WayWORD Festival: Art is Activism

The WayWORD Festival, a student-led creative arts festival run by the WORD Centre at the University of Aberdeen is without a doubt, summed up with the expression “maximum effort, maximum reward,” in terms of the time and energy it took to get it all together, and the obstacles we overcame. The tagline we chose, “unconventional forms of expression,” gave the organisers a free rein to platform all kinds of voices that are not given the attention they deserve. The festival couldn’t have started off on a higher note, as the first event in the proceedings was a women and non-binary performance night in support of Black Lives Matter, featuring Jayda David and Mae Diansangu among others. The atmosphere was electric and very reminiscent of Hysteria’s recent poetry slam.

To me, a staple of feminist arts is the fact that there are so many different ways to be an artist, and no medium is inherently better than another. Art is political, and we weren’t about to let people forget that. In the Queer Creators panel featuring our very own Ana Hine, the conversation ranged from exploring mental health in art, to homophobia, to Universal Basic Income and how it helps artists. The festival deconstructed the gatekeeping and validity politics that often surround different forms of expression, and I like to think that this taught the audience something. I didn’t think I’d be watching Dr Tim Baker, a professor of Contemporary Lecture at the University of Aberdeen, talk to Rowan Heggie about “passive-aggressive art” and glittery canvases that read “thank you for the trauma” – but that interaction is exactly the kind of thing that dismantles the idea that some art is worthy but other art is not. 

In addition to the false dichotomy between good art and bad art, there is also one between online and offline activism. Online activism has become more and more significant as COVID restrictions show no sign of stopping, and it’s important to note that just as no form of art is inherently better than another, this also applies to forms of activism. Street protests, while the most well-known, are just one of a multitude of forms of activism, and putting them on a pedestal devalues the incredible work that disabled activists have been doing from their homes since long before the pandemic began. 

At a time like this, when the arts aren’t being given the support they need and marginalised voices still aren’t being listened to, holding this accessible, inclusive, free, online festival in the face of such intense global turmoil was a triumph. WayWORD wasn’t about escaping from real life to watch a creative arts festival, it was listening to Lemn Sissay MBE talk about his experience in the foster care system, and learning about how comics and zines can approach the toughest topics in a way anyone can understand them. WayWORD was about having agency, and the power of creative expression even when the world is like this. I hope this festival radicalised some people, and I have reason to believe it did. At the Black Lives Matter performance night, Mae read a poem called ‘The Revolution Will Be Televised’, and I swear I almost cried watching our BSL interpreter sign the line, “The revolution will have closed captions and a BSL interpreter” as the audience cheered. WayWORD is so-named because to be an artist is to be wayward in the sense of being on your own path, and going into uncharted territory, especially if you’re also queer, a person of colour, or disabled. I am so proud that the team managed to hold fast in unimaginable circumstances, and I look forward to meeting next year’s committee.

Follow WayWORD on Twitter @waywordabdn.

Words: Beatrix Livesey-Stephens

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