mean, of course, we are all up in capitalism as well, but I do think that there are parts of black culture that fly in the face of this mainstream capitalism, that I worry we’re eroding in ourselves. The piece is sort of like standing in the middle of the river, you know, and not being washed away. It’s like, “No, we’re gonna be here,” and recover and reclaim some of these ways of being in touch with what’s not tangible.
CB: This idea to create space and time and not to respond all the time to the demands of capitalism really speaks to me. For me, one of the urgencies is to create free space for bodies being together. For the Explode! Residency, we were living in the same house for eleven days, with Ultra-red members from New York, Michael Roberson and Robert Sember—we were just living and talking—a long conversation, living together—and dancing also, and creating some days for dance. And then we invited people from many different spaces in the periphery of São Paulo, and they slept in the house, so, at the beginning we invited 10-12 people to be there, and at the end it was like twenty—wow! [laughter] People started to connect, to come, to stay together, building this kind of safe space, brave space, space for discussion.
MB: I appreciate you saying being together, because that’s been a real emphasis, particularly as people who—we’re capital in this country. I mean we have a history of being property, there’s something really powerful I think about being rather than doing. We have a legacy of being expected to do, do, do, so what does it mean that actually I get to be with you, and that’s it. And maybe that’s not it, but that’s primary.
Pato Hebert: I’m Pato Hebert. I teach at NYU, in the Department of Art and Public Policy, which is a one-year Masters program for diverse artists, scholars, curators, activists and educators who want to look at the relationship between art and politics. And not just look at this relationship, or do, but also be, as Maria was saying. So this has me based in New York during the school year, otherwise I try to be in LA whenever possible. I’m a visual artist and an organizer. Since 1994, the primary organizing that I do has been around HIV, sexual health, and resilience, mostly with queer communities of color, in this country and in the Global South. This work first began at a very local, grassroots level with a multi-gendered queer community in San Francisco, and I started by teaching art and photography classes.
That was my entrée into HIV. Now the work can feel a little more abstracted or diffuse sometimes, because it’s part of building a global movement. I work with the Global Forum on MSM & HIV, trying to coordinate very local grassroots organizing and activism with regional and then global mechanisms. We work with community groups around the world to build a scaffolded process that doesn’t simply replicate the colonial models of North to South, or top-down public health approaches. Instead we try to hold space and create connective tissue for the multiple models that communities create to take care of ourselves and one another. That work is primarily global compared to the neighborhood-based work that was my beginning—for a couple of years I was mostly working in Latin America, and right now a lot of the work is in Central Asia and the Ukraine. The organizing is transnational, but the work that I’m doing is with groups doing really amazing organizing work and service provision on the ground, pushing against government restrictions and neglect. They are doing amazing things in difficult circumstances and with very limited resources, and I feel really fortunate to be part of this work.
Often the visual work that I do as an artist dovetails with the HIV organizing, but sometimes it’s about many other things. I have a gallery and a museum-based practice, often working in photography and sculpture, and I also do a lot of participatory and site-based projects as part of my practice. Much of my work is about place and space and our relationship to these and one another, including the historical ways that we’ve been alienated and disassociated, and then ways we manage to find alignment and belonging—not in a romanticized sense, but rather the hard work, and the pleasure, of doing that, together.
One project that I’m working on right now is with Haverford, a small, liberal arts, private college outside of Philadelphia that comes out of the Quaker religious tradition. There’s a tradition of service on one hand, but also accountability on the other—and of space, the space of listening—and not always filling it, but actually listening, and only speaking when called to speak, or by a need. The college sits on land that originally belonged to Lenni-Lenape people, the Indigenous people of the place. I’ve been doing some research into these histories, and also working with local people in the area. One story relates to the tree under which Chief Tamanend and leadership are said to have signed a treaty with William Penn (whom the state of Pennsylvania is named after). There is a diaspora of sapling descendants of that tree around the Philadelphia area, planted after the original tree died on the banks of the river. Haverford College is a custodian of a couple of these descendant trees. They form a living link and embodiment of this crucial moment in colonial encounter (that would be one way to call it). We’re trying to make a public artwork that would not simply treat that tree as a kind of colonial trophy that reinforces the erasure and displacement of Lenni-Lenape people, who mostly now live in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Canada. Instead we are seeking to not just decolonize this narrative and living legacy, but rather as my colleague Stephen Gilchrist, an Indigenous curator in Australia, says, would indigenize the understanding and encounter with that space.
So the tensions around contested histories, bodies and futurities is something that runs throughout my work. I first met Cláudio and João through the Queer City project. I didn’t get to participate in the Explode! Residency that they organized—but I came right on the heels of that gathering. I was invited to São Paulo by Todd Lester of Lanchonete.org to facilitate a discussion a bit like the one we are having right now, a public discussion with some people who work internationally around ideas of queer archives, and what it means to have encounter through the arts—meaningful and liberatory encounters. That discussion featured Cairo-based activist Kholoud Bidak, London-based photographer and activist Ajamu, and Quito-based curator and archivist Eduardo Carrera.
Then I was also able to photograph the Ataque ball, which was one of the outcomes of the Explode! Residency. I don’t mainly have a movement practice in an artistic or public sense, but I do have over twenty years of learning to be in my body and with others through house music. So Ataque for me was really beautiful, because I’m seeing young people embracing, and then exploding in their own ways in movement related to house music. I felt this kind of continuity, but was also asking this question: how to have continuity but not simply be some dusty, middle-aged gatekeeper—presumptuous of my place in those lineages, but to work through, and play through, and move through the possibility of connections across time and space. When I was in São Paulo, I didn’t actually get to know Cláudio and João very well because I missed the residency. João kept showing up in the pictures from the ball, with his beautiful smile and blue braids, but we didn’t actually get to know each other super well until they visited here in New York. Over the last week we’ve now had three amazing conversations and I feel like we’ve spent a ton of time together. But it’s an example to me of how an encounter—which is really the space we made together there, then creates this space we’re now in here at CUNY, thanks to you all, and creates these possibilities and relationships that really wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So now we feel like old compas, you know, compañeros, but it didn’t immediately start that way. Anyway, pleasure to meet you all.
CB: When we talk about being together, it’s also a consequence of the dictatorship in Brazil, in São Paulo, up until the 80s, for example, where people couldn’t live together, couldn’t be together in public spaces. Or, if you have a group, it’s supposed to be dangerous for the society. Nowadays, there’s the ability to create groups, to convene together, thinking about strategies, thinking about the body—it’s important, after a period of dictatorship. This is also the base of the conversation. I’m also trying to understand notions of identity through the education project I mentioned: Intervalo-Escola, between São Paulo and Amazonia, working with people in Amazonia, in the middle of the forest, where they’re not indigenous, they’re not black, they’re not white, so the notion of queer, updates for me—who, when you’re working with people who’ve lost their relation with the land, they’re not indigenous anymore, they don’t struggle for the land, through the land. And they are not accepted in the city because they are not white. If someone says, “you are indigenous”, they—
JS: —refuse the idea. They are taught that being indigenous is bad, is being a kind of thief or uncivilized—all the bad things that are associated with the indigenous reality in Brazil.
CB: And they are not connected to the black movement for example, so, how to build up the notion of identity, the notion of queer, when you didn’t decide to be queer or to have this kind of identity?
MB: I’m interested in notions of queerness also, maybe from a different, or similar and different angle. I think a lot about how those identities, particularly, you said race, class, and gender and I’m thinking those, and also romantic inclination, and how those dance with each other, and sometimes eclipse each other, and to what end. So, I’m queer, here in New York—and it is a strong identifier and it’s not. It is, in that it’s who I am, it’s who a lot of my social circle is, but it’s not as far as—in the way that people might think: Maria: black artist, I’m not sure—even though I make art that centers queer stories, I’m not sure that people think Maria: queer artist. And I don’t necessarily forefront that much, because I fear, or I feel, that here, queer is often (and not always) but often about manhood, on some spectrum, a transition towards or away from, but that manhood is centered there. And also maybe whiteness. I think being a queer woman of color seems kind of in left field, it’s just not so hot, not so sexy. And I mean, we still are, it doesn’t matter, we just are who we are. But I am interested in what forefronting those identities means, and I think that’s the basis of a lot of my undoing racism work.
When I first came to New York, I did a lot of work at WOW Café Theater, which is a theater by and for women and transgender folks, and the way that those two terms overlap. We found, that in working together—you don’t have to be queer to work at WOW, but it’s largely queer, and largely lesbian I would say. Again, not exclusively, but largely. And what we found was that we really shared this idea of being (mostly) lesbian artists. And it was like, great we have this space, we created it together, we put our sweat into it, we do it, and—really, race was the thing that separated us. So I worry sometimes that forefronting queer identity is towards the erasure of women of color who are queer. And it doesn’t need to be so, and it’s not denoted to be so, but connotation-wise, it feels like it’s so. So anyway, I’m interested in that sort of blurry—who’s queer, who gets to be queer. When is it advantageous, and when is it like, well, wait a minute, I don’t want to be in the queer party. Yeah, I’m queer but I’m also black, and that can easily be eclipsed. It’s like “we’re all queer”—yeah we are, but there are pretty major divisions. I’m interested in these notions of queerness, and when we perform it, and when don’t, and for what.
CB: Yes, I’m always asking who can decide to be queer, when queer comes from, it’s a vocabulary from the academy. From the perspective of São Paulo, we received the term, this vocabulary, coming from the academy. So we are developing our bodies, in the streets, in the clubs, and it’s not about a theory. And then, who is deciding to use this word, and who can be uncategorized? We were invited to participate in Black LGBT Pride here, in conversation with House Lives Matter. It was an intense week of work, and it was so important to hear them saying: “We are black trans women and men,” instead of avoiding those labels and categories. And there were some conflicts between trans and cisgender women in the ballroom scene.
JS: I would like to say something from the Brazilian perspective, because queer came into this huge umbrella of gender issues and everything, and came from the academy. But, somehow, for example, we have this huge group of people called geração tombamento, generation—tomabamento is like “falling down.” The people who organize Batekoo party—it’s a huge group of black queer people, women and men, transgender women, and gender bender and all these categories, and not-categories—and they are always reaffirming that space of being whatever they want or have the right to be: their colored hair, or being fat, or—the right to the body, it’s very important. This party is about that—they dance for the right of their bodies.
PH: And the space, no?
JS: And the space. I think now in São Paulo, and maybe in Brazil, they are the most important party, because they connect all these people. And everybody’s looking at that, because they are so powerful. They are changing a lot of conventions, about this idea of the body, and about this right to the space, too. And they are discussing queer, but not in an academic way. They’re discussing in their life, in their bodies.
CB: And they did create a new name for themselves: the generation tombamento. It’s important.
JS: And actually, they are now coming back through into academics. One example: Renata Prado is one of the organizers of Batekoo São Paulo. Renata Prado is a pedagogy student at Universidad Federal São Paulo, and she is bringing tombamento to the academy. Because there is a huge movement, and it’s important to emphasize. It’s always a kind of interchange, into life and the academy.
CB: Yes, and when we say, okay I was disappointed with the visual arts, or the academy, I’m not saying I’m rejecting it. It’s important to say that, because now they’re closing universities in Brazil. In the university in Rio, they closed this year because they could not pay teachers or anyone who was working there. So when I talk, I’m not rejecting the academy, but only creating spaces and possibilities to people coming from peripheries to also occupy these spaces, and also to connect—as you are opening the space for dance—to open spaces in the academy for the publics—how to respond to the urgency, to learn to be together, and then creating experimental spaces of learning. So, many things at the same time [snaps]—it’s not binary, but coordinating many things at the same time.
Jaime Shearn Coan: Thanks, Cláudio. I was thinking: everyone here is an organizer in a way. I’m interested in the travel—what you are bringing to the work, and then what actually ends up happening in these collective situations. And how that maybe changes what you came in with. How do you create a space that is not fixed, that is liberatory, that is open to collective generation—or how do you set the conditions for that? And then also, how has the collaborative work gone back into and maybe transformed other projects you’re involved in?
PH: Earlier this week I was at Hetrick-Martin Institute in Greenwich Village, a space that works with queer youth. I was working with Leesa Tabrizi and the young people in the Arts and Culture program there, holding the first meeting to see if we might want to work together. And one of the young people who’s gone back and forth with their relationship to their own sense of their gender and transition, and also how to be an artist in this city, was lamenting what they felt was the lack of creative space for young queers in New York. I talked about how even just small groups of people coming together can make possibilities with one another. And I just sort of casually mentioned Cláudio and João’s screening of Cidade Queer / Queer City that was being held at Spectrum, a queer community party and programming space in Brooklyn, The screening of this documentary film by Danila Bustamente about the Explode! Residency was set to occur just a couple of days later, so I said to this young artist, you might think about coming. And by the time I got to that space out in Bushwick (Brooklyn) a few nights later, there they were. Initially it had been such a small, quick exchange, but at the screening they stayed a long time, through all the Q & A, and I was reminded that sometimes these kinds of gatherings are the spark. That’s how I got involved in HIV and queer organizing back in 1993, through a public reading at a bookstore in the Mission in San Francisco that was organized by writer Ricardo A. Bracho and Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida. I’d never seen queer brown people, particularly men, that vulnerable, raw, creative, open and together like that in public, and these were twenty, thirty-somethings. It just completely changed everything, for what was possible in a public space together. So it was moving to experience the Queer City screening in Brooklyn this week, even with all the problematics of that space in Bushwick, and to see João and Cláudio, through their work, make that space be very brown, Brazilian, immigrant and multiply queer, a space where this young person finds their way.
MB: I really appreciate your idea of not-fixed space, which really makes me think of space that is alive. And if something is alive—and I will admit, it probably has to do with being in the middle of dying and dying and dying, but I do feel that if something is alive, that means it is cyclical. It’s not always one direction forward. So I think about ACRE, which is, I think, amazing, and imperfect; trying, and not there. And at times, I can feel so proud, and also humbled. I’m thinking about expectations. That we don’t expect our spaces to be photo-perfect finished all the time. I think that’s a really binary concept—either it’s good or it sucks. But that our spaces are alive, and that our groupings are alive. Also, I’m thinking a lot about transparency and bravery, if the space is meant to be liberatory, because I don’t think any of us are really socialized towards liberation. I think for the most part, we’re socialized towards conformity, on a lot of levels. I don’t mean to say we have such a strong dystopia, but liberation, I don’t think, is at the forefront of the agenda. Bravery is quite a big deal, because we’re mostly being against our socialization, when we’re in liberatory—to speak of examples, the two spaces I am thinking of in my life: my dance company, MBDance, and ACRE. In MBDance, the way that we work, valuing process—we make products, but I try to put that way down on the agenda. Trusting that, Maria, you’re so socialized to that, that’ll come out anyway, without me focusing on that. And also, coming from a real community engagement standpoint, there, working with women of color, there’s a way that that space just feels really sacred to me, and liberatory, and we’ve talked about it that way. And I think, man it’s brave—I think, I mean, I feel out on a limb, to say, even when I say “working with women of color,” I feel a little bit like—[intake of breath] you know. I have all those moments at the table, thinking “Did they hear that as like I hate white people?” Even just to say that feels brave, even though it should be just like yeah, those are the five people that I’m working with. But I think bravery comes in. Same thing with ACRE—to me, that’s another space that feels liberatory. And by liberatory, I do not mean perfect. [laughter] But we are making it, we are creating it. So I think liberatory space is hard work—figuring out what we want. But the transparency and the bravery, I’ll be honest and say something that’s been humbling for ACRE lately, is that whiteness is so powerful, that it can seep in anywhere, and it can say, oh thank you for making this for us, even the most well-meaning white people and almost whiteness as an entity. And so as three people of color who created and co-founded ACRE, some meeting months, when we see that the circle is super white, it feels like, oh my god—and it’s such a paradox, again, not the binary, not to say that those people are not welcome, because they in fact are, but it’s—hmmm. Just what is the what of that? Am I making white people feel so safe and wonderful that they feel really attracted, more than I make people of color feel that way? Oh, then I need to look at that myself, or is it the schedule, you know just those things. And I think about transparency there, that at the last meeting, we named that. And that felt really scary. It feels scary just to say white in the US. I mean I know it’s not against the law. I actually just try to say it all the time, because that feels liberatory.
CB: Connecting with your talk, and thinking about how to create spaces that are not fixed, we are trying to create this transnational dialogue. How is it possible, what is this virtual umbrella—what is this history, what’s the memory of this group, how can we connect, how are we connected? And then for me, the idea of space is connected to histories—we participate in the same space, physical or virtual, if we share elements like memories, history, travel. It’s interesting to be not fixed or virtual because you consider it’s changing all the time and you don’t have fixed relations, you can also go to another direction and flirt with another identity or group. When we say “the same” it’s also dangerous. There are different problems, struggles, and references. For example, from Brazil, we are connected with queer, with race gender and class issues, and it’s not a fixed category, it’s not an isolated space, we are connected with the landless movement, and with indigenous people, and other modes of existence, modes of resistance, modes of being together, learning together, queering life, queering architecture, spaces, etc.
JS: I was thinking about all the troubles that we encounter trying to create those spaces, cause we have this hyper-connected society and it’s hard for people to be fully integrated into something. It’s not a fight against, but it’s a kind of—how can we bring all the things together. It’s a good moment, for example, I think that kind of connection can bring us together in a meeting like this, in a situation like this. But sometimes it takes us off to other levels of discussion—
CB: —yes, and to quote the philosopher Roland Barthes, for example, he has this book How to Live Together. He talks about “idiorrhythmy”—do you know this concept? Idios is like my own, by myself—your own rhythm, idiorrhythmy—and he’s talking about how is it possible to live your own rhythm and then live together. How do you connect your individuality, your time, and the time of the community? And he says, power defines the rhythm. And also, how these groups, these communities, and spaces, can define their specificities. Like, now we are talking about black LGBT people, and at the second moment, it’s connected with—
JS: —mass incarceration.
CB: Yes. So, how to create not this idea of intersectionality—everything is connected, we are in the same struggle all the time, but there are rhythms, where for a moment you are struggling with something, and then you connect with a group.
JSC: And it seems to me that there’s something about duration that really pushes against this idea of somebody being just one thing, one rhythm. Because if there’s a whole group of people together, obviously, all of these other things are going to enter. I think it kind of cuts abstraction, it also cuts the idea that somebody is primarily one thing—like you’re more black, or you’re more queer. Everybody here is invested in these durational, embodied experiences. It seems like there’s so much more potential there.
PH: I think that’s important, and duration could allow for Maria’s beautiful reminder about cycle, and it’s not necessarily linear, right? Or outcome-based. When I try to talk to people about why house dance floors mean so much to me, it’s because they are political, rooted in love, and deeply polyrhythmic. They offer a space to find and enact or embody multiple rhythms and vibrations. You can have a traditional, often highly-gendered, partner dance happening in one part of the dance floor, you can have group dance, like circle surround, where there’s the performer of the moment who gets beckoned back and forth in call and response in a space that is therefore shared and participatory, and you can be off in the corner doing your own damn polyrhythm, and all that can happen simultaneously, and over the duration of five minutes, shifting in and out. I don’t think that’s necessarily unique to house music, but because of the way that house music, in my experience, here and in São Paulo, gets raced, classed, and gendered, and because of the way house bodies condition the movement we make together, it’s responding to a different counterpower of the music, that’s coming out of rich traditions. Again, I don’t think that’s unique to house, but somehow a house floor for me is one of the most profound embodiments of the question you’re asking, of these open systems, and it reminds me of Barthes in that way.
MB: I’m thinking of space, too. I agree with you about this idea of house floor and also this idea of duration, and this gets into maybe a heady conversation. When you say time-space, duration has to do with space, but I am thinking about a spill-over. What you just made me think about, as far as all of these things can be happening in the same time, but I was thinking also in the same space—there’s literally room for it all. And I think that makes sense also for liberatory spaces, as you’re saying, whereas maybe sometimes I feel invited, but invited with a very particular amount of space. Like Maria, come be choreographer, or come be smart organizer, or whatever—I can only make an example of myself, but I know everybody at this table has an example of come be…there’s space for this much of you, or really, this is what we need. And in a way it makes sense in some settings, but I think when it happens again and again you feel, oh there’s lack of space for me. Something about liberatory spaces that you all are helping me think of is that there’s space for the oozing, of all of us. That it’s not just a neat, “I’ll give my elbow,” People literally spread out, but I’m also thinking of that spreading-out which means, you bring your children, or like a spilling-out of self, or an ability to spread yourself. And even time, it’s hard to differentiate, because there is that time-space, but I’m thinking that liberatory spaces also make room for “so and so’s leaving early or so and so’s coming late, because of the rest of them.”
PH: I like the spill. I’ve been trying to think about how people are talking about the question. I came across a theorist I didn’t previously know named Beth Dempster, who is thinking about sustainability and ecology, and this idea that she crafted about twenty years ago, I think it’s called “sympoietic systems.” She utilizes this idea to describe systems that she calls “organizationally ajar.” And they’re co-created and open-ended systems rather than closed and rigid.
There’s something about you talking about the Baketoo parties, I only got to experience one while I was in São Paulo, but it’s got to be like the equivalent to taking over a narrow, New York alley, packing it with 3,000 twenty-something queer Black bodies of multiple kinds, tonalities, sensibilities, performativities. It starts at, what, 12:30 at night, and goes til late. And because of the architectural spacing and then the claiming of public space—the critical mass prevents a kind of policing, or even a white middle-class consuming and surveilling. The spatialization makes it too dense—if you come in, you have to be part of this collective, but ever unique multiformed Black queerness. On the one hand it can seem spatially trapped, architecturally, but at the same time it cannot be undone from without. There’s a compact intimacy to it. I’ve never theorized it before, I’m making this up, but it’s very complicated and magical what happens in that space. The energy is also super concentrated in this alley, that’s just booming, right? It’s pretty amazing, and to hear you give it even further historical context is really very moving to me—what they’re doing with this organizing and claiming of public space.
CB: One last thing about the fixed space and not fixed: for me, the idea of house, or the buildings, the architecture—it brings hierarchy, and a very well-defined space, and then when you think through not-fixed space, it’s also possible to think about leaders, and not one person. You break this kind of hierarchy that the fixed space can define beforehand.
Alyssa Alpine: I’m wondering what made you decide to do the actual physical house residency? To bring a certain number of people together in a house?
CB: Yeah, we decided to come to this house for the Explode! Residency, one project—because it was the house where I was born, and I lived there until 22, and I couldn’t say I was gay in that neighborhood. I lived in very difficult circumstances with my sister—she was being threatened and violated in this house. A black cousin died from an overdose from drugs—he came to live with me and then he moved and then he died. But there are many histories, memories connected with this house. And then we invited people to come, and then to discuss many things, and different issues, related to race, gender, and class. That’s why we decided to live with the group in that house, and it’s also considered the periphery of São Paulo, twenty-five kilometers from the center, from downtown, and we were trying to bring this idea that you can affirm, you can say who you are in any place in the city, not only downtown, but also on the peripheries, in the outskirts.
PH: Which would be a bit like old-school Bed-Stuy or the South Bronx in New York, in terms of spatialization, versus Manhattan.
CB: So we decided that for this project. And then we moved and the Ataque party was downtown. And then Batekoo, they promote bodies in the center, but also neighborhoods very far away from the center.
JS: I think it’s important to promote that kind of movement, getting out of downtown, and bringing people from there, and making people get out of the safe space of art galleries or the white experience of art.
CB: Usually when we think politics, it’s downtown, the center of the city, and we were there in the house on the outskirts during President Dilma’s impeachment, and the neighborhood was completely silent.
JS: The city is on fire, people are struggling there—
CB: The center of the city is completely burning, and the periphery in silence—
JS: It reflects a lot of political issues, and how people are connected to politics, and how they understand themselves in that system—“Why do I have to leave my house and light something on fire? This government, it actually doesn’t do nothing for me. Why do I have to be part of that movement?” It’s complicated. It’s not easy to define. But to have this silent moment, everyone’s completely quiet in this neighborhood. We are on top of the house and see the neighborhood, it’s completely quiet. And downtown is riots.
Kendra Sullivan: I was really interested in your question about keeping alive a space for transformation, and then thinking about the spatialization of your practice, and how it transpires over the whole city, and just thinking about the capitalist underbelly of transformation, which would be something like gentrification, and how when you’re thinking about this taking place across space, how you might remain open to one kind of change, and resistant to another, and how those two things are constantly playing against each other.
JS: I’d like to say that we’re living in downtown São Paulo, and because of the infrastructure of the city, it’s an advantage, because it’s easier to go to everywhere. And one of the reasons that people could come to downtown to unite, to be themselves, to realize their queerness and everything, is because of the access to these places. Cláudio lives in a special neighborhood called Largo do Arouche. It was a specifically LGBT space to be.
CB: The LGBT community from the peripheries, they come to Largo do Arouche.
JS: There’s a huge square with some bars and many clubs. And there’s life in the square too, they sell drinks and everything. There’s music and dance in the square. But now we have this specific moment in São Paulo about this movement to gentrify the downtown—there’s a lot of historical buildings, it’s a beautiful place, and there’s this movement to make the center more traditional again. The mayor of São Paulo, João Dória, for example, was trying to create this French promenade in that area. It’s very weird. Because it takes off all this history that was created by those people who were not invited to be in other places, not allowed to be in other places, to create a tourist place for white, rich people.
CB: Right, so if in some neighborhoods, queer people bring gentrification, what we are living, what João is saying, is the opposite. Gentrification is trying to erase the LGBTQ history of the neighborhood, because they are poor, basically. They’re poor, they’re black, they’re from the peripheries.
PH: One thing that struck me when I was there, the party that I described earlier, was one example, of both claiming and pushing back, right? The outdoor location and nature of the party are produced by conditions, because the party organizers weren’t able to get permits because of racism. They had to claim public street space—because simply to even rent an indoor space, as it were, was inhibited because they were constantly bumping up against racism. So the party was one example of how people are creating their commons. And then we also got to visit and be led through people’s organizing process of a housing occupation. In São Paulo the housing occupation movement is super strong. That visit was a moving example of how people have reclaimed, literally, the shelled-out space of ‘80s capital, for multiple kinds of residential organizing. And not simply as squatting, as in, I’m gonna make this mine as an individual, but rather explicitly as a collective movement for the right to housing and the city. So the party and the housing occupations were some of the most striking ways that people are organizing against the process that João just described, and this is all happening simultaneously.
PH: The residency occupation, the little bit I got to see, I read as multiracial, and multigenerational. And something like that is happening within ten or fifteen minutes of where, on some nights, once or twice a month, this party claiming of space is happening. For me, it was this challenge, as somebody who doesn’t know São Paulo, and was a visitor, a guest—how do I make sense of these incredibly dynamic spatialized practices, even as the violence of the gentrification is very palpable. It was hard for me to imagine either of those examples working in Manhattan, because of the intense surveillance, police violence, gentrification and the spatial conditions here. Which isn’t to recenter New York, but rather to ask, what can we learn from each other’s struggles and how do we share in each other’s practices?
Barthes, Roland. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces (Notes for a lecture course and seminar the Collège de France 1976-1977). Translated by Kate Briggs. New York, Columbia University Press, 2002.
Dempster, Beth. “Sympoietic and Autopoietic Systems: A New Distinction for Self-Organizing Systems” in Proceedings of the World Congress of the Systems Sciences and ISSS 2000, JK Allen and J. Wilby, eds. International Society for Systems Studies Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada, 2000.