Previous writing on XOXO: Three Years of XOXO
This year at XOXO 2018 there was a project called Dear Future Me, in which attendees were encouraged to write a postcard to themselves which will be mailed to them in August next year, before the next XOXO. I did not get around to writing a postcard to myself, partly because I had a hard time putting into words what I wanted to tell my future self. Maybe I have the words now, although they still feel too awkward and strange in my head to fit neatly on a postcard… But what I keep thinking I want to express to future me is that I hope they have learned to accept the love and friendship that now abounds in their life with more grace and less fear. I never want to lose the sense of wonder and gratitude that I have for this bounty but I would like to be a little less surprised by it.
I think it’s no surprise that many of the friendships that I’m feeling this gratitude for and feeling particularly aware of as I think of Dear Future Me and XOXO are friendships that formed at XOXO. Over the previous three XOXOs that I attended I made friends who I could not have imagined before this, people I talk to nearly every day, who do the work to stay connected and show care, people that I collaborate with on projects and plans in ways that are continuously joyous. I know that a lot of the credit for forming those friendships goes to me and the work I’ve done to heal my heart, both in therapy and outside of it, but I also feel some credit is due to XOXO itself.
I wasn’t sure about whether I would get anything out of the first one but one of the things that was immediately apparent to me was how thoughtfully put together it was, how many little touches were there to make me and those both like and unlike me feel seen and included. It felt from the start less like a conference and more like having tea with friends, where you are sitting together and talking for hours about the things you hold close to your heart that you maybe don’t feel safe to share with a lot of the world. The talks with their focus on vulnerability and talking about failures as much as successes, the long lunch breaks, the social day, the food and beverages (both non-alcoholic and alcoholic), and so many other things conspired to create an environment that welcomes connection, that holds space for deep and vulnerable conversations about identity and creativity, about art and life on the internet. Not everyone comes away with life-long friendships and creative partners but it’s certainly an atmosphere that facilitates them.
This year, although I had most of my dear friends around me (who I met at XOXO previously) it felt a little less like that. There were moments like that but they were mostly ones that I had created. There was a dinner for the XOXO x-food slack channel that I organized the night before XOXO at a home I rented for the night, where we shared an incredible feast of potluck food and talked about our projects and about XOXO and there was a good mix of new and returning XOXO attendees. (More than one of the new attendees later told me the dinner had helped make the rest of XOXO better for them by prepping them with some familiar faces.) There were the XOXO slack moderators brunches on Friday and Monday, and there was the time I managed to grab to hang out around the tables on Sunday after Lizzo’s performance. But other than those times, those moments of connection felt rarer and more fleeting to me than at previous XOXOs, and it’s taken me a while to figure out why.
It is almost always my initial inclination to blame myself and my choices if I don’t get as much out of an experience as I expected to. I grew up in a world that told me that disappointment (or any negative feeling, really) was my own fault, and that it was up to me to find a solution. So I thought maybe the problem was that I had isolated myself in my excitement to see so many of my friends. But then I remember that this was true in previous years and I did not feel this way.
If XOXO is like having tea at a good friend’s house with their other friends, this year’s XOXO felt a little like my friend was in a house that they hadn’t finished moving in to and that didn’t suit them particularly well, and maybe they had invited a few too many people, or maybe just a few too many people that I didn’t enjoy talking to (mostly those who later said they were alienated by the content warnings and apologies). The venue was so massive that even with half of the arena curtained off, I felt kind of lost in there. My friends and I identified which seats were the most comfortable for us and we went in early so we could grab them, which meant we weren’t outside for mingling before talks and other scheduled events. We went off site for food almost every meal, too, which was also different at past XOXOs, where I had only a few meals off site but was always back with time to socialize on site. This venue was farther from most of the food options and the food options on site involved long lines and limited vegan options (I’m not vegan but some of my friends are, and I chose to go with them for meals instead of braving the lines). It’s hard for me to talk about this because I feel like I shouldn’t care (something something diet culture), but tbh I think having food and beverage needs met is a really important element in hospitality, and in feeling comfortable and welcomed, especially for those of us with particular food needs.
Every year at XOXO I take away some sort of general theme and that has often ended up shaping my goals and focus for the next year or so. Last XOXO it had to do with budgeting and coming to terms with being an artist with a day job (and as a result I paid off all of my credit cards by XOXO this year!). This year I was feeling a lot around how it’s important to keep creating and that even art that is primarily escapist is an act of resistance, especially for marginalized creators. Cameron Esposito, in the keynote, said that “art dismantles power” and talked about how important it is to create art from our identities, marginalized or not. She also talked about the importance of collaboration and reaching out for help from others as she did for Rape Jokes (which is brilliant and you should watch it and also make a donation to RAINN for it). And Hari Kondabolu (whose talk I unfortunately missed a good chunk of due to slack moderation stuff) talked about how his art helped create space for his community to express their anger with The Problem with Apu and how important that validation was. Demi Adejuyigbe talked about how he had used humor as a shield but that humor was rooted in humiliation – “if I make fun of me then it won’t matter when other people do” – and realizing the importance of moving past that and learning to be vulnerable and funny instead. So many of the other talks touched on various aspects of this and I will be thinking for a long time about how important art (and especially comedy) are for coping and resistance and identity, and what it means to be a creator and who I’m creating for and most importantly who my community is.
I think that last bit is the most important to me, and I think it’s the thing that remains, even with the challenges of size and venue and logistics at XOXO this year. Some people came away saying that this wasn’t a community for them and I don’t think it’s too surprising that quite a few of those were white cishet men who work in tech. Somehow some people have gotten the impression that XOXO is a tech festival but it’s really about all of us who are making art of some sort as indies, and acknowledging that in this era, that means we are doing so in relationship to the internet, and knowing that the internet is awful (like Matt Furie talking about Pepe or Helen Rosner talking about her hair dryer chicken) but also a place where we all live to some extent, and rely on to share the things we create. For a lot of us XOXO is a community as much as it is a festival, and it’s a place we come to feel supported and included in ways that the larger world does not.