Safe Spaces seems to be the key phrase of 2016. We have tried to define these as operating with psychological and emotional safety in the physical spaces we create. Even when we talk about personal safety in correlation with these spaces, the conversation focuses usually on personal safety free from violence. We talk about these things because most people do not feel safe in their lives in the spaces they are required to or want to occupy.
I still can’t read the names of the Pulse shooting in Orlando this year. I still don’t want to admit that in 2016 someone would shoot up a nightclub of people because they were queer. But then, I am still in suspended disbelief about many of the mass shootings we as a culture experience. There are no safe spaces.
As our culture refuses to validate the need for spaces of different communities, often these communities make their own spaces in the places they can find. I will never forget the first time I went to s show at the Bobby Fisher Memorial Building in Washington DC. It was a gutted row house in what I am sure is now a gentrified neighborhood. On the ground floor was an art gallery, and in the basement was the place set aside for shows. Though I can’t recall if the staircase being unsafe, I did not trust the fortitude of the building. That building was an accident waiting to happen.
Which isn’t to say I was ungrateful for the people that put the work in and did what they could with the resources they could afford, either monetarily or by other, crafty means. There was a new toilet in the bathroom (though no door handle, at least the one time I used it) and other structural upgrades that could be made were. But this space, where young people could share art and play music in the nation’s capitol, was by no means safe.
DIY spaces work and fail because money is not an objective. They exist to provide ample room in which people can build or share the fruits of their expression. In that is a great deal of sacrifice, often by only a few scant persons invested in maintaining the space. The expressions created and performed do not exist to provide wealth. Most artists I have met are not bothered by such trivial things. They struggle and strive to make art because it drives them. Money and jobs and wealth are just objects and concepts that get in the way. They sustain only a part of us and only in that they help feed the drive towards creation. It is not that artists don’t want to work or pitch in to the greater good and to the efforts that create our foundation, but the desired payoff is not money. Instead the time and space to reflect on the larger, more esoteric (and sometimes very concrete) moments in the lives of existence is what is sought out the most.
I didn’t know anyone involved with Ghost Ship in Oakland. I’d never heard of this specific space until this weekend. The only person I know personally from that area is safe, though they may very well know people that worked there, lived there and were dancing there when it caught fire. Ghost Ship was supposed to be a sanctuary away from the harm of the world. It was a space for queers and trans people and probably weirdos and artists to break away from the violence the world projects on our bodies and our beings. It existed no doubt in a borrowed space in another community under served and ignored by the greater systemic machine. Even people with nowhere to go often trespass in places where they are not from. But like all things physical we know, Ghost Ship and the lives that made it were susceptible to the dangers of the world.
I’ve been able to express myself in spaces like this. The Tannex, The Tree Swing, Gold House, Charm City and other spots carved out in overflowing basements, dirty warehouses, falling apart storage facilities, garages, parking lots, living rooms. Without them, I easily would have killed myself a long time ago. That’s not hyperbolic. Looking forward to shows that I was playing or going to kept my heart going, providing the momentum to stick around despite the sadness.
We want to do better in the face of all the opposition to our lives. It is with all my heart that we succeed in this. I am not sure what it will take to this. More resolve? More time? More energy? I don’t have the answers. I know that it seems like every day new wounds are made before we have time to dress the ones from the day before and the fight to make these safe spaces seems even more difficult, more precarious.
But I know we aren’t so fragile to be defeated. I think of “A Pict Song” by Rudyard Kipling and made famous by Billy Bragg. We may feel like the small things, mucking around in the cracks and under the soil, but we are making our networks everyday and they will sustain us. My heart beats in honor of the Ghost Ship and all the ruined and abandoned spaces we find to let our hearts beat, our tears shed, and our sounds ring out. I will never take this work for granted. I will never forget why we do this. I will never let the work that was done by these people unknown to me except in this tragedy be erased. I will be the thorn in the feet so long as people try to trespass where you made your home.