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Our Voices

Why Embodied Feminist Spaces Matter. And Why We Need to Bring Them Back

In the foreground,  Annapurna Malla is a community organizer, educator, musician, dance-theatre artist and performer of mixed Kashmiri and English ancestry. Feminist Art Conference, March 7, 2020—Photo by Brian Armstrong

 
Last week, while wrestling with a sense of feeling lost at sea, I picked a notebook from a shelf above my desk—at random—and began to absentmindedly flip through it.
I stopped at a page where I had written down, in big bold letters, “How not to be a bitch to the system.” It, obviously caught my attention. But why did I write that? Where was I? Who said it?
I thumbed through the next few pages, looking for answers.
The next 15 or so pages were scribbled notes, ideas and quotes I had made while attending no less than five feminist events over the ten precious days before the pandemic lockdown, March 4 to March 14.
Wow. How times have changed. And so has the way I attend to my personal liberation and professional publishing work.
I suddenly felt nostalgic. But why? Now there are an infinite number and variety of online feminist events I can attend – anywhere, anytime – and all from home, at a much lower cost in dollars and time.
I came to a page marked 03/07/2020.  A Saturday.
I had showed up early that morning to take in and write about the Feminist Art Conference festival at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. This was my third time attending.
There was a coffee stain on the page.  It triggered my memory which in a flash, reconstructed scenes from the day. I purchased a coffee from a feminist barista entrepreneur wearing a beret; she told me about her activist work while she poured. We exchanged cards. Once in the lecture hall, found an empty seat in the second row for the plenary. I rummaged in my bag for a pen and this notebook, and a few minutes later splattered some my still steaming coffee on the page as I bumped elbows with the person I sat next to.  Immersed in the scene, I noticed how the room was animated with people moving about in full bodied ways.  The  crowd’s mish mash of hats, scarves, gloves, coats, bags, everyone squished together, arm to arm, shoulder to shoulder looked like a quilt of moving colour. You could tell by the clothing it was early spring.
Will we ever experience being together like this again?
At “gathering time,” the electrifying music muted as MC Justine Abigail Yu took the stage. I had read about her work as a diversity advocate and publisher of Living Hyphen, a magazine and community that explores the experiences of hyphenated Canadians. With a rally-cry voice, she looked out at the audience and said assertively, “Good morning! Are you ready to smash the patriarchy?”
Affirmed by the “WOOT WOOTs, Yu asked. “Are you ready to decolonize? Are you ready to end capitalism?”
We shouted back “Yes,” louder with each sentence, signalling “We are fully present.”
The rally cry culminated in disorderly applause.  I remember how it felt, how subversive to shout such things in solidarity with a diverse crowd. These spaces inspire me: grassroots, feminist, places where we can safely talk about how to end capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy without having to explain or justify why we need to.  These spaces are sacred.  And far too few in number.
As the clapping died down, Yu said “I think this is probably the only place I can say that and get applause.”
I flipped the page.
More opening remarks. Grateful-to-have sponsor shout outs. A spiritual and thoughtful land acknowledgement. Then a “narrative healing” dance and spoken word performance. And facilitated discussions on subjects such as Afrofuturism, resistance, rematriation movements, inclusive feminism, what a decolonized economy might look like. With everyone invited to participate, you never knew what would happen or come out of it. Aha moments and learnings collectively generated—versus pipeline fed.
Someone quoted Tracee Ellis Ross, an American Black actress and activist, and I wrote it down:  “I am learning everyday to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be inspire me and not terrify me.”
During breaks, I took in the art show in the main hall and snapped a few pictures.
The Brown Paper Bag Test, by Ashley A. Jones, @artbyaaj, FAC Residency artist. “I am interested in questions of identify and the experiences of Black women in America. My work explores colourism and the legacy of the brown paper bag test. African-Americans would contrast a brown paper bag against a person’s skin. Only individuals with skin lighter or the same shade as the brown paper bag were considered beautiful and granted certain privileges. FAC 2020. Photo by pk mutch.

Later that afternoon, I Lyft-ed over to a solidarity concert held at the Paradise Theatre in support of the Wet’suwe’ten land rights standoff (remember that?).  I heard a line up of amazing emerging female musicians including Stones, Lavender Bruisers, Mimi O’Bonsawin, Caroline Brooks (Good Lovelies), Skye Wallace, Tange and Moscow Apartment. I loved one song by the band Tange so much, I listened to it ten times when I got home and licensed it  to accompany our International Women’s Day slide show.
All women—musician and band led Wet’suwet’en solidarity concert, Paradise Theatre, March 2020.  Photo by pk mutch

I must have been swept away by the concert. Because I made no notes. Not even musical ones.
I turned the page.
More scribblings and quotes, this time from a fundraiser for The Redwood (A women’s shelter) few days later. They screened “The Feminist in Cell Block Y”, an incredible documentary about a convicted felon who taught feminist literature to fellow inmates in an all-male prison in Soledad, California. I wrote down my impressions of seeing the men read, out loud, passages from bell hooks’ books. I copied notes from the facilitator’s flip chart in the film —  how patriarchy incites violence, rape culture, crime and anger because it’s the only way most men can live up to and rail against patriarchal ideals of masculinity.
A still from the documentary movie, The Feminist on Cell Block Y

After the screening, a panel of filmmaker and grassroots activists gathered on stage to share their impressions of the film with the 200+ plus who attended.
I recalled sharing a link to the film afterward on social media. And going for food and drinks with my partner to talk about our experience.
I could have spent hours flipping through this notebook.
Instead, I spent time thinking about how these gatherings compare to their ZOOM replicant.
Why can I remember so much about in-person gatherings whereas with online gatherings and events, I  struggle to remember anything at all?  Who was there? What season –or even day was it?  Can technology mediated spaces even can create memories or lasting impact?
Danielle Montgomery, Ottawa Feminist Fair, entrepreneur, Ottawa 2019. Photo by Jennifer Prescott

Over the summer, I engaged in oodles of online events. Gatherings of five to 500. Breakout rooms. Whiteboards. Cool speakers. Yet, when I try to recall them, it’s like they never happened. Ideas and conversations , unanchored, rise and evaporate in minutes. How can I retrieve and build on what I took with me without the aid of sensory clues? Stains on my notebook caused by a seatmate’s wandering elbow?
I realized I not only desperately miss these feminist and embodied gatherings; They served as essential wayfinding experiences for someone on a transformational journey.
To do their magic, they actually require all this: Subversive, stark gathering spaces with uncomfortable seats. Being in full-bodied community with people. Craft tables selling feminist art. Zines. Screen-printed patches and pins for sale. Challenging large scale art works to be experienced, not just viewed (at one event, a large pink-and-red vagina made of silk veils and pillows that you could walk through; at another, a re-interpreted Judy Chicago table setting which you could touch). Hand-illustrated name tags with pronouns. Music by emerging female, trans or queer talent who don’t get enough stage time in mainstream venues. The extraordinary care paid to creating accessible, safe spaces where we could have brave, vulnerable conversations with strangers. Seminars and performances coming alive with diverse, fierce, feminist grassroots educators, questioners, creators, writers and entrepreneurs aged 16-93.
In these spaces, even on days when it feels as though there is a hole at the bottom of my cup, I could always count on an upcoming opportunity to refill it from a flowing fountain of rebellion, reflexive learning, camaraderie and inspiration.
Ultimately, it this deep respect for the incredible work of revolutionary feminists creating such spaces that inspires the work we do at LiisBeth Media and, more recently, the Feminist Enterprise Commons.
IWD Day vendor fair, 2018. Photo by pk mutch

Much has been written about how the pandemic has surfaced and re-confirmed the nature and depth of the mess we have made of the world we live in.
It has also, I hope, irrevocably, lifted our understanding of what it means to be human and tightly fastened the insight that that only humans—not technology—can truly, meaningfully transform the world we live in.
Sadly, we won’t be able to be together like ways I described again for a long time.  Realizing this makes me sad—and question my own stamina to do this work in the absence of these vital re-fuelling stations.
But giving up is not a really a choice.   And surely, feminist gatherings and events will comeback soon.
Opening up to the last page of this notebook, I hastily over-wrote;  If mushrooms and wild flowers can grow strong in mud, shit and decay, then so can I.  Underline.


Publisher’s note: If you are looking for meaningful feminist conversations online, consider The Feminist Enterprise Commons (operated by LiisBeth Media, Canadian based),  The Continuum Collective (U.S. based, founded by Jillian Foster) and PowerBitches Gather (U.S. Based, founded by Rachel Hills).


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Additional Related Readings

The Art of Change

FIVE FEMINIST EVENT PRACTICES THAT WORK


 
 

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Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

The Art of Change

Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto

The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.

Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.

The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.

‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.

 Art That Moves

Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.

That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.

FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good. No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.

Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.

According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.

After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.

The Art of the Action

Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”

FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.

For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.

Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.

Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo: Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias

With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).

Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”

The Feminist Art Festival runs from March 5 to 7, 2020 in Toronto. Get your tickets here


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This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto.


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https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/03/02/gender-innovation-entrepreneurship/

Categories
Our Voices

Special Gender, Innovation & Entrepreneurship Podcast Feature


LiisBeth and the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) collaborated to curate a special panel session on women’s entrepreneurship. The theme for this year’s Feminist Art Conference was “embodied resistance,” a highly appropriate theme given the conference date coincided with the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, when millions of women and allies around the world truly embodied resistance to growing misogyny, racism, and sexism following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The central idea of FAC’s theme was that the form of the body is a canvas on which to create, explore or express resistance. In concert with the curatorial statement, the artists who presented works at the conference tried to “reshape our assumptions about gender roles through the type of work they take on, by exploring themes like weight, menstruation, trauma, and self care. They explored how the body can be a medium through which to explore, reshape norms, indicate resistance to norms or the dominant culture, and ultimately help us reinterpret our world, ourselves, and identify a path that leads to desirable social change.”
For women, trans ,and gender non-binary people, entrepreneurship is also a kind of resistance. And in this panel discussion, we look at the intersections between gender, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
LiisBeth contributor Cynthia MacDonald wrote, “Writer Natalie Clifford Barney once called entrepreneurship ‘the last refuge of the troublemaking individual,'” adding that “for many women, particularly those working within oppressive environments, the very act of starting a business can be frighteningly disruptive to the social order.”
In this 80-minute session, the panelists explored the intersections between gender, entrepreneurship, and innovation, and how gender shapes entrepreneurial choices, support, access to capital, and the overall experience. Their stories highlight how women entrepreneurs still face numerous barriers.
The panelists included Renish Kamal, founder of Fidget Toys, Priya Ramanujam, founder of Urbanology MagazineEmily Rose Antflick, founder and chief community cultivator at ShecosystemAllison Hillier, serial entrepreneur and instructional designer, and Valerie Fox, founder of The Pivotal Point.
We think you will enjoy their stories of resistance. To listen while connected to the web, click here.  To download the podcast, click here.

Categories
Our Voices

Special Gender, Innovation & Entrepreneurship Podcast Feature

LiisBeth and the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) collaborated to curate a special panel session on women’s entrepreneurship. The theme for this year’s Feminist Art Conference was “embodied resistance,” a highly appropriate theme given the conference date coincided with the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, when millions of women and allies around the world truly embodied resistance to growing misogyny, racism, and sexism following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The central idea of FAC’s theme was that the form of the body is a canvas on which to create, explore or express resistance. In concert with the curatorial statement, the artists who presented works at the conference tried to “reshape our assumptions about gender roles through the type of work they take on, by exploring themes like weight, menstruation, trauma, and self care. They explored how the body can be a medium through which to explore, reshape norms, indicate resistance to norms or the dominant culture, and ultimately help us reinterpret our world, ourselves, and identify a path that leads to desirable social change.”

For women, trans ,and gender non-binary people, entrepreneurship is also a kind of resistance. And in this panel discussion, we look at the intersections between gender, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

LiisBeth contributor Cynthia MacDonald wrote, “Writer Natalie Clifford Barney once called entrepreneurship ‘the last refuge of the troublemaking individual,'” adding that “for many women, particularly those working within oppressive environments, the very act of starting a business can be frighteningly disruptive to the social order.”

In this 80-minute session, the panelists explored the intersections between gender, entrepreneurship, and innovation, and how gender shapes entrepreneurial choices, support, access to capital, and the overall experience. Their stories highlight how women entrepreneurs still face numerous barriers.

The panelists included Renish Kamal, founder of Fidget Toys, Priya Ramanujam, founder of Urbanology MagazineEmily Rose Antflick, founder and chief community cultivator at ShecosystemAllison Hillier, serial entrepreneur and instructional designer, and Valerie Fox, founder of The Pivotal Point.

We think you will enjoy their stories of resistance. To listen while connected to the web, click here.  To download the podcast, click here.