Edinburgh gets Pussy Whipped again

In 2012, I was lucky enough to review Edinburgh’s first queer alternative festival, Pussy Whipped, curated by rising local electro-pop star, Ste McCabe. When I was invited to attend and review the 2014 sequel, I jumped at the chance. The first Pussy Whipped festival was a good time with good politics so I had high hopes for this second outing.

According to the programme, Pussy Whipped exists because alternative music culture “often feels like a big, heterosexual boys club”. The festival is open for everyone to attend but the stage is reserved for queers and women in a bid to redress this imbalance.

The Wee Red Bar is once again the venue for the Friday night part of the festival. The Wee Red is a grimy art college bar and well known as the only place in Edinburgh for non-commercial indie discos. This dank venue will be familiar to many; the flickering red lights, cans of Red Stripe and sweaty vintage cardigans are a feature of many a misspent weekend. Though familiar, this Friday The Wee Red is subtly different: from the radical zines on the door to the freshly liberated unisex toilets. The programme promises: “Harassment or meanness of ANY kind will mean your bum flies out the door.” Pussy Whipped is about fun, but fun for everyone and it is obvious that the organisers have put some serious thought into making the night a properly inclusive good time.

Perhaps as a result, the crowd is not quite the usual Wee Red brigade. The grimy art school disco has been occupied by queers – and is all the better for it.

Both nights are compered by Annabel Sings, who is new to Edinburgh but fast becoming a stalwart of the queer scene and described in the programme as a “general weirdo and forerunner of vaudeville revival”. She has a bellowing voice that demands the attention of the crowd, no matter how many cans of lager have been consumed.

The Ethical Debating Society’s anger is reserved for Tory voters, probably rarer than giant panda babies among this crowd

Liz Cronin kicks off the night with inimitable sweet songs about depression, suicide and spending taxpayers’ money on DVDs. Liz is a familiar face due to being a return performer from 2012’s festival but, if anything, the songs feel more relevant and more confidently delivered. The audience are hushed for this acoustic beginning and people start to sit on the floor, adding to the festival atmosphere.

Sitting on the floor is not a good strategy during the set from powerfully loud Edinburgh punk scene regulars, Seafield Foxes, who are next up. The floor-sitters are dragged upright by singer Lizzie’s gritty vocals and physical performance. Wearing an Equal Marriage wedding dress, adorned with stencils and the words “love has no gender”, Seafield Foxes rock the crowd so much they eventually join it, much to the audience’s delight.

The group Maybe Cyborgs are billed as “punk vs candy” and are my personal highlight of the night. With vocals that are part Frank Black, part Bryan Ferry, this glam rock power pop ticks a lot of boxes for me. Looking around, I notice the venue has gone from quite full to comfortably packed.

Frontrunners for having the best name of any band at the festival are The Ethical Debating Society, who are up next. Delivering solid riot grrrl to the people’s republic of Scotland, their anger is reserved for Tory voters, probably rarer than giant panda babies among this crowd.

To finish, next come France’s King’s Queer, who are the perfect transition act between a musical performance and a full-on dance party. With one half of this duo masked in what can only be described as a tightly fitting head sock (eerie and sexy in more or less equal measure) and the other bouncing around the stage with irrepressible energy, Kings Queer are an electro act who make you take notice.

The set up is cosy and informal, with the smell of lager (and a few other things) still lingering in the air

The next day is Saturday and, attendees have the option of two different programmes which are very difficult to choose between. The Abbey Mount Centre plays host to a wide range of workshops, including Hollaback‘s session on ending street harassment, a discussion group on non-binary gender and why prison abolition is a women’s and LGBTQI issue. There is also a ladies and queers’ rock school. On the other side of town, The Wee Red hosts an afternoon of films curated by local cinema buff Morvern Cunningham.

I choose to save other festival goers from my over-enthusiastic out of tune singing and attend the film screenings. I would have liked to attend a mixture of workshops and films but the distance between venues makes that impractical, which is a shame. Edinburgh is a notoriously difficult city in which to organise accessible events on a low budget. The beautiful historic buildings have not been designed with mobility in mind and, almost everywhere, ‘cheap’ either means being in a basement or up-stairs. It would have been better if the workshops and films could have been in the same place but Pussy Whipped managed to find accessible venues while keeping the ticket price affordable, which is a good model for how these events should be planned.

Feeling slightly bleary eyed from the night before, I return to The Wee Red Bar. The set up is cosy and informal, like returning to your friend’s house after a wild party for a film marathon, with the smell of lager (and a few other things) still lingering in the air. The first film is a work in progress documentary about LGBT culture and activism in St Petersburg, titled Wings in Sleeves, directed by Kseniia Khrabrykh.

This film follows LGBT activists in Russia fighting homophobic ‘anti-propaganda’ legislation, which outlaws ‘promoting homosexuality’ to minors. This legislation is similar to section 28 in the UK, which was repealed in 1999, though it is arguably even more destructive, far reaching and violently policed. In 2013, anti-propaganda laws were passed across Russia despite an international outcry.

Wings in Sleeves was shot in 2011, when these homophobic laws were first passed at federal level. The filmmaker follows LGBT rights activists campaigning against this policy and presents an intimate picture of activism in Russia. Conversational interviews are interspersed with footage from protests and public meetings. Having participated in my fair share of campaigning in the UK (indeed, I am missing two separate demonstrations just to attend Pussy Whipped) much of what is featured in the film feels familiar, though the violent resistance that the campaigners are faced with is difficult to watch. Narratives about activism and social change often focus on progress; Wings in Sleeves provides a timely reminder that things can and do get worse. One of the most frustrating scenes features a public meeting where those proposing this legislation and those against are able to put their cases across.

Campaigners had fought to hold consultations in order to halt the legislation, but sadly this backfires as members of the public show themselves to be in the main part, incredibly homophobic.

The film ends with scenes of violent gangs pursuing activists leaving a protest. It is difficult to watch, with an abrupt devastating ending which doesn’t give you much hope to hold on to. Nonetheless Wings in Sleeves is an example of well made, moving and, above all, important filmmaking.

Sandra Alland uses a variety of techniques to ask the question of ‘who gets to be able’

Morvern goes on to introduce the short film section focused on the theme of identity. Alfalfa, from 1987, provides a humorous look at words associated with queer culture, and, in particular, how words can be subverted by countercultures which re-appropriate them. Mark Chapman’s Trans, from 2013, provides a short but powerful insight into a trans awakening, while Sam Firth’s ID offers a sweet, relatable personal history through a decade of different haircuts.

We are lucky to have the directors of the final two films present and their introductions give additional insights into the shorts. Able by Sandra Alland mixes poetry, stop motion photography and recorded voice to create her “metaphoric and literal vision of barriers to access”. Through the film she uses a variety of techniques to ask the question of “who gets to be able”. I enjoy the way the film takes viewers through the streets of Edinburgh, using stop motion photography, forcing us to realise what a difficult city it can be to navigate. Her film also uses poetry, benefit applications, border control terminology and medical and blood donor questionnaires in order to look at other intersections of identity and ‘ability’. Some of this is a little lost on a first viewing, though it is certainly a thought provoking piece.

The powerful Just Me by Matthew Kennedy, made in 2013, is a more straightforward look at identity through the device of labelling. By attaching different aspects to his face as literal labels, Kennedy reminds the audience both of the numerous different groupings we all fall into, as well as our underlying individuality.

The afternoon of films is brought to a close with a screening of The Man Whose Mind Exploded by Toby Amies, described in its promotional material as “A movie about brain damage, cocks, art and love.” This is touching and intimate documentary filmmaking at its best. Brimming with affectionate humour and tinged with sadness, Amies follows Drako, a gay man living an unconventional life from his council flat in Brighton. Drako is a flamboyant and unpredictable man in his 70s, who surrounds himself with hundreds of old letters, photographs of friends and his favourite cock pics. Amies has an obvious affection for his unpredictable subject, whose exhibitionism and willingness to be exploited make him more than a passive subject. Ultimately uplifting and enjoyable, I would recommend catching this if it is screened near you.

Priscillas serve ostentatious pop with a strong sense of humour and the absurd

 Feeling somewhat like my own mind might explode, I prepare myself for another evening of fantastic music and dancing. By the time I return to The Wee Red Bar, the cinema has vanished and V for Vagina are rocking hard, getting Saturday night off to a fearsome start.

AMiTY is up next and is fabulous. Armed with a guitar and a looping pedal she makes music which is funny, sweet, upbeat and fun as well as wistful.

Priscillas take fun to another level, making an excitable entrance through the audience, wearing sparkly jumpsuits, headbands and shades. Taking their name from the now renamed Leith Walk gay bar, they serve ostentatious pop with a strong sense of humour and the absurd. Their songs are full of fun, although I have to admit that part of me does grimace at the somewhat classist undertones of ‘Crack Converter’, which you might guess is a song about selling your stuff at Cash Converters.

Orphans are up next, described in the handy pocket-sized zine programme as “what would happen if you put Shampoo and the Ramones in a blender”, which is a far better description than anything I could come up with. Their pop-punk is infectious and they are a small but mighty duo. If this is what Scotland becoming more Scandinavian could sound like, I am all for it.

Zdrada Palki finishes the night with more electro, wearing a beard and featuring Madonna songs and other pop culture references within her repertoire. Her songs go down really well. You can tell that the audience will be dancing till the wee small hours, no matter what.

The programme on Sunday looks excellent, but I have to admit I am exhausted by this point, so I am unable to attend. It features poetry from working class feminist Sarah Crewe, a performance from the aforementioned Sandra Alland, an open mic session and a grand finale from Shiny Shiny, whose new project The Ironing Maidens travels through gender roles, queer and women’s issues and technology.

Ste McCabe and the organisers manage to cram so much into the Pussy Whipped programme; with tickets to the whole weekend costing a mere £6, it is easily the best value festival I have ever attended.

Pussy Whipped set out to “challenge ideas about who makes great alternative culture”, a feat they have accomplished and then some. Now when is the next one?

Image descriptions:

1. A view inside The Wee Red Bar through the glass. Hanging inside on the top left is a piece of black and red fabric, showing a grinning cat with ‘Pussy Whipped’ written in its mouth. ‘The Wee Red Bar’ logo is stencilled in red on the top right side of the glass. There are bikes just visible outside (at the bottom of the picture). Casually dressed people can be seen inside, chatting to each other as they wait to go in. There are desks just in front of them and noticeboards full of flyers.

By Chris Scott, Literary Paparazzo, used with permission.

2. A scene from a film viewing, showing many backs of heads bathed in pinkish/brownish light. The image on the screen in front of them is obscured, with just the light parts dominating.

By Chris Scott (see above for websites), used with permission.

3. Piscillas performing in purple jumpsuits. Kirsten Adamson (left, facing camera) is at the microphone, wearing sunglasses and brown boots. She is bending her knees and holding out her left arm. Sara Forshaw (right, back to camera) looks on, wearing a white sweatband. Also the front page picture. [NB: The dark glasses and back of the head may mean I have got this description the wrong way round!]

By Chris Scott (see above for websites), used with permission.

Liz Ely is a feminist living in Edinburgh. She sometimes works for a feminist campaigning charity, she also sometimes does housing activism and stand-up comedy. The rest of the time she is probably watching box sets and eating Maltesers