Leftfest 2018: Combining Arts & Politics

On Sunday, Dundee plays host the second annual Leftfest, a one-day festival of political radicalism with music, spoken word, food and drink, and stalls from trade unions, local traders and campaign groups. The Leftfest Dundee Collective write for Conter about the values of such a project, its challenges and why people should come along and learn from it….

Since our first festival in September 2017, the Leftfest team has broadened into two collectives, based in Dundee and Inverness, organising cultural and social events all year round. In Dundee earlier this year, we organised an International Women’s Day club night in aid of Irish abortion rights campaigners and a 200th birthday party for Karl Marx at Conroy’s Basement, Dundee’s DIY punk venue run by Make-That-A-Take Records (MTAT).

In October, our Inverness collective will combat the old stereotypes of laissez-faire Highland liberalism with their inaugural “Never Mind the Boogeoisie” food bank fundraiser. Leftfest was originally conceived at a Dundee SSP branch meeting in early 2017, but it draws in many ways from an existing tradition. In 2012, when the far-right Scottish Defence League announced plans to demonstrate in Dundee, anti-racists backed by the local trade union movement organised a festival in the city square with local bands and stalls. “Dundee Together Against Racism & Fascism” became an annual fixture for the next four years.

Cultural organising is important because it reaches beyond those who engage with “traditional” party politics: it allows people who may not describe themselves as activists to play a meaningful part in political discussions. Furthermore, when art and culture are used as markers of status or as drivers of gentrification, it becomes even more important to promote radical and working class art as a tool of fulfillment and self-expression for marginalised people.

The opening of the £80 million V&A design museum in Dundee earlier this month was an opportunity for Leftfest to make its own distinctive intervention in local politics as well. While other critics of the £1 billion Waterfront regeneration were cast as “anti-art”, our collective statement came from a position of credibility as committed cultural activists.

Our first festival was organised in around a month by a handful of activists with little experience organising this kind of event. The learning curve was steep, particularly navigating technical matters like stage equipment: our friends from Make-That-A-Take offered invaluable advice on this front (and an extra amp on the day). We relied heavily on donations from friends, comrades and a local trade union branch to fund the event, having decided from the outset that all of our stage performers had to be paid for their work.

Our Dundee collective has grown steadily in size, but most importantly in experience. In organising our second festival, we have been more focused and distributed the workload more evenly among ourselves: this has allowed us to look at new ways of engaging people at the event, with participatory art workshops making their first appearance this weekend.

leftfest2.jpg

Our biggest challenges so far have been around representation and accessibility, issues which continue to permeate political activity more broadly. Political activity tends to be centred on single issues, sometimes at the expense of a number of marginalised communities. Whether it's under-representation in terms of speakers at a rally, or the saturation of a particular issue by corporate interests, we aim to undercut these obstacles. Every Leftfest event so far has included a gender-balanced line-up of performers and speakers; our first festival featured a children’s storytelling corner so that we could accommodate parents who would otherwise struggle to arrange childcare.

However, our best intentions have also come up against systemic obstacles. The extent to which ableism pervades our society became obvious to us as we struggled to find suitable venues for Leftfest events which have access ramps or adequate bathroom facilities for wheelchair users. Our most recent event, a 200th birthday party for Karl Marx, prompted a handful of complaints because the basement venue was inaccessible by wheelchair.

Besides our apology, this led to a major re-assessment of our approach to accessibility: ahead of this weekend’s festival, we published an extensive accessibility note after conducting a survey of the venue, corresponding with management, and consulting Dundee Access Group. We acknowledge and deeply regret that there are still accessibility issues, but we’ve taken action to show that we’re serious about making our events inclusive for all.

This weekend’s festival in Dundee promises to build on the momentum of last year, when over 160 people attended, and we look forward to welcoming friends and comrades along to enjoy an even bigger line-up of music, spoken word, drag, arts workshops and stalls. Local acts VFLambda, St Martiins and The MARX will join Edinburgh feminist punks The Farting Suffragettes, Glasgow abstract protest musician Kapil Seshasayee, and Liverpool singer-songwriter Alice Nancy on stage, followed by a set by local DJ Nina Stanger.

On Friday 13 October, the first Leftfest Inverness event features the return of some longtime pals, as Tomintoul's finest riot grrrl two-piece Bratakus headline their second Leftfest event (after Leftfest Dundee 2017), along with “protest pop” group Josephine Sillars + The Manic Pixie Dreams; the songs and spoken word stylings of the first Scots scriever Hamish MacDonald; bratty, catchy Highland pop-punks Table for Four; and the fast and furious world folk styles of On the Black.

All profits from the event, after performers’ fees and travel have been paid, will go towards the Highland Foodbank - one of the busiest and hardest hit foodbanks in the entire country. Punters are also encouraged to bring supplies along for the food bank collection. A year on from our first event, Leftfest is still a project in its early stages. We haven’t yet fully realised our goal — bringing together arts, culture and working class politics — but every event brings us closer, and we hope they’re as enjoyable to attend as they have been to organise. You can find out more about the festival in Dundee and the fundraiser in Inverness on Facebook.

Both photos by Scott MacDonald.

@LeftFestDundee