Experimental music festival pushes boundaries, amplifies marginalized voices in a genuine feminist art forum.
The phrase “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” has never been more interesting and inclusive than right now. In this case, it’s “This Is What Feminist Art Looks Like,” and it comes in the form of a music festival nestled in Denver, Colorado, called TITWRENCH.
TITWRENCH embodies a feminist art that so many books, movements and even T-shirts have been trying to accomplish for decades. Now reaching audience numbers of 500-plus, this DIY — or DIT (do it together), as founder Sarah Slater and TITWRENCH community members like to say — festival is not an exclusive music fest with any hierarchy in place. Instead, TITWRENCH is “a mission-driven project. Our focus is on building community, creating conversation and inspiring collaboration for women and LGBTQIA artists pushing boundaries of genre and form,” said Slater. It is a place where new, emerging voices can be heard and appreciated.
TITWRENCH is run exclusively by volunteers. Slater describes the crew behind the magic as “never-not-working types” who manage to house, pay and organize all the performers involved without any outside funding or corporate sponsorship. The volunteer-run aspect of this fest is often born out of a deep-seated personal need to fill a gap in the community. TITWRENCH performer Kheya Lenay Yeager has a bad taste about the way the Denver music scene made her feel onstage: “I feel that most of the Denver scene is a nonpaying boys’ club, booze-fueled, guitar monogamy. Breaking free of this prototype here in Denver is what TITWRENCH brings to the city. As a whole, we crave it.”
Due to this need, participants are eager to volunteer and support a cause for themselves and the community. Emcee since the “dawn of tit” is Piper Rose, who has dedicated her time and talents to the fest for similar reasons. “It’s certainly about filling a perceived need, but it was always about healing for myself. I needed a space where I felt free. Maybe instead of selfless service it’s selfish service? I’m fine with it either way,” Rose said.
Yeager said, “The last few years we have lost quite a few safe places for youth, LGBTQ+ and women to hang out. TITWRENCH has been a beacon of light and inspiration for all of us.”
If the picture of this feminist music festival that has supported hundreds of marginalized performers from all over the world since 2009 isn’t clear quite yet, imagine this:
If you’re a performer, think about the first time you ever went onstage, how much you prepared for that moment and how easy it was to lose any sense of confidence while playing.
Or how about as an audience member, visualize the time you saw that performer whose hands were shaking as they played, apologizing to the audience for hitting the wrong note and starting all over again as if the audience even realized their screw-up in the first place.
Now imagine those exact experiences but in a genuine feminist art forum where your audience knows how difficult it is and wants you to keep playing anyway.
“I think it’s really hard to get on a festival bill as an emerging artist, and I think it is important to have a mix of seasoned and newer artists together. Oftentimes, people really rise to the occasion and TITWRENCH is an opportunity for them to take their artistry to the next level, which they do! Sometimes shit goes haywire, cables break and they forget the words, but our audience is very kind and supportive, so it is a great environment to fail in too,” Slater said.
Let’s talk about this founder and feminist art supporter of over 20 years, Sarah Slater. As an active member of an experimental music scene, she couldn’t help but notice the unequal representation of performers. “I went to a small experimental music festival (High Mayhem) in Santa Fe and it clicked that I needed to produce a festival centered around marginalized voices, especially artists of color, women and LGBTQ+ folks. In the experimental and punk scenes I was involved in, these groups were the most underrepresented and many friends told me they longed for a place where they were more welcome and felt less invisible.”
Slater’s commitment to the TITWRENCH mission is part of what makes the festival so successful. There is no gimmick, no pretension involved with the process. She has managed to maintain a space where people come to feel welcome and understood. A place where fear and misogyny melt away.
In fact, for some, TITWRENCH is the first live performance they’ve ever done. For others, it’s a safe space to celebrate themselves and the boundaries they’re looking to explore as a performer.
Longtime Albuquerque-based performer Marisa DeMarco created a performance project called Milch de la Maquina exclusively for TITWRENCH. Before knowing anyone in the community, DeMarco gathered a group of all-women musicians in Albuquerque and built a set around her sister’s puppet theater. The result was a vivid TITWRENCH memory for all audience members as a homemade 30-foot-long albatross full of performers flew out of the venue. “I kept coming back and bringing Milch back because I’d never seen so many women engaged all at once in exactly the sort of work I wanted to be doing.”
Demarco’s involvement in TITWRENCH allowed her to bring that same feeling back to Albuquerque, where she and a group of collaborators assembled GATAS Y VATAS, which focused exclusively on “experimental solo female performance. The idea here is that the performers are solely responsible for the ideas and presentation of what they put onstage at Gatas, and it’s really built around the idea of experimentation and risk-taking,” said Demarco. Gatas has since been held in Oakland and Seattle as well.
A satellite TITWRENCH fest has even extended to Sweden. Former Denver residents Isis Marina and Kali Malone realized that despite the feminist art and support taking place in Stockholm, there was still a lack of all-female performers in the experimental music scene. In 2014, Slater helped with planning from afar while Marina and Malone spent countless hours writing grants to cover the travel expenses of some American-based performers, including DeMarco and Slater. This led several hundred people to attend the festival, making TITWRENCH a feminist force to be felt outside the United States.
For this year’s fest on September 17, 2016, TITWRENCH took open calls for the first time since 2010. Slater said, “Many people come to TITWRENCH because it is a participatory experience, not one based solely on consumption. The line between audience and performer is blurry and makes for a more enlivening experience for everyone.” As a result, the fest incorporated even more audience-engaged experiences this year. Between donation-based manicures, a tiny house on wheels that doubles as an auxiliary stage, homemade nopal and calabacita tacos and stop-motion animation portraits, it’s easy to see that TITWRENCH is not your average music festival.
Heather Oviatt, a middle school teacher and musician, was moved by TITWRENCH 2016. She told Slater, “So I was sitting behind the La Croix at TITWRENCH watching all the teenage girls walk back and forth and it hit me that these girls live in a world where there is a music fest for women, where the door people, the sound person, the merch tables are all women, a space where women run every aspect of the day. And I thought about how they might grow up thinking that this is just the way it is, taking it for granted, rather than hoping that this is the way it could be. And I almost started crying because the thought was so beautiful. And you created that for these girls.”
DeMarco was one of these women. As part of this space, she too temporarily lives in this world divined by women and radical men who are creating something beyond a music festival. “It means so much as a woman to spend even a couple of days surrounded by people who have sharp, feminist values in this extremely creative forum,” said DeMarco. “I can get all beat down in my daily life by the nasty systemic biases that infect everything and hurt everyone. But then meeting all these radical friends gives me just enough juice to keep trying, keep working on these problems the best I can.”