So Gianna, tell me about you and what you are up to in London. What are some of your favorite communities that you are a part of?
Ah, where to start… So, I do a bunch of stuff in London. I’ve basically done freelance event management for the last few years, which I got into by accident. And I have set up a few of my own events, including my own club night, I started a festival called Wowzers Festival…
I know you have done a lot in terms of professional and personal adventuring. How would you say you’ve come to find your current place?
I’m still not entirely convinced I have found my place in London, but basically I studied in Leeds… I studied Philosophy first and then did a Masters in Gender Studies and was really interested in gender equality issues and how they affect our lives. The time when I graduated was right at the peak of the recession in 2008 and so I graduated thinking “I have a Masters degree, I worked part-time during uni…” and I thought I would walk straight into a job. And it didn’t happen. For a long time. So it was a bit terrifying at first if I’m honest. I moved back home with my parents, and I happen to be quite interested in photography, so I accidentally became involved in some filming and video work. My brother was working as a filmmaker at the time and so I started helping him with filming and editing. And so I started freelancing for a little while. I kept applying to jobs through traditional routes and it wasn’t really working. So I ended up getting an internship at a women’s charity called Rosa: the UK fund for Women and Girls. It was an event organizing internship, so it was completely voluntary. So, I was like “Hell, let’s give it a shot!” [both laugh] So I literally packed my bags and moved to London and couch surfed for a while.
So that’s the first time you came to London?
Yeah. I was born in London actually but hadn’t really gone back since. It was pretty intimidating! I’ve lived in different cities before, but it’s a big place. Thankfully I had some friends and a couple of members of my family who lived in London and I was like “Hi, I’m going to crash on your couch. Its me again!” [Laughs] So I had to rotate between different friends so that none of them got too sick of me after awhile. So that was pretty special. Anyway, so I was working at this internship part time and basically everything I have done professionally since then has been through a network of really awesome women who have recommended me.
How did you tap into that? How did you meet that awesome group or awesome network?
Two ways. One was through working with the women’s charity, like I said. I was introduced to a woman named Servane Mouazan who runs an organization called Oguntê, a business development network for female social entrepreneurs. So I had never heard of this concept before, of social entrepreneurship or social enterprise. All I had heard of were women’s charities, and so I was really excited about the idea of using something to do with gender – which I knew I was really interested in – and using it in a way that was a bit more edgy. A bit more exciting and different, a bit more of a nascent field. And so I started helping out Ogunte with various things. So that was one route, and simultaneously I started volunteering for Ladyfest Ten.
Ladyfest is a movement that started in the year 2000. It was started in the States by a group of women who wanted to start a feminist, DIY, inclusive music festival, which didn’t really exist at the time. And it was very much a backlash against what was overtly masculine musical sub-cultures. So they did the first event which I think was in Olympia, Washington, and then the following year some kids in Glasgow were like “We’re going to do one!” and then it spiraled. And there have been these Ladyfests that have been popping up around the world. And there is no central organization, people just do it. They collect and do an event. I really liked the idea of doing something really grassroots and activist-y. So in 2010 we organized the 10-year anniversary Ladyfest in London. So I started volunteering my evenings and helping out. I got involved in this web of awesome, really creative, kickass women who were just doing shit. You know? They were just doing their own thing and thinking outside the box and really forward thinking in terms of gender and feminism, and queer, DIY, creative spaces. So that’s how I got hooked in.
Around this time of year a lot of people in the States are graduating. What advice would you have for people who might be considering, “Whoa, maybe I should not do something traditional. Maybe I should do my own thing, and freelance and work with a whole bunch of organizations at once. Do you have any advice about that?
I didn’t really choose to start doing freelancing, it chose me because there were no full time jobs available, so I just had to hustle. But I think what it forced me to do was get my shit organized really quick. It was a lesson in being really resourceful. I was like, “OK, I don’t have any money, I don’t have a job, and I don’t have anywhere to live. What skills have I got?” And so, I guess I would say if you are thinking about freelancing, you have to be really, really brave. Because it can be a little bit terrifying at first, but as soon as you start creating contacts who can recommend you, that’s when you’re golden. You just need to have your shit in place… you need to figure out the basic stuff like how to make an invoice and make sure you have a kickass CV so that as soon as someone says, “Oh I might be possibly interested…” You’re like “Hi, yes, I’m here! I’m ready, here’s my stuff. Let’s go!” I think that’s really helpful. And also just really capitalizing on your connections.
How do you do that?
My theory is, you help someone out and they will always repay you. Especially amongst women, I have found. Basically, through volunteering, I helped out a lot of people for free. And if you help someone out for free and you do a good job, they will always, always remember it. So I have done a lot of free work in my time [laughs], which is not always advisable when you are a bit more established. But in the beginning just do people favors, you can say, “Hey I have these skills, you need something done, here you go.” And then if you do it well, they will always try and repay you somehow. So I feel like if you make that investment of your time and your skills, it always pays off. For example, from interning at Rosa, I was then interning with Oguntê, and the woman that heads Oguntê is just such a good connecter of people that ever since then we have stayed in touch and she has put me in touch with so many jobs I have ended up working for. A recommendation from someone is ten times better than a cold call.
Maybe a thousand times.
OK, so we are talking about hustling and careers and stuff, but another way I know you hustle is by DJing… [laugh]
That is true.
I have danced to your tunes before. Tell me about DJing.
So I run a club night. Its called Fanny Pack. It’s a 90s themed night for grown ups [laughs]. And the way that it came about is that back when I was in Leeds being a student, I got a job at a bar. It was a bit of an indie disco, grubby kind of place. It was really fun. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was working there. And they used to have all of these different club nights, and I would sit through them all. And I said to my manager, “Look, I want to put on my own club night.” And he said, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” And I said, “No, seriously.” And as soon as someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m like, “I’m going to do it and it’s going to be amazing.”
So I put on this night with someone I knew who was a DJ. I said, “You know how to DJ, I know how to make posters… let’s do a club night!” [laughs]. And so we did it. And it was absolutely heaving, it was rammed. We had a queue all the way around the block and everyone absolutely loved it and I tapped into this idea that people love dancing to cheesy 90s music where there is no pretense. People just dance to crazy to songs they remember the words to from when they were kids. So I did a few nights in Leeds and then when I moved to London, I ended up meeting Annette Barlow through Ladyfest. She was running a thing called The Girls Are, which is a magazine for women in music. So after a couple of drunken conversations it became Fanny Pack because we thought that the name was hilarious and we are both big children basically.
Yeah, fanny doesn’t quite mean the same thing in the US.
It’s a lot more funny if you are from the UK. “Bum bag” is the traditional term here. So we enjoyed our little pun basically.
We decided to create a 90s themed, girl-positive, queer-friendly, everyone-friendly club night. A lot of the alternative club nights are kind of about posing and looking really cool and listening to cool music, and we wanted something that was the exact opposite: where people were properly letting their hair down dancing crazy, hanging out with their friends. A bit like a school disco but more fun because there’s alcohol [laughs]. So, now it’s been running for a couple of years. And I love it. We give out glow sticks, we give out retro-style sweets. We have an amazing VJ called Luvmeat who does 90s style visuals on the back wall. And people go crazy for it; I think its quite refreshing from the rest of the East London club nights that happen around that area where people take themselves quite seriously. We do not.
I remember a someone wearing a blue sparkly situation and just bouncing around the room to the music.
Yeah, it happens a lot. We get a lot of interesting outfits. Last time there were some side ponytails, some crimped hair. Lots of crop tops. Sparkly things, neon things, high top trainers, puffer jackets.
So how do you balance, if you do balance, all of these clubbing nights and your other projects?
I’m one of these people… I don’t really balance it because I just do things that are suited to me. I can’t really imagine myself where I have a split personality where you have your work self and your home self. I find something quite weird about that. I prefer to do projects where I feel myself, where I am expressing a side of myself. So basically, what I am trying to say is, if I weren’t doing all of these things as part of my job, I would just be doing them anyway. I am basically just doing all of my hobbies a lot and seeing what happens [laughs].
So tell me about launching your own festival. Where did that come from?
Yeah… Well it is called Wowzers Festival and it is intended to be a fringe event to the Women of the World Festival that happens at the Southbank Centre, which is this huge cultural institution and its very well established. About 5 years ago they decided to do a festival about women, and this came out about the same time as Ladyfest Ten. And I thought, “Wow, they are listening. The Southbank Centre is responding to this feminist movement. This is exciting.” So a lot of people who were involved with Ladyfest Ten got invited to an initial planning meeting, and then we were gradually disillusioned a little bit because I felt like they didn’t listen to the more radical parts of the feminist movement and the more edgy elements of gender politics. They delivered on what I feel was a mainstream version of feminism, which totally has its place, but perhaps isn’t as forward thinking as I would have liked. So year after year I went to the Women of the World festival and it wasn’t really doing it for me. It was the acceptable face of feminism if you will – Feminism Light. And it seemed to attract a predominantly white, middle aged, middle class demographic and to be fair, it has diversified slightly over the years, but I still feel like there is a whole subsection of people who identify as feminists who aren’t participating in large events like that. And I wanted to do something that was exploring that. So I recruited my colleague/partner in crime Amanda Leon-Joyce and we decided to do a fringe event to the WOW festival called Wowzers. So it is drawing on two of my experiences. I ran a fringe event with Amanda called OxfordJam previously so I have some experience on how to do a fringe event. OxfordJam is a fringe to the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship that happens every year. And obviously I had done feminist events through Ladyfest. So I thought, “How I can marry these two things together?”
How would you describe a fringe event?
They can be lots of things, but the most famous example in the UK is the Edinburgh Fringe which is now bigger than the original festival itself. I think the things that a fringe should be are: inclusive, open access, and have an element of spontaneity, but really it should be addressing a need that the main event is not. And capturing an energy that exists because of the main event, but providing an alternative that is something different. So for example, a conference might be super slick and you might have to pay to attend, usually a high ticket price. It might be centrally organized with a top-down approach. A fringe event is very much bottom-up approach; a bit messy, a bit chaotic, but super fun and lively and a bit more creative. So that was the vibe we were going for.
So how would you describe the process of Wowzers Festival and some of your favorite highlights?
So many things. I loved the people who got involved, they were so incredible. We did an open call for session submissions and we had some really diverse topics. There was stuff around trans* issues and how it relates to feminism. We had a session with Sex Worker Open University and were looking at the issues around sex work and feminism and how the two can co-exist, which is a controversial topic, but there was an incredible debate around that. We had awesome DJs come; Bad Reputation, which is one of my favorite club nights in London, came and did a set. So we had a real diverse mix of people. We had some bands playing – bands like The Tuts, Woolf, and Big Joanie – all bands who were unsigned or new and up and coming who perhaps wouldn’t have gotten a stage at a larger event. So it all felt new and exciting and different, which I really liked. And it was complete chaos, which is part of the point, in a way.
Making space for the chaos to flourish. So what is your favorite place that you have lived or adventured in?
The place I lived and want to go back to is Toronto. When I was a student I studied abroad for a year at University of Toronto and loved it. I really like the cultural attitudes of people there. I find that Canadians on the whole are very laid back and friendly in the way that Americans are, but they also have a slight sardonic edge like the British have. It’s a quite good balance and I like it a lot. I think partly it is because their weather creates a hell of a lot of adversity so I feel like they get a lot of their anger out on the weather and it leaves them really chilled out [both laugh]. Much like the Brits – here it is pissing rain all the time so we are constantly angry about the weather, and they have that too, but with extreme temperatures. So yeah, I feel like there is a shared understanding. It is a beautiful country and in Toronto in particular it is the most multicultural city in the world, so it is incredibly diverse. It is awesome there, I want to go back.
Do it! It definitely sounds like you have always followed what you care about and it has led to the next thing.
Yeah, that is right. Follow your hobbies! [laughs]
Last question: if you were to do a PhD in any topic, what would it be?
If I were to hypothetically do a PhD, I would like to write about gender and robots. [laughs] Well, I am basically a massive sci-fi nerd and I am interested in media and cultural analysis. So I really want to look at the representation of the icon of the female robot, which in itself is an oxymoronic term since robots by their nature are synthetic. They don’t reproduce, they shouldn’t have a gender, and yet every time we see a representation of a robot, it usually has a gender by default in order for it to be anthropomorphized. And where it doesn’t have a gender, it is assumed to be male.
When we create a robot that is female gendered it’s often hypersexualized or hyper-female. It is often used to capture a cultural belief about women at the time. So for example, it could be looking at our fears around women and how their role is changing in society. I want to go back to Metropolis, often considered the first science fiction film. In the film, the main character Maria ends up with an evil robot doppelganger, and it is very much the femme fatale character where people are completely terrified of her but also slightly turned on by the idea. In contrast, there is the real Maria who is a super angelic character, so there is this virgin-whore dichotomy that always comes up. The interesting thing about these female robot characters is that often the audiences interact with them in different ways than the creators intend for them to.
You even get modern examples now, like in Battlestar Galactica you find that the best, most awesome women characters are cylons. One of the main characters, “Number 6” is essentially a terrifying robot lady. She’s synthetic, powerful, evil, but also sexy, and those are the kinds of characters that people have posters on their wall of. They don’t care about the normal, human, white males. They care about these awesome kickass women who are wreaking havoc on the universe. So I think that’s really interesting that the audiences can take these femme fatale characters and subvert them and use them as feminist heroes in a way. I think there’s a whole bunch of examples in history that I could go into given about 3 hours [laughs].