Q&A: Durham Beat Editor Matia Guardabascio on Community Involvement

Matia Guardabascio, editor of local arts publication Durham Beat, talks community involvement and the founding of the magazine.

At the opening of many a classic Disney movie, the first shot is of a storybook flipping open to an illustration of the setting of the film, with a voiceover from a narrator droning, “Once upon a time…” Violins play, we zoom in on the illustration to see the main characters- you know the drill.

Let’s imagine a new movie opening. That the narrator says, “Once upon a time, in a town called Durham…”

Rather than violins, there’s distorted guitar. And the storybook flipping open to images of Durham’s grit and glory…well, it might look something like a ‘zine from Durham Beat.

Founded in April of 2018, Durham Beat is a print and online publication devoted to telling the stories of the Durham arts scene from a first person perspective. The Durham Beat staff are narrators and storytellers actively participating in the Durham scene as artists themselves. The artist profiles, show and album reviews, and food and beer coverage are all from an intensely and intentionally personal perspective.

The magazine’s mascot is called the Owlephant, and she does look a little like a Disney character come to life. A symbol of the magazine’s commitment to Gonzo journalism, it’s easy to imagine her wandering Durham’s streets, taking it all in, writing stories featuring the diverse array of artists she encounters.

The Owlephant

The remarkable commitment to community involvement goes beyond the lens of reporting at Durham Beat. The magazine has hosted a series of exciting art and music community events that emphasize equal opportunity for local artists. The Beat Market, the magazine’s signature event, returns to Fullsteam Brewery on Friday, April 12th, with a local art market and live local music.

Durham Beat will celebrate the magazine’s first birthday (delightfully, on 4/20) with a raucous show and party at The Pinhook.

And if you’re hype for Moogfest but haven’t been able to snag tickets yet, Durham Beat is giving away one general admission pass to two different winners of their Instagram contest. Submit an original image based on what Durham means to you with the hashtag #durhambeatmoog and you could win. The contest runs through Saturday, April 13th.

I spoke with The Editor (as she is formally known) of Durham Beat, Matia Guardabascio, about the founding principles of Durham Beat, the magazine’s commitment to community involvement, and where she and the staff find their favorite talent.

It’s safe to say that by Durham Beat’s launch in April 2018, Durham wasn’t a secret anymore. The art, music, and food scenes had blossomed, the startup scene and STEM jobs exploded, and many people who might’ve dismissed Durham just a few years ago have taken notice.

While launching a magazine documenting the city from the inside, others might have chosen to define Durham Beat as an objective voice in the midst of outside forces. Durham Beat deliberately went in the opposite direction. Why the emphasis on Gonzo journalism, personal narrative, and subjective experience? Why is that important for chronicling Durham?

Matia Guardabascio aka The Editor

Objectivity is easy. It’s cold, distant, and boring. There is no shortage of “objective” reporting in the media- writing devoid of passion and flavorless content that strives to separate fact from feeling. It’s impersonal observation posing as gospel and offers little more than a prosaic imitation of something I could have Googled. Anyone with a smartphone and the ability to form a coherent sentence can present perceived facts “objectively.” This is not my way. In my experience, engagement and participation take courage, and often yield greater creative rewards. I want to feel a connection to the stories I read. I want to be moved by them in the same way that I’m moved by the people and places they are about. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Fundamentally, the idea that objective journalism is free from bias is total bullshit. Every writer experiences the world individually, that is, subjectively. The Gonzo approach embraces and elevates the experienced over the informational. Where traditional journalism creates distance between subject and writer, Gonzo instinctively connects them, yielding a philosophy of writing that I think naturally lends itself to coverage of the arts.

Like the Durham Beat staff, we all come from different backgrounds, levels of education, areas of interest, political leanings, and cultural influences. The way I interact with my surroundings differs from how Zoe or Stephan interact with theirs because each of us looks at the world through our own little key hole. Gonzo isn’t the regurgitation of information from a personal perspective; it’s about participating in the moment, becoming part of it. The writer is the character, therefore the stories we write are decidedly human- deeply honest and totally authentic.

In the eleven years that I have been working as an editor and writer, I have always been heavily involved in the arts and often dreamed of starting my own publication, one exclusively dedicated to local arts coverage. When I moved to Durham, I realized this was the place. The creative energy here is incredibly powerful. The people who have become involved with Durham Beat and joined the staff are all local artists (most born and raised right here in NC) who were seeking a flexible platform to pursue their own artistic ambitions. The subjective model empowers them to pursue those ambitions in a free and open space, while also building a portfolio and experimenting with new ideas.

What we’re doing at Durham Beat- what Durham Beat practices– is not news. We write stories. In so doing, we offer our readers something more than mere coverage- we offer the opportunity to feel connected, to share in the experience of and appreciation for the creative community thriving here. Anything less would be a disservice to Durham.

In the editorial philosophy of the magazine and in organizing events like The Beat Market, community involvement is a pillar of the Durham Beat brand. What motivated that decision, and how does Durham Beat go about implementing it?

AWAY MSG at Raund Haus party 2019; by Dalvin Nichols (@8bit.photog on Instagram)

First of all, thank you for pointing out that “community involvement is a pillar of the Durham Beat brand.” I feel pretty good about how folks are perceiving Durham Beat because yes, community involvement does live at the heart of what we do. In fact, community involvement stems naturally from the type of storytelling we do. But ultimately, it goes beyond content. The broader vision is to create and grow a platform for empowering local artists- Durham Beat contributors included. In the process, we’re trying to redefine the scope of what a magazine can be.

Among the staff we have writers, musicians, designers, models, photographers, educators, poets, and dancers. We all have stories to tell and we all want to create, share, and connect. Why shouldn’t those sensibilities inform all of our endeavors? As a business made up of active members of the creative community, Durham Beat is uniquely suited to collaborate with, organize, and represent the interests of local artists.

The Beat Market is a perfect example of this. In my travels through the art scene, I have noticed over and over again the same struggles for working artists. One key issue is the ability to get the kind of exposure they need in order to sell their work. While Durham hosts a number of farmers markets and craft fairs (some on a regular schedule, others as “pop-up” style events), nearly all of these opportunities require registration fees or some kind of investment up front from the artist. This is problematic for the working artist, especially those in the DIY scene (which I daresay is the majority of artists in Durham). I created The Beat Market as an alternative model that offers guaranteed minimum payments for performing musicians and a no cost regular vending opportunity for our fellow working artists.

Durham Beat handles all of the logistical planning and participates as one of several vendors. As a business made up of artists, our interests are directly aligned with the interests of our collaborators, our local business partners and hosts, and our performing and vending artist partners. In the same way that the Durham Beat publication is a platform for the artists on staff to pursue their artistic ambitions, The Beat Market is its own platform, the beginnings of an economic infrastructure meant to create opportunities for and investment in local creatives…the very same people who are responsible for the creative energy and steadfast edginess that give Durham so much of its persistent cultural authenticity and appeal.

Artistic collaboration is a major tenet of our community involvement. A good example of this is the REUPCYCLE Lookbook Zine and party we did with local fashion artist Cool Boy 36. He was interested in making a lookbook for his new fashion line and I wanted to do an artist profile and make a zine. So we combined all of those ideas and ended up creating a totally original work of art that included his designs, my writing and photography, and the opportunity to host a launch party featuring an exclusively local lineup of musicians. Within the project itself, we also created opportunities for other local artists to be involved: paid modeling gigs, paid music gigs, paid photography gigs. Through this kind of collaborative work, we are able to imbue that subjective sensibility into the very business structure of Durham Beat, while simultaneously investing in the local creative community.

The work we have done with The Beat Market and Cool Boy 36 is only the beginning. We have some serious plans in the works right now to create regular paid opportunities for artists to showcase their work, participate in events, and interact with the community at large in a meaningful way.

Where do you and the the staff look for local talent? Any favorite venues or online resources you can share?

At Free Things Fest 2018 by Riley the Photographer (@odetomyday on Instagram)

Discovering talent requires effort, certainly. I always comb through the calendars at all of the venues and galleries and event spaces. I sift through Facebook event pages to find things I might not otherwise hear about. I pick up flyers on the street or take pictures of show posters on bathrooms walls or community bulletin boards. I will also often go to a show blind, without any knowledge of who or what I am about to see. I have been happily surprised, totally freaked out, and deeply inspired in my adventures following these methods. I enjoy the unexpected.

Of course, sometimes artists write to us too and invite us to their shows. We do our best to make it to as many of them as possible. We are only limited in our capacity to cover events by our numbers. And we are steadily growing…in fact, there are eight of us who make up the core staff now.

To get to the crux of your question though, the “resource” on which I rely most is participation. I go to the shows. We all do. Because everyone on staff, myself included, is an artist, we exist naturally within the art scene, broadly and within its various niches. We all have different backgrounds and tastes, so inevitably what each of us will find will be different. What’s the best way to find local talent? Go to the shows. Participate. Be surprised. Follow the night wherever it leads.

If you could throw a city-wide party with one beer, one vendor, and one band, who would you choose?

Behind the Scenes of REUPCYCLE with Cool Boy 36. By Riley the Photographer (@odetomyday on Instagram)

My initial reaction is this: for a party of this size with only one beer, one vendor, and one band, the keg ought be bottomless, the art’s a-gotta be plentiful, and the band would have to play a four hour set and be well paid for it. This is a very challenging question. But, being decisive by nature, and relying as I do on stream of consciousness methods, my answers at this particular moment are:

Band: VSPRTN

Beer: Green Man ESB

Vendor: JoRose.

This question, however, begs a collective response. So I sent this one out to the Durham Beat staff and collected their answers:

Zoe says:

Band: Reese McHenry

Beer: Wicked Weed

Vendor: Worthy Women.

Ari says:

Band: The Wiley Fosters

Beer: Starpoint Kingadanoff

Vendor: Boriqua Soul (folks gotta eat.)

Stephen says:

The beer…well, it has not been brewed yet.  We need a collaboration of Durham Brewers. I would name the beer the The Bull City Backslap…it would contain hints of artistic innovation, a fine blend of culture and a wallop of civil disobedience and revolt!

I would hold the release party…unannounced with no permits in front of the prison.

The Vendor…Runaway with single print t-shirts designed by one hundred Durham artists…representing brown, white, black, multisex identified however we like…ARTISTS!

Oh yeah…weed would be legal…

Riley says:

Cider: Bull City’s Steep South

Vendor: Pincho Loco ice cream

Band: BANGZZ or Corroder. Or Cosmic Punk! Or H.C. McEntire! Gosh, I don’t know.

Adair says:

Beer: Ponysaurus Don’t Be Mean to People. The beer itself is pretty good, not my favorite, but I feel that the reason it was created is a good representation of who Durham is.

Vendor: Runaway (I miss them already) or Chaz’s Bull City Records – maybe a collaboration of the two!

Band: Severed Fingers. I fell in love with them when I covered their show at the Pinhook.

Behind the Scenes of REUPCYCLE. By Zoe Carmichael.

All images courtesy of Matia Guardabascio. Featured image by Zoe Carmichael.

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