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Learning within Institutions — Building Spaces for Community — Redefining Centers, Structures, and Bureaucracies — Connectivity within Digital Adaptations — Radical Everyday Practice — Living, Breathing Values
Sarah Williams is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Center for Creative Work (WCCW). In this episode, Zappas & Williams discuss the seeds in Williams’ trajectory that grew into WCCW, a space that nourishes and adapts to the needs of its creative feminist communities. As they speak on a range of topics, from day-to-day practices to the larger workings of power and resistance, Zappas and Williams muse on what it means for an organization to be attentive, nimble, and ultimately radical within artistic and social ecosystems. How can strategies of collectivity and horizontality be implemented to create a more liberatory and inclusive pathway forward?
Even before the pandemic began in March, WCCW was in a transition — having outgrown its space, they were considering moving to a larger building. The pandemic halted those plans, and also provided a slew of other puzzles to work through. Zappas and Williams discuss how space-making can happen in the digital sphere, and how the digital offers the potential for new connections.
The Carla podcast is produced by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles and Lindsay Preston Zappas with production assistance on this episode by CJ Salapare and engineering by PJ Shahamat. Our theme music is by Joel P West. Thank you to our episode sponsors: The Equality Mural Project and The Hammer Museum.
Lindsay Preston Zappas: Hello and welcome to the Carla podcast. My name is Lindsay Preston Zappas and I’m the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles. Carla is a quarterly art magazine, online journal, and podcast committed to being an active source for critical dialogue surrounding L.A’s art community. In this episode, Women’s Center for Creative Work Executive Director and Co-founder, Sarah Williams, joins me for an hour-long conversation about what it means for an organization to be attentive to its community, nimble in its structure, and ultimately radical within artistic and social ecosystems.
Sarah Williams: “How do you create space for there to be many leaders and for people to bring their voice and their expertise and their experience to a thing in a way that’s valued on equal footing?”
LPZ: This is a packed episode. So stay with us.
Advertisement: The Carla podcast is supported in part by the Equality Mural Project. The Equality Mural Project is looking to add 10 murals to the downtown of Atascadero, California in the theme of equality. The history of the town is storied and artists are needed in order to foster a critical thinking and inclusive community. Each artist will receive up to $5,000 depending on the scale of their mural. The deadline for submissions is October 12th. Visit equalitymuralproject.com for instructions on how to apply.
LPZ: Sarah Williams was born and raised here in Los Angeles and is the Co-founder of the Women’s Center for Creative Work. Williams’ grandparents were both musicians, and she told me about her early childhood experiences going with them to museums and concerts, an early model of infusing art and creativity into everyday life. These early experiences prompted Williams to dive into art history studies at Santa Cruz and then curatorial practice at USC before working with Bettina Korek at ForYourArt for about a decade in the early days of the organization.
SW: That was like my real education in the L.A. art world. It was a very different arts scene. Like it really was this very still New York-centered art world. And what was going on in L.A. was kind of cute or niche or whatever, to the larger art world.
LPZ: These experiences working with artists, doing experimental projects, working on a quick and fast timeline, and partnering with art institutions across the city really made an impact on Williams. She began to understand the importance of working towards limiting the barriers to entry in the art world. And she began to think about strategies of how to make it fun, accessible, and connecting. Founded in 2013, the Women’s Center is a community and art space with a robust program of events, panels, workshops, and exhibitions, all working towards cultivating and caring for L.A.’s feminist creative community. They’re a space that affirms that art, creativity, and imagination have intellectual personal and political value. Even before the pandemic began back in March, the Women’s Center was in a sort of transition. Having outgrown it space, they were considering moving to a larger building. The pandemic halted those plans, and also provided a slew of other puzzles to work through. How does space making happen in a digital sphere? Williams and I dive into the history of Women’s Center for Creative Work, its core tenants, and how it is evolving in these challenging times. Here’s my conversation with Sarah Williams.
LPZ: How did the first ideations of Women’s Center come about? Like, you’re at ForYourArt, you’re really involved in the art scene—what was that initial spark to create a space?
SW: So, there are three co-founders of Women’s Center. Katie Bachler is an artist that I actually knew through USC — we had met there and we had been kind of brainstorming about different projects that were kind of thinking about public space, thinking about community, thinking about gathering people. And she had a friend, Kate Johnson, who was a designer who she knew from an earlier point in her life. And they had been talking about some other things that felt like they overlapped. And so the three of us kind of got together and started having these conversations. And we actually saw the “Doing it in Public” at Otis. And so it was this huge archival show of the Women’s Building, really. And there are these amazing publications that go along with it. And we were interested in where this intersection did exist, could exist in L.A. at that time — which was like 2012. And so we started having these dinners to kind of gather our friends and community at the time to like, talk about that and see what people’s thoughts were, and what they were interested in. And it kind of…one thing led to another, in terms of that community forming around it— people were interested, people were engaged, wondering what the next thing was. It felt like it resonated with people. And so we kind of slowly started shaping it into an entity, I’d say, that was doing more: a little bit of programming, that was doing these dinners, that was making some print pieces and kind of having these conversations. And then we’re, you know, young and idealistic and got this wild hair that like, “okay, we’re ready. We’re going to get a space. It’s going to happen!”
LPZ: Oh, to be young and naive. You know what I mean? (Laughs)
SW: But luckily, we had pulled together this amazing group of advisors, just to be like, “can we pick your brain about doing this?” And they were like, “Whoa, woah woah woah… Where are you going to get the money? Who, where, when?” You know, basically asked us all of the questions I would ask a person now if they came to me and said that, but, that was really helpful. And I’m very grateful for that light, loving check. And we came out definitely with a little bit more clarity on what we wanted it to be, and also had formed some community around the idea that we were going into it with. And we got this grant basically at the end of that year-long laboratory from SPArt, which was a social practice funding entity. And we were basically able to use that to put first, last, and deposit on the space—on the Glover Place space. And so that was five years ago and some change. And we did a membership drive to really ask the community to show up. And so that first membership drive, we got a hundred members or something. And that was the, really the baseline that let us pay rent for the first year.
LPZ: Oh my goodness. Yeah, I mean, I started Carla just a couple of years after that. And I know when I started this, there was definitely a void I saw, or a space that I wanted to kind of move into and fill. And I think I had a similar just like naiveté of like, “yeah, why not me? I just moved here, let’s do this.” You know? But I’m curious if there was like an articulated absence? You said you were looking at the Woman’s Building and the Feminist Art Program, maybe, at CalArts, and those kinds of legacies of feminist organizing in Los Angeles… But those were in the ’70s, like we’re talking about, you know, early 2000s. So like, was it that void? Was it a void for alternative art spaces that were a little outside the mainstream?
SW: There were some interesting alternative art spaces at the time. So I don’t know if it was necessarily a void of that. But, definitely coming from a certain kind of liberal education at the time, some of these struggles, I guess, were treated as historic, like major Civil Rights movements of that period: you know, the Chicano Student Movement or, you know, the Feminist Movement, or the Black Power, Black Rights Movement. These were treated as historic events—that now the effects of them had played out in society. And I think that did not feel true to us, I guess. I think we’re in a moment now where (of course we knew already) that’s obviously not true and that there’s so much more work to do. And I was interested in seeing, I guess, yeah, more women’s success in the visual arts field. What you see, I think working in art is that it’s a ton of women doing a lot of the labor of running the art world. And I think who often benefits from that is not those same people. And I was interested in flipping the script on that a little bit, and that was a need I saw for sure. I think it was more accessible to have like an alternative space at that point, cause it was just, it was not as expensive.
LPZ: Right, like you didn’t have to rely on the same models. Cause it was just like, “let’s kind of go by the seat of our pants and see where this goes”… I thought that was so interesting what you said about the Feminist Art Program and like some of those kinds of Civil Rights Movements of that time being looked at as historical, because it kind of makes it seem like: “oh, that was then. That happened. It’s done.” I was actually just reading this Mira Shor essay today, talking about that time and looking back on that period of the ’70s. She was kind of saying that now people kind of feel this in the back of their brain, but it’s not the same kind of urgency of living it, you know? So I think that’s really beautiful, the way you talked about feeling differently about it and connecting a lived reality to this sort of historicized past. Historicizing is fucked up because…
SW: It is! It ends it!
LPZ: Exactly. It puts like closure around it. Like, “oh look, women can vote now. Fixed!”
SW: Yeah, yeah. “You can go to college, it’s fine. There you go.” Yeah, I think it’s an important conversation to have. And I think we all have to see ourselves in like sort of part of this longer-term story of these things.
LPZ: Right, right. That’s another thing we think of, right? It’s this linear: “oh, this happened. And then that led to this, and then this went to that.” And even how I’m asking you to recount your own story, I’m like, “so this, and then that.” You know, we think about linear time in this really singular way.
SW: Yes. And we get very practiced at reiterating it in that way so that it creates meaning. And I think, you know, as always, this has been a really important moment for hearing and understanding that differently. Like how could histories, how could stories, how could narratives be told differently to be…I don’t know…be all sorts of things?
LPZ: Another thing that I was looking at was in an early interview with you and one of your Co-founders. You were talking about this idea of horizontality—that the group would have this horizontal structure without leaders, or maybe like everyone’s a leader. Can you talk about that mission in terms of bringing other people in?
SW: Yeah. It’s a great time to talk about this. It’s something that has been really central to our ideas of the organization. And how do you limit certain forms of hierarchy from existing be cooperative and collaborative? And it also makes me think of the essay on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Cause I feel like you also bump into these issues with it. Like sometimes that is doing certain kinds of disservice to clarity and work. I don’t want to shape it as some sort of utopic, everyone’s on the same plane, and that works perfectly. I do think that is something we are always trying to challenge: how do you create space for there to be many leaders and for people to bring their voice and their expertise and their experience to a thing in a way that’s valued on equal footing? Even if there’s sort of certain kinds of hierarchies that exist…and I think something that’s always been really important to Women’s Center too: to give people early opportunities to do things. Like sometimes there are people who are getting a ton of play and it’s so well deserved and they should be getting a ton of play, but like, who else should be getting at least some play? Like how do you build a practice to build a body of work throughout one’s life? You have to have these chances early on to do things in a supportive way. And I’m very interested in thinking about how do you make those opportunities really positive and fulfilling and filled with care.
LPZ: It gets at another thing that I think is so important—and I’ve been thinking about a lot right now—just creating different platforms for exchange that are outside of the ones that we really rely on in the art world…which have to do with money, and sales, and career, and an artist’s CV. And like how many times they’ve shown, and if they have an MFA, and like how political their art is, or not. Or how, you know, like abstract it is, you know? And I think thinking about ways to center artists different than that, that’s not like, “oh wait, you don’t have a degree? Can you show here?” You know, like those kinds of gatekeeping practices are so embedded…how do we escape those?
SW: It is—it’s such a challenge to like try to even escape those because when you’re existing in a world that values that, it’s sometimes hard to even get out. Like where do you even meet people who are doing things outside of that? I think that’s a challenge that you are constantly faced with if that’s something you’re trying to prioritize. And so we definitely have a lot of people coming through Women’s Center who have the sort of experience that we’re talking about here, and are amazing. And then we do have a lot of people who are coming from backgrounds that are different than that. And that’s been really exciting to think and talk about as well—and also, you know, not everyone wants that, or the path they see for themselves is not one that’s embedded in those systems of value and cycles. And so it’s like also thinking about how do you not impart that as an organization, that this is what needs to be like, “oh, you should show, and then you should get this written up in this magazine. Cause that’ll mean that, and then…” Yeah, I think we’re interested in having those conversations. I think sometimes a lot of stuff that happens behind the scenes or in like small groups. But yeah, we’re now at a staff of nine, and I feel like it was really laterally organized for a really long time, but it was starting to not work as well. And not that efficiency is always the goal, but that we could be more impactful in what we’re trying to do, I think, and we realized that that structure needed to shift a bit. And so we’re sort of experimenting with and finding a lot of luck with thinking of like a certain centralized, organizational hub that deals with the more administrative, financial, legal communications issues of the organization. And then these project hubs that are like the programmatic kind of output, for lack of a better word out of Women’s Center, which is like the programs and media things we put out: Coco Press is one—our publishing branch—we’re starting a magazine this year, Selima mag, and then the print lab is also one. And so also thinking each of those projects that have their own leaders have their own structures. And that way people can exist… like they’re not always at one level of hierarchy within the organization. It’s like they might be the lead of one project and then a support person on another project. And I think I’m interested as the organization grows in seeing where we can subvert some of the traditional hierarchy of organizations and institutions. Call me in a couple of years, let’s see how it goes.
LPZ: Well, I mean, it’s something too, just as a small operation…You’re a nonprofit, so it’s a little bit different, but still, it’s like, you know, you kind of hit the ground running with idealism to the gills. But then when you’re kind of on the ground trying to run this thing and trying to find money, get members, do programming…There’s this whole other reality that sinks in of this kind of organizational business-minded side—at least in my experience. I’m curious how that felt because I could see it constantly being this pull against these feelings of “oh my gosh, I’m just fitting into these kind of hierarchical structures of a business.”
SW: With nonprofits, I think, it’s hard to get out of the habit of shaping what you’re applying for to the call rather than really honing your own…sort of like, “this is, actually really important that we do this and that if you want to support what’s really happening and what’s really important, you’ll support this.” Rather than like, “yeah… okay. I guess we could do this public art project for that amount of money and we’ll figure out how to do that…”
LPZ: (Laughs) It’s like, “we don’t totally know what we’re doing yet…Let’s do that. That’s fine.”
SW: You learn a lot about yourself and what it is you want to be doing, and what feels good, and what feels important, and aligned in that process. And you learn about some things that you’re like, “nah, we don’t need to do that again.” A lot of those sorts of lessons have come through thinking through funding. And I think even, you know, something we talked about as we were shaping this new kind of org chart was that there are obviously there are cooperative and collaborative ways you can run things, but also then sometimes when you’re expected to operate in this way of a certain kind of nonprofit that, you know, somebody is supposed to sign that document as the Executive Director. Like, even if you are running an alternative structure, somebody then, to access that, has to step into that role for a minute, at least.
LPZ: Yeah. I mean, do you enjoy the kind of organizational spreadsheets? Like budgeting, forward planning, all of that kind of operation stuff? Is that something…
SW: I love it! Yes.
LPZ: You do?
SW: Yes, yes I do! It’s really my work. I love structures. I love systems. I love thinking about systems. And I think of that always at the core value of that, being in a collective and cooperative. And like, how do we make systems that feel valuable and supportive to the people participating in them? But I do love that kind of stuff. I do.
LPZ: That’s a benefit. Cause like, for me, it’s been a little bit of… not a struggle… but I’m always pulled from the creative, and I feel like there’s a tension there between the sort of ideal visions that I want to accomplish and then the sort of like, “ah! I just need to make the budget, or I need to, you know, accomplish these tasks to just keep the thing going.”
SW: Totally. I guess I find a lot of security in understanding, “oh yeah, here’s how we’re gonna get through six months. And here’s how we’re going to pay everyone. These are the great projects we have going on and now we have plenty of time to talk about them.” What I’ve been learning a lot about personally, and what I feel really excited about personally with Women’s Center is: how do you do that in a collaborative and cooperative way that’s not just like, “here’s my vision. Get on board.” Like, how do we—as nine people plus a bunch of board members, plus a bunch of community members—begin to shape this vision of what’s important and what we want to be doing right now?
LPZ: How is that accomplished? Like what kind of strategies are in place for community feedback?
SW: I mean, we have had—it’s very hard… Covid as a weird new time. I don’t know if you saw, but we announced we’re going to let go of the space. And we had been planning on moving into a bigger space on the same compound, just because at that time we had way more people than we could accommodate coming for events, coming to the workspace. We wanted a bigger artists-in-residence and exhibition space to kind of build that out a little bit. And the week the city shut down, I was holding the lease and I was like, “Oh, we can’t do this yet.” And so we didn’t sign it, which in the long run is a blessing. And so, yeah, we’ve just been kind of waiting and kind of seeing how it felt like this was going to all pan out. You know, I think for all of us becoming more and more—sort of understanding that this is going to be a long-lasting and long effecting situation. And that I think it felt like the best use of our resources [would be] to downsize for the time being and be able to have an office where we could do our printing and have people go in when they need to, but not have it be a public space for the time being. And I think that is going to change. It’s like, sort of in the process of changing, what “community” even means around Women’s Center, and then how feedback happens. Because when we’re in the space, it’s very different: every program has a staffer, who’s there to be responsive to everyone and to check in, and to see how things are going. And there’s surveys that happen afterward from the person who did the programming to the people who attended, to staffers…And kind of getting an assessment of like, what is happening, you know? There’s lots of meetings. There’s just the casual conversations that happen when you’re in space together. And so I think it is a time that’s calling for new mechanisms around how we do get feedback. And how is it depthful? I think there’s, you know, social media is of course a place where feedback happens all the time… (Laughs)
LPZ: Yeah, but also so different, right? When we think about casual conversations, before, after, or during an event…like maybe with a glass of wine in hand or something. It’s very different than just shooting out a comment on Instagram that you don’t necessarily have to be accountable for in the same way.
SW: Totally. And what kind of conversations are so different—even if something is a problem or a challenge—how that gets worked through and resolved is so different if you spend 20 minutes talking to somebody about it, rather than, you know, getting into and then being reactive and not having that opportunity to sort of both understand what’s happening. It’s only been five years and we’ve changed so much in that time. I just sort of imagine we come out on the other end quite different than we went into this and I’m very curious and trying to remain sort of open to that curiosity about what direction this is going in and I think the needs of our community that surrounds the organization are changing.
LPZ: Yeah. I mean, I think in a lot of ways you were pretty well suited to this moment in what you’re describing. It seems like part of the ethos of the whole program is to evolve and change and get feedback from the community, and grow organically, and be experimental in what comes next. And none of us could foresee that this would be the next thing. So it’s hard to, hard to plan for on your spreadsheet, but it seems like that spirit was already really baked into the program.
SW: I mean, the building thing feels very lucky in certain ways. Cause I think right now, so many organizations are struggling with how to continue to keep their space when they can’t really use it in that way. And so I think that ethos that you described has been really at the heart of Women’s Center. That’s it’s not trying to be stagnant. It’s trying to change all the time.
LPZ: Yeah. There’s something in your core values where you talk about “we’re becoming,” or like “we’re always in the process of moving towards.” Like it’s never a fixed finite thing.
SW: I mean, that feels true both [in] thinking about it as an organizational perspective, but I think also when you’re talking about it from, you know, a feminist lens and anti-oppressive lens, the idea that you could be doing it perfectly anyway is absurd. And so you are, you know, a bunch of people, flawed human beings, doing this thing together. And like, you know, new information becomes available. Things change, different ideas seep in, and you realize there’s new, better, different ways to evolve into that ideal that you have for yourselves. And so I think it will always be in that way, like an organization that is changing kind of quickly and changing a lot because its goal is to be on the edge of that. At its best self, that’s the goal. Yeah.
LPZ: How important is independence or this like grassroots nature? I mean, I think it kind of allows for what you’re talking about, the fact that there’s not… like this isn’t backed by The Getty or, you know, like a larger framework or organization. And I’m curious about that and also just more broadly, perhaps the need for more sort of independent or grassroots spaces?
SW: You know, in the beginning, it was really, as I mentioned, that’s how we got through the first year. It was almost exclusively member donations and a few small other fundraising things. And you know, I do think part of our adaptability relates to like sort of a pretty diversified funding situation. And so we do have a really strong member base that is the backbone of the support for the organization. And I really love that no matter where you’re getting your funding, you’re accountable to someone for it, surely. And so I think being accountable to that broad member base kind of first and foremost, feels really good to operate from. We definitely do get now, state and county and city grant stuff, and definitely foundation support and things like that, and [we] do fundraisers. And so it really is coming from all over the place. That also lets us be a bit flexible that if like, I think, especially in this moment, that’s like a really uncertain, cultural-economic moment, what the future of some of those things are, is a little unclear, but I think, you know, nothing represents 60% of our budget, so if it falls out, you know, it [would] be impossible to continue existing. And so I think that’s helped with our adaptability, I guess. I’m really interested in trying to tell that and talk about those things: unless you have your own money to support a project, nobody tells you how you do that from the ground up. And it is possible. We really did start this with a relatively small grant and like a hundred people who were interested in giving like five or ten dollars a month. That really was the base of it all in the beginning. And you would definitely have to grow and adapt if that’s your goal, to be this more fleshed out thing, and you’re interested in it being people’s jobs and all of those things. [There are] definitely, you know, other things [that] come in. I don’t know. It’s something that’s important to me to talk about.
LPZ: No, absolutely. And I think again, it’s like something that we don’t get taught. There are these roles in the art world that we’re like, “oh, the curator, or like, the gallerist.” And we kind of understand what those are. I think we kind of understand what an art critic is, even though that role is kind of blurry and nefarious, but these kind of alternative models or alternative roles are becoming more normalized, yes—artists are also, you know, starting magazines, or like, et cetera—
LPZ: —but I think we still are confused about that in a way, or have a hard time talking about it. We have a hard time… Definitely a hard time teaching about it, right? Or kind of building that business-minded structure for how that might operate. It feels very much like people are just starting from scratch, you know, with entrepreneurial spirit each time a program like Women’s Center gets going.
SW: Totally. And you know, I think there are some of the effects of that are like, you know, intense capitalism around scarcity and not wanting to tell people how to do the thing because it’s somehow competitive, or whatever. It looks like certain things can sort of magically happen and other things you can’t quite understand why it’s not possible. And it’s because it’s not possible in that way, without that sort of other thing. Yeah, I’m an advocate for talking more about that.
LPZ: Absolutely. No, I absolutely think that like money and economics and [the] reality of those things should be more normalized and talked about. And I think too, in the art world value is so arbitrary, kind of, the way it gets prescribed onto an object, you know, it’s just like pulled out of a hat. And so I think we’re used to just believing that things are able to just exist or happen, and we don’t really question how those things are possible. I think it took me a while [of] participating in the art world before I was like, “oh, that is a trust fund person. I get it. That makes sense. I can see how that was all possible for that person.” Or not even that extreme, but just kind of, you know, everyone’s individual levels of support and economic status that allows them to participate in different ways. I think we all have different engagements with that.
SW: Totally. And I think it goes back to some of that stuff we were talking about around school too, like networks, and you know, there are these paths through that become possible. And I think that’s what’s sort of needed in this new world, this new era is like: how do we give those tools for building projects? Like organizations, institutions, how do we get those tools into more hands?
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LPZ: Let’s talk about the Center, like on a more day to day level—some of the programs, what’s going on—and then I’m kind of obsessed with your core values. I want to talk about those, but before we get to that, maybe just kind of like day to day, what is Women’s Center [so] people who maybe aren’t familiar with it can sort of think about what’s going on there.
SW: So the space is this little house looking structure that’s on an otherwise kind of industrial end of the neighborhood in Elysian Valley, which is along the L.A. River. And we came into that space in April 2015. That’s true. Yeah. And then it evolved, definitely. In the beginning, we rented out some of the spaces because we couldn’t really afford to have the whole thing, but the state that we’re kind of exiting with is like, you’d come in and during the week, Monday through Friday 10-6, it was a shared workspace for members. And we have about 550 contributing members—not that that’s how many people were using the space. But that is like the base of that, that makes a lot of things possible. And so members would come use this space to work, so it was pretty bustling, most days, just people writing at their laptops, like chatting with each other, and it had that really nice vibe. And that was something that was actually always important to us, I think. Thinking about how so many arts spaces are, you know, so few people go to them during the week, like not during an opening—
LPZ: —Let alone hang out and like have a conversation, you know, where you can just be there and be working. Yeah. What you’re describing sounds more like a coffee shop than an art space in a way.
SW: Totally. So that was important to us that it could be a place people come and stay and stick around for a while and hang out. And so we also had an artist in residence program and an exhibition space. We’d have three artists in residence per year and the artists would be there, they’d have some time to work in the space if they wanted to, or be, you know, sort of “in sight”… “sighted” within the community as much as they wanted to be. And it would result in an exhibition project and we’d do a publication and opening and all of that. And so then the exhibition would be up for a while. And something I like about that component, as well as like a really multidisciplinary organization, [is that] I come from a visual arts background, so there’s definitely like a visual arts route in there, but there are musicians and dancers and theater people and people who are working even in a slightly more commercial side of things, designers or clothing designers, people making things like that. And so really also, I felt a broader audience for these projects than just like the art world as we kind of usually think about.
LPZ: Which is so refreshing. Right? I feel like the minute you get outside of the sort of prescriptive art world, it’s like, “oh great.” Just being around different ways of thinking about something can be so amazing.
SW: And you see those things happen. You’re like, “oh, those two people met and then they did that other thing, that’s super interesting that that brought those things together.” So there’s that component and then we also had our offices and the Feminist Library on Wheels was a project that really kind of came up right at the beginning with us. It’s these two women, Dawn Finley and Jenn Witte. They started it very early, before the Women’s Center even had a space, at an early book club program we were doing. And they both just had this passion for bikes and for feminist literature and were very inspired by that bell hooks quote that basically [says] we should be sending out—this is a very much a summary of the quote—that we should basically be pamphleting with feminist literature in the same way that like, religion or whatever does—sharing these ideas. And so they started this library that they’d bike around components of to public events and projects and hand out the books for free. But the main home branch of the library existed at Women’s Center. It was about 5,000 volumes that were in shelves all over the space. And then in the back, we had a little kitchen, of course, and then also a print lab, which is where we were producing all of our Co-conspirator Press books. We produced them all in house, which is sort of wild when you think about it. Nadinne Natalia, who was our Getty intern a year ago, or a year and a half ago, and now they’re our print lab manager and they printed 4,000 copies of Decolonizing Nonviolent Communication last year. Like it’s wild. It’s sort of been a success beyond our hopes and dreams. But yeah, so that was what happened day to day. We had a garden that had a ton of native plants in it that people had planted over the years.
LPZ: It sounds like the space you’re describing—I mean, the space is so organic and alive and shifting and moving and physical and in-person. And as you were talking about before—and I actually am doing a book club project at Women’s Center this winter, pending… Stay tuned all Carla fans. But yeah, I’m super excited. I was talking with Mandy about the book club and in my head, I was picturing a circle of chairs and a room of people talking. And I feel like so much of the programming you’re describing is in-person, physical, kind of organic, intuitive. And how is that… What are your initial thinkings on how that’s recreated in a pandemic, digital Zoom interface where you can’t just be sitting working there all day and have a random conversation that you might not have planned? It’s much more structured around, “be on this call at this time.” How are you thinking about the digital sphere?
SW: I guess that’s something I didn’t mention is also a thing we do is a bunch of programs. And so there are many different kinds of programs that run from performance artwork to [the] social-justice-oriented to community building, all sorts of things. And so, yeah, that has been the big question of the moment is how do you transition that? Mandy Harris Williams is our programming director now. She’s been doing a really incredible job of thinking through and building that community online and she’s just so very good. She has an incredible kind of Instagram, digital presence—you can follow her @idealblackfemale—but she really understands how to build that sort of participation in that space in a way that is not my expertise. But we have been doing, when we couldn’t be in the space anymore in March, we took a few programs online in a very tentative sort of like, “let’s see how this goes” sort of way. And I’ve been sort of pleasantly surprised that there is this opportunity. There’s some opportunity to connect and to chat. There’s a little bit of a different presentation model, but it also opens it up to an entirely new community of people to participate.
LPZ: I think that’s the benefit, right? And similarly, I’ve been publishing digitally during this time and it’s like, you know, the bummer of not being in print and having that physical kind of interaction with something. But also, I can see the reach is going way further than it did before. And that’s really interesting, the new pathways it can kind of unlock. So one of the programs you’re doing is the Algorithms of Oppression book club, right? And so that’s been like totally online.
SW: It’s been totally online. And it was in partnership with this organization called Feminist AI. In some ways, it’s very fitting because internet is both like [a] thing they’re interested in and [a] medium—platform of dissemination. And so they, I think, were very geared towards having that be possible. And especially with Mandy partnering, I think it felt very natural for that project to be online. It’s also about how digital algorithms are all, you know, all of the things society is: racist, classist, white supremist, you know? And so yeah, that project made an easy transition. I think, as you’re kind of pointing to, some of the ones that are more conversational or more about talking about more sensitive ideas, or that are more personal, I actually think that is one of the things I think we don’t know yet, and we haven’t cracked the code on, like, how do you create that space online? But there’s a few other exciting projects that are coming up also in this fall and winter. I mean, I think what this whole time has brought up is a really interesting conversation on accessibility and how much more accessible we, everyone, could have been making things at all times. And that it is possible to do it online—it’s not that much more expensive, if it’s more expensive at all. And that we can be making these things available, both in terms of like physical accessibility to the space, but also broad—nationally, internationally, all of those sorts of ways that we can have these conversations in a much more expanded way.
LPZ: And I love thinking about how that, like I listen to th[is] nerdy podcast, or it’s not nerdy, I love it. It’s called “How I Built This,” the podcast. I don’t know if you listen to that. But yeah, they’ve been talking about during the pandemic, like how businesses have adapted. And it seems like [for] so many people it’s like, it just fast tracked this digital adaptation that otherwise might’ve taken a decade or something. And we’ve all had to just jump into these new ways of doing things and thinking, just getting it going however quickly we can manage. And it seems like it just kind of fast tracked all of these points of accessibility and interconnectivity and global outreach that you’re talking about, which is really exciting to think about—how that can then come on board in a more hybridized way going forward.
SW: I guess for me, I’ve been sort of thinking through where’s the care part? Where’s the support systems part? Where does that sort of thing happen? And I don’t know, I don’t have an answer necessarily. But I think in some ways those networks are getting smaller. But I don’t know, it’s interesting to me in that way—that perhaps those are getting smaller, and that this unit of real intense kind of care might be less people, but it’s doing a better job at doing those things. And then, that we have also access to this huge, wider-spread network and ways of getting information and sharing information and having conversations that then perhaps come back to these smaller spaces.
LPZ: Sure, sure. And that the two can kind of operate in tandem and they don’t need to be excluding each other, but that there’s just almost like onion-peel-layers of engagement that people can kind of exist within. That’s really exciting.
SW: Yeah. And it doesn’t have to be one or the other, that these things can perhaps have a relationship to each other.
LPZ: Right. So, okay. Let’s go to the core values. And I know that you worked with another entity to kind of create these, right?
SW: Yeah. So we did a retreat, god, probably two years ago now. No, god, it was three. Cause it was right—
LPZ: What is time?
SW: What is time anyway? And also the initial Trump election was kind of a turning point to politicizing, in a way, for the organization, for sure. And so it wasn’t immediately after that, but it was definitely within the year after that, we sat down to rewrite our core values. So we had a set that predated these. You can see a lot of them intertwined in these, but they definitely are like of a different time for sure.
LPZ: Which is all part of what we were talking about earlier, just allowing evolution, right? And like, it’s hard to do with language. I feel like that’s one thing, you know, when you write down something like “core values,” people kind of expect that to be this static thing, but I think it’s really awesome and inspiring to see how that can evolve, and shift, and adapt over time, and be open to that fluidity.
SW: For sure. And I think exactly that, that these don’t need to be, they’re not written in stone and that language also changes, meaning changes, and even when your intention is to be—I think like of inclusive language—your intention is to be a certain kind of inclusive, but language changes so fast that that word that used to be inclusive is no longer because of how it’s shifted. And so now there’s new language and you have to update it if that’s your intention. And so, yeah, I think we fine tune these all the time. We went on a board and staff retreat with AORTA. They’re an amazing kind of training, facilitation, organizational, development entity. And so we did a retreat with them and then—cause you know, we wrote the first core values in not a dissimilar manner necessarily, it was just with who was there at the time. And now we have much more staff, like people [who are] actually on staff getting paid. We [have] a full board—it was just a different group of people and the time was different. And so we really went back to the drawing board of what the vision and values of the organization were and what we wanted to be at our best. And so we kind of came to this. And so we did this initial retreat, but then it probably took us two months of collaborative meetings every week or something to get these down into writing in the way they exist now. And big shout out to Nicole Kelly, who was our original programming director, who also is an amazing writer and podcaster. And she really helped craft a lot of these, I would say. But it was a very collaborative process. So then, you know, the goal is to review them. I mean, I would say we casually review them all the time, but the goal is definitely to review them annually and kind of just check in to see where we’re at. Yeah.
LPZ: I love it. So let’s dig into a few of them. The whole thing’s amazing, everyone go read them on Women’s Center’s website. But one thing that’s talked about is sort of creating a space outside a capitalist art system, which we’ve talked about a little bit already. I mean, one thing that you say is “art-making is much bigger and more important than the industries or institutions that frequently contain it.” And I just thought that was such a poetic, beautiful thing, [and way] of thinking of art. Art is bigger than this bullshit that we assign to it, or [that] so many people exist within.
SW: I do you think it is a fundamental human sort of activity, art-making is, and that capitalism has created this sort of intense structure around it that does weird things with the value of it. But yeah, I don’t know. I do really believe that. And I think we are interested in being a space that’s built for artists and non-artists alike to access that kind of creativity and what potential that making has. Cause I really think that part is important too. And from a feminist perspective, thinking about, you know, we exist in a world where the systems and the structures and the institutions and the places are made by, you know, they’re made by people. They are being remade every day by the people who are in them. And I think, you know, huge swaths of people have been left out of that making, systemically, for so long. And what would this world look like if it had been really made in different ways by different people to actually serve people more fairly? That’s something I’m really interested in. I think there isn’t—not to give it too much credit—but like I do think there’s something in making—in making art—and showing in small ways that you make things and produce things. And things can change [in a way] that gives you th[e] understanding that that’s a valuable skill. So then we can do this on sort of different scales, this making.
LPZ: Love it. Yeah, absolutely. And that it doesn’t need to fit within this kind of academic discourse, right? That we kind of assign value to and assign these other kind of hierarchies to. I was just reading this awesome Audre Lorde essay called “Poetry is Not a Luxury”. Have you read that? It’s so amazing. And it’s just this little succinct essay just about why creativity needs to happen and is [a] valid channel for expressing one’s oppression or emotion.
SW: And a way of communicating. Yeah. And I think in sharing and connecting and all of those, for sure. Yeah. And we’re big Adrienne Maree Brown devotees at Women’s Center, and her book, Emergent Strategy, is very impactful on us and on a lot of the core values, actually. She’s someone who talks about, also, kind of small-scale building. From a small scale way, practicing things on a small scale, that then it actually is necessary to then hav[e] it evolve into a larger scale or a larger impact thing. It has to be right on the small scale first. And I think that’s something we think about. And she’s talking about organizing, and being in community, and those sorts of things.
LPZ: Intersectionality: I love how it’s written out in your statement [as] this dedicated effort to kind of challenge a brand of feminism that isn’t intersectional and is kind of insidious. Can you speak to that?
SW: Sure. I think for us, it feels important to think through. I think when you’re talking about feminism as a way to analyze oppressive structures, that it’s a very sort of limited lens, to only think about it in terms of gender. Like obviously, that’s not going to be the way we get through to a new liberated place for everyone. I mean, for me, that’s a personal anthem. Everyone at Women’s Center probably would come with their own slightly different answer. But I think, it’s like we have to think about it that way. It can’t exist of these—and even talking about gender now is such an expansive conversation, and that’s so exciting. And I think is creating a lot of new avenues for thinking through even pretty straightforward, sort of feminist—like capital F feminist—ideas and texts.
LPZ: And the idea of like, “it’s never gonna work if it’s just ‘us’ and ‘them,'” and these kinds of classic binaries that gender is so good at defining.
SW: That is the big takeaway. It’s got to get past the binary. It’s like, we’ve got to get into the in-between space. It’s got to be. And even in that sort of intersectional way, it’s like thinking about, oh, that you can’t—you know, thinking of myself—that like you are both a woman and you’re a queer woman. And all of those things are true. And that shifts my perspective obviously on all of these things and like vice versa with everyone else’s and their intersecting identities. And yeah, I don’t know, it can’t be this is a one-lane thing, ’cause it’s just not, it’s just like actually not. So I think it’s limiting to the project, it’s limiting to ideas, it’s limiting towards the ultimate goal of liberation to think of it that way.
LPZ: Yeah. And we talked a little bit about this idea of “working towards,” or this idea of being organic, and imperfect, and kind of unresolved. And that’s kind of spelled out in the core values in this really beautiful way where you talk about failure and process, and also framing those two in terms of capitalism and white supremacy, that those ideas we all have that we have to strive towards a goal, or completed moment, or be perfect while doing it. These are really passed down notions that are really encoded in our culture.
SW: I think they also come from a patriarchal order too, I guess. Yeah. I think we really do. We’ve really tried to dispel that [idea]: that it is going to be perfect, that it’s going to be right the first time. Or even that there is a “right” or there is a “perfect.” That actually, that might not be the value in doing it, is that it can achieve something that looks this specific way. And that, you know, I think talking about what failure perhaps means in that same kind of nuanced way, that it’s not—
LPZ: How do we even define that? Like what is that, what does it look like?
SW: Yeah. And then maybe it’s that it didn’t come out the way you wanted it to, or that it was hard in certain ways, or that it was challenging or caused a different kind of rupture. Maybe letting that be a path, an important path, a necessary path through, rather than a stopping point. Yeah, I think internalizing it too much as that, as a failure, especially because success in the system is white male colonialist. It’s all of these things that we know aren’t serving so many of us. I think we have to divest from wanting success that looks like that.
LPZ: The other thing that you talk about in the core values that’s kind of in line with that is this idea of radical imagining: looking forward and kind of imagining what an alternative system is. When you talk about that, is that kind of framing the future programs? Like what Women’s Center could be, the understanding of culture and how we relate to each other, or just all of the above, like radical imagining in all aspects of existence?
SW: I think to pull from that last point, I think our—and this comes from many important histories of, you know, Black radical imagination, those traditions—what we think is possible is so predetermined by these structures that we exist within. And to get out of this, we do need to be radical in our imaginations. And that is something that takes cultivation, too. And then maybe it’s not something you can necessarily even practice individually at home. It might take sort of doing that together to get to these other spaces and places where it’s possible to see a different way. And I think it takes practice. That’s something I think about Women’s Center in its most ideal place, its ideal state, that something it can do is [be] a place where [the] practice of these ideas can happen. How do you try out new ways of being, and working, and relating? And yeah, I hope it’s at its best, it can be that kind of place.
LPZ: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s so many—I think you alluded to this earlier, but just thinking about history and culture and policing, it’s all invented by a person. People invented the structures we have. But we all kind of take them for granted as like systems: “they exist, so they must be real.” Like, it’s on TV, so it must have happened, you know? But it was invented by people. We are also people. We all have the power to invent the next existence, the next reality, the new platforms. Do you think that, like you were saying, that is best or only done, as a collective?
SW: Yeah, it’s part of my personal opinion. I don’t know. And not to say I have the definitive answer, but yeah, I think it has to be because I think back to intersectionality: we all have our own personal blind spots around structures and systems and the ways that they’ve affected us. And I think to actually imagine a new society that is in service of everyone, it is going to take all different kinds of perspectives and experiences. That those who also have been most oppressed by these systems and structures best understand how we can get to a place where these don’t exist in the same way. And I think that’s a very big reason why that sort of thinking is important. But I do think it has to be done collectively. Cause I just think, yeah, as individual humans, we have so many blind spots.
LPZ: Yes, absolutely. It’s curious too, that your background and so much of what Women’s Center does is art-focused because I think the art world— I often think about it as this little microcosm for the larger, fucked up societal structures that we live within. Like the art world has its own. It mirrors that in a way. And so I’m curious, just thinking about this radical imagining and moving forward as a collective and how we can kind of imagine new pathways forward. And I guess, where is that nexus between the art world and the world world, and how does Women’s Center kind of situate itself, straddling these two things? Or is one a pathway to the other?
SW: Yeah, I think there are lots of different kinds of thinkers when it comes to this. And I appreciate some of the more extreme, “blow it up and start fresh” ideas. I really do admire those. And I do think, you know, sometimes I’m like, “yes, that’s actually, perhaps the only way. We’ve got to burn this down and go start fresh.” But, in the meantime, I think sometimes, or I think in the—I guess going back to like the idea of practicing creating—I think sometimes we can be creating new models alongside the old models. And I think they have to remain nimble, and they have to remain ready to transition and continue pushing those objectives forward rather than become more subsumed by the larger structures that are currently existing. And I think that’s a goal of mine, but I don’t know. I think it’s a very hard thing to do because, I think to the idea of existing under capitalism, it’s like, I have to work. People have to work. And I want working at Women’s Center to be a generative thing. And so how do you hold both of those things at the same time, sort of anti-capitalist ideals while still engaging in capitalism out of necessity? And so, yeah. I don’t know. I think, I guess to those ends, I think of it more as a process of transition is what makes intuitive sense to me. But I do also really admire more radical ways of thinking about that too. And I think it takes all sorts. I think it takes all sorts to propel it forward. You need the agitation as well as the building.
LPZ: Well, I’m curious, because even the way we talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism, that’s another kind of binary.
SW: For me, the most insidious part is only being able to exist—systems that can only exist based on the oppression of other people [are] not going to be our liberatory path forward. And I do think so much of capitalism does exist in that way: it’s only possible because of extreme—I mean, it’s built on it, it’s built on genocide and slavery and then it also exists now through different forms of that. And that’s untenable, that’s actually just untenable. And I think that feels like the most urgent part we have to figure out is like, how do we make—and in what areas do you have control? Like, can you make things less oppressive in that way, that labor doesn’t exist [where] certain people are oppressed in order for other people to gain? And I think that’s a way we can think about it in the art world too, is like, how do we not have structures where certain people create the base of something happening, but they’re never the ones who get credit for that thing happening? And so— sorry, not to start a whole other can of worms—but I was a reader on the Art Workers grant during this COVID time that we are in now. And you know, it’s one of the most—I mean, it’s not shocking. I wish it were shocking. But you know, major institutions laying off so many of their younger, lower-level workers. And it’s just that. That, I guess that’s what I’m talking about: that exists all the time because these people who show up and do this job and are really the front lines of engaging with people, and making this work accessible, and doing that mission-driven labor of making the art world accessible to people who are coming in, and being the face of these things, but they’re of course the first to go.
LPZ: And also expected to be super educated in that.
SW: Yes, and probably have a ton of student debt and many degrees. And then it’s treated as expendable. And that really, I think that is a place we have—even in our small realms, even running an organization— I think of that as a space where I have control, where others in positions not dissimilar from mine have control. We can think about that at least as a starting point.
Advertisement: The Carla Podcast is produced by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles and me, Lindsay Preston Zappas, with production assistance from PJ Shahamat and CJ Salapare. Joel P. West composed our theme music. The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. We archive and post every episode, along with transcripts, on our website at contemporaryartreview.la. Carla has been publishing digitally during the pandemic and we’ve just released issue 21. This issue and all future issues of the magazine will now include Spanish translations. We’re so excited. So you can head to contemporaryartreview.la/print to check out the newest issue. Thank you so, so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.
Learning within Institutions — Building Spaces for Community — Redefining Centers, Structures, and Bureaucracies — Connectivity within Digital Adaptations — Radical Everyday Practice — Living, Breathing Values