Venus Fest is a shining example of intentional inclusivity

Now in its second year, the Toronto feminist festival proves that you can design a festival that champions representation and the creation of safe spaces.

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October 3, 2018

I arrived in front of The Opera House in Toronto at 6PM on the second night of Venus Fest. The doors wouldn’t open for another hour or so, but I was quickly greeted by a woman who ushered me in via the sandwich shop attached to the venue and through a pathway into the lobby. There were women managing the stage, women setting up the box office, and women volunteers milling around. It felt like a homecoming, and I was one of the lucky participants who got to watch the last dash of magic take shape before the crowds arrived. The air was electric as bodies rushed about, last minute change of plans communicated and carried out. It was clearly an intentional effort, and increasing the representation of women behind the scenes added a sense of comfort, belonging and truthfully, protection. It was inspiring to see so many women working together with the collective goal of supporting the female and non-binary artists who would soon take the stage at the second instalment of Venus Fest.

In the past year we’ve seen a rise in the demand for an increase in female and female-identifying voices in the music industry. In the wake of the Annenberg Report in January, 45 festivals worldwide have promised to implement change to their lineups by promoting women and increasing their representation to be equal to that of their male peers within the next five years. Meanwhile a woman in Toronto has already stimulated that change, even surpassed it, and it only took her one.

Aerin Fogel, a Toronto-based artist, responded to the lack of diverse voices by creating a music festival focused entirely around women and non-binary artists. Venus Fest held its inaugural showcase last September and featured Canadian powerhouses like 2017’s Polaris Music Prize winner Lido Pimienta, and esteemed ambient solo artist, Liz Harris, who performs under the moniker Grouper. This year, Venus Fest returned for not one but three evenings of music programming with an impressive lineup that included the sweet hypnotic rhythms of TiKA, Maylee Todd’s mesmerizing one-woman performance on beats and harp, indie rockers Partner, Toronto’s rising R&B star a l l i e, and the killer rap (and synchronized dance moves) of Washington D.C. duo, OSHUN.

Venus Fest is further evolving the traditional music festival scene by creating a physically different space.

Earlier this year, Canadian Music Week and North by Northeast were two of the 45 international music festivals that pledged to present a 50/50 ratio of female and male artists on their bill by 2022. But if Fogel can put together a fully-fronted female and female-identifying three-day festival in 2018, it raises the question: why do the biggest festivals with major sponsorships and well-established connections in the music industry need five years to only reach 50%? In the shadow of Beyonce’s legendary Coachella performance, it’s evident that there exists an international appetite for female headliners. In a city as diverse as Toronto, it’s difficult to understand why Canadian festivals have yet to achieve more balanced festival lineups. Fogel has already proven that not only are the artists present and ready to showcase their talent, but that there is a demand and people are showing up to see them perform.

According to their website, Venus Fest has the following mandate: “Venus Fest is committed to shifting the industry challenges that have dominated traditional festivals and organizational structures by ensuring greater awareness around who has access and representation in the arts.” It feels appropriate that a festival named in honour of the female goddess of love, beauty, and all things femme in Roman mythology (who also bore a son named Hermaphroditus, one of the winged angels we know as “cupids” and the original androgynous icon), should help pave the way for music festivals to champion female and non-binary artists.

However, Venus Fest isn’t just about centring peripheral artists on festival lineups. While it was certainly a priority, the festival is interested in creating safer spaces for festival and concert-goers. This year POSI VIBEZ, a Toronto non-profit collective that strives to create more diverse and safer spaces in the arts set up a glitter station near the stage where ticket holders could apply body glitter as a signifier of being both queer-friendly, and standing in solidarity with the values of the “POSI” community. They could also write a postcard to themselves with their own encouraging messages of self-love which would will later be mailed to the writer as a self-reminder to be kind and gentle with themselves.

This activation confused me at first, and I didn’t immediately understand the relevance. Write a postcard to myself at a music festival? But as I put pen to paper, something surprising happened. I realized it didn’t matter that I was in a room full of strangers at a live show, I could still take a moment to connect inwards, and in doing so I immediately felt lighter. Imagine that: the potential to lift each other up, and  recognize our own (and each other’s) self-worth at a music festival. It’s a feeling I hadn’t experienced at a live event before, but once discovered, would stay with me for the remainder of the evening.

Venus Fest is further evolving the traditional music festival scene by creating a physically different space. In addition to an evening of music celebrating feminism in the arts, the Mod Club and Opera House were transformed into a giant, cozy nook with walls awash in pink lighting and seats festooned with plush cushions. There were several rows of chairs to one side of the stage which gave audience members the choice to sit during the show rather than stand for hours. This was an option I happily indulged in on more than one occasion. Friday and Saturday night shows at The Opera House also had a lounge area where guests could enter a lightly curtained resting spot and watch the concert from a comfortable bed. Both locations showcased a mural by Nightarcade and offered tarot readings for $20, amplifying the festival’s multidisciplinary artistic and mystical feel.

The world needs more events like Venus Fest. By adding alternative forms of art at festivals, increasing representation, and creating safer spaces, there is the potential for a more rewarding experience for all. It’s in the best interest of any festival to be the most dynamic and inclusive it can be. With festivals like Venus Fest setting a new standard for community-making to take centre stage, I wonder how the world’s festival giants like Canada’s Osheaga will respond, if at all.

I suppose we’ll know in 2022.

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