vFd Dalston is a queer performance space, that has a ten-year-old history of changing the world through partying.
In addition to hosting nights like Femmetopia, vFd offers studio and rehearsal spaces for rent to champion creative talent. We sat down with the creative director Lyall and booking mistress Phoebe to talk about the radical possibilities of space and community.
What is vFd short for?
Lyall: Well, it originally stood for Vogue Fabrics Dalston, but Conde Nast stopped us from using the word Vogue, so now we use the initials. But now people are playing with it, so in Spanish, V is pronounced B and they come out with subverted lines like - “it’s Big Fat Dicks!” and we’re like “No, that is not it!”
Phoebe: We’ve also come up with our own versions of it like Very Feminist Dogma or Veracious Female Dogs. We were thinking to have different people, different artist submit their version on the website and see what we get. Basically, you can project to it what you want.
Tell us a little about your history as a space and a collective of people?
Lyall: I opened the space ten years ago because we’d been having house parties that were completely destroying me. You know people arriving Friday and leaving Monday morning, so I thought I’d put them all in the basement, much easier to manage the madness. There used to be these pine-clad offices there, until my friend Pia, who is a trans-woman, got a sledgehammer and tore it apart, xerox machine and all. After that, we cleared it out and painted it white, and you know the saying, if you build it, they will come. I had my design studio on the ground floor with our office, and for the first three years we were unlicensed, and it just kind of took off from there.
It always was a queer space, and it evolved because there was nothing else like this in this part of Dalston and Hackney. At that stage it was costing thirty pounds round trip to take a black cab to the established queer places in the West End, we offered an alternative at vFd were two people could get absolutely pissed on thirty pounds. Then with the Olympics, we got a lot of press and ended up in all the guides for the London all over the world, so it kinda went kaboom. Now it’s just a matter of keeping it going and evolving. When we started we were open only two or three nights a week, and now we’re aiming at 7 nights a week.
Phoebe: There are a lot of changes to the area, and with the gentrification of Dalston the people who used to be able to walk here in 5 or 10 minutes can’t, so it means the community isn’t here locally. It changes the way in which you have to program the space.
This space needs to be there for the community to use, especially with the difficult circumstances that we’re in, with Brexit and the conservative government, policies and political struggles and the way in which queer scene has been politicized really sharply around trans rights and migrant rights. Space is a premium, and within the context of a lot of queer spaces closing and art spaces closing, it’s not just “queer nightclubs” that are under pressure, it is community and art spaces as well. Part of the changes in using the space throughout the week is about finding a way to keep this space alive without having to go into business with big investors, so we can stay independent and serve the community without having to answer to any shareholders or investors.
You say that vFd is a “basement of dreams where we can generate and harness queer energies in order to imagine and shape a better future”. How do you see queerness shaping the world in the future?
Phoebe: Politically, queerness is a way of being that is mainly about self-determination and accepting other people, so being able to determine your own identity, your own sexuality and your own gender without fear of violence or being excluded or marginalised through that. It is this idea of being different together and equal.
Lyall: It is about making community without judgment. So when you come into the community, you are accepted automatically. There is no tick-list. This is an intersectional community, where we all work together to make broader change happen. I attended the Women’s March a couple of weeks ago, and what was so present there was that we can’t just support one marginalised group and help them to achieve equality and recognition because then they inevitably become part of the problem.
If we don’t change the status and rights of everyone together then these struggles will go on for a lot longer than they need to. So in a place like vFd, people come to drink together, to dance together, and line up for the bathroom together, to have a chat and experience that sense of community and equality. So parties are political tools, for me.
Phoebe: It isn’t that everyone is automatically queer if they’re here, is that the community is there if you want to be a part of it and all you have to do is accept people for who they are and not try and exclude anyone because you think their identity isn’t valid. So it is creating and holding a space where everyone is valid and beautiful and important in their own way. That is powerful.
But you can’t have that space if there is someone there trying to control people’s behaviour in a negative way. In a femme-friendly space, if there is a man in there that feels entitled to for example touch women, you have to have that conversation about how it’s not acceptable and that person has to leave and maybe come back when they are ready to respect themselves and respect other people. There is a balance between including people and not being cliquey but also protecting people who are marginalized and creating a space where they can be free. It is a place for recharging, being whoever you want to be. It is also a temporary space, a basement where you are away from the streets and it’s not that being in here can stop the bad things happening out there but it is a space for hope, for a possibility.
Lyall: And it’s that recharging that gives you a confidence and the strength to just be who you are, even as you leave that space.
vFd specializes in performance and live art. How is this central to what you do?
Phoebe: In performance and live art, you often see lots of different bodies doing very odd things or brilliant things. Especially the kind of performances made for club spaces have a way of making you realise that bodies are strange and grotesque and beautiful and exciting and often that can then encourage you to not stand around and pose and feel limited by your body.
Lyall: And you can watch these performances on a screen, and that’s wonderful but as a curator and programmer I would never book someone without seeing them live. The way in which the performer grabs the attention of the audience and holds the attention and uses that energy to inform the audience on how it should react is something you have to see live, and you can’t get it on any media feed.
There is a electricity that happens with live performances that makes a night memorable. And it’s great to have amazing DJ’s and wonderful people in the room and all. But its moments like, “remember when that woman pulled that fabulous sweet out of her arse and ate it”, that will stick in peoples minds and become embedded in their memories about the place. It’s that energy that you can only get in those edgy, uncomfortable, wonderful performances that make you feel really high and excited to be in that space. There is far too little of that in London at the moment. Also, the space here is so small and intimate that it creates a relationship between the audience and the artist, an immediacy and access to an artist that you don’t find in larger venues. You can’t recreate that on a screen.
Queerness is often framed as being about inclusivity, but that’s not always historically been so. Do you think that’s changing and how do you see yourselves changing it?
Phoebe: Queerness, since it isn’t a fixed thing and it is about fluidity, has to be changing all the time anyway. So the fact that we’ve created a “queer space” doesn’t mean we’ve created these queer rules because then you end up with a dictatorship. Everyone is on their own journeys, and people are going to make bad judgments and no one can have perfect politics because people are contradictory and everything in the universe is incredibly complicated. So there is no way of creating fixed rules, especially around identity or sexuality. We often don’t know who we are and we shouldn’t have to fix those things, and I firmly believe in fluidity and self-determination.
This is not an authoritarian space of fixed politics but a space for constant dialogue, a community that is trying to figure stuff out together. What to keep in mind is that the differences in identity even with a group of people who would identify as “femme” or as female, for example, is so multiple. So if a person identifies as female and as a person of colour, for example, there is more to it: are you British born or a migrant? Have you had an experience of homelessness? What is the socio-economic standing of your parents? …and all these multiple factors that will shape your identity. Even in queer politics, we try and look at the identity to understand the experience but in reality, they can be very different and connected in complex ways.
Lyall: It takes time, because we want to create a space where everyone feels invited and included but to build relationships with the most marginalised communities—like trans-communities and communities of people of color– is a process. To build really worthwhile connections with trust, and to work with integrity, takes time. I’m sure there will be hiccups on the way but I think what’s important is that the intention is there, and you just have to keep on it and be aware of it and to take on board concerns and considerations. We’d love to have all these communities involved and include everyone, and it isn’t anyone’s fault if it doesn’t happen overnight. So it really is just a matter of keeping up the dialogue and when something goes wrong or doesn’t work, you just go back and talk to people again and try again.
So what is Femmetopia?
Phoebe: It is a night of amazing performance and amazing music, ultimately. It’s a space that re-centres “femme” identities so that you can come dressed however you like, whether that is in the most fabulous look or your best jeans and t-shirt or your worst jeans and t-shirt! Whatever makes you feel good. And it’s somewhere you will see or experience something unexpected, something that is transgressive or subversive, and that the artist we’re working with will encourage you to feel a freedom of escaping the expectations that are put on femme bodies by the rest of society.
Lyall: And it’s for you to share in and identify with the experience happening around you, and to know you’re not alone, that there is a community there for you. We just want to be encouraging a whole range of femme identities, femme-boys, femme-girls, butch, drag, whatever, the wider the spectrum the better. It’s about the variety of colour, race, sexuality, gender and age. Everything is represented here. That is what this space is about– the democracy of turning up.
Phoebe: For Femmetopia, the idea is to have all these different artists to create the party that they’d most like to go to. If it was only me putting on the performance it might just look like me and my idea of femme and that’s not what we want. We want the nights to sound and look like the people who are putting it on, so there is going to be a different energy to each night. This is about enacting the idea of politics of intersectionality, to show all the different possibilities and identities that can happen within this idea of a femme utopia.
Do you think subcultures lose their radical edge when they are adopted in the mainstream? Do you think that might happen with queer cultures, or is already happening?
Lyall: It happens all the time. Like when we opened ten years ago, being a drag artist in the East End was incredibly relevant and there was hardly anyone doing and now there are loads of people doing it. Which is great and empowering, but there is still a whole other world of stories that aren’t being told. So I don’t see it as a betrayal of any sort, it’s great that those stories are now being told and recognized but there’s still a whole other world to be heard and seen.
Phoebe: I’m less worried about appropriation when you’re operating with integrity and a rigorous sense of politics because I think what is being co-opted from queer culture by like H&M and all these corporations is purely aesthetic. It’s the glitter or pink haircuts and obviously those things have been signifiers of a queer style, I mean I’ve had pink hair, but those things showing up in mainstream media doesn’t empty out the purpose of queer politics, which is to disarm capitalism. It’s the same with punk. People say it was appropriated to the mainstream but punk wasn’t, images of it were. Those images were used for marketing purposes, they were designed to be sold. Real punk, in terms of people who wanted to create stuff full of energy and anger, still carries this integrity within it that can’t be appropriated.
Lyall: The whole thing about punk and DIY cultures is that you contribute these things via existing networks, you do it yourself, instead of some huge corporations. It’s friends, it’s people you know and trust and those networks are always going to be there and be valued and have their own energy. They fizz with their own power because there is an integrity that is built into them. The mainstream will get hold of the imagery but it can’t get a hold of what that community is about. There is no algorithm for fun.
Phoebe: You can’t buy your way into vFd. We’re not interested in how cool, or how good or how queer you look., it’s not about aesthetics. Like can you imagine having a V.I.P area in the basement? We’re always joking that it would have to be like under the bar! There is no sense of hierarchy.
In these uncertain and divided political times we live in, what kind of message of hope would vFd want to send out?
Phoebe: I do think systems of power are starting to unravel and we’re inside a time of crisis. The other important intersection that often isn’t talked about is between humans and the environment. We are reaching a critical moment in human history, let alone in the histories of identity politics. Naomi Klein’s 'This Changes Everything' was so important for me because of how it shows the ways that the huge problems we’re facing - the migrant crisis, climate crisis, social cleansing, capitalism, misogyny, colonialism - all of these intersect. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by that, but there are these concrete things you can do. Individuals and communities have to come together, and that can shift the whole course of history.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt, wrote about the ‘Banality of Evil’, about how the evils of fascism are created and perpetuated in small moments, in everyday practices, that mean oppressive systems slowly become accepted. We see this in the entrenchment of white supremacy and misogyny throughout society, right to the top. But once we realize that these systems are created through an accumulation of small actions, what we can do is the exact same in the opposite direction. We need to be creating movements of lots people doing small positive things, to call the systems out and try and shift them. For example, I’m not under the impression that through THERESAMAYSMACKDOWN, I can directly end the conservative government by just wrestling but it’s a move in that direction. It is a matter of not being passive because then you get swept up by the system.
Lyall: Engulfed in the madness.
Phoebe: Exactly. Resistance is a daily practice.
Lyall: It’s also a matter of explaining that practice to people who are willing to hear it. I mean I have a sixteen-year-old daughter, who had an experience of sexual harassment at age 14, a situation that never got resolved. For her to be around this space and these experiences and to be exposed to people like Phoebe is important. A couple of my friends have children that are young boys who are really having trouble with their masculinity, and I’m not saying that they’re gay but that they’re struggling with what it is to be a man now, and who are very angry as well. So these spaces are important, for the future generations as well.
As things become more economically and socially dire, after Brexit for example, the more you see young people coming to the realization that they have to act and that they can act. They are coming to know their own power, and especially with young women under twenty-five, there is an owning of their political power that I have not witnessed before. Little by little, if people act, the change will happen. These moments of crisis create countercultures, which I’m curious to see and welcome the changes to come.
Go party with the crew this Saturday at Femme Topia ft. theresamaysmackdown event here.
Photos by Emily Rose England