VAN09 – Do we still need the F word? by Megan Johnston

Formed in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls were influenced by the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the US, and were a part of the opposition to the backlash against the Feminist movement and, later, central to the dialogue responding to issues in post-Feminism and art. The Guerrilla Girls explore such taboo subjects as feminism and fashion, attempting to achieve equality of the sexes and ‘races’ in art, politics, film, and popular culture, and so calling themselves the ‘Conscience of the art world’. They wear gorilla masks in public, to conceal their identities, and place the focus on issues rather than personalities, and work collectively and anonymously, to produce posters, films, billboards, public actions, books and other projects.

I first heard of the Guerrilla Girls while studying art history at the University of Minnesota in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The group served as a beacon of intelligent, socially engaged political art that spoke to a broad layer of young women (and men) dedicating our lives to art. Importantly, the activist art movement included artists and others who were engaging in art practice that ‘had something to say’. Some of the exhibitions in Minneapolis that I worked on during this time included artists Carrie Mae Weams, Lorna Simpson, political posters from the former USSR, Helio Oiticica and Jacob Lawrence. Artists such as Jenny Holzer and Magdalena Abakanowicz were commissioned to create sculpture in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. And Frank Gehry built his first Museum (the Weisman Art Museum) encouraging us all to see differently and think differently about art and architecture. Griselda Pollock was a visiting scholar at UofM, and many of us studied with her, where she not only expanded our knowledge of feminist art criticism, but also encouraged activism in our academic pursuits. There were also several gigs by the punk group the Riot Girls at First Avenue, where music, art and politics collided every weekend.

For those of us who were studying art history and art practice and volunteering and working in local museums and galleries, the Guerrilla Girls and artists like those mentioned above encouraged activism in the main spaces where we believed meaning, value and understanding was being constructed—in art practice, universities and the museums. We thought art was a way of creating dialogue, meaning and had the capacity to reflect and influence thinking in society—and we believed that activism in art was essential.

Many people have asked why I commissioned the Guerrilla Girls to come to Ireland. A patient pause on my part usually allows the necessary time for individuals to consider the question and answer it themselves. You too can come to your own conclusions. There were, and are many motivations, however, the most important reason is to allow for, and to provide further, space for artists to ask socioeconomic, political and contextual questions that get us to think, talk and act in relation to the world we live in—to be creative human beings who are socially engaged.

Megan Johnston: The Guerrilla Girls’ artistic process to creating work is an activist-centred and statistic-based approach. Can you explain what that means?

Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz: We’ve found that the best way to get through to people is with facts, humour, and outrageous visuals. The Guerrilla Girls don’t do posters that, like a lot of political art, point to something and say, “This is bad.” We try to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hasn’t been seen before, in the hope of changing people’s minds. Making someone who doesn’t agree with you laugh is a hook we use over and over. We’ve created more than 100 posters, five books, billboards, actions, museum installations, etc., but we have no grand plan. We’ve done lots of work about discrimination in the art world. We’ve also done anti-war posters, works about the homeless, politics, social issues, Hollywood, female stereotypes, and the environment.

MJ: I think it’s important that we understand that there is a difference between your Guerrilla Girls artwork and your individual artistic practice – though as you have said there are overlaps. Do you consider the Guerrilla Girls posters and interventions as activist propaganda and how does it differ from your own individual artwork, particularly that which is political?

KK: I think of myself as two artists in one body. The first does the collaborative Guerrilla Girls’ work, and the other has an individual practice, but there are many connections in sensibility and strategy. In our group there have been artists whose own work is completely different from the Guerrilla Girls’ work and artists whose work is similar; I count myself among the latter. That’s not a surprise, since, like Frida, I am one of the founders of the GGs and have been involved in pretty much everything we ever done.

FK: GG work is what I do collectively, when I focus outside myself on the world at large. My own art practice is what I do alone: it’s more introspective, about my individual life experience. Sometimes they overlap but both are necessary to do the other. GG work has empowered me not to take the art system so seriously. By its nature, it is unfair and unkind to artists: so many are called and so few are chosen. GG work has helped me detach my art practice from what the art world does with it.

MJ: In contemporary art today the notion of socially engaged art practice is not only understood but embraced. Do you think the Guerrilla Girls have contributed to this new wave of political art, e.g. art historians and social commentators like Grant Kestor’s ‘littoral art’ (1)?

FK & KK: Art and politics have always been intertwined, especially in the 20th century. We think we are a model for putting issues you really care about into your art practice. That’s true for other artists, but also for all sorts of people from 8 to 80 all over the world, who write us and tell us they are using our strategies in their activist work.

MJ: What kind of advise would you give artists working in Ireland today who want to create and engage with socio-political and / or economic issues utilising an activist-orientated process?

FK & KK: We are firm believers in failure, or rather, not worrying about failure. Try something, and if it doesn’t work out, try something else. We also say don’t just preach to the converted. Find new ways to say things, and new places to say them. The art system based on museums and collectors only grudgingly gives time and space to work that is seriously critical of it, especially of its economic structure. Side step the system and the media that follows it. Form artists’ collectives. Do street projects. Do internet culture jamming. There are lots of art worlds to pursue besides the one in Artforum and Flash Art.

MJ: The All Ireland Guerrilla Girls Research and New Work aims to be a lens through which power and powerlessness are identified, gender examined and issues about women in contemporary society are discussed. Can you give us a glimpse of what issues you might look at for the newly commissioned work on Ireland?

FK & KK: We had an amazing experience talking to artists, educators and curators all over Ireland last spring. One impression: we met lots of women who said, “I’m not a feminist”, but then began venting about all sorts of discrimination they encountered. So we think there’s something simmering under the surface that we can tap into.

The All Ireland Guerrilla Girls Research and New Work project is part of my curatorial vision, which centres on fundamental questions about art practice, its display and mediation. At MCAC our vision is about where visual culture and civil engagement converge with contemporary art practice and our curatorial process is rooted in collaboration— between artist and MCAC; between artist and notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’, and mediated between artwork and audience. The Guerrilla Girls project is a fantastic example of this kind of work and MCAC couldn’t, and importantly wouldn’t, create a project like this that wasn’t collaborative. I believe that this project is historic and significant in relation to the museum and galleries of Ireland-both North and South. These seminal artists have something very important to reveal to us in the visual arts sector, as they comment on the status not only of artists who are female but also on gender, race, nationality and religion in
contemporary society.

Megan Johnston

The Guerrilla Girls Irish research project is a collaboration with Millennium Court Arts Centre, Portadown; the Glucksman Gallery, Cork; the University of Ulster, Belfast and the National College of Art & Design, Dublin. In April 2009 the Guerrilla Girls presented ‘gigs’ throughout Ireland as part of the research project that will inform the newly commissioned work. It will be shown at MCAC in October 2009 and the co-commissioning venues in 2010. For more information see the website www.guerrillagirlstourireland.com

Note
(1) Grant Kester Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art . http://www.variant.
randomstate.org/9texts/KesterSupplement.html

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