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“Ladyfest: I need to feel friction in the activism I do”. An email interview with Debi from Bristol, UK

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United Kingdom

Debi, from the self-identified 'post-ladyfest' band Drunk Granny, discusses activist home-comings, the need for feminist space, and the problem of nostalgic tendencies in Ladyfest organizing.

Please introduce yourself!
hi, i'm debi. I'm inbetween many things – academia, voluntary sector/ community work/ avant-garde music/ punk rock, writing, spirit worlds, art, activism, gender, sexuality, noise, silence......

Which Ladyfests have you attended?
Ladyfest Cardiff (2004, 2006). The first Ladyfest in cardiff was a moment of connecting to something that I needed so bad – a shared experience of feminists creating a feminist space. It was the first time I played with a band, with an electric guitar onstage, which was pretty empowering. My musical 'career' would be pretty sparse without ladyfest....i remember dancing like a mad woman with my friends feeling like the moment had arrived, finally! LC1 wasn't even like the other ladyfests in that it didn't have all the workshops and the savvy subcultural wit that I imagine those first, precious meetings of ladyfest folk had – but its sprit of empowerment and connection was something I felt radically. LC2 was fun, jaggedy in places, hot, sweaty, dangerous, idiosyncratic.

Dublin 2004. I was feeling the network's power at this point, and it was really fun to hang out with folk! This fest was about friendship and connection more than anything.

Brighton 2005. Woah! Just the music was so good. Spent the whole time crying on the streets and beach of Brighton. Nicotine withdrawal. Important race workshop. Gender anxiety.

Berlin 2006. Vale Poher in the rain in the park, falling in love with American girls, gender, gender, lots of people partying late. Football. Fun times.

Leeds April 2007. Coming to a head, feeling like a departure, interesting split of spaces between main festival and autonomous Ladysquat space. Bristol 2007. It was like we were no longer the young ones anymore, as all these younger feminists were organising this one. People coming together to have conversations about feminism. Small, homely.

London 2008. Too much, overwhelming! My idealism has gone somewhere. Amsterdam 2008. Worrying post-feminist tendencies of ladyfest culture – when there is no past and bikini kill cover band is a cultural low point – a culture becomes uncritically nostalgic it is sick. Isn't riot grrrl about invention? Or it should be.

What significance does Ladyfest have for you? Why did you decide to become involved as an organiser?

When I first got involved in Ladyfest feminist activism it felt like a homecoming. I became involved because I wanted to be part of the community and draw others into it.

Ladyfests stopped being so significant to me after Ladyfest Berlin; they stopped feeling disruptive, although Leeds in 2007 was great too. I need to feel friction in the activism I do. I don't want to be treading in safe, well-trodden spaces – particularly with cultural activism. I want it to widen the field, re-order relations, turn things upside down, turn me upside down. I want to make an intervention. Fuck this going through the motions stuff – workshop here, band there, film there...i need surprise! However, as a performer the space of ladyfest is massively significant to me. Where would I be musically without such initiatives?( and many other female artists who, instead of nervously performing to themselves in front of a wall in their room can have the possibility to connect with a captive and loving public).

Can you describe your festival? What do you feel proud about?

I feel proud about working with a diverse group of people, people who put their imaginations into the fest. I was proud especially of the Ladyhouse, where some of the coolest experiences I have ever had passed between those walls (Dancing to Kate Bush, listening to Helen McCookerybook talking about her life, Anushiye and Bela, the drum workshop). It was so liberating to have a space, I remember when Yin said we can have the house and I fucking screamed! It was so awesome. It felt autonomous, we could do whatever we liked there....i remember the heat that weekend...other aspects of the fest I didn't so much enjoy. Chapter is an alienating space for gigs – it just like a big black hole, as was Callaghans (erghhh, although the barbq was great). So, a lot has to do with the kind of spaces it was in for me. Non-commercial spaces that you can claim, houses you can make your temporary home and fill with art, energy, poltitics, connection, documentation....this is a truly exciting formula.

Do you think there is a stereotype of Ladyfest?

There has definitely become a stereotyped formula in the UK at least. Workshops in the day, bands in the a temporal sense you know what to expect rhythmically which is a problem for me who at the moment needs something else. I think once you've been exposed to that rhythm then it becomes normative, but for people being first exposed to it, its fucking explosive, I know that, because when people are questioning / searching-yearning for feminist community, encountering it in a lived manifestation is the life force pulsing itself. Of course it’s also good to have a template of how something will run as well, because it gives a framework – a rough guide for the inexperienced/ under confident. We also don't want to reinvent the wheel, and having a workshop – a space to discuss things – is so important; it’s not like the need to talk about things in a supportive community will ever go away. Also if Ladyfests weren't there now – or any form of feminist activism – i'd be pretty sad, well, devastated! I guess the problem with Ladyfests, and indeed feminism in general, is the type of workshops there – the same questions being asked, the same issues not being dealt with (ie, race, class...). It’s not the formula necessarily (who can argue with creating a space for films, music, discussion, art and celebration of female/ feminist/ queer powrrr?), but the content within it - the same feminism, the same feminist mistakes.

Was there any conscious efforts to reach out to a diverse population to become involved in organizing and participating in Ladyfest?

I think we wanted the fest to be more diverse in terms of ethnicity but we didn't do any particular outreach to any groups of women who wouldn't usually (probably) encounter ladyfest. It was definitely on my mind, the need to not just have white girls playing guitar at the fest as representative of feminism or women's cultural production. A lot more could have been done, in terms of hosting events in the run up to the fest that directly outreached to women of colour; more bridges could have been built in the Cardiff community. There was an attempt to engage with older women too, it wasn't all just young 'uns. In terms of advice, I always find going to meet people and attending their events in the best way to build community outside of your comfort zone. You can't just expect people to come to your event if you ask them to, there has to be some kind of exchange, ie, not outreaching to be included in your space but really making every attempt to break down the barriers which create conditions for outreach in the first place.

What role does the genderqueer, trans-inclusive policy and the concept of ‘self-identified’ women play for you in Ladyfest?

The queer environment of Ladyfest offers an extended cultural space of exploration for those passing through it. It is a commitment to celebrating the diversity of women's experience: by refusing to define what a woman is opens it up – therein presenting an exit from patriarchal gender roles of correct male and female behaviour which screw us all up. Yey for the trans!

Do you see Ladyfests as a continuation of women’s historical self-organized cultural work and festivals? Is Ladyfest a movement?

I see Ladyfest and both break and continuity. Would a hardline second wave feminist call herself a Lady? I’m thinking of the 68, 78, 88 retrospective [in London, a discussion event with the original contributions to a Women’s Liberation Movement anthology] when the participant said, “you say lady, I say woman, you say empowerment, I say liberation” – and I do persistently cringe at the name given to the movement. There is a tendency of Ladyfests to present itself as new through this act of renaming and to lose its roots in the past...but yes, it is part of the tradition of women's autonomous cultural and political activism. There are many instances of women's d.i.y cultural activism in the 70s and 80s that we are not so familiar with because of the ruptures in our reception of feminist historical memory.

Ladyfest is definitely a movement – and quite a successful one given how the concept has travelled across so many geographical boundaries. A movement is something that scoops people up and they participate without necessarily realising it because it seems necessary (and with ladyfests, fun!). The thing that I do love about ladyfests is that sense of possibility; it is a very positive feminist space, not reacting to anything (aside from the pressing historical conditions in which we are faced). It is an active, thus hopeful, connective feminist space. For all my grumblings and burnt out cynicism about ladyfest, it has done pretty good. I’m hella proud to have been part of it.

debi, Ladyfest Cardiff organiser
Affiliated organisation: 
Drunk Granny ; Soaz (LF Cardiff photography)
Red Chidgey & Elke Zobl
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