Art in the city: UNO Documentary on “Yes We Cannibal

What: Liz Lessner and Matt Keel, owners and founders of Yes We Cannibal in Baton Rouge, LA

Film by: Mazzarie Parker

Editor’s Note: University of New Orleans film student Mazzarie Parker interviews the two founders of Yes We Cannibal. This collective is an anti-profit institution for the progress of experimental art and social practice. In this interview, Lessner and Keel exhibit some of their collection, some of the things the group does, and ways to get involved.

Yes We Cannibalwe tend to call it now a “project space,” but we conceived of it as a kind of experiment and living. Matt and I both grew up in big cities and spaces that were like Yes We Cannibal- they were really important to us as kids, and when we moved to Baton Rouge, we saw that there wasn’t like home for experimental cultural production, and we wanted to make that.
We’ve kind of become a merger of a place for “free” art- in two senses: Art that is always free to see, and a place for people to feel free to experiment: a place that tries to be very dedicated to caring for the communities that we’re part of.

We have a gallery and performance space, and in the performance space we host our Sunday salons which are from four to six and are always free; every Sunday we have some form of experimental production on display here. It could be an author talk, an artist talk, a musical performance, or a film, and then it follows the salon format so there’s an opportunity to engage with the presenter.
It’s funny- here in Baton Rouge, most people would think of a “gallery” as a very fancy building. It’s almost kind of a super “1%” place you would visit that’s gonna feel expensive and fancy; we try to make that distinction (even though we do sometimes call it a gallery) that it’s a project space. People can come here and have the opportunity to try something they haven’t tried before- not all artists do that, but certainly we always encourage them and say “Why don’t you use this as the chance to do something you couldn’t do somewhere else?”

Aside from our gallery and performance space, which is our main space, we have an outside lot that has a community fridge, so it offers free food to anyone in the neighborhood. It’s mutual aid so there are no requirements for using the fridge; it’s anyone who needs it at any time. We also have a new food forest that we’ve just installed, and we were really interested in the distinction between food forest and community garden: The Food Forest has the same idea that it’s food that anyone can take, and we have a full kitchen which we are hoping to utilize in some upcoming artist projects.

We have this “cannibal reading room” that we’re sitting in right now, which has event posters for the 60– 70 events we’ve done so far. It has various things that we’ve made and  sold here and artifacts from all kinds of different artists that we’ve worked with and who’ve done shows here. We have all kinds of weird naturalist stuff we’ve collected: books on foraging and mushrooms; we have things like this [newspaper], that I wanted to show, that I love, which are artifacts of the counterculture that we tend to collect. This is a kind of radical newspaper from 1968 that’s in perfect shape. It’s a free newspaper of “rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets.”

We like to collect these things here so that when you know we often get 19, 20-year-old kids who come and wanna do an event, and have great conversations, and we say, “Oh have you heard about this?” And we can hand them these things, and you know, maybe they’ve never seen them before, and it generates a new way of thinking or new conversation. That, in turn, totally re-energizes us to feel like there’s something of real value in what we do here.

We do an event called Soul Lab Sundays now with a local DJ named Soul Lab. He is very well known- It’s really his event- it’s the first Sunday of every month, and he’ll bring in roughly four emcees, and an artist. He’ll buy food and spin, and at the end of it, there’s a cipher, and people will kind of step up and freestyle.

The first or second event he did, you know- Baton Rouge has this incredible hip hop community with so many amazing emcees- But this kid like stepped up who was definitely new at doing it, and following maybe 10 people who had been truly masters of their craft… everybody smiled and cheered when he was done, and I felt good seeing this alternative to the kind of like cruelty and cynicism that we all experience online: Seeing people in a physical space together- a meet space- the most base level being kind to each other and supporting each other around art.

Everything that we do is free. Part of the reason for that is the neighborhood that we’re in; we are in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with a million-dollar development across the street from us, yet on our side of the block there’s a lot of disinvestment and a lot of need. We wanted to make sure that all our programming was accessible to the whole community around here.

The best ways to support us are by becoming a Paton member, and becoming one of our micro patrons- that is a base of support that helps us keep these events running. It helps us cover our operating costs and the cost of events. The other way to support is to become a volunteer. We need help with the food forest, we need help maintaining our spaces, and the community fridge needs help as well.

I think the other thing you can do is consider why we’re doing this if nothing else. Think about you know why in the world would someone want to buck the model- The current model- of, you know, kind of staging a “mini-festival” with food trucks, vendors, and a $10 door, and a couple of bands, and a cut and these people get paid. Why is it that we put so much of our time and energy into trying to preserve an alternative to that? Even that thought experiment is helpful to the world.


This piece was edited by Rafael De Alba as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 


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