Silent Barn hosts “public meetings” every month -- panel discussions followed by audience Q&A’s. Previous topics have included touring, curation, legalization, and women in DIY. On Tuesday, October 22, we held one about safer spaces, which **full disclosure** I co-organized.
+ + +
Our space does not currently have a safer space policy. There is nothing unusual about that – very few spaces in New York, or any other city for that matter, have safer space policies in place. As an art space, we deal in vibes, and, for what it’s worth, I have always been amazed and inspired by how open, respectful, supportive and positive the vibe here tends to be for the most part, and have had this feeling confirmed by a number of visitors to the space. But, we are also a space that likes putting our ideas into language, so a safer space policy seemed natural to have on the table. We decided to make safer spaces – their pros, their cons, their theory and their reality – the topic of a public meeting, both to welcome the discourse into our space and to inform any potential future policy-making.
Although “safer space” discourse is extremely present in the punk politic, it still has not made it into the broader arts world lexicon. Right off the bat, people recoil at the word “safe” due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what “safer space” really means. The term “safe” sends up a red flag - If there are two things that most people don’t want to hear described as “safe,” it’s art and nightlife. Rollercoaster? Safe, please. Loft bed? The safer the better. Noise music? Under-the-radar venues? Avant-art? To fulfill their promise, those things need to be challenging and liberationist and chaotic and sometimes terrifying. Most people go out or make art to cut loose and escape and give form to impulses that are constrained in proper professional daily life – and how are people going to let go and make next level art if the PC police is watching their every move? That’s the common complaint.
+ + +
Four panelists were present – Spencer from ABC No Rio, Megan who performs noise music as Lazurite and co-organizes the feminist experimental music collective LOXM, Suzy X from Shady
Hawkins, and Leah from Support New York. Kate Wadkins, from For the Birds and International Girl Gang Underground, moderated.
The panel opened with a reading of the Coalition for Safer Spaces’ definition of a safer space, which describes a safer space as “a supportive, non-threatening environment that encourages open-mindedness, respect, a willingness to learn from others, as well as physical and mental safety. It is a space that is critical of the power structures that affect our everyday lives, and where power dynamics, backgrounds, and the effects of our behavior on others are prioritized.”
Panelists then went on to describe what safer space means to them and to their spaces. Spencer described ABC No Rio’s policy as very simple – “No sexism, no racism, no homophobia.” According to Spencer, the simplicity is both a pitfall and an advantage. Since the policy was drafted in the eighties before certain kinds of oppressions were enumerated in popular discourse, transphobia must now be lumped in with “no homophobia” and xenophobia is said to fit under the umbrella of “no racism.” On the other hand, the simple language helped get the venue’s values across to people who might not be initiated in theory.
“If you get too wordy and intellectual a lot of people aren’t going to understand it,” said Spencer. “I’ll speak for the straight white bros of new york city public school system who didn’t go to college – I don’t understand a lot of what I read in literature and I do my best but I have to have people break things down for me and I want to know what I’m reading when I read feminist theory. A lot of people have good intent but they don’t have the vocabulary or the intellectual means to understand literature or signage.”
When discussing the language of “safer” vs “safe,” Leah pointed out that, “there is no pure safety under a capitalist system that thrives on racism, sexism, and all these structures of oppression that we live under so it’s impossible to say that we’re going to get to a pure safe space. I really like the idea of safeR because it feels like trying.”
Inevitably, the conversation turned to resistance. As a . . .