Building Bridges, Not Borders: Reflecting on Borderless Festival with Sara Shahsavari

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A poster for Borderless Festival 2017, via Borderless Festival.

Trent alumni and ex-Arthur editor Sara Shahsavari is just winding down from last month’s Borderless Festival in downtown Peterborough.

The festival spanned eight days over four venues, not including non-concert events. Catalina’s, The Spill, The Garnet and the Historic Red Dog hosted live music, while places like Traill College, Sadleir House, and the Sapphire Room hosted discussion panels, picnics, and dances respectively. Public Energy also hosted dance workshops at Artspace.

When asked why she decided to organize Borderless Festival, she replies simply: “Three years in the Peterborough music scene.”

“Maybe [around] last year, I started feeling like I could kind of see what was going on in the Peterborough music scene. It’s very cliquey,” she explains. “Like, “That’s the country bar. You play country? That’s where you play.””

“I started telling people about the festival and formulating what it was and why I thought it needed to exist. The more I talked to people, the more they opened up to me, and the more stories they told me about how they felt the same way,” Shahsavari remarks. “And that’s not to put down what’s already here. It’s just that when you go to other music scenes, there’s more [variety].”

Toronto band Goodnight, Sunrise performs at the Historic Red Dog on September 15 as part of Borderless Music Festival 2017. Photo by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

Shahsavari recounts meeting Deathsticks drummer Laura Klinduch, who helped organize the Not Quite Music festival in Peterborough during the spring of 2015. She cites the festival as one of many sources of inspiration.

“[Klinduch] organized it because she really just wanted to see it happen. The “Not Quite” idea was supposed to be like the meeting place in between. Peterborough: it’s “not quite” Toronto, it’s “not quite” Ottawa,” she says. “And then the music that she had was weird, fringy music. So, I think that planted that idea in my head.”

That plant would then grow throughout late 2016, as the North American political climate heat up with the American election.

“Trump happened. That was my first idea of “Borderless” as a concept. Unless we’re together, we don’t have a voice. So, it really stemmed politically.”

“The idea behind Borderless is that we put up all these borders, where you have to stay in that configuration,” Shahsavari continues, thoughtfully. “People like boxes, and they like categories, and they like everything to be set in place. I just think that’s a horrible way to think of the world, to think of people, and to think of music and art.”

Toronto band Copper Crown performs at the Historic Red Dog on September 15 as part of Borderless Music Festival 2017. Photo by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

She explains that “Borderlessness” also includes community building and collaboration. She notes particularly how the festival’s sponsors were just as enthusiastic about working together as she was. Borderless Festival’s sponsors were the Trent Central Student Association, Trent University Music Society, Trent Queer Collective, Trent Active Minds, Food Not Bombs, Peterborough Pride, and OPIRG.

With the personal and the political in its genealogy, Shahsavari claimed on Borderless Festival’s schedules, posters, and Facebook page: “Peterborough’s first feminist music & arts festival.”

“If I didn’t claim it, then no one would pay attention. Even me saying it, because that was supposed grab attention, some people didn’t respond to my emails. They just didn’t get it. I sensed that people had to determine that it wasn’t “newsworthy.” And that just justifies why I think it needs to exist,” she says with a sigh and a shrug. “You show what you’re thinking about or what you care about with your time.”

She explains that the feminism that Borderless Festival embodies is intersectional by default, and should be evident when looking at the line-ups for the showcases.

“When women, women-identified people, queer people, people of colour, make music, there’s often more behind it than just “I want to get on stage and be a rockstar.” What pushes us to feel like we want to go up there?” she implores. “Maybe we do want to be rockstars, and that’s radical in itself, because the face of music doesn’t match up with us. To take up that space is radical. But, we also have something to say, something to show. The subject matter we approach is different from cis white men, and with all our unique identities, we have different approaches from each other too. Our lives are radically different and it comes out in the music.”

Peterborough artist Mary-Kate Edwards performs at the Historic Red Dog on September 15 as part of Borderless Music Festival 2017. Photo by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

With Borderless Festival’s first run completed, Shahsavari is hardly taking breaks soon.

“I’m going to be curating a bunch of shows at Catalina’s,” she says, which will be starting around the end of October. She also plans to organize more Borderless showcases, and is considering another large festival next year.

“I want to hear all the stories and see all the creations of marginalized people, and also for alternative artists or weirdos that just don’t fit in anywhere. Seeing more diversity on stage will translate to more inspiration and diversity being born,” she states firmly. “That is my end goal: for the music scene to look different; for your idea of who’s supposed to be on the stage to be different.”