Spanning several decades of practice, Gavilàn Rayna Russom’s work explores the social, embodied, and transformational potential of music. Known mainly for her solo musical releases, both eponymous and under monikers including Black Meteoric Star, Paper Eyes, Child, and Pain Slut, her elemental approach to analog synthesis is grounded in an intimacy with her medium’s constituent parts gleaned from hand-building synthesizers in her early career. With predecessors in the New York City avant-garde tradition of Jack Smith and Arthur Russell, Russom views her electronic compositions and research-informed performance works as a way to “restructure time,” derived from a creative process marked by the awareness that “ideas about music emerge from social contexts.”
Surfacing amidst the bleakness of 2020’s pandemic spring, her label Voluminous Arts, “a creative support network disguised as a record label,” imagines a new music landscape beyond the confines of genre clichés and PR hooks, activating a deep-seated vision of creativity and community through collective projects such as Halloquium, an annual nightlife conference led by queer and trans organizers. This year, Halloquium gathered theorists, DJs, nightlife workers, and ravers in virtual space to grapple with such topics as “nightlife is not inherently revolutionary” and “how have ideas of false unity allowed fascism to embed itself in club culture?”
The political and spiritual are inextricable from Russom’s artistic work, which has always been site and context-specific. In workshops centred on parallel themes of witchcraft and analog synthesis, she shares on recovering ancestral and kinship relationships while contending with complicity in European and settler colonialism, and examines repressed histories through an anti-racist lens. In this conversation, Russom discusses reclaiming her story from the “flattening and neutralizing” grasp of the commercial music industry, the connection between music composition and her work as a spiritual medium—opening up alternate timelines and temporalities through sound, and building systems of mutual support within particular nightlife communities.
Rather than being like, Oh, I want to make an amazing track, the coding of time has been much more what I’m interested in. At the forefront is, what am I doing with time here? How am I structuring time?
Kayla Guthrie: You often work with handmade synthesizers, which you have been building for more than two decades. Tell me about your relationship to analog synthesis, and how it figures into your music.
Gavilán Rayna Russom: It was around the time that I was graduating from high school in 1992 that I got interested. I was in the punk and hardcore scene, but also really into hip-hop, and early waves of electronic music coming out of Detroit and Chicago, and industrial music. I got really interested in trying to experience the widest vision of what music and creativity could be. And so, without really having a grasp of experimental music, I started to get interested in sounds and the limits that instruments and sounds could be pushed to. There were moments in different kinds of music where things seemed to come apart at the seams; like the end of a Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth song where it just goes insane for a while, or moments in dance music tracks where it would become extremely intense. I started trying to figure out how I could make things that were just like that part of the song: very harmonically dense, untethered, uncategorizable sounds.
Around that time, I started to see analog synthesizers, especially in second-hand music shops in Providence, where I was going to get effects pedals and stuff. I went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago for a year, and they had a modular synthesizer there. I never even got in the same room as it, but there was a window in the room where I could look in. And that was where it connected for me—this thing that I’m trying to pursue and understand of this different music that’s fluid and exceeds genres—that looks like an instrument that could do that, because of the way that it makes sounds by turning all these dials, not by hitting a key that makes a predictable sound, or, like, blowing on something.
It was a very different time. There weren’t new analog synthesizers commercially available, just vintage equipment from the 70s and early 80s. This sort of new wave of Eurorack hadn’t happened yet. I couldn’t afford to buy vintage synthesizers, so I started making them. That’s just an ethos that comes from my family: my mom is very old-fashioned and was always like, you could just make that! So it was just a mix of financial necessity and very urgent interest.
And then the unintended side effect of being a composer who was learning to build synthesizers, meant that my compositional relationship with them became very deep. I feel like I have a very intimate relationship with it because it’s not an intellectual thing, it’s a body thing of knowing what’s deeply happening in there when I turn it on. And that expands out to also being a gender variant person. Synths were an instrument where sounds were moveable and variable and fluid and can change all the time. With a violin, there’s a limit to how much you can change the sound, but if you think about a sound as an identity, the sound of a synthesizer has a fluid, mutable, trans, queer identity, whereas the sound of like, a piano has kind of a cis identity. You can kind of hack it, though; a lot of what I did before I used synthesizers was hacking more conventional instruments like the piano.
KG: I notice that you often record live to tape. Can you tell me about how your approach to composition started and has evolved?
GRR: I do use a fair amount of tape. Black Meteoric Star is the only project where it’s only ever recorded one way and that’s live to tape, but then that practice integrates itself into a lot of other music that I make. Recording to cassette tapes is something that I’ve been doing for a long time. When I was a kid I got a little portable cassette player as a gift. Those were my first compositions, just recording the world around me and sequencing it. You could recompose time by pausing the recording and then starting it again somewhere else, and then when you listen to the tape that time would be knitted together, rather than the real-time that I experienced. So that was very visceral for me, the way in which recording provided a way to experience other temporalities and restructure time, though obviously, I didn’t have that language when I was a child.
That became really important to me in terms of recording. Rather than being like, Oh, I want to make an amazing track, the coding of time has been much more what I’m interested in. At the forefront is, what am I doing with time here? How am I structuring time?
KG: On a similar note, you teach a class called Analog Synthesis for Witches at Catland in Brooklyn. Can you talk about some of the parallels between analog synthesis and witchcraft?
GRR: One of the things I talk about in that class is the era between 1250 and 1650 in Europe. Silvia Federici is a person who’s done a lot of writing and research around this; my entry point builds on the foundation she lays out in her work.
Community and kinship networks had to be broken down. The state and the church had to eradicate peoples’ ability to get the things that they needed from each other and from their local environment so that people would have to buy those from some kind of a vendor. A centralized power structure had to be established. They also had to get rid of people who were old enough to remember a time before the exchange of goods for money was the basic operating economic principle.
So a big part of the witch trials and burnings was eradicating older people, people who had memories of a pre-capitalist time, and also eradicating kinship networks of healing. Particularly those kinship networks and healing that had been passed down through the “feminine” communal space, which is not to say only people of female body, but a space in which a feminine gender operated.
So you have this invention of the witch as a demonic, evil figure connected to the devil; and the trials and burnings, and the destruction of an entire life way as a result. You have the enclosure acts of the industrial revolution. In the British Isles, there were big tracts of land that were not particularly useful for agriculture. They were places where, for example, herbal medicine grew, places where people would go to commune with divine natural forces, places where people would gather to have celebrations, usually at that point on saint days, but in a very folk Christianity way, so saint celebrations that were actually connected to much older traditions, pagan traditions. And when the shift happened from agriculture to the industrial, those lands, called "commons," became useful for raising sheep for industrial wool production. The British parliament enclosed those wild spaces and made them no longer communal spaces of folk medicine, gathering and witchcraft, instead becoming privatized, corporate spaces.
You have the witch burnings and the enclosure acts, and at the same time you have the dominance of the system of western tonality and notation. Those three things are happening at the same time, and are very connected to each other: the removal of an old way of life which is communal, poly-vocal, intergenerational; and the imposition of a new way of life that is regimented, based on centralized power, capitalist in terms of its economy, and relies on this forward-looking timeline of progress, rather than an ancestral timeline where knowledge is gained by looking backwards and learning from your ancestors.
Music figures directly in this period of time where we see the eradication, in the place that we now call Europe, of fluid and communal ways of being, thinking, and structuring replaced by a more regimented way. Of course this is also the beginning of the colonial process. The Portuguese conquest of the Congo is happening on the same timeline, as is Columbus. So part of the class is to establish that these ways that we have been conditioned to think about music are consistent with the highly regimented ways that we’ve also been taught to think about culture and society and race and gender. All of these problematic ideas were set into motion in the early establishment of capitalism and they are all related to each other.
A big part of that class is to present synths as a way of getting in touch with the ancestral, the elemental, the poly-vocal, if we say that under this big umbrella of witchcraft are traditions that are based on kinship relations with nature, rather than hierarchical relations in a state of centralized power. That’s my experience, that this tool [of synthesis] is really well-suited to exploring those things. And of course, with the understanding that it is a product often produced in ways that are harmful to the environment, often under harmful labour conditions. While I want to celebrate synthesizers as this intrinsically liberatory instrument, they are also problematic in the ways that this laptop I’m talking to you on is.
Even how we think about time has been taken from us and music provides this opportunity to reclaim time.
KG: I think that knowledge around music and how it’s made is very liberating, because as a self-taught musician myself, getting involved in music is often a very intimidating experience, and Youtube is filled with videos of dudes trying to teach you how to do the perfect kick drum and all this stuff [LAUGHS]
GRR: That’s the thing. We’re in a lot of crises right now, right? As a society. While obviously things like the environment are in a crisis in a very practical way, we are also in a crisis in terms of music, especially the idea that’s become so ingrained that music is some thing: it’s knowing scales, it’s knowing how to produce, there’s all these master classes of here’s how you do it right, you know?
For me what’s interesting is: what’s interesting to you? What sounds excite you? If you sit there and make sound, what are the things you enjoy doing, you know? What do you think music is? It has no essential ontology except sound over time.
KG: Many of your solo releases seem to be embedded in a sense of time linked to specific events and locations: the East Side Rail Tunnel in Providence in the 70s and 80s on Secret Passage; late 90s Brooklyn on the Paper Eyes releases; and the New York City of the present and recent past on Bloodshock and NYC Beat Boxx. So, how does time and place figure into your work?
GRR: I don’t have an easy answer. But I think, in terms of what we were talking about, if music isn’t about crafting an awesome melody using the western tonal system, then what is it? For me, it’s a way to connect to time and place and to imagine ways to share or give shape to relationships between time and space that I’ve experienced.
I’m a medium, so I’m aware of layers of time in a place. I grew up in a house where there were ghosts in that house and those ghosts talked to me. So there was, even as a young person, this experience of time as permeable and cumulative, not just moving along a linear timeline. And that being connected to certain places. The ghosts that talked to me in my house didn’t talk to me at school. Something that I think is important to share is my experiences of how time, space and place works.
In studying art, I got interested in the idea of site-specificity. When I encountered that idea, I thought it was also related to decolonization. Places have a meaning or a life that is not based on the store that happens to be on that block: if I go to the Apple store to buy a new phone, that’s in a place that has layers of time present in it. Here in the United States, we are all on this land that has been, first of all, stolen, and then extracted, reshaped, colonized, and built upon. Part of the experience of mediumship is understanding that that apparent visual change on the surface doesn’t mean that what was there before, what's underneath is gone.
Writing the Passageways and Portals text about Secret Passage was a way to look at how this place [the East Side Rail Tunnel] was significant because it exists at this nexus of so many layers of time, and also all of this unresolved trauma. In terms of the landscape of the place that is now called Providence—in as much as I as a white person of settler-colonial ancestry can understand it through research—the Indigenous place map of that place is very different. It isn’t based on a city entity with a name; it’s a place in which there are these important features of the landscape, most of which have been removed through urban development. There is a place where two bodies of water come together, where there is a particular type of embankment, where there is a landform or water form, or where people go to do a specific thing. The process of giving it a name that’s connected to the Bible and Christianity re-wrote one kind of map, but it didn't make its identity as a Native homeland go away.
Music is about time; it works with time. Benjamin Boretz, who I studied composition with at Bard College, has said that what’s happened in late-stage capitalism is the total theft of our time and even our sense of time. Even how we think about time has been taken from us and music provides this opportunity to reclaim time.
If I go into my studio and record a Black Meteoric Star track, that’s what happened for me on March 20th, 2020 for 9 minutes and 54 seconds. I reclaimed that time from capitalism and theft. That time instead was time that I encoded for myself, and I get to share that 9 minutes and 54 seconds with other people. I try to make things that are meaningful enough that they are worthy of asking people for that attention. Music is very connected to time, and for me it’s also become a way to enter this other time that I’ve experienced through mediumship, or that one can get access to through research into the colonial process. It provides this opportunity to enter other time frames and other temporalities where you can understand things differently because time works differently.
...if music isn’t about crafting an awesome melody using the western tonal system, then what is it? For me, it’s a way to connect to time and place and to imagine ways to share or give shape to relationships between time and space that I’ve experienced.
KG: Turning to Voluminous Arts, your label, which you founded in 2020. You’ve released a pretty powerful body of solo work that includes these archival recordings, some of which go back decades. How did this process begin in terms of bringing these archives to light and presenting these personal histories and narratives?
GRR: Using my music as a way to model different social structures has been very important to me, but I did realize at a certain point that, even though I talked about it in interviews and stuff, it's not something that people really understood. It’s a little abstract. I wanted to be able to give more shape and understanding to that, so part of founding Voluminous Arts was a way to say, here’s an entity. It’s a social entity.
Voluminous Arts started in an unofficial way as a place where I was putting out Black Meteoric Star stuff, because it didn’t make sense for me to work with labels for that project anymore. Then I formally created Voluminous Arts in 2020, and came up with this year zero concept for 2020, which was to use my own music to give the label a definition and create the spectrum of what Voluminous Arts sounds and feels like. Part of it was to introduce the label, but also, I’ve been making music for a really long time, and much of it is not really known about.
My relationship with DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem, which were certainly helpful in certain ways in terms of career development, were also liabilities, because I got placed in this other world that had a very strong context and identity. It didn’t really contextualize these ideas that we’ve been talking about, or the work I’ve been doing for a long time. So having a label like Voluminous Arts created this way to be able to tell my story as an artist, and reclaim it from a kind of PR machine in the early phases of my career. I have had this bizarre experience really often that I think few people who DJ have had, where I’d get booked and I’d go somewhere and start playing, and they would be mad at me. I’d be playing my own music, and they’d be like, You can’t play that! It was this bizarre thing of, Oh, you booked me because you wanted somebody on DFA. So what became important for me when I formally left DFA in 2014 was to tell my own story, because it sucks to go play a gig and have somebody be mad at you for just doing the thing that you do.
So the impetus for the label had two aspects. One was to create the context for releasing other people's music, and the other was to tell my own story in an authentic way that isn’t mediated by people that just didn’t do their research and kind of have the wrong idea about who I am.
KG: With Voluminous Arts, one of the things that stood out to me is the texts that accompany all the releases. They’re extremely comprehensive and go into so much detail, placing the work in a context that’s very specific. It’s so different from the type of writing that we usually see about music. The label also has a section of the site that publishes writing; essays and articles by you and other contributors. I was wondering if you could talk more about how writing became a part of Voluminous Arts?
GRR: Writing became really important, and writing press releases for Voluminous Arts, which I did by myself for a long time and now do with Cam Franklin, became a way to have this establishing text about the release. And to also refrain from using really strictly genre-based words, which the industry uses to tether things to sameness and flatness. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in new ideas, in creativity, in composition, in who people are as artists and what they want to talk about.
When the pandemic started, the whole landscape shifted. The rug got pulled out from not only artists, but people who do sound in clubs, people who do the door, bartenders, sex workers...all of these people who rely on the nightlife economy in various ways. I also saw a lot of journalists being like, We are also fucked! Because the reason that people do press is to get the festival bookings.
So I just began to dream in the way that I do, about if there could be a part of Voluminous Arts that’s about writing: to create this section of a website, offer people small honoraria to write something and just ask people that are interested to write about the music that the label is doing in ways that are meaningful for them. And have that be the primary way that releases get contextualized. So, again, if somebody from Resident Advisor or Pitchfork wants to write about it, they already have to contend with, like, oh shit, there’s Morgan Page’s text about trans histories in the Catholic church. They have to contextualize what they're writing in terms of Nat Raha's expansive poetic text about the album, and it becomes harder to flatten it into something less than it is.
There’s this protection around it to let it be the thing that it is, rather than to say It’s kind of like this so let’s flatten it into that box and neutralize its meaning and potential power.
Being isolated in quarantine, this idea of an experience of the divine that’s so direct that it’s sexual and erotic just came back up for me.
KG: The text accompanying your album Transverberation had some very interesting details about your multifaceted relationship to Saint Teresa of Ávila, who is described as a presence throughout your life: from art historical encounters to a homemade drink that you named after her, as an entrance to spaces of the psychedelic and erotic, and a spiritual link to your experience of decolonization and trans experience. Can you talk more about this path?
GRR: In my ancestral line, my mother’s mother's family are Italian, from Roseto degli Abruzzi, Catholic. My great-grandmother came to the United States with her sisters, no parents, on a boat, and eventually she settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country as the only Italian family there, the only Catholic family there. Then my grandma married a Pennsylvania Dutch guy, and when it became clear that she was not going to raise her children as Catholic, the church said, Ok, you’re not Catholic anymore.
So I didn’t grow up with Catholicism in my life, but in my ancestral memory there has always been this very strong connection to Catholicism and the rituals of the Catholic church. A lot of that relationship [to Saint Teresa of Ávila], which for me is an ecstatic relationship to the Catholic methodology, but not the morality of the Catholic Church, is something that’s not only in my ancestral memory, but is a very deep part of my ancestor worship process. Even before I had context for these things, if I was travelling somewhere, I’d usually go to a Catholic church. And that has nothing to do with the politics of the church. It has to do with the fact that there is a portal to the divine there that someone in my ancestral line used to connect with their own deep ancestral memory, certainly extending across time beyond and before the foundation of the Catholic church.
When I encountered that Bernini sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, it was having a postmodern moment in the early 90s around the eroticism of Renaissance sculpture. I was so blown away by its representation of just overt sexuality. It’s such a sexy sculpture; it’s really intense. I absolutely loved it, so I became enamored with St. Teresa of Ávila, and then got to know her writing more. She’s also contemporary with the witch trials in Spain, and in fact was on the verge of being accused of being a witch, but she’s so into God that there’s, like, no way! [Laughs]
So, it was a thing I carried with me, and as it says in the press release, the way I used to use drugs and alcohol was this attempt to have spiritual experiences and to touch ecstasy and the divine; to be outside of time. For a period they worked imperfectly, then became liabilities for me, but during that time, I would sometimes experience that kind of ecstasy, especially with the combination of drugs and alcohol and music. It’s also a trans experience of simultaneously feeling this divine, feminine, and ecstatic thing, that is also painful and terrifying in a way that felt similar to the way St Teresa wrote about her experiences with the divine.
Being isolated in quarantine, this idea of an experience of the divine that’s so direct that it’s sexual and erotic just came back up for me. It was really resonant for me, as a person who was missing a lot of connection. Something I wanted to explore musically was my relationship to that story and her.
KG: On a similar note, you’ve taught the classes “Healing Ancestral Bonds” and “Queering European Witchcraft Traditions” at Catland, addressing ancestor work and witchcraft in a way that centres decolonization and trans, queer and gender-nonconforming experience. For witches and other practitioners, especially those of white or European heritage, what can we learn from examining our lineages in this way?
GRR: Both of those classes I created with a pretty overtly anti-racist focus. Something that I’ve encountered and experienced myself is that part of the colonization process is this othering of the spiritual, just saying, Black or Indigenous folks, that’s where spirituality is, and as white folks, we don’t have a spirituality unless we go take it from them. That’s reinforced in media of various kinds, and through my own research, I came to understand that every people has very deep what we now call spiritual technologies—I mean, the category “spiritual” is also an invention of colonialism—that are component parts of a different way of living that involves kinship relationships and relationships with the ancestors. The way our society is structured, those are compartmentalized. It’s like a market: that’s the booth over there, where spirituality is, and here’s where health is, and here’s where politics is. So that’s already a weird thing where it’s been compartmentalized and pulled apart.
For myself, when I began to be very troubled about my own cultural appropriation – around the time I graduated from high school – and how that cultural appropriation was fueled by this idea that I, as a person of European ancestry, didn't have a culture, and that culture came from other people, and if I needed culture I had to go to other places and take it from them. I began a process of trying to understand—well, what is my culture? What is my ancestry?
People that I knew that were Black, Indigenous, or Latinx were drawing from their ancestral culture to create [art]. I could see the lineage. I thought, how does that work for me, what’s my culture, what’s my ancestral lineage? I began to research that on a personal level, to try to move out of a space of cultural appropriation and into a place of authentic creativity. I began to find that there were very rich and interesting things about my ancestry, and all these peoples that make up this thing that is now called Europe.
In both of those classes, it’s about sharing my experience of that journey. So in “Healing Ancestral Bonds” I engage what it looks like for me, as a white person of European ancestry, to do ancestor work. What does it require if I’m contending with ancestors who were colonizers, and their impact? These classes are open to anybody; I just teach them from my perspective as a white person of European ancestry because that's my experience.
There are these things that actually I was told I didn’t have to contend with, because I was told my whiteness would give me a pass. That whiteness was gonna give me a pass to a certain economic access and the gifts of capitalism, where I wouldn’t need the kinship and ancestral relationships, because my whiteness would give me access to a world of goods and services and money that would replace those. My ancestors made the same deal when they went from being of a community somewhere in what we now call Europe to being white. There was a shift from being a person who has a very local community, whose kin are the plants, animals, other people around you, whose divinity is based on that river that goes right in front of your house, to a reliance on larger and larger entities that eventually became the state and the regimented system of exchanging labor for money and money for goods.
That's the deal my ancestors made over and over again: I’ll exchange my kinship relationships for whiteness. That worked for some of my ancestors in certain ways. I think possibly because I’m a trans person who also has mental health issues, it didn’t work for me; that promise was unfulfilled. So what I did instead is to look backwards through time and see: how can those ancestral bonds be healed, how can I start to form those kinship relationships, how can I learn from Black and Indigenous people without appropriating their culture?
Music has this capacity to archive time in a way that isn’t based on a linear progress line, and so that way it can wake up the dead as well, or create space for that portal.
KG: I feel like it’s also important that those classes are being taught in Brooklyn, with the history of that place in terms of gentrification and colonization. On another note, the spirits of the dead seem to be very present in your work: skull motifs on some of the album art and costumes, and parallels between the deaths in the recent pandemic and these histories of white supremacy, colonization and violence. You’ve talked about it a bit already, but has this always been a part of your work, and what’s led to these connections to the other side?
GRR: I was a person who had experiences of ghosts as a kid. When I reflect, I think that’s a really important thing, because I had a concrete experience that death doesn’t mean things go away.
More and more as I understood why spirituality was important to me, that’s what kept coming up, the dead: my own dead, my dead ancestors and spirits that walk with me, but just the dead in general. The world as composed of the dead. And I guess in terms of my work and the relationship between creativity and the dead, and especially music and the dead, it has to do with the way in which music has this capability of remodeling and reshaping time.
If I’m making a piece of music and I take something I did in my studio on a Tuesday then some stuff I did in my studio on a Friday, then a field recording I made six weeks ago when I was out on a hike, and then a recording from a tape of me playing the violin in 1995, and start putting those together, there’s already this layering of time. Within that piece of music, there’s this model in which time isn’t just happening along a linear timeline. Linear time is a very Eurocentrist model. There’s other ways to model this: layers of time layered over each other, spaces layered over each other – the places those recordings were made in. Music has this capacity to archive time in a way that isn’t based on a linear progress line, and so that way it can wake up the dead as well, or create space for that portal.
When I think about how I see the world today, that we are in this environmental crisis, public health crisis, and multiple crises around creativity, mass incarceration, racism, police brutality, the invasion of advertising into every minutia of our existence...and a part of that is this absolute refusal to deal with the dead. Just one example is the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While the folks who are descendants of enslaved people have certainly contended with their spirits and ancestry – either through direct spiritual practices, or just contending with the fallout of what it’s like being descended from a kidnapped enslaved person – the people who masterminded that have not dealt with those dead. They in fact are in every way, shape and form refusing to contend with those dead and continuing to plow forward and create more and more dead in different ways.
So there is that political dimension to the dead, if one can understand that that stuff doesn’t go away, that those bones are still on the floor of the Atlantic ocean, still talking. Part of why I also put that forth so much in my work is understanding that this thing we call the dead is around us all the time, and that’s actually something that needs to be contended with, and at this point, we are in such a crisis because this has piled up. There is so much unresolved dead energy that hasn’t been dealt with. It’s a weaving together of a lot of different things, but it’s really at the core of what I do. It’s connected to my political beliefs and how I feel I can be of service in terms of social justice, and it’s connected to my mediumship.
KG: You’ve been publicly outspoken about how informal networks and mutual aid are such crucial supports for people in the queer, trans and nightlife communities. You discuss this in your recent essay Sick in Love Injection fanzine, where you talk about how you survived COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic in New York, and as well with Voluminous Arts’ self-description as “a support network disguised as a record label.” What are some of the ways that these support networks have continued to evolve in the past year that you’ve experienced and observed?
GRR: This amazing thing happened in the early pandemic. The architecture had already been built when Hurricane Sandy hit New York [in 2012], when the federal government was slow to address the affected communities. Commerce wasn’t being impacted, but people didn’t have any food or lights on, and were freezing cold. The federal and state governments weren’t doing anything because they didn't see these communities, Black and Brown communities mostly, as valuable. And there was a lot of hemming and hawing at the state and federal level about how hard it was to get the help out to the Rockaways...but folks from Occupy [Wall Street] got together and were able to bring services into those areas and help people, like, right away. It was a really powerful thing to witness.
When the pandemic hit, there had been so much groundwork laid in different communities based on a general understanding that the government is not going to take care of us. As I talk about in the essay, Ridgewood Tenants’ Union on day one were like, We’re starting a mutual aid network, and if you need groceries, here’s how you get them. I saw that happen all over the city. People in nightlife communities instantly made that shift as well in places like The Gym. And people did it with their parties too, like: We’ve been doing this party for six years, now we’re gonna use its notoriety as a way to fundraise and to provide needed services.
I founded Voluminous Arts on the 10th of March 2020, and WHO declared a pandemic on the 12th of March. So what the label is was very contextualized by what I was experiencing and witnessing in the pandemic. Whereas initially I might have thought I’ll make a label that’ll help me and the people I put on the label get gigs, very quickly I was like, This whole thing is totally unsustainable and the rug just got pulled out from under us. Ultimately, at this point Voluminous Arts is mostly an investigation into whether it is possible that something like a record label could help to form something that’s more sustainable, so that the rug can’t be pulled out from under that easily.
It might be a way to steward this amazing possibility that’s in certain nightlife spaces and communities, where people get together to party, then they get together to fundraise, to create queer and trans space, to share music that’s interesting and special to their groups of friends.
KG: As somebody that’s been there for longer and seen things cycle through, you have a big picture view on the nightlife community – where some people just go for fun and it’s a fleeting thing in their lives – but there’s those of us who are still around as adults, and it’s part of a larger idea. I’d like to turn to Halloquium, which is the annual queer and trans-led nightlife conference you founded in 2020 and presented through Voluminous Arts. In the words of conference materials: “the rudiments of new ways to live exist and have existed for a long time within certain nightlife communities,” and this involves “learning how to talk to each other.” Can you talk about the experience of creating a collectively organized space for these conversations to take place and why it’s so important, especially right now?
GRR: I got COVID really early in the pandemic, and was laid up alone in quarantine with instagram as my only way to interact with the world. I’d see people post a picture of a party that happened before the quarantine with a caption that was like, I can’t wait until we are all back together again, and for some reason that bumped into something for me, because I was like, We’re not gonna do this again. A whole entire way of living has ended, and it’s not gonna come back.
Quarantine presented an opportunity to think about what I’d been doing and why I was still going to clubs. I was, at the time, 46 – why am I still going to clubs, why am I trying to get DJ gigs? What I realized was that, from a very young age, I’ve been bringing a lot of my unmet needs to these spaces: needs for connection to others, to myself, to sexuality, my body, identity...I’ve been bringing a lot of unmet needs to these spaces because they weren’t met in other places. And I realized that for me nightlife spaces were doing a very imperfect job of meeting those needs.
I thought, Is there a way I could share this experience that I’ve been having? One thing I’d been reflecting on was how being in parties and clubs presented a very specific way to talk to other people. Going outside for a cigarette, in the car on the way to the club, or in some corner of the club when I wasn’t on the dancefloor, I’d have these amazing interactions with people. As a young person, it’s how my politics got formed: talking to people outside of a punk show.
So I made an instagram post and proposed: Voluminous Arts is going to do a conference this year about nightlife. I started inviting people, and there were people that wanted to volunteer, and eventually this thing took the shape of this two-day conference, that includes, first of all, a very comprehensive land acknowledgement and performances, panel discussions, and, then, rather than a Q & A, [there’s] open discussion. When the panel ends, rather than people asking the panelists expert questions, people can go talk about what came up in the panel in groups amongst themselves.
It might be a way to steward this amazing possibility that’s in certain nightlife spaces and communities, where people get together to party, then they get together to fundraise, to create queer and trans space, to share music that’s interesting and special to their groups of friends. There’s amazing potentials in that space, just to get people talking to each other and connecting, especially across scene boundaries and style boundaries, and to connect on a deeper level: what are we doing? What are the needs that we are bringing to these spaces? What do we think about this stuff?
I gravitated towards clubs because I didn’t have to talk to people. I could be around people on the dance floor, the music would express my feelings, the club became a surrogate for my social life. Because I had a lot of social anxiety, I couldn’t quite talk to people, but really wanted to be around people and to have an experience that was different from my strict family and school. The fact that there was music playing and lights, and it was dark, made me feel comfortable enough to be in that space – and yeah, maybe in that space I’d have a 10 minute conversation with somebody that’s really awesome.
What I’ve done with Halloquium is try to use my creative energy to create a space of welcoming, safety, and openness, so that people who are like that – who might be like, Well, I prefer to speak through my music, or I prefer to be around people just on a dance floor – get a chance to connect and feel comfortable talking about the things that are important to them: why do they make the music they make, why do they do the parties that they do? And then hopefully to eventually get everybody talking.