Since 2013, JORTSFEST has been one of the most forward-thinking DIY fests in Atlanta. Thanks to the leadership of Maria Sotnikova and Michael Leon, the event has fostered collaboration, camaraderie, and, most importantly, conversation. Sotnikova is one of Atlanta’s most energetic voices regarding issues of accessibility and this year is taking concrete action to make Atlanta an accessible place for everyone seeking involvement within the local music scene.
To do so, JORTSFEST is undergoing a change in venue, a change in leadership, and a bold request for support that will aid not only the festival, but the greater Atlanta music community in general. Recently, JORTSFEST organizers announced a Kickstarter, which will not only increase the production value of the event, but has the potential to make all local venues more accessible to members of the community with disabilities.
It all starts with a desire for holistic accessibility. Sotnikova’s urban planning background has imbued her with the ability to understand and organize the necessary components for a completely accessible event. According to her, the first building block is a re-interpretation of Southern hospitality for the 21st century, a desire that festival participants are comfortable at all levels throughout the proceedings.
For the past three years, JORTSFEST has been hosted at Under the Couch, the student run venue at Georgia Tech. In part, the festival was born at the university because of the inherent convenience. Both Sotnikova and Leon were students at the time, and both were highly involved at the school. In addition, Under the Couch was in close proximity to a MARTA station, and was blessed with many of the hallmarks of an accessible performance space (zero-step access, main floor bathrooms, ramp to stage.) In short, Under the Couch was the perfect representation of JORTSFEST’s motto: “Always free, always all ages, always accessible.”
These critical elements were on Sotnikova’s mind as she considered a change in venue this year. Under the Couch was a great incubator, but the event had outgrown the space and the time had come for the festival to evolve. As such, this year JORTSFEST will be hosted at the Mammal Gallery. The reason for the switch is manifold. Not only is the venue closer to a MARTA station, it is better suited for a growing DIY fest in almost every respect. According to Sotnikova, its size will allow for more vendor tables in addition to addressing the simple factor of increased attendance.
This year, Leon is no longer helping with JORTSFEST, but Sotnikova hasn’t had to face the challenges of an ever-expanding festival alone. Carter Sutherland, vocalist for local indie punks Sea Ghost and a current Georgia Tech student, has recently become an organizer. Sutherland has a reputation for boldness in contemplating and addressing issues facing the DIY scene, but when asked what he brought to the JORTSFEST team, his answer was simple: “Excitement.”
Sutherland has been involved with the festival in the past as a performer, and has considered further involvement for some time. Now, he is eager to bring people from various scenes together, promoting inclusiveness and accessibility on a larger scale. According to Sutherland, the starting point is this year’s lineup, which he believes will bring further diversity in a way often sought but rarely perfected in Atlanta. “It could be better, it could be more on people’s minds,” he concludes.
When Sotnikova and Leon broke ground with the first JORTSFEST, their funding was extremely limited, in part due to their “always free” ethos. Three years later, the scope and goals of the event have grown, so Sotnikova settled on a Kickstarter campaign to move JORTSFEST forward and better serve the DIY community. If funded, the $3000 campaign will cover production and performer costs, but most importantly, it will provide for a portable ramp which will be stored at Mammal Gallery and made available to any organizer or venue seeking to make their show or event more accessible. Recently, the campaign was named a “Project We Love” by the Kickstarter staff and was featured on the website’s music section. Although it has only been running for a week, the campaign has already raised over $1600.
This brings us to the deeper issue of accessibility in Atlanta, the reason why such a drive must exist. So often the conversation regarding accessibility is buried beneath the other issues confronting the Atlanta music scene, but progress is baseless if any group or individual is left behind. This is an issue close to the heart of Sotnikova, but she has developed her passion into a wide knowledge base which Atlanta needs to tap in order to move forward. When asked if Atlanta venues are complacent about accessibility, she questions that specific wording.
“I think ‘complacent’ isn’t really the right term,” she argues, “for many it’s just not on their radar. I have seen this conversation starting to be brought up nationally by NPR’s Tiny Desk series and Pitchfork, but I think it’s high time that people start talking about accessibility at the grassroots level.”
This lack of dialogue regarding accessibility is also an issue for Sutherland, who explains, “If you’re somewhere that can’t be accessed by a person with a disability, people with disabilities aren’t there, so it is sort of this invisible issue. By talking about it very publicly and doing something about it through JORTSFEST, people will realize that it’s a big issue that needs to be addressed.”
Sotnikova sees this as more than just a conversation of convenience; for her it is fundamental discourse which must blossom into formal panels and roundtables in search of actionable solutions. In turn, these discussions must include the marginalized individuals and groups, a factor which has plagued so many discussions regarding feminism and gentrification in Atlanta.
Although organized panels may still be in the future for Atlanta, Sotnikova has a few specific changes that any Atlanta venues can make to increase accessibility. In her opinion, venues need to list accessibility info in clearly marked places on their website. Sotnikova notes: “Information is power and should be made easily available so bands can make more informed decisions about where they play and attendees don’t have to worry about if their physical presence is welcome in a space.” Until this happens, she suggest artists and patrons use the helpful, but incomplete site Is This Venue Accessible.
Sotnikova is aware that the Kickstarter campaign and the changes to JORTSFEST won’t solve all of Atlanta’s accessibility problems, but she encourages everyone to start thinking more about the issues more holistically. “I think about how they’ll get there (transit, parking, walking) and how much it will cost them (time, money, energy) to attend,” she explains. “It’s really hard to plan something that will make everyone happy; the best you can do is be as accommodating as you can be by offering alternatives and information to help people make their own decisions for themselves.”
When talking to Sotnikova and Sutherland, they often repeat the phrase “start the conversation.” It’s true that too few people are talking about accessibility in Atlanta, but the JORTSFEST team is doing more than serving as a mouthpiece for the underrepresented. Despite their modesty, they are taking concrete action to foster a more inclusive and accessible DIY community which will strengthen the scene for years to come.
JORTSFEST will take place on Saturday, August 20 at Mammal Gallery. Lineup TBA.