Published on the Daily Femme – Monday, Feb. 7, 2011
Interviewed by Annamarya and Ashleigh
Since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have disrupted the art world, and with good reason. The amount of sexism, misogyny, bigotry, racism, and corruption that consumes pop culture, film, politics, and art history is absolutely astounding. So armed with anonymity, guerrilla masks, and pseudonyms of deceased women artists, the “bunch of girls who couldn’t put up and shut up” took to the streets with their well-crafted, poignant and witty activist art, using facts and humor to spin issues in innovative and provocative ways that would enlighten and inspire. Over the last three decades, the Guerrilla Girls have authored and designed five fantastically clever books, nearly a hundred posters, and a slew of billboards, stickers, outdoor banners, and actions. They’ve also taken their mission outside the states, producing projects and museum exhibitions at the UK’s Tate Modern, Turkey’s Istanbul Modern, Brazil’s Sao Paulo Biennial, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as well as street projects in Montreal, Ireland, Rotterdam, Athens, Istanbul, Shanghai, and Mexico City. The Daily Femme recently had a chance to chat with Frida Kahlo of the Guerilla Girls about their work, the importance of using humor in feminist activism, and the state of the art world in 2011.
In 2001, Guerrilla Girls split into three different, independent groups: Guerrilla Girls on Tour!, GuerrillaGirlsBroadBand, and your group, Guerilla Girls. Each group has its own unique mission in working to expose sexism, racism, and corruption in art, film, pop culture and politics. Can you describe the approach your group chose and explain why you chose it?
We’re a continuation of the original Guerrilla Girls. In 1985, two of us – artists and also friends — got the idea to put up posters on the streets of New York about the state of women artists in the New York Art world. It wasn’t a pretty picture. We invited some friends to join us, and the Guerrilla Girls were born — an anonymous bunch of women artists who wear gorilla masks in public and take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms. With the participation of many women who have come in and out of the group since 1985, we’ve authored just about everything the Guerrilla Girls have ever done. You can see a lot of it on our website www.guerrillagirls.com. The other groups are completely separate, and have their own work and their own websites.
We were (and still are) a bunch of girls who couldn’t put up and shut up. We developed a philosophy about how to construct political art — to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hadn’t been seen before, using facts and humor, all in the hope of changing people’s minds. Who knew that our work would cause all hell to break loose? Who knew it would cause a major crisis of conscience about diversity in the art world, a subject museums, collectors and critics had ignored and denied for a long, long time. Now, it’s a no brainer…. you can’t tell the story of a culture without all the voices in it.
The Guerrilla Girls’ work now includes close to a hundred posters, 5 books, many stickers, billboards, outdoor banners and actions. Just in the last few years we have done new projects on the streets of Shanghai, Istanbul, Mexico City, Athens, Rotterdam, Ireland and Montreal. We’ve done projects and exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, the Tate Modern, the Istanbul Modern, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Sao Paulo Bienal.
We chose to focus on the art world because we knew it best and because almost everyone believed it was a meritocracy. We kept asking one question after another about what happens to women in creative fields and that led us also look at art history, film, politics and popular culture. Discrimination and exclusion are complex and interconnected.
We’re the best source of information about the history of the group because we’ve been at it since the beginning, 26 years ago.
You post your art everywhere from film festivals like Sundance to city streets all over the country, and have appeared at over 100 universities and museums around the world. What is the typical reaction to your work and how does that differ or fall in line with what you want to achieve as a group?
From the beginning we wanted to be transformative to change peoples minds. We never wanted to preach to the converted by pointing at something and saying “that’s bad.” So we figured out a way to present ideas from a different perspective, often by posing a question answered by information. And the info supported our view that the art world is not diverse and isn’t an accurate picture of our visual culture. We use humor as a hook to get people who disagree with us to laugh at a difficult topic. Then we deliver the punch line that we hope will convert them.
Why is it important for Guerrilla Girls to use humor in order to not only expose these issues but to redefine and reinvent feminism and the idea of “the stereotypical feminist”? Have your guerilla tactics with humor changed or evolved at all since 1985?
On one hand, humor has always been a tool used to ridicule power. On the other hand, feminists were always accused of being humorless when they didn’t laugh at sexist jokes. They got stereotyped as grim harpies by a culture that just loves to put females into boxes. So, for lots of reasons, humor has been a great weapon for us. And it has confounded the opposition. In the beginning we were operating in an atmosphere of disbelief where lots of professionals thought that art world success was the natural result of absolute standards of quality. Now it’s a no-brainer that it’s a flawed system that needs to evolve and improve. We try to keep our edge and expand our work to show what a huge inbred problems sexism, racism, misogyny and discrimination are.
Guerrilla Girls has a number of gigs and exhibitions/actions coming up for 2011 but the one I am most intrigued by is the “elles@centrepompidou” exhibit running through February, which is the first ever show of women artists in Paris’ Centre Pompidou–a museum, you say, that is “notoriously too male, too pale.” How did you get involved with that project and what will the exhibit show?
A bunch of women curators at the Pompidou came up with the idea to do the first all women’s show at a major European museum showing work from the Centre’s collection. Most museums do have a a few works by women artists, but, to add insult to injury, this art rarely shown and usually remains in storage. (That’s why we did the Free the Women Artists of Europe…get them out of the basements…… poster and bar coaster) The Pompidou owned some of our posters, so we designed an installation of them for the show. The Director of the Pompidou thought the show would be a big risk but it has been up for over a year and has broken all attendance records and increased revenue by something like 20%. Taking women artists seriously can be profitable!
Do you think that the “elles@centrepompidou” exhibit will help the museum work to be more inclusive of women and artists of color?
Let’s hope so. Museums can’t just sit back and let the art market tell us what art history is. They have to get involved in political and cultural issues. Women’s Rights as Human Rights is the global Civil Rights struggle of the 21st century. It’s a long way from sex trafficking in the developing world to showing women artists in Paris, but the thread is there and it should be followed.
Obviously, this lack of representation doesn’t only exist in museums. I can barely remember studying women artists in the Art History courses I took in high school and college, even though, as you’ve written in The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, influential female artists existed throughout history. Why has there been such an absence in the general curriculum?
For centuries art history was the history of the winners written by themselves. And in Western culture the winners were always white men. That’s changing now and we’re proud our book is used as a textbook at schools all over the world. Ironically, for decades art schools were majority women students with overwhelmingly male faculties….virtual harems. That’s changing, too.
You recently published a new book, The Guerilla Girls’ Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How it Was Cured, From Ancient Times Until Now, which is available as a free download when you buy any two books, posters and/or t-shirts. How does the book tackle “female hysteria”? What are some of the things you discuss in the book that have been erased from history?
Year before last, we read Rachel Manes’ The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction,” (John Hopkins, 1999). It was such a well-researched book about how women’s bodies were misunderstood and mistreated around the imagined disease of hysteria. Doctors manipulated women to orgasm as a medical treatment to calm hysteria and developed an early form of the vibrator. They never understood the sexual nature of what they were doing. Physicians sold sex to women and called it health care! It is so pathetically oblivious that it’s hilarious. We condensed the story into a primer, short and sweet, and made it as ironic and ridiculous as possible. We love to read it at our gigs then watch the audience snicker and laugh.
In March, you received Yoko Ono’s Courage in the Arts award. What does such an award mean to the Guerrilla Girls?
It was great to be recognized by Yoko Ono, an artist who has encountered so much opposition in her own career. She’s always been a beacon to us and to finally meet her was an honor and a thrill. It was great to have the money, too. We put it to good use.
How have you seen the “Guerilla Girls” movement take off with your followers? How are people supporting you in unique ways?
Everyone asks us how to become a Guerrilla Girl and we’re sorry to tell them it isn’t possible. We can’t accommodate everyone who would like to join us. But it’s not necessary to become a Guerrilla Girl to be feminist activists like us. Anyone can form their own crazy anonymous group and develop their own crazy voice and strategies. Wouldn’t it be great if there were lots of anonymous feminist masked avenger groups, not just the Guerrilla Girls?
What other activities, pursuits do you engage in when you’re not being a Guerilla Girl?
Between midnight and 6 am we work on our own art careers. Some are getting ready for retrospectives at MoMA. Others are planning to blow the place up. We’re so unorthodox.
(Blurb by Annamarya/credit not on site)