“Ladyfest as a ‘now’ kind of action”. An email interview with Melanie Maddison from Leeds, UK.
The ever wonderful, and busy, Melanie chats about finding your allies, accessing your creativity, and whether Ladyfest needs to start getting political again.
Please introduce yourself!
I work at the University of Leeds Law Department in the fields of disability discrimination, equality, and human rights. I’m a former member of the Manifesta feminist and queer collective in Leeds and have edited feminist zines such as ‘Reassess Your Weapons’, ‘Colouring Outside The Lines’, ‘UK Ladyfest Artwork zine 2001-2008’, ‘With Arms Outstretched’, and ‘I’m Not Waiting’. I have run several workshops on self publishing and feminist activism and have collected a large variety of materials from UK ladyfests from 2001 onwards (for the Ladyfest Artwork zine). Materials range from tshirts, to posters, to programmes, to pin-badges.
What was your first Ladyfest experience like?
My first experience was going to see the ‘ladyfest tour’ after Ladyfest Glasgow 2001. The tour hit Hull when I was just finishing my degree in York and I headed over to see The Bangs, The Gossip, Sarah Dougher, and The Lollies. It was a mind blowing experience, being my first encounter with The Gossip, live, and being able to feed off the energy of Beth Dittos magnetising performance and speak to her afterwards. It was such a great atmosphere in that tiny venue.
Subsequent Ladyfest experiences include not having any allies to go to any other UK festivals with (and/or them occurring at high-stress periods of my life). Yet I fawned over their band/music lineups and film showcase plans, and heard of the great experiences people had there and felt bummed out at being out of that loop.
I wrote my Masters thesis (2002) on female DIY communities and the challenges to activist aesthetics they created. A big-ish part of this reflected upon the few ladyfests that had occurred and I got sucked into to the wonderful world of Ladyfest and the potentials it held for feminist activism and DIY organising.
What significance does Ladyfest have for you?
To start with, Ladyfest was this amazing avenue to engage with vibrant, relevant feminism that meant something to me – as a contemporary ‘now’ form of action. Over time it began to mean more – this non-defined avenue for creativity and connectivity was allowing people to access their own creativities, to do something themselves. Hell, a few years ago I would never have dreamed that I would be attending Ladyfest Manchester as contributor, a volunteer workshop organiser. But I think that’s why such diy events (either named as ‘Ladyfest’ or otherwise) are needed – to provide the impetus for people to step up to the plate, stretch and push their boundaries. The fact that such festivals value and rely upon the organisational talents of women, and the creative, political, and performing talents of women – and give each of those women room for their own voice in supportive and encouraging ways – shows why Ladyfests are needed... So long as it doesn’t create negative, replicating, stagnant festivals that don’t stretch themselves in terms of scope and politics.
How does Ladyfest relate to your feminism?
Ladyfest has a lot to do with (second wave) ideas such as consciousness raising, collective action, and empowering women’s voices. Of course, every one is slightly different, so I guess I can only comment on ladyfest as a concept cuz to speak of them all in one mouthful seems unfair, as there have been some that have related to my diy cultural feminism and others that haven’t so much.
Can you tell us about the process of organising a Ladyfest? What does do-it-yourself (DIY) mean to you?
I struggled with the early planning meetings aspect of Ladyfest Leeds – I don’t really work well in large, formal meetings situations, with dominant voices; that sense of having to Get-Things-Done often means original motivations get lost under super-planning and stress. (Motivations that were crucial to my involvement and sense of my feminism). I didn’t necessarily agree with all that Ladyfest Leeds was becoming either - so in truth I wasn’t really involved in the organisational process of making Ladyfest as an ‘event’ as I opted out of being actively present in the meetings or the development process (I was also really ill at the time).
Instead I opted to bring myself, and the things I’d sorted out, to the venue on the day and contribute in that way. In that sense, I very much did my bits myself! Ha! DIY to me means doing what you can with the skills, time, knowledge, passion, energy, and talents you have, sharing those with others as necessary, and supporting others in the use of their skills and talents (whether those be already actualised or freshly learned). DIY to me isn’t about having to be ‘the biggest and the best’ but doing something – It’s the action of doing something that you feel to be important and worthwhile for reasons beyond praise, or monetary gain, or “success”.
Did you search for, or try to create, alternative spaces/venues for your Ladyfest?
I wasn’t involved with the venue acquisition side of Ladyfest Leeds, so worked with what I was given. (In truth I remember being slightly miffed that the space was planned out to a T almost, with restrictions on what we could and couldn’t do with the space, and restrictions on how much space was allocated by the main organisers to certain aspects of the festival, such as the art side that I was working on… I know that some people who were interested in exhibiting artwork took matters in to their own hands and organised off-shoot exhibition areas away from the main Ladyfest buildings due to these restrictions and enforcements on space and ideals. One example of this is the use of The Holy Trinity Church for film/performance/art/video art etc; all exhibited in the ways that suited and were relevant and appropriate to the mediums rather than squeezing it into more corporate sterile spaces.)
The Ladysquat that opened as an alternative space to that of the main festival was a really important move for those who created it, especially given the over-18 gig space and the council-funded ultra-swish mainstream, corporate venue for the workshop /performance /discussion element of Ladyfest Leeds.
I’m pleased the Ladysquat existed as my main problem with the spaces utilised by ladyfest Leeds is that there felt to be so little laid back space for conversation and communication between those who had attended… so little space for sharing ideas and knowledges and excitements; the formal venues seemed to lack an environment that was conducive to this side of Ladyfest, the side that has the potential to forge links and build community and provide opportunities to meet other feminists and feel ‘part of something’.
In your opinion, how can Ladyfest evolve?
By getting more political again. In the beginning the politics in the action of this new, unique Ladyfest thing were so integral – it was needed, and its politics were very much on its sleeve. In my opinion, this has waned over the years as Ladyfest has grown to be more commonplace; become almost corporate or mainstreamed or consumed, or something.
I’ve been to Ladyfests recently that felt more like a festival of women (which don’t get me wrong – Seeing women on stage and behind the sound desk, as bouncers and workshop co-ordinators, at merch stalls, etc. etc is political in itself) – but in terms of it being the opportunity to be and do more there’s been a distinct lack in politics.
It comes down to a question which I don’t have the answer for – something to do with thinking about whether there’s still a need for Ladyfests to exist in the way they do. Has it already achieved a lot of its aims of getting more women being respected cultural producers – up there on stage, inspiring waves after waves of others? Maybe to evolve it needs to start asking questions again – work as an avenue for pursuing other political areas that women need to be heard within and active within. Perhaps ladyfests can use their success by incorporating other aspects to their programmes, above and beyond them being seen as largely music events. That said (and thus why I don’t have the answers) Ladyfests still have the amazing potential to change women’s lives simply by occurring all over the world in the way that they do. For example, I heard of a band playing their 2nd ever gig at ladyfest Manchester this year and it cementing their desire to be and do more – being a part of the festival was almost life changing for them. So it clearly still has the potential to alter women’s view of themselves and affect their world views and belief in what they’re doing or can do. How much other stuff out there in society has that affect? It’s just that to get hundreds of women together in one place and not comment on this anymore – to not drum-in the fact that this is a political act, almost because it’s an accepted by-product of such events – that’s a glaring error if you ask me. Imagine if other potentials were opened up by shifting the politics so that more was made available and do-able and achievable.
I believe that one of the best things that ladyfests can do to evolve is provide open, safe seating spaces where women can just sit and talk to others. Perhaps women they know, or perhaps even more important, ones they don’t. Ladyfests have to potential to bring out peoples’ excitements and the planning and plotting part of their brain!! One of the saddest things about Ladyfest Leeds was that there were no real spaces for communicating with others, for sharing giddy ideas and conversation – to network, to collect, to collaborate in ideas and energies and knowledges. And for me that’s one of the most powerful things any ladyfest can elicit – those conversations and communications… Imagine the potential if every one of those hairbrained excited ideas we had at ladyfests came into fruition. So yeah, comfy chairs and chatter could evolve post-Ladyfest action in so many ways!
What practical advice can you give to someone wanting to organise a feminist event?
Find allies! Be prepared to lose sleep in order to create the event passionately.