One sunny summer’s evening I was sat sipping a beer outside the Corona bar and asking people I barely knew to engage in some makeshift swearing. You see, downstairs in Dubrovnik, a feminist swearing soiree, organised by the feminist think tank Hattu, was about to start. The empty stage and the lobby-like bar area were waiting for feminists to talk mean and dirty.“Do you want to vent your genderised spleen?” we asked, in our marketing material.
Thursdays in July are not always the best time for ‘political’ events, so I wasn’t expecting a huge turnout. Then my PR agency friend pointed to the door and said, “That queue is yours.” I hurried inside to greet the arrivals when the doors opened.
As the event got under way the house was full to overflowing, and we, the organisers, were unsure how things would unfold.
I’ve hosted countless discussion events in this dear country of ours, and I know that once the panel or the experts have finished and I say “We can now take questions or comments,” there invariably follows a profoundly embarrassing silence. People usually don’t want to get directly involved.
But at the feminist swearing soiree it was different, in the vein of good old anarcho-feminism! The event could be a disaster. People could utter pure filth, or pearls. There’s an open mic, and no restriction is set on style or length when taking the floor. The result, this time too, was a swearing soiree that featured genuine laughter, wild clapping and sheer dumbfoundedness in the face of injustice and grievance.
One of my favourite speakers was a pregnant midwife who talked about what really, really bugs her: birthing fads. Those present who had experience of giving birth practically wet themselves laughing as she presented first a birth dance and then orgasmic birth. Another one that got us laughing was about experiences working in day care. How he, as a man, always got special thanks for things that were taken for granted among the female staff.
As the evening drew to a close, however, hilarity was joined by tragedy: rape stories couldn’t be avoided. Some of the audience were discomforted by this. The reaction tells us a lot. Why can’t we speak about something that so painfully affects so many women’s lives?
The swearing soiree gave everyone the chance to let rip, to join in with the cursing karaoke, or just to tell others what really gets up their nose. Most chose the very last of these. Many of the most vehement swearers were those whom I had tried to coax onto the stage several times before they finally relented. You could even get on the stage in pairs or as a group.
These were just ways of trying to tempt people into getting up and talking to the audience. An ideal method was of course to book the event in a bar environment where the drinks were flowing, as we had done. Another useful trick was the lack of an official programme. If no-one steps up, the event is of course a non-event. The third lesson was that to get inexperienced talkers to open up, they needed to be asked in person. A general call to someone from the stage doesn’t work. I walked around the entire place with my notebook several times, asking people personally, with eye contact, if they would come and swear on stage and tell us what really annoys them. In the end we had 48 people do just that, and the whole thing lasted six hours, including a couple of toilet breaks.
The success of any interactive event that relies on material from an audience clearly requires the nerve to talk to people individually and the realism to accept the risk of failure.