Seth Gadsden

Director: Indie Grits Labs
Headshot of a man

Photo courtesy of Seth Gadsden

(Music Up) “Jack of the Wood” written and performed by The Kruger Brothers from the album, Between the Notes

Seth Gadsden: The Indie Grits festival is-- it's a chance for us to turn Columbia into the city that we want it to be for four days. So, we really want to celebrate all aspects of contemporary southern culture whether that be food, or music or independent gaming. We have all of those things here in Columbia. And Indie Grits is a chance to kind of bring all those together under one roof and celebrate it all.

(Music Up)

Jo Reed: That is Seth Gadsden-director of Indie Grits Labs and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed.

How Indie Grits has grown! From a two-day DIY film festival to a four-day, multi-disciplinary celebration with independent film at its heart. Hosted by the only non-profit cinema theater in the state, the Nickelodeon. Indie Grits itself is a multi-faceted organization that's deeply embedded in South Carolina. And it continues to evolve over the years: from commissioning art projects around yearly themes that are shown during the festival to year-long projects put together by artists and other community members to a deep involvement with arts education and mentoring. Seth Gadsden is the director of Indie Grits Labs-- the arm of the organization that helps artists develop their work for the themed project. Indie Grits does so much as presenters, educators, and creators, it can get a little confusing so, I had Seth help me unpack their history. And we began at the beginning with the start film festival.

Seth Gadsden: Indie Grits it has a really interesting history. To start with Indie Grits, we have to go back even further and talk about how in 1979 a group of students from USC who were the Columbia Film Society formed a theater called the Nickelodeon Theater in downtown Columbia right next to the state house.

Jo Reed: And this is Columbia, South Carolina.

Seth Gadsden: That’s right in Columbia, South Carolina. And this theater was really a place where cinephiles and people that loved film and just wanted a community to get together to watch all types of independent foreign cinema, all types of movies and theater. This was a place and a home for them many, many years. And then in 2006 they hired Andy Smith and he was asked to start the Indie Grits Film Festival.

Jo Reed: Well Seth, where did the name Indie Grits come from and how does it reflect the organization?

Seth Gadsden: Indie Grits, in and of itself, is meant to celebrate independent film, experimental film. And the grits part speaks to A, the gritty nature of independent experimental filmmaking but also to what’s in the south-- grits. So, it speaks to the fact that the Indie Grits festival really caters itself to southern media makers. So, everything that happens around Indie Grits festival involves southern filmmaking in some way. Either the filmmakers are from the south, the musicians are from the south, the artists are from the south. Or they’re people making people about the south. So, a strong connection to the south is very important.

Jo Reed: So, the Columbia Film Society began showing independent films at the Nickelodeon-this morphed into the annual Indie Grits Film Festival, but last year the organization evolved again, and Indie Grits Labs was formed to run year-long creative and education projects. Seth explains the evolution of this program.

Seth Gadsden: And about five years ago we started doing really robust media education programs. And the joy and the love and the passion for experimental filmmaking and animation have really been the guiding force and principles behind what we do around our media education. And last year, our organization made the decision to create this organization called Indie Grits Labs. And so now we have this year-round presence that we’re calling it Indie Grits Labs where we do media education and we run our festival every year. And we also have been doing these very large art projects that have a social justice bend and really look at issues facing the Southeast.

Jo Reed: How is it branching off and beginning a new organization-- how is that working?

Seth Gadsden: We started Indie Grits Labs a year ago and we're still sorting it out. I used to be the managing director of the Nickelodeon Theater and was running the Nickelodeon Theater, was running the festival, was overseeing our education programs. And we've grown fast enough that this past year we were able to hire a Nickelodeon Theater director. We've been very fortunate. And that has allowed me to break off these other programs from the Nickelodeon so that they could really thrive with a director and its own leadership. And then the Nickelodeon has also really blossomed and done even better than it’s been doing with its own director and its own dedicated leadership. So, it's really been a good thing. And we're still trying to get this Indie Grits Labs thing under our belts and figured out.

Jo Reed: Indie Grits began as arts presenters and now has added arts creators and educators to its' portfolio.

Seth Gadsden: That's right! So about five years ago, the executive director and I decided that we need to do more. That just being presenters wasn't enough. We had this new mission behind the organization to do more artistic services. I have a background as a painter and a filmmaker. And I have a lot of background with arts organizations. So, it made a lot of sense for us to move in that direction. The Nickelodeon Theater had just moved a few blocks down to Main Street to a whole new location in a two-story old theater that we renovated and restored. And so, we had this big new beautiful building in a new part of Main Street that was up and coming. And so, we started theming the festivals and the first year our theme was Future Perfect which is like looking the future of southern cities. We brought in artists from all across the Southeast and did installations, all around our new theater, on Main Street. And because of this big art project we were able to partner with all types of organizations.

Jo Reed: It's important to note that the films presented at Indie Grits were not similarly themed. The focused remained on southeastern independent filmmakers or topics that pertained to the southeast. But Indie Grits supported art projects with a common theme that would be shown during the festival.

Seth Gadsden: Now that allowed us to do special curation. We did workshops. We did a conference with the Urban Land Institute here. We brought these artists in that were responding to theme. What I discovered after that year is that we wanted to get a little more intense with that. What we had done that year, we just did a call for proposals of Future Perfect, like a traditional arts organization would do with a call for proposals. And then the next year our theme was Waterlines. And we named it that theme because that year was a really tragic year in South Carolina cause we had the Charleston Nine Massacre at the Emanuel AME Church. And then we had a bunch of tragic flooding here in Columbia, the 1000-year flood. We named our theme that year Waterlines and the idea was to create an art project with a group of, I think, we had about sixteen artists. And I started meeting with them the month of the flood and we met every month afterwards both individually and as a group leading up to the festival everybody developing projects about the flood, about the aftermath of the flood, about healing, all of these different interpretations. We brought speakers in. And just did a lot of different work around this and created this really robust project that gave festival goers and community members a way to experience the both before, during and after the flood. That project has really been the guiding project that’s guiding us to where we are now where instead of just theming of the festival these projects have become their own year-round projects that we’re doing with groups of artists. And has really become the heart of what Indie Grits Labs is.

Jo Reed: What was the focus for the 2017 Indie Grits Festival?

Seth Gadsden: Last year’s theme of the project was Visiones. So, we were looking at how Latino culture is changing the Southeast and so we had a Latinx creative leader of that group. Her name was Amada Torruella. And then we had a group of Latinx artists from all over South Carolina that we met with throughout the year that all developed projects that were all presented during the festival. And a lot of the young talent that I meet, the artists that I meet, the people that I bring into our family our first-time filmmakers, first time artists, media makers. We really want to bring people in and give them a beginning, give them a start and be supportive. And a lot of a lot of the educators that I work with as a part of our media education program I met them through Indie Grits. Maybe they were interning for the festival. Maybe they applied to the festival. Maybe they were an artist in my project. So, all of these systems are cyclical, and they feed each other. And that's kind of what makes Indie Grits Labs what it is. Every year we have this new group of artists that come in for this project. And it just adds to the family and we grow and grow and grow that way.

Jo Reed: And of course, the Nickelodeon Theater plays a major part in Indie Grits Labs.

Seth Gadsden: A lot of our education programs are field trip programs to the Nickelodeon Theater. The heart and soul of our education programs are something that we call media literacy labs. And that's where we have-- we've developed all of these programs built around short films and feature films where students from schools, from all around the Midlands here in South Carolina can come. They do a field trip to the Nickelodeon. They learn about Art House and nonprofit theaters. They watch a movie and then we introduce them to the tools for which they can interpret, be critical and learn about screen cultures. And that's anything from a narrative film to news culture to social media to documentaries.

Jo Reed: I find it’s so interesting because, of course, we all have a visual literacy because we grow up with media. But it’s often so unconscious that when you pull back and begin to deconstruct how those meanings are made it becomes fascinating, I think--

Seth Gadsden: That's right--

Jo Reed: And important.

Seth Gadsden: It's something that you’re beginning to see in schools, and you’re beginning to see people talk about. But most people still have no idea what you’re talking about when you say media literacy when you say screen culture-- I mean everybody is in screens now. You’re even reading in screens. So, it’s really important that we educate our youth as to like so that they can look at screen culture critically just like they read critically, and they’re taught to read critically. It really puts the power back into the hands of youth. We find that to be super important.

Jo Reed: Now, even though Indie Grits Labs sprung from the film festival and from the Nickelodeon and from the Columbia Film Society, like the film festival itself you don’t just focus on film. There’s music. There’s other visual art. There’s gaming involved--

Seth Gadsden: Right.

Jo Reed: You cast a very wide net.

Seth Gadsden: You know there's something we say behind closed doors a lot times is it's-- the Indie Grits Festival is a chance for us to turn Columbia into the city that we want it to be for four days. And so, we really want to celebrate contemporary Southern culture whether that be food, or music or independent gaming. We have all of those things here in Columbia. And Indie Grits is a chance to kind of bring all those together under one roof and celebrate it all. There was a time we were called the Indie Grits Film Festival and for a while now we’ve just been calling it the Indie Grits Festival with the Nickelodeon and film still being at the heart of it. We bring all of these things in now. I was just eating lunch yesterday with the curator of Indie Bits and talking about what type of video game installations that we were going to have during the festival this year.

Jo Reed: Yeah well describe what those four days are like in Columbia when it’s the Columbia you want it to be.

Seth Gadsden: All these folks come in from all over the country. And they're all connected to the south in some way shape or form. So, you all of a sudden have this influx of media makers, whether it be videogames or films or art. And these people are professors. And they're educators. And they work at nonprofit organizations. And they work in the industry. And there's films all day every day. There's music every night. There's after parties. There's opportunities for people just to hang out in lounges and relax. There's a puppet slam where it's an adult only puppet show that is organized by a local puppet group, but it brings in puppeteers from across the southeast. We also have a variety show from New Orleans called "The Weekly Review" that we’ve been doing for four years now. And that’s a really wild variety show that touches on a lot of different points of culture and comedy. And that's a really wild variety show that touches on a lot of different points of culture and comedy. We usually do a big free outdoor concert with food trucks and all of that good stuff. And then based on the art project of the year, the thing that we focused on with our group of artists throughout the year there could be any number of activities going on anywhere around the city. That’s brought in that unique element that really changes year in and year out.

Jo Reed: How many artists and films makers come from Columbia and the surrounding area?

Seth Gadsden: Oh, my goodness. It’s a lot. You know I think last year-- last year we worked with over 200 creators--

Jo Reed: Local creators.

Seth Gadsden: --one way or another. Right. It's a lot. With Visiones last year, that group of artists was from all over South Carolina-- half of them, I would say, were from Columbia. This year because our art project is called Two Cities and we’re looking at how socioeconomics and race play a part in how individuals are perceived by their city and how they perceive their city we’ve decided to focus that in on one area of our city called North Columbia. And because of that the group of artists that we’re working with are all in some way connected to those groups of neighborhoods. Either they live there. They’re from there. They have family there. They work there. So, we’re working much more localized this year than we necessarily have in the past. We actually opened up our first satellite space for Indie Grits Labs in that neighborhood. So, for the first time since I’ve been here I’ve got an office that’s not in a Nickelodeon Theater. I’m in an old house in a neighborhood running our programs this year which is pretty exciting.

Jo Reed: How does putting an art festival together around a particular issue-- how does that open up discussion of that issue in ways that perhaps wouldn’t happen in, you know, a talking head roundtable?

Seth Gadsden: Well, the reason that I do this is-- and the reason that I find Indie Grits to be so powerful-- we're able to take ideas, people, creators from a lot of different paths and a lot of different areas of society and the art world, you name it. And when you kind of mix them together and you get them collaborating even if they're not collaborating so much and you just put them next to each other it spurs new ideas. And I've always thought that's when art was at its most powerful is when you see something in a new way. And that's where you get your own creativity. And that's where you become empowered. And that's where empathy comes into play and so many good things come from that moment where you see something anew-- you know, we’ve got 13 people in the group this time and they’re not all artists. There’s community organizers. There’s a chef. There’s writers. There's a lot of different types of people in this group.

Jo Reed: And these are the people who come together--

Seth Gadsden: Yes.

Jo Reed: -- for weekly discussions about Two Cities.

Seth Gadsden: Exactly. The festival is coming up in April and they're all turning in their budgets and their proposals and really beginning to get into the heart of their individual work. But because of this collaborative spirit I think that plays out in the community afterwards. I just think it gives opportunity for our community to see things in new ways and experience these ideas in ways that they've never experienced them before. So that hopefully it spurs continued conversation, continued dialog and new ideas. And you know the past three festivals with these art projects the festival has been the end of the project. The work was designed to be presented during the festival. And while the act of doing this especially with Visiones our organization as a whole is much more invested in the Latinx community now which is great. But a lot of the actual projects ended. Whereas this year with Two Cities what we’re looking at because we’re in this neighborhood and because of the work we’re doing is so tied in, there’s so many different things to the community-- part of what we’re looking to do is sustainability and developing projects that are programs. And things that could continue into the future. And working on teaching a lot of the different aspects of program and project development where these artists could continue to do that work and we could continue to help them find funding and continue to work together. It's why we're opening up a new space in that community. So, every year is a little different and presents its unique challenges. But at the end of the day, it's all about trying to put ideas together to create new spaces for new thought and new dialog and really inspire people to go in directions that tap into something that's unexpected.

Jo Reed: How do you choose the annual theme for the projects?

Seth Gadsden: That’s something that I’ve done along with our executive director Andy Smith over the last few years. It was mere coincidence that we were going to be doing that theme at the same time that the election happened and all of a sudden-- the wall-- everything that's been happening. It seemed like we just happened to be doing that festival and all of that work at the same time as that. But we choose these things years in advance and my right hand at Indie Grits Labs his name is Pedro Lopez de Victoria. He’s from Puerto Rico originally. And one of my first interns for Indie Grits her name was Amada Torruella and she has worked her way up in the organization now and is now the right hand of the Nickelodeon Theater director as the lead program at the Nickelodeon. She’s from El Salvador. So, they were planning and a smaller festival that was just going to be like a weekend film programming thing. And we decided "Hey, why not make this idea Visiones like a full long project for the festival" that year and create a lot of artwork around it. And a lot of the funders liked the idea and we liked the idea. And it ended up being this really great thing. And then the Waterlines year that came from us just wanting to celebrate our river. So, we were going to do this project based around the river and then the flood happened. So once again, seemed like we were really forward thinking somehow. And the year before that with Future Perfect it was all about our move up to Main Street and rethinking how our community looks and looking at like a revitalization along Main Street and what is the future of our city. So Future Perfect seemed to be the right theme there.

Jo Reed: Yeah. So, they seemed to come organically through--

Seth Gadsden: It definitely comes organically.

Jo Reed: --something that the city is experiencing. Yeah.

Seth Gadsden. Exactly. We have an afterschool program called Come Around My Way, that's at a historically black high school that was started in the fifties. And it's still a predominantly African-American high school. Its resources are a lot different than the other schools in the district. The neighborhood there is a lot different than the other neighborhoods in the district. And a lot of the work that we've been doing there from the past five years a lot of that has led into this idea of Two Cities and two different experiences. So that theme came about that route as well.

Jo Reed: Talk about how working on a project like that in the city-- with other artists and with other community members as well-- how it brings a community together?

Seth Gadsden: Yeah. I mean it’s really about believing in my organization and the folks in the community it’s about really believing in the work that we do. And it's all about just opening that more and more and more and inviting more in. You know, I believe as a nonprofit organization in this community we should really reflect the city. And our city is diverse and big. So, each time we do one of these big projects it really brings in a new part of our city into what we do. And we're able to connect it to the funders that we work with. And we're able to connect it to the partners that we work with. And you know some of our best success stories are like the Waterlines year-- I worked with a photographer who was just a local photographer. I invited him to be a part of the project because I really liked who he was as a human and I liked the way that he worked and collaborated with folks. And through the project, I discovered that he drew maps. And I was like "Wow, man. You draw maps. This is really cool." You know he does them from memory. And I convinced him to draw a map of Columbia on our wall in the theater as a mural from memory writing stories about the different areas-- so it's like a map of Columbia from his head. And that has led to him getting several mural commissions from all around the city. And now he's a mural painter. So those are the kinds of things that I'm looking to do-- are to connect people to opportunities and to organizations and to parts of the community and to people that they should have access to and that they should be responsible to. I wouldn't do it if I didn't grow and learn every single year and how to work with groups of people and collaborate. Every year it's a little different <laughs>.

Jo Reed: And I would imagine the festival is a great economic generator for Columbia.

Seth Gadsden: Oh, for sure. About half of our attendees come from outside of Columbia. Columbia has this thing called a hospitality tax. Some other cities have them as well. It's when they take a small tax on all of food and bev around the city and they give it back out to arts organizations. And that was started twelve years ago. Indie Grits was created by the H-Tax program. And we're a success story of that program. And we're a success story of that program. We still continue to get H-Tax to this day, but we get that because of the economic driver that we are here in Columbia. And all of the people that we bring here that get excited about coming to Columbia and seeing Columbia and experiencing it. Like I said it's the four days where we turn the city into what we really want it to believe it is. And it works the other way around too. One of my main goals with Indie Grits Labs is to retain talent here in the city. It's really hard when you meet young people it's really hard when you meet young people, you bring them into your system, you teach them, you mentor them, you work with them and then they turn around and go to a bigger city. So, one of my goals is to like slowly bring the resources to Columbia and bring the things to Columbia that will help us become a hub where these young media makers want to be and want to create ‘cause the south is a rich, rich, rich landscape with all types of stories to tell. And we want to keep our media makers here.

Jo Reed: The festival is in mid-April—

Seth Gadsden: That's right.

Jo Reed: --and so you're putting the Two Cities projects together. People can come to Columbia--they'll go. They'll see movies but what else will they see in terms of the Two Cities projects around town?

Seth Gadsden: A lot of that is still in development but we’ll be doing some public art projects. one group of artists is making an archive museum in an old building in the neighborhood where they're gonna to invite folks to bring out the materials from their past, they're recording a story lab. It's going to be a mixed bag of different things that I'm going to have to figure out a program for during the festival <laughs>.

Jo Reed: I've got to tell you, Seth, I mean I was reading everything you do, and I have written all over it, "How do they do all of this?" --

Seth Gadsden: <laughs>

Jo Reed: --"How do they do all of this?"

Seth Gadsden: I am blessed to have a really passionate team. I was running the Nickelodeon Theater I had the full power of the Nickelodeon behind me. I brought two of the employees with me and now I really rely on my freelancers from all over the community. So, a music curator is the music writer for the Free Times here. I've got a local bar owner that does all of my party logistics. I've just got freelancers from all over the place. And we meet weekly and we talk, and we figure all of this stuff out.

<group laughter>

Jo Reed: Well, thank you so much for giving me your time. I can only imagine how busy you must be.

Seth Gadsden: It’s so much fun. It’s so much fun-- so thank you.

#### End of Seth_Gadsden_combined.mp3####

Jo Reed: That's Seth Gadsden. He's the director of Indie Grits Labs. The 2018 Indie Grits Festival will take place from April 12th to the 15th. You can find out more at You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And the Art Works podcast is now available on iTunes. So please, subscribe and if you like us-leave us a rating-it really does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Music: “Jack of the Wood", written and performed by the Kruger brothers from the CD Between the Notes, Double Time Music, Inc.

More than a film festival.