24 August 2012
London Rockin' Rollers

You are the founder of the National Museum of Roller Derby at the Women’s Library in Glasgow that has opened this year. You are an artist and a skater – I’m a curator and a skater and I’m keen to know more about your practice and the museum! Thank you for taking some time to answer some questions! Interview by Catherine Hemelryk.

Your artistic practice frequently finds your everyday life and your hobbies entering your work, from your Tea Blog to food, campaigning and now roller derby! What drew you to roller derby?

I’ve been working as an artist for over 10 years and it can, at times, be quite a lonely pursuit – working alone and travelling alone for various projects around the country. Even after three years living in Glasgow, I felt I wasn’t really part of any community outside of the artworld. I only really heard about Roller Derby in 2011 (a bit slow on the up take I know!) First I remember seeing photos of bouts in London appearing on Facebook and then, in November when I was artist in residence at Wunderbar Festival, I was lucky enough to work with the Newcastle Roller Girls on my Desk Chair Disco project.

It was then that I realised what an amazing sport it was. Finally, there was team sport which was predominately just played by women, that was actually fucking cool. Those Newcastle girls totally inspired me, but more importantly they convinced me that I could do it too. Roller Derby, and the amazing community of people that surrounds it, wasn’t just something I had to watch from the sidelines, I could get involved myself. So, I got skates over Christmas and back in Glasgow on 10 January 2012, I went along to join the Glasgow Roller Recruits.

I know I love having a skate name and war paint for the track, I love the frivolity in this sport that I didn’t find in other sports! Do you have a skate name and derby persona?

I only passed my “Mins” on 1 May this year, but choosing the right name soon became a massive preoccupation. It’s funny, there were two artists who passed in my intake, and we were the twos who took the longest to make this all important decision. β€˜Roller Derby Name’ was on my to do list for nearly two months as I went through so many permutations and fantasised about the possible personas that went with them (I could right a short essay about it!) I wanted something that embodied some of my key life philosophies, but was not pretentious, kinda fun and perhaps a little slutty πŸ˜‰ Anyway, as the legend goes… three days before my final Hits ‘n’ Whips test my cheap plastic newbie skates broke during league training. I was devastated. I didn’t think I’d be able to get replacements in time so I investigated ways to fix them myself. The night of the test I entered the changing room proudly brandishing the skates that I’d repaired, “I’m so happy, I fixed them myself, I’m such a cheap skate!” There was a silence; I paused, then suddenly: β€œthat’s it! That’s my name!”

It turns out there are some other Cheapskates in the US, but as far as I’m aware I’m the only one in the UK. I’m spelling it with CHΒ£AP SKATE, for the Brit twist. I love it! It’s cheeky and fun and aptly describes my approach to life. The less you spend, the less money you have to earn. An anti-capitalist philosophy, which has enabled me to live off a low income and continue being an artist and doing what I want to do for the last 10 years. I’m not sure how this persona plays out on the track yet though, but I’m hoping to play my first bout before the end of the year so we’ll all soon find out!

Despite using your life and interests as a source material for your work, do you draw a line between your work and your real life?

I’ve always battled with the with the life / work balance. One of the great paradoxes about finding work that you love doing, is that you end up doing it all the time! The same could be said for Roller Derby. I’ve seen girls in my league for whom it has totally taken over, to the point where they live and breathe the sport and everything that comes with it. What I did find difficult, and which I’m still trying work out, is how to balance all the obsessive pastimes I now have when there is simply not enough time in the day. Creating the Museum was one attempt at bringing these worlds together, so I could spend time doing something that was conceptually engaging in terms of my work and ongoing research, but which would also be of great benefit to the sport of Roller Derby, to Glasgow the city, to the Women’s Library and to my beloved league.

You were on a residency at the Women’s Library in Glasgow when you founded the museum, was it a natural progression of your practice and how did it come about?

I first had the idea for the Museum in March and, despite it being a bit of a massive undertaking, it felt so right for so many reasons that I had to see it through. I was one of the twenty female artists invited by Glasgow Women’s Library to work with them to help celebrate their 20th anniversary year. It was the first time that I’d set foot in the Library, but I loved it straight away. I quickly began to learn more about women’s history from the books housed in the archive, specifically inspirational story of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s. It upset me that this resource was sitting there and not really being used or accessed by my generation or those younger. It felt as though the best birthday present I could give the Library would be a whole new young and inspiring audience – to give them access to a radical and inspirational new generation of women who have become the pioneers of our new and fast growing sport. If the Library agreed to house a national collection of materials relating to the Roller Derby, it would be the first step in bringing these two inspirational communities of women together – the beginnings of an inter-generational exchange.

Did it take much work to convince the Library to take on the Museum and have there been any challenges setting it all up?

Part of my work as an artist has been to broker a lasting relationship between Glasgow Women’s Library and Glasgow Roller Derby and to convince everyone involved that setting up the National Museum of Roller Derby will have lots of mutual benefits. I gave two public talks at the Library where I explained all the research and thoughts had gone into developing the idea. Adele Patrick and Sue John – the two amazing women who founded Glasgow Women’s Library back in 1991 – were really supportive. They totally got what I was trying to do and saw the importance of ensuring that women’s involvement in the first few years of the sport was properly documented. They told me a shocking story about early women’s football, which made me realise how easily history can be erased or rewritten by those in power. Apparently at the end of the 19th century women’s football used to attract tens of thousands of spectators and be a popular as the men’s game. But in 1921 the FA banned women from playing on league grounds, essentially killing the sport. This early history was erased and women’s involvement in the sport is still seen as a relatively ‘new thing’. This is a dramatic comparison to make, but as men begin to train and play Roller Derby too, we need to ensure that all the pioneering work done by women in bringing the sport to the UK and making it thrive is properly documented and celebrated and this is what the National Museum of Roller Derby intends to do.

What plans do you have for the museum in the future?

2012 is just the beginning – I’m working with the Library and with Glasgow Roller Derby and all the other brilliant leagues around the country (like London Rockin’ Rollers!) who are keen to get involved to set up the project. The more people get involved, the more I hope it will come to be seen as a shared collection, which belongs to everyone involved in the UK Roller Derby community and any one outside this wants to be inspired or to learn more about our amazing sport. In this sense, the National Museum of Roller Derby has found its spiritual home at Glasgow Women’s Library, as its existing collection has been built, over the last 20 years, entirely on donations. I want people to feel it’s their museum and they can get involved and make it into what they want to be. We’re very lucky that there seem to be large number of archivists and librarians skating in my league and in others around the country, to whom the project is like a dream come true. The first exhibition The Revolution on Roller Skates, which opens on 22 September – 13 October is being curated by three of them – Cara Viola and Maulin’ Rouge (from Glasgow Roller Derby) and Bint Imperial (from Auld Reekie Roller Girls).

How can people get involved if they want to visit the Museum or donate items to its collections?

One of the founding slogans of the Museum is “We’re making History! We need you!” Its success depends on how much the UK’s Roller Derby community embrace it and make it their own. We are asking anyone who has material relating to the sport in this country to consider donating it to the Museum’s collection. This can be bout programmes, press cuttings, merch, other historical documents, anything you feel deserves to be properly preserved. Donations can be made by post or, better still, if you are in or near Glasgow you can drop in and speak to the archivist and hand over your items in person.

In terms of visiting, the collection can be viewed during the Library’s normal opening hours. Because this is early days still, it’s best to email or call in advance to let the archivist know you are coming, so she can get the boxes of stuff we have already acquired ready for viewing. As well as this, we’re hoping to hold a series of public exhibitions and events which anyone can come along to. The first of these will be The Revolution on Roller Skates, which hopes to offer and insight into the fast-and-furious first few years of women’s flat track Roller Derby in the UK. You are all invited to join us for the launch on Saturday 22 September at 2pm! I’m hoping that exhibitions will tour from the library to other parts of the UK, or that budding curators from around the country will think about putting on their own local exhibitions using items from the collection. If only I knew some of these πŸ˜‰

Thanks, Ellie! Us London Rockin’ Rollers salute you and I for one think this is a timely project particularly as the Olympic slogan ‘inspire a generation’ has taken over our home city; exactly what the NMRD is going to do for its visitors!

Catherine Hemelryk