Through one lens I see it as someone who was part of the team involved in organising this feminist arts festival (with most of the hard work being undertaken by unflagging, (very) creative producer, Leo Burtin.)
Through the other I see it as a member of the audience who did not manage to attend all the workshops, film screenings, talks and the Queer Boots dance night- but who did attend many of these and all of the live performances, which are my focus in this review.
Looking through both lenses at the same time, it seems to me that this festival didn’t do too badly in terms of achieving the aims we set out. Yet as might have been predicted the five days journey through this event was far more surprising, more challenging (politically and personally) than I had imagined during the planning process.
The festival theme ‘Ages, Stages and Phases’, indicated a desire to create a dialogue between diverse communities and ideas within feminism, in the recognition that the challenges around gender equality are multiple and differing at different ages, stages and phases of life ( see full brochure here)
This theme was beautifully encapsulated by the opening night screening of The Day I Became a Woman by award winning film maker Marzieh Meskini. This short film tells a trio of stories reflecting on different stages of women’s lives in Iran. Nine years old Hava has one last hour to enjoy her childhood freedoms before she must embrace official womanhood, start wearing the veil and stop playing with her male best friend; Ahoo a young married women refuses to stop pedalling away into the distance on her bicycle, despite the strident protests of her male relatives, while Hoora an elderly widow is on a shopping spree for ‘all the things she never had’ piling up household goods on a beach before setting off to sea with all these objects on a ramshackle raft. As this indicates, stylistically this film mingles realism and surrealism, the everyday domestic and the richly symbolic, and while often funny and light of touch there are undercurrents of serious and disturbing ideas and meanings; political and philosophical.
As was immediately apparent in the triple bill of live performances that took place the following night, this film set the tone for the next few days. The first piece was I Play Because… a specially commissioned piece of music by Lancaster based, Norwegian composer and cellist Maja Bugge. Bugge’s score was interspersed with spoken text created in collaboration with nine of her cello students who also performed the piece alongside her. This was a mixed group in numerous respects, including age, with the youngest being around nine or ten years old and the oldest in their sixties. The depth of sound and the physical impact of the reverberations created by nine cellos being played together live, is in itself a rare and pleasurable experience but the way this piece portrayed the ‘voices’ of each player (musical and actual), now giving them each their own moment and space, now weaving them together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes as dissonance, was at once complex and intricate and joyful and touching.
A similar affect was produced by the interplay of voices in Becci Sharrocks’ work in progress play ‘Letters to Myself’, created from letters written by the public and presented by Luca Rutherford and Lauren Horwood. For much of this text, the writers offer advice to their younger selves, speaking with a mix of humour and encouragement, with flashes of nostalgia and regret.
While Stella Duffy’s piece ‘A Conversation About Death’, was often humorous and delivered with a high, fizzing energy, as might be expected from its title, this was a sobering piece, especially for those of us who, as she described it, may be deemed as middle aged (or older) but are highly unlikely to have as many years left to us as we have already lived. This is of immediate, even urgent, relevance to Duffy, who in her early fifties has experienced a recurrence of the breast cancer for which she was treated in her thirties and in this piece she explored her feelings, fears and desires, as she tries to come to terms with the possibility of her own death coming sooner, rather than later.
Duffy strongly encouraged interventions from the audience and kept insisting this was not ‘a performance’ with this signifying ( I think) her wish to be as open and truthful as possible, not just with the audience but with herself. She clearly wanted to enable communication and connection with others in the face of the one thing as human creatures we all undeniably and fundamentally have in common- but paradoxically -in which we are at our most separate and alone, stripped of all props and masks and without any sort of script. Yet Duffy also kept admitting that, of course, she was ‘performing’ and taking pleasure in her well honed skills in doing so. This contradiction perhaps reflects the literally unthinkable nature of our own mortality, the impossibility of grasping it as a material reality, especially when, like Duffy on this evening, we are burning with life. And in a sense this was the underlying ‘theme’ of this genuine and genuinely courageous piece of work.
Form this philosophical facing up to death, the following night Reading Internet hosted by Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa turned the focus back to one of the major/minor distractions of everyday life in the digital age. Along with a range of other young (thirtyish and under) artists including Emma Frankland, Toni- Dee Paul, Josh Coates, Emma Geraghty, Aliki Chapple, James Varney, Zoe Murtagh, Alexandrina Hemsley, Diana Damian, Paterson and Costa presented a series of short ‘open mic’ pieces, varying enormously in styles and themes but all drawn from, or provoked by material on the internet. These included a carefully crafted work in which the author imagined her 16 year old sister trying to find out about feminism from on line sources, a poem woven from advice about caring for a new baby, a personal/poetic/political response to Beyoncé’s video Formation, a quiz about how to (or rather how not to) bring up a happy, well balanced child, a reading of a blog post detailing some of the more demanding social challenges of living with a colostomy bag, a reading of a series of tweets from a transgender woman offering a real time review of the film The Danish Girl, a quirky complex piece about self-harm and a wonderfully and authentically punk performance about the relationship constructed by our culture between women and food. The overall effect in fact was very much like scrolling through Facebook (or tweets) with the personal, the political, the commercial, the deeply felt, the disturbing, the entertaining and the profoundly eccentric, all following on from each other in an endlessly refreshing, utterly random stream.
Now in her 60’s but always up to date, Tammy Whynot included a clip from the internet (of an elderly woman dancing) in her performance of What Tammy Needs to Know About Getting Older and Having Sex and at the end she informed us she has just set up her own YouTube Channel. Tammy is a country and western singer who became a lesbian performance artist after getting into the wrong/right car in a Post Office parking lot. In this piece, Tammy presented some of her on-going research into the topic of aging and sex, mostly undertaken with people living in retirement homes in Europe and the UK. This took the shape of filmed material, anecdotes and country style songs, with the audience occasionally helping about with the chorus and often answering Tammy’s searching questions about their own thoughts and feelings about sex, as part of her ‘data gathering’.
Tammy is the alter ego of celebrated queer performance artist and activist, Lois Weaver. Tammy and Lois are both driven by an indefatigable curiosity about how the world currently works and how it might work otherwise, with a special interests in topics and voices that are frequently dismissed, marginalised or ignored. As some audience members experienced, Tammy is perhaps more direct and even at times a little bit (outrageously, comically) ruthless, than Lois in her approach to ‘research’. Both however are equally witty, warm and non-judgemental and while there were some audience blushes in response to Tammy’s probing, and some poignant and reflective moments in the show, overall this instructive, illuminating and thought provoking performance was hilarious, celebratory and life affirming.
The final event of the festival was Project O’s performance lecture Benz Punany, which also involved audience participation but to a very different effect. This piece reflects back on Alexandrina Hemsley’s and Jamila Johnson-Small work together as dancers and choreographers, which started with O in 2011. Their website describes O as ‘A dance about being black, mixed and female that addresses awkward and uncomfortable every day experiences [..] that reconsiders the dilemmas, assumptions and sexualisation that bodies can be subject to’.
Benz Punany starts with the two of them in boiler suits and long brightly coloured wigs dancing along to Janet Jackson videos. While we see these full screen, they perform watching on a lap top, sideways on to the audience and while clearly they are both trained and accomplished dancers, the effect is that they are doing so for the first time. As such, they struggle keep up with Jackson’s slick, perfectly executed routines, always just a little behind, approximating rather than delivering the moves; a deliberate ‘poor copy’ of this glossy and at times highly sexualised image of black femininity.
As the piece progresses they change costumes and wigs on and off stage, revealing ever more of their bodies and playing out various stereotypes. As part of this they perform section of choreography that reference ‘twerking’, against a background of videos showing some, sometimes extreme examples of this dance move, and in which, only the dancers bottoms are featured, underlining the way it objectifies and fetichises . All of this is executed by Hemsley and Johnson-Small in a distant and distancing manner, counterpointed by the exuberance and energy of the music.
During these sections, Hemsley and Johnson-Small remain silent and audience members are asked (by means of written notes) to blow up some inflatable palm trees, or come up on stage and read pieces of text that offer some background and context to the various segments we are watching, albeit in a fragmented and elliptical fashion. Slides of text are also shown detailing their various ‘fails’, which include incidences of everyday racism they have experienced professionally. Finally, they come into the audience to perch on spectators knees, breaking their silence to count up the personal, physic and physical cost of being caught between the intersecting forces of racism and sexism.
I was forcefully reminded of one of my favourite passages from Eve Sedgwick’s book Touching Feeling when she discusses the difference between ‘knowing something’ in the abstract and realising it in an embodied fashion. Many of us who engage with feminism have our own grinding-down experiences of everyday sexism. Those of us who are white may think we ‘know’ something intellectually, in the abstract, about consequences of being ‘raced’ as well as gendered in our culture. But in a very visceral fashion Benz Punany allowed its audience a glimpse of something of what it might be to realise this; and it was a bit like watching a plaster being ripped from an open wound.
This meant witnessing this piece as a white member of an all white audience, did feel at times awkward and uncomfortable, and while the applause was long and loud, as everybody filed out the mood was serious and subdued.
I have to admit that from perspective of someone directly involved in the festival I had a moment when I wondered whether this was the note we wanted it to finish on. However, there have been and still are, many times in feminism when it’s tempting to simply try to apply another dressing to smooth over the differences, divisions and inequalities that exist within this politics. It’s much easier, especially in the context of an arts festival, to seek out and celebrate moments of mutual recognition, solidarity and empowerment. But to be able to fully and honestly acknowledge the former as well as the latter, and more importantly make a solid, practical committment to addressing these issues, would be a sign of true political maturity.
In these terms, Hear Me Roar, like feminism in general, still has a way to go. Nevertheless, one of our goals for this festival was to create a dialogue across, between and about, differences. Over the five days in my double role, I had a number of conversations about the events and about the festival as a whole which that did exactly that. Like the experience of watching Benz Punany , some of these discussions were not always easy or comfortable.
It seems to me that for a feminist event in 2016- this is exactly as it should be, as it must be, if we are finally to make progress on a politics that fights equally for equality for all women and girls. This made Benz Punany a perfect place for Hear Me Roar 16 to end and Hear Me Roar 17 to start.