Ann Domoney, who is the brains behind the website Feminist Performers, has written a lovely review of the exhibition. Thankyou so much Ann!
Here is the review:
The Women’s Liberation Music Archive aims to document feminist music in the 1970s and 80s. Archive co-ordinators Deborah Withers and Frankie Green have collected together a vast array of recordings, photographs, press clippings, posters and information about the role of music in the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the role of feminism in music-making at the time. Much of the archive can be seen online at http://womensliberationmusicarchive.wordpress.com, and you can experience the archive more directly at the Music and Liberation Exhibition, currently at Space Station 65 in London.
The exhibition explores the struggles and priorities of feminist musicians, while highlighting the diversity within the movement. A strong theme throughout the exhibition is the work that was needed to make music more accessible to women, through offering skill sharing workshops and supportive spaces for rehearsing and improvising. Many women felt excluded from the male-dominated music industry and needed support to participate. A contemporary copy of “Woman Sound” magazine tells of a women only space called “Contradictions”, in which women of all abilities were encouraged to express their creativity. “Shocking Pink”, a magazine written by a collective and aimed at teenage girls, gives advice on setting up a band, which includes finding a practice space where nobody is going to laugh at your efforts. Another element of supporting women to make music was the effort to break down the culture of stars and idols, and to develop collective ways of working so that all women in a group – not only performers but also sound technicians and sometimes administrators – collaborated as equals. Some went further still and attempted to break down the distinction between performers and audiences, by passing around song sheets and performing in spaces without a stage. Feminist musicians were not just women making feminist music, but women trying to make changes at every level to the ways in which music was made.
The exhibition discusses familiar tensions for groups trying to incorporate their politics into their work. How do you hold onto anti-capitalist values while making a living, or even just covering the basic expenses of equipment, travel and room hire? Some women had to pay to be in a band, and few could afford to record their music. How do you reject elitism while still valuing musical skill? The Contradictions manifesto states “Most performance and artistic standards have been defined by men and they stop us exploring for fear of not being ‘good enough’ .” Does focusing too much on musical proficiency detract from the politics? These are questions which are still relevant to feminist performers 30 years on.
The soundtrack to the exhibition is provided by an i-Pad on which visitors can choose tracks from feminist musicians of the time. While I was there, two visitors were enjoying the music so much they danced together. There is also a television with a choice of DVDs showing contemporary recordings of performances, and more recent interviews and oral histories. I was particularly taken with Clapperclaw, a group who describe themselves as “Four women who combine pungent wit and political satire with musical versatility and virtuosity” and sing comic songs about the role of women in history. If you can’t get to the exhibition, the videos can be watched from the website.
The highlight of my visit was a performance in the midst of the exhibition by the York Street Band, a group who first formed in 1978 and re-formed last year when they were contacted by the Archive Co-ordinator. They were a total joy to watch and I found I could not stop smiling. I was particularly delighted to see a pair of shoes, which had earlier been an artefact on display, being worn by one of the performers, who sometimes broke into a tap dance. This detail really brought the exhibition to life. Opening with “Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome” from Cabaret, their repertoire included covers of artists ranging from Edith Piaf to The Specials. In keeping with the collective ideal described in the exhibition, there was no obvious leader of the band, with different women taking turns to sometimes put down their instrument and sing. Their highly energetic performance involved all band members dancing as they played, with two of them keeping time with cymbals attached to their knees in addition to their main instruments. Their exuberance was infectious and it was inspiring to see women who had made the history documented around us still making music with so much enthusiasm.
The Music and Liberation exhibition is a fascinating account of the way music and feminism intertwined during the Women’s Liberation Movement. I’d recommend anyone interested in feminist performance to visit the exhibition if you can, or the online archive, to learn more about this part of our history.
The Music and Liberation Exhibition is at Space Station 65, Kennington, London until 13th January. Opening hours are Thursday - Sunday, 12 – 6pm and admission is free. More information is at http://music-and-liberation.tumblr.com/