DIY : Talk for Bent Fest 2018 – Kirsty Fife – Medium
Hi everyone. I’m Kirsty Fife and I’m a zine maker, cultural organiser and diy musician currently playing in Cat Apostrophe.
Most of my creative practice explores intersections of being fat, working class, bi, femme, mentally ill and a survivor, and I think this also informs the methods I use to make stuff and organise things as well. I’m gonna use this talk to discuss some of the projects I’ve done in the last few years and also to talk about how these intersections influence the way I make stuff.
This talk will touch on potential triggers including fatphobia, abuse, harassment, anxiety and depression, if any of this will affect you then feel free to leave the room at any point.
I started making art and music when I was a lot younger, and went to art school as a teenager. I had a really shit time there, and at the time I couldn’t articulate why. I got a lot of criticism for not being a particularly technically competent photographer, and felt pretty alienated from a lot of the people on my course who were middle class, good at networking and able to speak in art talk in a way that didn’t feel natural to me at all. I graduated from art school and decided I wasn’t an artist cos it felt wrong making stuff in that way. At the same time I was making music with an otherwise all male band, who were driven by getting signed and being seen as good by record label people. Both environments together made me feel like creative practice wasn’t for me, cos I was never and still am not professional or technically proficient at what I do, and that’s what those spaces asked of me.
I encountered diy cultures at a much later point in my life, and through a weird route that involved livejournal communities, fat positive fashion communities then blogging. Blogging was probably my first form of creative and cultural activism. I ran a blog called Fatty Unbound for about four years, which was a fat positive and politically engaged fashion blog. I started it when I was on the dole because I didn’t feel like people in fat activist communities were talking about class enough. Access to clothes is something that we don’t talk about enough in queer and diy cultures, and that includes both access to essential clothes and access to clothing as a space for performance, play and exploration. Fatty Unbound was really significant for me because it provided an unedited space for me to publish writing. I didn’t really view it as needing to be well edited or articulate, it wasn’t at all mediated or controlled by anyone apart from me. Although a lot of my contemporaries used blogging as a platform to launch professional careers in social media or journalism, for me it was a transformative space because it was so unprofessional and diy. It was a space for mirror pics and typos and publishing thoughts that just came into my head there and then.
Through using blogging platforms I began encountering people making music, performance art and zines and organising stuff about fat activism in about 2010–2012. These people included Charlotte Cooper who was doing organising and making art about fat activism in a way which spoke to me as another working class femme, Unskinny Bop as a fat positive queer night, and NOLOSE, which is a queer-led fat activist organisation in America.
Through these spaces and zines I read at the time I began engaging with fatness and femme as radically queer positions. I started making zines which continued the writing I started on my blog. These include Make It Work (a fat positive fashion zine), Hard Femme (a perzine about intersections of femme identity, fatness, class, trauma and disability), Move Under Yr Own Power (interviews with women and queers making diy music). I started bands, I organised politicised events like clothes swaps and zine fairs and hang outs. I discovered that the easiest way for me to overcome anxiety and depression that previously made it impossible for me to participate in diy scenes was to organise things and be right at the centre of those events.
Through my creative practice I am always thinking about what it means to be too much as a woman, too loud, too fat, too aggressive, too hairy, too tall, too tight, too low cut, too dominant, too poor, too ugly, how crossing unspoken boundaries which define the limits of femininity can be transgressive. Fatness to me is a non stop experience of not fitting — being a physical and metaphorical misfit. I am constantly made aware of the ways in which my body does not conform in different spaces. My body is pathologised by medical institutions, to whom I am a walking embodiment of death and morbidity. People on public transport stare at me, snigger, shout, touch. I am scared every time I hear a camera taking a picture, because of the amount of times I have been photographed without my consent, for people to laugh at. Men view my body as more accessible to them because fat women should be grateful for their attention, because we’re all desperate for male attraction really. Bodies like mine are somehow simultaneously asexual and hyper sexual. I am constantly navigating what my body symbolises to other people in a way which makes it hard to inhabit it myself, to learn what it enjoys, to find pleasure in it.
I have experienced oppression in queer and diy spaces too. As a fat positive fashion blogger, I saw peers with more acceptable fat bodies than mine picked up and showcased as role models and brand advocates. The mainstream media was never interested in me as a representative of fat positivity because my body is a survivor’s body, uncomfortable in the limelight, more ugly and anxious than the fluffy body positivity they want to sell their clothes. In queer scenes, in spaces that are supposedly non-hierarchical, it often feels like my body is still at the bottom of the unspoken desirability pyramid. In our spaces, we don’t think enough about what accessibility for fat bodies looks like and I break chairs, can’t fit through doorways, I can’t fit into band t-shirts. Even in our spaces I don’t fit.
Fat is queer and punk as fuck, and this sense of not fitting is at the centre of my cultural activism. Not fitting is radical praxis. It highlights barriers and brick walls, limits of acceptability, unspoken boundaries of bodies and behaviours. It reaches beyond fatness too, if you’re also working class or queer or disabled then you too have probably felt like your background and identity and body do not fit the mould. In art practice I don’t fit because I can’t speak in art speak, because I’m not technically competent, because I can’t draw more than one facial expression. In music I am unwilling to pander to straight white middle class, middle aged men in the hope that my band becomes more popular or that someone will put out my records. My vocals don’t get any less out of key or wobbly or screechy over time, I just get more comfortable with making those noises. In all practice I am unwilling to sanitise myself, my body and my art so it becomes more acceptable to others. I am not willing to participate in progression narratives and professionalism, that means I am obliged to get better or become “good” at what I do as I move on.
In a zine interview with Cherry Styles, Eileen Myles talks about “lifelong amateurism” as an ethos which informs their creative practice. This year I have been thinking a lot about what it means to get older and grow with creative practice, to get more comfortable and less anxious but at the same time not really any better at playing instruments or hitting the right notes or restringing my guitar. The first time I put any writing out there or played a gig with my own songs I was completely terrified, and now I am less so, more able to feel like I deserve a platform for what I do. I deserve to take up space.
That said, self-expression is still a radically vulnerable act for me. I write from the gut, from a part of me that hurts. It often involves putting my trauma on the table, or a stage, on the internet. The process of doing this is exhausting, and a sustainable diy creative practice for me is one that prioritises care, nurturing and support of myself and others over productivity and progression in music, art or publishing. For me that means unlearning my own socialisation as a working class woman to keep going, and instead learning to stop, rest and recover when I need to. Right now it’s also really hard to make anything, because we’re often juggling work, precarious housing, benefit cuts, caring, mental health and cultural production. We don’t talk enough about what we do either, how hard it is and how terrifying it feels to put work out there.
As someone who is a woman, fat, working class, a survivor, disabled and queer, it’s hard to make stuff. I never feel certain in what I do and I’ve not yet managed to channel the confidence of a mediocre white man. I’ve just learnt to make it anyway, regardless of whether I can’t play the instrument or hit the note or draw hands. I kind of channel that anxiety in everything I do. Everything I make is uncertain, clumsy, haphazard, always amateur, but that’s okay because no one worth the time of day cares about my bum notes or typos, and the same goes for anyone here too, that stuff isn’t important like we’re socialised to believe. And if you’re a cis dude and you want to tell me how to photocopy or hit those notes, maybe just don’t?
Always just make stuff, even if you feel like it’s shit stuff, still persist and make it, because making shouldn’t be a hierarchy only available to the technically proficient and “objectively talented”. But also let’s talk about what diy actually means — because lots of us can’t just “do it yourself”, we need supportive networks around us in order to get the stuff we make out into the world. We need accessible spaces and technologies, and cultures that go against professionalism and narratives of productivity which exist in other spheres.