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25 Years with your Friendly Neighbourhood Guerrilla Girls

May 12, 2010

Photo via Guerrilla Girls

No museum now can have an art collection without women and artists of colour. If you don’t include women or artists of colour in your collection or in your shows, you’re lacking something. You’re not telling the whole story. But if you go up the ladder to the number of artists who get catalogued and particularly, at the price of work at auction, women lag way way behind. And also at the level of museum administration, in the United States, there are many many women at the lower levels of museum administration but very few who make it up to directorship. – Frida Kahlo of Guerrilla Girls

About a month ago, I interviewed Aphra Behn of Guerrilla Girls on Tour! Following that interview, I received speedy notice from Frida Kahlo of the original Guerrilla Girls group that their 25th anniversary was just around the corner. So in honour of their anniversary (which is this month), we had a good old-fashioned Skype sit down where she was able to answer a few of my questions:

(side note: I feel like I need to complete the trilogy now*nudge*Guerrilla Girls Broad Band*nudge* )

Firstly, what is the difference between Guerrilla Girls on Tour! and Guerrilla Girls?

We started the group in 1985. I’ve been involved in just about everything the group has done. We’ve done over 100 posters. We’ve done actions, billboards, stickers… We’ve written five books about culture and politics and art and we’re still going strong. ‘On Tour’ is a theatre group that was started by a few women who were members of the Guerrilla Girls for a very short time (Aphra was one of them). They’re completely separate from us, they do their own plays, mostly about women in theatre. We  own the name ‘Guerrilla Girls’ because at a certain point we realized we had to protect and we allowed Aphra to use the name Guerrilla Girls On Tour. We did that in the name of feminist activism. We’re sorry that it creates confusion. Guerrilla Girls on Tour have their own website and their own work, and they are not the authors of any of the work that’s on our website. So the Guerrilla Girls do exist and are busier than ever, we’ve done a lot of stuff recently; a lot of public projects in Europe, North America and Asia.

Is there any collaboration between the two groups?

They have their own interests and goals and they wanted to work in theatre. We started out as visual artists—at a certain point we wanted to expand and we incorporated people who were interested in other things and then it just made sense for them to go off and do their own theatre stuff (that was back in 2001).

So you’re more visual arts orientated?

We do billboards, posters, different kinds of actions, we write books, and we also travel around talking about the work that we do. We call them ‘gigs’ and they’re sort of enlightened slide presentations where we show the whole span of our work over twenty-five years, what we’ve been doing. Recently, we talk about how we made the work, what it’s like to be a feminist masked avenger for twenty-five years… so we do tour but GGonTour! is not the touring wing of the Guerrilla Girls. We do our own travels.

We knew that women artists had done much better in the art world in the 70s and that something was being taken away from them either consciously or subconsciously. And we also knew that for decades, the majority of graduates for art schools in the United States were women. But something happened from the time women were trained to become artists to the point where they could become professional artists that they were either excluded or they dropped out. – On the transition between women art students and women artists

You mentioned before that Guerrilla Girls is going to be in Chicago giving a commencement address?

It’s really funny because we have this dilemma. All of a sudden, the art world that we’ve been attacking for twenty-five years has started to embrace us and museums that we actively criticize, ask us to criticize them more! So it’s kind of a dilemma for an activist and we sort of tear our hair out about it… we were invited to participate in the Venice Biennale and we said sure we can do it IF we can criticize the Biennale… and we did.

Photo via Guerrilla Girls

We were asked to do something at the Istanbul modern and we decided, well, let’s do something about the situation about women artists in Turkey and that’s the condition of our participating in the show.

And then last fall, we were invited by the University of Quebec at Montreal to do something for the anniversary of the Polytechnique Massacre. So we did a graffiti wall of hate speech against women from Aristotle to Rush Limbaugh… to sort of pile it all on. The people realized that things can be said about women in public that would be considered unacceptable if said about other groups.

Anyways, that just brings us to the Art Institute of Chicago… lo and behold we got an invitation to give the commencement speech for the graduation this year in May! What we really like about that is that we can talk directly to students. We have never worked through the art market and so many art schools prepare art students to work in the art market without in any way criticizing it. We’ve never done that. We finance our group through small exchanges with lots of people selling posters, t-shirts, books… and it’s kind of interesting that we’ve made it into the art history books without having to go through the art market and we’re going to encourage graduating art students to make their own art world (and not to conform to the art world as it is).

Speaking of finances, how do you manage to stay anonymous?

In the beginning, it was a little difficult and everybody wanted to know who we were. And there were even comments in the art press saying ‘oh, the Guerrilla Girls, it’s just another career strategy… in a few years they’ll tell everybody who they are and cash in on it all’. And that was never our intent. Frankly, it got to the point where people didn’t care who we are. It doesn’t matter who we are. I think being anonymous has helped us gain attention and get people to sit up and listen to what we’re saying (especially with the gorilla masks)… but I really do think that people don’t care who we are anymore. Finally, we represent the issues not our personalities.

In 1984, Kathe Kollwitz, another founding member, and I went to the Museum of Modern Art with a group of artists, before the Guerrilla Girls were ever formed, to participate in a picket line protesting a show of 200 artists and fewer than 20 women… We  had standard picket signs, slogans and chants. and all. We spent the whole day there and succeeded in doing nothing but making the public going into the museum angry. We couldn’t even engage them in the conversation. We began to realize that most of the museum-going public assumed the art world was a meritocracy—and whatever was shown in museums, whatever was shown in galleries, had to be the best. They could not even conceive of criticizing curators or gallery owners or museum directors. We decided that we really had to confront that and expose the situation of women artists to the public in some new way. – On the early years of the Guerrilla Girls

Have you faced any difficulties? Have the Guerrilla Girls ever gotten into trouble in protests or otherwise?

We were followed by the police a couple of times and they would take our glue buckets from us and dump our glue in the street. We got a couple of violations from the sanitation department. But nothing that we’ve ever done has been harmful. We used to sneak into museums and put flyers in every book in the bookstall. We would just make sure that anyone who bought a book from the museum book shop would, in the act of opening up the book, see a message from us. We used to go into the toilet stalls of museums (and in the men’s rooms too) and put our stickers and our posters up inside the toilet stalls.  We don’t break laws. We’re a small business (monkey business).

Photo via Guerrilla Girls

What do you consider to be your most successful campaign?

Oh gosh, every Guerrilla Girl would give you a different answer and I’m always thinking towards the next thing we’re doing. What I love right now is the book that we’re just about to print. It’s called The Hysterical Hertory of Hysteria and How It Was Cured, From Ancient Times until Now. It’s the history of the way women were treated by the medical profession and the world of science around issues of hysteria. Hysteria was this disease that it was thought one out of three women had it and the symptoms were every symptom you could think of. The idea was that it had something to do with the sexual organs… and some of the things that were done to treat women and how that evolved into the contemporary vibrator are pretty funny. It’ll probably come out at the end of the summer.

The Guerrilla Girls are currently celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary (this month!) and will be embarking on a special anniversary tour in the fall.

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