She is me, I am her: Exhibiting Riot Grrrl Feminism at Alien She

Review

She is me, I am her: Exhibiting Riot Grrrl Feminism at Alien She

By Melissa Miller January 13, 2015

Currently on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Alien She is a touring exhibition that examines the lasting impact of the Riot Grrrl punk-feminist movement on contemporary artists. The show’s title refers to that of a Bikini Kill song, with lyrics sung by Kathleen Hanna that begin, “She is me; I am her.” 

This declaration of solidarity despite division could also be taken as a statement of intent as Alien She divides its focus across two, temporally overlapping sections: an archival display of the cultural output of Riot Grrrls from around the world and a survey of seven artists—some contemporaneous with the movement—whose work is influenced by its politics, aesthetics, and representational and organizational strategies.1

In addition to works from the past twenty years by Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Tammy Rae Carland, Miranda July, Faythe Levine, Allyson Mitchell, L.J. Roberts, and Stephanie Syjuco, the exhibition also displays two research projects developed during its planning: the Riot Grrrl Census and a Riot Grrrl chapters map. 

The first room of the YBCA installation is dedicated solely to the creative works of Riot Grrrls and includes curated playlists of music, walls of fanzines, video interviews, and posters advertising events, shows, or calls to political action. The curators Ceci Moss and Astria Suparak relied heavily on crowd sourcing for the archival materials—which come from personal and institutional collections, including the dumba collective, Experience Music Project Museum, Interference Archive, the former club Jabberjaw, and the Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University—mirroring the networked way the movement spread across the globe.2

A long wall covered with posters (to which visitors are invited to contribute as the show tours) is the most tactile piece in the archive room.3 Because many of the flyers were created to convey information about events (like show openings and meeting times) and were intended to be temporary or replaceable, almost none of them include the year of the event. Although the exhibition’s wall text states that the flyers were produced between roughly 1991 and the present, the layers of hundreds of year-less flyers historically compress the content of the mostly letter-size Xerox copies. The effect of this flattening is twofold. 

Alien She, 2014; installation view. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2014. Courtesy of Phocasso and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. 

First, the issues presented by the flyers continue to resonate with contemporary feminist interests. For example, I was drawn to a flyer that contained a black-and-white photocopy collage of a woman in a white bikini. Across her body, cut-up strips of text layered over the page read, “Stop holding up unrealistic body images. 150,000 women die of anorexia each year,” and “Anorexia and bulimia strike 1 million American women a year.” The artist was careful not to cover the woman’s face with the text and angled one line sharply in contrast to the horizontal stripes produced by the other strips of paper. This image and message could have been produced yesterday, signaling the still-relevant concerns of the Riot Grrrl movement. 

However, the second effect of the massive collage of materials—assumed to span two decades—is that the installation fails to allow the flyers to speak dialogically. Instead, the flyers compete for the viewer’s attention, producing a wall of visual noise. Moss and Suparak have stated that they were not interested in creating a historical narrative of the Riot Grrrl movement and have expressed their resistance to any attempts to do so for fear of defining the movement through privileged perspectives.4

For this reason, the archive only displays the objects produced by Riot Grrrls and completely omits, for example, any images of artists in their studios or bands on tour, which the curators believed might have run the risk of fetishizing the people or politics at the center of the movement.5

The drawback to this approach, however, is that it presents Riot Grrrls with one voice, with a “we’re all in this together” attitude. In reality, the movement was troubled by the same internal debates that other generations of feminists have experienced, including substantive discussions about class privilege, racism, and homophobia within the movement itself. 

The movement was troubled by the same internal debates that other generations of feminists have experienced

In addition to the flyer wall, the organization of the archive room attempts democratizing display tactics. There is one shelf of reproduced zines that viewers are able to look through, but the majority of the works are only represented by their covers. Riot Grrrls famously staged media blackouts and actively resisted representation of the movement by the mainstream media. Despite the curators’ intentions, the careful arrangement of many of these materials behind Plexiglas both refutes the zines’ original intent as publically available forms of self-presentation and produces a nostalgia associated with the closure of a specific historical moment. Although Moss and Suparak wished to honor the archive and approached it as a labor of love, this typical form of museum display dangerously presents the Riot Grrrl movement, and by extension some of the politics at its center, as a thing of the past.6

As a young feminist artist, I have been asked about my relationship to the Riot Grrrl movement on several occasions. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and the aftereffects of the Pacific Northwest scene have definitely infiltrated my personal politics, but I’m a little too young to have been involved in the movement firsthand. Still, while I explored the archive, many of the sentiments expressed—although screamed might be more accurate—in the fanzines and posters resonated with concerns I am still grappling with, as are other young feminists. The continued relevance of Riot Grrrl issues shows that there is still much work for feminists to do. 

L.J. Roberts. We Couldn’t Get In. We Couldn’t Get Out., 2006–07; installation view, Alien She, 2014. Courtesy of Phocasso and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. 

So, it wasn’t surprising that I spent more time with the archive than I did with other exhibited materials; I even sat and listened to some music through headphones and read through an issue of Carland’s zine, I <3 Amy Carter. Although I have complaints about Moss and Suparak’s curatorial strategy, my investment of time with the archive materials highlights that access to this ephemera is worthwhile.  Perhaps the Riot Grrrl aesthetic negatively influenced the final display, but there is still much to be learned from being able to spend time with the output of primary Riot Grrrl authors, instigators, and participants. 

After exploring the archive, I entered YBCA’s larger gallery, which contains the second half of the show: a more traditionally curated exhibition of seven artists. Moss and Suparak selected artists of geographic and generational range whose various practices highlight the eclectic way the Riot Grrrl movement has influenced a breadth of people across time and location, although the relationships of some artists to the movement are less clear than that of others.7

Roberts’s work titled We Couldn’t Get In. We Couldn’t Get Out. (2006–07)—a tall, commanding section of barbed-wire fence covered in pink crochet—partially obstructs a viewer’s entrance into the space. After walking around it and taking a closer look at the knit, I was suddenly aware of YBCA’s second-floor balcony, above. The placement of We Couldn’t Get In. We Couldn’t Get Out. underneath this distinctive architectural feature (which I had not noticed in past visits to YBCA) further enhances the feelings of surveillance suggested by Roberts’s work. 

I experienced discomfort in knowing I was being watched

Hal Foster has written about the surveillance effect produced by contemporary museum architecture, one that puts the act of looking on display.8 The balcony at YBCA is an example of this type of design, in which viewers are able to look at not only art but also the other visitors in the gallery. For me, this somewhat happy accident created by the placement of Roberts’s work in relation to the existing balcony provided a visual reminder that YBCA, despite its generally progressive image, is still an established institution and as such is shaped by the same power structures as larger, more conservative ones. I experienced discomfort in knowing I was being watched—by other visitors and by the institution itself—as I moved through the gallery filled by such highly political work, and I wondered: How much of Riot Grrrl’s radicalness can be absorbed when its politics are encountered through the mediated experience of an art institution? 

Amid the other artists in the larger gallery, Carland stands out. Coincidentally, she is the artist most closely associated with the Riot Grrrl movement (her photograph documenting her performances in the late 1980s was used for the cover of Bikini Kill’s album Pussy Whipped, on which the closing song is dedicated to Carland). The artist has admitted, though, in the early 1990s she was already in her twenties and a self-identified feminist who would never have called herself a girl (or grrrl).9

The Riot Grrrl scene was about young women finding feminist consciousness, which Carland had already come into. One could even argue that Carland influenced the Riot Grrrl movement instead of the other way around. Regardless, Carland’s work is notable. While DIY and craft techniques are important components of the Riot Grrrl aesthetic and have been adopted by politicized, contemporary art practices, Carland’s beautifully abstracted portraits in three bodies of work—Untitled (Lesbian Beds) (2002), Archive of Feelings (2008), and I’m Dying Up Here (2010–ongoing)—provide relief from the preponderance of textiles in the larger gallery. Carland’s photographs depart from the aesthetic strategies that dominate the practices of younger artists in the show. The use of craft in Roberts’s work, for example, is arguably the only factor connecting it to the movement. Rather than work in blatant opposition to the slickness often associated with contemporary art, Carland shows what a grown-up Riot Grrrl aesthetic might look like and how it might infiltrate and subvert the field. 

Ginger Brooks Takahashi. Alien She, 2014; installation view. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2014. Courtesy of Phocasso and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. 

Levine is also one of the artists more closely aligned with the Riot Grrrl movement. Similar to Carland’s work, Levine’s photographs, films, and books depart from what one might expect political art to look like. Although the work is closely aligned with the values of the movement, Levine’s refined presentation seems partly attributable to her personal interests. Having its exhibition debut in Alien She, her series of photographs Time Outside of Time documents off-the-grid communities in the United States, embodying the way the Riot Grrrl movement provided platforms of expression to those who had been denied a public voice. In a similar vein are Levine’s documentary film and book, Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design, which follow the American independent craft movement. Her newest project Sign Painters, which also comprises a film and a book, explores the lives and works of contemporary artists who practice traditional, handmade sign painting. 

Why not host a women-only reception? Or provide free admission for women on certain nights?

Despite its best efforts to not historicize the Riot Grrrl movement, Alien She in its very structure articulates a historical legacy, mapping the relationships between the movement and the contemporary artists included in the show. By establishing a “this-came-first-and-this-came-after” connection between the archival room and the larger gallery, the exhibition asserts a lineage. The presentation of Brooks Takahashi’s work best disrupts this dynamic: in addition to her newest sculptures, there is documentation of older projects, like LTTR and Projet MOBILIVRE-BOOKMOBILE, next to listening stations of her punk music. If the curators had employed this more integrated approach throughout the exhibition, as opposed to establishing the archive as an anteroom, they may have helped a viewer to understand the larger links between the various materials and works. 

Given the Riot Grrrls’ “girls to the front” ethos, there is a glaring lack of opportunities—particularly those specific to women—to participate in Alien She, aside from the open call for poster submissions. And members of the Bay Area arts community have been asking attendant, pertinent questions10:  Why not host a women-only reception? Or provide free admission for women on certain nights? A copy machine could have been placed in the archive room, allowing viewers to disseminate the zines that the curators had made accessible. Implementing any of these suggestions might have prevented the exhibition from being a simple display of Riot Grrrl politics and instead would have embodied the strategies of the movement and allowed them to act directly in the domain of contemporary art. 

In the end, however, an exhibition about the Riot Grrrl movement and its legacy remains a timely and important undertaking. At a time when the Twitter hashtag #idontneedfeminism is trending and female celebrities are renouncing the term feminist, when abortion rights are being curtailed in extreme ways on the national level, and when female cultural critics receive death and rape threats for daring to call out misogyny where they see it,  it is irrefutably clear that the broader culture continues to accept apathy if not vehement hostility toward women. Alien She reminds viewers that there is power in collective organizing, which includes the work of curators. The materials presented in Alien She are ultimately inspiring, despite the presentation’s open struggle with how best to honor a particular moment without ossifying it in the process.

Alien She is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, through January 25, 2015.

Notes

  1. Ceci Moss, speaking at the Alien She roundtable, California College of the Arts, San Francisco, October 22, 2014. For one of its Wednesday Forums, the Visual and Critical Studies program hosted the curators Ceci Moss and Astria Suparak and the artists Tammy Rae Carland and L.J. Roberts for a roundtable discussion about Alien She
  2. As she told participants at the roundtable, Carland recently donated her personal archive to the Fales Library and is represented in Alien She’s archive through them. 
  3. Posters and flyers from Riot Grrrl shows, conferences, and meetings can be emailed as high-resolution scans (300dpi) to riotgrrrlcensus (at) gmail.com, accompanied by the following information, if known: owner of the flyer, year of event, city of event, designer of flyer.
  4. Ceci Moss, Alien She roundtable, October 22, 2014; “Alien She Curator’s Tour, Part 1: Archives,” accessed November 16, 2014, http://www.ybca.org/alien-she
  5. Ceci Moss, Alien She roundtable, October 22, 2014.
  6. The end of Riot Grrrl as a movement is still debated. Some see the commodification of “girl power” by late 1990s pop bands like the Spice Girls as the end while others see groups like Pussy Riot as evidence of the movement’s continuation at a global scale. 
  7. The association of artists like Syjuco seems to rely more on the works’ feminist politics and DIY aesthetics rather than on the artists’ specific engagement with the Riot Grrrl movement. Roberts’s artist biography cedes that they was not an active Riot Grrrl, but it asserts that artists like Roberts were mentored by artists like Carland, and thus Riot Grrrl politics have informed their practices. 
  8. Hal Foster, “Postmodernist Machines,” in The Art-Architecture Complex (London: Verson, 2011), 87–103. 
  9. Tammy Rae Carland, Alien She roundtable, October 22, 2014.
  10. A Facebook thread was begun on October 24, 2014, to discuss these and other ideas for Alien She and YBCA’s related programming. 

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