A talk with our Catharsis Community

It can always be intimidating participating in something completely new and outside your normal scope. Often, we get trapped in others perception of how things are done. The art and creative communities in Washington DC are no exception. The questions you might see in New York City or Berlin are present here as well with “where did you last display” to “I got invited to sit on this panel about XYZ”. This can leave folx that might not have the confidence, encouragement, or access to explore what it means to share and explore a part of themselves through a creative medium due to the silent rules that manifest in any space humans create community.

What makes Catharsis on the Mall such a unique experience is the fact it is not a festival like Lighting in a Bottle or Coachella, nor an art gallery that charges a fee to both enter and display. It’s not even close to a concert on the Mall like Folk Life. It’s a First Amendment Protest and Vigil held on Federal Grounds in the heart of Washington DC. What is more stimulating about attending the Vigil is that changes year to year depending on what people are called to share and bring. Two of those elements that change per year are Theme Camps and Interactive Art.

For this blog post, we are going to conversate with an Interactive Artist and Theme Camp Leads new to the event last May of 2019. While they have had familiarity or had previously been to Catharsis or an adjacent event before, this was the first time sharing in something.

Ursa Lee: Could you let the readers know about how you got involved with Catharsis on the Mall?

Ary Mondragon + Kyle Mimms: We are behind the Dia De Los Muertos Camp and found about Catharsis on the Mall via the monthly calendar on Facebook Events. Prior to us participating in Catharsis, we had produced our annual Dia de los Muertos Benefit Festival for the past two years before and had worked to bring the community together by showing that we are all connected through our losses, and must work together to heal as a community. Once we learned about what Catharsis represented, we really felt compelled to share the power of altars and remembrance on the National Mall.

Mikaela Moore: It was the morning of February 22, 2019. A few friends and I had just danced the morning away at Daybreaker, a sober morning dance party and were in pursuit of coffee. As we waited in line, the topic of Catharsis somehow came up. All of us were previous attendees and we all agreed we wanted it to “be better.” In a somewhat sassy tone, I rattled on all the ways I’d improve it and concluded quite proudly that instead of complaining (although, in fact, I was complaining) that I wanted to participate. After all, participation is one of the principles of Burning Man, without it, none of this would be possible.

Just then, a stranger approached me and said, “Art grants are due tomorrow. You should apply.” Then he walked away without another word. Yeah, I should apply. Little did I know that the stranger was Joshua Carroll, one of the co-founders of Catharsis. I’ve always been the creative-crafty type, but I’ve never considered myself to be an artist, nor had I imagined I’d create something that would be on display on the National Mall for thousands to experience.

Lee: I always find it interesting how these little connections make the world connect seamlessly. Funny enough, Joshua Carroll also introduced me to Catharsis while I was in graduate school. Let our community know about either the application process or your artistic realization of what you wanted to bring to the mall.

Moore: I was fueled by this strangers (Joshua Carroll) belief in me, I got to work with less than 48 hours to execute a somewhat coherent proposal. During my brainstorming process I reflected on which Burning Man principles were special to me as well as which principles I wanted to highlight to the community. The first principle that came to mind was radical inclusion which perhaps is the most important principle that I think Catharsis embodies. Whatever I was going to make had to be relatable and accessible. The second principle that came to mind was civic responsibility, in this instance my responsibility to the environment. Using recycled, reused or gifted materials as much as possible was extremely important in this process.

As I searched my house for inspiration, my eyes settled upon a 8 foot door that we had been using as dart board. Aha! With only a few hours to spare before the grant deadline, Knock, Knock: The Doors of Perception was conceived.

Despite the last-minute brainstorming shuffle, the grant application process was quite simple. In fact, it was the easiest part of the entire experience. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything but real talk – creating an art installation is hard work. With little to no experience, I made a lot of mistakes and there were many uh-oh moments that left me feeling humbled and gracious. Despite some sleepless nights and maybe a few tears, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Mondragon + Mimms: The process was interesting to go through together. Since we were outsiders to this world and kind of shooting in the dark as to how to proceed. We eventually got connected with Joshua Carroll, the Curation Lead, who was our go to guy. We also leaned into Jessica Lawson, Ruby Chen, Jaclyn Arnold, and Ursula Wright as they were helping him out as well. While the actual grant application was pretty simple to navigate, we didn’t receive all of our ask, so we had to really lean into the community and source other funds (including funding majority of the project ourselves) and resources to bring our vision to the Mall. Although we experienced a lot of stress before, during, and after the vigil – we were so grateful for the experience, because we were able to meet so many amazing people and make a significant impact on all those who were able to venture into our camp.

Lee: That is really something to hear from both a “new” Artist and “new” Theme Camp. I use quotations because I believe each and everyone of us possess the powers if we put our mind to it. It might not be something as big as bringing a full-scale Cathedral to the mall, nor bringing several refurb doors. It could be a simple interaction such as listening in on a panel about zodiac signs or raising your hand to ask someone a question. Catharsis allows us to explore and try out things in a safe environment. In thinking about after the event, what are some of the most impactful lessons or thoughts you have walked away with?

Mondragon + Mimms: The best thing about our experience was making a connection with the Catharsis community. From the day we went to our first Catharsis gathering, we were immediately welcomed in with open arms. Everyone was so genuine and selfless and went out of the way to make us feel safe and at home. It felt like instant family. Being in DC, we became used to everyone being close to the chest with their networks and resources, but we quickly found that everyone was willing to do everything in their power to help us achieve whatever we set our hearts on. The positive energy became contagious, and we just looked forward to every interaction thereafter. We originally thought that this energy stopped at the current leadership of the organization, but quickly realized that this ideology and way of life was shared with the rest of the Catharsis/Burning Man community. This was the first time, in a long time, that we felt that we had found our community, and we are looking forward to participating for years to come.

Moore: None of this could have been possible if it wasn’t for my project crew, Kat and Evan. Having a solid support team and friends to laugh and cry alongside was indispensable. And of course, I can’t forget to thank Josh for eavesdropping that fateful morning at the coffee shop. Without him overhearing me that day, my path and growth in to this community would have looked much differently. Perhaps it was a bit impulsive, but this was my chance for meaning, purpose and growth into this community that had seemingly chosen me. For anyone who wants to participate – just do it! Whether you decide to create art, support a theme camp or just volunteer, not only will you meet the most amazing people, but you will learn so much about yourself in the process.

Lee: Wow, both of y’alls stories are exciting and inspiring. I love how there is space granted to bring something to the Mall and have folx participate in. Even if it doesn’t work out, you figure out what you can do next. In our busy lives, it is easy to leave it up to others to curate our experiences and how we should feel. I appreciate the innovative and playful experiences that y’alls have gifted to the Mall.

In that – If you are interested in bringing Art or a Theme Camp, the deadline has been extended to February 4th. Our deadline for Events and Programming will close on March 15th so consider going that route if you want to participate in some form or another. – Ursa Lee

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