“Know Your Power”: An Interview with Flight Or Visibility

By Stephen Grigelevich

March 8, 2021

Recently, while navigating my spaceship through Boston’s virtual queerscape, my ship’s receiver picked up communication of an intriguing and spirited nature. It came in the form of an audio-visual signal titled “My name (is Joanna),” a rad collaboration between animator Guadalupe Campos and the artist-educator-organizer known as Flight or Visibility. Having made successful contact with FOV, I now bring you the declassified and minimally edited transcript of my encounter with them! We talked about their creative process, their amazing work within arts and activist spaces, and exactly why the process of livestreaming performances needs to change.


So, for those of us who haven’t Flight of Visibility, how would you describe the vibe and the sound?


So the most succinct way I could describe myself, and I am Flight or Visibility whether I perform solo or with a band, is classical punk. The punk aspect is more about subversiveness than actual punk style. I have classical roots; I have a degree in classical oboe, and I also grew up playing violin from age 4 all through high school. And so, I have a lot of classical music in my ears. I also have klezmer, I also have jazz, I also have a lot of older R&B, like from the 60s and 70s. And, basically, the feelings come before the genre. There’s always a lot of dramatic texture changes in my music. Big dynamic contrasts. I sometimes call it ‘cinematic.’



Artistically, what’s going on for Flight Or Visibility?


So, my artistic sensibility has always been framed around community. So, what that looks like in pandemic is that I’ve been organizing with Makeshift Boston, I founded the School of Arts and Social Justice and I was bringing in guest teachers to do that, and now I’m looking at starting up a new semester of that and searching for funds for that. And then, I’ve also been doing a lot of arts festival organizing around community needs. So that’s what I’ve been doing with my organization Weird Folk Fest. So, we’re responsible for the three Queer Quarnivals which have been happening annually. Really, I want my art to be about bringing people together and I want it to be as collaborative as possible, all the time. So with Flight Or Visibility, I’m writing the music and singing and playing a lot of the instruments, but the animator I worked with [on the music video “My name (is Joanna)”] Guadalupe Campos had complete free reign to do what they wanted. I think I insisted on a dance break in the middle, but this was their project to dream up, and they did just an absolutely amazing job with that. I also just love interdisciplinary open mic spaces. I’m often performing at First Fridays open mics. If we’re interdisciplinary as an arts community, then we actually set the stage to build coalitions that expand beyond the arts and into social justice activism in ways that are more concrete.



“Artists are workers and have to be valued as such”

What are some ways that you have connected, or ways that you seek to connect, with social justice movements?


I’ve been organizing at Makeshift Boston for three years now as their events coordinator. And basically, I really want people to know that even community art spaces that seem like they’re doing really well are struggling. And there’s just been soooo much gentrification, and it affects housing first, but it also affects arts spaces and musicians’ right to record be in community together, and especially artists with disabilities. Like, love DAP but they have stairs. So, there’s just a huge shortage of these community spaces. They need funds, and they need people supporting them in any way they can. Art can’t exist without activism alongside it.


Can you say a little more? What does that necessary relationship mean to you?


It means that listening comes first. It means that artists are workers and have to be valued as such, but also have to understand their positionality, especially in a city like Boston where a lot of the arts scene is made up of people who are not native to here, but came here for school, myself included. Like, we have to be able to understand what is going on in the community around us, what it actually means for the entire city if one music student agrees to rent a room that’s more than a thousand dollars a month.


That’s well said. So, I saw the music video for your single “My name (is Joanna)” online and found it really interesting and intriguing. What was the impetus for writing and recording the song?


So, I was coming from a job interview two years ago, and I was dressed how I thought was pretty fabulous and flamboyant and gender fluid, and had made a real effort to present that way because I don’t want to work in any environment where they’re not down with that. So I came from that interview and I was feeling really, really good, and I saw this food truck and went up, and the person behind the food truck was like, “what can I get from you, sir?” “Oh that’s a really good choice, man.” “Okay, dude, it’s gonna be like a 15 minute’s wait. Can I have a name for the order?” And as soon as he said, “can I get a name for the order?” I was like, “whoooaaaa, I have this really, really unique opportunity here.” Because, I am getting misgendered. This person has never met me before, and I don’t really want to have a long, involved conversation with him about how I don’t like being called sir, dude, man, or bro. And all of this was happening like rapid fire. And I can give him whatever name I want, and I could shut down his misgendering right now, and so I gave the name Joanna, and it worked. And he was clearly so embarrassed, “Okay, Joanna, it’ll be right out for you,” and kept saying my “name” that I kept giving him and there was this new power dynamic that emerged of, like, I have just affirmed something about myself surprising and unexpected. So, the song just kind of came to me after, like it’s such a little ditty. I was just walking down the street like (starts singing) ‘my name is Joanna,’” and it just kind of emerged from that.



What was the process of recording “My name is (Joanna)” like?


So, I started recording before Covid started. I recorded at Makeshift Boston, which has great acoustics, although sometimes there was a fitness class, and there was one recording where I went next door and I was like “hey, I’m recording.” I was working with an audio engineer who was bringing in audio equipment. I’m very much about DIY, and didn’t really want to do that in a recording studio.All of my collaborators for that track are queer or trans. So that was really, really important to me for that song. The way I record anything is, I record as much as possible by myself before adding collaborators. So, I had written out some violin and oboe parts, but most of the recording sessions were improvisational. I brought in a cellist, and brought in one of my primary duo partners Surefire Cure, we have a project called Petting Kazoo. We actually recorded them playing MIDI keyboard in their house before COVID. And my engineer said, “I think this needs acoustic guitar, and I can lay that down. So, it was mostly done when pandemic hit, but there were still a few bits and pieces to put together. And, so I ended up picking a zoom recorder. And then I added a few vocal pieces and the violin tremolos and the violin cadenza, and I sent it over to the drummer. And she did the tap dancing part. She actually used chairs, I believe, and mic’d them at different levels. And I sent her a recording of an actual tap dancer who does a lot of jazz music-that’s Jenny Herzog, by the way-so she modeled her tap dance solos after Jenny Herzog-I’m not sure Jenny knows that. And then, I also just asked for a chaotic drum solo. I really pushed her to let other people be in charge of the beat. Because for me, the drums actually represent Joanna. They’re a fantasy of how I could be. Like, I took tap dance in high school for a semester, and I was just absolutely terrible at it, and I spent the whole time just sitting on the bench and watching people because I was so embarrassed at not being able to keep up. And also, when I’ve gone to clubs, I’ve felt the same way, like everyone around is dancing and having a great time, and I’m just kind of frozen. And so, for me, having that drum track in particular, with the giant tap dance solo and the giant drum solo at the end was a symbol of, like…this is the fantasy of freedom that I could one day achieve.


“If you’re doing a live performance at a DIY space and you put on a zoom call, the quality’s going to be terrible”

When you think about live venues opening up, what are you hoping for?


Honestly, I just want people to do it with care. The science is so new. I seems like the vaccine is working, but I want people to be really mindful when we open back up. Consider others, and even after all of that care and caution seems like it can be cast away, still providing a livestream option. Because I know so many people who were homebound before this even started or were relatively confined to their homes, and it’s just been so much more accessible to be able to invite anyone to the events. And a lot of people are showing who would not be able to show up in person. And so, I want to make sure that we’re making space for that, and I want to make sure that any performances we do as a community are providing that livestream option even if there’s also audience in the house.



Mhm.


And that probably means grants for a lot of musicians to do livestream tech right. Because if you’re doing a live performance at a DIY space and you put on a zoom call, the quality’s going to be terrible. Like, you need actual audio engineers who know what they’re doing. So we need to build that infrastructure.


Any final thoughts for our readers?



I’m gonna use the tagline on the back of my t-shirts, which is “Know Your Power.” Because all of us have it. It manifests differently for every single one of us. But all of us have some kind of power. Deciding to do this interview, for example. That is me actively making a decision to present in a certain way. And the song is very queer centered, but it’s not just about queer culture. There are many instances where people might need to give a different name than what someone’s expecting safety, for security, for just being present in the space. And it’s not just about queer culture; it’s centered around queer culture ‘cause that’s my personal experience, but it goes beyond that.

Starting in April, Flight Or Visibility will be the artist in Residence for JamJews. an organization promoting Jewish arts and discussion. The residency will consist of weekly livestream performances every Sunday night for the entire month of April. Want to follow Flight Or Visibility and hear more their music? Of course you do! You can find them on:


Instagram

Bandcamp

Spotify

AND


Facebook