May Maylisa Cat Interview: Satirical Horror on Institutional DEI Efforts and Janky Artist Residencies

Portland-based experimental filmmaker May Maylisa Cat has recently released two spoof movie trailers that are well-timed for the spooky fall season, but frankly, cover topics that are frightening year-round.
Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, and Inclusion Lite (DBEKIL) and The Art Residency are short video collage works that mock the horrors of institutional DEI efforts and crappy artist residencies the world over. Replete with sarcastic voiceover and deep analysis shrouded in a shallow veneer of internet humor, they draw from an amalgam of numerous artists’ experiences suffering at the hands of white supremacy, white supremacist structures, and/or well-meaning [fill-in-the-blanks] who think they’re doing something good, but actually could be a helluva lot better.
Read on for a fascinating interview with her about her process and the content covered in both videos, then watch them for yourself and shudder.

May Maylisa Cat - The Art Residency
May Maylisa Cat - The Art Residency
The Art Residency by May Maylisa Cat

Considering the multi-faceted nature of these two short films, I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve had some nightmare experiences of yourself to draw from. Are there one or two you’d like to get off your chest to help set the stage?

May Maylisa Cat: My experiences came from living in Portland, Oregon, where it sees itself as progressive, but is the whitest big city with a very racist past, from redlining to exclusion laws. And definitely, I had nightmare encounters inside and outside of art — from white-led racial justice initiatives that stonewall concerns from actual people of color, to appropriation being seen as utopian multiculturalism, to endless fragility.

I remember being interviewed about one of my early, novice projects concerning race in horror movies. There I sat talking about xenophobia, misogyny, and even cited a book about violence in art. Finally, out of everything, they pulled a few-seconds quote about how I compared the likable villain trope to a character in Black Panther because the movie was playing in theaters. It was humiliating to see how much those who work in reporting or journalism omit race or suppress it, but will have something like a white supremacist on a cover of their publication as “seeing both sides” of the “race issue.” Then, of course, the Georgia Spa Shooting of Asian women happened, and I guess we could’ve had an invested discussion about race, gender-based violence, and scapegoating in that interview years before?

Many artists of color and I talked about how we’re going to be more intentional about who is even allowed in these conversations, especially since they’re late.

This is how I see many DEI initiatives: those who want to be seen as altruistic joining a conversation they’re late to.

 

May Maylisa Cat - Diversity Boss Equity Keep Inclusion Lite
May Maylisa Cat - Diversity Boss Equity Keep Inclusion Lite
Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, and Inclusion Lite (DBEKIL) by May Maylisa Cat

You recently showcased these pieces during an event called “DIE D.E.I.: A Discussion on the Horrors of Institutional Inclusion.” What kinds of learnings and interactions emerged from that event?

May Maylisa Cat: “DIE D.E.I.” held conversations when toxic institutions engage in performative diversity initiatives, moderated by two brilliant artists: Jen Delos Reyes and Astria Suparak. The event invited guests such as Rashayla Marie Brown, Michele Carlson, Justin Seiji Waddell and myself. The organizers really did such a great job, providing polls to collect data and workshopping with the audiences. The panelists talked about how they had to navigate challenging situations, and I had a lot of respect for them.

Overall, I had an overwhelmingly positive feedback about my presentation in which I framed bureaucracy like a haunted house, and cited thinkers like Yee-I-Lann, the artist who made the series Picturing Power, and David Graeber, the author of Bullshit Jobs.

So with that context, it made sense to show my two videos: The Art Residency and Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, and Inclusion Lite.

 

May Maylisa Cat - The Art Residency
May Maylisa Cat - The Art Residency
May Maylisa Cat - The Art Residency
The Art Residency by May Maylisa Cat; meme in last image by @northwest_mcm_wholesale

How did you conceive each of these pieces conceptually, and how did you imagine them playing off of one another?

May Maylisa Cat: The Art Residency was about my and many others collective experiences at residencies. Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, and Inclusion Lite (DBEKIL) is a word play on the now disgraced Girlboss capitalism and its heavily-mocked internet catchphrase — Girlboss Gatekeep Gaslight — which draws from Live, Laugh, Love.

A good takeaway from this is: artists talk! We vent about our studio practice: what hinders it, what challenges it, how our different interactions differ according to the resources, our identity, and with whom. And ultimately, you’ll hear about rats in the studio, or sleeping on moldy mattresses, or untimely construction, or gender bias, or squashing dissent of past residents by inviting new artists for a honeymoon phase. We’re a community. We’d flag something that looks like a landlord was looking to market their Airbnb to artists and view us as customers. Like, I saw an open call for “one-night fellowship” in some dude’s tiny home once. Or a company is looking for unpaid interns but they’ll title the position as “artist-in-residence.” This was why The Art Residency was as much a collective artist experience as my own, and many people find comic relief in it.

DBEKIL is definitely inspired by the horror genre. In the presentation, I cited screenwriter and filmmaker Brooks Elms who talks about the 3 elements of horror movies:

  1. The “Monster in the house,” which can be supernatural or human like a psychopath
  2. The House that traps our protagonist
  3. The sins, which are bad immoral things.

So, if bureaucracy is like one big haunted house, here are some of the key players that exist to haunt you till death. I think that both of these videos are humorous and cathartic, which I wanted it to be since we’re talking about harmful practices.

May Maylisa Cat - Diversity Boss Equity Keep Inclusion Lite
Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, and Inclusion Lite (DBEKIL) by May Maylisa Cat

 

Can you tell us a bit about your workflow for putting together such montage-oriented pieces like this? How much do you plan in advance versus decide on the fly? How long does each piece take, on average?

May Maylisa Cat: I was on the Amtrak across the Rocky Mountains writing down my notes two weeks before the panel. It actually involved some heavy emotional labor, processing these horrible experiences, so I’m glad I [was able to] jot it down on the go and connect it to books about bureaucracy I was reading a month before in Portland and Seattle. Once I got to the East Coast, I was like “Hmm, these notes are too long. How do I even talk about all of this in EIGHT minutes?”

I tried flash fiction — like “telling a ghost story around a campfire” because “DIE D.E.I.” was Halloween-themed — but it was terrible. That’s when I was like, “Oh, I can write it like a horror movie trailer and do a punchy laundry list. No complete sentences needed!”

Next thing I knew, I didn’t want to use my deadpan voice to read all of it at the presentation, so it needed a voiceover. Then I didn’t want to present a blank screen. So, I’m just scrounging the internet for visuals and footage from movies I remember. Then I was like, “F*ck it, this is a video essay now. I have 7 days to make it, so let me find some royalty-free horror music.”

This is where, as an artist, I knew the script became a thing in itself and I just had to follow it. I wrote some editing notes for the scripts and went to work, hoping for the best. I’m glad I got good responses for it.

Both of these pieces share an aesthetic but differing focuses. Can you explain a little bit about that?

May Maylisa Cat: I watch video essays on YouTube, so no doubt my aesthetics of montaging memes, TikToks, and whatever’s on the internet (without trying to hit copyright claims) are similar to them. I already love clashing cultural elements and absurdist humor, which I try to incorporate in my work. I find that in those visual essays, the images can provide more subtext or unspoken humor, which podcasts can’t do, so as a visual artist, I leaned into that.

Similarly, I didn’t need The Art Residency and DBEKIL being “aesthetically pleasing,” because I trust the writing was “strong” enough. Some of whom I watch are cultural theorists like F.D Signifier, or Contrapoint, or The Take — [in] which I notice the writing is strong. But I also watch Youtubers who do free-flow rants or are just plain entertaining, and their niches range from gothic fashion to therapy to novel writing to fantasy world building. I wanted the two trailers to be informative and cathartic, while entertaining.

 

May Maylisa Cat - Diversity Boss Equity Keep Inclusion Lite
Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, and Inclusion Lite (DBEKIL) by May Maylisa Cat

Is the 83% of diversity bosses being white a true statistic? Relatedly, how much of the data included is real, and from where do you source it?

May Maylisa Cat: So, the statistic is actually 81.3% from zippia.com. My dyslexic brain shortened it to 83%, which I realized after the script was written, so I’m off by 1.7% percent. Forgive me! It’s still over 80%.

I wanted to point out how it isn’t that diverse in the realm of Diversity officers. Like in DBEKIL, we see Kim Kardashian Blackfishing in braids starring as Marginalized Identities, because we know white women are usually “the diversity.” And where we introduced “Diversity Chad, whose cultural competency is so high because his two adopted children from Africa and Asia drink Kombucha and hugged a cop,” there’s the clip from Atlanta Season 3’s “Three Slaps” Episode, which was based on a real-life Oregon tragedy of the Hart family and that widely circulated newspaper of their adoptive young Black son hugging a cop. It just added context of self-proclaimed progressiveness and the troubling facades in all of it reflected in this “Diversity” work. And why is whiteness seen as the authority?

May Maylisa Cat - Diversity Boss Equity Keep Inclusion Lite
May Maylisa Cat - Diversity Boss Equity Keep Inclusion Lite
TOP: Diversity Chad; BOTTOM: the real-life Oregon tragedy of the Hart family; both images from Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, and Inclusion Lite (DBEKIL).

 

On a semi-serious note: DEI initiatives have ramped up in recent years, especially after the death of Floyd and the 2020 protests — yet they seem to have died down in very recent times. How might you reflect back on the arc of “inclusion efforts” from, say, between 2018 to present-day, from your vantage point?

May Maylisa Cat: Well, since 2018, there are so many chapters.

Referencing Girlboss Gatekeep Gaslight, which references Live Laugh Love, DBEKIL is really me thinking about the corporatization and co-opting of social justice movements. Like how rainbow capitalism exploded at pride or how #metoo went straight to Pussyhat white feminism, DEI initiatives went into the maze of violent bureaucracy. In DBEKIL, the script read, “Vision, innovation, stakeholder, leadership, best practices, and other bullshit words,” which refers to jargons used in institutions to get influence but nothing gets done (I got this from Graeber’s book, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy). The black squares on social media and pledges came after George Floyd’s death, but now disappearing or getting stalled, is kind of like that.

It also made me think a lot about labor, how these organizations assign value, and whose intellectual and emotional labor is being demanded like it’s tireless and nothing — “for the common good.” Similarly, I also see artists being asked to re-traumatize themselves for visibility and consumerist spectacle. There are groups who really want to make real change, and there are those who just demand the people from marginalized communities take on laboring the change while they self-appoint on the sideline as one of the good ones.

It also boggles my mind how white diversity chairs/officers and institutions are clueless about emotional labor, particularly the toll it takes to do diversity work for those with lived experiences of race-based trauma. Already, that’s a red flag that you’ll feel exploited afterwards. This is a reminder that in an already-violent bureaucracy, you shouldn’t retraumatize yourself for a more privileged person’s DEI lesson, and always affirm that you’re not there to do emotional labor. Rest and thrive!


WATCH THE VIDEOS

May Maylisa Cat – The Art Residence

May Maylisa Cat – Diversity Boss, Equity Keep, Inclusion Lite (DBEKIL)

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Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

Vee has two narrative short films. Searching Skies (2017) touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States; with it, they helped co-organize The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. Reckless Spirits (2022) is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature-length project.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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