In early April, friends and collaborators Sarah Burke and Holly Meadows-Smith opened Anti Lab in Downtown Oakland. Billed as “an open resource center for creative resistance projects that are anti-fascism, anti-racism, anti-patriarchy, anti-transphobia, anti-xenophobia, anti-capitalism, and anti-complacency,” the space provided communal resources and hosted a purposeful selection of events in April and May aimed at facilitating discussion and harnessing the radical potential of Oakland’s arts and activist communities. Here, Holly shares some insight she and Sarah gleaned from the experience.
Words by Holly Meadows-Smith for Anti Lab
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a curator — or an activist for that matter. In fact, when my best friend Sarah Burke initially asked me to co-produce a resource center for creative resistance in downtown Oakland, I responded with a hard no. Of course, she ended up convincing me after not too much coercion. And looking back, it’s fitting that we — inexperienced yet eager — would be the people to attempt to build a space for folks who wanted to be loud, wanted to try to start making a difference somehow, wanted to get “engaged” (whatever that means) and yet didn’t quite know how.
Back up. The election of Donald Trump felt like a blow to the gut — as it did for most others around me. I’m not even from this country, but I cried on the way to work the next day. As a way to occupy myself, and because it felt important to document our own versions of history, I started a zine called “100 Days of Resistance” that traced each evil act on behalf of Trump’s administration alongside the resistance efforts enacted to counter them. It was motivating to track the ways others were responding, and my personal interest in resistance started to stir. I was going to protests, thinking about the populist potential of Google Docs, and watching Adam Curtis documentaries.
I initially said no to Anti Lab because I was scared of intruding on the already expansive activist network in the Bay Area, or to seem as if I were audacious enough to claim some place in that. I didn’t feel qualified to guide people during this time — and, to be honest, I still don’t. But what I do feel confident in, is our collective ability to make something out of nothing. Or, at least, make something out of a lot of intention and sacrificed Sundays.
For Sarah and I, that intention was to build a creative resistance clubhouse of sorts, where people could access free resources: materials for making banners, posters, zines, pins; a library of literature and practical info-packets for self-educating; free coffee and wifi; and one of the scarcest commodities in the Bay Area — free space. As Sarah framed it, the point was to “collectively produce as much aesthetic disruption as possible,” to fill the streets with visual dissent, so that even the willfully ignorant would have to take notice. We envisioned it as a home for the political open source art projects that people had been making and a factory for helping them take on a life of their own — an incubator for political memes, if you will. Plus, we’d host a bunch of workshops, so that people, including ourselves, could actually learn to be better.
Anti Lab opened at Gallery 2301 on April 6th. Despite torrential downpour, our small, windowless space on Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street was packed with people, alongside printers, button makers, books, and sewing machines. We had managed to cover the walls with work by some of our favorite local artists: Oree Originol, Dignidad Rebelde, Sita Bhaumick, Stephanie Syjuco, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, and others. We also unveiled a packed calendar of events — with at least three per week throughout our six-week run — including workshops on protest medic skills with the Degenderettes, a film night focusing on stories from the African diaspora with Womanist Trilliance, a “Fight Your Eviction Fest” with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, and a diasporic DJing workshop with Club Chai.
In building Anti Lab, the most pleasantly surprising lesson has been how much those who can are willing to contribute. Holding down the space has been a lot of work, but our role was merely to orchestrate all of the contributions — to bring them together into something much bigger than anything any one of us could have created alone. And to invite people into the same room, so that they might learn about each other’s projects, efforts, and ideas — and continue to collaborate outside of our walls.
As it turns out, many others were motivated after the election to “do something” too. I think Anti Lab gave us and our collaborators an outlet to put that newfound energy toward something that felt useful. Many friends helped develop the structure, many strangers offered ideas for events, and many participants showed us potential for the Lab that we couldn’t have possibly anticipated.
Earlier this month, we wrapped up our run with a final event that was quite literally too big for Anti Lab. On the 11th, activist and rapper Alia Sharrief’s held an event at Anti that spilled into Chapter 510 (the nonprofit down the hall), and featured some of those folks whose work initially intimidated me: Cat Brooks, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., Zahra Billoo, and Charles Carbone, to name only a few, rounded out a packed lineup of organizers, musicians, and poets who led an impassioned discussion on the best ways to unify our struggles in times as dire as these. Not that I feel like I’m anywhere near the ranks of these folks (or to claim any organizing credit for the event), but it’s incredible to see how you can help create a platform for people you admire if you’re willing to be mindful, to learn, and to put in the work.
A lot of people have been asking us what happens to Anti Lab next. Where will it move now that our time at Gallery 2301 is all used up? Our only answer is we don’t know — because we’re hoping that next time it’s resurrected (if ever), it won’t be by us. In the coming months, we’ll be putting together a How to Anti Lab book, detailing all of the steps we took, what we learned, and most importantly, what we would have done differently. It hasn’t been anywhere near a perfect project, but we’re hoping it was at least an inspiring idea — one that we plan to seed by sending books and packages of Anti Lab ephemera all over the country.
To end this cheesy essay, I’ll leave you with one of our mottos: Inside Anti Lab we are all artists, activists, and authors resisting together as an open collective. See you in the Lab.
To learn more about Anti Lab and keep up with future updates on the project, visit them here.