Elena Rosa is a Los Angeles-based artist who wanted to create a lesbian storyworld where people of all genders, sexualities, and identities could learn about the history of lesbian bars. She drew on photos, writings and interviews with former bar patrons and bar owners to take away L-BAR to life. Rosa sat down Jessica Ab to talk about her interactive online bar and salon, and her advice for anyone trying to create a sacred experience.
Jessica Abo: You’ve been working as an actor and artist for years and say you really have a passion for creating different worlds. What about creating environments that make you light up?
I like building environments. I like to think about our architecture and how it shapes our identity. I have a particular fascination with Byzantine churches, the way the masses can walk into this dome, this heaven on earth and everyone has one focal point. Straight ahead is the focus. It is one truth, one belief. And if you look to your left or right or above you, there are pictures of saints that reflect that truth and affirm that truth. I love thinking about how that informs us in those spaces.
Unlike the lesbian bar, which our saloons and taverns used to be, they are usually quite dark. And they might be in an alley or down a flight of stairs, but they’re dark. In the beginning there were no windows, and where there were windows they were covered with curtains so you couldn’t see what was going on inside. I think that encourages experimentation and facing the unknown. It’s full of mystery and I believe that space is where agency can be explored.
Why did you want to create a space dedicated to the history of lesbian bars?
I wanted to celebrate and honor the history of the lesbian bar. I think these bars, especially pre-Stonewall, were bars where women could frame real feminism and ideas of desire and ways of being in the world. So I wanted to honor that history and also honor the pioneers, all the people who crossed the street to go into the bar when it wasn’t okay to do that.
I think about my own lesbian bar history, and I landed in San Francisco and I just came out and went to this bar on Sunday and it was Ladies’ Day on Sunday. I don’t remember it being about drinking alcohol. It wasn’t about that, the bar for me. But, on a subconscious level, I think there was another aspect and I couldn’t wait to get to the bar. There was another aspect of walking into a place, walking into a place, and the people you see reflect who you are. I think that unequivocal understanding that someone else is like you. It really is a lifeline. I was brought up very religious and for me this was everything. This was everything for me. But I don’t know if I realized it then, but I needed it. I needed that mirror for myself at the time, from people, from those women in that bar.
What about the lesbian bars today?
Well, there aren’t many lesbian bars left. According to the Lesbian Bar Project, which raises money to fund the remaining lesbian bars in the US, there are fewer than 25 lesbian bars. I believe that to understand why they disappeared, we need to understand why they existed. The lesbian bars are very different these days. They are much more inclusive with language. I think when I went to bars there were a lot of different identities and ways of being there, but it just wasn’t talked about. Or, if it was, it was thereby not brought to the forefront. I think bars came more to the fore through desire, at least when I got to it. Now there is language and inclusivity is in the foreground, and I think that’s really great. I love that. Sometimes I wonder if we still need the term lesbian bar when we need another lesbian bar.
It’s interesting to think about. I also think, I’ve noticed that the intergenerational aspect of bars when I got there isn’t there anymore. I remember going to early bars and talking to the older dykes about how to shoot pool and how to be and whatever, and there was a lot of communication between generations, and that’s not the case anymore. That has to do with the online world. A lot of my older friends have great, great relationships online and they don’t have to go to the bar. So it’s not a big deal, it’s just different. The bars are very different these days.
What will someone experience when they enter L-BAR?
Within L-BAR you get to see a world, I call it a lesbian story world. That world has tons of cities that you can click on, and when you do, you’ll be presented with bars, lesbian bars. These bars were all real. They are from 1925 to 2005. I made these bars, they are digital art interpretations, I made them from oral histories of former bar owners and bar patrons. So you can also hear those interviews in space. You can meet or make new friends, sit at a barstool and listen to the likes of Joan Nestle, Jewelle Gomez, Lillian Faderman to name a few. You can actually hear them in the bars.
What do you think this project stands for now?
I think this project represents a living archive. I think it offers a way to look at history differently by being in the middle of it, by occupying that history, by hearing the stories where that history played out and getting into it and sharing your own story in it. I think it’s a different way to document and a different way to experience yourself through history.
I think it also shows how important and sacred lesbian bars were to many people, and sacred to our history in terms of identity building and rejection and ways of being in the world.
What’s next for you and L-Bar?
I’m moving away from this platform I’m using which is called ohyay which is great. They close on December 31, so L-Bar is also closing. I am currently applying for grants and looking for funding to move the project to another location. I’m also making a documentary about the history of the lesbian bar.
What advice do you have for someone trying to create a sacred experience, whether through the metaverse or through a physical environment?
I think it’s important, in whatever you do, whatever you create, to make it personal, make it full of your heart, because I think people are going to disagree with you and they don’t like it will find what you have to say. and that promotes conversation. I believe in the conversation. I believe in difference, and I believe that is what sustainable business is. I don’t think everyone likes it. I think it’s actually a conversation.