Seb Choe is a community organizer and visiting teaching artist at the Donkey Mill Art Center this summer. At twenty-seven years young, they are an inspiring creative force, involved in an encyclopedic list of projects spanning multiple mediums and practices, from electronic music, to architecture and design, to activism, and performance art. I sat down with them to learn more about their story and the important work they are doing in Hawaiʻi and beyond.
As a teen, it can often feel like your voice goes unheard. Choe’s two week intensive Amplifying Waves (July 11th to 22nd, 2022 at the Donkey Mill Art Center) was a chance for local LGBTQ youth and allies to make some noise and step into their power. The students, ages fifteen to seventeen, worked with Choe to create an electronic music and sound project using the software Ableton Live. It was an exciting milestone, as this is the first digital media course to be offered at DMAC. Choe, a gender-fluid Korean-American, has taught similar music-focused intensives for queer and trans youth in New York, South Carolina, and Seattle.
Over the course of the two week class, students talked about personal experiences like gender identity, class, race, orientation, and citizenship, as well as community issues in West Hawaiʻi like housing justice, food justice, native Hawaiian sovereignty and decolonization. “My aim was for students to walk away with the beginnings of a sound project they are excited to keep working on,” says Choe.
Seb Choe’s given name is Sebastian, as in Sebastian Bach. Choe’s mom is a classical pianist. “Music was kind of linguistically thrust on me from an early age,” says Choe, laughing. They grew up with a soundtrack of classical (mom’s favorite), Motown (dad’s favorite), with a side of Seattle’s grunge scene, which inspired them to pick up electric guitar as a child.
Choe was lucky to grow up nearby an all ages youth venue, the Old Redmond Firehouse in Redmond, Washington. “This is where I first stepped into youth power,” says Choe. The decommissioned firehouse was converted to an all-ages venue in the 1990s and hosted acts like Nirvana, Modest Mouse, and Elliot Smith, but was much more than a place to see a show.
“It was a really nurturing place,” says Choe, “they had a performance space, a recording studio, classes…it was a hearth for creative experimentation.” Choe discovered it as a sixth grader when they signed up to take a 35 millimeter film photography class. The Firehouse also hosted community events like a queer prom for LGBTQ youth who wanted an alternative to their school dances. “When I went off to college and started talking to other students from around the country, I realized how lucky I was to have this safe, inclusive space,” says Choe. “We need more of these.”
Speaking of spaces, Choe is an architect by training. They studied Architecture at Columbia University, where they graduated with a B.A. in 2017. They currently serve as co-director of MIXdesign, an architecture and design firm that focuses on inclusive design and accessibility for marginalized populations.
While at Columbia, Choe had a serendipitous meeting with Joel Sanders, a pioneer in the field of connecting sexuality and gender identity with architecture. It was right around this time that Choe was discovering their own gender identity and Sanders’ message resonated with them deeply. In 2017, they began working with Sanders on a project called Stalled!.
“Stalled! is blasting open preconceived notions of what a restroom can be, to think about how they can more equitably serve everyone,” says Choe. Everyone means people of all genders, all abilities, different relationships of care, religious practices, language use, and race. In 2018, Stalled! published their inclusive restroom design prototypes online, making them free and open-source to the public.
Stalled! restroom designs include maximizing visual and acoustic privacy between stalls, sinks of different heights, private caregiving rooms, and a more open design with multiple entry and exit points. Making the restroom porous to the larger social space, rather than hidden down a dark hallway, helps to increase visibility and decrease chances of harassment and assault that can happen in restrooms.
“Accessibility for many designers is often seen as a constraint,” says Choe, “but in my opinion, inclusive design and accessibility can be an exciting opportunity to challenge the status quo.” Essentially, this new kind of design is about a shift to participatory, ground-up processes where people’s diverse needs drive the conversation.
This kind of grassroots, non-hierarchical approach to design is the same way Choe approaches teaching and working with youth. Classrooms should be fun and facilitate a reciprocal relationship between students and teachers. “I love learning from my students,” says Choe, who likes to think of themself as a perpetual teen. “I try to keep that sense of curiosity and experimentation.”
As a teacher and mentor, Choe’s advice for the young and young at heart is to be proactive. Instead of asking “What can I do to help?” Try saying: “Here are the ways that I can help, I’d like to start doing this as of ______ date, can I have permission?” Don’t be afraid to create something new. A mentor once told them: “Most likely, the position that you’re best suited for doesn’t exist; you’ll have to go out and create it.”
And create it, they will. Looking forward, Choe envisions creating an inclusive drop-in center for teens, inspired by the safe haven they enjoyed growing up at the Old Redmond Firehouse. The working name for this project is Still Life, with prospective locations in Upstate New York…and maybe even Holualoa Hawaiʻi! “I’d love to help create a space for teens at the Donkey Mill Art Center,” says Choe, who plans to return to the island this winter.
Keep up with Seb Choe’s lovely creative chaos at their website and their Instagram. And give their electronic music project Broken Spear a listen on Spotify or Soundcloud.