How Two Activist DJ Collectives Turn Clubs Into Safer Spaces
Room 4 Resistance is not like other parties in Berlin. To start with, the decoration in the club is more elaborate, as they cover the dance floor with red balloons that dancers pop throughout the night, and they post small signs on the wall that state their “safer space” policy. This outlines the queer-forward group’s commitment to “creating space & visibility for women artists, gender queers, non-binaries, trans people, black people & people of color” with their recurring night at ://about blank by encouraging attendees to report incidents that make them feel uncomfortable to the organizers and staff at the venue.
Their efforts have established Room 4 Resistance as one of the leading forces in a wider tide toward conceptualizing underground house and techno events as more than a party, an opportunity to get laid or an occasion to imbibe and escape daily drudgery. For them, underground nightclubs are sites for marginalized people to connect with others who accept them and potentially join forces in political activism that will transform the future in its image. Their next party on May 13 is a collaborative effort with a like-minded collective, SIREN, which hosts an NTS Radio show, throws femme-forward parties in London and also produces a zine. The gig also features the headliner Octo Octa, a trans house DJ who recently spoke to Terre Thaemlitz about her transition in a conversation on Electronic Beats we named after one of the main topics: “Risk Spaces”. The following discussion between two head organizers of Room 4 Resistance, Luis-Manuel Garcia and Luz Diaz, and SIREN member Charlotte Sykes, picks up where Thaemlitz and Octo Octa’s conversation left off: with the popularity of the phrase “safe space” to describe activities in underground dance music. As both collectives have discovered in the course of their work, the term’s increasing popularity has posed challenges for those with sincere intentions to create them.
Elissa Stolman: I want to start by asking how you define a “safe space” and what that is for you.
Charlotte Sykes: Firstly, I think there’s no such thing as a “safe space.” But there is such a thing as a “safer space.” A lot of parties that identify as safer spaces have quite utopian ideals, so there’s always a sense of moving towards an ultimate goal that may or may not be possible to achieve. Safer spaces always have a sense of trying to become more safe. But I don’t know whether it’s ever possible to achieve a 100 percent safe space. I also think the language around safer spaces has made it kind of a buzzword. It sometimes becomes more powerful, but it also lost a bit of the…
Luis-Manuel Garcia: Precision, maybe?
CS: Yeah. If a lot of people have a sense of what they think a “safe space” is, does that change how it’s perceived by other people when you’re in one?
LMG: Right after the Orlando shooting happened, I posted a tweet that I’ve been constantly citing since then—not because it was particularly profound, but because it crystallized something for me. On the one hand—as you say, Charlotte—no space is truly or completely safe. But on the other hand, what the Orlando shooting also teaches us is that safer spaces are vital and that there’s a real desire for them, because we are vulnerable to attack. The contradiction between those two statements is part of what sucks about being marginal and subject to violence: there is a need for this thing, but there’s also a realistic and pragmatic awareness that it’s not possible in a perfect sense. And that gap between need and reality is part of the experience.
Luz Diaz: In [the conversation between Octo Octa and Terre Thaemlitz on Electronic Beats], Terre pointed out that society is not safe. We need to create safer spaces because the outside world—society—doesn’t provide them. They allow people to connect with each other and to be their true self rather than having to hide some part of their personality to protect themselves—like in survival mode.
ES: When we talk about “safe spaces,” who is being protected and what are they being protected from? What are they safe from?
LD: You define the safer space you want to create. Our goal with Room 4 Resistance is to try to protect all marginalized people: women; femmes; non-binary and queer people; trans people; people of color; black people; refugees…We want to try to protect them from microaggressions, harassment—sexual or otherwise—misogyny and other oppressive behaviors that we constantly face when going out in more mainstream spaces. We want to create a safer and fun space for our friends to connect with each other and have fun in peace, basically.
CS: When we started, we didn’t really think it was going to be a big thing or become what it is now. We were just going to start a party where women and queer people could feel comfortable. We’ve tried to become more inclusive—so, similarly to what Luz said, we want all marginalized people to feel safe at our parties. But we do also acknowledge that, for instance, a space that feels safe for us as white people might not necessarily feel safe for a person of color. It’s not universal; if you have certain privileges you can’t assume that your “safe space” feels equally accommodating for everyone.
ES: It sounds like you have to choose between excluding people or failing to meet all of their needs simultaneously. How do you mitigate that problem?
LMG: When you’re setting up a safer space, you have to make prioritizations as far as the identities that are really at the center of your vision. Of course, that creates a kind of a hierarchy. It means that certain kinds of marginalized people take precedent over others at your party. As Charlotte said, that means that no safe space is universally so for everyone who attends. You make some decisions about what your mission is and what your commitments are.
CS: Our party turned into a direct response from dance music spaces feeling very unsafe for us. As a femme person at a mainstream club, you get harassed all the time. We wanted to create events where we could have the same music and the same sense of togetherness that’s supposedly created at dance music events, but without the harassment and objectification. Our goal is definitely to make our spaces inclusive for all marginalized people, and that’s what we work towards with our parties. But it’s always important to be very aware that you’re not just saying these things in a performative way.
LD: I think it’s not something that you can get right from the start; it takes time to perfect it. You will get feedback. New issues will arise every time you throw an event. You can try to always listen to feedback and start from there to become more inclusive. But you cannot just dream up the perfect safer space and execute it.
LMG: Sometimes when attempts at building a safe space go wrong or when there’s a big public fight about whether a particular space is “safe” in this sense, sometimes that springs from…fragility and defensiveness. Sometimes that’s due to promoters not being ready to hear negative feedback. As Charlotte was saying, declaring a safe space verbally isn’t the same thing as actually making it happen. And part of the process of making it happen, as Luz is pointing out, does involve getting feedback and then learning and adapting. And not responding to feedback without flipping out is hard—especially if you’re not used to doing that. It’s useful to think about the concept of “white fragility” that has circulated around the Black Lives Matter movement: there are certain interpersonal skills that you learn from having uncomfortable conversations about gender, sexuality, race and so on—skills about how to make them turn out well. And not everybody learns those skills.
CS: Actually I have seen some examples of parties in London that have had problems and the community gave negative feedback, and now apparently they’re really awesome. It reminds me of this article about building “indispensibility culture” in activist spaces; if people are doing great stuff but not quite getting it right, then try to help them get there. We all benefit from that! What have been issues for you guys in terms of creating safer spaces at Room 4 Resistance?
LD: It was challenging to move from SchwuZ to ://about blank. We started R4R on one dance floor in SchwuZ at a queer feminist party called Hot Topic, with whom we still collaborate today. SchwuZ is a queer club, so they already had stated safer-space policies. They are the oldest queer club in Berlin—they’ve been running for 40 years—so they have more experience with all these specific issues, and even if they don’t always get it right they’re really willing to do the work. Then we took the party to ://about blank, which is a club that has queer parties and especially gay-male parties but is still a “straight” club, so we got a different crowd. That meant that there was a lot of work to do in defining who we are, and that’s where we decided to also be more inclusive of other minorities. Like SIREN, we also started out wanting to create a platform for female artists, to give them visibility and a space to musically experiment, feel free to try new things and be more adventurous, and to try to create a safer space for women and femmes to counter these experiences of harassment and feeling unsafe on other dance floors and at parties.
LMG: Our scope expanded to include people of color, black people, trans folks, non-binaries and people with migrant backgrounds.
LD: We’ve never gotten feedback that something went really wrong at the party. But we did have a weird experience once that really confused me. A couple of women asked to talk to me at the party because there were two guys dancing in the garden without t-shirts on. They wanted me to ask them to put them back on. At first I thought that these men had sexually harassed them, but I understood through talking with them that the men had not approached or talked to them. They were just dancing quite far away from them with no t-shirts on. I was confused, because I don’t want anybody to feel that they couldn’t be naked if they want to be. But at the same time, these two women felt offended. The first thing I did was go to the men to explain the situation and ask if it would be okay for them to put their t-shirts back on for now, even though I wasn’t sure about asking them to do that. I just needed time to understand the situation better and figure out why the women were uncomfortable. I wanted to prioritize women and anyone who expressed something that made them feel uncomfortable. Later, we had this talk with the whole crew, and some of them said, “What?! You asked them to put their t-shirts back on?! You should never have done that!” I was even more confused. What would have been the best way to act in this situation? We decided from that experience that we wanted to communicate more clearly that our party is sex-positive and that we don’t want to body shame. We made our priorities more precise and clear so we could avoid these kind of issues in the future.
CS: But those women didn’t know how those other people identify. It sounds a bit like cis-femme or cis-women policing bodies that they read as male, which may not be male. It’s difficult to make those kinds of decisions.
LMG: I think the good thing that came out of it was that we learned where our boundaries are. Our priority is sex-positivity. We want to be a party where men and women and non-binary people and so on can feel comfortable to be as naked and sexual as they like—or not. And we’ve thought of other issues in advance. For example, we include a reduced-entry list for people who are in financial hardship, because we’re aware that cost is a vector for discrimination—structural discrimination. The folks who we want to include often have fewer resources. We don’t broadly advertise our reduced-entry list or make public calls, but we let it be known through informal networks that there are ways for everyone to come.
ES: I wonder if the women who made that complaint to Luz would have done so at another party. My assumption is that that they would not have, because the complaint had to do with their expectations of a party like Room 4 Resistance, which has a stated political aim, and feminist ones at that. I notice this as well with DJs—or really anyone who attaches a political stance to whatever they’re doing in the public sphere: they seem to be held to a higher standard. So when there’s the smallest perceived slip-up, there’s a much harder backlash. Do you do things differently because of that threat?
LD: I was very careful to listen to the women who made the complaint first. I was like, “Okay, I personally don’t agree with that, and I think Room 4 Resistance doesn’t want anyone to put their shirts back on.” But I still wanted to listen to them and try to make them feel more comfortable by asking these people to temporarily put their shirts back on so I could talk more with the women who were uncomfortable and try to understand better their point of view. I must admit that it also crossed my mind that they might leave the party and start a backlash online. That happens a lot. People are really fast to call each other out.
LMG: I think certainly if you’re positioning your party—and to a certain degree if we’re going to be crass about it, marketing your party—as being politically engaged, it does create a higher sense of expectation. Some of that is understandable. At the same time, some of the response can be…overwrought, maybe. Part of how you deal with that is learning how to filter out the useful kernel. What’s the lesson that you can pull out of that without absorbing all the negative energy that comes with it? That’s hard work. That’s affective labor. That’s emotional labor, and it takes things out of you.
CS: On one level it’s incredibly important that people can feed back, as that’s the only way that party can improve and grow. On another level, it’s difficult work. It’s not going to be perfect. You’re gonna get shit sometimes, and only some of it will be really useful.
LMG: One of the techniques that we use to combat this is expectation management. What we learned from that experience was that we need to make it clear in all our public communications that sex-positivity is one of the things we’re committed to as a party. That way, the people who come are aware of that. That might mean it’s not an event certain folks want to go to because they prefer not to encounter overt sexuality. That’s fine, and I can understand why for some folks that’s a valid concern. But at least if we manage that expectation, then the nature of the complaint is different.
LD: That’s exactly what I mean when I say that there is always a need to perfect your definition of who you are. Because certain things were natural for us and we didn’t think we needed to specify them because we hadn’t experienced any confrontation. When it happened we were like, “Oh, we do need to make that more precise, too.”
CS: One time I decorated the club with sex toys—which got stolen, so I hope people had fun with them. My friend who’s asexual was like, “I wouldn’t have come to your party if I knew that was the vibe.” That’s also completely valid. And if you’re trying to make it a safer space, then there are gonna be points at which two people’s needs or two groups of people’s needs are going to clash. For me, it’s super important to have a sex-positive space—but I never want to alienate people who are made incredibly uncomfortable by sexuality.
Something else we’ve found while doing our parties is that there are still some guys who, for some reason unbeknownst to me, feel that they’re welcome at our parties. Straight guys. There have been incidences—not very many, but occasional ones—of guys being creepy to women, which is terrible. I hope and believe it happens far less at SIREN than at other nights where people play the same music at the same clubs, and I also hope that the reason we know about these occasions is because people know that we’ll deal with it, and they’ve alerted us so that we’ll get rid of the people. But we’re now having internal conversations about whether a certain demographic who seemingly can’t behave themselves should be allowed ever to come to the party, or whether we have stricter rules about that. We can choose who comes in the door, but we can’t control people in the time that they’re there. What we can say is that if anything does happen, we’ll try and deal with it the best we can.
LMG: Some events do have pretty categorical exclusions. There are some trans parties, for example, that say “no cis folks.” They want to have a completely trans space. There are some POC and especially queer people of color parties where they want to have only people of color. Of course, that does raise all sorts of arguments about categorical exclusions—what about the nice white person? What about the nice cis person? But at the same time—I like that you’re laughing at that, Charlotte.
CS: “Not all men!”
LMG: Essentially “not all men,” right. But I can also understand the need for that or the strategy behind it. When your party is less well-known, or when you’re operating in a more underground scene—essentially when visibility is lower—you can rely on passive filtration. If you only market your party through very targeted channels, like only to POC discussion groups or queer discussion groups on Facebook, you do less of that policing at the door. That’s nice. It makes it feel as if it’s naturally happening, but in fact there’s all these sort of passive filters already in place. It becomes more of a challenge when your event becomes visible and random folks start showing up. Those passive filters no longer work anymore, and you have to start making more explicit boundaries and exclusions.
LD: We had one party that was more difficult in that sense—the first time we did a party on a Friday night. We usually do our parties in kind of strange formats: it’s always on a different day with totally different time frames, like during the day in summer or on Sundays or Thursdays when the club is supposed to be closed. That way we don’t get people who would just come to ://about blank no matter what’s on, because they don’t know it’s open. I found that to be much more difficult when we threw a party on a Friday night. We had many more random people coming to the club and a lot more (straight) men. We decided that it’s our policy not to exclude anyone, but the vibe was different than it usually is at our parties, and it did not make us feel good. Some friends also gave me that feedback near the end of the party. But it’s the same in that we have a clear safer-space policy by the door and we make sure people read it. If something happens we would not hesitate to remove people who are not behaving according to our policy. But what’s also hard then is how to survive, because we are really DIY and underground, and so we need people to come to the party and pay the entrance fee in order to survive.
CS: We have an analogy that we’ve mentioned in almost every panel and interview ever. In gardening, you need to have very specific conditions for hedgehogs to come—but the earthworms will always be there. You have to have very specific dynamics and nurture the marginalized people who you want at your party—they’re the hedgehogs. If anything goes wrong, they will leave and they will not come back. But the earthworms, like the bros—they don’t need any persuading. Being a political feminist or whatever has so much cultural caché, like I was saying earlier. It’s kind of difficult to navigate people wanting to come down to something like that, when you’re like, “Why are you here?!”
LMG: Hyper-vigilance is a survival strategy for queer people, and I think that’s true of a lot of other marginalized folks. So in other words, being kind of hyper-sensitive to risk and to vulnerability and so on does impact everyday life in that you’re thinking about, “Is this a part of the city where I can behave in a particular way, or do I have to control my body and who I’m with and how?” “Is this club one where I have to modify my behavior to protect myself, or is it better that I don’t go?” As a result you often have to make an effort to make it very clear and to directly invite the groups that you want to come. Make sure that they’re visible in the posters; make sure that you’re talking about their concerns. By default they will assume that a space is not for them unless they’ve been told otherwise, because they’ve learned the hard way that most club spaces are not going to be safe. They’re going to be subject to the kind of toxic interactions that they also face in everyday life. And for many folks, the decision will be to not go. I think one of the really minimal definitions of a safer space is just “a space that provides a break from the kinds of toxicity of everyday life.” They offer a world that is less toxic than the one we’re in nowadays. There still might be toxicity. It still might be imperfect. But just a reduction in toxicity—a reduction in those kind of interactions—is already utopian in a very minimal sense.
LD: We’ve been trying to create a space that demonstrates how we would like society to be. It’s like a “beta version” of how the outside world could also function.
ES: One critique of left movements in general is that they provide examples of utopian visions that are reactions to the negative symptoms of capitalism but don’t provide an avenue for actually changing the world. They’re more about temporarily modelling different relationships or power dynamics, and therefore they don’t pose a real threat the powers that be or the status quo. How do you extend what’s going on at your parties into the rest of the world? Is that also part of the project of creating a safer space: to affect or change the world outside of the party?
CS: Well, there’s a party for queer women and femmes of color called Bbz who we threw a party and did an interview with, and they were asked this question. Their response was that, if you take people who are constantly undermined or structurally disadvantaged and you create a space just for those people and just about making them feel good, creating networks and connecting them in a space that’s creative and fun and as safe as you can make it—that bolsters you for the fight ahead. If you’re constantly told that you’re never going to amount to anything or people don’t believe you or however you’re disadvantaged, and you don’t have this space of joy or excitement or whatever the party means to you…don’t underestimate the need those kind of interventions.
LD: Also, I think that, just to realize that this space is possible and have a little taste of it—I think this is also why all of us has been drawn to dance music. At some point in these spaces we could experience our queerness. We’re clearly not the norm of society outside, and to just connect with other people like you will make you feel that something is possible that you didn’t think was before. It will make you feel recharged, and then you can also take actions outside, too. Both SIREN and Room 4 Resistance do other actions besides just the parties.
LMG: I think it’s unfair to expect marginalized folks to be responsible for changing society. If they have reduced resources already, they’re on the margins as far as discourse and political access are concerned, so to some degree it’s the ethical responsibility of the mainstream to change itself. But there are a lot of purposes that these events serve: recharging batteries and political energies; providing alternate models for ways of being; learning particular skills and techniques that are important for survival in the outside world. As far as concrete things we do outside the party: we’ve worked with the Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. These are organized by AWAC, Artists Without A Cause, with whom we share a member: Diana Arce. They’ve organized events where we sit down, train everybody on how to edit Wikipedia articles and then start to either write or expand articles—primarily biographical articles about queer people, people of color and other people who are underrepresented on Wikipedia. Participants also edit well-known pages about gender identity and so on or translate them into other languages.
CS: We raise money for charities—but not for every party because we don’t make money on every party.
LD: We do that, too. We have a donation box at the door and we always invite people on the guest list to give a little to the donation box. That mostly supports local organizations and people who work on social and political levels. We gave once to the International Woman’s Space, which works with a lot of activists and needs money to, for example, pay for their lawsuits. In the future we would like to do more outside the party. We also work with the queer refugee center in Berlin and invite them every time. One of the questions for me was that, at one point, there were a lot of parties in Berlin raising money for local refugee communities. It’s definitely important to raise money, and it is needed—but I was wondering if refugees themselves would actually feel welcome and comfortable at those parties or if they, in their current living situations, would even want to come and party, and what would need to be done to create a safer and inclusive space for them in the case that they did want to. R4R’s idea was to try to create bridges between different communities that cohabitate in the city. Could we maybe create a space where we can meet—not only to change people’s view of them as the “other” who we don’t know but raise money for, but also to have an opportunity to really exchange and connect. With all these questions in mind, I started to do some research near activist friends of mine that work every day with refugees on the ground—thanks especially to Nine Yamamoto-Masson for her support and her always very thoughtful insights. Since then I’ve met really amazing people and definitely experienced some of the most fulfilling moments I’ve had with this project until now.
CS: I’ve seen a lot of parties that are raising money, and that’s great. But it’s also like, let’s be real: you’re getting cultural capital from that. And to not consider how the people you’re raising money for might feel if they came to your party…
LMG: There are some other events that were benefits or fundraisers and said on their flyers, “Refugees welcome to attend!” But saying that and then actually making that happen—especially making it possible, like really making the conditions of the party such that folks actually could go, party and feel comfortable—actually requires a lot of work and logistical thinking, a lot of expectation management and cultural translation in explaining how we party, what to expect there and our safer space policy. These are all things that you end up having to be really explicit about.
LD: Sometimes 15 men from the shelter have all arrived in a group—we asked them to come in a group because we wanted to be there to welcome them and give them drink tickets and make sure that we explain the party a little bit and what happens there and what to expect. I think for some femme and queer folks who come to the party—they’re not expecting to see like, a group of 15 dudes. They were all queer refugees, but because they come from very different cultural backgrounds, they express their queerness and homosexuality in very different ways that can be read as “straight.”
ES: What else do you do to manifest a safer space? I noticed that you put up signs around the club that state your safer space policy, and I’ve heard about “awareness teams” that hang out in the club to make sure no one is being harassed. Do you talk to the bouncers before the event?
LD: Definitely. We’re always talking with the security at the club before the party starts. That’s extremely important. We also talk to the people with whom we work from the club in general, like the people from the ://about blank collective, the bookers, the night managers, the bar staff and so on. We don’t have a proper awareness team yet, but we’re definitely working on it. For now we tell people that if they experience any kind of harassment or have a bad experience, if have any questions or concerns, they can either go to the security at the door or ask people from the club to direct them towards Luis or myself. We need to figure out a better system soon, though, and use some badges or something else to make sure people recognize us more easily.
LMG: They’ll often quiz people at the door like, “Do you know what kind of party this is? Do you know what a queer party means?” One of the bouncers I talked to is a straight dude who’s been working at the club for a long time, and he explained that one of his tricks is to ask “Define queer for me.” And if they don’t know quite what to say or if they’re like, “Ooh, that’s complicated,” then he’s like, “Alright, you’re fine.”
ES: There are plenty of parties and clubs in Berlin that are queer and especially gay—anything from Berghain to Homopatik, Cocktail D’Amore or Herrensauna. But male gay spaces do not often seem to adopt an explicit political stance, while female queer spaces take on a wider political goal or message much more frequently, especially when it comes to increasing visibility for or booking more women in electronic music. In the context, what makes a party that’s a safer space different than “just” a queer or gay party?
LD: Gay male parties and clubs are indeed predominant in Berlin. In some of them queers, femmes, non-binary, trans people and so on still feel safer than in mainstream straight parties or clubs where they constantly face risk of harassment, objectification, oppressive behavior and violence. However, these spaces are promoted, designed and catered by and for gay males, and unfortunately misogyny sometimes thrives in these spaces. I guess the difference between that and a “safer space” is a willingness to do the work towards creating a safer space—and not in a performative way, but more behind-the-scenes.
LMG: They’re not always woman-inclusive spaces, either.
LD: This is why we found the need to start a project like Room 4 Resistance in Berlin. At the time there weren’t—and still aren’t—many spaces for femmes, non-binary, trans women and other marginalized people.
LMG: Gay male parties can be explicitly politicized, but they can also remain just like, fun hookup parties; you can read in politics of all sorts if you want. But parties that tend to be centered around women—or more broadly, non-male or non-masculine identities—tend to be pretty explicit from the start about what their political orientation is. They have a mission; they have a set of concerns.
LD: A lot of gay male parties in Berlin are really successful. In my experience it’s harder to have people come to your party when you’re explicitly political, but it’s easier when you’re explicitly sexual. Many people don’t want to think about politics when they’re having fun because they want to escape the struggles from everyday life, which is totally understandable. Queer women and other marginalized people also have fewer economic resources and capital. A lot of lesbian/femme parties and spaces in Berlin have shut down: Mint; Dyke Fight; Milkshake, The Club… I’m still trying to really figure out why that is. I do think the economic factor—the fact that men still hold so much power in our society and that we live in a sexist culture that constantly values masculinity over femininity—probably contribute to why female-oriented parties are less successful than male-oriented ones.
That’s also why the community-building work we do with Room 4 Resistance feels important to us. We’re not that interested in booking massive headliners as you can find that everywhere else in the city. We really want to create a special vibe, to strengthen our community and give a space to underrepresented and underrated artists. Our main missions are: to create an alternative space where people who experience marginalization can feel welcome and be truly themselves while discovering new music and emerging talents; to provide a safer space for these artists to experiment musically; to create a platform for queer women and female-identified, trans* and POC artists; to build bridges between different communities; to build a platform where people come for the party itself and not just its headliners; to create a sex-positive space that’s free from harassment and sexual violence; and to always listen to feedback and try to do better.
SIREN and Room 4 Resistance will join forces on a collaborative party at Berlin’s ://about blank on May 13, 2017. Find more information here.
Published May 10, 2017.