In May 2013, the Secret Cinema transformed a 14-storey office block into the dystopian world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Guerilla Science – always eager to bring science to new habitats in unexpected ways – brought a range of creations to crank all the levels to red. 

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We invited the fabulous Shoreditch Sisters to join us next to the Curtains of Love in the department store to help everyone craft the bespoke vulva of their dreams. The SSWI’s Roshi Nasehi tells us about sewing the perfect labia…

I’m a newish member of the East London branch of the WI, the Shoreditch Sisters, who have been credited with ‘turning the image of the WI around’. Indeed this is a branch of the WI that want to use the group as more than a platform for making competitive Victoria Sponges which is of course the unfortunate way the WI has been viewed in the past. As a local Shoreditch resident, it has been a pleasure to discover Shoreditch Sisters. The women are warm and welcoming. They are modern and politically aware with a desire to maintain and develop what’s considered to be traditional (and more importantly fun) WI pastimes like craft skills, sewing, and knitting (after all, why throw the baby out with the bath water..?) whilst acting as strong advocates for women’s causes.

The Vulva Quilt has been an integral part of one of their most high profile and important campaigns against Female Genital Mutilation.

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I wasn’t a member of Shoreditch Sisters when the ‘Vulva Quilt’ project came about and so felt very enthusiastic about adding my voice and (albeit limited) sewing skills to further activities around this wonderful project (check out the woman’s hour archive link for more information about the original project and also the campaign page).

This particular invitation was to display the Vulva Quilt and run participatory vulva patchwork activities as part of a Secret Cinema event in association with Guerilla Science. Before going, I wasn’t sure how the quilt would work within a Secret Cinema context and in keeping with the Spirit of Secret Cinema, and I didn’t know with which film experience I’d be helping to integrate the quilt and vulva stitching activities. It turned out be Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian fantasy Brazil, which imaginatively explores many of problems of the 80s (and indeed present times) within one complex plot. Amongst the many themes ‘government control’ (in both capitalist and socialist terms), ‘conformity’ and ‘plastic surgery’ come up.

For the event, Secret Cinema ambitiously took over a Croydon Tower Block turning each floor into an exhibition/performance space around a theme from the film including a spooky ‘funeral parlour’ and some fantastic high rise bars towards the top of the building. We were on the third floor and in the care of a very skilled actor playing Dr. Curtain with the quilt displayed in a room called ‘The Curtains Of Love’. The actor took participants through a “personal shopping experience” where they could browse through the range of vulva shapes and sizes available for purchase.

The quilt is principally a protest against the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation but within this framework it celebrates female diversity, expression and creativity. It asserts that we are all different and beautiful and that we (and certainly our genitalia) do not need to be censored or improved upon. Consequently it worked as a brilliant tool in this playful but effective critique against labiaplasty which is very much on the rise (it is amazing to think that Guerrilla Sciences’ own Zoe Cormier wrote this article about it in 2005 for the Canadian magazine Shameless in an article appropriately titled ‘Making The Cut. and people seemed to respond to the opportunity to make their own vulva patchworks in a creative and interactive way. We were trying to convey that what you already possess is a work of art, so why would you buy a new one? And I am happy to say that I think Secret Cinema goers got it.

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Of course there were moments which made me feel as though I was at a weird hen night. This is partly because I do remember making fascinators at my friend’s hen event years ago which kind of involved a lot of the same actions (and for that matter similar ribbony, lacy materials). Also, although the theatrical side was skilfully led by ‘Dr. Curtain’ and though I happen to be a performer (I work professionally as a musician) I was initially a little nervous about holding the (albeit playful) ‘sale’s person’ attitude. I didn’t want to be worthy or lecturing to people on their night out and wanted to join in with the more creative approach of getting people sewing, interacting and questioning. I am pleased to say that I think it worked really well and with the exception of one slightly creepy guy that wanted to film me ‘talking about labias’ (I obviously didn’t let him) I felt that people were engaging with each other in a fun, creative way and the activities stimulated discussions about this kind of surgery.

Ultimately, the message of ‘Vive La difference’ seemed to be acknowledged and accepted by pretty much everyone and I am happy to join in with anything that reinforces that idea.