Ladyfest shifts women to Atlanta’s forefront

Festival focuses on female, gender nonconforming artists

When audience members approach cellist Chelsea Dunn after playing a show with her experimental music duo Dux, they usually only make eye contact with her male counterpart Casey Battaglino, or assume that he alone composed the work.

Scenarios like this happen often, and for many women working within Atlanta’s arts and music communities, it’s nothing new. That’s why Dunn, Nina Dolgin, Theodore McLee, Stephanie Pharr, and a team of volunteers have organized the first Ladyfest Atlanta, a three-day, grassroots-style festival full of music, visual art, film, workshops, vendors, and provocative politics — all led and performed by more than 100 women and gender nonconformists. The feminist, trans-inclusive gathering aims to give these artists spaces to share their work and to create dialogue around explicit and insidious types of sexism in Atlanta, and to focus on intersectionality — how different types of oppression, such as race, gender, class, and sexuality, interact with each other — and, for some, it’s long overdue.

Based around Downtown venues the Mammal Gallery and Eyedrum as well as the Big House on Ponce, Ladyfest boasts performances by musical acts such as Woven In, who brings a murky, shoegaze din to the lineup. The soul-infused production of CLAWS’ proudly southern pop, Nerdkween’s dreamy, experimental pop, the classical-meets-rock music of cello quintet Celli, and the absurdist rap hooks of Coco N ClairClair, are also on the bill. Workshops lead a broad range of businesses, including sex-toy startup Comingle and DIY media organization Murmur, along with stand-up comedy, films, gallery openings, and more.

“We’re not just a music festival, we’re a movement,” Dunn says. “We’re trying to instigate a real conversation and show people how to put those ideas into action.”

Ladyfest kicked off in August of 2000, when Olympia, Wash., hosted a six-day festival lead by riot grrrl mainstays Sleater-Kinney. Since then, various smaller Ladyfests have sprung up around the country in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia to far-flung international destinations such as Toulouse, France; Frankfurt, Germany; and Monterrey, Mexico. Atlanta has hosted three Ladyfests in the past, all of which fell under the moniker Ladyfest South, which focused on connecting women artists throughout the Southeast. The most recent Ladyfest South unfolded in 2007, occupying venues including Eyedrum and the Earl, along with now defunct locations including If Coffeehouse, and the 5 Spot (now Aisle 5 in Little Five Points).

There has never been a Ladyfest dedicated solely to Atlanta’s talents. That surprised Dunn when she returned home to Norcross from Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, where she was involved with organizing two Ladyfest Hampshire festivals. So, she took matters into her own hands.

In August, Dunn ambitiously cut out 100 fliers that read “Ladyfest Atlanta 2015” on sheets of printer paper, handed them out to strangers, and left stacks of them around town at various music venues, coffee shops, and record stores. “I was doing it out of desperation,” Dunn says. “I have never organized something big. My dream was for someone to be like, ‘Wow, this is awesome, I’m gonna take it on.’ But that didn’t happen.”

In August, after putting out a call for help at an all-female open mic at the Mammal Gallery, Dunn held a meeting with several people in attendance. But when the second meeting came around, only one person showed up: Dolgin, who now serves as Ladyfest Atlanta’s co-director with Dunn. There, they both realized that they would have to lead this festival if it was going to happen at all.

“It’s not like people don’t want more women to play at shows or don’t want better representation, but we’re telling people, you can’t just want it and you can’t just think about it,” Dunn says. “You have to actively reach out. And let’s check ourselves: How many people of color were involved this year? Who’s coming to our events? Is it all white people? What can we do to change it? Because we have to do something to change. Otherwise, it’s going to keep being the same thing. That’s why we’re putting this event together.

Theodore McLee, one of three partners of new contemporary culture space the Low Museum, explains that they are interested in uniting people who are underrepresented in their own art communities across Atlanta’s sprawl. “We exist in these pockets around Atlanta where we don’t know each other,” McLee says. “Even in the way we’ve met each other to organize this festival, it’s evident that, while we’re all doing cool stuff individually, it’s weird that we don’t have a supportive community where we know each other’s work and appreciate each other, and where we meet each other in a common space.”

Ladyfest Atlanta will train its more than 30 volunteers in cultural competency — how to be anti-discriminatory in interactions throughout the festival — and will have gender non-specific bathrooms. As Dunn explains, Ladyfest is an intentionally political space. “The work we’re doing is not safe work,” Dunn says. “When you’re fighting oppression, that’s not a safe fight. You have to be prepared to come against all kinds of things that will challenge you, and you have to understand that the world isn’t a safe space.”

Donations will be accepted throughout the fest. All proceeds go to the Solutions Not Punishment Coalition (SNaP Co), a local organization that focuses on helping trans people and gender nonconformists of color, sex workers, and those previously in prison.

While the mission may be challenging for some, Dunn, McLee, and Dolgin anticipate more than 1,000 attendees. In January, more than 400 people attended a fundraiser organized by local women’s group Dream Warriors at the Big House on Ponce. Ladyfest has since garnered an overabundance of volunteers.

But with so many people involved, Ladyfest’s organizers are taking precautions to make sure the festival’s progressive message does not get watered down, using the cultural competency training sessions, non-apologetic and radical language on social media, and an organizer’s panel to set the tone of the conversation. “We’ve had people come in and be involved and then stop being involved because we are so adamant about the language and our output and how people see us,” Dolgin says. Dunn, Dolgin, McLee, and Pharr feel the festival’s message and goals will come across clearly.

For Dunn, the goal is to have no need for Ladyfest Atlanta to exist anymore. “It’s really asking people — forcing people — to recognize that the way they go about organizing, treating artists, not paying artists, not actively inviting people into their space, all of these things have an effect on who ultimately has access to the institutions that could be so powerful in changing the racist and sexist roots that exist here,” Dunn says. “Being the capital of the South, this is an important place for change to happen.”