Yes We Cannibal in Baton Rouge, LA

By June 25, 2022
Old school, roadside sign for a Meat Meet salon event featuring philosopher Graham Harman, Mattereum founder Vinay Gupta and cyberpunk speculative fiction author Bruce Sterling.
Roadside sign for special Meat Meet salon event (featured on Zer0 Books Youtube channel) featuring philosopher Graham Harman, Mattereum founder Vinay Gupta and cyberpunk speculative fiction author Bruce Sterling. May 2022.

Location/Address: 1600 Government Street, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802

Hours: Salon Series: Sunday 4pm. Gallery Hours: Saturday 12-6pm, Sunday 12-3pm. Additional events at variable hours. Check Instagram (@yeswecannibal) for more information.

Website: http://yeswecannibal.org

Created and Operated by: Mat Keel and Liz Lessner and a rotating cast of volunteers

Founded: March 2020

Most Recent Exhibitions: Erin Woodbrey, Of the Sun (May/June 2022); Cedric Dent, Jr., I’m so glad you’re here (April 2022); Steven Anderson, Entropy Plan for the Western Fam (March 2022)

Douglas Baulos: Night’s Hand on Your Shoulder on view now at Swan Coach House
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Artist Cedric Dent Jr and activist Laramie Griffin (eVOLVe) at the opening of Dent’s I’m so glad you’re here. April 2022.

Bryn Evans: You have a stunning rolodex of quotes that populates your website. One of my favorites comes from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” This quote was foundational to my honors thesis in undergrad, which looked at the crossroads of poiesis and praxis in the work of Southern Black women artists…the ways in which abolitionist frameworks guided their practices. Can you share how this quote resonates with Yes We Cannibal as an anti-profit institution for experimental art and social practice?

Yes We Cannibal: We find it fascinating that the long story of abolition has been so carefully controlled in the course of antebellum history. We opened in 2020, which feels like the year that the word “abolition” roared back into popular parlance with the summer’s many protests. But two years later, it still feels as if few people know that Abraham Lincoln not only continued advocating for the exile of the formerly enslaved long after his contemporaries had dismissed the idea, but also that he influentially portrayed John Brown as an archetypal “outside agitator,” essentially the same figure U.S. media often uses today to infantilize or dismiss white people who fight for Black liberation in any manner other than that what is pre-sanctioned from on high. Alternatively, the mutual admiration and love between Brown and Harriet Tubman is rarely discussed. 

Presence, for us, is partly about interrupting acts of harm at all levels, but it’s also about surfacing historical erasures and repositioning them as presences that have already interrupted the trajectory of oppression. It’s telling another story of the world. That is perhaps the simplest explanation of what we do.

The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that Amazonian peoples lived in a manner that was always anticipating and preventing the emergence of the State. We see that as closely connected to Gilmore’s quote. Anarchist meeting groups are great but aren’t always a lot of fun. How can we create a space for art to do the same work?

Hal Lambert (of Tentative Power Records) doing a sound check alongside work from Steven Anderson’s exhibition Entropy Plan for the Western Fam. March 2022.
Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9
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Why does all of this matter when explaining a modest experimental art project in Louisiana? Because, for us, it is also an inspiration to realize that art must remain a unique kind of space and set of relations – a presence and a freedom and a safe space for dangerous ideas. 

The goal of YWC is to attempt to sustain a free space that is not policed. We have never charged for an event, we have never kicked anyone out, and we have never told an artist or performer they could not make or perform a piece of art here. Each of these facts is a metric of success for us. We wrote a piece for Incite Seminars’ journal REFUSE last year arguing that major art institutions have adopted risk management strategies from the finance industry, and that these strategies (in this case, as applied to the deferral of the Philip Guston exhibition) are part of an encroaching algorithm that will ultimately work to kill the very kinds of unpredictable encounters that YWC wishes to feed. The argument being: art now depends on scrappy salons like ours and many more artist-run spaces. 

In a city like Baton Rouge—where the passage from the plantation to what Gilmore calls the uneven distribution of premature death is so clear—abolition is the highest moral imperative. We feel lucky to find a way to make art instrumental to that project.

Buried Alive Hip-Hop Showcase. January 2021.

BE: Yes We Cannibal hosts a variety of events, which is possible because the artist-run space occupies multiple sites. You’re also currently accepting event proposals. Describe one of your favorite past programs. What would you like to see happen at Yes We Cannibal in the future?

YWC: Off the top of our head, musician Luke Stewart’s performance in January 2022. Luke is a shooting star of this moment, touring the world solo and as a part of Moor Mother’s band, playing for hundred, if not thousands, of people. He wound his way to our strange little corner of Baton Rouge during a high-profile residency in New Orleans, due to a shared friend Thomas Stanley. 

Luke’s performance took place at the peak of the Omicron variant and during the relative cold of a Louisiana January to an audience of around twenty-five masked people. Yet the urgency, presence, and devotion of his art made the room as alive as sitting inside of a giant beating heart. It was the first time in twenty years that Mat cried at a concert, and it is possibly the best show he’s seen in just as long.

Douglas Baulos: Night’s Hand on Your Shoulder on view now at Swan Coach House
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One event we are excited to see happen early next year is a show of new work by Curtis Schrier, one surviving member of the legendary 1970s freak architecture firm, The Ant Farm. It’s also worth noting that many YWC events, including some of our most magical and important moments, have suddenly emerged, as if out of nowhere. Local MC Flood’s set blew our minds at a little show featuring a touring Florida hip-hop crew, performed to an almost empty room while Mardi Gras distracted the rest of the city. This spring, young local tattooist and multimedia artist Resh staged a glorious family affair with the help of her mom and sister one night. The band Crush Diamond from Houma’s Hurricane Ida-damaged Intracoastal Club tore our roof off with a most earnest and high-energy analogue techno music takeover. Already legendary Shreveport experimentalist Ivy Woods (associated with Shreveport’s longstanding but soon to be gone counter-institutional art space, minicine?) recently performed a seven-minute experimental cello piece that was like something from a 1970s issue of Flash Art—haunted with otherworldly vocalizations, strange gestures. The musician even hid on the floor behind his instrument. Totally magic, unexpected, and uncanny.

Yes We Cannibal opening. October 2021.

BE: I want to echo a FAQ mentioned on your website — why cannibalism?

YWC: Our name is a syncretic nod to the appropriated “Sí Se Puede!” of contemporary U.S. politics and the “Anthropophagic Manifesto” written by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade. In 1928 Andrade felt that Brazilian art was still too influenced by its Portuguese colonizers. One hundred years after the country gained independence and forty years after its declaration as a republic, Andrade invoked the Indigenous Tupi practice of ritual cannibalism. Andrade called on fellow artists to cannibalize what came before, be it Indigenous, Portuguese, or of any origin, in order to create something completely new and uniquely Brazilian.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics (2009) further prompted us to embrace the moniker Yes We Cannibal.  Viveiros de Castro’s book examines the Amazonian Indigenous perspectivism that shapes the ability to see any thing or being as a subject and contrasts that with the multiculturalism of the West. For us, the cannibal figure represents something necessary for the current moment. In Andrade’s embrace of the taboo and Viveiros de Castro’s examination of alternate cosmologies, we see a new and as-yet-to-be-determined humanism, which in no way erases or simplifies difference. The cannibal embraces embodied experience and the sensual but opposes the reification of identity and its attendant politics. Most of all, the cannibal is committed to the encounter even though the process entails conflict— a literal taking in of the other, and, thus, a transformation. 

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9
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Panel Discussion. Form left to right YWC co-founder Liz Lessner, exhibiting artist Lily Brooks, Xhriiis Plain, griot and singer Hyckoriii, and Allison Young, assistant professor of art history at LSU. Fall 2021.

BE: Both of you create work that exists within academic institutions, while founding and supporting endeavors that foster unrestricted and non-hierarchical cultural experimentation. As artists and as academically informed researchers, how do you find that these modes of work are at odds with one another, where and when do they work in tandem?

Mat Keel: Yes We Cannibal often works in tandem with our academic lives. Perhaps the best example is Eat the Anthropocene, a show we did with the two person bio-art collective Cesar and Lois in the summer of 2021. What began as a show of their work grew organically to include a panel discussion featuring several academic luminaries and a foraging workshop. The panel led to a paper that is now published in Anthropology of Consciousness. But we’d like to think that what is most interesting about that outcome is that we never set out to “get” a paper from it. Instead, we began by sharing ideas over a phone call while we were foraging mushrooms deep in the woods of Mississippi, and the artists were in Brazil and California, respectively. Similarly, we did an iteration of our MEAT MEET salon series as part of Jason Moore’s World Ecology Research Network and have had other instances of cross-fertilization, such as John Protevi visiting the Anarchist Political Ecology Group.

Liz Lessner: However we also want to differentiate between critical thought and the Academy. As Academy workers and Academy products, we are well aware of the commercialization of the university and the many problems it exacerbates. Our reading and engagement groups—Affect Decoloniality And Materialisms-yet-to-come (ADAM); Anarchist Political Ecology (APE); Gender Fringe; and the Sensory Engagement Lab (SEL)—take critical looks at the decolonial turn, politics, philosophy, the construction of identity, and our contemporary relationship to computing technologies. These things also happen in the Academy in 2022, but at YWC, they take place in a context that isn’t susceptible to bureaucracy, debt enforcement, and the exploitative labor practices of the university. We often wonder if this is truly more counter-institutional or if it is simply prefigurative of a world in which tenure is gone and universities have distilled to STEM centers funded by the military industrial complex.

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