An Interview with Victoria Frey and Kerry Yamaucci

Written by Ellena Basada. Photos by Gia Goodrich. Floral Design by Manu Torres. Special thanks to Photographer’s Assistant Christian Rudman.

Performer and activist Kerry Yamaucci (left) with PICA Executive Director Victoria Frey (right).
Photo by Gia Goodrich.

Art will always be transactional,” claims renowned art critic, writer, and editor Chris Kraus in the introduction of her most recent publication Social Practices (2019). Beneath the capitalist understanding of this statement lies the notion that Kraus evokes throughout her anthology, which is that art is a transference of ideas and values from creator to audience. Artists and activists are taking up this paradigm as a means to instill values of acceptance and liberation to create safe spaces, share transformative artwork, and uplift the historically marginalized. Portland is a specific site of art as a form of social practice, with a variety of creatives working at the institutional level to bring communal change from the top down, and many others who work within their own marginalized communities to incite such change from the bottom up.

In order to understand and appreciate the nexus of this work around Portland, we have brought together two queens of culture fomenting significant cultural shifts around our city. Both Victoria Frey and Kerry Yamaucci have found a balance in pushing the boundaries of cultural norms, while still working within institutional structures, to create meaningful and lasting work. Frey was on the founding board of directors for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA) in 1995 and has served as the Executive Director since 2005. Before her time at PICA, she was entrenched in the queer community, working as an activist for queer rights and HIV/AIDS advocacy. Yamaucci is a trans woman and performer who moved to Portland after receiving her bachelor’s in business administration and marketing in Arizona. Originally from Hawaii, Yamaucci has fully committed to a life of LGBTQIA advocacy and activism here in Portland. For many people who identify as queer and POC, activism is not necessarily a hobby or side-project but rather an obligation and means of survival. More frequently than we would like to imagine, it is a matter of life and death. Yet, this site of conflict is also the site of revolutionary and lasting change. Put in conversation, Frey and Yamaucci shed light on the roots of their activism and illustrate the essential role of community in their work.

Victoria Frey. Photo by Gia Goodrich. Outfit by Frances May, 1003 SW Washington St., Portland.

Artslandia: Can you describe what activism looks like to you? What do you do, and why do you do it?

Victoria Frey (VF): At PICA, we serve a broad community, but we have focused on the queer, trans, black, and brown communities. In Portland, and right now in the world, it is necessary to live our values. We think about how we want to represent ourselves as an institution. As an institution and as individuals, we talk about wanting to do everything that we’re doing with intention, living close to our core values and the things we care about while fulfilling our mission to support artists. I realized, at some point in my life, that I was better at nurturing artists and being part of a studio practice or whatever it was that helped people grow as artists. I founded Quartersaw Gallery in the Pearl back in 1985, which became a venue for both art and activism. Through this, I was actually defining my own art practice and growing as an artist. This was during the AIDS crisis and when Ballot Measure No.9 was under consideration. My community was dying and being invalidated, so it felt imperative that I got involved in AIDS and queer activism.

Kerry Yamaucci (KY): My work now is centered around people with identities that intersect, like mine, to give them more opportunities to live rich lives, which has been a privilege that we have not been able to have. I work on the admin team for Trans Lifeline and have been for over a year. I recently came back to the House of Flora as House Mother, which means I am in a position to help my kiki house family thrive in the scene, in the community, and as individuals. I still represent myself in the scene, but taking on a House Mother position, for me, means being a resource to my community. Most of the advocacy I partake in concerns my own intersectional identity and the people in my community. This includes advocating for sex workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, racial equity, and access to healthcare. I’ve spoken on panels on the topic of feminism and center my ideas on how those with the least amount of access to conventional femininity can demand, and receive, in reimagined feminist spaces.

I’m dedicated to and always learning about decolonizing the spheres I work inside of, whether it be with my body, with my voice, or with my peers. Kerry Yamaucci

VF: When we founded PICA, we talked about not describing PICA just by disciplines or a mission statement but by a set of core values. We asked ourselves: Are we ethical? Are we responsive? Are we nimble? I feel great about where we are right now. We moved into a space in NE Portland in a traditionally black neighborhood that has been displaced and suffered institutional racism for decades and ask ourselves, “What is our civic responsibility as an institution living in this neighborhood, at this time?” We are opening our space to partners who need safe space or a place to gather together. A few weekends ago, we hosted the Q Center for a town hall.

We’re not just presenting and exhibiting global artists that are the critical voices of today and helping them to make whatever is next for them, but we’re also deeply rooted in activism in our community. —Victoria Frey

Kerry Yamaucci. Photo by Gia Goodrich. 

Artslandia: It sounds like both of you really see some inherent power that performative art has in changing culture. You both also seem to have a personal sense of responsibility. What drives you to take this responsibility?

KY: I see myself as a performer. My history with art has always involved dancing. Growing up, I did taiko drumming, and going to college, I started doing drag. That’s when I figured out that I was trans—when gender got to be this playground. I think that my desire to do the things comes mostly from the desire to serve myself.

In serving myself and surrounding myself with peers—whatever the magnitude of intersections we share, whether it’s identity or interests—we share and grow. Kerry Yamaucci

KY: I see how the same modes of oppression that have shaped me have shaped my peers as well. I think that to work for myself is also to set the infrastructure for how to provide for other people.

VF: You’re a positive model for others in your community. You lead by example. This work is definitely not just about the individual; you are stronger in community. Moving away from the individual into a collective is a strong advocacy model for one, having the voice heard as a unified voice is safer. It’s a stronger advocacy position all together.

I am definitely not a performer. I’m not a painter. I’m not an artist. But I am an activist, and art is a passion. —Victoria Frey

VF: Getting involved with PICA was where I realized a broad platform that could accommodate both my passions—with a mission to support both artist and community. I’m working with some really amazing people who are very committed to place, community, and contemporary practice. There’s a humanism that’s very important, and it gives hope.

KY: We want to make art with purpose, and I love to see where these communities come together. One thing that I’ve been thinking about is Critical Mascara, and how it used to be a thing that happened all the time. Then, once Pepper Pepper stepped down from that, we and the ballroom community at large had to figure out how to replace it. Critical Mascara was a foundation that helped us to survive for five years. After it ended, Portland Ballroom (@pdxball) started becoming prominent, and there were balls happening monthly. Now, there’s much more of an infrastructure for queer nightlife than ever before.

Kerry Yamaucci and Victoria Frey. Photo by Gia Goodrich. 

Artslandia: Both of you have this purpose that’s driving you, and you’re making work, creating opportunities. What does the world look like if purposes manifest? If the changes that you want to make happen, then what are you working toward in terms of a cultural shift?

VF: I struggle with this. In some ways, it’s idealistic to say there’s a utopia we are working toward. There will always be a foe or struggle—something to push against or advocate for. But what we know now is that we want these different and diverse voices to be authentically, uniquely respected and revered, in whatever form they take. I grew up partaking in activism and was very active in the queer community and in advocating for AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s. It is disappointing to see us progress so far in the last decade, only to have the proud boys come walking into our community now, beating queer and trans folks. Yet, I do feel like there’s a place on the other side of this. If we’re building strength in together and respect for each other from inside these communities, then the opposition becomes weaker.

KY: In an ideal world, I think there would be far less anxiety about stepping out into the open and how the world perceives us. I wouldn’t have to concern myself with how neatly I fit into the confines of what society wants, just so I can be safe. Instead, I could be free to think about what I want to make for dinner, and if I want to go back to school for something. For so many, there would be way less psychic energy put toward survival and more put toward leading a fulfilled life.

VF: When do we finally get to the point when it is societally accepted to live outside what is right now considered “dominant culture”? I feel like we make these incremental steps forward, and then if we make real, significant progress, we get pushed back.

Someday, perhaps, there will be a point when we are going to be able to push forward, no matter what forces push back. —Victoria Frey

VF: When we establish that solid ground underneath us that protects the basic human rights of all people. How do we use our platform as activists to create social change or, at least, to inform? Portland can be a generous community, but PICA is really undercapitalized—as are most organizations here. In spite of this, we are doing pretty amazing things. We are addressing how we can come together as a community—across communities—to help each other and address the issues of safety and undercapitalization. We are working on how we can all come together as means to understand who has what, who can be an asset to whom, and respectfully, openly, and safely share resources and ideas. I feel lucky every day when I look around at the people I am working with and the people that come through the door. People that are doing incredible work, and I am grateful to be part of it.

KEY WORDS

Ballot Measure No. 9: Defeated State of Oregon ballot measure that declared, “All governments
in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage, or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse, and they are to be discouraged and avoided.”

Kiki House: Ballroom is a queer nightlife practice involving competitions in which members walk, dance, strut, vogue, and pose their way down a runway. A respected panel of judges award prizes for attire, attitude, and more. Kiki houses originated in this ballroom scene as a social gathering at health organizations, where friends could gather and practice for balls while also getting connected to HIV prevention, testing, and counseling services. Now, kiki houses provide young queer people with a social sphere of support, focusing on looks and moves for the next ballroom event. These communities are not only concerned with ballroom, however, as they also provide a close-knit platform to communicate openly about everything from safe sex to social activism.

House of Flora: A Portland kiki house founded by Brandon Harrison and Leigh Nishi-Strattner in 2016.

Critical Mascara: A ballroom-inspired event forged from the legacy of vogue balls, drag culture,
and queer activism. Part of PICA’s TBA Festival lineup from 2012–2017, the endeavor hosted multiple reading groups, vogue class and history, drag workshops, and community events. The stage saw over 500 performers, thousands of audience members, and redefined queer competition in the Pacific Northwest. The event was hosted by Kaj-anne Pepper (aka Pepper Pepper), a multidisciplinary artist who works and walks between and through the worlds of performance, video, drag, theater, and dance.