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Organ Mood performing at Club SAW in December 2019. Photo credit: Rémi Thériault.

Interview: Rachel Weldon of Debaser, an Ottawa arts collective and promoter

By Jamie MacPherson on July 28, 2020

“It was very hard to see so much work go up in smoke so quickly,” remarked Rachel Weldon, founder and creative director of Debaser, a non-profit organization with roots in community and DIY organizing, after having to cancel 12 shows due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Debaser is now using these strange times to focus on growth, development, and positive forward thinking for Ottawa.

Drone Day 2015, presented by Weird Canada and Debaser at House of Common. Photo: Ming Wu.

DIY

Long before Debaser incorporated as a not-for-profit, it grew and took shape out of the DIY music scene and community organizing. It began as a radio show on CKCU and, with close ties to a nationwide community of DIY organizers under the banner of Weird Canada, they started putting on shows. Guided by values of community accessibility, inclusivity, and supporting under-represented creative artists, Debaser has grown from a grassroots ad hoc collective to a reputable music presenter. Moving forward, they are working towards building a more sustainable and intentional arts organization.

Backxwash performing at Pressed in February 2020. Photo: Ming Wu.

Bringing people together

A lot is missed when living a supersonic life. Moving slower allows you to “appreciate things we typically take for granted,” said Weldon, like being able to bring people together. A simple thing, but not easy now. Today’s slowness has brought “a renewed mindset on the importance and value of being able to connect with one another in person and experience music/art and performance, and I hope that it shifts the value systems that people have for the arts,” she added.

Human interactions have immeasurable value that fast-moving lives sometimes miss. “I have always been more invested in the social benefits of music and events than in other models of success. Supporting artists and helping create magic moments through arts programming is what I’m really passionate about. Bringing people together and facilitating discovery and appreciation is central to that,” Weldon said. She hopes we come out of this “with a new value for the arts, and that we continue to spend our money in ways that support artists directly.”

Organ Mood performing at Club SAW in December 2019. Photo: Rémi Thériault.

Starting from scratch?

Being unable to hold events means no revenue from ticket and merchandise sales, and with no government assistance and a fluid situation changing daily, 2020 has been exceptionally challenging. There was some help, though. TIMEKODE held a series of fundraiser parties and donated the proceeds to Debaser and other community organizations and businesses. SAW Video helped, too. “They asked us to curate a sound works series. We are so grateful to our community partners!” Weldon said.

Not knowing when events can be held again means living day-to-day. Nevertheless, “time off from our usual programming to work on foundational work” allowed for a rethink of how to better offer services and improve their mandate delivery, Weldon said.

Panel discussion on barriers in the music scene at Raw Sugar in December 2014. Photo: Ming Wu.

Safety, accessibility, and inclusion

Current events are always excellent opportunities for reflection and improvement. The process is two-step: realize your privilege and do better.

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“A lot of people work hard but still face barriers to accessing arts spaces,” Weldon said. “Race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and culture are all part of who has the privilege to be able to do unpaid work. I would never have been able to do what I do now if I didn’t have the security of my parents’ support and no student debt when I started volunteering.”

After recognition of privilege comes real, continuous action. Right now, Weldon says Debaser is developing policies “to ensure we are upholding our values of diversity, equity, inclusion, safety, and accessibility. For example, our safer spaces policy outlines our commitment to survivor centrism and harm reduction, and recognizes the socio-political context that affects safety in all arts spaces. We also recognize our role in community accountability to reduce harm against community members who are targets of police oppression.”

Weldon recognizes that the work will be tough and ongoing: “It takes a lot of learning and unlearning and messing up, and I am always working on doing better at this. As a very privileged person, I have many blind spots!” Nevertheless, she’s committed to never-ending betterment.

Mdou Moctar performing at Queen St Fare in July 2019, co-presented with TIMEKODE. Photo credit: Debaser.

Sustainable and growing

Debaser’s regular programming of live music events is on an indefinite hiatus during the pandemic, and it is difficult to fathom whether things will ever return to normal. But instead of focusing on the negatives (possible loss in infrastructure and supporting industry sectors, funding cuts for the arts if we go into a recession, a second wave, or “that people will have a lot of trauma from this and will be afraid to go to big events again”), Weldon has been thinking a lot about “what kinds of programming can leverage digital platforms to create something innovative and impactful, rather than trying to replace what we had before.”

In other words, she’s trying to focus on exciting new possibilities, as opposed to dwelling on what has been lost. Debaser’s volunteer team is engaging in new partnerships and developing new policies and projects to see a continuation of engaged, safe community programming.

Debaser isn’t set on presenting online concerts at this time because, Weldon said, “it’s impossible to replicate the magic of a live performance.” However, she says a secret project is in the works. A teaser: it will be “a sort of digital platform with which to engage and have fun with a curated selection of music.” Follow Debaser for news.

See/Hear performance featuring Ottawa Dance Directive with Wellington Sanipe and Pansee Atta at City Hall, co-presented with the City of Ottawa. Photo: City of Ottawa.

Opportunities

What follows from loss is up to us. Debaser has chosen to view these challenging times as simply another opportunity to create. For example, they’re bringing in even more local talent with their recent call for additional board members.

An example of real community, Debaser is continuing to dream, design, and DIY, blazing a new trail through the darkness for the Ottawa arts scene.