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“Ladyfest: We need to rip it up and start again”. An email interview with Terese from London, UK

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United Kingdom
51° 30' 0.5472" N, 0° 7' 34.4496" W

An interview with Ladyfest organizer Terese on the limitations of the Ladyfest format.

Please introduce yourself!

I am 29, live in London, and have just started a part-time research degree looking at race issues in the women’s movement in London in the 70s and 80s. I also work doing admin for a charity. At the moment I am involved with a couple of feminist history projects with FAF (Feminist Activist Forum); we are putting together an exhibition about Outwrite, a great feminist anti-imperialist newspaper which was published in the 80s. We’re also putting together a chronology of grassroots feminist activism from the 1980s onwards on the FAF website. I also volunteer for the Institute of Race Relations (they’re way cooler than their name suggests!) on their European Race Audit project, monitoring Swedish media coverage of racism and immigration issues.

What was your first Ladyfest experience like?

I kinda see Brighton 2005 as my first ‘proper’ Ladyfest experience. I was involved in organising some of this. The festival itself felt really intense, and amazing. Three days of being surrounded by people with similar interests and politics as me. I met so many new people, had so many amazing conversations, while at the same time being super-busy and hyper running around getting lost between the different venues, washing up 100s of plates, trying to make equipment work, trying (and failing) to make things run on time, looking after volunteers and workshop facilitators etc etc. It was definitely my favourite Ladyfest experience.

Why are Ladyfests needed? What significance does Ladyfest have for you?

I’m not sure Ladyfests are needed. I’m feeling quite ambivalent, to say the least, about them at this stage. During the Brighton one I really felt that it was something progressive, and that it was needed – providing a space where women and queers could discuss what was important to us, to be inspired to become more active in resisting all the everyday bullshit and oppression, all that stuff. But over the years I’ve become much more critical of whether we’re actually doing anything radical. Ladyfests inevitably seem to end up narrow and cliquey, while espousing to do the opposite. They perpetuate this white middle class cultural activism which, although a lot of white middle class girls and women get a lot out of it, make women of colour and working class women often feel excluded or marginalised, which is just rubbish and really not good enough.

Can you tell us about the process of organising a Ladyfest?

For London [2008], we had general meetings about once a month at the London Action Resource Centre, a social centre free for use by activist/diy groups. We tried to publicise these (mostly online) to encourage new people to come and get involved. They varied quite a lot in size, sometimes we had up to 20 people there and sometimes there was only 5-6 of us. I found these meetings quite difficult and hard work, especially as we got nearer the festival. They were a reminder about how much work was left to do, what wasn’t working, and obviously people had different opinions about many things so there was a lot of tedious debating (not that debate and difference of opinion is bad, but I remember a lot of it as being quite draining in the way that it was done). I think as a group we were not that effective at having structure at our meetings. We’d always have a chair/facilitator and a minute-taker but it ended up being the same people because the same people would volunteer; I think that could have been handled better. It was also difficult to make new people feel welcome at these meetings, and I think that could have been thought through and done better as well. For a couple of meetings we did try something different – we would break up into smaller groups to focus on different things that needed to be done. That worked better in terms of giving new people a chance to get involved straight away, rather than sitting there mostly listening throughout their first meeting (then possibly not coming back again because it was really boring).

Working groups met and organised outside of the main meetings. The problem with these was that there was maybe about 10 core people who were spread very thinly across all the groups, so we all got pretty exhausted. Towards the end the working groups pretty much got abandoned and people worked together or independently on specific tasks that needed to get done.

We did quite a few benefit gigs to raise money, and we were successful in getting one grant, from the Feminist Review Trust (who gave us £1,000). With it being London, our budget was pretty big, venues were expensive and lots of costs built up. We also made a decision to pay bands, as we needed some biggish headliners to fill the 500 capacity venue. Workshop facilitators and film makers were paid expenses and given a free day pass. The ethics on paying bands and musicians but not others is something which I’m not sure is quite right. I don’t think I would have chosen to do this, but obviously we had to come to a collective decision.

Deciding on ticket prices was also a long drawn out affair. We ended up with a lot of different types of tickets – e.g. weekend pass (£35-40 depending on how near to the festival you bought it), day passes with music (£17 on fri & sat, £12 on sunday), day passes without music (£8), individual film screenings (£5) etc. We ended up not doing concession prices because we thought it would get too complicated, but we were criticised on that point, and in hindsight I wish we had. We did advertise widely the need for volunteers to do 4-hour shifts on the day, so if people could not afford a ticket, they could do a shift and then get a free day pass (or do a shift each day and get a weekend pass).

I wish we had handled the money side better, as I think we could have made tickets cheaper. We got into a really weird situation of thinking we were only just about going to break even, but because a high profile band pulling out at the last minute (who we had expected to pay quite a lot of money) and other factors as yet unknown (seriously, we don’t know how it happened) we ended making £5,000 after all costs had been paid up. But others in the group disagreed about ticket prices, because they felt it was important to be able to give away money at the end of it. And I’m glad we were able to too, but I think the price did stop some people from coming.

For the music we used the Underworld, a famous music venue in Camden. The main problem with this is that it is not wheelchair accessible. We had a notice up on the website and in the programme asking people to contact us with accessibility requirements beforehand; the venue said we could lift wheelchairs down the stairs. I’m not saying that’s good enough, and if I ever organise an event again I will definitely ensure they are fully accessible. Disability access is another issue which Ladyfests have often failed to address.

For me a DIY event is the opposite of commercialised events where everything is for profit, like music festivals sponsored by beer companies. We organised everything as volunteers. The money we raised went to women’s organisations and projects. We just learnt how to do things as we went along, for better or for worse.

How did your host city affect what kind of Ladyfest event you organised?

We talked about how we wanted to focus on issues such as immigration and London being a ‘cultural melting pot’. But we didn’t spend near enough time and energy making this in to a reality! You can’t just say you’re going to be or represent a particular thing and then expect it to happen; you have to work hard to make things happen. As seems to happen with a lot of Ladyfests, the things that you expect to see and happen at Ladyfest are the easiest to organise because those people come to you, but the stuff that you need to do a lot of outreach for if you want it to happen fall by the wayside.

Did the boundaries between organizers, participants, and audience members become blurred or challenged during your festival? Is this important for events like Ladyfest?

This is one of the things I really value about Ladyfests, well I guess it is the whole ethic behind diy events – the blurring of those lines. I think the workshops are really important in making people a part of the festival on a productive level, even if they have not been involved in organising it. My experience of being in workshops is that once you start talking and having discussions with people, this continues throughout the weekend. You continue to get to know people, become part of the event – not just an outside observer. And with the more crafty workshops there’s obviously the whole physical creation of stuff. I loved popping into the ‘crafternoon’ at the Islington Arts Factory and seeing lots of people sitting around on the floor chatting and customising clothes. And seeing the banner that people who participated in one of the feminist history workshops, where there was lots of stencilling and guerrilla art making going on.

I think it’s hard for me, as an organiser, to judge to what extent the blurring happened at our Ladyfest. Maybe there were lots of people there who did not feel part of creating the atmosphere during the day, maybe they did feel like outsiders or as audience members only. I hope not.

I think we had a lot of people on the Friday night though who only came to see Kimya Dawson and who kind of treated it like it was just your regular gig. Although even with Kimya I think that was pretty special as she had lots of people come and sit up on the stage with her, so it was a very interactive performance in that sense, which I think fits with the whole diy element perfectly.

In your opinion, how can Ladyfest evolve?

I’m not sure it can at this point. I think we need to rip it up and start again with something else (but taking what we’ve learnt from Ladyfest with us!). But then I do think its exciting hearing about Ladyfests happening in countries outside of US and western Europe. I have not managed to go to any of them. I would be interested to see if the events and ideas are different in other countries, and how the concept of Ladyfest has evolved there.

What practical advice can you give to someone wanting to organise a feminist event / festival?

Talk about your values throughout the organising process. We had this mission statement which we came up with at the beginning of the organising, which then got kinda lost along the way. So I don’t think the final ‘product’ necessarily reflected all the values in the mission statement. I think its really important to do this, and to not blame things like stress and lack of time for not doing what we said we were gonna do. It’s also important to build up relationships within the group so that you can constructively challenge each other. The organising process is as important as the final event.

Terese, Ladyfest London 08 organizer
Affiliated organisation: 
Ladyfest London, / Ladyfest Brighton, / Feminist Activist Forum,
Red Chidgey & Elke Zobl
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