I’m not alone: Alima Lee on isolation, community & Black joy in the many worlds of the internet with her Films for Escapism program

, 26 June 2020

“There are a lot of connections to be made,” writes Alima Lee via email, about looking outside of her immediate community in Los Angeles for Films for Escapism. “Especially now since we have moved toward the internet as a means of connection, even more so since quarantine.” Presented by The Women’s Center for Creative Work (WCCW) and running June 11 to July 9, the artist and filmmaker’s curated video program brings together four black queer filmmakers exploring themes around intimacy and surveillance, community and dismantling the gaze.

Alima Lee, ‘Flesh to Spirit’ (2019). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

There are the 3D models of Sarah Nicole Francois’s black femmes in the transcendent eroticism of ‘Soft’, and the examination of Black folk experience amid white surveillance in summer fucking mason’s ‘Velvet Rain’. Jerome AB‘s ‘Masculine Ken on the Secret We Share’ sees the digital Self become both dispersed and stigmatised online, while Rhea Dillon’s ‘The Name I Call Myself’ presents the diversity of LGBTQ identity within the black British diaspora. The program follows April and early May’s Films for Isolation—featuring work by LA-based artists Rikkí Wright, Sydney Canty and Clifford Prince King, as well as Lee’s own gauzy reflections on the multiplicity of love in ‘Flesh To Spirit’. That video—also featuring words from frequent collaborator and WCCW programming director Mandy Harris Williams—is the product of an artist weaned on film and VHS. “I would use film all the time if it weren’t so expensive,” Lee says about the strengths and limitations of her chosen analogue aesthetic. “It’s hard to replicate the feeling I’m going for with digital.”

The child of an 80s RnB and rap music video director mother, Lee carries the family mantle into her own film work for contemporary musicians—like Kelsey Lu’s soft rock cover ‘I’m Not In Love’—and further into art and curation with the Notes on Intimacy group exhibition at LA’s Shoot the Lobster, and more. As presenter and organiser of NTS radio show and (online and IRL) party Rave Reparations, Lee is an active member of a growing community of artists concerned with notions of identity, intersectionality and building networks of mutual support. It’s here that the strength of her Films for Escapism program and practice at large lies: in bringing connection and closeness to what might otherwise be a distant and isolated reality.

Jerome AB, ‘Masculine Ken on the Secret We Share’ (2018). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

**I often think about how one would have managed this lockdown without the presence of the internet, and what a marginalised experience would look like more broadly without an online community. Perhaps this is a moot point because that infrastructure for many (of course, not all) of us has been around for some time now, but what are your thoughts on the impact of online networks on your own experience?

Alima Lee: As a kid growing up alongside the internet, I resonate with this completely. Where would I be now if I couldn’t express my prepubescent thoughts on LiveJournal, talk strangers on AIM group chats, explore myself and my personal aesthetics on Tumblr, curate my friends group on my top eight on MySpace, or explore so many worlds of thought on random forums and websites? This is the interconnectivity that has directly aided in my becoming the person I am today, and with quarantine we have begun to dive back into that space tenfold.

Fortunately, I have roommates and a partner, so I never felt completely alone, but for those who had to be in complete isolation, the internet has been an incredibly important tool for maintaining relationships with the outside world. I decided to start putting my works online in an effort to connect. I saw power in that, which is why I adapted these film programs to an accessible online space with the help of my friends at Women’s Center for Creative Work.

summer fucking mason, ‘Velvet Rain’ (2019). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

**The flip side of this is that one of the problems with being visible online is that with exposure comes vulnerability—from the most basic position where Zoom meetings can be Zoombombed, to BIPOC and queer spaces becoming gentrified. Is this something the tiered ticketing policy of Rave Reparations attempts to address, and is it something you think about in relation to the Films for Escapism program? 

AL: Keeping spaces safe for the people they are intended for is my top priority. It’s the reason why Rave Reparations exists today. Moving through this incredibly exhausting period of time, trying not to let the outright bigotry and hate against black, POC, trans and queer people bring us further down. I wanted to create spaces of pure joy because that is a rarity at this moment. We should all have the space to connect safely. 

**I was interviewing an artist a little while ago, during lockdown, and she stressed the importance of pleasure and dignity as notions that need not be mutually exclusive—particularly for queer artists and persons—as desire can be a source of socially-inflicted suppression and shame. Do you think this is an important aspect of Black, queer, and femme life to be addressed, particularly in relation to Sarah Nicole François’ femme-focused erotic video? 

AL: I feel like it is imperative to address black joy under the pretense of black eroticism. We should have the opportunity to take control of our own narratives of intimacy. It’s so important to me that I created an art show entitled Notes on Intimacy, where three other artists and myself observed the many ways intimacy can be practiced. I wanted to include Sarah’s work in this program because of her work giving a virtual platform to a thick, black baddie based on herself existing in her own beautiful universe, where people like us are celebrated and desired without the white male gaze. 

Sarah Nicole Francois, ‘Soft’ (2019). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

**Following on from the trauma of lockdown and economic collapse, there is a lot of talk about how this period of isolation has called for personal redefinition and community restructuring. Obviously, we’re seeing some radical social shifts as we speak, but what are some of the things you’ve seen as both the positive (and/or negative) outcomes of the last few months?

AL: This year has been a fucking whirlwind of events and emotions. On top of dealing with COVID, we’ve been thrust into the revolution and the black liberation movement. Although this has been ongoing for many of us, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has brought the revolution to the mainstream. People are starting to see and understand the many injustices we face every day. Many people are starting to understand the roles they play in White supremacy and patriarchy, and either using their privilege to help others or staying silent out of fear.

So much is coming to the surface, and we are starting to hold an accountability process for folks in our own communities in defence of black trans life. What is happening is important and the voices of the marginalized are finally being heard. Even though there is a lot of pushback from an influx of racists showing their ass, I feel empowered in my own voice to speak up where I may have been quiet in the past.

Rhea Dillon, ‘The Name I Call Myself’ (2019). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

I am curating programs like this in an effort for our voices and visions to be seen, heard and even welcomed. I’ve taken my position in the revolution as a creative who works to give a platform to other black queer creatives as much as possible. This period of isolation and social justice has made me and so many of my peers understand that we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.**

The Films for Escapism video program, curated by Alima Lee, is online at The Women’s Center for Creative Work (WCCW), running June 11 to July 9, 2020.