May 4, 2016

Collective: Elbow Room

Meet Elbow Room, a collective aiming to create encouraging spaces for women, 
people of color, queer folks, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals.

Richmond is a strange place. With Confederate statues lining streets and Southern charm radiating through pastel storefronts and historic brickwork, the city's status as the historic capital of the Confederacy looms overhead in innumerable ways; from Hollywood Cemetery, with its bizarre 90 foot granite pyramid memoriam to fallen Confederate generals, to the deep-seated zoning laws and rewritten narratives that define the urban topography to this day through oscillating eras of white flight and ‘urban renewal,’ the city lies at the crossroads of innumerable inequality, established, as in most of the Global North, in attempt to preserve ableist, sexist, unchecked white supremacy in the capital of Virginia. Steeped in the ideology of the "Lost Cause" that romanticizes the 'good old days' of Southern masculinity, the city feels like a memoriam built around an idyllic image of said 'Southernness'—normative, slow­ speaking gentility internalized in class divides and housing discrimination, in antique porcelain and Scarlet O'hara­isms stretching out for miles in the sticky summer heat.

But this narrative is nothing new. With each passing year, the city’s collectively worked towards a gradual detachment from the backwards tropes of ‘Southernness’ and its associations with slow speaking, reductive white supremacy. As the romance of the ‘Lost Cause’ and fallen South have faded into historicized obscurity, looming mostly on the heavy shoulders of low- income whiteness these days, progressive Southerners have, for generations now, scrambled to compensate for ‘the South’ and its lingering associations with slavery, sexism and racist politics. As early as 1886, journalist and orator Henry Woodfin Grady called for a “New South,” one defined as a “South of union and freedom,” one “living, breathing, growing every hour,” built on the same industry and manufacturing that defined the North as a place of difference. Though you’d be pressed to find anyone working in manufacturing these days, notions of the New South linger on; blanketed in the progressive language of culinary outlets and alt weeklies alike, the city (more largely, the region) has wrapped itself in a new narrative, one that shuns tropes of a racist, Southern past in favor of a new, illusory progressivism built on claims to authenticity through its hardworking, lower-class roots. As Patterson Hood (of Drive­By Truckers and Birmingham, Alabama notoriety) once said in his essay “The New(er) South,” “The paradigm is shifting in the South. There is plenty to dislike or feel bothered by, but there is also more to be excited about down here than ever before. Several of the mid-sized cities considered among the best places to live in the country are Southern. Louisville, Ky., boasts great art and food and a diverse music scene (anchored by My Morning Jacket, certainly one of the most vital bands of the last two decades). Birmingham, Ala., is in a bankrupt county and has more than its shares of issues, but it also boasts incredible restaurants and art and music and some beautiful old architecture.”

With its cheap rent and location in the shadow of the nation's number one public art school, Richmond – along with other pockets of Southern liberalism like Asheville, Lexington, New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah—has since developed a reputation as a cultural city, one with a thriving tradition of culinary excellence, arts accessibility, and, of course, a strong punk scene. With DIY spaces local venues in abundance, the amount of good music coming out of the place sometimes feels unprecedented, with every night at least something good going on. And yet, even illusions of a ‘progressive,’ ‘arts community’ can’t deny the troubling fact that there’s almost no space for female­identifying and gender­ non-conforming people in the scene. With an abundance of male­-dominated punk, metal, and hardcore acts steering the scene, no spaces or venues at this point have prioritized femme, non­-binary or gender queer representation, either oblivious to the fact that music exists outside of the male creative spirit or absorbed in the illusion that male acts bring in more money, helping serving their own financial interests I guess? Anyway, Elbow Room (formerly known as Grlz Night) is a collective of folks aiming to create encouraging spaces for women, people of color, queer folks, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, and anyone who is differently abler in any way in the Richmond community. The collective has been hosting shows, compiling zines and working to create safer spaces in the Richmond community, pairing performance with fundraising and activism to build a larger space for marginalized voices. Over the last three years, the collective has put together fundraiser shows, produced art & prints for quarterly zines, and, more largely, created an unprecedented platform for diy art in Richmond by and for the underrepresented in a way that actively contributes both to representation in the arts community and financial support for organizations like the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project and Equality Virginia, that seek to further the reproductive rights of marginalized bodies. I exchanged some emails with RM Livingston, founder of the collective, to discuss the difficulties (and rewards!) of starting safe spaces and working within the local community towards a safer, more politically ­charged arts community for all to safely enjoy.

The Le Sigh: So, how did Elbow Room begin?

RM Livingston: It began in 2013 as me trying to spend more time and build stronger connections with my friends who are women or queer or both. At the time I was either in school, at (usually punk) shows or in the general day­to­day where even if there were women, people of color, queer, transgender/gender non­-conforming folks around me, the conversations were so often and easily dominated by straight cis white men. I consider the summer of 2014 as when we started to become what we are today, when I started reaching out to people about submitting to zines and fliering with Night call for submissions fliers. We had our first zine at Richmond zine fest in October. Now Elbow Room is now much more than our zines, but to me, that's when it became more than just a social group.

TLS: Was it in response to a particular event (or series of events)?

RML: A lifetime of events. But, the short answer that leads to a longer one is that these events solidified my need to find my own voice and be a part of a community I can be proud of. Grlz Night (now Elbow Room) is a process for me, and the result of wanting and needing to do this with and for other folks.

I have said "punk shows are a lot of white dudes...not that I have anything against white dudes" when talking about the origin of Elbow Room. I have something against white dudes (and other kinds of people) who allow sexism, white supremacy, hyper masculinity, and just a total "turn a blind eye" policy to violence and harassment to reign supreme in a scene that claims to be something different than the norm. It's hard for the non­-privileged and victims to speak up on their own without being dismissed – or put into harm's way.

TLS: What was the catalyst for the collective and when did you realize that the city needs something like this?

RML: I grew up in Newport News, which is certainly less diverse and accepting (in general) than here. And I am much happier here than I know I would be many other places. But, Richmond is far from a safe haven. Sexual violence happens at shows (and elsewhere) here. Racism, ableism, transphobia, sizeism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia happens here. I don't think it's necessarily constructive to get into specifics. However, one example that comes to mind as a "catalyst" that lead to me to start this group is that I've had friends who had been in the Richmond scene for years say things like, "we don't need to talk about consent because everyone in the scene knows better" when I know they knew rape had occurred at shows that were part of said "scene." I believe things like this happen because our scenes are run (like everything else) by comfortable men who come into these positions of power as bookers, promoters, owners of venues. Even if they are not violent abusers, racists, sexists ­ they can't be bothered to not promote, book, play with violent abusers, racists, sexists. Richmond is part of a bigger system. Our "scene" is part of a bigger system.

The catalyst for the collective was the need for positive spaces run by and for women, people of color, queer folks, transgender and gender non­-conforming folks, differently abled folks ­ who are willing to be held accountable and hold others accountable, to work towards something better for each other.

TLS: I'm aware you guys have been hosting shows in the area—what are you doing to make them safer? Is there any way of keeping known­ rapists (or those with rape allegations) out of the events that are seemingly open to the public? Is there any process for turning people away from events to prevent the sort of triggering events you're working to avoid? 

RML: This stuff is hard. All of this is so complex and interpersonal and sticky. So far (thankfully) we've only need preventative measures. And we can always be doing more. Some of the things we have been doing: talking to DIY venues and ensuring they have their own safe space policy and making sure a sign is visible to show­goers that states said policy, stating our policy in between sets (which we need to do more). We, as a group have not had to ask anyone to leave at shows. However, we have asked people not to participate in our events and have told them if they come, they will be asked to leave. We also talk about unsafe people amongst ourselves at meetings. We all have our own mental list of people we know are not safe, people we wouldn't want around ourselves or our friends. I think it is a lot about communication, constantly sharing information. Our policy is simple: if we know you to be an unsafe person, or if you make anyone feel uncomfortable at an Elbow Room event, you will be asked to leave.

TLS: I was talking to Ellen briefly about how you're working to have events staffed with educated individuals to approach if you're feeling triggered, uncomfortable, etc. Can you speak more of the specificities of that? How are you educating these people, what sort of 'process' is there to help alleviate triggering feelings, and has this been effective so far? 

RML: As stated above, we haven't really had to deal with this as a group yet. Our members who do their own shows have. It's not easy, and we can not predict how people will react to being confronted. We are planning on reaching out to experts, doing our own research and forming/finding literature to educate ourselves and to share with others. None of us are psychologists or therapists. But, I think a lot of it is about being approachable, genuinely caring, always trusting the victim, trusting your gut, and trusting each other. We have a "better safe than sorry" policy. We're working towards being as prepared as possible. But, for now, we're just doing our best to support each other and our show goers. A part of it is also that, unlike most shows, the shows we host are heavily attended by people who support what we are doing and people who (I would like to think) would help us in taking a stand against threatening people.

TLS: How do you see the group growing in the future and do you think you've seen any impact on the state of Richmond's music scene so far?

RML: We've grown so much in numbers over the past year, and in our scope of what we're capable of. We're planning a feminist noise night. Our noise scene is really creepy in Richmond. A lot of what Elbow Room is about is recognizing issues and trying to form productive spaces in which to address those issues. We want to do more art shows. We want to do more free workshops on printmaking, one for the public on how to work towards safe spaces (with some folks with more expertise than us), and whatever else people want to learn about. When you come together as a group, your resources are combined and grow even faster. We want to use these resources to benefit each other and our communities in as many different ways as we can. We're always looking for new voices and suggestions!

TLS: Do you think you've seen any impact on the state of Richmond's music scene so far? 

RML: I think we've definitely contributed by creating spaces and opportunities for women, people of color, queer folks, transgender and gender non-­conforming folks to express themselves and share their talents. Representation really matters. So, I am very proud of the shows (art and music) that we've put on that consist mostly of underrepresented folks. I've also seen more straight white cis men stand up against abusers and use their privilege to call them out in a public way. I hope more and more people in a position of privilege and power are able to hold themselves and their communities accountable. I really think it will make a difference in people's actions if they know they will not be supported if they treat people like shit ­ and why. Some people may think that should go without saying, but it really doesn't.

I also just want to say that Elbow Room is so inspired by groups like POCollective, Girls Rock!, The People's Library, Sanctuary, Justice RVA, and Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project who work tirelessly to help those in need and create opportunities for expression and representation. There's a lot to be done, and I am not one to sugarcoat, but I do think Richmond has a lot to be proud of.

Feel free to check out Elbow Room on Facebook and submit to their upcoming zine here.

Rob Arcand is freelance writer & student based in Norfolk, Va. He sometimes does music and design things and likes mumbly slowcore, bad poems, and the Internet.