It was a party to thank local activists. It was an art show. It was both, and that wasn’t an accident.
2023 has been an enormous year for KC Tenants, a Kansas City-based tenant union led by a multigenerational, multiracial, anti-racist base of poor and working class tenants. KC Tenants members ran for and won seats in local elections and gained national traction in its innovative and effective organizing tactics to show up for and lift up the power of tenants.
To thank its members and organizers for their hard work, KC Tenants had a dream to throw a dance party with house music called House the People. The party would also function as a community space, as a public-awareness event for the critical work of KC Tenants, and as a fundraiser for the KC Tenants Mutual Aid Fund that provides direct financial support for food, supplies, and transportation costs for its members.
Hosted in Vulpes Bastille, a queer artist-run studio and gallery space in the Crossroads arts district, the evening celebrated local house music artists and art installations leaning on the propaganda art created over the last several years of KC Tenants’ and progressive candidates’ work.
As an attendee of the event on August 25, I was shook. Never had I been invited to be in a space so safe for my queer body to dance; to be held by the walls, literally blanketed by the values of the activist community comprised of my neighbors, my loved ones, all of whom I’m so proud to know. And while it was nominally a party to thank local activists, the event was an art show through and through. The location, the installations, and the people all suggested an intrinsic tie between activism and art.
To learn more about this connection, I sat down with two of House the People’s organizers, KC Tenants Arts & Propaganda Lead Liz Davis and KC Tenants Member and Leader Aleksander Eskilson.
For both, art unlocks a critical component of political organizing and activism: imagination. A dream. Organizing and activism are mechanisms to imagine something that doesn’t exist yet and build it. Davis reflected, “Something that’s powerful about organizing to me is that it’s being in touch with a vision of what you want… When I’ve talked about what I think about my vision for the future, I know from top to bottom what that room looks like, I know what it smells like, it feels so natural to talk about things from that vision of the future.”
Eskilson agreed, adding that, “Activism should really be understood as a generative mode of being in the world, a recognition that circumstances as they exist now are intolerable. That’s a direct reference to structural racism, sexism, ableism as mobilized by human beings under capitalism. Art can gesture towards imagined possibilities. Art can be generative of a horizon of possibility. It can gesture towards something that doesn’t yet exist in time.”
An art event like House the People opened up many possibilities for ways to physically portray the values of KC Tenants.
Eskilson along with other lead organizers reached out to the KC Tenants Arts & Propaganda team to pull from their library of artifacts from previous protest events, rallies, and door-knocking. “Looking at the resources available, we put together something that was really novel. House the People turned into an art showing of the history of KC Tenants’ protest art. It was a gallery of protest art. Hundreds of rally posters were used to plaster the wall.”
Years of posters, signs, stickers, and other propaganda art covered the walls, and from the ceiling hung a banner you couldn’t miss with large lettering reading “Every Tenant Deserves a Union.” Light projections were used to enhance the space. A merch table with zines and other swag was up for grabs in the back. A wall installation composed of slivers of lawn signs that read “WE WILL WIN.” An interactive altar was installed to invite attendees to honor what brings them to their organizing. We were surrounded by a vision; an artistic and a political one.
“Because the imagery of KC Tenants gestures towards a political possibility that’s not yet realized, when you’re immersed in the middle of all of its imagery, all around you, it really gives you the sense that you’ve been transported someplace else,” Eskilson reflected.
For Davis, who is an animator by training, the night became not only a celebration but an aspirational dream realized: “If I could show the little me that you’re going to get this art degree and a couple years later you’re going to be doing stuff in a gallery for the best reason possible… that’s way better than most things.”
While the event itself was contained in one evening, much like the resonance of house music itself leaving an imprint in the body memory of audiences, organizers hoped House the People would have a lasting impression on attendees.
“These kinds of creative projects don’t really end,” explained Eskilson. They may come into a particular event but if that event is tended towards and cared for, then that event will always yield something more than just itself … How can we help people come away from the event with an even stronger notion of the reality and the continuity of the dream that is carried through KC Tenants?”
Should we expect more reality-shifting events like this from the KC Tenants organizers? It sounds like the answer is yes. After such a successful gallery event that raised thousands of dollars in funds and critical awareness of its organizing, more events centered on the joy of organizing are hopefully coming to Kansas City soon.
By leaning into the collision of the creative and the political, activists and organizers draw on the power of protest art to move communities and tell stories of an imagined future—a future where we can all be our whole selves and have the resources we need to be safe, be well, and be loved.
About the author: Kelsey Rhodes (she/her) is a queer, chronically ill writer and abortion advocate based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is the host of the podcast Cool Queers Doing Cool Shit and shares her words in a weekly Substack. Kelsey studied public policy at the University of Michigan and has spent the last seven years training abortion providers in how to tell their stories. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and at her website.