Amid a sea of over 900,000 people in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest music and film festival, I sought out inclusive and safe spaces. Although the two could work together, it’s important to decipher the actual cultivation of a “safe space” from a buzzword label thrown around by institutions like college administrations and PR efforts. That being said, creative safe spaces are complex and dynamic, and the ways in which we foster inclusive experiences as an arts community aren’t necessarily concrete.
Legitimate safe space cultivation shares a deep convergence with the arts as individuals looking for solace from turmoil in their daily lives and entire marginalized groups alike are continuously participating in creative culture. A vast array of identities intersect with each other and art itself in an infinite number of ways in the process of expression; art has a way of making the personal political and providing visibility and voice to marginalized groups across the board. And along with that, it provides a safe space. To those outside of the hegemony of dominant culture, art is not just a physical safe space, but a realm to feel autonomous within the context of a community, especially when groups and individuals may not feel safe or free to express themselves in any other context.
With instances of hate and discrimination recently brought to light with #TheRealUW and its surrounding context, our campus is rightfully questioning what it really means for a place to be safe and inclusive to everyone, especially on our own college campus. The exclusionary atmosphere is directly palpable in the Madison arts scene with the recent short-term banning of hip-hop shows from The Frequency. Direct institutionalized acts of exclusion limit who can participate and feel safe and welcome in our arts community, but they also work in tandem with the complex informal ways to make a space inclusive. Inclusion in our arts spaces is the foundation by which we can progress together, but we’ve got a ways to go in deliberately transforming ourselves as individuals and as a community, and the path to transformation may not be as clear-cut as labeling a space “safe.”
With the sheer number, variety and scope of artistic endeavors taking place at South by Southwest, the festival provided a lab of sorts to explore the meaning of safe spaces and the ways in which they’re created. And let me tell you, I found them in the most unlikely places.
Leading up to SXSW, I was looking forward to Tumblr’s 79¢ Party, an all-female lineup named after the wage gap and devoted to raising awareness of gender inequality. The night featured an insanely stacked sequence of talented ladies including Little Simz, Jhené Aiko and Empress Of. The show was successful: The performers absolutely slayed, the night showcased female talent that often gets glossed over or undermined in the world of arts and entertainment and Wendy Davis and the advocacy group UltraViolet even opened up an important conversation surrounding the multifaceted issue of gender inequality. In a lot of ways, it was a positive, productive and safe space. But in other ways, the corporate and advertised efforts to make the event inclusive weren’t enough. The show was inclusive and safe in a literal and official sense, but there didn’t seem to be the same mutual understanding among the crowd that I found at some of the other shows. It even felt rigid and stuffy at times. Everyone was pushing to get the best view, people yelled disrespectfully over performers and speakers and it lacked the general feeling of comfort and acceptance that I feel a truly safe creative space is supposed to harbor. Just because a show serves an inclusionary purpose and uses the rhetoric of inclusion, doesn’t mean that it’s inherently inclusive. In order to make our arts spaces safe, everyone has to be actively participating, including the audience.
The safest spaces, the spaces I found and saw the most freedom and comfort within, were extremely unexpected. One of which was in the depth of a mosh pit at a 2 a.m. set from the Spanish alt-rock band HINDS at a house show hosted by other college kids in an Austin co-op. Growing up being a huge supporter of house shows and DIY arts culture, I’ve always seen a fair amount of inclusion within the DIY scene, likely because the whole process forms within the hands of the audience and artists themselves. Mosh pits, on the other hand, I’ve tended to avoid out of misled self-preservation. But this was South by Southwest, and I was not about to be slowed down by my fear of getting trampled to death by fellow human beings. I proceeded headfirst into the rowdy mosh and didn’t look back. Surprisingly, it was the most trust, vulnerability and closeness I’d felt in a long time, all due to the respect of the audience. More than once, I came pretty close to hitting the floor, but was always saved by a fellow audience member. I had absolutely no control over where I was going or what my body was doing amongst a sea of writhing, screaming, dancing people, but I was physically supported and protected by these strangers that were feeling the music as much as I was. I saw the same level of respect for everyone at the show as the audience itself became an essential element to the performance.
Another shining instance of safety, support and freedom came with one of my first real run-ins with electronic music and the club scene. I had always looked at the electronic scene from afar, with nothing but slight name recognition and familiarity and a lot of curiosity to precede my SXSW experience. But my encounters with UNiiQU3, RP Boo and other Teklife notables brought me into an entirely new sphere of respect and audience performance. It was clear that the music they made was made for dance, footwork specifically, and the marriage and balance between audience and DJ performance was brilliant and beautiful. The surrounding members protected that relationship, physically opening up and observing as the dancers precisely but organically responded to chaotic but calculated beats. It was one the the freest creative spaces I’ve been a part of; everyone existed solely on their own but in the context of each other, respecting and acknowledging those around them as much as themselves and the DJ performing. The cherry on top of this positivity-fest came when I ran into the queen of a DJ, UNiiQU3 in the ladies’ room at 3 a.m. where she hugged me and told me I was beautiful. Talk about feeling free and safe.
There’s no doubt things need to change at an institutional level to create safe spaces, but SXSW taught me change, safety and inclusivity also lie in the hands of individuals. Creating spaces of freedom for the audience to interact with the work is essential to a thriving and forward-moving arts community and creative environment. The Madison community fosters this in many ways, but we certainly have places to improve, and my experiences at SXSW proved to me that this exists on an individual level. Having audiences that protect each other and respect the artistic process of sharing ideas and concepts can only benefit each individual, group and piece of creative work.