Saturday, 26 November 2011

OBJECT: news and events

* Saturday November 26th - RECLAIM THE NIGHT!
Join OBJECT and march with thousands of women through central London to reclaim the streets, calling for an end to violence against women. Look for the OBJECT banner at the assembly point so that we can sing and chant together as we march. More info here

International Conference featuring leading academics and activists from the UK, US, Australia and Norway, including Prof Gail Dines, author of 'Pornland' and Jennifer Hayashi Danns, author of 'Stripped', plus OBJECT, Imkaan, Women's Support Project and many more. Places are limited so advance booking is strongly advised. For further details and registration see:

* OBJECT is advising the Advertising Regulator, the ASA
Following our roundtable meeting with the Prime Minister, OBJECT is now acting as an advisor to the advertising regulator, the ASA. The ASA have committed to stricter regulation of adverts which hyper-sexualise women as part of their commitment to tackle the sexualisation and commercialisation of children. Recent succsses include a decision to ban a new series of Lynx adverts which were degrading to women. You can complain about an advert here

* Protest outside the Miss World Finals
November 6th: OBJECT joined London Feminist Network, Million Women Rise and UK Feminista to revive the spirit of the 1970 protest outside the Miss World Finals in London. Wearing sashes emblazoned with ‘MissOgynist’ and ‘MissRepresented’, protestors sang and chanted to make the message clear: 'Beauty pageants are sexist and outdated and they have no place in twenty-first century Britain!'
See news coverage here
See OBJECT factsheet on beauty pageants here

* Fem 11
November 12th: OBJECT were delighted to run a workshop for 700 people at the inspiring and motivating Fem 11 conference. We were honoured to meet so many dedicated and courageous individuals and we were pleased to have the oportunity to question Mayoral candidates about whether they would publically support a campaign to end the sexual objectification of women in the press. The answers were positive - now is the time to ensure that they live up to their promises. Email any responses you get to

* Lap Dancing Clubs - Update
Ongoing: To find out the latest news about how councils across the country are using their new licensing powers to regulate the lap dancing industry and to learn more about how you can have your say in the licensing of lap dancing clubs, please see the OBJECT website here  Take action now!

* Book and Nomination - Jennifer Hayashi Danns to carry the Olympic Flame
OBJECT has nominated Jennifer for her outstanding work in raising awareness of the harmful realities of lap dancing. Jennifer's nomination has been accepted and she is now in with a chance of being a Torchbearer in the London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay. You can view Jennifer's nomination here  Details of Jennifer's book (co-edited with OBJECT's former lobbyist, Sandrine Leveque) can be found here

* OBJECT in new book 'Big Porn Inc.'
"With contributions from leading world experts and activists, Big Porn Inc offers a cutting edge exposé of the hidden realities of a multi-billion dollar global industry that promotes itself as a fashionable life-style choice... This fearless book will change the way you think about pornography forever." For more reviews and to order a copy of the book see here

all text (c) OBJECT

Monday, 21 November 2011

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe: Lessons on Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls

On the first anniversary of Lynne Featherstone MP's appointment as the UK Government's Champion on International Violence Against Women The Gender and Development Network invites you to reflect on
the year passed and the year to come. The debate will be from 1-3 pm on Thursday 24 November 2011 in Committee Room 6 at the House of Commons.

  • Lynne Featherstone MP, Champion on International Violence Against Women
  • Rt Hon Alan Duncan MP, Minister of State for International Development
  • Netsai Mushonga, Director of the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ)
  • Selay Ghaffar, Executive Director, Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children in Afghanistan (HAWCA)
  • The event will be chaired by the ever-brilliant Jane Martinson, Women’s Editor of The Guardian
RSVP by 22nd November to

Please attend this event to demonstrate to the ministers how seriously you take the issue of violence against women, and to match the commitment the government is showing in sending two ministers to  speak at the event.

The above notice was sent to me by Womankind Worldwide, an international charity whose work I admire greatly and with whom I hope to work and support more intensively next year. In the meantime, don’t miss their Three Butterflies Lunch on Friday 25 November 2011 at The Savoy Hotel, London. The Three Butterflies Lunch will raise much needed funds for Womankind’s Worldwide’s work to end violence against women, increase women’s participation and secure women’s human rights. The speakers this year are Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the South Bank Centre and Netsai Mushonga, a human rights defender and Nobel prize nominee from WW partner the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe. Find out more and buy tickets here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Amnesty: Write for Rights

Amnesty International is launching a new Write for Rights campaign in celebration of the organisation’s 50th anniversary and to mark International Human Rights Day. Amnesty's other celebration of its 50th year was to launch Amnesty TV, an online global human rights series made by 11 white men and 0 women. Of the men, only one, Chris Atkins, had any human rights experience (the others were from British telly comedy). When challenged about the all-male makeup of the team Atkins told me that "positive discrimination harms the very people it is supposed to support." Read all about it here.

Let's hope they can do better with their new campaign, details (from a press release) below:

Amnesty, the pioneers of activism, is encouraging people to pick up a pen and change a person’s life in a return to the classic, hand-written letter, which has proved such a powerful tool for change. Millions of people around the globe take all forms of action for Amnesty’s campaigns, from online petitions and other methods of digital communication to public rallies and demonstrations. But in the organisation’s 50th year, the humble hand-written letter is being championed once again, in a “penaissance”.

It is hoped that more people than ever before will write a letter demanding action on one of the ten cases in the Write for Rights campaign. The cases illustrate the diversity of Amnesty’s work; from people facing the death penalty to communities facing forced eviction and women who are challenging the impunity which allows soldiers in Mexico to avoid justice for rape.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK [yes, it's a woman! Thanks, sister], said:
In 1961, when Amnesty was started, our founding members had no idea whether ordinary people writing letters to Heads of State and other people in power would make any difference. It turns out that it did, and it still does.“These days, we Tweet the President of Azerbaijan, or e-mail the head of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles – and we will continue to deploy every weapon in our arsenal - but the humble, classic letter is a uniquely formidable tool. A letter has the power to embarrass, persuade, protect, coerce and force people to alter their behaviour, and ultimately to change the world. If you want to right the wrongs, write about them.
The ten individuals and groups who feature in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, include; Jabbar Savalan, a 20 year old history student in Azerbaijan who is serving a prison sentence for anti-government comments he posted on Facebook; 75 year old Hakamada Iwao, believed to be the world's longest serving death row inmate who has spent the last 43 years awaiting execution in Japan and Inés Ferndández Ortega and Valentina Rosendo Cantú, two rape survivors in Mexico who have tirelessly campaigned to have the perpetrators of the attack brought to justice.

So... on Saturday 10 December (Human Rights Day) Amnesty International is hoping that an unprecedented number of people across the UK and around the world, will write to people with the power to stop human rights abuses. Thousands of school pupils across the UK will be writing letters on behalf of the cases on Friday 9 December. To find out more about the ten cases, click here.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Women and Film in Africa: Overcoming Social Boundaries conference at the University of Westminster

The University of Westminster’s Africa Media Centre is celebrating the achievements of female African filmmakers who have overcome the double oppression of patriarchy and colonialism to produce some of the most original and thought provoking films it is possible to see today.

The Africa Media Centre is bringing together notable female African directors, actors, scriptwriters and academics from all over the globe for a two day conference in London on 19 and 20 November. Filmmakers will share experiences, reflect on the contributions made by pioneering women from the past up to and including the present day and discuss the influence that women have in the television and film industry and on audiences in Africa.

The keynote speakers are as follows:
  • Jihan El-Tahri is an Egyptian-French writer, director and producer of documentary films. Her award-winning films include documentaries filmed in the Congo, Angola, Zambia, Tunisia and other parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia. Her latest film Behind the Rainbow deals with the transition of the ANC from a liberation organization into South Africa’s ruling party.
  • Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British documentary maker, journalist and novelist; she is a visiting scholar at the University of Ghana. Her directing and producing credits include the award-winning documentary The Witches of Gambaga the story of a community of women condemned to live as witches in Northern Ghana.
The two-day programme includes film screenings and over 40 presentations by filmmakers, actors, academics and other contributors from Africa, Europe and America.

Jane Thorburn, co-director of the Africa Media Centre, says:
The immense contributions by female filmmakers are sadly underrepresented, both in industry debates and academic research. This conference represents a great opportunity to learn at first hand how so many African women filmmakers have successfully made films and documentaries despite the additional difficulties of working in Africa.
Topics will include the following themes: the Influence of Feminism on African filmmakers, women in front of and behind the camera in African film, women in the African feature film industry, women in technical roles in film, video and television in Africa, women documentary makers in Africa, gender and the representation of women in African film, audiences for films by African women/female audiences in Africa, case histories of leading African women film makers, women scriptwriters, African women acting in video, film and television, the censorship and the portrayal of African women in film and television, the role of NGOs in commissioning women filmmakers and issue-based films, how African governments have helped or hindered filmmaking by African women.

Event details:
  • Full conference: Standard rate £135. One day rate £95
  • Full conference: Student rate £55.  One day rate £40.
  • You can register here.
  • Fees cover: conference pack, lunch, coffee/tea, a wine reception and administration fees.
  • Please follow the link here or here 

Text (c) The University of Westminster press release

Friday, 11 November 2011

A letter from a listener

"Hi Bidisha

I’ve just been directed to your piece on women in radio by a young woman, the daughter of my friend. My friend and I share regular tallies of the low numbers of any women’s voices on the Today programme. Lots of rage and gnashing of teeth. I have written to the producers/editors/ complaints departments in vain.

My point is that not only is there a dearth of women presenters – women are routinely not invited on to the Today programme to discuss the topics presented, women’s names are not even referred to in discussions. The words “her”and “she” are not heard. Education controversy – let’s wheel out Chris Woodhead, Anthony Seldon – because clearly there has never been a notable women headteacher or schools inspector. It’s not just laziness, a question of the usual suspects invited on the programme over and over again - it’s a powerful bias that ensures that women’s voices simply don’t matter, that women don’t matter. I sit and listen and watch the minutes tick by as we are not only marginalised, but are inaudible, invisible, non-existent.

You could land here from Mars, tune in to the Today programme and - on some days - I kid you not – up to an hour later not have a clue that women exist at all.

I’m 60 in December – all that struggle in the 1970’s - and I cannot bear it. How many other young women are going to protest?

Another point - if Woman's Hour can respond at 10am to a breaking news story and get women on the show - academic/politician/vox pop/historian/scientist/other worker or professional/whatever - to interview, just why can't the Today programme do the same?!

I also emailed Matthew Bannister on Last Word a while ago to ask him how is that women don't seem to be dying nearly as much as men- and I've noticed the programme has improved somewhat - at least he replied to me and said they were trying."

Related articles:

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

All That I Am by Anna Funder

All That I Am is one of the most impressive, frightening studies of the approach and aftermath of war that I’ve ever read. It is about precursors and consequences, clues and fallout, foreboding and legacy, assembled with the single-minded intelligence of a detective sifting through other people’s lies, regrets, self-justifications, denials, hidden heroism and memory.

The book is, as Anna Funder says in her afterword, an act of imagining and recreating the skin, sinew and muscle that once connected the bones of real events. It features a wide cast of refreshingly intelligent and articulate people from the German playwright Ernst Toller to Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and W H Auden – men honoured by history for their creative gifts, pioneering discoveries, genius for self-expression, depth, political engagement and principles. It covers Hitler’s emergence as a leader in the long aftermath of World War I, focusing on the six years of his increasing suppression of intellectual, critical, political and democratic activities before the outbreak of World War II. We observe the ruthlessness with which he implemented new law after new law, steadily breaking all conventions of justice, equality, democratic protection and freedom, in a stunningly audacious campaign of Nazi double-think. Funder’s genius – so obvious in her award winning non-fiction book Stasiland – is for uncovering vital, devastating truths about power and the ease with which those who want it get it, by lies and force.

Many things are known about Hitler and the Holocaust but that ridiculous, terrifying man did not come out of nowhere. All That I Am is the riveting story of the pre-events, the violent crushing of opposition and the sabotage and betrayal of the resistance. Its hero is not any of the Great Men I’ve namedropped above but two real women, Ruth and Dora, political activists who were instrumental in fighting Hitler every step of the way, assisting refugees leaving Germany, trying to preserve the intellectual and political life of the soon-to-be-disenfranchised and writing frantically from America, London and elsewhere in Europe to convince the rest of the world that Hitler was a threat. It is a novel about great unseen acts of heroism and resistance and a tribute to the impressive personalities of ‘ordinary’ women and men who did not see themselves in a heroic light and whose political beliefs went against the notion of individual heroism.

The novel presents us with a completely new method of looking at events. The only way to depict a shattered world is through a shattered story. The people, the locations and the times are disparate. Friends are separated; the present and memories of the past contrast sharply; methods of depiction splinter and fail, leaving gaps, contradictions and overlaps; there are different takes on the same events.

Ruth is a survivor – and, in real life, a friend of Funder’s – living out an ignominious but witty old age in present-day Sydney, satirising her own physical failings with the confidence of a woman who has earned her sarcasm. She is a former activist who has travelled the world and served time in Hitler’s prisons, but is patronised and treated as a child – or simply ignored – by the people around her. She is treated as though she is a stupid, useless female with no story. In truth she has been an active participant at the heart of world events. One day she receives an old edition of Ernst Toller’s (real) autobiography, I Was A German, found in storage in the New York hotel he lived in briefly as an exiled intellectual in 1939, using a young émigré, Clara, as a secretary. The edition is full of interpolated sheets of paper, Toller’s own act of restitution, dictated to Clara. The extra pages tell a (true) story from the early 1930s that Toller had omitted out of ego and guilt – that of Dora, his lover, comrade and secretary (and also Ruth’s cousin), who was caught and imprisoned by Hitler’s police in her attempts to smuggle Toller’s papers out of the country.

By the time Ruth receives the package Toller is long dead, Dora is also dead, most of the friends are dead and history has seen what Hitler did. As Ruth reads Toller’s telling of Dora’s story she reflects on her own friendship with Dora during the same period. Ruth tells the story herself in parallel, bringing their international circle of friends, comrades and colleagues back to life. Together, skilfully, perfectly, Funder assembles a portrait of an entire society of richness, culture, bravery and fervent political participation, which has been written out of history or overshadowed by what came next. Toller is an author writing with apparent honesty, although we realise just how much he has left out and just how enormous his ego is. Ruth is herself a gifted photographer – her first camera was given to her by Dora – who works for hours to frame, take and develop a shot. Both art forms are created not just by the addition of words of visuals but by subtraction, editing, erasing, the deliberate and precise construction of images or narrative. Both creators are fallible; as Ruth says, “it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.”

Throughout, Funder excavates the negative spaces of the stories, dramas and pain that happened before, between, around, and the anguish of those whose considerable power had been defused through forcible exile. She makes stunning and tragic revelations about the intensity of anti-Semitism and racism in England and of the Nazi German presence in London, something I had not known about. She writes movingly about the cultural, linguistic, intellectual and social devastation of all displaced people, whether they are refugees, objectors, exiles, asylum seekers, migrants or prisoners. What she has to say will resonate far beyond those touched by the specific  consequences of Nazism.

One observes with growing alarm the negative transformation of German society in its steady and (for Hitler, deliberate, concerted and systematic) plunge into hellish destruction. The novel begins with a disturbing mixture of  tragedy and hope. Dora and Ruth are “completely German” secular Jews, wealthy, clever, stylish, successful, highly cultured, from homes which are not just good but lavish. It is a depiction of existence before subjugation. The ending of World War 1 creates a brief desire for a pacifist revolution and a far longer legacy of damage to its mentally and physically wounded former soldiers, many of whom are German Jews. There are half-gruesome, half-amusing scenes amongst the horribly injured inmates of an army sanatorium. Funder’s excellently crisp descriptions of fighting and carnage have a shocking immediacy, as do her revelations about German’s secret war hospitals for those so wounded that they would be unfit for civilian life and unsuitable for public visibility lest they lower morale and “frighten women on trams.”

The way power- and violence-hungry governments lie to their people to justify war is one of the main themes of novel, and is just as relevant now as then (Hi, Tony Blair, if you’re reading this). Hitler rises with a powerful conviction that Germany’s loss in WW1 is a humiliation which must be avenged, first by making it strong, pure and infallible from the inside. For all his outward bombast and his easily caricatured manner, he is a far from hot-heated politician. He begins with ragged demonstrations by callow Swastika-wearing youths but in the six short years covered by the novel he has developed multiple vicarious/proxy bodies of brutality – the SA, the SS, the Gestapo. Ruth, Dora and their friends go from being on the inside – prized as Berlin intellectuals, smug, secretive and sexy – to being on the outside, in fear of their lives.

If you were reading this in a speculative fiction novel, the coming dystopia would be so clichéd as to be unbelievable. But it was all real. Dora finds “a list of thirty-three people Berlin is making stateless by decree. Because of political opposition or…for having ‘violated the duty of loyalty to the realm and the people, as well as damaging German interests’…They’re taking everything – houses, flats, cars – stripping people of their qualifications, impounding their bank accounts, cancelling passports. They are making us legally cease to exist.” Well before the Holocaust Hitler’s goons set up, follow, hunt down, drive out or kill all dissidents, journalists, political critics, challenging political parties, intellectuals and other opponents: “When they found eight Communists hiding in a cellar in Mitte they simply boarded it up. People walking to work heard their calls from the vent at pavement level but no one dared help.”

At the same time, Dora and Ruth and their comrades discover that youth soldier training camps have sprung up all over the country, that production of weaponry and air and road transportation vehicles has begun in regional factories and that the development of electricity and wirelesses for all homes has been mobilised to enable the Nazi propaganda campaign (the radio should be renamed a “Hitler Hearer”, one character quips).  Hitler introduces laws which suspend all prior notions of justice, democratic process and political engagement and – to put very simplistically – imprisons or kills anyone who is not for him. The Holocaust grows out of this fervent act of mass ridding: “thousands of anti-Hitler activists were being held in ‘protective custody in makeshift SA barracks – empty factories, a water tower… even a disused brewery. Soon there was not enough room. That was when they set about building the concentration camps.”

All That I Am is a fully-formed novel as well as a devastating depiction of real events. Its artistry can be found in the unity and cohesion of all of its images. Every phrase or observation is related to the linked themes of ageing, memory and narratives of the past; of survivors’ guilt hidden or revealed; of covert political activity and covert emotional dynamics; the revelation and withholding of political and personal truths; breakages in narrative, distinctive narrative forms and interrupted narratives like rebels’ coded messages, censored reports and lists of the condemned. This is not fine writing for fineness’s sake but a way of striking allusions against each other to reinforce the whole. Seemingly innocuous comments – like the ageing Ruth observing that a hospital gown is designed to “remind one of the fragility of human dignity, to ensure obedience to instruction, and as a guarantee against last-minute flight” – are devastating in the context of the wider narrative. The young Ruth discovers her talent for photography – “The camera’s shutter was a lever at the side of the box. It made a long, soft, metal sound, the sound of capture and theft” – which is exactly what is to happen.

The novel is also a work of gendered justice for which I am grateful. Ruth and Dora’s milieu had many women participants who were just as gifted, just as fearless and worked just as hard as their male comrades. The women were instrumental in assisting people of both sexes and all classes trying to flee Germany, and of alerting the wider world to Hitler’s threat. They were, additionally, prominent spokeswomen in the fight against the oppression of women before and during Hitler’s time. However, despite what they say, they suffered themselves from this oppression during their own lifetimes and have suffered from the erasure of women from history in the many decades since.

Toller and the others are Names, great men, great artists. As Toller ruefully says in the novel, Auden leaves lunch to write a poem that will still be read in two hundred years’ time (hey, but not by me). Thomas Mann and Einstein show up to speak for Toller’s release from prison. The men are in a boys’ club supported by the world and by history. They know each other and help each other; and history knows and has helped them. It ignores the women. Despite the women’s deluded proclamations of equality (and the men’s patronising ones), they are voluntary subordinates – Dora is Toller’s little assistant, safeguarding his genius while he marries someone else. His guilt, when it comes, is too late and too self-indulgent to prompt anything but contempt. Ruth is the girlfriend of (real) star journalist Hans Wesemann and sees herself, with typical self-abasement, as “an anchor for his high-flying.” 

Funder exposes these contradictions with sly satire and the fineness of a true artist. The men’s torments are funnelled into masterful works of art, heroic reputations, connections, cultural power, international fame and worship, which they are given by everyone and take full advantage of even when in the depths of existential pain. Toller, dictating in New York in 1939, writes sleazily and objectifyingly about his new secretary Clara, and just as sleazily and self-justifyingly about the old secretary, Dora. Ruth writes about Dora with a very different emphasis – she has human respect and understanding for her energy and intelligence. This is what makes All That I Am a work of art and not merely a factual fiction: its flawless differentiation of voice and viewpoint, its subtle calibrations of psychology and subtle revelation of people’s individuality, nobility and hypocrisy. The women are left with no name or legacy or reputation for genius or heroism while the men – Toller, Spender, Isherwood, Einstein, Auden, Mann – have everything gifted to them for free by history. On this point I thought of how much has changed since Hitler’s terrible triumphs (as he saw them) ….and yet, how little has changed, that it has taken until 2011 for just two or three of the heroines of the 1930s to be shown proper respect, given credit and a place in official history.

Funder’s book is  an impeccable act of cultural restitution, a beautifully written novel, a strong countermove against the neglect that official history has perpetrated against her heroines and a true horror story about the incremental development of fascism, dictatorship, autocracy and genocide.

All That I Am is published by Penguin.

Monday, 7 November 2011

UnderWire short film festival. Women are seen,, produce, critique and create.

UnderWire, the UK's only short film festival dedicated to showcasing the raw cinematic talents of women, have announced the programme for their second annual festival, running 23 - 26 November at The Shortwave Cinema in London, featuring an eclectic mix of genres, themes and aesthetic styles across seven short film strands.

Underwire is the most exciting new film festival to launch in the last few years. Alongside the Birds Eye View festival, which returns in 2013, it is redressing the under-representation of female talent with positivity, creativity, energy and joy. More than that, it gives film lovers an opportunity to discover thrilling talent, to be lost in stunning visuals, engaging stories, brilliant performances and sharp scripting. And it proves, with its chock-ful roster of amazingly gifted women, that when the people behind discriminatory lists, events, awards nominations, festivals, articles, histories and references protest that "there just aren't any women around" or that women are too shy/absent/modest/unambitious/minor/petty/small to make the grade.... they're lying.

With awards for Best Director, Best Producer, Best Writer, Best Editor, Best Cinematographer, Best Composer and Best Film Journalist, the festival hopes to move the UK film community towards a more gender balanced industry, which recognises and encourages the work of women working across a range of crafts in the UK.

UnderWire was established by co-founders Gabriella Apicella and Gemma Mitchell in 2010. Gemma Mitchell and Helen Jack are the co-Directors of UnderWire 2011. Festival patrons include Samira Ahmed (journalist for the Guardian, the Independent, Radio 4), Kim Longinotto (director of Divorce Iranian Style, Sisters in Law), Andrew Kötting (director of Gallivant, Ivul), Nira Park (producer of Scott Pilgrim v the World, Attack the Block), Laura Mulvey (author of Visual and Other Pleasures, Fetishism and Curiosity).
  • “With more than double the submissions and industry events from last year’s festival, we hope to increase opportunities for film creatives and audiences looking to meet and share work at a time when funding and resources are constrained within the UK film industry.”vHelen Jack, co-Director of UnderWire.
  • "UnderWire will provide a much needed impetus to take a look at what new female voices in film can do. I'm really looking forward to watching the talent emerge." Rebecca O’Brien, Producer Sweet Sixteen, Looking for Eric.
  • "There is a burst of female energy in British film at the moment, so having a forum for them to share their work at UnderWire is great!" Maxine Peake, Actor See No Evil, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
The films in this year’s festival look at issues ranging from national identity (The Cake, Sunday), female sexuality (First Bite, Nocturn), adolescence (Biatch, I Luv Matt Johnson) and social responsibility (N25, Himalayan Sisters), bringing together work that looks to plant the seeds of engagement and discussion for everyone who attends over the four days in November.

Alongside the film programme, UnderWire is hosting a day of affordable industry events on Saturday 26 November at The Shortwave Cinema and The Bermondsey Square Hotel. Sessions include Ladies First: Representation of Women in Music Videos, A Room of Her Own: Writing Leading Ladies and The Feminist and the Flirt: Performance Video Art, amongst others.

For the full programme details, visit

All text except the 2nd paragraph is (c) UnderWire press materials

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford

Images by Laura Oldfield Ford, from an upcoming poster campaign. For more details
click here.

Are you ready for a concrete future? Laura Oldfield Ford is a visual artist whose talent was developed at the Slade and the Royal College but whose sensibility is chiselled into fineness by the streets, blocks and derelict spaces of East London. Savage Messiah is the name of her fanzine, a collection of exquisitely worked pen and ink drawings that reveal the rigour of her Fine Art heritage, spiked with political awareness, polemical anger and a born documentarist's passion for people and places. The original fanzine editions were handed out in lots of 20 or 30 at a time but have now been collated in a fat, beautiful, black-paged book published by Verso, whose promo page can be found here. The book features an excellent introductory essay by Mark Fisher and Ford will be speaking at several UK events in the coming weeks.

Ford is as much a fine artist as a streetpunk. Alongside the development her work through fanzines, fliers and flyposters she is shown in traditional gallery spaces and will have a solo exhibition at the Hales Gallery from 25th November 2011 onwards, featuring billboard images of her work. I welcome the scale of a gallery-sized project, as Ford's art deserve grand and close inspection. How ironic it should be that the very yuppies - wealthy young City professionals buying up newbuild penthouses in edgy East London - should hang her work on their exposed brick walls. Given the mainstream acclaim Ford has received and deserves I almost think the 'zine, which is also published online, belittles the industry behind the images. It is clear that each one is the product of many hours' closeted studio work by a creator who has developed her craft with great commitment and discipline. I want to see them up close, on great quality paper, framed, large scale, in the peace of a gallery, with all its institutional endorsement. And I would like to be sent a big one so that I can have it for myself.

Savage Messiah is reportage turned into art of breathtaking precision, political sensitivity and power. On day-long research walks of ten miles or more, Ford covers everything from 'Hipster HQ' - the rapidly-developed and quickly gentrified areas around Dalston, Hackney Wick, Haggerston, Homerton and Shoreditch - to the poor, unhip council blocks which have received no funding or improvement despite endless promises, to the corporation-plundered once-wastelands of the far East London 2012 Olympic site. The chillingly named Olympic Delivery Authority has sealed off this area with a concrete wall surrounding what will be the Athlete's Village, supported by numerous international leisure brands policed by private security firms.

Ford observes, sketches and photographs these areas, which are simultaneously forgotten and earmarked for exploitation, making notes and speaking to residents. The result is not straight reportage or urban landscape recording but reality with the zoom lens sniper eye tuned to the max. The cracks in walls, the scrubby greenery growing between slabs, the broad backs of massed riot police and the sad, scratchy graffiti cut into the page with intense monochrome menace. There is, appropriately, a savagery and sharpness underlying Ford's work, equal parts anger, despair, love and urgency. The images are beautiful and terrible: fantasy figures of fashion brand advertising on hoardings next to blocks of flats with smashed out windows.

I would like to see equal recognition of the complementary element of Savage Messiah: the text. Printed in white Courier font on the inky matte background, Ford composes journalistic essays based on her observation of the sites she visits (her riffs on the gleaming monstrosity of Westfield shopping centre are hilarious), reports on her experiences and relays candid conversations with the many hundreds of residents of the unglossy areas usually ignored by lifestyle mag articles on the coolness of the East End. The stories are sad, funny, tragic and true. They are not reported verbatim but are as honed, edited, balanced and polished as the visuals.

Savage Messiah functions as both a literary and an artistic history of the vast geographical area Ford covers, often starting with a present moment like a property earmarked for demolition or an area blocked against wanderers or trespassers. It then moves back in time to excavate the experiences of locals, uncover previous uses of the site and reveal many different biographical, architectural, social and cultural manifestations across the decades. It is as much a seemingly-spontaneous (but actually highly refined) postwar people's history as a fierce and visually stunning contemporary elegy for an East London that will soon be engulfed in the razzmatazz of the 2012 Olympics - before being abandoned once more.