“Protest for me is part of citizenry.” In part two of our multi-part examination of the ideas behind Expanding the Frame: Imagination Is Power, series co-organizer Valérie Déus discusses how her upbringing in a New York immigrant family shaped her engagement with activism, her multidisciplinary art practice, and her approach to this month’s selection of short film and video works from the 1960s.
This conversation is part of an ongoing publishing series designed to spark a deeper exploration of the ideas, inspiration, and creative expressions featured in Imagination is Power. Look for contributions in the coming weeks from these scholars and artists who’ll share their thoughts, stories, and research on the legacy of the late 1960s and activism today: Ayo Akngbade, Bidayyat Audio Visual Arts, Chicago Film Archives, Nadie Cloete, Valérie Déus, Amir George, and Alice Lovejoy.
Ruth Hodgins: When we first started working together you shared that your family immigrated to the United States from Haiti. Do you think your background influenced your interest in protest movements and how you viewed this project?
Valérie Déus: Protest for me is part of citizenry. It is part of paying attention to what is going on as a citizen of the country, and if something is going on that you don’t like, then you should say something about it. My parents came from Haiti. Haiti was a dictatorship when they lived there, so a lot of the lessons I learned about government, responsibility, being a citizen came with me when approaching the Imagination Is Power series. How do people who don’t feel like they have a voice communicate? Protest or demonstration might be the place where you are able to do this form of communication with the party you feel aggrieved by.
I find that my background fits perfectly: this is what I know about. I went to protests as a kid with my parents. In the 1990s, when I was 16, my parents protested the Food and Drug Administration because they said that Haitians could not donate blood because of the AIDS crisis. At the time I was in high school and the school always had blood drives every Valentine’s Day, but I was on a list of people who couldn’t give blood. I wasn’t necessarily angry, just confused. It didn’t make sense. The story gets bigger, more people start to pay attention, and eventually there is a demonstration where thousands take to the streets to protest the FDA’s decisions or ruling. When the current president allegedly made comments about “shithole countries,” part of that connection was a trigger for many Haitian people. Also the president being a New Yorker and New York being the place where a lot of Haitians go, for me it felt very much like opening up an old wound. Going back to these old ideas of people bringing disease and doing other negative things, it’s particularly painful, especially when most of the people who are affected have been established here for a number of years or even generations.
Hodgins: What happened after the protests?
Déus: The FDA took Haitians off the list of people you couldn’t receive blood from. At the time you couldn’t get blood from hemophiliacs, homosexuals, and Haitians.
Hodgins: Has this early experience guided your views on activism today?
Déus: I often think about all the different movements and protests that happened to get people to a place where you can forget about having to take action. You talk about this history with younger Haitians and they don’t always realize their history. But it’s thanks to people like my mother, my dad, my uncle, and every other family member who were out there protesting. We were out there together, coordinating to make a change and fight for our rights. It is so interesting how we have come full circle and old wounds have been opened up again, that is why you have to teach and inform the youth. This isn’t new information, and it’s a good reason why it is important that the spirit of activism continues. It has been interesting to see how this younger generation has been connected to justice movements and issues of equity. It’s been really energizing but also exhausting. For me it feels like the youth do care about what is happening in the country and how it affects them. The next generations are finally saying, “No, we don’t have to do what has gone before; we can at least try and have something different. Fine if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, whatever, but we won’t know if we don’t even try.”
As a kid things would happen in the community and I would want to get involved but never knew how. When I first moved to Minneapolis in 2008, I wanted to be involved so I joined the community board in my neighborhood just to understand what was happening around me. The feeling of the world happening around you and there’s nothing you can do about it is overwhelming. So by joining the board it wasn’t like I was leading action or initiatives, but I was being aware and abreast of what was going on, gaining some sense of control.
Hodgins: Have there been any actions in your community here that have affected you?
Déus: When I first moved into my neighborhood there was a proposal for an off-leash dog park in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park at Nicollet Avenue South and 42nd Street. But because of the history of the civil rights movement and police using dogs to attack civil rights workers and protesters, many in the community thought it was disgraceful and strained the park’s history and its intended celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had very recently moved into the neighborhood and watched from afar, but as a dog owner it was interesting to see the debates unfold. People were angry on both sides, but eventually the community decided to renovate without the dog park.
Hodgins: What specifically interested you about the project when I reached out and asked if you would like to co-curate an experimental film and video series that reflects the spirit of activism from 1968 through today?
Déus: The time period. I remember being in school and learning about all the different social and political movements in 1968 but always felt they weren’t taught well—brought up but then brushed over. Yet the time period was so tumultuous, exciting, and fraught because of all the different movements happening around the world. It’s coined as the time when America lost its innocence, but in truth it really felt like that. People were getting shot in the streets, protesting everywhere. There were many different groups, yet all were together at the same moment. For me the series was an opportunity to learn more and dive in deeper. I’m the sort of person who loves to learn about history as much as possible. I wanted to watch all the material I could and loved seeing all the footage and thinking about how it could be screened together.
Hodgins: We represent the spirit of activism from 1968 through today with archival news material and propaganda footage along with with experimental moving image. How do you see them connecting?
Déus: The grainy news footage and the artistic interpretations, they don’t necessarily connect, but they do correspond to the same social and political movements. Juxtaposing these works very much represented the way my mind works, like a train of thought, with disjunctive ideas that jump into my brain. I’ll watch something then start to wonder what people were doing at that time, connecting to different places and ideas and actions, thinking about how people reacted to public and social situations. I was able to see this time period in a way I wasn’t able to before, and see how these specific events continue to inspire and connect to what is happening around us today. It feels cyclical or is shaped like a spiral that is always continuing. Moving ahead yet coming back to the same issues.
Hodgins: I was excited to work with you because in your everyday practice you work across many disciplines, bringing together different ideas through your action and vision, joining dots, and in some sense creating a type of narrative. Your diverse work as a DJ, teacher, poet, activist, active community member, film programmer, and artist inspired the structure of the programs, where we connect to these many sides and interests in your life. Can you tell us more about your creative practice and how the multiplicity of activities and interests work together for you?
Déus: I get bored and distracted, and I have different artistic needs and outlets.
Movies are my first love. The first movie I saw was King Kong. I was three years old. I sat in the theater, and my feet couldn’t touch the floor. It was amazing. I still remember the experience; I couldn’t believe they made this movie happen. My family took me to see a lot of movies, perhaps some I shouldn’t have seen, but it was the ’70s. My parents would say: “Valérie, you were born here, this is your country, and honestly this is how you can learn about it. We can’t teach you about America; in fact, you have to teach us about America.” Growing up was a lot of me consuming American culture and being able to dictate it to my parents for them to have their own foothold in this country.
Music I’ve always loved. I had a radio show in college. What I really enjoy is music’s ability to change my mood and its flexibility for all the different things I need—for a date, going out, relaxing. So it was great when the opportunity came up to do the show here in Minneapolis called Project 35 on KRSM radio Thursdays from 9 to 10am. It’s like taking a slice out of my brain, creating a world with my music, a piece of my home and growing up. So I play contemporary electronic music, Haitian music, poetry, songs that have movie clips in them, a chop-up of different arts, all together on the radio. It feels exactly the same as the process I use in my writing. I pull from everything, what I see, hear, conversations I have with other people, anything. If it sticks in my head it becomes something that I start working with. So as much as it feels like I do all these different things, to me they are all the same thing: interconnected, all feeding the same beast. I need all of it so it feels right.
Top Tunes from Valérie Déus
“Guede” Zania by Celia Cruz
“Away Away” by Ibeyi
“Gaya (feat.J Perry)” by Michael Brun and Lakou Mizik
“Iskaba” by Wande Coal & DJ Tunez
“Eudomination” by Princess Ed
“Sentiment” by Shak Shah
“August” by Sarah White
“Cote Moun Yo” by Super Jazz des Jeunes
“Ayibobo” by Mikaben feat Paul Beaubrun
“Nye Veve Sese” by Jojo Abot
“Haiti Leve” by Val-Inc
“Banji Jean” by Blu Bone
“It’s Happening” by G. Rizo