This year, artist and “visual top” (a variation of the word curator Caitlin reserves for her own managerial style) Caitlin Sweet is part of a collective called Dirtstar. As the June’s Pride happenings are appearing on the horizon Dirtstar is putting on a showcase of brave and brilliant queer artists for the 2011 National Queer Arts Festival. NQAF now in its 14th year, is a month-long festival of music, dance, visual art, literature, performance, comedy, theater, and film featuring hundreds of queer artists. As always, NQAF is happening on the shores of the legitimately famed gay city of them all- San Francisco!
The visual art show is opening June 2 and lasts through June 19. You can BUY TICKETS to the Closing Performance Event scheduled for Sunday June 19, 5-7pm, however no one will be turned away for lack of funds. The visual component of the showcase, the Take Root exhibition, is flanked by a breathtaking array of performances and workshops along with other happenings. All I can say is folks, keep your ears close to the ground.
I need to do little talking in presenting Caitlin Sweet. She does such a fantastic and powerful job herself. That is why the feature of this post is a brand spankin’ new interview I did with this queer Jane-of-all-trades. It’s been my honor to know this woman from my days in SF. She is fiercely intelligent, outspoken and sexy- a welcome fixture to any LGBT community. But most of all, she had done a fine job curating this trailblazing show for us queers. Please enjoy!
M: This is your first year participating- is that right?
C: I did an installation in Dirtstar last year, which led one of the organizers to ask me to help for this year.
M: Who and what is Dirtstar?
C: This is the first time I have organized Dirt Star and this its third and final year. It has been primarily, for the last three years, organized by these two siblings, Ami and Aman Puri and then Marianne Brooks. She didn’t organize it last year- she was out of the country. Dirtstar is an event, an art event, that looks at the way that queers have a longstanding voice in part of, for lack of a better words, the sustainability movement, the green movement. Queers have always been in the foreground of looking at ways to reexamine our relationship with our food, our environment and each other, who often aren’t included in that conversation. Dirtstar is about showcasing the work that queers have been doing for years and are still doing.
M: In what sense is sustainability an issue relevant or important to queers specifically?
C: For queers, for a lot of us, we feel alienated from society, we feel cut off from families, cut off from culture, and this allows us a space to separate ourselves from this toxic social environment that we have. We have a dominant culture that is sexist, and racist and homophobic, classist and ableist. It’s abusive: it’s abusive to our environment and our relationship with food is so toxic; the way we produce food is so toxic! Dirtstar is a lot about the tradition of how else can we do this, we don’t have a lot of really good working models, and how else can we do this is about: cultural stewardship for our land. It’s about living more with life.
M: I am curious how you decided this residency and show at the Tenderloin National Forest / Luggage Store Annex [Hint: they don’t sell luggage]? The name of the venue is not a combination of terms (Tenderloin and National Forest) that people normally think of!
C: Yeah. Did you get a chance to look up the Tenderloin National Forest at all?
M: I did, I did! And it’s fantastic.
C: I love that place. It is a deep honor to be able to organize in a space and to hang out in that space. It’s really gorgeous. I joined in Dirtstar later on in the process and I was brought in to curate the visual art, which is generally my big component of Dirtstar. So, initially I was like a gallery in the Tenderloin?! I hope it’s not this f*cked up, gentrifying thing. But actually, it’s been there for a long time and it’s an integral part of that neighborhood. It’s been really awesome to hang out with people at that space and see how much the forest and having a garden and having a green space means to the people in that community and how fiercely protective they are of that space. It’s been really amazing sitting around getting to know people and listening to them and they talk about the relationship to the tenderloin and why they live there and the things they like and don’t like about the tenderloin. It’s been… powerful.
“I love queers helping other queers out“
M: And those people, were they at the panel or are they helping you organize?
C: Part of having a residency with the Tenderloin National Forest is that you occupy the space, you go in there and you open up the garden, there is a gate and you hang out there, you know. When the artists come in to do installation work, because we have installation artists in the show, I would go to the garden and hang out with the 8-year old kid who lives in the building next door. It is that you are there and the people see the garden space, the door open and then they come in and they want to talk to you, so it’s a very social space.
M: What duties need to be accomplished? How do you split up the work? These kinds of administrative questions interest me.
C: As someone who is in the midst of it…it takes so much work to put on an event! Especially being part of the National Queer Arts Festival, there was a process of getting into the fest. Ami did lots of workshopping and writing of the proposals. We wrote proposals to find this space and worked on creating a concrete concept of what Dirtstar was about. What this year was about was inspired by Octavia Butler. She was where we got the name “Take Root” because a part of one of her books of the Parable Series [the book, Parable of the Sower], was this notion of “take root among the stars”. She writes a lot about sustainability (or did because she’s passed). About people learning to live with their environment and not exploit it and in that process be good to each other and share skills. That is an important part of Dirtstar.
M: It is Sunday, May 29 and you are fresh from the interactive panel titled, “What’s Yours is Mine: Cultural Appropriation, Art and Ethics” Who is Representing What and How? How did it go?
C: Sarah Sass (Sarah Sass Biscarra-Dilley) who facilitated the panel is someone I have known for years. She is a really amazing artist and is doing an installation for the show. We were creating a conversation that was about the complications, that it’s not really clear-cut, talking about cultural exchange and sharing versus cultural appropriation. If we have the ability to create our own culture through cultural stewardship what is it it we want? Specifically we were talking about the ethics of art and that people do a lot of cultural appropriation in art. For instance, what does transformative justice look like? How do we deal with these really complicated, hard conversations, because cultural appropriation is a really charged, emotional subject. Obviously! You are talking about race, you are talking about class, gender – very intense subject matters.
M: The concerns that you covered sound fresh, and if not theoretical, than radical. A precise think tank… This is definitely getting my pulse quickening. I wish I was there! In terms of cultural appropriation, it goes both ways, right? It’s the queer community appropriating mainstream terms. Is that where the focus was?
C: Interestingly no. A lot of it was talking about queer cultural appropriation of native American traditions and clothing and art. In general, cultural appropriation has been in the queer community and crosses the line into being racist and classist. We acknowledged that this is a lived reality and something that we need to start having discussions about and addressing. It’s a combination of borrowing and exploiting and the fact that it’s, you know, not cool! It is the same with class… When exploited peoples’ cultures are being stolen from them and marginalized peoples’ cultures are being taken from them, it’s loaded and the conversations are going to be charged. But I feel that everyone walked away feeling very excited and wanting to continue the conversation.
M: Would you tell me more about how you curated the show?
C: People who sent back their proposals and said, “yes, this statement, this speaks to what I’ve been doing for such a long time!”. Those are the people we were really excited about. We didn’t want just people thinking “I am a queer artist and this is a queer show” and I am going to try to get into it. We wanted people who are really passionate about what DirtStar art is about and what the visual show Take Root is about. There was a group of artists, the core artists who I invited to be in the show and those were people whose work inspired me. So that when I was curating this visual art show and considering what do I want this visual art show to be about, there were people in my community to who I am like: “I love your work, I love what you are about.” Some of these people I know personally.
M: Can you talk briefly about one of the artists?
C: Flo Mclarren – I am really proud to show his work. He was an artist, who I knew lived in the Bay Area, in my extended community. I knew people who were really close friends with him. He was involved in the movie Maggots and Men and he was running an arts center in Haiti and actually died in the earthquake. And, I was able to basically find somebody who knew one of his old lovers, or a close intimate person in his life, who put me in touch with his mother and we’ve been emailing each other back and forth for six month. Being able to show his work- there is a lot of thought in it.
I am also really about the stoked about the whole aesthetically; there are a lot of different approaches. The show looks really good together. There are a lot of art practices being represented. Especially with sustainability there is a really reductionist idea of what sustainability looks like.
M: Thank you, in much fewer statements you answered all of my questions.
If you can’t be there, I can only think of suggesting the idea that a version of a queer arts festival can take place in your own locality geared to its specific qualities and your own efforts as artists, thinkers, activists, curators and organizers. More so, these ideas are plentiful enough to sow seeds in a myriad of other, more intangibly sneaky and benevolent ways.