Queering the Archive With Kate Messer
"Your own culture is worth a memory."
By Beth Sullivan,
1:00PM, Thu. Jul. 5, 2018
Cheer Up Charlies has long been sacred ground for Austin’s queers and misfits. In the Eighties, Sandra Martinez opened Chances, a popular lesbian bar and punk music club, on the same Red River lot.
At the time, local photographer Lisa Davis was good friends with the grrrls of Austin’s lezzie rock scene, and she frequently chronicled their performances at Chances as well as the local LGBTQ community’s social activism. Davis was considered a prolific photojournalist whose work appeared in the pages of the Chronicle as well as national outlets such as The New York Times and Rolling Stone. But, after a battle with depression, Davis took her life in July 1995. She was 32.
Now, more than 20 years later, Davis' extensive archive is on display at the Austin History Center (“We’ll Just Rock for Ourselves: Selections From the Lisa Davis Archive,” Arts review, July 6). In her honor, we thought it was the perfect time to sit down with Kate X Messer, former Chronicle senior editor and “Gay Place” founder, who was best friends with Davis and a key figure in curating her collection. We talked shop about grassroots archiving, Messer’s past life as a punk rocker, and how to cram a big ol’ sign in a l’il ol’ car.
Austin Chronicle: You wrote an article for The Chronicle's 2009 Pride issue that felt like a call-to-action for Austin’s LGBTQ archive since we didn’t have one. Why then? What was the tipping point?
Kate Messer: Andy Campbell [a former Chronicle contributor] and I were trying to do a retrospective on Austin clubs and we thought, "Gee, let’s go visit the History Center and see what they have."
The person at the desk that day came out with this little folder ... and was almost embarrassed or ashamed, like, "This is all we have, this is it." Then she went back to sort of scour, because there's a lot of overlap, and – if you can imagine a Venn diagram – there might be something that affects LGBTQ culture, but isn't filed under LGBTQ.
She came back with a few other little scraps of paper and we said, "Great. Can we copy stuff and use it, and do we have permission to use it?" [But] when we realized you could go look this stuff up, we were like, "There really needs to be a serious drive to get people to contribute." All these different [communities] have their own histories, and they're not keeping track of them.
AC: So you started with that archive about queer bars, but since then, have you seen the archives grow in any way that’s unrelated to a place, or space?
KM: It grew exponentially when we donated the Lisa Davis archive ... I forget how many – there’s a lot of photographs.
AC: Yeah, over 20,000.
KM: But the biggest contribution of growth was when Tim Hamblin, who works in the History Center, decided to shepherd and sort of evangelize the LGBTQ section of the archive. He got a response from a community member, Scott Hoffman, who did what they call a finding guide, [which] is essential in any public archive; it's so that when a Kate and Andy come in and wanna find stuff, they have an index to sort of look through. ... It caused the History Center to go in to those areas that I was talking about, the sort of vague, Venn diagram areas, and realize, "Oh, we could also have this as an LGBTQ holding."
Nothing [is as] important in any community's history as being able to see not just what the community wants you to remember, but what the profiles were of a culture at a given time, so you can see the other areas of Austin culture where things crossover. Chances is a great example of that – a cultural asset, if you will, that bleeds over into so many [aspects of Austin's history], but is predominantly LGBTQ.
AC: The Lisa Davis exhibit at the History Center focuses on her documentation of the early Nineties punk, lezzie rock scene. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a Sincola music video, and you’re in it. I’d like to hear how you became involved in that scene.
KM: It's what brought me to Austin. I used to own a record label in Florida. That record label put out a single by the Pocket Fishrmen, and eventually an album by a band affiliated with the Pocket Fishrmen called Happy Family. Cindy Widner, who was managing editor at the Chronicle for quite a number of years, was the lead singer, and a very good friend of mine. Happy Family, as many Austin bands do, imploded. Cindy and the band and I were talking, and they were like, "Get your ass to Austin; let's start a band."
Our goal was always to get Darcee Douglas and Terri Lord – a beloved rhythm section, bass and drums, couple of dykes who were in about 70 billion bands – to be in Power Snatch and so that became Power Snatch. Lisa Davis was the goofball about the scene, I mean, she was into both the music end of things, and the whole lezzie rock thing, and dyke culture in general. She became one of our main friend group supporters.
AC: It’s interesting because I had no idea Austin had a punk history, or such a rich punk history, much less queer punk history. I first found that out when I talked to Curran [Nault] about his queercore book. He mentioned interviewing you and Gretchen Phillips.
KM: The era right after the Big Boys and Gary Floyd's impact on the Dicks, in which Gretchen was in Meat Joy and eventually Two Nice Girls – that whole era of all the weirdos who were in the New Sincerity movement. All that stuff was nationally known back then, [but] is somehow not worthy of documentation in Austin history. We're in this weird pocket that was after the really cool big stuff, and before the internet.
AC: A lot of times, when people think of the word "archive" or an archivist in an academic sense, it's implied that the archiver is somehow emotionally removed from the material. But with your archive, that's not the case. You're a part of the scene, you're also celebrating Lisa Davis. I'm curious what your experience has been like archiving a person or place that you're emotionally very attached to.
KM: I'm gonna take you down two roads to look at it. Before I pulled the trigger on doing all that work through my twenties, I wanted to go to library science school. I actually had an offer at Florida State to pursue it, and the choice was do that or tour with rock bands and do your little dream. So I've always had an interest in archiving.
I think there's a natural tendency to only take history seriously when it's really in the rear-view mirror of twenty years, thirty years, forty years, but having a friend commit suicide makes you realize ... how much their impact would be lost, not just on your generation, but with the people who live through it.
The other track was my academic background in structuralism and semiotics. I understood intrinsically the importance of subjectivity, versus the kind of illusion and delusion of objectivity. So, for me, why wouldn't you pour yourself into an archive of something you love? Does that mean your version of the story is the only version of the story out there? Well, no. Hopefully, five other people who are passionate about five other things are also contributing to the story, and then people get to read five stories instead of just one sanitized, "objective" piece on it.
AC: This is an interesting counterpoint, because I was reading Andy’s interview with [UT professor and archive expert] Ann Cvetkovich about archiving. I'm paraphrasing, but Andy asked about the challenges of archiving, and [Cvetkovich’s] answer is this danger of letting emotion into the archiving, letting shit pile up, and it becomes like you’re hoarding it because you don’t want to let that emotion go.
KM: But thank God for Ann Cvetkovich, right? I mean, if she were dissuaded by "oh my archive's not neat enough, it's not pretty enough, it's not academic enough, it's not well-curated or tended enough," think about what we would have lost. Community archiving, I think, has that little caveat, it has a little footnote, a little asterisk that says, "This is boots-on-the-ground coverage of this culture at the time."
AC: For you, what does it mean for the Austin History Center to be showing Davis’ work and also acknowledging Austin’s LGBTQ history?
KM: It’s epic. I cried when I heard they were doing it. It was heartening, it was validating, but I think most importantly, it was alive. It creates a reality that no one else has talked about or documented or put forth in an official capacity. ... Now, the challenge in all this for me is how do we get Austin to validate and understand the importance of that History Center.
AC: How do you see getting Austin or Austinites more involved in archiving its history?
KM: At some point, people have to either take up their individual little crosses, or they get together in a community and say, "We deem this important enough to take seriously, to fund, to follow through with."
For the LGBTQ community, you have to remember that even for those of us in the Eighties and Nineties – the big coming out years – that some of us who've lived here in Austin have the luxury of thinking, "Oh, we're accepted now! Gee whiz, marriage is legal, everybody loves us now!" We forget how quickly a tide can turn ... and we forget what it's like in some town that isn't Austin, that's in a red state.
Some guy, some gal, some person who identifies however they identify, may [have owned] a club in some small town and has this amazing treasure trove of history locked up in a bin somewhere. They die, their loved ones look at it, and then put in the recycling pile.
AC: How do you see the LGBTQ community of today archiving?
KM: Instead of throwing [something] away – curate a box and send it to the History Center. Find out what other archives might be relevant to the archive. ... Why not think about your stuff as valuable, instead of what society trains us to think, which is, "Oh, that’s right! We’re in this trend of decluttering now!" Decluttering means throw away, as opposed to curate. Curate it! Make it neat and pretty, organize it. Don’t just throw it away because you hoarded it and now you don’t know what to do with it. Somebody wants to do something with this thing. ... Your own culture is worth a memory.
AC: I have to ask, the Chances sign is huge, and it’s yours – how did you obtain it?
KM: A very good friend of mine, Johnny Minton, and I noticed one day that the top part of this sheet – we assumed it was sheet metal, which it was – was starting to curl down. We looked at each other and he said, "Let me see if I can pull it down, 'cause I'll make it fit in this car."... And it just peeled right down; it had been sitting there for so long. I felt it was important enough to grab.
AC: Yeah, I think with this idea of community archiving, grassroots archiving, it’s going to take someone grabbing something – a friend, a lover, a community member – because nobody else will. This is probably really hard to put in a box, but if you were to think, "This is what I would like somebody walking away from the Lisa Davis exhibit thinking, or feeling, or knowing," what do you think that would be?
KM: The overriding message that I would love people, especially young people, to come away with, is that your experience is important. Your connectivity within a community is important. Your impact, your life's impact on other people and on a city at-large, is so much more impactful and important than can be conveyed in one exhibit. ... No idea that sticks within a community is worth throwing away.
The way I feel about somebody who ultimately makes the decision to end their time on this Earth is, "Well, they didn't do anything to set up any memories for themselves, it's the very least we could do." And maybe I'll include in that group people who left the Earth too soon and they weren't expecting to, but it's the least we can do.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kate Messer sits down with Chronicle photographer Jana Birchum and Curran Nault this Saturday to continue the discussion of Austin's queer history and lesbian rock scene.
Austin’s Lesbian Music Scene and LGBTQ+ History: A Discussion, Saturday, July 7, 3pm. Austin History Center (810 Guadalupe St.). Free and open to the public.
"We’ll Just Rock for Ourselves: Selections from the Lisa Davis Archive" runs through July 22.