"The Gem Sisters"
"The Gem Sisters"

MIX -- the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival -- turns 26 years old tonight in Gowanus, Brooklyn. And even as the festival ages past its first quarter century, it remains one of -- if not the -- most innovative and unique LGBT-oriented film festivals in the United States. And it's not simply because it focuses on experimental film, but also because it supplements that exhibition by presenting small and large-scale installations -- this year around 18 pieces, occupying about 12,000 square feet -- all in a completely designed, immersive environment where people come to hang out as much as they do come to watch films or art. 

It's the kind of festival you have to really experience to understand, but Indiewire asked four of its organizers to try and explain in words what they're about to unleash on New York City over the next six days and (late) nights.

So how did you all get involved in MIX?

Stephen Kent Jusick (Executive Director): While I was in school I read Vito Russo’s review of the second festival in the Advocate, where he listed an address to write to. I wanted to see those films but figured the only way was to organize a public screening. So I wrote a letter to Jim Hubbard, asking how to have a screening at my college. He called me back, gave me a list of things to do and figured he’d never hear from me again. I worked it out and Jim came and did a screening. When I graduated I interned for Jim at Anthology Film Archives, and then Shari hired me to be the festival coordinator in 1994. Over the years, I did various things at MIX, technical director, guest curator, projectionist, and sometimes nothing. In 2005, I wrote Jim a letter critiquing the festival but also defending it, arguing for its importance and continuation. He asked if I’d like to run the organization, and to submit a proposal, which I did.

Charlie Corbett (Programming and Development Associate): A friend came up to me one day and said, “You have got to meet some of these people.” I went to opening night of the 2010 festival and was totally blown away by the warmth of the space. So much love - I was a little repelled by it at first, because I didn’t think that kind of happiness with so many people around could be real. You know that feeling when you leave a really good movie or play or concert, and everyone is feeling great and there’s this palpable sense of goodwill and joy flowing through the crowd - - it was like that, but for hours. It scared the hell out of me.

A few weeks later I met the director and the designer and the installation coordinator and the production lead and I said, ‘’I want to to do what you do,” and they said, “then we’ve got work for you.”

Diego Montoya (Venue Designer): I came to the festival as a an audience member (my roommate invited me) in 2006, and I was so moved by the community and work. And that was really awesome. And I learned later that there were these amazing people. Where had they been. I finally found a group of friends. I felt super at home. I got more involved every year. I designed a tshirt in 2008, and staff uniforms in 2009, before being asked to design the space in 2010, which was my biggest project at the time. I had been doing windows, and making costumes, but not at this scale. MIX brought me into a new arena creatively and MADE ME understand new possibilities, I learned a lot and became more capable as an artist through collaboration and practice. And now I’m stuck here forever!

"Holy Trannity"
"Holy Trannity"

Andre Azevedo (Installations Coordinator): In 1994 I went to my first MIX. I used to date a filmmaker who had a piece in MIX. I had just arrived in Brazil. I attended the festival for many years. In the 90s, if you wanted to get really indie, non-assimilationist media, MIX was where you would go. Not many other festivals and/or queer things were showing BDSM and sex positive stuff, or any experimental stuff. Then I left New York for a while, came back, and got more involved as a volunteer, and eventually got asked to be  the curator of installations and performances. I accepted because I enjoy the work and the creative direction of this ever evolving festival. Also, I wanted to create a space for multimedia performers and artists to show their work outside of the commercial art world and foster a space for queers to experiment.

How would you describe the festival's mission?

CC: MIX NYC sees itself as a grassroots organization, and our mandate comes from our audience, artists and community.

It’s the kind of schlock you expect to hear from any place on the festival circuit, or the hospitality industry - and maybe all MIX really aspires to be is a good host, a good site of nurturing for its guests. The difference, then, comes from who we cater to, and we open our doors wide to folks who get kicked and spit on elsewhere. To call the crowd “diverse” or “inclusive” doesn’t do it justice, because those words are so quick to be sucked up by professional mission statement writers. We bring in (and yes, recruit!) folks without much money and too much education, old-timers who lived through the 80s and the first decade of AIDS, young people with different and difficult ideas of what it means to be a person, what it means to work and to love. It’s a radical, articulate, dont-fuck-with-me crowd that can be difficult to wrangle and impossible to spoon feed. When they don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll tell you, and they’ll hit you with this mix of rage and hyper-intelligent sensitivity that can mess you up. They have to hit hard because these images and the language we use to describe them are a matter of life and death - together they dictate the kind of personhood that’s possible.

But there’s also plenty of art geeks and walking IMDBs who show up. They give the festival its filminess and its sense of history and connection to the broader arts scene in NYC. The cinephiles are also the ones who buy tickets to screenings while the radical dreamers are chilling in our lounge. But when the screenings are out, and the film geeks join forces and mingle and become apart of the radical dreamer crowd - it’s like Nietzsche's Apollo and Dionysus coming together - they fuse and bring about the Birth of Tragedy. In 2010 I saw it for the first time and I still haven’t left. 

For whatever reason, these are the kinds of people who show up to MIX, and keep coming back.  Year after year. I’d like to think they’re coming for the programming - we’ve got 17 film programs this year, 8 of which were put together by guest curators from across the county.  (this year showing over 225 films - shorts - features - 24/7 installation loops), we’re an art installation showcase, we’re a stage for performance art and live music and DJs. But I think MIX stands out in how much power we give festivalgoers over their visit, and how it’s up to them to bring together their own total experience of the festival - music, food, film, conversation...but something else. Maybe part of why they come is the innovative work we’re doing in venue design and installations.

What distinguishes MIX from other queer film festivals (like, say, New York's NewFest)?

CC: Everything. In content - in aim - in audience - in feel. There is no film festival out there that does what we do. I know this because, as I’ve been trying to show, the festival is what it is because it attracts and then hands the reins over to the kind of Queer Freak Royalty - royalty not like in a sense of fame, because we’re all obscure nobody losers - I mean royalty in the sense of the nobility - dignity - strength that comes from surviving and flourishing as an obscure nobody loser.


What do you think has allowed MIX to sustain itself over all these years?


When Jim Hubbard & Sarah Schulman founded the festival in 1987, they sort of did it on a whim, but then worked hard to realize their idea.  They also embraced changes, and were happy to hand over the festival to others who had different ideas of how it could be. So for example, Shari Frilot & Karim Ainouz came up with the name MIX in 1993 and it stuck, at the same time focusing on work by people of color, and showcasing then-emerging digital work, and some installations. And now what MIX has become lately is related to but different from what it was, because installations and the immersive environment we create are so much a part of the experience.  MIX couldn’t happen this way in a traditional movie theater. So that ability to change what we do gives us some flexibility to move with what’s happening in the world, the culture, etc.  We’ve talked about doing things on a boat, in air balloons, in rented trucks doing mobile guerilla projections, or being more specific like soliciting old fashioned pre-cinema toys like flip books, thaumatropes, or just handing out dvds or flash drives with films on them.  And while we haven’t actually done those things, we can consider them because MIX doesn’t have to be whatever it’s been before.


  I mean in the beginning, we were founded by filmmaker Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman in the crucible of the AIDS crisis.  New York's LGBT community suffered under both the epidemic itself and government negligence, its artists worked to comfort and care for one another, and literally save each other's lives, by devising new media and avant-garde artistic forms that called attention to the AIDS crisis and its social injustices. We’ve never really moved away from that origin – political activism is in our DNA – particularly AIDS activism with a countercultural fight-the-power bent.

Flash forward 26 years, and we’re in a society that’s still hostile to queers, that still wants to see us silenced, dead or locked-up somewhere. And mainstream gay activism and culture machines neglect this reality. I don’t blame them, personally - the educated, middle-aged, white and affluent gay and lesbian circles, clustered in urban enclaves - they aren’t getting bashed. They can be out of the closet and find dignifying work. And if they want representation of lives like their own, they can watch "The Kids Are All Right" or "Weekend" or pick up a book by Michael Cunningham. But queerness, gender deviance, sexual identity - it goes way beyond the middle to upper-middle class settings where these stories are being told. And there is a demand for different kinds of LGBT stories that MIX seeks out and gives a platform for.

On top of that, art has never been cheaper and easier to consume, there has never been so much to choose from, and, consequentially, it’s really fucking hard to get people to pay for it. It’s hard to convince people to shut their laptops and get out of bed and go anywhere that isn’t work or food. We’ve got an entire generation of young New Yorkers lying around like beached whales because A) they have no fucking money and B) there is a universe of television and porn at their fingertips for free. The cultural practice of a group of people congregates in a dark hall and watches a screen together - that may be on its way out.  It’s impossible to know for sure.

What is clear is that you need to give people something that they can’t get from their computer at home. The MIX Festival has had to change dramatically to meet that challenge. The biggest changes we’ve made have been in our investment in venue design and our moving-image installation showcases. These draw people because, like any piece of architecture, you have to physically be there to get the full experience - the “art” of the space is only activated when a visitor walks through it.

Supporting these films is the MIX family, which is a ragtag team of artists and activists and weirdos - people I guess, just queer people - who volunteer and get word out and make the festival happen. The whole MIX family is tied together in friendships and projects that stretch far beyond MIX. Because of this you get an atmosphere of artistic collaboration that feels authentic - that feels real - and guests sense that immediately. 

We also draw a lot of voyeurs. Even if the scene isn’t for you, it’s top-grade people watching. The whole space is dedicated to the pleasures of looking, now that I think about it. Our installations, our venue design and decorations, our performers, our films - - there’s so much to look at and feel good about.

This article continues on the next page, including 5 picks for MIX 2013 from the festival's organizers.