Troublemakers: Queer//Feminist Academic-Activists in Cultural Theory & Activism

Posted on March 23, 2013


Okay so I have been doing, writing, thinking and teaching all things DIY culture for a while now.  I started out doing research on UK riot grrrl in 2005. At that time riot grrrl was still a pretty bad word and the oral histories I did were sometimes the first time they had talked about riot grrrl for years. Riot grrrl was seen as a shameful and embarrassing moment in teenage/adolescent life, something that didn’t work out and ended up mutating into the Spice Girls and Blair’s Babes. Not. Quite. The. Point. Since then riot grrrl has become much more talked about in the UK and USA and I ended up writing a chapter based on my oral histories and other interviews conducted by the EMP for Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now in 2007 the same year I was involved in organising Ladyfest Leeds and volunteered as a drum tutor at Ladies Rock! I got involved in editing and writing for an academic book in 2008, got my PhD in 2010, published my first riot grrrl journal article in 2012 (I wrote it in 2008!) and recently a book I edited on all-girl bands came out. You can access all the stuff I have written in books and journals (as well as my thesis) for free here.

The process of getting my PhD, teaching courses on popular music, sexuality and gender, presenting work at academic conferences, research seminars and doing my first keynote has been a massive learning curve for me. I have always been a shy person, I used to dread doing presentations, I never thought my writing was good enough, I never felt clever enough and I didn’t think I had to nerve or skills to articulate why this culture is so important albeit in its contradictory and conflicted fucked-up-ness. Being in bands, putting on gigs, and encouraging other girls was where I felt ok. So to try and take that life into an academic space seemed odd. Multiplied by being an interdisciplinary type with no sense of home department. I was a bit of a geeky inarticulate drifter.

Since 2011 it seemed like there was a real shift to bring people together who were interested in DIY feminist cultural activism. There was the Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism at the University of  York, Researching Feminist Futures at the University of Edinburgh, the Gender and Subcultures symposium at Northumbria University and Forthcoming Feminisms: Gender Activism, Politics & Theories at the University of Leeds. I took part in all of these spaces in different ways. It is so rad that there is interest in this. Taking into account the glut of subcultural theory and the ways in which academics tend to miss the point of DIY cultures altogether. Preferring to argue about whether we should be using different terms like scenes, neo-tribes or milieu; making judgments about subcultural authenticity, identities and resistance and/or creating skewed histories of punk that tends to leave out radical women, people of colour and queers (check out Punkademics and the special punk anteriors issue of Women & Performance for more on this).  Nonetheless I felt that these spaces still do not go far enough in terms of getting to heart of the messy, contradictory, addictive and compulsive qualities of DIY feminist life.

For me DIY culture is all about activating people in different ways. I have learned so much about power, feminism, activism, radical ideas, experiences and community in zines, collective organisation, gigs and by making music. Academic writing, lectures and conferences are only a small part of my learning. The academic institution represents one tiny corner of a multitude of spaces, ways to produce knowledge and groups of people who are doing and thinking about DIY cultural politics. It started to make less and less sense to follow the rules of academia and think about DIY feminist culture within the allotted times, word counts and learning objectives. I wanted DIY culture to come first and for academia to make a useful contribution to it.

Like what if you are at a gig and there just so happens to be someone there talking about their ideas in between bands with people who are also doing the thing that they are trying to make sense of? What if you are an academic and you come to a space where there are people working on alternative histories of your topic who have found out about grassroots actions that make your head spin. Would you start to think more about how society values particular knowledge producers over others? What if you are a girl who has never heard of DIY culture and finds out what a zine is and that she doesn’t have to wait for permission to write? What if you’re a punk feminist sick of white male-dominated histories that keep blathering on about the sex pistols and you want to change this? What if we could bring together a community of activists, academics, punks, feminists, queers, zinesters and misfits to change the way we write, tell, and make histories from zines, to academia, to the culture at large. This what I hope Troublemakers could be.

The first Troublemakers event took place on Friday 15 March 2013 at The Empty Shop. It started with a panel with Kate Wadkins and Melanie Maddison who although they both have MAs they consider themselves to be non-academics. They spoke about their projects that are both zine-based. Kate spoke about art zines and how they challenge the gallery’s control over the art world. Melanie spoke about her zine Shape & Situate as a radical public history project that encourages contributors to find out about the radical women in their own communities and submit a poster. She also brought her exhibition of these posters to display in The Empty Shop. I didn’t speak like originally planned as I have been massively ill with the flu so just about managed to scrabble together a decent introduction this time round. Then Andrew Lips and Onsind played. There were plenty of things to check out with distros from The Canny Little Library, The People’s Bookshop, Newcastle Nerd Punx and Discount Horse Records.

It was lovely to see so much interest in being a Troublemaker. I hope this is the start of something awesome. If you are interested in where this goes next, were there/want to give me any feedback on what you thought/ see how you can get involved you can email me:  julia dot downes at durham dot ac dot uk. I am plotting initiation tasks, special handshakes, future events, better haircuts (mainly for me), non-competitive punk points,  dares, spin the bottle and a multitude of sins…

Here’s some photos from the night:












troublemaker panel: melanie, kate & julia being ‘tough’

mel mad









melanie and her Shape & Situate poster exhibition












the audience













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