Bears In Space on LGBTQ Representation In the Dance Festival Scene: ‘It’s Definitely Getting Better’

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Bears In Space play this weekend's Secret Project festival in Los Angeles.

For more than a decade, Chris Bowen and Victor Rodriguez have been working together to bring house, disco and other music they love to Los Angeles. In 2008, they launched Shits & Giggles, a club night that took shape amidst the same LGBTQ nightlife renaissance that spawned now-legendary Los Angeles parties like Mustache Mondays and A Club Called Rhonda.

Later, Bowen, along with Kevin Charney, started Bears in Space, the party's name an homage to Tim Sweeney's cult favorite radio show Beats in Space. After Carney's departure, Rodriguez rejoined forces with Bowen. For the decade in LA, Bears in Space has hosted dance floor luminaries like Optimo, Daniel Wang and DJ Harvey. On the road, Bowen and Rodriguez have played under the party's moniker at venues like Chicago's Smartbar and events ranging from Love International Festival in Croatia to Vancouver's Alternative Pride.

On Sunday, October 13, they play Secret Project, the LA festival from Insomniac's factory93 brand that's stacked with talent including Peggy Gou, Dãm-Funk, Four Tet, Honey Dijon, Nina Kraviz and Helena Hauff. Now in its second year, Secret Project's focus on underground house and techno artists represents the mainstream festival scene's shift towards the sounds, and the artists, who were there during dance music's origin, when it was developed in gay clubs during the late '70s and early '80s. 

Here, Bowen and Rodriguez talk about the origin of Bears In Space and LGBTQ-inclusivity in the dance festival world.

Billboard Dance: Tell me about when and how you started DJing?

VR: I started when I was 15 years old. In Los Angeles, [around] 1983. My dad and my friend's dad got together and got us a little DJ set up and we did little mobile parties in our East L.A. neighborhood. In 1986, there was a queer warehouse -- it wasn't called queer back then -- called Plastic Passion, and I was the DJ for that. That was around 1986.

CB: I wasn't really DJing. I knew Victor socially. We would say hello and had mutual friends. In December of 2006 we were in Palm Desert at a magazine party and Victor was there. We were talking and chatting. His friend left him and my friend left me, and he needed a ride back to his house in Palm Springs. He asked me to give him a ride, and in the car I put some music on in my iPod. He didn't say a word for the 30-minute drive and then in the driveway, he said, "Tomorrow night, I'm having a New Years Eve party. I want you to DJ the party off your iPod." I was like, "I'll do it."

V: And he killed it.

C: I guess you could call it DJing. I was playing music on an iPod.

V: Selection. He was curating the music for the night.

C: After that, we were doing Sundays at the Viceroy in Palm Springs and then we were doing odd gigs together for about a year. January of 2008, I was in Paris and we were trying to come up with a name for a club and an idea for a club and I was in Paris and I saw this Banksy-esque graffiti of a clown taking a dump and I sent it to Victor and said, what about calling it Shits and Giggles? I sent him the image and he loved it.  So we went with it. We started our first club together in February of 2008.

Victor, what was it like playing house music in LA when it was new?

VB: I used to go to New York a lot back then. [House] had just come out. I had two friends who were really into it in LA, and we decided to start throwing a party. We were very much following the Paradise Garage model of playing disco. About four months into it, Marques Wyatt started a house party, but his was more house and hip-house, more jack.

It was a new, fun sound that nobody was playing at the time, so it was exciting. I was in New York at a record store when…[house artist] Ralphi Rosario brought in "You Used to Hold Me." He was like, "We just printed these. I grabbed it right from the stack." It was one of those special little moments. It was exciting.

What was the crowd like in LA at that time?

VB: It was mixed. My two partners were straight. Both English. It was all the English kids that lived in LA and all the weird kids that used to come to the warehouse things that I did. It was a really good combination of people. People came in looks.

C: It sounds like not much has changed.

V: My whole life, I've always been in a very mixed environment. I never hung out in West Hollywood. Never my scene. I never really related to what was going on there. It was not me. I've always felt an inclusion with a lot of things that I was involved with. Now, it's gotten much better. It still needs to improve more. It's in a really good path.

Is there much representation on the bigger festival stages for people coming out of LGBTQ parties?

VR: I think it definitely has increased a lot, and I think that they're starting to become aware that their line-ups need to become more inclusive of LGBT people, POC people, women. It used to be a white male, straight boys club for a long, long time. Most of the music that they're all playing came from queer POC spaces. It just didn't feel right that this group wasn't represented in all the things they were doing. It's nice to see that changing in the last three, four, five years.

CB: I think it's definitely changing. It's definitely getting better. When we played Love International; there was better representation. It felt very balanced to me.

Why do you think this shift is happening?

V: Because it has to.

C: I think, also, there's pressure on social media. If you're still doing a boy's club, you're going to get called out. Whereas, in the past, it was easier to get away with it.

V: That age is over.