Daily Bytes

Queer Spectra in 2020

This spring, I asked our then-intern Cameron Mertz, an undergraduate dance student at the University of Utah, to conduct an interview with someone making work in our community. She chose to talk to some of the founders of Queer Spectra, an annual festival here in Salt Lake that will celebrate its second iteration this September 5-6 —- all online due to the pandemic. The founders of Queer Spectra are: Dat Nguyen (now in Vietnam), Emma Sargent, Aileen Norris and Max Barnewitz. The interview has been condensed for clarity.

— Samuel Hanson, editor Love Dance More

Cameron Mertz: In your words, could you briefly describe what Queer Spectra is?

Aileen Norris: Yeah, so Queer Spectra started in January 2019, and the initial idea was to have a festival that encompasses all mediums of art through the lens of queer artists. So, you know regardless of race, age, background, ethnicity, practice of arts, we just wanted a place where all of those different perspectives could commune and come together.

Emma Sargent: I agree with that. Another major goal of Queer Spectra is that . . .  I feel like I personally have tended to stay within my own smaller arts community, a very insular world of dance. And I wanted — we wanted — to meet new people from other arts communities, like painters and photographers, people doing different types of performance, people who might not normally show work within the same space. We wanted to create a space to show different types of work in the same venue for the purpose of seeing how certain types of art inform other types of art. We can get a better picture of queer peoples’ artistic practices if we put different types of art in the same room and all become part of the same conversation.

Aileen: So then, the festival, coming in with zero background, takes place over a day, and last year we had two performance slots, lots of gallery space, a couple workshops and some Q & A sessions. So, just a way to engage with the work in a lot of different ways, I guess.

Cameron: I was wondering how Queer Spectra was born, where the idea and inspiration came from and how it all came together?

Emma: I was in a rehearsal with Dat Nguyen, who is one of our original founders. We were just chatting and Dat said to me, “Hey, we should make a queer dance festival. We should get a lot of our fellow queer dance makers together to show work together.” I was excited about that premise because I find that the field of dance is sometimes perceived as being really heteronormative. We don’t get to see a lot of queer stories, at least in dance that gets a lot of attention and funding. This is perhaps informed by my experience growing up in Salt Lake City, specifically, because I don’t know what it’s like so much in other cities. We were just talking about this and Dat eventually said, “Why are we limiting this to dance? We should involve people from lots of different art forms.” Dat just brought it up to me in a rehearsal . . .

Aileen: And then it came up in a dinner conversation as well.

Emma: Yeah, we were all there, the four of us: Dat, Aileen, and I, and Max Barnewitz, who is the fourth founding member. So we were all just hanging out together, having dinner or something, and Dat asked all of us to help support this festival. So it was sort of Dat’s initial idea, and then Dat invited the other three of us to organize it with him.

Aileen: And the great thing about Dat is that he’s a big dreamer, but then he backs that up by doing it. So he was like, “Let’s do this,” as soon as we were all like “Yeah we’re in it,” he’s like “Okay X, Y, and Z need to happen within a week,” and it happened. We were planning and we got everything lined up pretty fast and it was really magnificent to have him because I feel like, as artists, we have grand hopes and ideas that come up pretty frequently but we don’t always execute them, but Dat kind of held us accountable in that way and that was really wonderful.

Emma: We were trying to figure out when to host the festival and we were like, “Oh it’d be really fun to do it around the pride season,” but that was so soon; it was only about three months away. Then we were like, “Let’s do it anyway!” So we just threw together this call for submissions and tried to get it out as quickly as we could, to as many sources as we could, and then we started working on the logistical needs of a festival.

Alex Barbier delivers the keynote at last year’s festival

Cameron: So, what do you and the team look for in works that are accepted? What aspects are most important to you?

Aileen: I mean, the only qualifying thing is that the artist is queer. But we’re not going to research them and be like, “Ah, you’re not queer enough,” so, we kind of ask that people self-select in that regard. But then beyond that, I think we’re really interested in whether there’s a theme that fits with our theme and, if it doesn’t, what is compelling about it?

Emma: So this year our theme is “the risk of representation.” In our application, we are asking our artists questions like, “What are the risks that you take when you explicitly represent someone’s identity in your art, and what are the risks if you don’t represent identity in your art?” — like if someone’s art is a little more abstract, and not explicitly evoking ideas of identity. The theme is pretty loose-ended, sort of intentionally. We don’t want to be prescriptive with a theme; we want artists to think about how the theme might relate to what they’re already creating.

Aileen: I think as a team we are also very interested in works that challenge us or that we might not immediately resonate with because we do want to create discourse and discussion. So, obviously we don’t want anything that’s hate speech or anything like that, but we do want a diversity of perspectives and applicants and forms as well. We talk about how, ya know, we have a lot of connections to the dance world, we don’t want it to only be dance, so that’s kind of the more holistic look at how we try and approach submissions. But honestly, we’re just sort of art geeks, so we want to see whatever is out there.

Jordan Simmons and Elisa Tappan performing in 2019

Cameron: The next question I have for you two is, how have your goals and intentions for the festival evolved since the inaugural year?

Aileen: I think our second year, our expectations have gotten a lot higher because our first year it was really just, “Is this going to be just us and five other people in this large space?” But, ya know, we got an overwhelming amount of applicants and a ton of audience members participated, so now we’re looking at how we can be effective, not only through the festival but through our participation in our communities throughout the year.

Emma: We just recently went and did a small presentation at UMOCA for “Out Loud,” a program that they have for LGBTQ teenagers who make art.

Aileen: We participated in the Salt Lake Unity Fest back in December, so that’s definitely one of our goals. We are also working towards becoming a non-profit this year, which is a huge administrative goal. It’s more technical and legal and isn’t necessarily like, this abstract art thing that maybe we like to live in a little bit more, but it opens a lot of doors as far as funding goes. We are trying to find that while still maintaining the integrity of the festival which really is to protect this art and show the value in it and not detract from that with all of these legal things; still finding that support.

Emma: I think the goal for this year’s festival is actually quite similar to that of last year’s, to me. I think it was really cool to go in with this experimental attitude of, “What happens when we put different artists with different approaches in the same room?” And I think that for this year I am still interested in asking that question and seeing what happens. Because I know that the result is going to be different.

Aileen: It’s exciting to think about. Obviously, our submissions haven’t closed yet so we don’t know the lineup. But even getting to think about it, makes me buzzy. [At this point submissions have in fact closed — click here to see a list of 2020 artists.]

Emma: I think one goal that I have, that was initially Max’s idea, is having more of a collective type of format for the festival, so that year-round we could provide spaces for people to show things on a smaller scale, or even have events for artists from different mediums to come into the same room and be making art in the same room. And opportunities to set up collaborations. So that is a future goal for me.

Cameron: Well, my next question kind of goes along with becoming a non-profit and this interdisciplinary collaborative work: I was going to ask, do you have any other hopes for the festival in the future?

Aileen: Just finding new ways to support our artists. We don’t want to be the type of festival — not that this isn’t a valid model but — we don’t want our artists to come in, show their work for a day and then never have any communication with us again or any opportunity for us to provide any sort of support system. So we are also working towards, in the future, having more financial support for our artists. We’re announcing that we are going to be opening up two $75 scholarships for artists for travel or paying dancers or material costs. So growing that kind of accessibility because the reality of art is that it can sometimes be a very privileged place to be in so we are trying to find ways to break down those boundaries.

Emma: This year we are doing a one-day festival again, but I think it would be cool to do a two-day or three-day festival in the future or to just see how we could grow the festival programming in that way.

Attendees participate in a workshop at 2019’s festival

Aileen: We definitely struggle because we loved the intimacy of the first festival even though there was a lot of people and a lot of artwork, it still felt very communal and special in that way. So, we’re trying to figure out how we could grow, make it a two-day or three-day festival, support more audience membership while still creating that safe space where everyone feels like they’re involved and they’re a part of it. But yeah, that’s definitely us dreaming big.

Cameron: I have one last question. If you could choose one word to describe the essence of Queer Spectra what would it be and why?

Aileen: I would say magical. You know there are all these technical, logistical aspects that we work on as a committee but there’s something that’s pretty indescribable about seeing it all come to fruition. Just seeing people wanting to participate whether it’s artists or donors — you know, we have this workshop coming up where someone is generously donating their time and expertise to us as a fundraiser. It’s really inspiring to see all of that in a way that almost doesn’t feel real.

Emma: I would say my word is joyous. I think that in queer communities or LGBTQ communities there is a really understandable tendency to focus on struggle, or to have to rally around the hardship and oppression and discrimination and trauma that some LGBTQ people face, especially in our current political climate nationally. I think that often in queer spaces, there’s a lot of processing of hard things that happens. I think that it’s equally important to recognize that silliness and joy and laughter are also qualities that take a specific form in the queer community, and that there’s a lot of playfulness that is inherent to the identity of queerness. Queer people are really good at supporting each other — in our full versions of ourselves that are complicated. We get to work on hard things together and then we get to celebrate and be open and carefree. It’s not that all the art at the last festival was revolving around those themes of positivity or joy, because we definitely had some art that focused on darker or more complex themes. As queer artists, we get to cathartically work through the darkness and then emerge out of the darkness into the light.


This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.

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