ArtInfo interview on Alien She & Riot Grrrl

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ArtInfo Alien She slideshow

Alien She Explores Riot Grrrl’s Legacy

Ashton Cooper
Oct. 23, 2014

On October 24, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will open the very first museum exhibition devoted to the legacy of the Riot Grrrl punk feminist movement. Titled “Alien She,” after the Bikini Kill song of the same name, the show will encompass the practices of seven artists — Miranda July, Allyson Mitchell, L.J. Roberts, Stephanie Syjuco, Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Tammy Rae Carland, and Faythe Levine — who were influenced by Riot Grrrl, as well as hundreds of self-published zines and posters. We spoke via email with co-curators Astria Suparak (former curator at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, where the show originated) and Ceci Moss about examining the movement’s legacy, combing through the Riot Grrrl archive, and Miranda July’s app.

What was the origin of the show? How did you two come together on this?

Astria Suparak: I started working on this show years ago, but it really came together in the last couple of years after Andrew Suggs, formerly of Vox Populi, offered to help with applying for a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (which allowed us to tour “Alien She” to Philadelphia). I realized that a project like this shouldn’t come from a sole voice or single curator, and I asked Ceci to be my co-curator. We devised our approach to be in line with its subject, Riot Grrrl, and accordingly, our research was built out of close discussions, collaborations, and relationships. We reached out to our networks, and our network’s networks, to crowdsource much of the historical ephemera (posters, zines, records, etc.) exhibited in the show.

Ceci and I were especially interested in how Riot Grrrl has influenced our friends, peers, and artists working today, as everyone we personally knew in Riot Grrrl is still, 20 years later, involved with music, art, education, and/or activism. The participants of the original movement were in their teens and 20s in the 1990s, and have since solidified their interests, identities, and careers. The effect of this grassroots, creative movement is evident in what we’re all doing now.

Ceci Moss: The timing also seemed right. A few people from this generation are beginning to reflect on the topic, with recent projects like the Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections and the related book edited by archivist Lisa Darms, Sara Marcus’s book “Girls to the Front,” and Sini Anderson’s documentary on Kathleen Hanna, “The Punk Singer.” Most coverage of Riot Grrrl is through the lens of music and fanzine history. We wanted to focus on artists influenced by Riot Grrrl — an area that hasn’t been covered and that we are close to.

Were either/both of you really big fans of Riot Grrrl? Did you make zines? Go see shows?

CM: We were both involved in Riot Grrrl as teenagers in the 1990s. Astria lived in Los Angeles and I lived in the Bay Area at the time, and we made zines, organized music shows and events, and went to a ton of shows.

This show sets out “to examine the lasting impact of Riot Grrrl.” What exactly does that mean?

AS: Riot Grrrl is often pigeonholed as a briefly lived subgenre of music from the Pacific Northwest. We wanted to show how it was a social movement that encompassed many creative forms, had a global reach, and continues to have an impact today. Towards this end, the show contains an archive section that includes zines, music, and related designs, a map tracking Riot Grrrl chapters (found in 23 countries so far), and an ongoing Riot Grrrl census on Tumblr, which includes contributions from people from a variety of identities, ages, and genders.

CM: The first room of the exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents a sampling of the creative output and diversity of the original movement. The second gallery is focused on artists whose practices were informed by their contact with Riot Grrrl — some influenced the direction of Riot Grrrl, others were influenced by it, some were directly involved, others learned about it a few years later, after the first wave.

For the show you solicited materials from both institutional archives and personal archives and these posters and zines are displayed en masse without a lot of labels or wall text. Is this a way of working against a comprehensive overview of the movement?

CM: We didn’t want to present the history in an authoritative, top-down way. We wanted to give room for other voices and experiences, which is where the open calls for the flyers, the collaborative Riot Grrrl Census and Riot Grrrl Chapters Map, the guest curated playlists from different regions and countries, the video interviews and critical zines come in. They provide an expanded oral history beyond our personal networks. It’s an open, ongoing history.

AS: For the display of the archival materials, we wanted something that wasn’t too precious, formal, museum-like, but made sense for an exhibition foregrounding artistic production. For example, flyers are intended as cheap, temporary announcements. You can’t even tell what year or what city many of them are from, because the thinking was, “It’s THIS Friday. What other Friday would it be?” So, framing the flyers individually and putting them behind glass didn’t make sense for this show. We aimed for an aesthetic in-between the rough, slapdash display typical for flyers (i.e., overlapped and stapled/taped to a club wall or street pole) and the well-lit, orderly gallery grid of rectangles. In the exhibition you can see the range of styles, designs, and bands, and pick up on regional and period differences, like early ’90s scissors and glue, cut-and-paste next to 2000s computer desktop publishing, and hardcore next to indie pop next to garage surf shows. Riot Grrrl intermingled and overlapped with many musical genres and scenes — another aspect overlooked in historical criticisms.

In addition to historical materials, the show focuses on seven artists whose practices were influenced by Riot Grrrl. I would imagine that a large portion of artists were impacted by Riot Grrrl. How did you choose these particular people?

AS: We researched artists who felt connected to Riot Grrrl and who have significant bodies of work, and you’ll see in the exhibition how the artists have incorporated, expanded upon, or reacted to the movement’s ideology, tactics, and aesthetics. There are multiple projects by each artist in “Alien She,” from zines they made in high school, to their bands from college/early 20s, rarely seen works, through to recent and new projects. The seven mini-retrospectives reveal how these artists’ practices have developed, in some cases, over the past two decades.

Reflecting Riot Grrrl’s spirit of cooperation, all of the featured artists have worked collaboratively, and most have built platforms for other artists and under-recognized groups to connect, encourage, share resources, and self-publish. There are dozens of other cultural producers in the show included through collaborative projects, like “The Counterfeit Crochet Project (Critique of a Political Economy),” Stephanie Syjuco’s call to crafters to make illicit copies of designer handbags, and the feminist genderqueer art journal LTTR, co-founded by Ginger Brooks Takahashi.

CM: In addition, the featured artists range geographically and their ages span a generation. The projects on view reflect the movement’s artistic diversity by including different types of media, such as sculptures, performances, documentary films, publications, new media, and more. It was important to us to showcase Riot Grrrl’s reach, especially how it filtered into multiple approaches and mediums.

I was interested to see that the Miranda July app is part of the show. In your opinion, how is that part of a Riot Grrrl legacy?

CM: The Somebody app is an example of bringing people together through creative networking and making new, unexpected connections, which Miranda has done across several platforms from “Joanie 4 Jackie” (VHS chainletters) to “Learning to Love You More” (assignment-based, crowdsourced web project) to her performances. This is the artist’s first ever app, and it’s interesting to see her experiment with the social through this particular platform.

The show also specifically is looking at international movements. Do you think a global scope is something a lot of Riot Grrrl fans might not be aware of?

AS: Riot Grrrl is often criticized as being a homogenous set of white, middle-class, college-educated girls from the Pacific Northwest. While many of the originators of the movement fit some of those descriptors, the movement spread widely, and most people don’t know that. The Riot Grrrl scenes that Ceci and I were part of in California were diverse ethnically and by sexual orientation, gender identity, and class. In some ways, they were microcosms of the radical legacies present in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. We’ve found RG chapters in 23 countries since 1991, with many forming in the last couple of years in places like Turkey, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Germany, and Brazil, as well as multiple generations of chapters opening in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit. Through their Facebook pages and Tumblrs it’s evident that each of the chapters’ missions are a response to their locations, moments, members, and needs; many forefront politics and language that are explicitly intersectional, POC, queer, and trans. The popular histories and criticisms of Riot Grrrl don’t include these stories.

Tell me more about the Riot Grrrl Census. How does that fit into the show?

AS: We produced two research projects while working on the exhibition, which exist autonomously online as well as contribute to the oral history in the show. The first is the map, and the second is a census which surveys people’s varied definitions of Riot Grrrl, their different experiences of it, what they are doing now, and what has inspired them. Both projects are living histories that are designed to reflect the inclusive and collective aspirations of Riot Grrrl. We wanted to provide a place within the exhibition for this.

CM: The Riot Grrrl Census is a way to present and collect an oral record of the movement, the many lives it has changed, and its continued effects. The stories are such a powerful thing to read and spend time with, and it’s still growing.

And there is a section of local contemporary zines as well, right? Does that vary based on the city the exhibition is in?

CM: In addition to the 300-plus zines in the touring exhibition, which cover a range of topics such as sexism, homophobia, racism, empowerment, fat activism, gender identity, mental illness, violence, and sex work, there’s a section that each venue can use for local zines that relate to the issues in the exhibition. For the “Alien She” stop at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I purchased new and recent Bay Area fanzines at the SF Zine Fair and local independent bookstores in Oakland and San Francisco, such as Issues and Needles & Pens. We’ll be featuring fanzines like Sarah Godfrey’s zine on vaginal health and family histories, My Family’s Vaginas; Abigail Young’s submission-based feminist zine Camel Toe; and Tomas Muniz’s zine on radical parenting, Rad Dad, among many others.

AS: For the Portland version of the exhibition (at Pacific Northwest College of Art: Feldman Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Craft, September 3, 2015-January 9, 2016), they are working on an accompanying zine on the legacy of Riot Grrrl in that region and connecting with local people there.