Yoko Ono Meltdown Festival Activism Weekend 15 June
As the Yoko Ono Meltdown Festival’s Activism Weekend opens, we sit down to a pre-recorded video of Jude Kelly, Creative Director of Southbank Centre, telling us that the seed of the idea for Meltdown was planted eighteen months ago. That’s long enough to bring two pregnancies to term, one for each day of the Activism Weekend. It shows that whatever you can conceive can be realised – and that’s the idea that this weekend’s participants want you to take away with you.
Activism Weekend, part of Festival of Neighbourhood and Meltdown is two days of debates, conversations and workshops centred around activism. Come nightfall, musical luminaries by the likes of Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux take the stage, but these daylight hours are reserved for expression of a different nature. While the Weekend is not essentially music-focused, there is a definite focus on women artists and feminism as a whole. According to Kelly, “That’s no accident.”
This kind of feminist deliberation is at the forefront of the first event, a presentation by The Guerrilla Girls titled ‘Estrogen Bombing’. “When you see our face, that’s what we stand for,” one of the masked women explains. Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo (pseudonyms) are artists independently; both have been in the movement since the beginning. Their choice of name was no accident either; they are actively reclaiming ‘girl’ as a source of power and negating any potential for the word to be used against them. We can relate.
The Girls are extremely good at using humour to convey information and provoke discussion. As they enter, they pass out bananas – in case any of us get hungry. With a cool balance of wit and damning statistics, they outline their respective projects – some of which are very large in scale indeed – and encourage us to challenge discrimination in the art world whenever we see it. Throughout the weekend the Girls are also holding a workshop titled ‘Aestheticise Your Activism’, which teaches and encourages people to create campaigns of their own.
The Art and Activism panel which follows in the Front Room is chaired by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of human rights organisation Liberty. In attendance are artist Bob and Roberta Smith; Heather Ackroyd, one half of artistic partnership Ackroyd & Harvey; and Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company and Co-director of the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. The four discuss art’s potential for inspiring social change. It’s a discussion in which that old feminist rallying cry, “the personal is political”, has never been more evident.
Once lunch has passed (and free bananas consumed, no doubt), we head to the Purcell Room for an interview between music journalist Jude Rogers and old The Girls Are favourite, Peaches. “I like that you’re calling me a lady and I’m wearing a boy hat,” is the first thing she says. And she is, literally, wearing a cap emblazoned with the word ‘BOY’. The concept of gender is discussed sporadically in this loosely structured interview. The artist and DeeJay finds it amazing that the act of switching gender roles is received with such controversy, as if she’s switched the entire universe around. “It wasn’t my intention just to whip it up… or whip it out,” she says of her third studio album ‘Fatherfucker’, on which she appears on the cover donning a full beard. “It didn’t start out to be political, it just was.”
She talks us through her journey into music. It’s a somewhat conflated one, involving a background in theatre and a trip to Israel at seventeen. The narrative of her previous career in childcare is especially poignant; although she’d never considered a career in music, she would play guitar for the kids and they’d make up songs together. Prompted by the audience Q&A which follows, she divulges that one of her female students still has one of her guitar picks to this day.
Peaches thinks the collapse of music labels is exciting. She likes the idea of infiltration, believing that her appearance in Hustler was more of an achievement than her appearance in Bust. She loves the Indigo Girls – when she was starting out on the scene she thought she was that proto-type lesbian girl-folk band. She likes the activist label. “I think art should be active.” At the same time, she finds it “heart-wrenching” because there is no end to it. “You can drive yourself mad,” she says, trying to quiet your own liberal guilt.
Peaches definitely uses her powers for political good and not evil. She used her platform to help Pussy Riot after their initial arrest, organising events and a change.org petition that amassed over 250,000 signatures. It’s obviously a cause that is still close to her heart, as after the interview she remains in the Room for the next event: the book launch of ‘Let’s Start a Pussy Riot’.
The discussion panel is chaired by Emely Neu and Jade French, curator and editor for the book respectively. The panel featured some incredible faces, including two of the members of Pussy Riot in the flesh (or rather, in the fabric) and one via Skype chat. The book itself is a collaboration of work from over thirty artists, including festival namesake Yoko Ono, and is published by Rough Trade Records with all profits going directly to Pussy Riot.