Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lesbian Lives conference

seagulls; photo by Val Phoenix
I spent a well-earned day out in sunny Brighton yesterday checking out the second day of the Lesbian Lives conference. Somehow this conference had never come to my attention before, but since I have become somewhat immersed in academia, I hear much more about such things, though this is the first gathering I have attended outside of London.

Coming to the conference on the second day meant I missed a few discussions that had clearly started the day before, or even further back. I was curious to see if there would be any points of disagreement or tension, as the build-up to the conference saw some high-profile debates over freedom of speech and inclusion of trans women at queer and feminist events. None of this was apparent at the conference, as the day passed quite uneventfully. A far cry from my last lesbian conference in 1991, when disagreements were played out on-stage and in the corridors, voices raised and positions hardened.

Aside from two keynotes, I attended two panel discussions, one on archives and the other on French feminism. It has recently come to my attention that I am woefully ignorant of the French philosophical strand of feminism represented by such thinkers as Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous and so forth. The panel I attended attempted to make connections between the writings of Monique Wittig and English-language writers, making it a bit less daunting for me. I was very pleased to hear one of the panellists making comparisons between Wittig's writing and that of Virgina Woolf's Orlando, which I have read. The funny thing is I took a class with Wittig back in 1989 when she was a visiting lecturer at my college. But, I cannot remember a thing about what she taught, just that I had one very intimidating tutorial with her, and she fixed me with a rather disdainful gaze as I attempted to ask a timidly framed question. Not a woman to be trifled with. It seems her reputation as a visionary thinker is being redeemed by the current crop of queer theorists.

The other panel was about making use of the past, which has direct relevance to my research, as I prepare to move on to the next phase and decide how and why I shall make use of institutional archives. One speaker made a distinction between how the words lesbian and queer are received in non-Western cultures, which I found interesting, as both are Western terms. Apparently, lesbian is seen as having activist associations whereas queer is not, much to my bemusement: in my experience both have activist associations. Anyway, it's interesting to hear these points when one attends conferences. I have yet to get an explanation as to why identity politics is seen as outdated, however.

Once the conference disbanded just before 5pm I took advantage of the gap before my train left to hightail it to the seaside where I drank in the sea air, watched a glorious sunset and dodged a violent hailstorm before heading back to chilly London.

Friday, February 06, 2015


Just got back from viewing of the film Pride at the unlikely venue of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, screened as part of their LGBT History Month programme. Of course, I am a good five months late seeing the film, but thought I would share my thoughts anyway.
Pride (UK 2014)

It's a tearjerker, historically inaccurate in places and underwrites the women characters, with barely a named lesbian in the mix. But, what really stuck with me was the use of the word "solidarity". I had thoughts on this word dropping out of the social vocabulary, as I was writing my dissertation recently, but left this idea out of the finished work. Certain words seem to belong to certain decades and "solidarity" seems to scream '80s-'90s to me. I well remember using it, feeling it, living it, but not recently.

Hmm, I ponder to myself. Was queer/AIDS activism the last gasp of the solidarity movement? In Pride the solidarity is meant to be between the LG (as it was in those days) community and the striking miners in South Wales in 1984. But, the community itself is not in agreement. The men talk over the women and mock their expressed desire for a women's group. And most gay men they meet in clubs are not at all interested in supporting a demographic they perceive as macho and homophobic. Solidarity is hard-won, if at all. Despite the film's feel-good ending, the miners lost and Section 28 was adopted within three years of the film's final scene.

One of the characters, Jonathan, is based on Jonathan Blake, who spoke after the screening. Now 65 and a long-term survivor of AIDS, he clearly has a history of activism, and many in the audience were keen to hear his thoughts on the changing face and focus of LGBT activism, with concerns raised about privatisation and commercialisation of events like Pride (the event, not the film), as well as HIV care. For my part, I was keen to hear more about the community the film depicts as being centred around the Gay's the Word bookshop. Sadly, this part was fictionalised: Blake says he lived in a squat in Brixton and most meetings were held in gay pubs, such as The Bell. I hold out hope that somewhere there is a solidarity movement brewing in a queer bookshop.

Sunday, February 01, 2015


How terribly excited was I a few hours ago when I took some time out for a laze and a listen to 6Music and discovered they were playing Riot Grrrl selections? And how annoyed and frustrated was I two hours later when Riot Grrrl turned out to be "Riot Grrrlz", some strange all-encompassing term for any woman who might have been in a band in the 1990s? Plus, forebears and current young 'uns.

I wouldn't mind, if only the presenter had made it clear that bands like L7 and Babes in Toyland were not actual Riot Grrrls, but were around at the same time as bands like Bikini Kill and had, in fact, formed before them. But, No. I gritted my teeth, frustrated at the lazy misnaming and associations.

It was great to hear airplay for punk and post-punk artists like The Slits and X-ray Spex who were certainly inspirations for Riot Grrrl. But, it fell apart with the last track--Hole. Courtney Love hated Riot Grrrl so much, she did a joke RG track called "Olympia". And she tried to burn Kathleen Hanna with a cigarette! How ahistorical can you get? Grrrrr!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chris Stein/Negative

I thought I was too late with this, as Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and The Advent of Punk was meant to close today, but this exhibit of photos by Stein has been extended to 8 February. Very good news for lovers of punk/New Wave and New York's indigenous contribution, the very grotty No Wave.

Best known as guitarist for Blondie, Stein has a fine eye and a long-standing practice as a documentary photographer working in black and white. As one might expect for one so engrained in the New York music scene, Stein's work provides an entree to the CBGBs crowd and their cohort, including a lovely portrait of Basquiat. But, he also captures some of the West Coast contingent, with many shots of a very young Joan Jett, including her lounging in her "notorious Los Angeles apartment", handcuffs and other accoutrements dangling above her head. "Wahey!" I noted to my friend B., a punk veteran who had seen pretty much everyone in the bygone era and was thrown into many a reverie, including one recollection of time spent at Jones Beach under some influence, ahem.

My eye was taken by a shot of a handsome blond head spied from across the room. "Oh, Billy Idol!" I thought. But, no. On close inspection, it was none other than The Avengers' Penelope Houston, looking more androgynous than usual. Sadly, the caption identified her band as hailing from Los Angeles, rather than San Francisco, which led to much tsking on my part.

In addition to the star names, there are many shots of long-gone and not so well-remembered figures, many dead from HIV or drug abuse, which illustrates the other side of 1970s New York. While many rhapsodise over its magnetic and creative qualities, I well remember the city as being pretty seedy and grim in many ways. One shot shows Debbie Harry reclining on a car. The caption notes the hood (bonnet) is sealed with a lock to prevent battery theft. Yes, really.

Debbie Harry by Chris Stein
I hadn't mentioned Harry up to now, but she is the undisputed star of the show. Not surprising, as she and Stein lived and worked together back in the day. And he obviously found many opportunities to work her into photos. And, let's be honest, who wouldn't? There's Debbie standing by a window, backlit like a Bond girl. Debbie on a train somewhere on tour, looking amazing in a beret. "A classic look", observed Bev. And she's on quite a few postcards, too. "Picture This", indeed.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What might have been....

As I've been resting up after finishing my long-in-the-works dissertation, I have rediscovered the joys of reading and watching films for pleasure. Perusing the selection at Hackney Library before Christmas, I took a few punts on some DVDs, including Sunshine Cleaning (2008), purely on the strength of the credits: two female leads, female director and female writer. Hurrah! Having viewed the film last night, I found myself annoyed at the ending and the disappearance of one plot strand without resolution.

I was so annoyed, I took to the Internet today to see if anyone else had noticed this lapse and to see if any key scenes had been deleted. The Internet did not let me down. SPOILER ALERT.

Lynn and Norah in the lift in Sunshine Cleaning
The plot strand I noted features Norah (Emily Blunt) and the woman she pursues, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), seemingly to return her childhood photos, having found them at the house of her deceased mother. What starts as a quest for Norah to get to grips with her own dead mother turns into a bit of a stalking, with Norah repeatedly seeking Lynn out, even inviting her to a party, where the woman nuzzles her neck! I sat bolt upright at this point: could this be an unexpected lesbian sub-plot? Suddenly Lynn's stroking of Norah's arm in the lift when they met made more sense. But, what was Norah's motivation? The film is quite unclear on this, and after revealing quite a bit of her family history during a "trestling" expedition, the film moved back to the main plot involving Norah's sister, Rose (Amy Adams), and her struggles with her young son and affair with a married man. But, wait! I wanted to know more about Norah and Lynn! When Norah finally hands over the photos to Lynn, the latter explodes in disbelief and a sense of betrayal: "I thought you were interested in me!" and leaves in a huff. No doubt about it: Lynn thought they were dating, and so did I. But, the film says no more about this relationship.

I thought to myself: there must be more. Something must have happened when they went trestling. Sure enough, if you check Megan Holley's script, there are additional scenes fleshing out the relationship. As Holley wrote it, Norah falls off the trestle, they go back to her place, make out and then Lynn discovers the photos. And Norah doesn't just accept the rejection. She tries to make amends by visiting Lynn's work place. It makes so much more sense! I did not listen to the audio commentary by Holley and one of the producers, but apparently, she does mention deleted scenes, but, as they do not appear on the DVD, it is unclear who cut them or why. But, like Desperately Seeking Susan, one is left to wonder what might have been. I'd like to imagine that after some time apart, Norah returns to make up with Lynn and they go trestling together. But, this time nobody gets hurt.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fringe! 2014: The unbearable lightness of being vulnerable

Art by Rachael House; photo: V. Phoenix


I can barely recall what I said as I stood at the at the Rose Lipman Building on Saturday night. Lip trembling, eyes watering, I reached out my arms and mumbled, “You are the audience.” And the people in front of me cheered. It was a live moment, energy crackling, shared with a group who wanted to be there, who were open, expecting, expectant, waiting for something. And that thing was In Search of Margo-Go, Jill Reiter's unfinished vision of the underground queercore-Riot Grrrl scene from the 1990s, and the centre-piece of our There's a Dyke in the Pit strand at Fringe! queer arts festival.

Not nearly as expectant as I was. I had waited 20 years for the thing to appear on the screen behind me. To appear on the screen behind me. Because what I had waited for was to see myself appear on the screen behind me. I was waiting for myself and my community to be seen. My community of the present was expectant to see my community of the past. And so was I. And it made me highly emotional. When the images appeared, I watched them in much the way I would any other film—I was appreciative, I laughed at the funny parts, frowned at the setbacks, empathised with the characters. But every time I reflected on what it meant, I welled up. Because it was so much more than a disposable form of entertainment, to be watched, lapped up, consumed, and disgorged, like a sweet wrapper.

As (I think) I told that evening’s audience, when we worked on the film, none of was a trained filmmaker, except for the director and the main cinematographers. Everyone else was, in my words, “enthusiastic amateurs”. My words were unscripted. I can now reflect on that choice of words. Amateur—one who does it for the love of it. Not too shabby. I guess I meant what I said. That was my community, a diasporic queer community of people who had waited a long, long time. And so had I. We were together. I only wish I had thought to change that personal address of “you” to “we”. We are the audience. And the producers.

In Search of Margo-Go
The film’s 20-year journey was one of obstacles, from lack of money, to personal conflicts, to obsolescence, changing technologies, all against a backdrop of time passing and social conditions changing, from queer street activism to equal marriage, from analogue film to digital video and non-linear editing packages, and its eventual emergence in Hackney in 2014. In a final three-day push, Jill edited it on her laptop on a table, leaning on a film canister that someone had bought as a piece of home furnishing. Spooky. I reflected that the film’s journey from New York to San Francisco to London paralleled my own journey. Perhaps it was meant to be.

Standing up and speaking to a room of strangers, some of whom were not born when we made the film (and I use this we to mean the wider queer community, as my own participation in it was fleeting), was potentially an alienating experience, especially for Jill, who was making her first ever visit to London. We spoke later about it and she told me she was glad it premiered in London, and not her own patch. Less baggage. Lucy Thane, on the other hand, marvelled that a film she worked on in San Francisco and New York had its premiere in her neighbourhood of Hackney. For the three of us who were there, all lesbians born in 1966-67, we had three very different journeys that put us in one place for a brief time in 1994 and again in this time of 2014. Wiser heads than mine could analyse that and make something of it.

What was extremely gratifying was that I felt not in the least ashamed or embarrassed by my reaction. I am a shy person. I am not a publicly emotive person. I prefer to share my feelings in private. This was a public occasion and I felt emotion publicly and shared it. Afterwards, I thought: Well, that was unexpected but it was honest and it needed to come out. The dykes finally took over the pit.

As my Fringe! experience was so totally focused on our strand, I have little to report from the rest of the weekend. But, I did catch three art exhibits in the basement of the Lipman, including Victoria Sin and Leslie Borg's Domestic Kitchen, their ode to both Nigella Lawson and Martha Rosler, and quite wickedly amusing.

The Lorenz-Boudry team brought us No Future/No Past, their take on first wave punk with a range of queer art types "performing" versions of Poly Styrene and Darby Crash in a kind of self-referential staged conversation.

Our punk den in the cafe of the Lipman was adorned with work by Gwenael Rattke and Rachael House, which again brought first wave punk and second wave feminist activism into conversation, thrilling for me. I had assembled an installation of my archive photos, plus shots of some of my vinyl collection, soundtracked by old cassette mix tapes I'd made, therefore reworking analogue forms into digital out of necessity. I'd like to revisit this project when I have more time and a better editing system, as there is much more to be done with the material. I am now the proud owner of a Rachael House Smash Patriarchy wrist band.

Shorts panel; photo V. Phoenix 
In the afternoon we had a shorts programme and   panel of bright minds discussing Riot Grrrl's cultural legacy. I had a thought that did not get discussed: how underground movements briefly surface, are burned by mainstream exposure, and quickly submerge, existing through word of mouth for those who can find them. This is the history of subcultures.

And, lastly, I did get to one screening on Friday, a retrospective of Barrelstout (Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers) shorts from the last 20 years.

Bev Zalcock; photo V. Phoenix
While I don't feel my films have been directly influenced by them, we do share a DIY aesthetic and love of punk, and Tara from Wotever DIY Film Festival said she saw a link. Fine with me. Many of those who appear in the films were on hand, making for an amusing experience as they spotted their friends on the screen. Can't wait for them to  finish their football film, for which I was interviewed two years ago. Carol Morley, friend and associate of the Barrelstout stable, conducted a Q&A after the screening, and they elaborated on their manifesto. If I may excerpt:
We value themes that include optimism, cooperation, friendship, solidarity, fun  and laughter. We could not live without cinema. 
 DIY forever!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism 2014

Tara Rodgers; photo: Val Phoenix
I have just completed two days of extraordinarily thoughtful discussion about sound, gender, feminism and activism, courtesy of the conference of the same name, organised by CRiSAP. Yesterday I did my presentation on activating an archive, which was a technical challenge (if only I had three hands!), and I was much relieved when it was over. But, I am still pondering what came out of the conference.

At conferences I have attended in the past, it often felt like it built up to something and then didn't deliver: what next? At least at this conference, co-organiser Cathy Lane was explicit in her hopes for it: that someone else will take on its third iteration in two years and it can travel around (much like Ladyfest, I reckon). That would be fantastic. Clearly, there is an appetite to discuss the issues raised, and speakers had travelled from the USA, Europe, Mexico and Southern Africa to be there.

So, to the ideas raised. Well, for me, there was much interesting discussion about connection to ecology and other living things; ways of listenings; different forms of activism; and archival practices.

I think what stayed with me most, though, were the performances, which I don't recall from two years ago, when the conference was one day. I loved the performances. The first day ended with keynote speaker Maggie Nicols leading a group improv piece which ended in us all singing a sustained note, however loudly we wished and with no regard for key or pitch. That felt great.

The second day saw us meeting a puffin visitor from the Arctic Circle, courtesy of artist Elin Øyen Vister. Three of the Mexican performance group Invasorix provided a video/live performance of some of the videos of their work as feminist invaders from outer space. And the Greek troupe Fytini conducted a delightfully anarchic "lecture" on queerification and the possibilities of radical laughter. It was truly animating for me. Which is totally the wrong metaphor for a conference on sound. But, wow.

I am compiling a reading list for myself, based on works cited in the conference. So far, it includes Pauline Oliveros, bell hooks, Tara Rodgers (the other keynote speaker), Cynthia Enloe, Suzanne Lacy and others. It could go on and on.